Two clashing Orthodox takes on doctrine -- past and future

When two global religious leaders embrace one another, someone is sure to turn the encounter into a photo opportunity. 

The photo-op on Nov. 7 was symbolic and for many historic. The elder statesman was the Rev. Billy Graham and, rather than an evangelical superstar, the man who met with him at his North Carolina mountain home was Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. This visit was linked to a Hilarion address to a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox leaders in Charlotte, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. 

After generations of work organizations such as the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches, the archbishop said many Orthodox leaders now realize that -- on issues of sex, marriage, family life and moral theology -- some of their ecumenical partners will be found in evangelical pulpits and pews. 

"In today's pluralistic world, the processes of liberalization have swept over some Christian communities. Many churches have diverted from biblical teaching ... even if this attitude is not endorsed by the majority of these communities' members," said Hilarion, who is the Moscow Patriarchate's chief ecumenical officer. 

Why Chuck Colson spent Easter in prison

It wasn't the typical Bible text for an Easter sermon, but the preacher knew what this congregation needed to hear. Never forget, he said, what Jesus proclaimed in his first sermon: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed."

This isn't the sermon that many believers hear on Easter, but it's the one that prisoners need to hear, said Chuck Colson back in 1992, facing a small chapel packed with men at a federal prison near Denver.

This was also the sermon the former Watergate conspirator kept preaching to flocks behind bars during the decades between his own stay in Alabama's Maxwell Prison in 1974 and his death on April 21 at the age of 80. Anyone who wants to understand what changed Colson from President Richard Nixon's trusted "hatchet man" into one of the age's best-known Christian apologists needs to understand this sermon.

You see, Colson told prisoners across America and around the world, it was radical to proclaim "freedom for the prisoners" during the Roman Empire. And today? Anyone who preaches this message "in one of those nice churches downtown" will get the same icy response that Jesus did.

"The rich and powerful people," he said, with a dramatic pause, will "run you out of town."

Never forget, shouted the former Marine, that Jesus died as a prisoner. Was there anyone in the room who had ever been strip-searched, beaten and mocked? Did anyone know what it felt like to have the legal authorities use muscle in an attempt to wrench a guilty plea -- to a lesser offence, of course -- out of a desperate prisoner?

"Has anything like that," he asked, with a knowing smile, "every happened to any of you?"

"Amen," said the prisoners. Some laughed, while others stared at the floor. Many waved clenched fists in the air to urge the preacher to keep going.

Colson kept going. Was there anyone in the chapel who been betrayed by a friend, perhaps even a friend turned around and provided evidence to the state? Was there anyone present who had been convicted of vague crimes?

In the end, of course, Jesus was executed -- between two thieves.

But that wasn't the end of the story, on that particular Easter morning in Colorado, or in any of the other Easter services the former White House powerbroker chose to spend behind bars after he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976.

"If you want to know what Easter is about, then there's no better place to find out than in the tombs of our society -- which is what our prisons are," he said. "On this, of all days, prison is the one place that Jesus would be. Believe me."

After Colson's death, most of the obituaries -- especially those produced in elite East Coast newsrooms -- focused on his Watergate role and, perhaps, on his pivotal work creating a new and powerful coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Working with a team of talented researchers and writers, Colson also produced shelves of influential books and commentaries that addressed almost every controversial issue in the American public life and politics.

Sadly, this all-politics DC Beltway perspective may draw attention away from Colson's trailblazing work in prisons, which ultimately created a network of more than 14,000 volunteers in more than 1,300 prisons nationwide and around the world. He also founded the Justice Fellowship organization, which has worked for the reformation of America's sprawling, bloated, crowded and, all too often, destructive prison system.

"That's where Chuck developed his social conscience. It was in prison, in all of those face-to-face encounters with those forgotten souls, " said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was also Colson's first research assistant and aide after the creation of Prison Fellowship.

"Chuck was never happier than when he took off his jacket and loosened his tie in a dingy prison chapel somewhere, facing rows of men in metal folding chairs who had big, thick Bibles in their hands. ... He embraced as many as he could. He tried to learn their names and hear their stories. He tried to make a difference in there."

Walking in St. Tikhon's footsteps

It didn't take long for controversy to spread about the photograph taken after the consecration rites in 1900 for a new bishop in Wisconsin. Low-church Episcopalians called it the "Fond du Lac Circus" because of all the ornate vestments. Not only was Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton, who presided, wearing a cope and mitre, but so were the other bishops. Then there were was the exotic visitor on the edge of the photograph -- Bishop Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Imagine the outrage if Tikhon had, as discussed beforehand, decided to take part in the laying on of hands at the moment of consecration. After years of service in America, the missionary later hailed as St. Tikhon of Moscow returned home and became patriarch, dying in 1925 after years of tensions with the new Communist regime.

