A Union Like God’s

Lessons in Unity from the Converging Paths of Anglicanism and Orthodoxy

Written by Kevin Walthall
Jan 12, 2021

A Necessary Unity and Praying through Pain

Amid the global trend toward division, the Kingdom of God is trending toward a long-awaited unity. The longest-running ecumenical dialogue in Christianity today has been a slow, steady movement laden with the lasting solutions our moment needs most.

Anglicanism and Orthodoxy have many clear differences. Orthodoxy is distinctively Eastern, communal, mystical, and defined by the practices of a 2,000 year old tradition enjoying unbroken continuity with the apostles. Anglicanism is distinctively Western, individualistic, rationalist, forged by the era of ideas 500 years ago. Orthodoxy is shaped by the experience of resisting wave after wave of persecution in the Middle East and Soviet Union, while Anglicanism has been shaped by the missionary experience buoyed by the British Empire. Like most Christians, they come together on the centrality of the nature of Christ, the importance of the Scriptures, and absolute morality. Yet for centuries, Anglicans and Orthodox have been delighted by some common foundations one wouldn’t expect. Both have developed mechanisms for fostering diversity within their own ranks while finding internal unity in respecting God’s mystery, Church tradition, the Nicene Creed, the early councils, and an episcopacy. Given these similarities, the second and third largest Christian communions (Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, respectively) have learned to be actively pained by their separation, to lean into the hurt of division and use it as fuel for the hard work of reconciliation.

“To be so divided that we can’t share the holy eucharist is painful for us,” says Bishop Kevin Allen, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Cascadia. Representing the Anglicans of North America in ecumenical dialogues, he fits the bill for an Anglican bishop. His eyes crinkle with constant smiling, his white beard is neatly trimmed, and his baritone is made for radio. The flowing regalia of his station doesn’t distance him from his flocks any more than they distance him from a good, sensible Anglican joke. 

“The world may force us to become more unified,” Bishop Allen summarizes bluntly. He always had an interest in ecumenism, but long before he became a bishop, an odd encounter with a stranger in black sparked the friendship that would thrust him into ecumenical dialogue at the highest level. The stranger in black was an Orthodox priest, Father John Pierce, who hailed him in a parking lot to spoil the surprise that Allen had been chosen as the new rector in town. As their friendship warmed, so did America’s culture wars. Christians could no longer assume they held authority on moral issues, and division among Christians eroded their ability to speak to and heal culture. Ecumenism was no longer simply a nice thing. It was necessary.

In John 17:22, Christ prays that his followers would be one as he and the Father are one. It’s a commandment Christians have fallen notoriously short of, with each year seeing more and more denominations that develop in increasing isolation from each other. 

“We realize this does not fulfill the command of Christ.” 

A Byzantine-style ikon of St. Raphael of Brooklyn greets visitors to the bishop’s office in his tidy white church in Washington state. It’s clear the bishop has a genuine fondness for Orthodoxy, and Saint Raphael is perhaps symbolic of the mixed experiences Orthodoxy has had with ecumenism in the American melting pot. Raphael Hawaweeny, an immigrant from modern-day Lebanon, was the first Orthodox bishop consecrated in North America and an early proponent of ecumenism. Out of a desire for unity, St. Raphael took the unprecedented step of allowing Orthodox in remote locations to take communion from Anglican ministers when an Orthodox parish was not available. The step was quickly reversed as Anglicans at the time used the concession as a means to convert Orthodox Christians to Anglicanism.

To overcome our apathy toward division, the bishop encourages us to ask ourselves: “What is it about our separation that hurts us most?” There’s a value to finding specifics that we miss in one another, to forcing ourselves to find something to admire in those we are distanced from.

Since the initial mixed experiences of ecumenism, the longing for unity and the dangers of vulnerability have both been felt, but Bishop Allen concludes that the greatest enemy to coming together is apathy. Most Christians simply don’t see a need to bother with ecumenism, uncomfortable and foreign as it is. Despite worshiping in churches often mere feet from each other, the wealth of perspectives on Christ ranging from Black Baptists to Arabic-speaking Antiochian denominations often goes untapped. Through the diversity of Christian traditions, our experience of God can become as broad as the sum of humanity – a terrible inheritance to ignore. 

