“climate change is a grave and mounting threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future. We are not on track to achieve a climate-resilient sustainable world.”
As the years pass, the IPCC’s reports grow more and more dire, yet humanity continues to fail to take the appropriate actions to alleviate our ecological crises. Back in September 2021, our global ecological reality had grown so severe that, despite the theological and doctrinal differences of their churches, the hierarchs of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican branches of Christianity came together for the first time in history to issue a joint statement to address the world’s Christian oecumene with a single moral voice. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Pope Francis, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for the protection of creation claiming that the “current climate crisis speaks volumes about who we are and how we view and treat God’s creation” (A Joint Statement for the Protection of Creation, 1 September 2021, p. 3).
“Meeting him I sensed immediately a quality of authenticity, of integrity, of completeness; here I felt was a true man. He was marked by a serenity, by a transparent and luminous joy” (Kallistos Ware, “Mount Athos Today” )
A Moment of Pan-Orthodox Unity
In a time when the Orthodox Christian world is broken by schism—the schism over Ukraine being merely the most ulcerous—the recent death of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia (1934-2022) is perhaps one of only a few events that has managed to briefly unite the Orthodox world in a “bright sadness.” Memorial services were held by both Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar and at his death bed by prominent figures in the Russian Church (Moscow Patriarchate [MP]) who were his former students (Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev] of Budapest and Hungary [MP] and Bishop Irenei [Steenberg] of London [ROCOR-MP]). Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain, the Exarch or Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the United Kingdom, followed Metropolitan Kallistos’ sickness closely and visited him repeatedly in his last years. With great pastoral discernment, Archbishop Nikitas quietly cooperated over a long period with local representatives of the Oxford Russian Parish and his own Oxford Greek Orthodox parish in planning the logistics of the memorials, liturgy, funeral, and interment in Oxford with the intention of emphasizing the Pan-Orthodoxy of the Metropolitan.
Two immensely moving memorials were served in the presence of Metropolitan Kallistos’ body at St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Russian Orthodox Church by its rector, Fr. Stephen Platt, and others followed by an all-night vigil where clergy of all churches and faithful read the Gospels with the Metropolitan lying in state. The next day, a memorial liturgy with Metropolitan Kallistos lying in state was celebrated by Metropolitan Athenagoras of Belgium (EP) at the joint Greek and Russian tradition parish, the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation (EP), pastored by Frs. Ian Graham and Seraphim Vänttinen-Newton, with Ecumenical Patriarchate clergy concelebrating, the nuns of the Community of St. John the Baptist of Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (founded by St. Sophrony [Sakharov] of Essex [1896-1993]) singing and attended by a large crowd of faithful and clergy from all jurisdictions (including the Moscow Patriarchate) as well as ecumenical representatives (e.g. Archbishop Rowan Williams). Finally, the funeral, with hundreds coming from all Christian traditions, was held at the large Oxford Catholic Oratory Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga led by Archbishop Nikitas serving with multiple Orthodox bishops and clergy from all jurisdictions, including a single bold priest of the Moscow Patriarchate. The final “last kiss” of the faithful to the beloved Metropolitan took almost half an hour with the whole church coming to say goodbye and receive his last blessing. Just before Metropolitan Kallistos’ coffin was closed, Archbishop Nikitas, in a traditional ceremony, but with enormous pastoral intuition, gifted the various symbols of Metropolitan Kallistos’ office as a bishop to clergy and monastics of all jurisdictions in attendance, with the mitre going to Metropolitan Athenagoras (EP), the episcopal staff to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist (EP), the encolpium or pectoral cross of the Metropolitan to Fr. Stephen Platt (MP), and the Panaghia to be sent to Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) (MP). The day closed with the Metropolitan’s interment in the “Orthodox section” of the local Oxford Wolvercote Cemetery (where J. R. R. Tolkien is buried) by Metropolitan Athenagoras, who led the faithful of many traditions in music from Pascha. Archbishop Nikitas was quite explicit in inviting all canonical Orthodox clergy to serve at the funeral service in witnessing to the unity of Orthodoxy, though sadly the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate ordered their clergy not to concelebrate at any service led by an Ecumenical Patriarchate hierarch. The wake was organized by leading members of the local Russian Parish who were the loving carers of the Metropolitan and now the executors of his estate.
