When I introduced Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at the International Orthodox Theological Association’s (IOTA) inaugural conference Opening Ceremony in Iaşi, Romania earlier this month, I told a story about my father—the son of Russian immigrants to West Virginia in the early twentieth century—and how his perception of Orthodoxy was expanded by His Eminence when they met in the early 1990s on a trip my father took to the British Isles. Metropolitan Kallistos’s explanation of the history and the present circumstances of Christianity there gave my father his first sense of a global Orthodox Church, which broadened his own Orthodox identity to include ties to many people and circumstances, past and present.
I told this story as a way of suggesting that Metropolitan Kallistos has done the same for so many people; he has opened up our Orthodox realities and given us a vision of a global Church, of a shared experience of Orthodox history and of the Orthodox Church today—through his writings, through his teachings, through his guidance as a hierarch; and thus he was a perfect keynote speaker to begin IOTA’s first conference. My introductory remarks were more apt than I could have realized, because not only was this true of Metropolitan Kallistos, his legacy, and his keynote remarks, but this expansive and gratifying experience of a shared Orthodoxy was the heartbeat of the next three days of the conference.
IOTA’s mission is to provide a forum for worldwide, interdisciplinary scholarly interaction within the context of the Orthodox tradition and to seek to serve as an instrument of church renewal and conciliarity. Nearly three hundred Orthodox Christian scholars from all disciplines—art history, philosophy, political science, canon law, history, and more—from forty countries and all six inhabited continents were inspired by this mission; they, along with a group of ecumenical observers as well as scholars from outside of the Orthodox tradition, traveled to Romania for four days in January (9-12). The gathering of this particular group of people alone was an extraordinary experience of a shared Orthodox reality.
Most of us attend conferences particular to our fields of study, where Orthodox Christians and/or people studying Orthodox Christianity comprise a small fraction of the participants. Here, at IOTA, we experienced being together en masse, across disciplines, and—most liberating and most significant, in my opinion—expressly working for the good of the Church (rather than, say, for tenure). To be among such a brilliant and dedicated group of people whose hearts as well as minds are aligned with the Gospel—even as our local churches are not all in communion with one another, and even as we are not in agreement with each other over many issues—left me hopeful about the future of the Church. I was not alone in this; as I moved through the lobby of the conference area the final night, I kept overhearing the word “hope” in people’s conversations around me.
The preparations for the conference were a deliberate exercise in inculcating a sense of the global, shared Church. IOTA is founded as a US nonprofit with a small governing board, but most of its structure is comprised of twenty-six thematic groups organized around scholarly disciplines (ecclesiology, political science, patristics, moral theology, religion & science, and so on). Two people chair each of these groups, but, by design, they are from two different parts of the world, and their groups, ranging from three to seven people, must be internationally diverse in makeup. It was humbling for some of us, when we set out composing our groups, to realize how narrow our connections really were! By designing the organization this way, a new and robust network among scholars around the world was established before the conference was even underway. These groups then worked together to solicit and vet papers, and organize sessions for the conference, which resulted in seventy sessions of papers (usually 3-4 presenters in one session), with six concurrent sessions to choose from in every time slot. This prompted the biggest complaint I heard at the conference, and I heard it often: “It’s just so difficult to choose which one to attend!”
The experience of a shared Orthodox reality was underscored, perhaps in an unlikely way, by the diversity of these sessions. The range is hard to briefly capture. One session featured several papers on mission that spoke of the Orthodox Church’s missionary efforts around the world, from Alaska to Africa. A session was dedicated to the autocephaly issues around Ukraine, interest around which was heightened as the tomos was issued just days before the conference. Some papers were focused on patristic-era figures, other on those closer to our own time, such as—appropriate to the location of the conference—the great Romanian theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae. Pragmatic matters were taken up, such as trends in seminary education, the state of Orthodox education in general, and helping Orthodox organizations to be better aware of each other’s work. The incredible diversity of this conference served as a reminder of the bounty of a Church that is two thousand years old, that has spread to every corner of the Earth, and encountered every culture; and within which individual human persons continue to think, connect, create, and flourish.
The hospitality of our Romanian hosts will never be forgotten by anyone who attended the inaugural IOTA conference, I am sure, including the courtesy and good humor of the small army of local volunteers and the warmth of our site chair, Catalin Jeckel. His Eminence Metropolitan Teofan of Iaşi repeatedly and generously hosted conference attendees for meals at his Metropolitan Complex, invited us to view sacred art, and arranged for services to be held in French, Greek, English, Russian, and Romanian each morning. For me, the services were a highlight of the conference. My experience of Orthodoxy in America does not allow for me to walk to my choice of churches for a service before work each day, so I gladly availed myself of this opportunity in Romania. Metropolitan Kallistos observed in his keynote that, “It is the Eucharist that holds the Church together and makes it one Body in Christ. Ecclesial unity is not imposed from above by power of jurisdiction, but it is created from within by communion in the Sacramental Body and Blood of the risen Lord.” Being able to pray together with my fellow conference goers each day and, one of those days, receive the Eucharist together, sanctified and solidified the sense of a shared, global Orthodox experience.
Our official press release says, “The Inaugural Conference was the largest and the most representative gathering of Orthodox church leaders, scholars, and professionals in modern history.” This is true, but, speaking for myself, I would go further and remove the qualifier “modern;” we made history together in Iaşi. When I walked out on stage at the National Theater to introduce Metropolitan Kallistos, I did not see a cloud of black robes and beards dominating the scene, as is the otherwise case in large Orthodox gatherings; instead I saw all kinds of people. I saw laity of all ages, men and women. I saw deacons, priests, and bishops. I saw people of different skin, eye, and hair colors, with different background and histories. I saw the Church. This was a very welcome Orthodox reality, and I believe that from it much good will come.
Carrie Frederick Frost, PhD is Secretary of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA), Co-Chair of IOTA’s Women in the Orthodox Church Group, and a Professor of Theology at Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary.
For more information about IOTA and the inaugural conference, visit https://iota-web.org/
Videos from the inaugural conference are available at IOTA’s YouTube channel.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.