Time to Get to Work
By Anton C. Vrame, Ph.D.
If you look at our website www.stlukeorthodox.com under events you will see photographs of my participation as a delegate to the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC). This Assembly was held in Oakland, California, in November. His Beatitude Metropolitan Theodosius appointed me to be one of the six clergy and laypersons to represent the Orthodox Church in America at this meeting. Greek, Antiochian, and Oriental Orthodox Churches were also represented. This was a special assembly for us because Elaine Huszagh, of the Chicago-area Greek Orthodox diocese, was elected president. She is the first Orthodox layperson to hold this position.
The three-day conference included Ms. Huszagh's installation ceremony, which took place after Vespers at the Ascension Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. His Grace Archbishop Dimitrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America celebrated the Vespers service. This was the first time many of the delegates of NCCC member churches attended an Orthodox service. It was held in English, and everyone had copies of the service so they could follow along. Although not traditional to the Orthodox Church, at the end of the service the choir sang the "Alleluia" chorus from Handel's Messiah with trumpet accompaniment.
Orthodox participation in the NCCC has always been controversial. Several Orthodox bishops and layman frequently urge the Orthodox Church to remove itself from both the NCCC and World Council of Churches of Christ (WCCC). For example, it was said that Bishop Tikhon, OCA Bishop of San Francisco and the Diocese of the West, discouraged his priests to from attending the Oakland assembly, although laymen could be there. His action may be directly related to the stance of the California Council of Churches (CCC) regarding the legal definition of marriage in that state.
Recently, a California-state initiative was passed that defined "marriage" as a legal institution between a male and a female. However, the CCC, not a member of the NCCC, opposed this. Since the Orthodox Church belongs to the NCCC, the general public could conclude that the Orthodox Church agrees with the CCC when, in fact, this is not so.
The NCCC, independent of the WCCC and CCC, operates by consensus and is careful not to make statements opposed to positions of member churches. The CCC reprehensive that was at the Oakland assembly is a member of the Metropolitan Community Church, which supports gay rights and lifestyles. The Orthodox Churches have continually blocked NCCC membership for the Metropolitan Community Church (see my article in the Fall 2000 issue of The Evangelist). However, individual members of the Metropolitan Community Church, if selected, can represent the CCC, to which this church belongs.
Because of situations like this, many Orthodox people feel that the Orthodox Church should not have membership in any of these general organizations. Although there are pros and cons regarding this, the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops of America (SCOBA) believes we should still participate. SCOBA sees Orthodox participation as necessary to try to keep the organization from becoming a forum for liberal Christianity. More important, however, SCOBA regards membership in the NCCC and other general church councils as an opportunity to work towards Christian unity.
The most meaningful experience I had at the Assembly was hearing the presentations by Christian church leaders from other countries about the tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the United States. Two of the presenters were Orthodox: Bishop Elias Audi of Lebanon and Fr. Nicholas Balachov from Russia. They gave a comforting message to our churches, the nation, and us as we continue to grieve the events of September 11th.
This is a copy of the letter that they delivered to the National
Council of Churches after visiting Ground Zero.
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
We have come as "living letters" to your country. Shocked at the tragic events of September 11, we have come as representatives of member churches of the World Council of Churches, committed to the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches seeking peace and reconciliation. We have come to be with you as a sign of compassion and, solidarity in your suffering. We have come out of our wounded contexts to share with you in your wounded ness. We have not come with answers; we have come to love you.
We have stood at Ground Zero and experienced it as death. We were profoundly moved by the terrible silence, the colorlessness, and the sense of loss. In that emptiness, we grasped hands and offered our prayers; we reclaimed life in the midst of death.
It is always difficult to walk into a house of grief. But you have received us with gracious hospitality in this time of sorrow, and we are grateful. In South Africa, there is a saying used at the time of mourning: "What has happened to you has happened to others as well." We are witnesses that God makes it possible for life to continue. Many American churches have visited us in our difficult times to help us find a way when we have been overwhelmed with our grief. We now say to you, take courage. We have come to you as living letters, signs of hope in the suffering and pain of the cross.
During our visit, in New York, Chicago, Washington DC and Oakland, California, we have had the privilege to listen to different voices and words: We have listened to words of hurt and anger from a pastor on the front lines: "We are not ready to be lectured. We still smell the smoke; there are too many funerals each day to be objective. A new consciousness will arise, but if it is forced, it will only stoke the anger." There is the need for space to grieve. And we are ready to wait with you, in your mourning and in your healing. We have heard voices of deep sadness.
We have been moved by the ways in which you have expressed this sadness. This sea of sorrow also engulfs those who minister, who are now exhausted. "Who will heal the healers?" someone has asked. We have heard persons speak of "joining the world": "I didn't just see my congregation weeping, I saw a weeping world." A pastor spoke of the interconnectedness of pain and suffering as he ministered to wounded and orphaned children in New York. "I would have liked to embrace also the children of Iraq, who have been wounded and orphaned.
Maybe this experience of suffering will help us to embrace all others who suffer." We have heard people speak of fear and insecurity, from immigrants who came to the US for safety and freedom to peace workers who feel intimidated and accused of being unpatriotic. We have not heard words of bitterness or of revenge. We have been moved to humility and encouraged to hear church leaders battling with questions that are broader than their own concerns that take in the larger context of the world. The discussion is just beginning. We have heard some asking: "What things have been done by us and in our name that have made people feel such hatred for us?"
We have heard people speak of their ignorance and fear of Islam, but we also heard expressions of solidarity with Muslim neighbors. We have heard people relating their suffering to the sufferings of people in Afghanistan and Palestine. We have heard people explaining how difficult it is for some Christian communities to be engaged by ethical issues of the response to September 11. We have listened to a pastor in tears ask: "How can the bombing of Afghanistan be the way of Christ?"
These words did not call for answers from us. We have cried and prayed with you; now, together with you, we ask the questions that have accompanied our conversations.
1. Where do we find the basis to be together? What can be our common search in the days ahead? We have in common to reject terrorism. We can affirm that military response will never bring security and peace. What kind of relationships with neighbors, across geographical and faith borders, need urgently to be built?
2. How can churches be at the front line of the struggle against injustice? The churches have responsibility to reflect together and to name together the major injustices in the world. In our encounter we have spoken of the destructive economic imbalances, oppression in places like Palestine, gender and racial discrimination, support of totalitarian regimes.
3. How can we communicate the imperatives of the Gospel where there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of people? What kind of communication, what images, will bind us together in community, rather than increase the gulf between people, as dominant media images do? As Christians, we have been given the stories and invited into a community that speaks truth to power. We say to our churches: listen carefully to other Christians around the world. By allowing the churches to tell their stories, you give them voice.
4. Do we wait to speak until there is unanimity? How do we encourage the prophetic voices in our midst?
Love unites us. You are our sisters and brothers. Together we are the body of Christ. Let us hold hands and seek to overcome all forms of violence, direct and structural, in order to build a culture of peace.
Signed by: Bishop Mvume Dandala of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, and President of the South Africa Council of Churches/ The Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation/ Bishop Samuel Azariah, of the Church of Pakistan/ Ms. Septemmy Lakawa, Indonesian Theologian and WCC Executive Committee member/ Metropolitan Elias Audi, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, Lebanon/ Jean Zaru, presiding clerk, Religious Society of Friends, Ramallah, Palestine.