“How Do Others See Us”

2011 Clergy Laity Assembly
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Metropolis of Chicago

October 7, 2011

by

Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary

National Council of Churches in Christ in the USA

General SecretaryNational Council of Churches in Christ in the USA

 

 

Your Eminence Metropolitan Iakovos, your Grace Bishop Demetrios, esteemed clergy, brothers and sisters in our Lord – grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, and greetings on behalf of the 36 other communions that, along with you, make up the community of Christian communions we call the National Council of Churches.  The National Council is not an organization you have joined; it is a relationship you have formed with others who claim the name of Jesus Christ in order that together we might grow in unity and bear witness to the reconciling love and power of our gracious Savior.  I pray that my time with you might strengthen that relationship – to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I believe that my good friend, Bishop Demetrios, invited me to speak on this wonderful dangerous topic – “How do others see us?” – 1) because he knows that I will speak honestly, but 2) because he knows that I love the Orthodox Church, including the Greek Orthodox Church, and the great tradition you embody.  I am a Protestant Christian; those are the communities within which I have come to know Christ and seek to do ministry and mission in his name.  But please hear me:  I regard Protestant churches, if I may put it this way, as the evangelical tip of an orthodox iceberg.  I believe that God has blessed us, Protestant churches, with gifts that I hope are important to you.  But apart from you, apart from the tradition you embody, our distinctive witness has no substance or foundation.

What I want to do in this brief address is name six misperceptions of the Orthodox Church that are held by many of your Christian neighbors.  I say misperceptions because I believe these ideas are based on false understandings or just plain ignorance – but, in my judgment, Orthodoxy often contributes to these misunderstandings in ways I will try to identify.  The first three are relatively easy.  The last three are … harder.

  1. The Orthodox Church is “foreign,” not truly American.  Part of what we try to do in the NCC is enable the churches to know one another – and so, for example, we tell the story of how Orthodoxy arrived in Alaska more than 200 years ago (before my own Protestant denomination was even born on the American frontier), and of how the Greek Orthodox Church was present in New Orleans as early as the Civil War.

But, of course, the real issue goes deeper than history.  Last week, we had one of our official visits with a member church, this one with the Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Church, where our delegation asked the question:  “Are you an Indian church with a presence in the U.S. or are you an American church with deep roots in India?” – and then watched the room divide over how they answered.  I imagine most of you would agree with Fr. Tom FitzGerald when he writes that “Orthodoxy in the United States may no longer be viewed simply as a diaspora composed primarily of immigrants ….Rather, Orthodoxy in the U.S. can only be viewed properly as an emerging local church composed primarily of American citizens of a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.”  But your roots are, indeed, deep in Greece or Russia or other countries overseas, and as long as critical decisions are made in Constantinople, some Protestants may continue to ask, “How American is the Greek Orthodox Church?”

 

  1. The Orthodox Church is not committed to the ecumenical movement - that is, to the movement which has as its goal “promoting the visible unity of the church in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship.”  Once again, a little history can help.  The first great document of the modern ecumenical movement was an encyclical, sent in 1920 by the Holy Synod of the Church of Constantinople “to the churches of Christ everywhere,” calling for a “koinonia ton ekklesion” a league of the churches – a call that eventually led to the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, where the Greek Orthodox Church was a charter member.  When we think of the great ecumenical leaders of the 20th century, Patriarch Athenagoras and Archbishop Iakovos come immediately to mind, along with Archbishop Germanos and Prof. Nikos Nissiotis and Metropolitan John Zizioulas …. You get the picture. 

At present, the NCC has five commissions.  Three of them have a chairperson or vice-chairperson who is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church.  I point this out often when I speak to Protestants in order to inform them that the Orthodox are, indeed, ecumenically committed.

On the other hand, Protestant suspicions are at least somewhat understandable.  For example, they can read the numbers which show that the financial contribution to the NCC of the United Methodist Church, by itself, is roughly 50 times that of all nine Orthodox churches combined.  Guess who feels that they are more committed to the work of the Council?

But, again, the issue runs deeper.  Protestants think of the one church of Jesus Christ as fragmented into various denominations, and so they seek unity through dialogue aimed at mutual recognition.  But, as you know, no Orthodox church thinks of itself as a denomination.  For you, the unity Christians have in Christ is being manifested in the historical and apostolic church – that is, in the Orthodox Church.  The ecumenical problem as you see it, therefore, is not fragmentation but schism, a falling away from the full truth of the apostolic faith.  I will return to this in my last point, but for now I will simply note that these differing conceptions of ecumenism probably leave you feeling like a square peg in a round hole, like “outsiders” in a Council still dominated by Protestants.

  1. The Orthodox Church is not involved in struggles for justice and peace in the world.  People who make such a claim, and I hear it a lot, apparently don’t know about the vigorous defense of God’s creation (ecological justice) waged by His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew or by Fr. Chrysaugis who spoke to you yesterday.  Orthodoxy, at its best, as in Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful little book, For the Life of the World, emphasizes that the world is the object of God saving love, refusing to restrict the interests and concerns of the church to a compartment labeled “religious.”  I consistently insist that ethics and theology cannot be separated, that our social witness must be grounded in our faith commitments, and I frequently quote such scholars as Fr. Stanley Harakas when doing so.

