Education and Academia

The Church Meets in Volos A Non-Academic’s Impressions of the Second IOTA Mega-Conference

Published on: March 24, 2023
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I arrived in Volos a day early so my family could get settled into our Airbnb and immediately felt a certain hesitation about the days ahead. As a priest of the Orthodox Church in America pastoring and preaching in a parochial, domesticated way for 30+ years, I am used to depending on easily accessible basic scholarship to do my job. But the prospect of a four-day, 330-speaker academic gathering left me ambivalent about the coming flood of arcana, doubtful about my ability to absorb even a part of it, and skeptical about its relevance to my own church habitat.

National and diocesan church gatherings have, in my experience, been a mixture of dreary-but-necessary institutional housekeeping mixed with occasional “calls to the ramparts” to defend against, or to attack, perceived antagonists to our baptized identity. This energizes local churches, even as I think it patronizes the shrewdness of liturgy and scripture. But as the charming downtown of the small port city filled up with arriving hierarchs and their fluttering entourages, and with the robes and lanyards of lay and clergy delegates bringing an intangible energy and ethos to the waterfront, I suddenly had the sense of a church arriving for work.

For me there was a note of personal nostalgia too: the host of the conference was Metropolitan Ignatius. When I was a theology student in Athens in the 80’s, I worked as an occasional interpreter at the international SYNDESMOS international youth gatherings in Greece, and I recalled the then-Fr. Ignatius as a resolute presence among the young leadership. Here he was again: now Metropolitan of Demetrias, he was present among the international hierarchs in a collegial and reticent way at the worship gatherings. It was his vision that originally brought into being our host organization, the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, whose support for the IOTA Conference confirms the young Fr. Ignatius’ charism and the vocational value of investing in our institutions, in our discourse, and the biblical power of “gathering in one place.”

Inevitably, the shadow of the war in Ukraine loomed over proceedings before they had even begun, which gave a heightened sense both of trepidation and of gratitude that an incarnate gathering of church servants was now happening at all, however decimated its ranks might be by greater divisions ravaging the church at large. It all suddenly felt resilient and hopeful and blessed, even before it began.              

I offer the following subjective live-stream (a tiny fraction of what others may have experienced): A panel of biblical scholars (a Copt teaching in Sydney, an American teaching in New York, a Russian teaching in Tübingen, and a Lebanese teaching in Balamand) all present lucid papers on aspects of Scripture within its own historical mission, giving any parish preacher much to draw from. Women scholars (monastic and lay) are everywhere at the conference, and often in leadership. There is a tenuous session on phyletism per se, where it seems to me that the unexplored inference must be to Russki Mir; but the word “phyletism” has been present in presentations since the opening ceremony. And because we are Orthodox, it’s a label that never appears untainted by a certain irony, no matter who is wielding it. At least, my sense of that irony feels suddenly validated when a priest-scholar (Ukrainian, teaching in Sweden) punctures the discussion’s rectitude on the topic, and calls everybody’s attention to what can only be described as a confession that he makes on the whole room’s behalf: that phyletism is endemic to all the Orthodox. His assertion hits home and allows the discussion to acknowledge a whole other level of catastrophic depredation in the name of religious ideology which the “phyletism” label is patently inadequate to encompass.

Elsewhere, A Greek scholar (teaching in Britain) speaks of the prophetic cult of St. Paisios in the context of Greek political/religious ideology in ways that could be useful in any church context. The session on Roman Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is marked by warm investment by its Catholic scholars that is met by a responding self-critique by some Orthodox ones (so, who knew the managing director of the Association of Christian Churches in Bavaria was Orthodox and a Greek lay scholar of astute ecclesial conscience?). At one plenary session, an audience member lobs a question at a Greek scholar (who is with the Council of European Churches in Brussels); it’s about the American bombing of Belgrade, and she wryly welcomes it with: “Thank you for your dangerous question,” followed by a data-driven appraisal of the state of peacemaking among Orthodox churches in the Balkans. Elsewhere, a Dutch priest (rector and scholar) recounts that all the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox in the Netherlands have been obliged by the Dutch state to elect one spokesperson to represent all Eastern Christian interests in their deliberations with the state over its substantial religious resources, essentially because the state just can’t negotiate all the divisions with any confidence.

Any one of these topics leads to more questions, more conversations. Overall, the discussions are lively, the convictions diverse, the sense of discipline universal.

How humbling it is, then, to feel at the conference a growing sense of the church submitting to herself. Both clergy and lay academics in session after session reveal something biblical in their academic restraint—something not often seen in contemporary preaching, as far as I know, and often dismissed as irrelevant (or even disingenuous) by the preaching classes. It feels like an almost apostolic virtue, a Pauline “submitting to one another.” The academic method as an act of restraint and conscience. Sobriety and a watchfulness. Faith.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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