In September of 1794, a group of ten monks from the Valaam Monastery in the north of Russia arrived on Kodiak Island, Alaska to begin what would become of the greatest missionary endeavors in the history of Orthodox Christianity. Their sole purpose was to bring the Gospel to the indigenous people of our nation. Among their seminal contributions was providing a written language and expanding their mission from Alaska to all of North America. 2019 marks the 225th anniversary of that mission. This celebration was held May 11-12, 2019 at the Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church in Princeton, NJ where His Eminence Archbishop Michael of New York is the bishop and Fr. Peter Baktis is the priest.
Introducer:It is my honor and privilege to have with us this afternoon Jim Winkler, who is the President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. For me, it was very important to have Jim here, not only because he knows the Orthodox Church very well—he works with us not only on a national level, but on an international level—but for us to really understand that we are and have been a fabric of the interfaith and ecumenical movement from its very existence back many years in the formation of the World Council of Churches. It’s one of the pillars of its beatitude is our relationships with other churches. But one thing that for me is very important for all of us to put within the context of our existence—many of you do not realize that if it wasn’t for the ecumenical partners that we’ve had, autocephaly might not have been 50 years; it might have been three years or maybe two years, but they really stood behind us when we were granted autocephaly within this nation, because they knew of our seminaries, of our theologians, the vision and the work that was given to us by our ancestors 225 years ago. During the reign of our imprisonment under Communist reign, if it wasn’t for the World Council of Churches, we would not have had a forum to meet internationally. So we are really, really indebted to both the work of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches who also have paid for us to be able to meet, both nationally and internationally; they paid for many of our conferences, because they knew that we were not in a position that we could do that ourselves, and they knew that it came with a cost, that they would be despised from the Communists who would be there, etc., but they saw the vision and the witness that the Orthodox Church gave to the ecumenical interfaith movement and also to the world. So it’s a great, great honor to have, representative of the National Council of Churches, the General Secretary to be with us to address us. [Applause]
Rev. Dr. Jim Winkler: Christ is risen!
All: Indeed he is risen!
Dr. Winkler: Now, in the Black church, I would have said, “God is good,” and the response would have been?
Audience: “All the time!”
Dr. Winkler: And then I would have said, “And all the time…”
Audience: God is good!
Dr. Winkler: All right, good. There we have an ecumenical lesson, right there. [Laughter]
So I stand before you as President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. The National Council of Churches consists of 38 member communions, nine of which are Orthodox, seven of which are African-American Baptist and Methodist denominations, a number are what is known as mainline Protestant denominations, and then there are also historic peace churches. So these 38 member communions comprise the National Council of Churches, all told about 30 million Christians in some 100,000 congregations across this country.
The National Council of Churches was founded in 1908. It was then known as the Federal Council of Churches, and in 1950 a number of other organizations joined together, and it became the National Council of Churches. So next year will be the 70th anniversary, and we’ll be marking and celebrating that. I want you to know that all of those within the family of the National Council of Churches join you in celebrating the 225th anniversary of the Valaam mission to North America. I’m honored to be here to be part of this commemoration today.
My thanks to His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, for inviting me to be here. His Beatitude memorably addressed the Christian Unity Gathering of the National Council of Churches several years ago, and I remain grateful to him for honoring us on that occasion. He also joined us last year on a memorable evening at St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which was the opening event for our Rally Against Racism, when some 10,000 Christians from across the nation gathered on the National Mall on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where we all said together that we are working to end racism, not make it as bad as it is or anything like that, but it’s time for us as people of faith to come together to say, “No more,” to racism. Also I wish to acknowledge Archbishop Michael. It’s been wonderful to make his acquaintance today.
And I want to express my deep appreciation to Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky for his longtime leadership in the ecumenical community. I know Fr. Leonid couldn’t be with us today. I spoke with him just yesterday. But you know he served on the leadership of the National Council of Churches for many years as well as on the leadership of the World Council of Churches. In fact, this year marks the 30th anniversary of Fr. Leonid’s election as President of the National Council of Churches. He was the first Orthodox President of the National Council of Churches, and in those days news of his elections merited a major article in The New York Times. Oh, how we miss those days. [Laughter] Today, though, he does continue to serve on the Executive Committee and is a voice of wisdom and reason and is a mentor to me.