 

But, of course, the church is not always at its best.  All of our traditions have a tendency to turn inward, focusing on the internal life of the church rather than on the church’s participation in God’s mission for the world.  I suspect that Archbishop Anastasios of Albania had this in mind in his sermon at the 2006 assembly of the WCC.  “Woe to us,” declared His Eminence, “if, in the 21st century, we again relinquish the initiative for social justice to others, as we have done in past centuries, while we confine ourselves to opulent rituals, and to our usual alliance with the powerful.”

  1. The Orthodox Church is, itself, divided.  In a theological sense, this is false.  Eastern Orthodox Christians share one apostolic faith and are in communion with one another.  But in a political sense, as you know better than I, Orthodoxy is divided.  Protestants, of course, are horrifyingly fractured; but it is hard for Orthodox to raise this so long as there are multiple Episcopal jurisdictions in Chicago or ongoing tensions between Moscow and Istanbul – not to mention the split between Oriental and Eastern Orthodox dating back 1560 years.  All of this undercuts our witness to Jesus Christ, which is why I am so encouraged by the new Episcopal Assembly that Fr. Arey discussed in a workshop yesterday.

 

  1. The Orthodox Church is stuck in the past.  This is where you are really swimming upstream in American culture.  A culture that revels in the present and treats yesterday as obsolete will have difficulty with the Orthodox emphasis on tradition.  My own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, began as part of the 19th century Restorationist Movement in American Protestantism, a movement which sought “to restore” the New Testament church by jumping over the “distortions” that arose during nearly 2000 years of church history.  So you can imagine how my Disciples ancestors regarded the Orthodox Church that looks for authority to councils of the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries.

As a seminary professor, I was forever saying to students from my church, “You receive the faith, passed down to you as a sacred inheritance.  You don’t get to invent it in each new generation”!  And I greatly value the presence of Orthodox in ecumenical settings because you insist on making that point.

Still, I think there is a challenge here for both Protestants and Orthodox.  The leading Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, puts it this way:  “The non-Orthodox, on the one hand, seem to be unwilling to take into consideration what has traditionally been conveyed to us, while the Orthodox, on the other hand, seem unwilling to let their tradition (dogmatic or otherwise) be challenged enough by the problems of the day.”  I leave it you to determine if he is on target.

  1. The Orthodox Church is spiritually arrogant.  This is perhaps the most difficult point to hear, but it must be discussed.  I was a professor in Protestant seminaries for 25 years; and every time I taught a course on ecumenism, students would get very upset when they read how Orthodox claim to be the church and to deny full churchly status to the communities of faith to which these students belonged.  Put yourself in their place:  They know from long experience that their own Presbyterian or Methodist or Episcopal or Lutheran or Baptist church worships the living Christ, that their church’s mission (guided the Spirit) has borne spiritual fruit, that their communities are filled with people who lead lives of faith and faithfulness.  And it feels to them like pure arrogance for another church to say, “We don’t recognize you as a church in the full theological sense of that term because you don’t do things the way we do them.”

 

Now, let me acknowledge what my students often couldn’t see – namely, the arrogance of their churches.  After 1989, planeloads of Protestants took off for Moscow and to other Eastern European cities ready “to convert the communists,” completely overlooking the local Orthodox churches – and that, too, is arrogance in the guise of evangelism.

As I have already indicated, I am not here to suggest that the Orthodox should deny your own self-understanding, that you should back away from claims to embody the tradition of the apostles. But there are ways for making these claims that, in my judgment, could build up our relationships rather than jeopardize them.  Let me give two examples.

The first came in 1973, on the occasion of the WCC’s 25th anniversary, when the Ecumenical Patriarch acknowledged that the Orthodox have been “deeply enriched by the encounter with western church life and, as well as by material assistance.”  This willingness to receive gifts, as well as offer your own, goes a very long way toward overcoming any perceived arrogance.

The second is a quotation from Metropolitan Zizioulas:  “The Orthodox,” he writes, “will never depart from their conviction that the Orthodox Church is the Una Sancta [the one church].  This is due to [our] faith that the church is a historical entity and that we cannot seek her outside the tradition historically bequeathed [to us] ….  But ecumenical experience is taking away all triumphalism from such a conviction.  The Una Sancta transmitted in and through tradition is not a possession of the Orthodox.  It is a reality judging us all (eschetologically) and is something to be constantly received.  The ecumenical movement,” he concludes, “offers the context of such a re-conception that takes place in common with other Christians.”  Presented in this way, Orthodox claims to be the church can be heard and appreciated by your Christian neighbors.

I hope these remarks have been of use and of interest.  I believe that every church should periodically ask, “How do others see us?”!  And I am grateful for the invitation to do so with this diocese of the Greek Orthodox Church. 

Michael Kinnamon

General Secretary

National Council of Churches in Christ in the USA