A few years ago, my parents threw a college graduation party for my brother. I had just finished the first year of my M.Div. program, so naturally everyone’s ice-breaker was the I-don’t-care-I-just-don’t-know-what-else-to-ask question “how was your first year of school?” But hey, it’s better than the I-don’t-care-I-just-feel-obligated question my brother was getting: “so what’s next?”
One of my neighbors was raised Catholic, and not marginally. His family is Polish and his grade-school teachers were nuns. At some point in college however, he met Jerry Garcia and became his disciple instead. Yet, my neighbor still knew enough church-talk to carry on a conversation better than most guests.
He asked me about some of the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, so I began to explain that the breach in communion is not as clear-cut as it often seems. Suddenly, an older relative of mine, who has likely received more catechesis from memes than from any formal religious education program, suddenly interjected, “Yes, you split off from us!”
I sighed. There it was: ignorant Orthodox entitlement. She probably thinks Jesus was Greek too. Her conviction spoke louder than her comment and is a reflection of a common misconception and strong historical bias influencing the Church’s relationships This has a tendency to create an us vs. them mentality toward the rest of Christendom. Even through the Holy and Great Council does the Church seek to amend this understanding by fostering dialogue and taking a lead role in the Ecumenical Movement.
As I attempted to quell the inadvertent hostility her comment may have imposed, my neighbor interrupted to say, “It’s ok, we all believe the same thing anyways.” My relative, in her usual contradiction of thought, agreed.
The conversation ended and I was left baffling over how it swung from the rhetoric of ultra-conservatives to that of John Lennon.
I reflect on this occasion because it likens to the tension an Orthodox can feel when engaging in ecumenical relations. Some are hardened by akribeia and object to interaction, but where is the economia and compassion toward our Christian neighbors who may live truer to Christ’s teachings? Some find certain practices and beliefs of other traditions more appealing and begin to customize their faith, but are they not at risk of diluting the Orthodox way? It can be difficult to navigate, but the perspectives shouldn’t be polarizing.
Every mainstream church in the United States has men and women, ordained and lay, who are responsible for facilitating ecumenical relations on behalf of the greater body. They are the ambassadors constantly in communication about issues of faith, order, and philanthropy.
There are many opportunities for collaboration, but, once a year, the ecumenical officers gather in retreat. Rather than convening to produce a statement or develop a program, the purpose of the retreat is to allow for organic dialogue among communions, which increases personal relationships and promotes comprehension and appreciation.
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios Geron of America with representatives from eleven different Churches and Communions.
Last month, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America had the honor of hosting this year’s retreat and welcomed eleven officers. If you ask them what the goal of the ecumenical movement is, each will tell you it is for the restoration of God’s Church. If that sounds prodigious, it’s because it is. Push them further on how such a lofty goal is to be realized, each will humbly admit they can’t provide the specifics. However, they will likely suggest the following:
First, like all ministries in the Church, a Christ-centered approach is required to meet one another with a clean heart and true intentions. As we seek to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, so too should we strive to fulfill Christ’s prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). Regardless of who has maintained the genuine faith, we must acknowledge that Christendom is fractured and “if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). It is our responsibility to put forth effort into uniting all Christians.
Second, it must be understood that the goal is abstract. No one knows how unity will be achieved and expressed, which makes the case for ecumenism difficult to articulate. This lack of a clear vision discourages some and keeps them in the trajectory of isolation. However, those laboring in the ecumenical vineyard agree that unity will be achieved according to God’s will, and that we must take initiative when God provides opportunities for contact and growth. The officers appreciate these instances for retreat as a manifestation of God’s will and a small, yet progressive, part of His plan.
Third, proper and unbiased knowledge of history is necessary to understand why certain divisions in Christianity were forged. In most cases, I would argue, the egos of influential individuals, or reactions to such, are the causes of longstanding divisions. Therefore, we cannot retain the grudge of past generations to further this destruction but instead move forward with reconciliation (see 4B).
Ecumenists know that communication is delicate and words must be precise. They speak with sensitivity so as to advance the movement, not hinder it. The first tangible step is to listen and learn from each other’s story. Such is the intention of their retreat; the ecumenical officers enjoy conversation to better understand the perspectives of each communion. They are open to a diversity of expressions toward God as well as to the Spirit’s presence and abilities. After all, no one can dictate limits on God’s infinite and unconditional love.
The ecumenical officers engage at a national level and will continue to retreat together. However, there are ways for all Orthodox faithful to interact with and learn about the Christians in their own neighborhoods, such as co-sponsoring an event, contributing toward a common social initiative, or participating in shared worship or a fellowship meal. We each can offer of ourselves to work toward the reunification of God’s Church. As we do so, remember that the task is noble and directed by God, to Whom we constantly ask, “surround us with your holy angels that, guarded and guided by them, we may arrive at the unity of the faith, and the understanding of your ineffable glory.”
Andrew Calivas is the Coordinator of Ecumenical Programs for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations.