Your All-Holiness, Your Eminences, Graces, Reverend Fathers and Professors,
Most All-Holy Master Bless!
We want to thank your All-Holiness for this quite unprecedented invitation. Many of us feel privileged and humbled that we have been invited by our Church to hear of the progress of the Great and Holy Council and to tell you of our hopes, aspirations and visions for the role of Orthodoxy in the modern world. We are humbled as we sense your desire to include the laity in the run up to the Council. We also see in this generous act of loving concern towards us, which is truly inspiring, a fostering of communion (koinonia) between the younger Orthodox theologians and the bishops in this most important event in the life of the Church. Indeed, we believe there are three eternal ecclesial distinctives in the Church as it faces the contemporary world, all of which can be seen in your call of us here today: communion,witness and service (koinonia, martyria and diakonia).
Our group is a diverse lot like that of the Church itself coming together in unity from both the OCA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, including people of American, Greek, Ukrainian, Canadian, Irish and British and Jewish cultural heritage, but also holding multiple citizenships and living in both Europe and North America. All of us were trained at different institutions on the doctoral level from Chicago and Duke and Oxford to the Catholic University of America, the Sorbonne, Berlin, Southern Methodist University and Boston College but yet almost all of us know one another, often regularly work together (as at the recent OTSA conference at Fordham on the coming Great and Holy Council) and even are close friends. This is often due to the fact that though we now all teach at non-Orthodox institutions, many of us, before their doctorates, were formed, suffered and grew creatively at one of our Orthodox seminaries, especially, Holy Cross and St Vladimir’s. We were drawn together, then, into communion (koinonia) by the Church but this was for a particular purpose.
As Orthodox theologians at work in non-Orthodox colleges and universities, we are, like the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, creative minorities dispersed in divided societies yet united theologically and in communion in our different disciplines, which include systematic or dogmatic theology, Byzantine Studies and Patristics, historical theology and philosophy of religion. We straddle the Church and the world continually interpreting back and forth in ourselves and in our writing and teaching the message of Orthodoxy and the response of the world to that saving Word. Our whole academic vocation working as Orthodox in elite centres of academic education consists of a continuous living dialogue of the Church with the world. We feel called, then, as theologians drawn together from the diverse parts of the Church to draw the divided extremes of Church and world into unity, mediating in ourselves the divided parts as a sort of creative theological bond between the secular and the sacred, allowing the two poles to meet and enter into dialogue. As minorities, we regularly gather together to work on common projects of interest through which Orthodoxy witnesses to the world. And here we find the next Orthodox ecclesial distinctive in our response to your gathering of us here today: martyria, witness to Orthodoxy in the contemporary world and witness always involves suffering. We feel that the Church has called us into unity to witness as Orthodox to the love of Jesus Christ to the modern world, meeting the world in profound and sustained communication.
As theologians, philosophers and scholars, we all are driven by the common conviction that the eternal truth and beauty of Orthodoxy needs to be witnessed to the contemporary world but yet this witness is to a world that no longer knows the Church as the framework for its whole life. As the expert theological consultant (peritus) of Vatican II, Fr Yves Congar, wrote: ‘no longer does the Church carry the world within herself like a pregnant mother.’ How then can we speak then to this world after-Christendom? And, even more vexing, how can we speak to a world that simply sees in Orthodoxy the rags of a long ago forgotten and foreign empire? A beautiful fragment staring out at it, like some of the mosaics in Aghia Sophia, but seemingly unconnected to the worries of a world of twitter, 500 channel TV and fears over ISIS. How can we help a non-Orthodox world, and even an Orthodox world that has forgotten its identity, see the face of Jesus, the head of the Body of the Living Christ in our poor Orthodoxy?
But this is not an unusual problematic for us as theologians. As academics teaching in elite academic institutions we regularly encounter and are called to speak from the eternal witness of Orthodoxy to many who know nothing of Orthodoxy concerning crises and disputes on such well-known issues as the environment and sexuality. And many of these controversial issues come down to questions of theological anthropology and human freedom. Furthermore, it is not an accident that nearly all of us teach at Catholic institutions. Here there is a rich, welcoming and fertile ground for an Orthodox Christian response to the deep questions of our age. We are, therefore, uniquely positioned to play a role in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and, indeed, in ecumenical and inter-religious endeavours more generally.