These services, which were a brief but imperfect moment of Pan-Orthodox unity, were the capstone of the last years of Metropolitan Kallistos’ life which involved his daily care by a rota of devoted spiritual children led by members of the local Russian parish working synergistically with members from the Greek parish he founded, transcending the divisions of their respective jurisdictions. Such was the mark of “Kallistos of Oxford” that he has managed both in life and death to serve both as a point of unity (as is ideally the calling of the episcopate), as well as what he saw as his purpose: an Orthodox teacher dedicated to expounding the truth of Christ freely to unify all Christians that they might grow up into the fullness of the stature of Christ.
Bishops are regularly in the news for exercising their authority and then either coming under fire or being praised for doing so. Over the last couple months we’ve seen volcanic reactions for and against Archbishop Elpidophoros presiding at the baptism of a gay couple’s children in Greece. When the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America delivered an uncompromising statement on same-sex relationships and sexual identity to the 1000 or so clergy and lay delegates of the “All-American Council” the gathering spontaneously gave the bishops a standing ovation. Others were deeply troubled by the bishops quashing discussion, debate, and dissent. These opposite public reactions to what bishops say and do vividly illustrate the polarization of church life. But they also illustrate a healthy (even if messy) tension between the institutional and the charismatic which has always been present in the Orthodox Church And this tension needs to be allowed and even encouraged, not stamped out.
“Bishops and Pentecost” is a short-hand way of saying that the Orthodox Church affirms both the institutional and the charismatic. The Holy Spirit courses through the Church’s history, scriptures, liturgy, sacraments, icons, and what could be called its structures of discernment, meaning especially its bishops acting in council. At the same time, faithfulness to the experience of the Spirit speaking in the past is balanced by discernment of the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking in the present. And here too, the bishops play the key role. To use a playground image, consider a seesaw, with Tradition on one side and contemporary experience on the other. The bishops are at the center, as the fulcrum, discerning the direction of the Spirit to bring these two dimensions into balance. To be sure, the rest of the church—clergy, laity, monastics, and even scholars—are there to inspire, aid, and challenge the bishops in this process, but it is the bishops’ specific vocation to maintain balance between faithfulness to Tradition and discernment of the Spirit today. Anyone who wants to understand the invisible heart of Orthodox Christian self-understanding must take seriously the central place given to bishops all over the Orthodox world—regardless of geography, ethnicity, nationality, culture, history, or any other secondary factors. But none of this should be romanticized. It’s a chaotic process that takes place over time through the ragged jostling of fallible human beings—including bishops—who all in their own way are “looking through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12).
At the conclusion of the “Bridging Voices” conference in Oxford in 2019, I thanked the distinguished group of participants for restoring my confidence in the church as a discursive society bound by love of and in Christ. Our meeting was demanding, at times very tense, and inconclusive, but commitment to working through some of the most challenging questions of our day kept a large group of thinkers with divergent perspectives together productively at one table. As far as I am aware, no factions formed at the conference and no participant found it necessary to denounce or reprimand any other. Most attended the divine services together and many remarked on the importance of the liturgical unity of the gathering. Patience and humility made space for attentive listening, transformative encounter, and the refinement of theological argumentation without fear.
It is therefore disheartening to read the latest statement of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on same-sex relationships and sexual identity, which appears to intend to stifle genuine, faithful intellectual inquiry and cultivate a climate of fear. Much in this text is unremarkable, little more than a rehearsal of apologetic tropes, and a repetition of statements issued previously. Nobody can honestly claim that the position of the Holy Synod of the OCA on these topics is unclear. The same conclusions, the same small body of proof-texts, the same appeal to the unanimity of the tradition, and the same assertion of synodal authority over these issues have been repeated time and again. So why issue yet another statement?