Orthodox Adult Education In The Ecumenical Context
By Fr. John Daly
As a preamble to this article, I should state that I am not an especially “ecumenically” minded priest. My experience with the “ecumenical” movement has been decidedly mixed. In some ways my involvement with the Tri-Community Ecumenical Fellowship in South Central Massachusetts is unique in that it has avoided many of the encounters with representatives from more “liberal” persuasions that often make Orthodox participation a study in apologetics. From the start, the Tri-Community (the towns of Southbridge, Charlestown and Sturbridge) Fellowship has accepted us as we are, without any attempt whatsoever to induce us to “soften” our tone in order to sound more “ecumenical.” Nowhere has this been more true than in the area of education, where our parish, St. Nicholas, has been most active.
Our first real invitation to participate in the Ecumenical Fellowship came in Lent 1992 when I was asked to participate in a consortium of courses being sponsored by the Fellowship in the facilities of the local Congregational Church (the only facility large enough for such a gathering). I agreed to participate on the condition that whatever course I taught would be solely from an Orthodox Christian perspective and without any qualifications whatsoever. This was agreed upon and my course offering was, “Springtime of Joy: A Journey into Orthodox Holy Lent.”
The organizers of the event (called Living Faith ‘92) were happy to have the class taught as it both fulfilled my own parish’s need for a Lenten series and invited outsiders in to learn something about our Tradition. Twenty eight from the community signed up, the largest of the 12 courses offered that year. Of those who attended, 6 were Orthodox and 22 were non-Orthodox.
“SPRINGTIME OF JOY: A JOURNEY INTO ORTHODOX HOLY LENT”
The first session dealt with the meaning of Lent in the Orthodox Tradition. The paradox of joyful sorrow was discussed at length and opposed to the sort of legalism that reduces Lent to a mere keeping of rules. The need for a change of heart (repentance) and strengthening, through fasting and prayer, in order to engage the enemy of grace was discussed at length. A great deal of weight was put on the psychosomatic aspects of Orthodox spirituality (i.e. that we can’t separate our bodies from our spirits). The Prayer of St. Ephrem was used as the culmination of the first evening, as it summed up the true spirit of the Fast.
The Second week of the course was devoted to the themes of the Sunday of Pre-Lent and Great Lent, beginning with the Sunday of Zacchaeus. The moral themes surrounding the Sunday of the Last Judgment were particularly of interest to the non-Orthodox-especially as I put them in the context of St. Symeon the New Theologian’s insistence that the Christian love every poor person, without exclusion. The need to see every other person as Christ struck some non-Orthodox as surprising coming from a Church Tradition that they associated with “mystical.”
The Third week of the class was devoted to stories by Chekhov which related to Lenten themes, e.g. “The Bishop,” “The Princess,” “The Murder,” “In Passion Week.” This was very well received and provided an interesting respite from the “heavier” materials.
The Fourth week focused on the period from Lazarus Saturday through Holy Wednesday with a careful look at the Scripture readings and hymns for the period. The emphasis on the impending judgment of the world was of particular interest to western Christians, who associated that theme with Advent.
The Fifth and final week centered on the events of the Three Day Passover of the Lord (Great and Holy Thursday through Pascha). Many of the participants found the hymns and readings for this period the most moving and personally touching.
A COURSE ON THE ENVIRONMENT FROM AN ORTHODOX PERSPECTIVE
In 1993 the Lenten course was entitled, The Earth is the Lord’s and All that Dwell in it: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on the Environmental Movement. There were 22 participants of whom 18 were non-Orthodox.
The first session dealt with the Orthodox doctrine of creation ‘ex nihilo’ and contrasted this with some ancient creation mythologies as well as some modern cosmologies. The emphasis was placed on the “goodness” of creation as originally intended by God, on its “Trinitarian” structure, on the inseparability of matter and spirit, and on the tragedy of the Fall.