I also wish to thank my good friend, the pastor of this parish, Fr. Peter Baktis, not only for inviting me to be here today, but for his participation in the Interreligious Dialogue’s Convening Table of the National Council of Churches; specifically he participates in the Muslim-Christian dialogue. We have five dialogues: one with Jews, another with Muslims, another with Hindus, a fourth with Buddhists, and a fifth with Sikhs. These are not to try to create some sort of mystical one-world religion; it is to get to know one another better, to talk about our commonalities and our differences, to talk about where we have concerns and issues and problems. We’ve raised with Hindus, persecution of Christians is taking place in India; with Buddhists, what is happening to Christians in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka; with Muslims, what’s happening to Christians throughout the Middle East. And they have raised with us concerns that they have experienced. It’s to talk about the tenets of our faith and at times whenever possible to find solidarity, that we can stand together when any of us are facing persecution or discrimination.
Also among many others, it’s great to see and meet Dr. Paul Meyendorff who has been with the Faith and Order Table of the National Council of Churches and as now with the World Council of Churches, and my friend, Anne Glynn-Mackoul, who’s also on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, and others whom I’ve met here today. It’s been an honor to be here. I’ve already had work discussions with Fr. Chad about a possible common matter regarding an Ethiopian Orthodox priest or deacon who hopes to come to the United States.
Metropolitan Tikhon has provided us with a precious gift in his guiding framework for the Orthodox Church in America: of what life do we speak? I want to tell you, this will be shared with leaders and members of the communions that comprise the National Council of Churches. This guiding framework I know you’ll study, I know that you treasure already, but helps to point the way forward for the Orthodox Church in America. I told him during the break that I wish my own church, which is facing potential schism, the United Methodist Church, had a similar guiding framework that maybe, just maybe, by the grace of God, it would help us now or it would have helped us as we center our lives in Christ. But this kind of splintering unfortunately marks too much of our history as Christians.
Now the National Council of Churches is a form of conciliar ecumenism. That is, it is organized for common prayer, counsel, and decision. In addition, the search for unity is envisaged as conciliar fellowship, with each local church possessing the fullness of catholicity and apostolicity. St. Tikhon, who served as archbishop in America from 1898 to 1907 and then as Patriarch of Moscow, himself affirmed the openness of the Orthodox Church to dialogue. It’s important also to recall that in 1920 the Ecumenical Patriarch issued an encyclical called Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere, in which he stated:
Our own church holds the rapprochement between the various Christian Churches and fellowship between them is not excluded by the doctrinal differences which exist between them.” In our opinion (he wrote), such a rapprochement is highly desirable and necessary.
This helped actually set the stage for what later became the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. We’ve come a long way in this past century in furthering rapprochement between the churches, and yet we have much further to go. This is difficult, but joyful work, and it takes time. Let us recall, it was 1,200 years between the Great and Holy Councils of the Orthodox churches.
It’s very appropriate in my view for Metropolitan Tikhon, in his guiding framework for the Orthodox Church in America to ask several basic and informative questions, including: How has holy Orthodoxy in North America fared since the days full of apostolic zeal and missionary activity? Here he recounts geographic and numeric expansion and other signs of the advancement of the Church, and he boldly acknowledges at the same time the Church faces great obstacles and tremendous change in the world, as she makes her way through the 21st century, we ought to ask ourselves if we love the people of our lands and if they love us. Do they voluntarily accept baptism and smash the idols that are provided to them by the shamans of our age?
I suggest to you, my brothers and sisters, that these same challenges face every church in America. From my vantage point as President of the National Council of Churches, I can assure you that you are not alone, either in facing enormous tests in a secular society nor in your devotion to the faith. Many of our member communions are shrinking in size; many of our young people are falling away from the faith. As you know, the largest religious group that is called the “nones”—not n-u-n-s, but n-o-n-e-s—as many of our young people are saying, “None of the above.” They’re not necessarily rejecting faith, but they’re saying, “I don’t want to be part of any organized faith,” and often because they feel that we are not speaking to the concerns of the world, in a way that they can hear, at least.
Metropolitan Tikhon then wisely observes: what is called for is a Church-wide endeavor, involving every parish, institution, and individual of the Orthodox Church in America to tackle the enduring goals that lie before us. As there have been challenges in the past, so there will be many new ones along the way. But such struggles are part of our Christian journey. We need to consider and respond to those challenges, but we can only do this if we are willing to personally and collectively experience and share the gift of communion with Christ.
