Orthodox bridge to evangelical world

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."

St. Peter in Westminster Abbey

During his long exile in Normandy, the Saxon prince who would become known as Edward the Confessor vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter once he returned to England. After his coronation as king, the pope released Edward from this vow -- if he built a monastery dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. Thus, St. Peter's Abbey was rebuilt in Westminster.

Pope Benedict XVI gently stressed this history in the first words of his address during his recent visit to Westminster Abbey, where he prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury.

"I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you ... in this magnificent Abbey church dedicated to St. Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith," said Benedict. "Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us. ...

"I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor."

Benedict's historic visit to England's national shrine received little coverage, in part because his remarks there were intensely spiritual. Meanwhile, journalists had to notice that his Westminster Hall address on the role of reason and faith in politics drew a secular flock that included, as an Associated Press report noted, "former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who recently converted to Catholicism."

Speaking in the hall in which the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More was convicted of treason for his loyalty to Rome, Benedict warned that the modern world -- take Europe -- is increasingly hostile to those who try to act on their beliefs.

"There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere," he said. "There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue -- paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination -- that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.

"These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."

The abbey visit created no sparks, in part because earlier that day the pope told Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that there was no need to "speak of the difficulties that the ecumenical path has encountered and continues to encounter. Those difficulties are well known." Thus, there were no clear references to tensions about female priests, gay bishops in America's Episcopal Church and the Vatican's controversial decision -- after many appeals by Anglican traditionalists -- to make it easier for members of the Church of England to enter the Church of Rome.

Instead, Benedict repeatedly stressed that unity must be found in scripture, creeds and moral doctrines that date back to the early church. These words, however, are controversial in an age in which the global Anglican Communion is divided over teachings as central as the resurrection of Jesus and claims that salvation is found through Christ, alone.

"Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead," he said. "It is the reality of Christ's person, his saving work and above all the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of ... those creedal formulas. ... The church's unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ."

Finally, Benedict stressed -- yet again -- that he was speaking and acting in "fidelity to my ministry as the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ's flock."

Reporters, with blog on their side

Anyone who follows what Ruth Gledhill has to say at her "Articles of Faith" website knows that she has strong religious opinions.

This is especially true when it comes to Anglican battles. Here is her take on the challenge facing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams after U.S. Episcopalians elected Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori as Anglicanism's first female archbishop and then refused to retreat on homosexual issues.

Will the Anglican Communion shatter, with Third World conservatives pitted against modernists in Europe and America?

"All is not lost," wrote Gledhill, just before the end of the American church's 75th General Convention. "A kind of schism might result, but it will not be schism as generally known. Anglicans are great at fudging crises, especially liberal ones. ... All Rowan Williams has to do is apply his formidable intellect to the question of how both sides can be kept at the same communion table, albeit at opposite ends."

Gledhill has a right to her opinions, of course.

But she isn't just another Anglican with a "weblog," one of dozens of "bloggers" who flooded the Internet with news, rumors and opinions during the tumultuous events this week in Columbus, Ohio.

Gledhill is the religion correspondent for The Times of London. Thus, she writes waves of regular newspaper stories, as well as columns that mix traditional reporting with her own analysis. And now, blessed by her editors, she writes thousands of words each week at her "blog" -- ranging from coverage of theological issues that may be too complex for the regular news pages to personal observations about her own parish and her own faith. She isn't alone. The Times offers dozens of blogs by reporters covering everything from politics to fashion footwear, from movies to gay family life.

Many editors want their reporters to blog and many others do not. What happens when journalists who are supposed to write unbiased stories about hot issues start airing opinions online that tell readers what they really think? When is a reporter a reporter and when is a reporter a blogger?

This can lead to confusion. A Church Times columnist recently challenged Gledhill's decision to refer to the Bishop of Chelmsford as an "extreme liberal," calling it a sign of bias.