The second session focused on the infiltration of neo-paganism into the contemporary environmental movement-especially into the quasi-Christian teachings of “creation spiritualities” popularized by Matthew Fox and others. A comparison chart of so-called Fall/Redemption and Creation Centered Spiritualities,” from Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing, was used to illustrate the different starting points and profoundly different usages of terminology between an Orthodox spirituality of creation and some of the pseudo-Christian literature on the market today. An appeal was made for Christians and non-Christian seekers to look to our own “Eastern” (as opposed to Oriental) roots: the Orthodox Christian Tradition, before giving up on Christianity.
Due to the Blizzard of ‘93 the final two sessions were combined. The session was entitled, “Extracting ourselves from the consumer culture,” and focused on the Traditional Lenten disciples of Fasting and Prayer as a means of entering into fuller communion with the Trinity and through such communion, having a deeper, more compassionate, and truly Orthodox relationship with the rest of creation, instead of being exploiters’ we are called to become stewards. Instead of dealing with the rest of the universe as if it were an inanimate thing to be processed, we are called to deal with it as “cosmos,” the divinely created “ornament” that humankind was created to nurture and bring to fruition. This lead finally to the concept of fasting, with Pascha as the great model of the Eternal Banquet in the Kingdom, wherein everything becomes fully what it was intended to be and the consumer culture is transfigured into “communion.”
OTHER EDUCATIONAL OFFERINGS
Other courses that were offered here at St. Nicholas Church were Christ is in our Midst: An Introduction to the Orthodox Church in 1991, The Windows of the Kingdom; Icons as Teachers of Theology in the Orthodox Christian Tradition in 1992, and Light from the North: An American Spiritual Awakening offered in commemoration of the Bicentennial year have also been very well attended by non-Orthodox. In fact, every course offered during my time at St. Nicholas has been better attended by members of the “ecumenical” community than by the Orthodox, for reasons I have not been able to ascertain.
The excellent press coverage that we have received and the genuine interest in our Faith on the part of those who previously saw us to be a rather exotic oriental transplant has made Orthodox Adult Education in the Ecumenical Context a great success.
Participation in “prayer services” has been more problematic. The most positive experience was during the Octave of Christian Unity in 1993 when I organized a series of services and talks to be held in several local churches beginning at St. Nicholas. Each local minister or priest was responsible for the type of service, its content, and the talk that followed. Other than in our own service, no Orthodox took an active part in any of the others and no heterodox participated in the Orthodox service. The whole point was to learn something of the various “traditions” by observation and to enjoy fellowship and conversation in the coffee hour that followed each service. Attendance was excellent at all services and there is talk of doing something similar again in the future.
I feel that we have been able to have an unusual degree of “fellowship” with the ecumenical community in Southbridge due to the mutual respect shown by all and for all and also because of the stronger than usual element of traditional values among even members of “liberal” denominations. In addition, there has been unusually strong participation by evangelical and fundamentalist denominations who are often absent from the ecumenical scene.
Finally, I recently initiated a bi-monthly clergy Bible Study which is hosted at the local Episcopal Church. The .composition of the group of pastors reflects the composition of the above mentioned groups. We have started by studying St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians because of is ecclesiastical challenges-with many points of convergence and divergence among the various traditions represented. I believe that this says something about the level of trust and honesty on the part of the members of the Tri-Community Ecumenical Fellowship. While I still have great anxiety about participation in ecumenical events, I have found the experience to be worth it. There is a certain holy anxiety that Orthodox are called to endure for the sake of proclaiming our Faith that requires the willingness to listen as well as to speak.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
1. What has been the participation of your parish in ecumenical programs in your community?
2. What have been the benefits of such participation? the problems?
3. How can participation in community ecumenical programs be a witness to the Orthodox faith?
Fr. John Daly is pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Southbridge, Massachusetts. He is presently organizing the Tri-Community Living Faith ‘94 Adult Education Series, it’s theme: “Living in the Jungle: Living as a Christian in an un-Christian World. “