Christian Types, Christian Virtues, Christian Unity by Jim Forest

Christian Types, Christian Virtues, Christian Unity

The Evangelical Path to Christian Unity

by Jim Forest

“Christian Types, Christian Virtues, Christian Unity”: my talk’s title is almost as long as a freight train. C. S. Lewis—for many of us, St. Clive, senior publisher of Touchstone—would have surely done better. I suspect he is always present at gatherings of the Fellowship of St. James. That isn’t incense you smell, that’s Lewis’s pipe.

Then there is the unquestioned presence here of the Fellowship’s patron saint and my own namesake, St. James, brother of the Lord, first bishop of Jerusalem, and one of the authors of the New Testament. We have just participated in the vespers of his feast day. St. James: the first bishop of the undivided Church, a man whose writings proclaim his sensitivity to all that threatens unity—primarily the inflammable human tongue, which can so easily put a dragon to shame.

Our theme is Christian unity. May all the saints, canonized and uncanonized, protect whomever dares to speak on this subject. He is bound to offend some if not many in the range of his voice. Especially in the Orthodox Church today, there are few topics where the ice is so thin. It’s not unusual to find those I am in communion with exclaiming, at times ranting, against “the ecumenical heresy.” Some of the e-mail that has been sent to me on this topic has enough heat in it to melt the polar ice cap. I can imagine that the ecumenical patriarch, a man besieged on many fronts, must at times wonder if his very title doesn’t require urgent revision.

Five Types

What has made me think lately about Christian “types” is an essay — “Types of Religious Lives”—written in 1937 by Mother Maria Skobtsova. You may know her as Mother Maria of Paris, an Orthodox martyr of the Second World War. She was among the flood of Russians who came to France after the Revolution. Eventually she became a nun whose main work was hospitality and defense of the poor. She was also associated with theological dialogue which, though it centered on the Orthodox Church, often had an ecumenical dimension, not unlike the Fellowship of St. James. In the Sunday afternoon theological discussions that often took place with Mother Maria as hostess, you would often find both Nicolai Berdyaev and Jacques Maritain. When the Nazis occupied Paris, she was notable in her efforts to protect Jews. She died at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany on Good Friday, 1945, having taken the place of a Jewish prisoner who was being sent to her death. Mother Maria is a modern saint of hospitality in perilous times, but also one of the important voices of theological life in the Orthodox Church in this fast-ending, war-wracked century.

Her essay, only recently discovered and published for the first time just a few months ago, identifies five “types” of Christian piety in the Russian Orthodox Church, but one doesn’t have to be Russian Orthodox for her analysis to strike home.

The Synodalist

First on her list is the “synodal” believer. This means state-conformed, state-contained Christianity. “Synodal” refers to the “Holy Synod” set up by Czar Peter the Great after he abolished the office of the patriarchate so that the state would have uncontested authority over its subjects in all aspects of life. Thus ended the Byzantine “symphony” of church and state. The Holy Synod governed the Church, the Chief Procurator—a layman—governed the Holy Synod, and the czar appointed and supervised the Chief Procurator. Every major church activity and appointment required the government’s sanction. The Church was, in effect, a department of government. Russia’s “synodal Christianity” is a particular form of nationally adapted, established Christianity.

Mother Maria comments:


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