On this fourth Lenten Sunday—that of Saint John of the Ladder—you may wish to read selections from The Ladder of Divine Ascent by the good abbot of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. Here is a short sermon by Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh on this Sunday of Saint John.
At the liturgy this morning, I actually thought about Metropolitan Anthony. He had many friends and critics, both in London and throughout the world. He was accused of being a modernist, and it appears that there was a Westernizing culture within many Russian parishes in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, he contributed much to his flock and to the English speaking Orthodox world. Like other Russian Orthodox modernists, such as Alexander Schmemann, Alexander Men, and John Meyendorff, Metropolitan Anthony engaged the modern world. He and the others helped, and still help, Orthodox Christians who must live in an age largely hostile to Christianity. In this, they are similar to C.S. Lewis.
When I was considering Metropolitan Anthony’s legacy this morning, it occurred to me that God sends diverse workers into his vineyards. Though I find the particular modernist tendencies of the hierarch and of the beloved priests previously mentioned somewhat alarming, I believe that their voices and insights—their particular skills and labors—are necessary for a healthy crop. I do not wish to sound like a kumbaya post-Vatican II Latin, but there is something to the “two lung” imagery of the Church. Whether we speak of two lungs or of various organs in the body of Christ like Paul, the society of Christians, like any human society, requires a certain form of diversity. Not necessarily Benetton or Bosnian diversity—I am no multiculturalist—but a variety of personality types, sets of experience, and even competing agendas of emphases.
Speaking of Lewis, the wise Anglican remarked about this very need with respect to parochial divisions. He argued that the Church’s traditional geographical division for parishes makes sense because such an arrangement is more likely to provide this sort of necessary diversity in each local Christian community, whereas congregations that have self selected membership tend to become unbalanced and perverse.
It seems that something similar is true of the Christian community in general. We need a strong sense of fidelity to the traditions of the Church. In certain American jurisdictions like the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America, it is common to hear folks criticize and mock their straw man ethnic traditionalist, often with some slurs against Slavs, monks, the nineteenth century, and the imperial family. They are fond of their big and little “t” distinctions with respect to tradition. I find the modernist, anti-traditional, reductionist elements of that culture quite destructive. I fear that these Orthodox Christians carry some traits disturbingly similar to modernist Protestants and Romans. These folks are vulnerable to the insatiable need always to feel “relevant” to the age at hand.
At the same time, we need to engage the modern world and the heathen hegenomic culture in which we have to live. The Church may be an intensive care unit for the spiritually ill, but the admissions door must always be open and the sick must know where the hospital is. The Church cannot be a private care facility for select members only. Metropolitan Anthony and Fathers Alexander, Alexander, and John achieved a productive dialogue about the non-Christian, non-Orthodox, non-ancient, non-Eastern, non-traditional forces in the lives of their flocks for their flocks. They also invited into that dialogue people outside their flocks, bearing witness in love to Christ’s gospel. Even though I think that their modernist streaks were mistaken or imperfect, it is clear from their writings that they were full of the love of God. The tree that bears much fruit is a good tree. These men gave the Orthodox community many bountiful harvests.
Sometimes, one hears the martial language of hawks and doves used with respect to Christian controversies. We need both hawks and doves with respect to the engagement of our non-Christian civilization. We need both our Justins and our Tertullians, our Origens and our Augustines—our Justin Popovićs, Seraphim Roses, and John Romanides with our Oliver Cléments, Georges Florovskys, and Thomas Hopkos.
It is important to bear in mind the significance of consensus in the Church. We hear of the patristic consensus—the mind of the Fathers—from which the theological speculations of various individual Christian theologians and hierarchs may differ with respect to one issue or another. As Orthodox Christians, we no longer have fundamental theological disputes, which were settled over a millennium ago. However, there are questions relevant to our modern situation that Orthodox Christians must face, such as the proper way to relate to the heterodox, the appropriate Christian response to new technological developments, and how to preach the good news to people in a secular post-Christian culture. Like the older (though far more important) controversies, I suspect that it will take time for the Church to resolve the problems that we face today, but a consensus will emerge, and it will be a consensus not only with respect to the Churches throughout the world but also with respect to the continuity of the apostolic faith. The existential logic of the Christian community, enlightened as it is by the grace of God through the working of the Holy Spirit, will discern the proper path, as it has always done.