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?
Many Christians around the world have come to realise over the last few weeks that this year’s Holy Week and Pascha will be somewhat unlike any that they have previously experienced, on account of the current viral pandemic. Very many churches are now closed, with services cancelled or in-person participation restricted to a select “skeleton crew.” Orthodox Christians are obviously not exempt from the consequences of the pandemic and many are already mourning the loss of public worship at the high point of the liturgical year, even as they understand and respect the regulations imposed by civil authorities.
Although it may be possible during the coming weeks to view or listen to liturgical services online, many churchgoers will rightly acknowledge that this is no substitute for prayer and worship in person. Screens and speakers necessarily render us the passive audience of a performance. Clergy can quickly become like stars of stage and screen, existing in a glittering world somewhere “out there,” apart from our own mundane experience of isolation and enclosure. The edges of our electronic devices frame liturgical action like the proscenium arch in a theatre, with the same effect of separating drama from life. Even if we successfully minimise distractions, disable pop-up notifications, and discipline ourselves to remain quiet and present to the broadcast, many of us will still desire something more immediate and active than online liturgy—something truly in the here-and-now of our reality of social distancing and quarantine.
Various possibilities present themselves as alternatives (or, complements) to watching liturgy online, including the observation (or revival!) of our prayer rule with renewed energy and attentiveness, and the disciplined reading of scripture, especially the Psalms and Gospels. But it is also possible to bring the services themselves into our homes, and some may be inclined to do this during a period that would ordinarily be saturated by liturgy.
“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers a clear reaffirmation of the “dignity and majesty of the human person” (1.1) in Christian doctrine. Moreover, the exalted status of the human person is here grounded in its ultimate vocation to deification. While the human being is brought to perfection beyond this life in God, sanctification begins now, in this world, in relation to others. To this end, the Church recognizes that she must speak with her “prophetic and pastoral voice” and act in the contemporary world to foster that “peace, justice, freedom, fraternity, and love” which characterizes the Kingdom of God.
In order to do full justice to the profound witness to the Gospel offered by this document, further serious reflection and dialogue is required on some of its key ideas. For, while this text contains moments of deep insight into the condition of the contemporary world, it also shows the effects of a long period in which the Church has failed to practice her synodality and lost the art of addressing the most important issues of the day with reason and clarity. Continue Reading…
The long-awaited pan-Orthodox council will be upon us in a few short months. If all goes ahead as announced, representatives of each of the fourteen universally-recognized autocephalous Orthodox Churches will meet on the island of Crete for two weeks at the feast of Pentecost to discuss and either agree or refuse several carefully prepared documents. These documents cover six of the ten topics that have been debated during the very long pre-conciliar process.
The Orthodox Church has, for some time now, referred to the anticipated meeting as “the Great and Holy Council.” Some commentators external to the official pre-conciliar processes have speculated whether it will become the eighth ecumenical council of the Orthodox Church, ending a hiatus of more than 1,200 years. Continue Reading…