As point man for Russian Orthodox relations with other faith groups, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is used to talking shop with Catholics, Anglicans, leaders in older brands of Protestantism and other world religions. These duties have long been part of his job description. Meeting with leaders from the world's booming evangelical and Pentecostal flocks?
Not so much.
However, recent ecumenical contacts by this high-profile representative of the Moscow Patriarchate is evidence that times are changing. Time after time, during meetings with evangelical leaders and others here in America, Hilarion has stressed that it is time for Orthodox leaders to cooperate with traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants and others who are trying to defend ancient moral truths in the public square.
"I am here in order to find friends and in order to find allies in our common combat to defend Christian values," said the 44-year-old archbishop, who became a monk after serving in the Soviet army. He also speaks six languages, holds an Oxford University doctorate in philosophy and is an internationally known composer of classical music.
For too long, Orthodox leaders have remained silent. The goal now, he said, is to find ways to cooperate with other religious groups that want to "keep the traditional lines of Christian moral teaching, who care about the family, who care about such notions as marital fidelity, as giving birth to and bringing up children and in the value of human life from conception until natural death."
On this occasion earlier in the year, Hilarion was preaching from the pulpit of the 5,000-member Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, a conservative congregation that remains part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which recently approved the ordination of noncelibate gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
While in Dallas, Metropolitan Hilarion's public schedule included meetings at Dallas Theological Seminary, a prominent institution among many of America's most conservative evangelical leaders. He has also, during the first half of the year, met with nationally known evangelical leaders in New York, Washington, D.C., and at Princeton University.
In a recent interview with Christianity Today, one of evangelicalism's flagship publications, the archbishop said it is crucial for all churches -- including Eastern Orthodox churches -- to expand their work into public life, even if this creates controversy in some quarters.
"Very often nowadays our church will publicly express positions on what's happening in the country," he said. "Some people ask, 'Why does the church interfere? It's not their business.' We believe that the church can express its opinion on all aspects of human life. We do not impose our opinions on the people, but we should be free to express them. And people will have to choose whether to follow or not to follow, whether to listen to what we say or to ignore it."
The archbishop's statements were especially significant and timely because of a related conflict now raging in the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russian roots.
A major cause of the controversy was the decision by the church's leader, Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen, to privately endorse The Manhattan Declaration, a document produced by a coalition of conservative Christians that focuses on abortion, euthanasia, sexual morality and religious liberty issues. Numerous Catholic bishops and several other Orthodox leaders have also signed as private citizens, not in their roles as church officials.
At the very least, this bitter dispute has demonstrated that some OCA leaders are opposed to public stands on hot-button political issues, especially any that proclaim the church's teachings on sexuality. Some prefer isolation and silence.
However, Metropolitan Hilarion, in his taped sermon in Dallas, said it is shocking to see churches divided by "what hitherto seemed unthinkable -- namely marked differences among Christians in their understanding of moral law. ... There has surfaced a desire to revise, or to be more precise, to adjust, the unambiguous commandments of God to any manifestation of human fancy, a trend that has spread out with the speed of a cancer. ...
"Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many families break, why so many marriages end up with divorce, why so many children are raised without a father or a mother and why the birthrates in many countries have become so low. ... Family is no longer a primary value to many young people. This is a tragedy of our times and this is a challenge that we can face together."