To overcome our apathy toward division, the bishop encourages us to ask ourselves: “What is it about our separation that hurts us most?” There’s a value to finding specifics that we miss in one another, to forcing ourselves to find something to admire in those we are distanced from.

Then, pray about that pain.

Bishop Allen isn’t shy about what he sees Orthodoxy bringing to the table for his tradition. “We have been so separated by continents and cultures, Protestants don’t have an experience of Eastern liturgies. So when we walk into an Orthodox church, it’s such a wholly other experience. When Protestants walk in, if they have an open heart, it’s almost like a Christmas morning experience. The beauty, the ikons, the sung liturgy, the incense… you see an expression of wonder and awe come over their faces. We don’t want to cheapen that experience, it brings wonder to our faith when such worship gives us a glimpse of the heavenly realm.”

The 966-year-old wound of schism is a wound that, in many ways, includes all the divisions the modern world suffers from: race, politics, and historical symbols with different meanings to different parties. In the first centuries after Christ, ecumenical councils were the central organ for determining Christian teachings like the Trinity, the natures of Christ, the creeds, and the organization of Scripture. In 1054, the Bishop of Rome unilaterally added a clause to the Nicene Creed called the Filioque. The doctrinal dispute quickly became a matter of political authority, splitting the Christian Church into Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) branches which refused communion to one another. In 1517 the Catholic West experienced an explosion of schisms in the Protestant Reformation. Anglicanism emerged as the largest and most unified among what is now hundreds of Protestant denominations by offering a “via media,” or “middle way,” incorporating Evangelical, Charismatic, and Anglo-Catholic streams into one stream united by the Creeds, tradition, and episcopacy.

In 1867 Anglicans hosted the Lambeth Conference in Chicago to bring together the constantly-splitting Protestant denominations for practical cooperation in missions. 1976 marked the outset of a new “ecumenical spring,” spurred by the increasing hostility of the culture wars of the 60’s onward. The dialogue has notched some noteworthy successes. The Filioque controversy, the source of the first schism between East and West, has been satisfactorily resolved among the Anglicans and Orthodox, with Anglicans making the clause an optional component of the Nicene Creed, recognizing it as an addition to central Christian teaching made without an ecumenical council. The two have issued authoritative points of agreement, such as the Agreed Statements of Moscow (1976), Dublin (1984), Cyprus (2006), and Buffalo (2015). 

The most recent Agreed Statement, penned in Buffalo in 2015, keys in on the greatest significance of ecumenism: to be able to speak to culture with one voice. The Buffalo paper, titled “A Hope-Filled Anthropology,” announces a new and old humanity with unfamiliar poetry: “the created image of the uncreated God.” It is not a joint declaration of doctrine or morality as much as a projection of the united Christian message: Humanity is most whole when it knows it is made in the image of God and enlivened by Christ. It is a plea to recognize the divine fingerprints on our own souls. It is a picture of how the Orthodox and Anglicans hope to approach the world around them in coming years, drawing from one another’s collective experiences, wisdom, and language.

Humanity is most whole when it knows it is made in the image of God and enlivened by Christ.

Confessional Dialogue

Key to constructive talks is something the bishop calls “confessional dialogue.” 

American pluralism is built on agreeing to disagree, but the Kingdom of God requires far more. It requires fraternity, confession, repentance, a willingness to “lay down one’s life for their brother” – a oneness that Christ and the Father share, being two persons of one essence. Far more than reaching across the aisle and compromising, love requires something so genuine it can only be found in confession. 

It isn’t that Christians are incapable of peace. We have managed a tense and inefficient peace just fine. We lack visible unity in spite of our visible differences. While Christian diversity isn’t a problem in and of itself, our inability to capitalize on it is. There are worlds to explore and learn from within our brothers and sisters, but our cultural silos narrow our vision of God and self.

“Confessional dialogue” means rooting every division in our humanity and our need for Christ. “It means we confess and lament things that perpetuate divisions within and without,” the Bishop explains. “Our attempts to convert people from other denominations, our attempts to defend sacramental positions, fault-finding. Within all those statements, you see ‘please forgive us.’ There’s a certain humility that has to come with being an ecumenist.”