In his third pillar, relations with others, he includes a section on ecumenical, interfaith, and civic relations. Here he notes that
Some place great value on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, while others believe it to be fruitless or even apostasy. Part of the weakness of the present state of ecumenical dialogue with other Christians and relations with other faiths is that it is understood to be a specific field in which only certain people engage. Our participation (he writes) in ecumenical bodies cannot simply happen in order to have a presence if that presence is limited to a superficial participation. Our presence must be a bold and substantial one, where we both encounter the other and remain firm in our proclamation of the authentic faith of our fathers.
This is exactly right, and in fact I would suggest that members of other churches enjoy and appreciate hearing one another articulate and affirm how their church came to be, how their church carries out its practices, what the differences are. This is rich discussion and dialogue. We would be weakened without it. If you look at the ecumenical movement, where did it come from? You could say, well, it goes back to the councils in the early days of the Church, and indeed that is true, but for hundreds and hundreds of years, there was little dialogue between the churches.
150 years ago, young people in Europe and America created the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the World Student Christian Movement. Note that none of those movements have “Orthodox” or “Methodist” or “Lutheran” or “Catholic” in their name, and that was on purpose. This rise of the “nones” I would suggest to you is actually not recent, but for years young people have said, “We actually want to be with one another. We want to study the Bible together”—that was a key part of these organizations—“and we want to act in the world together.”
And it was then that the grown-ups followed suit and began to say, “We need to start talking with one another.” That led to what we call the Life and Work Movement and the Faith and Order Movement, Life and Work being—I’m characterizing this in a very general way—where let’s work together when there’s a hurricane or a flood or an earthquake or there’s famine—we believe in saving our people physically—and Faith and Order being: let’s talk about our faiths, let’s talk about our differences and our commonalities; let’s begin to dialogue and understand.
So this really, I would argue, emanates from the young people. As I said, it was really grown-ups then who followed suit and began to participate and to create this movement. There are churches… Let me say, I really agree with Metropolitan Tikhon, and I myself grew up in what I would call a Methodist cocoon. My father, my uncle, my brother are Methodist preachers, my great-grandfather was: we go back generations in the Methodist Church. So I grew up in Sunday school and in youth group. As a preacher’s kid—I don’t know if any of you have had that experience—every Sunday you know you were being observed on how you behaved or failed to behave. [Laughter] One of the churches my father pastored had a sanctuary that sloped downwards, and my brother and sister and I thought it was always great sport to roll under the pews. This was frowned upon, generally speaking, but I grew up, literally, in the church.
And, yes, I knew boys and girls of other faiths in the neighborhood that I grew up in north of Chicago. There were Armenians and Roman Catholics, German Catholics and Polish Catholics and Italian Catholic. There were Jews; there were kids of other faiths. We kind of knew each other were of different churches and faiths, but of course we didn’t care. We were mostly focused on baseball and basketball and girls. But like so many others, I came to develop curiosity and understanding for divergent beliefs as I matured. This takes time and effort, our intentional effort to do so.
We used to say in my family that we were Methodist born and Methodist bred, and when we died we would be Methodist dead. [Laughter] This was said with pride and a sense of superiority, but I came to see my church is not perfect, and I have a lot to learn. As time has gone on in my own family, we’ve intermarried with others from different faiths and come to realize we’re similar to everyone else, and that was humbling in and of itself.
There are churches that will not engage in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and work, and I suggest to you that it’s a mistake, and it’s prideful. Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue is not, as I said, intended to create one world religion or to get everyone to agree on every point, but instead to develop understanding and solidarity, especially now at a time when churches, synagogues, and mosques are being attacked, literally attacked. We must work together to protect our freedom to worship in peace. At a time when divisions are deepening in our society, it is essential that Christians lead the way to reconciliation. For any church to forego participation in ecumenical and interfaith work would be a tragedy for the whole world.
This work is arduous. It takes us out of our comfort zones. It exposes us to beliefs which we are not familiar with and that we may find distasteful, but it gives us the opportunity to explain and defend our faith and to question others about theirs, when we establish authentic relationships, and that happens most profoundly in these dialogues. You simply meet people that you aren’t aware of before, and sometimes you don’t like them, but a lot of times close friendships develop. You can see that others are also children of God. And then joy comes in the morning. We learn from one another, and we must hold one another accountable.