St. Tikhon had "a vision, a vision of unity," said Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, during recent events marking the birth of an alternative, conservative Anglican province in America. Early in the 20th century, some Orthodox leaders were willing to accept the "validity of Anglican orders," meaning they believed that Anglican clergy were truly priests and bishops in the ancient, traditional meanings of those words.

"It fell apart. It fell apart on the Anglican side, with the affirmation more of a Protestant identity than a Catholic identity," said Jonah, at the inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, held in Bedford, Texas.

"We need to pick up where they left off. The question has been: Does that Anglican church, which came so close to being declared by the other Orthodox churches a fellow Orthodox church, does that still exist?"

A voice in the crowd shouted, "It does!"

"Here, it does," agreed Metropolitan Jonah, stressing the word "here."

Thus, the Orthodox leader announced that he is willing to walk in St. Tikhon's footsteps by opening an ecumenical dialogue with this new body of conservative Anglicans, years after similar talks collapsed after the decision by Episcopalians to ordain women as priests and then as bishops.

The Orthodox and modern Episcopalians disagree on many other issues, from the authority of scripture to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as priests and bishops. These are the same issues that caused the creation of the conservative Anglican Church in North America, which has been recognized by many Anglican traditionalists in the Third World, but not by the hierarchy of the Church of England.

However, Jonah also focused attention on doctrinal issues that continue to cause tensions among the very conservatives he faced in Texas.

"I'm afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody," said the former Episcopalian, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic parish before converting to Orthodoxy.

For example, "Calvinism is a condemned heresy," he said, and there are "other heresies that came in through the Reformation which have to be rejected" -- words that strike at the heart of the vital, growing Protestant wing of global Anglicanism. Jonah also stressed that, "For a full restoration and intercommunion of the Anglican Church with the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women has to be resolved." The Anglican Church in North America has agreed to allow its dioceses to reach their own conclusions on this issue.

The tension in the room was real, but so was the appreciation for this gesture by the man who, literally, is the successor of St. Tikhon, said the Rev. George Conger, a Calvinist Anglican and correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper.

"What made much of what Metropolitan Jonah said palatable to the ACNA convocation was his transparent good will, and wry sense of humor," said Conger. "The phrase 'hard words said in love' is often trite, but Jonah's remarks ... were given and heard in this vein."

One the other side of this dialogue, Orthodox leaders are more than aware of the obstacles created by decades of tumultuous change in the Anglican Communion, said Father Alexander Golubov, academic dean of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa.

"Metropolitan Jonah will be trying to walk a thin line, but it is the same line that St. Tikhon tried to walk long ago," said Golubov. "Some of the issues he will face are the same. But there are issues he will face today that I do not believe anyone could have ever anticipated. We live in strange times."

Antioch exits National Council of Churches

Summer is the season for church conventions that talk about hot issues.

Last week's 47th convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America passed a resolution that addressed both sexuality and the Iraqi war. But this time the lofty words led to an historic change.

The assembly voted to oppose "divisive and dangerous" positions taken by "left-wing" and "right-wing" groups. To be specific, it rejected "support for same-sex marriage, support for abortion, support for ordination of women to Holy Orders, support for the concept of war that is 'pre-emptive' or 'justifiable' and the labeling of other faiths and their leaders with hateful terminology."

The archdiocese -- a blend of Arab-Americans and many converts -- vowed to avoid groups that "promulgate these extreme positions" and renewed its commitment to seek Orthodox unity in North America.

Then the delegates cheered as Metropolitan Philip Saliba announced his decision to withdraw from the National Council of Churches USA.

The archdiocese joined the old Federated Council of Churches in the 1940s and had been active in the ecumenical movement ever since, said Father Olof Scott, of the church's interfaith relations office. But recent decades have been tough.

The Orthodox believe "we're getting further and further away from the primary goal of looking to bring Christianity back into a unified fold," he told Now, the "churches of the mainline Protestant world really don't want to hear our message. It is with that frustration that we felt that we can put our efforts to better use elsewhere."

The national council has not responded to the departure of one of its 36 churches, said the Rev. Leslie Thune, its spokesperson in Washington. General Secretary Bob Edgar -- a former Democratic congressman -- is currently out of the office, but has promised to meet with Metropolitan Philip as soon as possible to discuss his concerns.

"We did not even know that this was in the works," said Thune.

However, she noted the council's oft-repeated stance that it does not take stands on divisive doctrinal issues, since many of its member churches have clashing beliefs on such matters.

Nevertheless, Scott said the Antiochian archdiocese quit the council, in large part, because of what he called an "almost a politicized agenda" under Edgar -- with a strong emphasis on sexual liberation and opposition to conservative Christianity.

A turning point came in 2000 when Edgar removed his signature from "A Christian Declaration on Marriage," a statement signed by representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals. The text defined marriage as between man and a woman.

