(ENS) A four-day visit in mid-June to the Russian Orthodox Church by a delegation from the Episcopal Church was the latest step in nurturing what has become a very special ecumenical relationship.
"It was really quite wonderful to hear of the fondness that the Russian Orthodox leadership has for the Episcopal Church in the United States," said Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations. He led the delegation that also included Dr. Thomas Ferguson, who joined the "ecumenical team" at the Episcopal Church Center almost a year ago; Bishop William Gregg of Eastern Oregon, chair of the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations; Bishop Richard Grein (retired) and the Rev. John Backus who together have forged a strong relationship between the Russian church and the Diocese of New York; and the Rev. David Perry, Epting's predecessor.
Epting said that he hoped "to build upon the strong foundation laid by the presiding bishop and his predecessors, as well as the Diocese of New York. We need to deepen our theological dialogue as well as engage in practical ministry together."
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold made an official visit to Russia in the summer of 1999, citing a history of cooperation that goes back to the early 19th century when Episcopalians in California offered hospitality to Russian congregations. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church received a message from the Episcopal Church proposing common pastoral work in Alaska.
"Our two churches have never disrupted their relations and now we face a very good opportunity to enrich each other," Metropolitan Kirill, chair of the Department for External Relations, told the presiding bishop and the delegation. In conversations with Patriarch Alexy II the Russians expressed deep appreciation to the Episcopal Church for its help in recent years as it attempts to restore many of its ministries after emerging from 70 years of suppression under Communism.
Members of the delegation were able during the June visit to see first-hand some of the social ministries of the Russian church, including an orphanage and the construction site of a new hospital and pharmacy. They also visited a monastery and seminary outside of Moscow for conversations on theological education and priestly formation. Back in Moscow they stopped at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, built on a site near the Kremlin where a previous cathedral had been destroyed by Stalin in 1931.
The delegation also visited with staff at St. Alexy's Hospital where they saw and took photos of an ambulance donated by the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief a few years ago. Health care in the former Soviet Union was a major problem and the church has been attempting to extend its ministry in that area.
In the formal dialogue with Metropolitan Kirill and members of his staff, he again rehearsed the long history of cooperation between the two churches and proposed a renewed commitment to theological dialogue, focusing on what both churches face in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. "This would include theological analyses of the tragedy, interreligious understanding, and the question of values in today's world," said Epting. "In the post-September 11 climate, the Russians are also dealing with issues of extremism and religious diversity," added Ferguson.
Kirill also noted with appreciation the official position of the Episcopal Church against proselytism in Russia, a very touchy issue because the Russians are deeply offended by outside mission groups taking advantage of the current situation in the country. "While he shared Orthodox concerns with respect to the World Council of Churches, he was also quick to underscore its importance as a conciliar body," Epting said. The Russians and other Orthodox churches have been very critical of what they regard as the WCC's growing interest in political and social issues at the expense of faith and order issues, especially dialogue on church unity.
Mission on the front doorstep
Epting said that the major purpose of the visit was to pursue the goals stated in a communiqué following Griswold's visit in 1999--including the response of the WCC to Orthodox concerns, scheduling a meeting of the Joint Coordinating Committee of the two churches to set the agenda for a continuing theological dialogue, and areas of practical cooperation in the future.
The theological dialogue might include issues of the church's role in the new millennium and ideological differences between East and West, the Holy Spirit and the church, ecclesiology and mission. On the practical level, the two churches would build on their work together in areas such as military chaplaincy, health care and volunteers in mission.
"The Russian church is deeply concerned about domestic mission, discovering that they must catechize a whole generation after all those years under Communism," said Ferguson. "They told us that they are doing catechesis on their own front doorstep."
During the conversation with Kirill and his staff, a Russian lay woman proposed that the Americans find some practical ways for congregations o engage in ministry to orphans through "virtual adoption," according to Epting. "She pointed to her recent visit to Michigan where such things are being done ecumenically."
Members of the delegation were guests at the Cathedral of the Epiphany where the church was decked with greenery for the Russian equivalent of Trinity Sunday. "The nearly four-hour service was marked with much incense and wonderful antiphonal singing between the fine choir and the powerful voices of the clergy," Epting said. "Our concluding luncheon, hosted by Metropolitan Sergei who is responsible for the church's social ministries, set the stage for a new chapter between our two churches and new levels of cooperation and dialogue."
"The trip was valuable because it reconnected those of us who are new on the staff--and it provided some continuity in one of our church's most important ecumenical relationships," added Ferguson.
James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service.