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In 1867 Anglicans hosted the Lambeth Conference in Chicago to bring together the constantly-splitting Protestant denominations for practical cooperation in missions. 1976 marked the outset of a new “ecumenical spring,” spurred by the increasing hostility of the culture wars of the 60’s onward. The dialogue has notched some noteworthy successes. The Filioque controversy, the source of the first schism between East and West, has been satisfactorily resolved among the Anglicans and Orthodox, with Anglicans making the clause an optional component of the Nicene Creed, recognizing it as an addition to central Christian teaching made without an ecumenical council. The two have issued authoritative points of agreement, such as the Agreed Statements of Moscow (1976), Dublin (1984), Cyprus (2006), and Buffalo (2015).
The most recent Agreed Statement, penned in Buffalo in 2015, keys in on the greatest significance of ecumenism: to be able to speak to culture with one voice. The Buffalo paper, titled “A Hope-Filled Anthropology,” announces a new and old humanity with unfamiliar poetry: “the created image of the uncreated God.” It is not a joint declaration of doctrine or morality as much as a projection of the united Christian message: Humanity is most whole when it knows it is made in the image of God and enlivened by Christ. It is a plea to recognize the divine fingerprints on our own souls. It is a picture of how the Orthodox and Anglicans hope to approach the world around them in coming years, drawing from one another’s collective experiences, wisdom, and language.
Ecumenism is more about recognizing the work the Holy Spirit has done in diverse peoples throughout the globe than it is doctrinal nit-picking. Good ecumenism is not acquiescence on important issues or surrendering one’s identity to someone else. Anglicanism has a history of action it can be proud of, as does Orthodoxy, but as we approach the seemingly incompatible stranger, we are reminded that the active ingredient in our diverse heritages is the Holy Spirit. A meaningful, lasting union will be a maximalist one, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit in all.
“We have to resist the temptation that being in dialogue is about convincing you to become more like me. Rather we have to approach in a confessional tone, ‘this is a part of our tradition that is like yours.’ Being confessional means confessing the story of Jesus changing my life, not selling anyone anything. In good confessional conversations, we can learn to look at ourselves through each other’s eyes.”
For Bishop Allen, that means realizing his brand of Christianity is not the default brand of Christianity, the starting point from which others deviate. Seeing ourselves through one another’s eyes sheds light on strengths and weaknesses we didn’t know we even had. Sometimes my eyes don’t truly see, and my ears don’t truly hear – but someone else’s do. Confessional dialogue means viewing the actions that are within our comfort zone through eyes that are not in our comfort zone. It means an accountability to the different, and offering our assumptions up for examination.
The result is not a barrage of humiliation or self-abasement, but often a discovery of unseen strengths. As the Bishop states, “seeing the strengths in Orthodoxy helps us find strength in ourselves.”
The Orthodox value Anglicanism’s tradition of worship, a tradition that abolished slavery under the leadership of William Wilberforce and carried missionaries to every corner of the world.
This explanation is obvious to those who are raised with it. In a different context, “divinization” or “deification” seems to take on a different meaning however, as if humans can become gods – which is not at all the intent. The doctrine itself is ever-present in Anglican worship just as it is in Orthodox worship, yet the common ground is not always easy to see from the pews.
This awkward disagreement about language ultimately isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is a good example of the level of nuance at play: agreeing about truth is not the same thing as agreeing about clear spiritual direction. Recognizing the subjective human interpretive layer between ourselves and objective truth is a key takeaway from ecumenical dialogues. The world isn’t fragmented because people aren’t good enough at Biblical Greek, the world is fragmented because we don’t seek our own sanctification in others. The world is fragmented because we don’t view difference as an opportunity to grow.
Though the two communions have reached many of the same conclusions, they have taken very different paths to the same place. Eventually they arrived, but if they had to give directions, those directions would look very different – and that’s not a problem to be solved. Bishop Allen has learned through the years that the paths of others have to be respected as much as the destination:
“We have to be sensitive to the fact that the Orthodox are preserving something ancient. We have to be careful not to co-opt each other.”
The Orthodox are particularly cautious about appropriation. “Eastern mysticism” has become an increasingly attractive novelty in the West, which is precisely the opposite of how Orthodoxy wishes to be viewed. Orthodoxy is a demanding regimen meant to orient the whole of one’s body, soul, culture, and habits towards Christ, in a community under the direction of a spiritual elder, who in turn is under another spiritual elder, who keeps the teachings passed down from the apostles. Deconstructing Orthodoxy to apply a la carte without context or oversight is a recipe for imbalance and delusion – the very things its mystical practices fight against.
For the Orthodox especially, there is a shared narrative and identity of sacrifice. Their faith is not merely theology, or even a theology that has been applied into action – it is unapologetically cultural. While that may seem archaic to Westerners raised on the power of individuals with ideas, there’s a pragmatic truth hidden in that revelation: there’s more to being human than the sum of our ideas.
The problem with appropriation is that it assumes a person or group can be deconstructed, and their strengths can be harvested without their struggle, reducing people and cultures to commodities. In observing these talks at high levels, we see that there is more mystery to the individual and the collective than we can decipher, that there is no soul without their context and their path. We learn to stand in awe: not just of the mystery of God, but of the mystery of the soul formed in God’s image. If we allow ourselves to deconstruct the human or the culture to the extent that we can take what we like and discard the rest, we can allow ourselves to deconstruct the human or the culture to the extent that we discard their entirety. That is something Christ simply does not allow.
Just as the Nicene Creed, the subject of the first schism, asserts a difference between the essence and the personalities of the Trinity, our divided world needs the same. We need to know that we are all the same divinely animated dust, and we need to know that our personhood is a real revelation of both divinity and dust. In that personhood, we find beauty and strength.
Confession is the revelation of our weakness. It is also the revelation of God’s goodness. We find both when we allow ourselves to long for something higher than mere peace – when we allow ourselves to long for union with others in Christ, when we allow that longing to take the form of specific virtues. We learn to see ourselves and others through different eyes that see – and the promise of such vision is tantalizing.
What would happen if the Christian East and the Christian West, separated by a millennium of schism, joined together as one? What if that ancient and immovable titan, Orthodoxy, drank the blood of Christ from the same chalice as the adventurers who brought Jesus to the furthest reaches of the world? What if the ancient Orthodox repository of Christian mysticism navigated today’s conflicts with the diplomacy of the Anglican via media? What if the streams of St. Nicholas and C.S. Lewis merged to breathe and speak from two lungs through one mouth?
What if we let division hurt? What if we saw ourselves through unfamiliar eyes? What if we saw in each other a terrestrial substance on divine paths?
What if all who claimed Christ sought to imitate not just his righteousness or his compassion, but his oneness? What if we loved not just our friends and not just our enemies, but those who are close enough to betray what is sacred to us? What if the divisions of an election year forced us to see people instead of positions, to recognize the struggles and insecurities and pain behind the partisanship? What if the pressures of a pandemic revealed not just the fault lines in society, but a desperation for one another’s wisdom?
Perhaps our neighbors would cease to be appendages of pundits and become unfinished products decades in the making. Perhaps we could see what our crazy uncles are running from, or realize how life has changed for our college friends. So long as sin and lies and the confusion over their presence exists, we will need healthy boundaries to protect ourselves and our relationships – boundaries have their place even among ecclesiastics. Hopefully we can still find a level of unity as Christians have for centuries in the Nicene Creed, professing one God revealed in three persons, and remember that we creations of this revelation are not so different: created from the same substance, walking in many holy, sacred differences.
May those differences be an asset to us, as to the Trinity.
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