After speaking at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Breakfast during an NCC general assembly, Edgar issued an apology and affirmed his support for same-sex unions. He told Presbyterian News Service: "I support marriage, and I support more than marriage the love between two people, and I don't differentiate whether it is between a man and a woman or a woman and a woman or a man and a man or whatever. We need fidelity and care in relationships."

There have been many signs of tension. Two years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church cut all ties with the U.S. Episcopal Church following the consecration of the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Russian Patriarch Alexy II recently said he was worried about the leadership role that churches offering a "free interpretation" of sexual morality hold in the World Council of Churches.

Last month, the Orthodox Church in America -- which has Russian roots -- studied a document that said the "most advisable course" for its ecumenical work "would be eventually to withdraw from the NCC and the WCC." After all, said this "Orthodox Relations" text, there are more Protestant and Pentecostal Christians outside of these councils than there are inside and neither includes the Roman Catholic Church.

The Antiochian archdiocese agrees. Decades ago, said Scott, Orthodoxy needed a seat in the National Council of Churches in order to "put a face" on its often mysterious rites and parishes. But now the momentum is toward work with more conservative believers.

"We don't need the NCC," he said, "for the identity of Orthodoxy in the new world. People know who we are. We are strong. We are vibrant. We are growing."

Krispy Kreme Catholics & the Baptist Vatican

NASHVILLE -- As a boy in upstate New York, Father Bob Dalton learned how to talk to Italians, Poles, Ukrainians and various other kinds of neighbors.

"My Irish mother was always saying, 'They're just not our kind of people,' " said the 68-year-old priest, hinting at her accent. "But, you know, we learned to get along. ... It helped that almost everybody was Catholic."

Before long, Dalton became a priest in the Glenmary Home Mission Society, which works across the rural South. This meant learning a whole different cultural vocabulary. It meant learning how to talk to Southern Baptists.

By the early 1980s, Dalton was representing the Church of Rome at Southern Baptist Convention's annual meetings and in the hallways of the giant "Baptist Vatican" in downtown Nashville. He has talked to Southern Baptists in state conventions and regional associations, too. He has talked to Southern Baptists at the all-important level of the local church.

And this is what he has learned.

"Catholics and Baptists have a lot in common," said Dalton, who recently returned to his SBC liaison role. "But we're still looking at each other and saying, 'They're just not our kind of people.' ... We're two massive groups of people who still don't know each other."

Recent statistics gathered by the Glenmary Research Center found 62 million U.S. Catholics and 20 million Southern Baptists -- the nation's two largest flocks. These two culturally conservative giants continue to grow, but they are not growing closer together.

Official dialogues began three decades ago, with key leadership coming from "moderate" Baptists who were willing to risk being called "ecumenists." Progressive Baptists huddled with progressive Catholics, while Baptist conservatives seethed.

Then conservatives seized control of the SBC and, to the surprise of many experts, this soon led to an intense, but radically different, era of Catholic-Baptist work. Liberals howled about right-wing politics, while "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" and similar efforts found common ground on issues such as abortion, sexual abstinence and human rights.

A key 1994 document made news by affirming that Catholics and evangelicals are "brothers and sisters in Christ" and that both streams of tradition represent "authentic forms of discipleship." Before long, powerful SBC voices -- especially in regions heavy in ex-Catholics -- began saying that enough is enough. Southern Baptist leaders recently shut down the formal dialogue.

What happens next? The bottom line is that many Southern Baptists do not believe that years of dialogue have produced consensus on issues of salvation and biblical authority. A growing awareness of the Vatican II statement that salvation can be found through faith in non-Christian religions has only widened the gap.

One of the SBC's most outspoken scholars did not mince words on CNN's Larry King Show.

"I believe the Roman Church is a false church and teaches a false gospel," said R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Indeed, I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office."

Clearly, SBC leaders realize "that those are fighting words," said Dalton.

The irony, said the priest, is that the lives of most Roman Catholics today are not radically different from those of Southern Baptists.

The Glenmary statistics show that waves of Catholics have moved to the Sunbelt, far from the northern ethnic enclaves of the past. They live in sprawling suburbs and eat Krispy Kremes at church coffee hour like everybody else. They live next door to Southern Baptists, who long ago shed their rural roots and went suburban.

But many Catholics and Baptists have not realized how much times have changed, said Dalton. They still do not know how to talk to their neighbors.

"Maybe the formal dialogue did its thing," said Dalton. "It got us talking to the Baptist left and then we learned to talk to the Baptist right. But the next level of dialogue will not occur with our leaders sitting in conference rooms. It's going to have to happen between ordinary people over their backyard fences and down at the local Home Depot.

"We're living next door to each other. The question is whether we can learn to trust each other. Can we ever learn to see that we are one in Jesus Christ?"