"This is a difference of opinion," wrote Father Giles Fraser, who teaches philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. "But Ms. Gledhill presents it as if she were seeking a degree of objectivity rather than admitting that she is a campaigner herself. ... It isn't that journalists such as Ruth Gledhill ought to keep their views under wraps. That's why her weblog is so welcome: it is only when we know where people are coming from that we can learn to play their spin. In order to be empowered as a reader or listener, I want to know more about what journalists believe, not less."

Actually, said Gledhill, she used the "extreme liberal" label because of the bishop's role as a patron for Changing Attitude, an important lobby for "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" causes in the church.

When she first started blogging, said Gledhill, it was tempting to dig deep into her personal beliefs and experiences in an attempt to reach out to readers and to offer a form of writing that was completely different from her regular reporting. But it didn't take long to realize that "this seam was going to run out pretty quick," she said. She has also learned to pay close attention to the feedback she receives from readers, who can respond directly to her online posts.

After nearly two decades on the religion beat, Gledhill said she welcomes a chance to put more and more news and information on the record in The Times of London, even if it is published in pixels rather than ink.

"I?m never bored by the subject of religion, it was a little restrictive just writing news all the time," she said. "There were things I so much wanted to say and there was nowhere to say them. I feel completely re-energized by blogging and am slightly addicted to it. I believe, and hope this is a true belief, that it is making me a better reporter because it is making me more accountable, making me think more deeply about what I am reporting and is also, in a strange way, making me more involved, more compassionate."

Moral climate change in Britain

One of the demonstrators was a small child with a placard that said, "Whoever insults the prophet kill him." Another marcher wore a suicide bomber costume.

Other signs in London said: "Behead those who insult Islam," "Europeans take a lesson from 9/11" and "Prepare for the REAL Holocaust." The organizer of the Feb. 3 event told the BBC that he looked forward to the day when "the black flag of Islam will be flying over Downing Street."

But what stunned British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft was something else he saw while blitzing through news reports about the waves of fury inspired by those 12 Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad.

"Not only did the police make no arrests" during the London demonstration, even though it "openly incited murder; they actually sheltered the fanatics," he noted, in a essay. "Two men who tried to stage a peaceable counterdemonstration were hustled away for questioning. A working-class Londoner ... was told in violent language by a cop to get back in his van and go away."

This raises a disturbing question: Have British citizens lost the ability to exercise their free speech rights in public defiance of demands by many Muslim clerics and politicians for limitations on the freedom of the press in the West?

It's hard to answer this kind of question right now because a "moral climate change" has destroyed England's certainty that some things are right and some things are wrong, said Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, in a speech last week in the House of Lords. Thus, civic leaders cannot agree on the meaning of words such as "freedom" and "tolerance" and religious faith is seen as a threat instead of a virtue.

"The 1960s and 1970s swept away the old moral certainties, and anyone who tries to reassert them risks being mocked as an ignoramus or scorned as a hypocrite. But since then we've learned that you can't run the world as a hippy commune," said Wright, a former Oxford don who also has served as Westminster Abbey's canon theologian.

"Getting rid of the old moralities hasn't made us happier or safer. ... This uncertainty, my Lords, has produced our current nightmare, the invention of new quasi-moralities out of bits and pieces of moral rhetoric, the increasingly shrill and polymorphous language of 'rights', the glorification of victimhood which enables anyone with hurt feelings to claim moral high ground and the invention of various 'identities' which demand not only protection but immunity from critique."

Instead of focusing on the cartoon crisis, Wright described other signs of legal and moral confusion in British life. Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, sent painfully mixed signals after last summer's suicide bombings. His government leaned one way when it tried to ban efforts to "glorify" terrorism. Then it leaned the other way with legislation that would ban the promotion of "religious hatred."

Wright stressed that it will be dangerous to pass laws that attempt to replace, amend or edit religious doctrines that have shaped the lives of believers for centuries. But politicians seem determined to try.

Thus, Birmingham University forced the Evangelical Christian Union off campus and seized the group's funds because it refused to amend its bylaws to allow non-Christians or atheists to become voting members.

