In Iași, Romania, in January 2019, some three hundred Orthodox scholars gathered for the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA). Pioneered by IOTA’s president, Paul Gavrilyuk, the gathering overcame forces that have prevented intra-Orthodox dialogue for the last several decades, laying the basis for new avenues of theological discussion and cooperation.
The divisions separating the sister Churches that make up global Orthodoxy are well known. The Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem do not share communion because of a longstanding dispute concerning churches in Qatar. The Churches of Constantinople (Ecumenical Patriarchate, or EP) and Moscow (MP) are the most influential within Orthodoxy, and their disputes are rooted in a series of historical events whose impact lingers today. In 1996, the MP broke communion with the EP over canonical authority in Estonia. An uneasy peace followed, but new tensions arose recently when the EP reclaimed Ukraine as its canonical territory and granted autocephaly (self-governance) to the Church there. The other Churches within Orthodoxy now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to define their position. It seems that the only way to remain neutral is to avoid the dispute altogether. Neutrality is safe, but declining to participate also promotes separation.
There is a longer history to all this. Most of the Orthodox Churches in the world became minorities in predominantly Islamic empires, including the EP after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman millet system retained inter-Orthodox collegiality by appointing the EP to the position of overarching authority. But inter-Orthodox relations changed when the decline of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires gave rise to independent nation-states. Many of the Churches in these nation-states became autocephalous, and ecclesial independence eventually prevailed over interdependence. The Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet persecution, and the political exploitation of the MP inaugurated a new period of separation. The constant threat of Soviet infiltration of the Church throughout the communist east destroyed the possibility of normal relations among the Orthodox Churches.
Despite the turbulence experienced by the Churches in the twentieth century, they also experienced an intellectual renaissance. Historians and theologians exercised crucial roles in preparing for the Moscow Council of 1917–18. After the Bolshevik takeover, a number of noteworthy Russian theologians emigrated to the West and established centers of theological education in Paris and New York. Churches in Greece, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere produced theologians devoted to the Church’s legacy. Orthodox theologians developed new scholarship with particular emphasis on the patristic and liturgical traditions of Eastern Christianity. In the mid-twentieth century, centers such as St. Sergius Institute in Paris and St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York were centers of theological excellence.
In the post-Soviet period, a new generation of Orthodox intellectuals has emerged in the various Churches. Seminaries and theological academies are no longer the sole producers of creative Orthodox thought. Orthodox Christians now occupy academic posts in public universities throughout the world. New programs such as the Volos Academy, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, and Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center have emerged to join the international Orthodox dialogue.
The appointment of Orthodox scholars to academic posts in a variety of public, private, secular, and Church-affiliated universities and colleges means that Orthodox scholarship is no longer the exclusive domain of local theological academies governed by the Churches. Orthodox scholars have come to address issues of global concern regarding science, faith, politics, and moral issues; they have pursued interdisciplinary studies and ecumenical theology. Orthodox scholars continue to remain faithful members of their own Churches, but they crave the opportunity to meet other Orthodox scholars at conferences devoted to common themes. In the past, however, the experience of initiating and sustaining a high-level theological dialogue with scholars from different Churches too often has been limited to those with the institutional resources for frequent meetings or one-time events. The Holy and Great Council of Church leaders in Crete in 2016 gathered a wide representation of Orthodox scholars as advisers and consultants. But it was not clear how these participants could sustain inter-Orthodox dialogue after the Council, the necessary discussions of theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, and politics common to all Orthodox Churches.
The IOTA meeting was a joint event of the Church and academy designed to address the unfinished business of the Council, taking up larger issues of pan-Orthodox synodality and conciliarity.The meeting also emphasized the fact that global Orthodox scholars are in the Church, and are not theologizing outside of it. The conference opened with a Te Deum service at the Iași cathedral, with Metropolitan Teofan of Moldovia and Bukovina presiding, and Divine services were available for participants throughout the week. IOTA emphasized a spirit of openness as well, inviting and including ecumenical observers, an acknowledgement of the benefit of unity we find in Christian Churches outside of Orthodoxy.
After participating in topical sessions scheduled throughout the day and the inevitable unplanned meetings over coffee and breakfast, the entire assembly of conference attendees would walk from the hotel to the cathedral to visit the museum, behold a special icon exhibit from Ukraine, and enjoy the hospitality of the local church. Participants were often in conversation with archdiocesan staff, clergy, monastics, and the metropolitan himself. The caravan of scholars invariably returned to the hotel exhausted, with full bellies, marveling at the generosity and interest of the archdiocesan hosts in the conference and its participants. For many, brief acquaintances made on social media were transformed into deep encounters, faces put to names, debates, discussions, and plans forged over wine, coffee, and meals. The conference buzzed with suggestions for future venues, panels to be added, and mistakes to be avoided.
The IOTA meeting attracted liberals and conservatives, and invited multiple perspectives on dozens of topics, from mainstream discussions of ecclesiology to the controversies surrounding recent events in Ukraine. Disagreement was aired openly, occasionally with passion. Some panelists canceled their participation on the eve of the conference, and a few simply did not show up, though the attrition rate was a bit lower than the norm for a conference of this scope. If IOTA is to realize its full potential, future meetings need higher participation from Russian and Serbian scholars for a more complete representation of global Orthodoxy. IOTA’s leadership has reason to hope this can happen.
IOTA’s inaugural gathering manifested a consensus about the 2016 Crete Council. Despite its deficiencies, the Crete Council took place and accomplished some of its objectives, issuing synodal statements on topics such as ecumenism, fasting, the sacrament of marriage, and Orthodoxy in the diaspora. This alone is an important achievement. Second, we recognized the absence of four Churches from the Crete gathering. This exposes the fear of dialogue piercing the heart of Orthodoxy. It is a legacy of the Churches’ adjustment to the post-Ottoman and post-Soviet periods in their own histories.
Despite problems, much good came from Crete. It serves as a reference point for a broad range of theological reflection, which we have seen in the diverse responses to its acts and proceedings. The Orthodox Theological Society in America released several joint papers on Crete’s topics, Carrie Frederick Frost edited a volume of women’s reflections on the Council, and Bishop Maxim of the Western American eparchy of the Serbian Church published a memorable diary.
The IOTA meeting sought to further Orthodox unity. When the revered Metropolitan Kallistos Ware delivered the inaugural keynote lecture, he spoke bluntly and clearly. With melancholy, he recollected Romanian Patriarch Daniel’s appeal to convene the next council in seven years, noting that the Crete Council ended without the appointment of a committee to begin the process of planning the next council. Nevertheless, the remarkable Crete meeting stirred something in the heart of Orthodoxy. It triggered an inner recognition that the Church’s business need not remain in a state of inertia. The 2019 IOTA conference contributed to Orthodox unity by establishing an institutional forum and pattern for Orthodox dialogue. IOTA 2019 demonstrated that it is possible for the global community of Orthodox scholars to convene and discuss tough issues such as autocephaly, ecumenical dialogue, and the female diaconate.
Nicholas Denysenko is Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University.