Recently NCC President and General Secretary Jim Winkler spoke on the occasion of the 225th anniversary of the Valaam Mission to North America, the Orthodox Church mission to indigenous peoples in Alaska. The program was held at the Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church in Princeton, NJ. Below are excerpts of Jim’s address:
I stand before you as president and general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC). The Council consists of 38 member communions comprised of some 30 million Christians in approximately 100,000 local congregations across this nation.
The NCC was founded in 1908 and was then known as the Federal Council of Churches. In 1950, a number of other organizations came together with the Council, and it was re-christened as the National Council of Churches. The Orthodox Church in America is one of the member churches of the NCC.
My thanks to His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, for inviting me to be with you today. 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 remarkable evening at St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC for the opening event in our rally against racism.
I wish to express my deep appreciation to the Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky for his longtime leadership in the ecumenical community. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Fr. Leonid’s election as president of the NCC. He was the first Orthodox president of the Council, meriting a major article in the New York Times. Today, he continues to serve on the executive committee as a voice of wisdom and reason. He is a mentor to me.
I also wish to thank my good friend and the pastor of this parish, the Very Rev. Peter Baktis not only for his gracious invitation to me to be with you today but for his participation in the Interreligious Dialogues Convening Table of the NCC.
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?” This document will be shared with the leaders of the member communions that comprise the NCC.
The NCC is a form of conciliar ecumenism—that is, it is organized for common prayer, counsel, and decision. Also, the search for unity is envisaged as a 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 is important, as well, to note that in 1920 the Ecumenical Patriarch issued an encyclical, “Unto the Churches of Christ everywhere” in which he stated, “Our own church holds that rapprochement between the various Christian Churches and fellowship between them is not excluded by the doctrinal differences which exist between them. In our opinion, such a rapprochement is highly desirable and necessary.”
We have come a long way over this past century in furthering rapprochement between the churches and yet have much further to go. This is difficult but joyful work, and it takes time. After all, let us recall it was 1200 years between Great and Holy Councils of the Orthodox Churches.
It is 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 those days full of apostolic zeal and missionary activity? Here he recounts geographic and numeric expansion and other signs of the advancement of the Church.
- Metropolitan Tikhon boldly acknowledges, “…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 beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, 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.
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.”
The third pillar is “Relations with Others” and includes a section on “Ecumenical, Interfaith, and Civic Relations.” Here, Metropolitan Tikhon 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 in ecumenical bodies cannot simply happen in order to have a presence if that presence is limited to 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.”
There are churches that will not engage in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and work. Humbly, I suggest to you that this is a mistake and it is prideful. Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue is not intended to create one world religion or to get everyone to agree on every point. It is intended to develop understanding and solidarity and at a time when churches, synagogues, and mosques are being attacked, we must work together to preserve 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.
This work is arduous. It takes us out of our comfort zones. It exposes us to beliefs with which we are not familiar 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 can see that others are also children of God then joy comes with the morning.
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.”