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This weekend I had the privilege of witnessing what may very well have been an historic event. Nashotah House hosted an Anglican-Orthodox Ecumenical conference, which, besides being quite interesting and inspiring, was also quite well-attended by men who wear purple and tall hats. Seriously — I don't think I have seen so many Bishops in the course of my whole life — much less in one room.
There is certainly a lot of work left to be done in building ecumenical relationships and negotiating ecclesial structures toward unity, but I would say (with a little hard work) we could put full intercommunion on the fast track, and achieve it between the Orthodox Church and (some) Anglicans within the next couple hundred years.
Still, I enjoyed every moment of the conference. In particular, I enjoyed meeting Metropolitan Jonah, who is a Christian leader of the first order. (Anyone who can still take himself lightly after you dress up like the Byzantine emperor, and can casually direct the focus of any conversation to the Gospel is a person worthy of admiration and emulation.)
But on this side of things, I can't help but be a little confused. The discussions provided plenty of reason for hope, but also plenty of reasons for cynicism. We have a lot in common in mission, desire, governance, and outlook (and the people: something like thirty percent of the OCA are retreaded Episcopalians). Great. That can all serve as the basis for a lot of discussion and collaboration. And we have a sense of unity in Christ; a glowing ember that perhaps can be fanned into the flame of full fellowship.
But I couldn't help but come away with the impression that the Orthodox folks believe (on some level) that the best way to solve all our problems is if we all just become Orthodox. Here, I am less convinced.
Of course, one of my professors asked me during the conference when I was planning to become Orthodox. I guess I have a reputation (probably fairly enough) for being the most East-leaning of the Junior class. I don't have any particular doctrinal issues with Orthodoxy, and cultural barriers are ones I don't mind crossing. So if God called (and my wife also heard the call) we wouldn't have a problem becoming Orthodox. Or, even if we became convinced that it would be a better way to serve the Gospel. And quite frankly, all things being equal, I would be sorely tempted.
I love the depth and the beauty of the Orthodox tradition, in expressed in both its liturgy and its theology. And, there is certainly plenty to be discovered and re-articulated from that tradition that may serve us in sharing the Gospel with a postmodern world. John McGuckin expresses this reality particularly poignantly in Standing in God's Holy Fire, a short introduction to the Byzantine spiritual tradition.
"For a society that is in danger of losing even the distant memories of its root religious civilization, at a time when its preferred religions have shrunk back in the face of serious social decline, and its schools of political, philosophical, and artistic thought have elevated short-term, self-interest to new heights, the Church's task is not less than to show the way back to a renewed sense of the Beautiful. It will be in the Christian reinterpretation of the Greek notion of kalokagathon, no less than the ideal synthesis of a religious, mystical, and moral transcendental. … If the Church can find the wit, and the energy, for the task, then this pro-paideusis will be no less than the re-evangelization of the western world."
But I fear that attaching myself to the wonders and exotic splendor of Orthodoxy would only serve my own spiritual tastes, and would severely detract from my interest in and ability to minister to this broken world. Orthodoxy is an illumination of the Gospel: a beautiful and complex illumination, but not the only illumination. It is a legitimate and particularly deep and well-formed expression of the faith, but it is not the only expression. It's antiquity gives it authority and precedence over my own half-baked ideas, or those of the fashionable mega-church. It is a mature tradition, but that should not imply that other traditions cannot mature. And, we must bear in mind that there are peculiar benefits to youth that we ought not negate.
Thus, at the end of the day, I have the utmost respect and reverence for Orthodoxy, and I desire to learn as much as I can from it, even at the expense of a deeper exploration of the Western tradition. But I simply cannot cross the line. I do not need Orthodoxy to affirm the orthodoxy of my faith (although that would be nice.) Nor do I desire to be a part of a true, pure church, as Orthodoxy often proudly presents itself. Indeed, I need the brokenness and imperfection of my church to compel me outward for Jesus' sake and in his name.
So, for the love of the Gospel, I cannot become Orthodox—while, for the love of the Gospel, I find Orthodoxy deeply alluring. It is a creative and dynamic tension that I pray will propel us both forward in faith in love of Christ and service to the Gospel. I pray and hope fervently that God will lead us together in our mission, and I pray for the strength and courage to sustain this longing for unity in Christ — not just between Anglicans and Orthodox, but between all Christians, and indeed, all people. As always, however, the work is the Lord's — and the best I can do is maintain an open and listening heart, eager and expectant to receive his direction.
photo: Fr. Gregory Jensen