The last couple of days I’ve participated in a workshop organized by the National Institute for Civil Discourse. In the midst of what we know is going to be, or we fear is going to be, a nasty presidential campaign in the season coming, they asked the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, to come together. What can we do to try to change the tenor of the discussion? I must say in many ways we felt helpless. There are going to be billions and billions of dollars poured into this campaign. In 1992, when George H.W. Bush ran against Bill Clinton for president, in the entire presidential campaign season, including the primaries on both sides, a grand total of $93 million was spent. Three years ago, it was billions and billions. Somebody told me the figure; I’ve already forgotten. Multiple billions of dollars, and that will be dwarfed by the spending in this. So on one level, I must say we felt helpless, but we talked about specific ideas, such as a Civility Sunday, beginning in November of this year, but we have to start somewhere; we have to work together. I pray that it will yield some results, and that people will say, “If the Catholics and the National Council of Churches and the Evangelicals and the Southern Baptists can come together to support civil discourse, maybe there’s something we ought to think about.”
Each of these many churches, even within the National Council of Churches, have discrete histories and experiences. If you think about the Black church, emerging from slavery, this is a particular unique set of histories; or mainline Protestants and their development out of Western Europe; and the peace churches and the particular struggles they’ve had. Each church is different. The Church of Jesus Christ has taken on many manifestations over the centuries, sometimes based on nationality or language, other times based on theology or practices, but we cannot live solely among our own tradition, tempting as that may be.
The member communions of the National Council of Churches have declared themselves to live as a community of communions, called by Christ to visible unity and sent forth in the Spirit to promote God’s justice, peace, and the healing of the world. This purpose is served as the communion, striving to express communion by living together as the council, further their vocation to proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; engage in ecumenical worship and biblical and theological study; challenge and counsel one another in mutual accountability as a witness to the unity of the church; share resources for unity and mission; strive for peace and justice in the social, political, and economic order; practice and advocate careful stewardship in God’s creation; act as responsible servants to people in need; foster education about and for ecumenism; and engage in all educational efforts from an ecumenical perspective; nurture ecumenical life through relationships with local, regional, national, and world ecumenical bodies and groups and movements of Christians seeking renewal and unity; cultivate relationships and dialogue with people of other faiths and ideologies; evidence their commitment to racial, gender, and economic justice, as well as in disability and generational concerns. Those are major stated priorities that have developed over the decades, and all member churches of the NCC have subscribed to.
Let me say this as I kind of wrap up. I’d like to offer several observations from the point of view of a Protestant Methodist boy about Orthodox Christianity. First, although my own church, the United Methodist Church, is a young one, being just 235 years old, I can trace my faith back to the early days of Christianity. I have to go through the Church of England, which the Methodists broke off from the Church of England, which itself broke off from the Roman Catholic Church, which then split with the Orthodox Church through the Great Schism of 1054. But we’re all linked through a history that we’ve all inherited through one way or another.
Second, I grew up as the son, as I said, of preachers in the American Midwest. It was not our custom to spend much time honoring others, even within our own church. In fact, last Sunday in my local church, it was a surprise when the pastor invited the lead usher to come forward to be thanked for 25 years of service; it’s rarely done. I say all that because I believe we Protestants have much to learn from the Orthodox tradition of honoring the witness of saints, martyrs, confessors, and ascetics who serve to instruct and inspire all of us, as we’ve heard here today repeatedly.
Third, based on my experience, I would say that Christians in other traditions are no less devout in their beliefs than are Orthodox Christians, but the means of expressing the faith are somewhat different. There is a greater appreciation for the mysteries of faith and for introspection in Orthodoxy than in Protestantism, and much to be learned by Protestants from you.
Then finally, Metropolitan Tikhon calls us to continued faithfulness, to avoid striving after new fads and programs that falsely promise renewal and membership growth, but also and importantly, he calls us to a spirit of openness, for, as he writes:
We cannot contribute to the life of the world if we have not grafted ourselves onto the living body of the Church by striving to conform ourselves to what the Church is. We cannot be a part of the body if we do not live a life of communion with Christ in sanctity of life, with love towards our neighbor, and with zeal for the mission of the Gospel. This is our prophetic witness.