Thus, Wright noted that police have shut down protests in Parliament Square against British policies in Iraq. Comedians -- facing vague laws against hate speech -- are suddenly afraid to joke about religion. And was there any justification for government investigations of the Anglican bishop of Chester and the chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain because they made statements critical of homosexuality?

Public officials, said the bishop, are trying to control the beliefs that are in people's hearts and the thoughts that are in their heads. The tolerance police are becoming intolerant, which is a strange way to promote tolerance.

"People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged," said Wright. "I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. ... The word for such a state of affairs is 'tyranny' -- sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police."

Communion in the Anglican Communion?

The words change from continent to continent, but the world's 77 million Anglicans have always found unity around altars containing bread and wine.

In Ireland's new Book of Common Prayer, the modern rite proclaims: "Father, with this bread and this cup we do as Christ your Son commanded: we remember his passion and death, we celebrate his resurrection and ascension, and we look for the coming of his kingdom.

"Accept through him, our great high priest, this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; and as we eat and drink these holy gifts, grant by the power of the life-giving Spirit that we may be made one in your holy Church. ... Amen."

These familiar words failed to unite 38 archbishops when they gathered recently in the Dromantine Conference Centre in County Down, Northern Ireland. In fact, the Eucharistic table became the symbol of division.

The leaders of the Anglican Communion met for business, study and prayer, but could not share Holy Communion.

It's hard to gather at the same altar when bishops lack a common understanding of words such as "salvation," "resurrection," "marriage" and even "God," said Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison, an Anglican historian who is the retired bishop of South Carolina.

"You can't hold a church together with appeals to human emotions. You need stronger stuff than that," he said. "You can get by with bonds of affection at your local Rotary Club, but that won't work for us right now. ... You have to be of one mind on the doctrines that have united Christians through the ages."

In headlines around the world, the clashes behind Dromantine's high walls were caused by a familiar controversy -- the ministry of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a gay man living in a same-sex relationship.

The primates released a five-page communique that, in its most quoted passage, urgently requested that the "Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council for the period leading up to the next Lambeth Conference" of the world's bishops in 2008.

The North Americans quickly denied that they had agreed to stand down.

But reports circulated that conservatives, led by Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and others, had moved beyond words into dramatic action. Before the meeting, Akinola wrote Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and warned that many Third World archbishops would not celebrate communion with U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. There are 2 million Episcopalians and between 40 million and 50 million Anglicans in Africa alone.

Seeking compromise, Williams proposed bringing in a chaplain to lead a daily Eucharist.

"Archbishop Akinola responded it was not the worthiness of the minister that prompted their objections, but their belief that unity of doctrine preceded unity of worship. It was not a question of receiving 'from' Bishop Griswold, but 'with' Bishop Griswold," wrote the Rev. George Conger, in the Church of England Newspaper.

Williams relented, "formally recognizing the state of broken Eucharistic communion," wrote Conger. Some Third World archbishops, led by Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, fasted for the four days.

Griswold was defiant, saying his church welcomes future opportunities to defend its actions on behalf of homosexual clergy, since its leaders believe they have "sought to act with integrity in response to the Spirit, and that we have worked, and continue to work, to honor the different perspectives very much present" in the church.

Yes, these are painful and sobering times, and Allison said he could understand the stance taken by Third World bishops.

After all, it has been a dozen years since he decided he could no longer, with a clear conscience, receive communion during meetings of the U.S. House of Bishops. During a Bible study, several bishops had said that they believed they worshipped a god that is "older and greater" than the God of the Bible. Others said they could not affirm this belief, but would not condemn it.

"This is apostasy," Allison said.

When it came time for all the bishops to go to the altar and receive communion, Allison declined.

"If you do not share the same faith, you cannot share the same communion," he said, recalling that moment. "When people start talking about new revelations and creating some kind of new faith, that's when the red flags have to go up."