In the past several weeks I've had conversations with both Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians about the possibility of working collaboratively with them. Stated broadly, the goal of these projects would be for each partner to help the other in their respective spiritual formation ministry. So for example, Orthodox Christians would come together with Evangelical Christians and each offer to the other their gifts and insights to help strength the other's pastoral care; so rather then proselytizing, we want to help each other minister more effectively to their own members. Why would we do this?
The awful little secret in the Christian world is that surprising few Christians--of whatever tradition--are intentional disciples of Jesus Christ. This is not to say that people aren't convinced of the integrity or truthfulness of our own tradition's understanding of the Gospel. In fact, I think the less committed I am to being a disciple of Jesus Christ, the more likely I am to be very committed to my tradition.
We all know, among the Orthodox, fervent defenders of Holy Tradition and all things Eastern against all things Western, Protestant and Roman; among the Catholics we have strident proponents of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction; among Evangelical Christians, we have aggressive soul winners who don't even bother to learn your name before they "share" the Gospel. Unfortunately, many of the loudest and most active among us have not, as the old song says, "decided to follow Jesus." Instead, we have allowed substituted a tradition, an institution, a program, for a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
In my informal conversations with people this is a fairly widespread phenomenon that cuts across not only traditional and denominational lines and is seen in clergy and lay leaders alike. Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Christian congregations are filled with that most curious of creatures, the professing, even active, Christian (whether a lay person or a member of the clergy) who has never been evangelized, much less reconciled, to Jesus Christ.
As I have said before in these essays, I think that formal, theological ecumenical dialog is essential. But, and again as I've said before, the vast majority of Christians have neither the competency, nor the authority, to engage in such discussions.
Instead of focusing of these theological and dogmatic issues, the proposed projects reflect a pastoral mode of ecumenical dialog. What can we learn from other Christian traditions that will serve the pastoral care of the people that Christ has entrusted to our care? What can I as an Orthodox Christian learn from Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians to make me a more effective priest? What can I learn from my Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters to help me bring myself and other Orthodox Christians into an intimate, life-giving and dynamic (in the sense of growing, not emotionally charged) relationship with Jesus Christ? And, in all humility, what can I as an Orthodox Christian and a priest offer in return?
I think that Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians need to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes because of our respective historical and doctrinal commitments, there are painful divisions among us that undermine the very unity we might experience personally. So until our differences are resolved we must bear the pain of these divisions precisely because we are called by Christ not only to respect not only each others' consciences, but the consciences of the different Christian communities within which we stand.
At the same time, we can, and should, look to find the areas where our personal and communal consciences overlap. It may be a very small area. We might be able to have only a brief conversation or offer only minimal suggestions or assistance to one and other. But so what? As St Dionysius the Aeropagite says somewhere, Christians are all vessels of difference sizes, but whatever the size of the vessel, we are filled to overflowing with divine love.
As I tell my own spiritual children, this means that some of us our oceans of divine love, others lakes or swimming pools. Me? I'm a quarter teaspoon--but that's okay, because some time you need a quarter teaspoon. Try and bake a cake with only a swimming pool to measure out the ingredients.
Granted very little may come of these common projects--indeed beyond the idea, nothing may come at all. But in Christ, very little, or even nothing at all, can become an encounter with God's grace. After all, what do we sing in the hymns of the Feast of the Transfiguration?
In both hymns we are reminded that God conforms His Self-revelation to our, rather minimal, ability to receive what He is offering. This it seems, from the Orthodox side of the conversation at least, is the way such a collaborative, ecumenical project should go. In imitation of Jesus Christ, let us offer to one another no more than what each can bear. And let us do so in the service of bring people to a deep and personal commitment to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
I welcome your comments, thoughts, criticism, questions, suggestions and offers of help.