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Thoughts on the Role of Orthodox Laity in Christian Unity

A week ago here in Wisconsin, the Sunday liturgy was cancelled at our local Greek Orthodox parish. Typically, we would have driven the hour and a half to an OCA parish in Milwaukee that we sometimes attend but it was below zero and my wife and I didn’t want to test the iciness of the highways. Instead, we finally visited a nearby Byzantine monastery, which is about half the distance to Milwaukee. I had wanted to go there since we moved to Wisconsin last fall but this finally seemed like a kairos moment. Yet, I had my doubts about how we would be received. This hesitation was not from a lack of experience with Byzantine monasteries. I am no stranger to those. Instead, it was due to the fact that the monastery was not only Byzantine, but Byzantine Catholic. I had been to Eastern Catholic churches before but never a monastery. I knew the liturgy would be the basically the same but would the community be otherwise ‘weird’? Admittedly, this is a strange thought coming from an American-born Orthodox from the Deep South where Orthodoxy doesn’t even register as Christian for many. I wondered how the monks would react when I told them I was Eastern Orthodox. Would it be awkward? Would I have to find the right words as to not offend or confuse? These and other worries crossed through my mind before making the decision to go.

It turns out that my petty insecurities were unfounded. I was surprised and impressed by this bastion of Eastern Christian spirituality hidden among endless acres of farmland in a town with a population of 783. It had a thriving lay presence on Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. Many families trickled in during the service and I watched as they lit their candles and looked for a place to stand in the tiny chapel. The sermon was powerful, direct, and deeply rooted in the Eastern Fathers. It is certainly not a coincidence that the brotherhood choose to settle in a town named after St. Gregory the Theologian. My wife and I were on our way out after the service when a young monk ran up to meet us. After a friendly chat with him, I was told it would be fine to take a photograph in the chapel (which is not always a given). We then met the abbot, who was equally kind and put to rest any initial hesitations about our reception. Most importantly, from my short conversations with the monks and from some pamphlets they have for visitors, I got the impression that there was a clear recognition of the tragic reality of ecclesial disunity between Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but a determination to work towards its healing. In other words, there was neither a naïve ‘well, we’re all the same anyhow!’ nor a fatalistic ‘our differences cannot be overcome’. This encounter left me with thoughts on the role of Orthodox laity in ecclesial unity among Christians.

It seems a given that our rifts will never be healed without the work of the entire church community. There must be a role for the laity in the process, which is also, dare I say, a prerogative. This mending will never occur if clergy and laity continue to point to canons forbidding prayer with separated brethren (while ignoring many other canons) to justify avoiding ever attending a church or even associating with other Christians outside of work. I don’t buy the argument that going into a church is akin to an act of treason that somehow validates the group as supreme and repudiates one’s own allegiances. Neither does it lead to a weakened faith, though it may reveal an already weak faith. Perhaps the hard truth is that many secretly don’t want unity despite grudgingly giving it obligatory lip-service. It can be hard to define yourself when you no longer have a foil to which you can favorably compare yourself and point out their every flaw. But this is not a path to unity and will lead nowhere but increasing sectarianism and ghettoization. The informed laity cannot simply leave it up to the theological authorities and bishops to solve this issue, but must show their interest and investment by making this clear in their words and actions and by getting involved in events that show mutual Christian affection and respect that goes beyond their own communities.

Of course, many will see a danger in this. What if some people get the idea that real differences and divisions are superficial and can be ignored or flouted? This is a legitimate concern and I do not wish to diminish its importance. But note that I earlier specified ‘informed’ laity. I submit that there is a need for committed and spiritually-rooted Orthodox Christians to meet and even worship with other Christians, not to proselytize or engage in apologetics but to come together in love, honesty, and the hope of future reconciliation, which must be built on love. At the very least, this will help us know the ‘other’ not in theological caricature but as concrete persons we are called to love, forgive, and ask forgiveness of before offering ourselves as a living sacrifice at the Holy Table.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating full sacramental participation prior to actual ecclesial unity. I don’t think this issue can be solved by disingenuously pretending there is no division. In fact, I think that the inability to fully participate serves as a painful but necessary reminder of our disunity. Similarly, I do not suggest neglecting one’s own liturgical services to attend others, since various Christian services often occur at the same time. I am simply calling for laity to take advantage of, and even make, opportunities to fellowship with other Christians and express their solidarity and desire for union. This is the single most important step in overcoming centuries of animosity, mistrust, and spiritual stereotyping. If the laity mobilize to show that this is a pressing issue for them, it is much more likely that something will be done about it by the Church as a whole. Ironically, this influence can be most famously seen in the popular mobilization against the failed Council of Ferrara-Florence. Today we need to apply the same force to the cause of ecclesial unity in accordance to Christ’s prayer that ‘they might be one’, regardless of whether we think it is likely or even feasible.

Despite the notorious bad blood between Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics in lands where there has been sheep-stealing and internecine (or should I say ‘inter-Nicene’) violence, I believe Eastern Catholics will play an important role in future Christian rapprochement. They can be viewed as the test case for other Orthodox churches. Can the Catholic Church reverse centuries of centralization to rediscover and accommodate a robust diversity of autonomous and autocephalous churches? Can the Orthodox Church accept a spirituality and liturgy that does not have its roots in Byzantium and rediscover a meaningful place for the Pope of Rome as the first among equals? While it is still too soon to know, in the last few decades leaders in the Catholic Church have begun to seriously address many of the historic grievances of the Orthodox faithful such as local diocesan autonomy and the possibility of married priesthood. These are signs of goodwill and Orthodox should publically recognize them as such and reciprocate in kind with similar gestures that indicate a willingness to work towards unity.

This is not a formal theological proposal. It is my own theologoumena, if you will. Or perhaps, even less, it a simple personal reflection on these matters since I am not trained as a professional theologian or canon law authority. Yet, I can find no good reason that an informed laity should not take up the call to be more involved in the mandate of promoting Christian unity to whatever degree it is possible, and even whenever it is not. I can confidently say that I plan on returning to the aforementioned Byzantine Catholic monastery this Lent whenever I cannot attend locally or when there are additional services that are not offered at most parishes. Yes, I know I’m an optimist but that won’t stop me from hoping, praying, and acting for Christian unity, adopting the following slogan until I, God willing, reach the age of seventy-four: “De-Schism 2054.” We all have a role to play.

Dr. Christopher D.L. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac.

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