Fr. John Guy Winfrey, the parish priest of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, MI, and a former parishioner of the Anglo-Catholic St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Ft. Worth, has written to offer the following piece on promising developments in Eastern Orthodoxy and his thoughts regarding their place in the larger drama of reconciliation between the "two lungs" of the Church, East and West.
Fr. Winfrey posits that the Holy Father's recent Apostolic Constitution providing for the corporate reconciliation of Anglican groups, Anglicanorum Coetibus, is a sign to Orthodox Christians that the Roman Pontiff is truly committed to the pursuit of a genuine unity in diversity.
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I returned Saturday evening from the Parish Life Conference (for those of you who are not Antiochian Orthodox, it is our rough equivalent of a Diocesan Conference). At the clergy meeting on Wednesday evening I heard something that I wasn't sure that I had actually heard. I was startled, stunned, and paradoxically thrilled and filled with angst at the same time. His Grace was speaking about the recent National Assembly of Bishops (Orthodox) and their work. Much of this I had already heard, but had not spoken of it much because I continued to hear things that are better not made the subject of discussion in large groups. After all, the questions that the bishops are discussing really stand solely within the purview of the bishops.
On Saturday, before I left Perrysburg (the suburb of Toledo, Ohio where the event was hosted), I asked one of my brother priests who seemed to be more "in the know" than I. He has always been much more active in these areas than myself. Following our conversation I was utterly floored. So what was it that I had heard, first on Wednesday and then reiterated on Saturday? I heard that it is thought within five years there will be only one jurisdiction of Orthodox in the United States. There will no longer be a Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and an Antiochian Archdiocese, and an Orthodox Church in America… There will only be the Orthodox Church. But this is not simply an American concern alone. In truth it will be a world-wide action affecting Australia, Central America, South America, England, Europe and so on.
The details will prove to be some of the great hiccups I am sure. Diocesan borders will be redrawn and restructured. There will be a singular guideline for all the priests in the country rather than seeing it vary in every jurisdiction. Admittedly there will be a period of transition that will naturally cause no little tension. What of the calendar? Will that be a source of unity, or will there be Old Calendar (Julian) and New Calendar parishes still? Just the selection of a revised Julian Calendar has caused a terrible schism within the Orthodox Church since the 1920s. Only time will be able to tell exactly what will happen, but five years is a very short time indeed.
One of my personal difficulties, and I have to be frank about this, is that it appears that everything will be under Constantinople. There is some logic to this. After all a recent study states that 80% of the Orthodox in the United States are already in the Greek Archdiocese. If they have those numbers, then naturally they should have the lion's share of say. Of course, it is being handled with a different sense. The natural presvia (or order given clergy and local churches) is being followed. Therefore the Greeks as representing the Ecumenical Patriarch — who anciently second only to Rome — is given the seat of honor, followed by Antioch (since Alexandria has no churches here), and on down the line. I said that I had personal difficulties with this, and I do, but I'll save those thoughts for another post.
Having a singular jurisdiction would be a very healthy development in Orthodoxy here and elsewhere. Yet I can't help to think that this is only part of something that is much larger. We are tempted to look only at our own countries, or only at the Orthodox Church in isolation from what seems to be happening in the larger scene. When I view the scene of Christianity on the largest possible scale, I get the distinct intuition that God the Holy Spirit is incredibly active right now. Of course, God is always active, but there are moments that His activity seems more perceptible.
Consider these things a components or signs of something profound happening:
- The Orthodox Church is working on getting her house in order (trying to reconcile the scandal of multiple jurisdictions in many countries).
- Both Moscow and Constantinople have had very positive and warm meetings with Rome.
- Moscow has publicly given support to Pope Benedict XIV recently in Rome, and has called for greater work together with Rome on commonly held concerns.
- The recent agreed statement produced at Ravenna (and that which has been leaked from Cyprus) between the Orthodox and Catholics is incredible.
- Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which gave very liberal and broad license to priests to celebrate the 1962 Latin Mass. This is a very significant development because it helps to show the Orthodox that the Catholic Church is officially holding in a line of "continuity" rather than of "disruption". Perhaps it doesn't need to be stated that this was one of the things that Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev brought up as important when he met with the Pope.
- Pope Benedict XVI's stunning Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, which makes it possible in the very near future for Anglicans to enter into communion with the Catholic Church whilst keeping the great treasure of their patrimony shows the genuine sense that the Holy Father has of being the pivot of unity for the universal Church. He seems quite content to allow diversity in unity and is completely unthreatened by it — provided there is theological unity (recall again the agreements of Ravenna and Cyprus here).
- The Western world is dying because of many spiritual and moral diseases, but perhaps more than anything else because of the loss of the organic and sacramental unity of the Church: Eastern and Western. The desire to work together would seem to be a hint that maybe we understand this.
- The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing a nascent recovery of some of her tradition and liturgical beauty at the moment. Although this is still small, one leading priest in this area continually reminds the faithful that this will be brought back together "brick by brick." Deo volente!
- Finally there is the continual disintegration of non-historic Christianity into mere entertainment, leaving many of their faithful looking for something that is stabile, substantial, historic and real.
There will be many who would not be able to make a journey to unity and union. Some are liberal Roman Catholics (I'd prefer to say heterodox, or even heretical, rather than liberal) who are ably represented by the likes of the Tablet, or the National Catholic Review. Some are the monastic extremists referred to by the Archbishop of Cyprus as the "Orthodox taliban." Old Calendarists would not enter into reconciliation. Perhaps the inclusion of the Orthodox would cause the Society of Saint Pius X to refrain from unity.
Nevertheless, I think that God might well be at work to bring us back together. The reunion would bring more joy to my heart than I could possibly express. I pray for this every day. I hope for it every hour. I dream of it every minute.