Ecumenism is more about recognizing the work the Holy Spirit has done in diverse peoples throughout the globe than it is doctrinal nit-picking. Good ecumenism is not acquiescence on important issues or surrendering one’s identity to someone else. Anglicanism has a history of action it can be proud of, as does Orthodoxy, but as we approach the seemingly incompatible stranger, we are reminded that the active ingredient in our diverse heritages is the Holy Spirit. A meaningful, lasting union will be a maximalist one, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit in all.

“We have to resist the temptation that being in dialogue is about convincing you to become more like me. Rather we have to approach in a confessional tone, ‘this is a part of our tradition that is like yours.’ Being confessional means confessing the story of Jesus changing my life, not selling anyone anything. In good confessional conversations, we can learn to look at ourselves through each other’s eyes.”

For Bishop Allen, that means realizing his brand of Christianity is not the default brand of Christianity, the starting point from which others deviate. Seeing ourselves through one another’s eyes sheds light on strengths and weaknesses we didn’t know we even had. Sometimes my eyes don’t truly see, and my ears don’t truly hear – but someone else’s do. Confessional dialogue means viewing the actions that are within our comfort zone through eyes that are not in our comfort zone. It means an accountability to the different, and offering our assumptions up for examination. 

The result is not a barrage of humiliation or self-abasement, but often a discovery of unseen strengths. As the Bishop states, “seeing the strengths in Orthodoxy helps us find strength in ourselves.”

The Orthodox value Anglicanism’s tradition of worship, a tradition that abolished slavery under the leadership of William Wilberforce and carried missionaries to every corner of the world.

“The world isn’t fragmented because people aren’t good enough at Biblical Greek, the world is fragmented because we don’t seek our own sanctification in others. The world is fragmented because we don’t view difference as an opportunity to grow.”

Anglicans value the depths of the early Church which produced the canon of Scripture, and finding courage in the Orthodox witness enduring Communist and Islamic persecution.

The bishop is clear that unity does not mean sameness. While ecumenism has been a high-level affair reaching back into the 1800’s, the ultimate goal is that ecumenism will reach the pews where Orthodox and Anglican flocks will draw from each other’s different strengths, not meld into similarity.

“I’m not wanting to blend us together so that we look alike. I think there’s a treasure in Orthodoxy that resonates with different people at different times. I see a richness in still having some differences in our worship and our engagement of culture and so on. But I would like to have more familiarity with each other, so we would feel at home with each other.

“Rather than lowering the expectations for each other, we are raising them. We need to still have very significant differences that may look unresolvable. Through the Lord’s grace, and after we have taken smaller steps, God can give us the wisdom and guidance to engage seemingly insurmountable things that the Holy Spirit has revealed.”

Respecting Paths

“In the essentials unity, in the non essential liberty, and above all love.” Despite the unifying nature of this maxim, Christians can’t quite agree on who said it first.

Unfortunately, what is essential and what is non-essential is often not a black-or-white issue. Rear-view mirrors and seat belts might technically be non-essential parts of a vehicle’s operation, but there’s a reason we insist on them. Without mirrors – tradition – we will either careen ahead unaware of our context, or be so distracted by trying to academically figure out what’s behind us that we crash and burn. Without the seatbelt of oversight, we have nothing to reign us in when individual experience leads us astray. Anglicans and Orthodox might be driven by the same engine, but they often differ on the traditional safeguards put in place to preserve the spiritual health of their faithful. 

While those safeguards and traditions might be non-essential in their own right, they often have implications for the essential, and those non-essentials are part of the beauty of diversity. There are several points in which the Orthodox and Anglicans agree on the substance of a doctrine, but find that doctrine’s expression misleading or confusing from the pews. For instance, the Orthodox have maintained patristic language describing man’s participation with God: theosis kata charin, “divinization/deification by grace.” It makes perfect sense if you’re living within the legacy of Greek philosophy: we find our true humanity in Christ. As we are sanctified, we partake in the essence of God by degrees and human nature is miraculously transformed by Christ to a higher union with the divine.

This explanation is obvious to those who are raised with it. In a different context, “divinization” or “deification” seems to take on a different meaning however, as if humans can become gods – which is not at all the intent. The doctrine itself is ever-present in Anglican worship just as it is in Orthodox worship, yet the common ground is not always easy to see from the pews. 

