Archbishop Demetrios (L) of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Metropolitan Tikhon (R) of the Orthodox Church in America

By day’s end the above photo from the funeral of President George H.W. Bush was making the rounds of Facebook and—predictably enough—drawing equal amounts of praise and condemnation from Orthodox Christians.

The former comes from those who find it only natural that the Orthodox Church should assume a visible presence in American public life; the latter, from those who lose no opportunity to condemn the “heresy” of ecumenism as a sell-out to the purity of the Orthodox faith, expressed especially in the canonical prohibition against “praying with heretics.” How dare Orthodox hierarchs attend a heterodox church service—even the funeral of a former US president?

The discerning eye will note that neither the Archbishop nor the Metropolitan is wearing any article of liturgical vestment, such as his omophorion. They are both dressed as simple monks, with the minimum possible insignia of their episcopal rank: the staff, the panagia (an icon of the Mother of God suspended from a chain around the neck), and—in the Metropolitan’s case—the white headpiece adorned with a small jeweled cross, distinctive to the Russian tradition to signify a metropolitan. 

The significance of this is that it reveals their attendance as specifically not “concelebrating” or participating  liturgically in any way. They have come to the funeral simply to embody in their persons the respectful presence of the Orthodox Church as the nation’s former president is laid to rest.

It’s hard to imagine under what pretense anyone could possibly object.

This is not to deny that the parameters and the very purpose of the Orthodox Church’s engagement with other faith communities, both Christian and otherwise, remains an unresolved, and perhaps ultimately irresolvable, question for us. Both sides of the debate bring valid concerns to the table. Both sides must be prepared to listen to the other in a spirit of brotherly love, without hurling the charge of heresy back and forth at the slightest sign of disagreement—whether the “heresy” of ecumenism or, worse, that of “ecumenoclasm” (an infelicitous word if ever there was one, if for no other reason than that it blatantly “others” our own Orthodox brothers and sisters).

The WCC-sponsored Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is almost upon us. This represents an opportune moment for us brothers and sisters in the Orthodox faith to confront these challenging questions in the spirit of the Gospel of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ. 

See our Looking Ahead to January if you would like to contribute to this conversation. In lieu of an article you might consider writing a letter to the editors. You need not be Orthodox to join in.

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