I am not an Ecumenist. I am an Ecumenist.
OK, this one could get me into some trouble. Not real trouble, mind you, but the kind where you say things that you know some people just won’t like, (especially if—as often happens on the internet–people read what someone didn’t write and don’t read what they do!). Let me say from the beginning that I’m not saying anything in order to stir up conflict. What I say is said with all the respect in the world for those who disagree with me. Nevertheless I think what I have to share is important to say, and my hope is that it brings greater understanding, not disagreement.
Tomorrow morning our church will host the local gathering among those that will take place across our nation on the National Day of Prayer. This was established by Congress in 1952, but had been practiced intermittently since the second Continental Congress). These gatherings involve bringing Christians from different traditions together in order to pray for our country: its government, its families and churches, and those who work in other centers of influence, namely the military, the media, schools, and in business.
For those of you unfamiliar with the controversy in the Orthodox Church around what is called ecumenism, this probably sounds harmless and actually a good thing. Within Orthodoxy, however, any formal interaction with those who call themselves Christians but are not Orthodox is a highly controversial activity. Before I share my reasons for offering our community center as the location for this event, let me share my understanding of those would object to such a gathering.
Simply put, Orthodox Christianity cannot comprehend a divided Christianity. If Christ is One how can there be churches and not just The Church? Jesus’ prayer that Christians would remain united was so important that it was a central theme of his prayer to His Father on the night just prior to His passion and death (John 17:21). Orthodox Christians have always fought against division in the Church but we likewise have fought–and countless have suffered and died–for the preservation of the purity of the Faith. As much as we cannot comprehend or accept a divided Christianity, neither can we accept an imperfect Christianity. While each of us in our sinfulness personally live imperfect lives we have access to the perfection that is the Church: perfect and complete in her theology and practices. This is why our Church’s Canon Law forbids joining in the worship of non-Orthodox Christians.
So when there is a gathering such as occurs on the National Day of Prayer, there are those who would accuse me and others who participate of being ecumenists: those who would lack vigilance to guard the Church’s purity by practicing a casual unity with those outside the Orthodox Faith. While I personally have never met one, I believe those who tell me that there are people within Orthodoxy whose goals of reuniting a fractured Christianity would lead them to accept a diluted version of Orthodoxy in order to achieve such a union.
But I’m not one of them.
I believe Orthodoxy is the fullness of the Faith, “Once and for all delivered to the Saints” (Jude 3). I believe every aspect of Orthodoxy is crucial to the salvation of our souls: the theology, the worship, the sacraments, the spiritual life, the icons…all of it.
And I also believe the corollary: that any version of Christianity that either lacks these or lacks the correct understanding or practice of them is incomplete.
But does this mean that I see in my non-Orthodox Christian friends NO semblance of Christianity, no point of commonality? Absolutely not. In fact, I have met MANY non-Orthodox Christians whose lives demonstrate a love for God and our neighbors (the two Great Commandments of Christ) that FAR surpasses my own. I am humbled by many who have been given incomplete versions of Christian faith and done far more than I have done in my life with Orthodoxy.
And so I can experience something that is very inherent in Orthodox: paradoxy. The same faith that I hold in the Ever-Virginity of the one who is the Mother of our God as well as the paradox of the complete unity and distinction of the Persons of the Trinity allows me—no, compels me—to live the paradox of praying with non-Orthodox Christians. At one and the same time I can be clear about the significant differences between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christianity and join in prayer to the one Christ for the spiritual health of our fellow citizens. I can recognize our differences and our commonality. I can practice a measure of unity without the pretense that ignores our disunity.
What allows such opposites to live together in harmony? Perhaps the most divine quality there is: love. It is only in love that we can maintain truth and distinction on one side and still celebrate a measure of unity on the other. In fact, because I believe love is what maintains the unity of all things that stand in paradox, I don’t believe we have the option of doing only one of them. To either maintain truth while maintaining ourselves in isolation, or to accept a unity without acknowledgment of the truth of our differences, would both be–in my opinion–a betrayal of Holy Orthodoxy.
Holy Orthodoxy lives in the reality that “those who are not with (Christ) are against (Him)” (Matthew 12:30), AND “he that is not against us is for us,” (Luke 9:50). So we must work diligently to maintain and pass on the fullness that is Orthodox Christianity. But at the same time, part of that fullness is to answer the prayer of Christ that His followers be One, never give up the cause of Christian unity, and in so doing, work in common cause whenever we can.
Tomorrow, that will mean I will gather with my Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant friends, and pray to the One Christ that He heal the wounds inflicted by evil upon and within our Nation. We will not pretend that there we don’t have our differences but in love we will, even for a short while, put them aside for just enough time to stand side by side and pray that our Government would reflect the values of our God, that our Families would be ever more a reflection of the love between the Persons of the Trinity, that our schools, military, businesses and churches be settings where peace, justice and love are practiced, and where our media are guided to be messengers of truth and goodness.
Doing such defies a label such as “ecumenist” whether or not that is seen as a positive or negative thing. If it needs a label, let’s call it love.
“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.”
–1 John 4:7-8