As we have said, we work together in communion, witnessing to Orthodoxy in common centres and these centres act as lighthouses for Orthodoxy in the ‘sea of life surging with a storm of temptations.’ There are many remarkable examples: Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Centre, Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, the Montreal Institute of Orthodox Theology, the Orthodox Studies programme at the University of Winchester, the Amsterdam Centre of Eastern Orthodox Studies, the Volos Academy, Greece, the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto, the Huffington Institute at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and the various Orthodox Chairs at Erfurt, Münster and Munich. These centres are crucial for they act as points of contact, dialogue and witness for Orthodoxy in encountering the world. And here we Orthodox come together who are at different ends of the globe and work together towards upbuilding the Church in unity. Our work as academics and theologians is greatly nourished by such living church centres in various regions where we might be in contact with the Church in its conciliar and global dimensions and foster unity ecumenically, inter-religiously and between Church and society. However, what we feel we need as theologians is a more direct and regular and active hand of the Church in our institutions and endeavours with events like the one today. The Ecumenical Patriarch can join us Orthodox academics, who are scattered as it were as broken bread upon the mountains, and we can be brought together as one just as the Church is gathered from the ends of the earth into the Kingdom that is to come. Such conciliar initiatives as the one today help orient us and give us an authoritative ecclesial point of reference in the work we do, thereby facilitating our communion with one another, the Church more broadly, and, especially helps focus and deepen our dialogue with the world. Our academic and theological fellowship and witness is sterile, dry, lacks the animating Spirit, if it is not taken up into the Church and tested by its prayer, communion and authoritative tradition. We need the Church’s aid and wisdom in helping us to deal with many current issues such as the environmental crisis, the issue of human rights and democracy, questions to do with non-traditional sexuality, the family and bioethics, the challenges of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and the lamentable tendency to see an essential and irresolvable divide between the West and the East.
And indeed the Ecumenical Patriarchate is uniquely capable as serving as a Pan-Orthodox common source and focus of communion to bring together in fellowship the Church so that she can properly witness from her apostolic deposit to a postmodern world from her pre-modern faith. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has the canonical, historical and theological authority to conduct the Church in speaking symphonically to the problems of a world that has forgotten or even denies its roots in Orthodoxy. The Ecumenical Patriarchate can lead this witness because it is a global rather than an ethnic or national form of Orthodoxy, not beholden to deluding visions of a lost empire with its transcendent superior values and culture, yet it still embodies the tradition of the Fathers, the ‘Christian Hellenism under the sign of the cross’ of which Fr Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, spoke.
And here, we believe, at the cusp of what we pray and hope—despite the opposition, machinations and bickering of some local churches–will be the long awaited Great and Holy Council that will gather the Church together into communion (koinonia) for the purpose of witnessing (martyria) to the unity and truth of the Orthodox faith to the modern world, that we as younger theologians teaching in non-Orthodox institutions are ready and willing to serve the bishops as their servants in whatever way deemed most useful by Your All-Holiness. Indeed, we want to know how we can assist the Church and what vehicles of communication between the episcopate and us younger theologians would be most effective for the Church. Thus we end our response with our hoped for diakonia, service to the Church. We are waiting to serve as needed in our diverse contexts as a living theological bridge between the Church and the world. In the world, but of the Church.
Thank you for your attention.
Prof Will Cohen (University of Scranton, PA, USA)
Prof George Demacopoulos (Fordham University, NY, USA)
Dr Brandon Gallaher (University of Exeter, UK)
Prof Rev Dn Paul Gavrilyuk (University of St Thomas, MN, USA)
Rev Prof Panteleimon Manoussakis (College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, USA)
Prof Sotiris Mitralexis (Istanbul Şehir University, Turkey)
Prof Aristotle Papanikolaou (Fordham University, NY, USA)
Dr Dionysius Skliris (Sorbonne, Paris, France)
Prof Alexis Torrance (University of Notre Dame, IN, USA).