Community, Difference and Division in the Orthodox Church

Fr George Hackney's Report on the 2019 IOCS Summer School in Cambridge

They came from Italy. They came from Cyprus. They came from America. They came from Nigeria. They came from Ukraine. They came from Canada. They came from Italy. And I came from Lincoln!

We all met in Cambridge for four days at the end of August. The purpose of this was to attend the Summer School of the Pan-Orthodox Institute for Orthodox Christians Studies. The Conference this year focussed on the divisions in the Orthodox Church, past and present. The lectures and discussions were held in the Methodist Theological College (Wesley House) on Jesus Lane in Cambridge and I was able to secure lodgings in the Anglican Theological College (Westcott House) just across the road.

We were welcomed by Father Dragos Herescu, the Principal of the Institute, before we got down to business. The first lecture was given by Dr Christoph Schneider on the topic of “Unity, Difference and Division in Space and Time.” I might mention that most of the lectures were very detailed and each lasted about an hour and a half – so in this report I can give only a hint and a flavour of the content. Dr Schneider began by pointing out that there has been difference in the Church from the very beginning. For example, we have four Gospels not one and these written Gospels that we hold in veneration contain historical and theological differences. The church rejected attempts to conflate the four written Gospels into one narrative in the Diatessaron and also rejected Marcion’s attempts to reduce the Gospel by accepting only the Gospel of Luke and rejecting the entire Old Testament. From this point Dr Schneider took us on a long journey through space and time reflecting on aspects of division and difference in the history of the Church with special reference to the writings of St Maximus the Confessor.

Dr Elizabeth Theokritoff in her lecture concentrated on the problems of division and difference in the Orthodox West arising from ethnicity and jurisdictional fragmentation.

She quotes from a letter sent by the Orthodox Youth movement, Syndesmos, to the Bishops of the Orthodox Church as long ago as 1988. The young Orthodox meeting at Spetses in Greece asked of the Bishops: “How can we witness to truth and love, manifesting our Orthodoxy in orthopraxy, if we are unable to overcome our own canonical divisions, divisions which at times have even led to a break in communion?”

With attendees present coming from a whole range of Orthodox jurisdictions, including Oriental Orthodox as well as Chalcedonian, this presentation provoked vigorous discussion. It seemed that the younger the attendees were the more they were impatient and frustrated by continuing ethnic and jurisdictional divisions in Orthodoxy. At the time of the Conference, Moscow had broken Communion with Constantinople and Ukrainians present had much to say about the conflict between Moscow and Kiev.

Fr Dragos Herescu addressed the question of “Modernity and the Church.”

Using charts and graphs and data from various sources of research Fr Dragos demonstrated the huge generation gap around the world and in all religions relating to religious belief and practice. To crudely simplify a complex and detailed presentation, we see the persistence of belief and practice in the over 40’s and the secularisation of the under 40’s resulting in the abandonment of religious faith and practice. Fr Dragos went on to explain that there are different forms – a ‘modernity’ manifesting in different nations and cultures around the world. For example, the modernity of wealthy and highly educated Saudi Arabians in their own country differs greatly from the modernity and creeping atheism of the United States of America.

Revd Professor Nikolaos Loudovikos from the University of the Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki gave his presentation by live Skype broadcast from Greece. His topic was: “What is ecclesial unity?” – however, the internet link was poor and kept breaking down so I cannot say much about this presentation – which is a shame.

The Very Revd Dr John Jillions – Principal of St Vladmir’s Seminary, New York, was present in person. His lecture took us to an analysis of the first century congregation of early Christians at Corinth. From the writings of St Paul to the Corinthians we were reminded that there were serious divisions in the Christian community from the beginning and that St Paul found himself obliged to try and deal with these divergences of belief and practice which were dividing the Church of Corinth.

From Corinth, Dr Jillions then asked us to turn the spotlight on the local congregations from which each of us had come. We formed small discussion groups and shared with each other whatever matters were contentious in our communities. These matters were many and various but the two most common were, first, the criticism by the elders of the behaviour during the Liturgy of other people’s children and secondly disagreement on how the money of the parish should be spent and on what!

Dr Razvan Porumb spoke on the Orthodox Church and Ecumenism – painting a picture of the involvement (or refusal of involvement) of the Orthodox from the foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1948 to the present time. The title of his lecture was “A plea for diversity” and it provoked a lively question and answer and discussion session.
Finally, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware gave a lecture on Primacy and Synodality in the Orthodox Church. Following on a journey through the history of the relations between the Bishop of Rome and the various Councils held in the past in both east and west, Metropolitan Kallistos spoke at length of the genesis and failure of the “Great and Holy Council” held in Crete in 2016. Metropolitan Kallistos had himself been involved in the preparation for the Council and had also been present at all of its sessions. He gave a detailed description and interpretation of the history of this Council and pronounced it a sad failure.

I was surprised to find so few clergy attending the conference. The great majority of attendees were laymen and laywomen. The gathering did not seem at all a clerical huddle but drew in keen, well informed and enthusiastic layfolk from around the world.

In conclusion, I would say that although this Conference had been deliberately designed to examine the problems and failures of the Orthodox Church past and present, there was no sense of doom and depression felt by the very diverse gathering of Orthodox men and women who attended it. A large part of the benefit of conferences such as this derives not from the learned lectures but from the face to face meeting and conversation with brother and sister Orthodox faithful from different parishes, different ethnicities and different and distant parts of the globe. The sense of joy and unity was palpable despite the negativities. Why? Because Christ is Risen!

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