Scholars in Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Action

Post 110 of 445

Your All-Holiness,

Thank you for your vision and invitation to share our thoughts with you.

Ours is a relatively distinct group.  We are comprised of theologians (priests and practitioners), natural scientists, social scientists and diplomats, and policymakers.  Our group also includes both women and men.  In this sense, our group’s composition speaks to the diversity and fullness of the Church; our composition also leads naturally to the core theme that informs our comments and perspectives on what we were tasked to address: “inter-Orthodox, ecumenical, and inter-faith issues in light of the approaching Holy and Great Council.”

Specifically, we all witness our faith and serve the Church in a deliberately inter-disciplinary scholarship and in the hybridized scholar-practitioner space. It is our hope that this meeting and the Holy and Great Council will rediscover the Church’s tradition of a living theology—as opposed to a scholastict and formalist notion of theology—that reflects the fullness of all of us who, together, constitute the Church and, consequently, the fullness of our witness as Church.  We believe that it is imperative to recapture a conception of theology that is true to the origins of the Church, so that “doing theology” in the academic space becomes consistent with a living theology as expressed by scholars and practitioners from various disciplinary and professional locations.  We hope that the Great and Holy Council can help to recover, to remember, and to remind all of us of this notion of theology.

With this main theme in mind, we want to highlight the following three points for your consideration:

First, we applaud you for your vision in convening the Holy and Great Council, and we want to emphasize the absolute importance of moving forward with the Council for purposes of inter-Orthodox unity, but also, for purposes of the Church’s capacity and contribution to ecumenical and inter-faith relations and action. The very meeting of the Council is critical for its own sake—that is, there is profound importance in the act of dialogue, and there is so much to be gained when Orthodox Christians speak to each other.

Second, this implies recognition and appreciation of the Council as a process, not as an “event” with outcomes. This also implies that the Council should not get derailed by a fixation either on a perfect moment for all to agree to participate or on outcomes and products of the Council.  If we remember that the councils of the Early Church went on for months or that, in modern times, the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II convened over period of three years, the notion of the Holy and Great Council as a process that values dialogue for its own sake makes more sense.  Furthermore, the very act of dialogue will enhance the capacity of the Church to engage effectively and constructively in ecumenical and interfaith contexts. Put simply, there is value-added from the gathering of those who ultimately attend the Council, just as there is value-added and potential in a regular gathering of this group that you have called together.  We hope that this meeting is a starting point, so that, moving forward, this group can produce working groups and collaborative efforts informed by a renewed understanding of theology that is not limited to the discipline of theology.

Third, we hope that the Council will become a process for exploring and improving the strength of our collective voice as an Orthodox Church.  We need to deepen and enhance our voice in transforming the vocabulary, the discourse, the issues, and the reality of our time.  A more confident, persuasive, compelling, and transformative voice implies the need to do specific things:

  1. a) End the mistaken view that participation in the public sphere is a political project.  Public engagement is not the same thing as “doing politics,” and should not be erroneously reduced to such an equivalence.
  2. b) Find ways to develop institutional capacity in the public sphere, by virtue of a radical shift to representation by meritocracy.  This means identifying individuals with demonstrated competencies, expertise, and capabilities to represent the Orthodox Church in the public sphere—whether in ecumenical theological initiatives, interfaith dialogue, science and technology engagements, religious freedom and human rights contexts, peacebuilding efforts, etc.  This implies a major transformation in institutional culture and mindset, with a renewal of the authenticity of the full ecclesial body that is more deliberate regarding the inclusion of women and laypeople.  The Council can make a conscious, mindful, and prayerful move to embrace and implement such change in the ongoing life of the Church.
  3. c) Recognize that “presence” does not always equate with impact.  Photos are semiotic messages that offer a narrative regarding presence, but presence needs to be matched by substance, expertise and capability, in order to be constructive and positive.  Likewise, presence must be coupled with follow-up, continuity, and sustainability.
  4. d) Address the real lack of diversity in the Church.  This is an especially crucial issue regarding the inclusion of women and youth (more generally, regarding multiple generations, but certainly, regarding far greater emphasis on cultivation and inclusion of youth).  The recommitment to diversity both reflects and expresses the faithfulness to our Orthodox tradition, insofar as the fullness of the ecclesial body must necessarily include women and youth.  Moreover, in ecumenical and inter-faith contexts, and more broadly, in terms of the Church’s engagement in the public sphere, there are enormous qualitative and substantive enhancements (as well as strategic advantages in terms of “optics”) in an inclusive approach.

By way of conclusion, and returning to the idea of the Holy and GreatCouncil as a process, with preparatory, actual, and post phases, we would emphasize two final points.

First, it is imperative to act swiftly, while simultaneously taking a long-term view. This means that the Council can recognize and formulate an approach to investing in the religious literacy of Orthodox people worldwide.  The challenges of religious literacy are particular to the specificities of geographic and historical context (e.g. in the United States, Orthodox live in a religiously competitive, pluralist environment, where religious literacy becomes a mechanism for continued, living commitment to Orthodoxy; in post-communist countries in Europe and Eurasia, needs for religious literacy are shaped by the realities of generations of Orthodox faithful with decades of experience under atheistic regimes).

Swift action with a long-term vision also implies the continuation of the deliberations and conversations of this group, and especially, the move to foster and to promote a conception of “doing theology” (and, more broadly, to encourage a model of “Orthodox Studies”) that moves beyond the confines of seminaries and departments of theology, and departments of religion is the only intellectual space in which Orthodoxy can be studied and in which Orthodox can engage.  Instead, it is imperative to develop mechanisms by which the study of ideas and the participation of Orthodox Christian scholars can be integrated into broader university contexts (programs, departments, disciplines)—in particular, into the international relations, diplomacy, and foreign policy, as well as in the life sciences, technology, and public health..

Second, we exhort the Ecumenical Patriarchate to move forward with convening the Holy and Great Council as planned, regardless of the real or perceived impediments to the Council’s implementation according to the agreed timeline.  We humbly request that the Council include priests and lay observers, with particular attention to the inclusion of women.  There is still time before the Council, to expand and to amplify the fullness of the contributors, both in preparatory and participatory contexts, and certainly, in terms of planning to move expeditiously to carry out the work stemming from and following the Council.

Thank you for your consideration of our ideas.  We have tried to follow the wisdom of St. Paul, by “speaking the truth in love.”  We are here to offer our assistance; we want to help and we want to be part of the living and transformational reality of the Church.

Above all, we thank Your All-Holiness for your guidance, hospitality, graciousness, bold vision, and above all, your courage.
Group Members:

Amb. Tamar Grzdelidze (Ambassador of Georgia to the Holy See)

Rev. Dr. Nicholas Kazarian (St. Serge Orthodox Theological Institute & The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs)

Mag. Elizabeta Kitanovic (Executive Secretary for Human Rights of the Conference of European Churches)

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou (Assoc. Prof. of Conflict Resolution, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; U.S. Secretary of State’s Working Group on Religion & Foreign Policy)

Very Rev. Dr. Nathanael Symeonides (Dir. of Dept. of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Inter-Faith Relations, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)

Dr. Gayle Woloschak (Prof. of Radiation Oncology, Northwestern University; President, Orthodox Theological Society in America)