This awkward disagreement about language ultimately isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is a good example of the level of nuance at play: agreeing about truth is not the same thing as agreeing about clear spiritual direction. Recognizing the subjective human interpretive layer between ourselves and objective truth is a key takeaway from ecumenical dialogues. The world isn’t fragmented because people aren’t good enough at Biblical Greek, the world is fragmented because we don’t seek our own sanctification in others. The world is fragmented because we don’t view difference as an opportunity to grow.

Though the two communions have reached many of the same conclusions, they have taken very different paths to the same place. Eventually they arrived, but if they had to give directions, those directions would look very different – and that’s not a problem to be solved. Bishop Allen has learned through the years that the paths of others have to be respected as much as the destination:

“We have to be sensitive to the fact that the Orthodox are preserving something ancient. We have to be careful not to co-opt each other.”

The Orthodox are particularly cautious about appropriation. “Eastern mysticism” has become an increasingly attractive novelty in the West, which is precisely the opposite of how Orthodoxy wishes to be viewed. Orthodoxy is a demanding regimen meant to orient the whole of one’s body, soul, culture, and habits towards Christ, in a community under the direction of a spiritual elder, who in turn is under another spiritual elder, who keeps the teachings passed down from the apostles. Deconstructing Orthodoxy to apply a la carte without context or oversight is a recipe for imbalance and delusion – the very things its mystical practices fight against.

For the Orthodox especially, there is a shared narrative and identity of sacrifice. Their faith is not merely theology, or even a theology that has been applied into action – it is unapologetically cultural. While that may seem archaic to Westerners raised on the power of individuals with ideas, there’s a pragmatic truth hidden in that revelation: there’s more to being human than the sum of our ideas.

The problem with appropriation is that it assumes a person or group can be deconstructed, and their strengths can be harvested without their struggle, reducing people and cultures to commodities. In observing these talks at high levels, we see that there is more mystery to the individual and the collective than we can decipher, that there is no soul without their context and their path. We learn to stand in awe: not just of the mystery of God, but of the mystery of the soul formed in God’s image. If we allow ourselves to deconstruct the human or the culture to the extent that we can take what we like and discard the rest, we can allow ourselves to deconstruct the human or the culture to the extent that we discard their entirety. That is something Christ simply does not allow.

Just as the Nicene Creed, the subject of the first schism, asserts a difference between the essence and the personalities of the Trinity, our divided world needs the same. We need to know that we are all the same divinely animated dust, and we need to know that our personhood is a real revelation of both divinity and dust. In that personhood, we find beauty and strength. 

Confession is the revelation of our weakness. It is also the revelation of God’s goodness. We find both when we allow ourselves to long for something higher than mere peace – when we allow ourselves to long for union with others in Christ, when we allow that longing to take the form of specific virtues. We learn to see ourselves and others through different eyes that see – and the promise of such vision is tantalizing.

What would happen if the Christian East and the Christian West, separated by a millennium of schism, joined together as one? What if that ancient and immovable titan, Orthodoxy, drank the blood of Christ from the same chalice as the adventurers who brought Jesus to the furthest reaches of the world? What if the ancient Orthodox repository of Christian mysticism navigated today’s conflicts with the diplomacy of the Anglican via media? What if the streams of St. Nicholas and C.S. Lewis merged to breathe and speak from two lungs through one mouth? 

What if we let division hurt? What if we saw ourselves through unfamiliar eyes? What if we saw in each other a terrestrial substance on divine paths?

What if all who claimed Christ sought to imitate not just his righteousness or his compassion, but his oneness? What if we loved not just our friends and not just our enemies, but those who are close enough to betray what is sacred to us? What if the divisions of an election year forced us to see people instead of positions, to recognize the struggles and insecurities and pain behind the partisanship? What if the pressures of a pandemic revealed not just the fault lines in society, but a desperation for one another’s wisdom?

Perhaps our neighbors would cease to be appendages of pundits and become unfinished products decades in the making. Perhaps we could see what our crazy uncles are running from, or realize how life has changed for our college friends. So long as sin and lies and the confusion over their presence exists, we will need healthy boundaries to protect ourselves and our relationships – boundaries have their place even among ecclesiastics. Hopefully we can still find a level of unity as Christians have for centuries in the Nicene Creed, professing one God revealed in three persons, and remember that we creations of this revelation are not so different: created from the same substance, walking in many holy, sacred differences. 

May those differences be an asset to us, as to the Trinity.