One of the Orthodox responses against ecumenical relations that one hears now and again may be that “all of church history” or “all of the tradition” weighs against joint “non-sacramental” services (e.g. an Akhathis or even Adam’s suggestion of joint participation in Forgiveness Vespers) and “praying with heretics” (where “heretics” is applied to all non-Orthodox, even other Trinitarian Christians). If one is to appeal to all of Orthodox Church history, though, one will find that the responses toward non-Orthodox have varied quite a bit. In North Dakota, one such variance occurred in the early twentieth century. Although many people might not know this, North Dakota actually received a small influx of Syro-Lebanese immigrants in the late nineteenth century. There never was a Syro-Lebanese Orthodox Church established anywhere on the plains of North Dakota, from what I’ve been able to learn thus far. What happened, instead, was a more “circuit-riding” approach, of priests (and once a bishop) who traveled now and then into the area. North Dakota was fairly remote at the time and travel would have been a long one, with clergy coming from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Sioux City, Iowa, and once, apparently, Nebraska.
In 1914 an “archbishop” and a “priest” held a liturgy in the rural school of Reno Valley Township, south of Rugby, ND. The bishop in question informed the faithful that they should attend the Episcopalian churches and that is also the message the faithful seem to have received from priests who would visit as well. So, who was this bishop and why would he do such a thing? Isn’t communion with non-Orthodox against the whole of tradition? Well, we should keep in mind that at the time, the relationship between the two churches was close, much much closer than today. It wasn’t perfect, though, and the case of Fr. Irvine shows that quite clearly (Irvine was a converted Episcopalian priest and his ordination in November, 1905, to the Orthodox priesthood caused a stir across the Protestant Episcopal Church at the time). So, this bishop in question knew the complexities and yet still gave the recommendation he gave. One could, of course, point to exigencies, but still, he could have insisted on the founding of an Orthodox parish. There are enough people in a picture from the event to justify such a demand. Yet, the demand was not made. In fact, the practical consequence of what they were told was that they became Episcopalians, and it would seem the bishop had to know this would be the case.
I am unsure who this “archbishop” was. It is difficult to tell from the photograph. It was not Archbishop Alexander (Nemolovsky). It likely was not Metropolitan Platon, as he left for Russia on June 2nd of 1914. I must also admit the pictured bishop does not look much like Metropolitan Platon to me anyhow (but I cannot share the picture due to copyright concerns at the moment). It is possibly St. Raphael (Hawaweeny), who did take a trip through Minneapolis in 1914. Did he journey into North Dakota? I haven’t had the time to research, but it seems likely, especially since he was already in Minneapolis. It’s not like there were many Orthodox bishops on American soil at the time and if not Bishop Alexander or Metropolitan Platon, St. Raphael is the next logical choice. The Greek bishop, Metropolitan Meletios wouldn’t arrive in America until 1918 and I’m not aware of bishops other than those from the Russian Orthodox Church being in America at that time.
So, it seems that when it came to facing the realities of Orthodox on the plains, rather than tell Orthodox immigrants to found parishes, St. Raphael did the prudent thing and told them to go to Episcopalian parishes. Nor was this unique, by the way, as Orthodox immigrants elsewhere did this as well.
This helps remind us that sweeping generalizations against inter-confessional prayer involving Orthodox do not hold up upon close examination. In fairness, the opposite extreme should also not be concluded from this. My point, here, is not to champion ecclesiological relativism. Rather, my point is that we do possibly have a saint who sought to balance a faithfulness to Orthodoxy with a willingness to see what was good and true in a non-Orthodox Church, to the point of telling his flock to go to that other church.
I dare say this is in contrast to the knee jerk (“all of tradition” or “all of church history”) reactions to Adam’s more recent post. Given that it’s Lent, I thought Adam’s point worth praying over more thoughtfully. Those who wish to so pray might be encouraged to know that it is not simply a perspective found only here on this website in the twenty-first century, but one that can be found in other times and places as well. Hopefully, in the future, I can post on some of those other times and places (lest someone conclude this is merely the “one” exception that proves the rule). Times have changed and the Protestant Episcopal Church has certainly changed, to the point where telling Orthodox to commune at Episcopalian churches would be highly questioned. Nonetheless, perhaps with other traditional, liturgical Christians, we Orthodox have more to draw on from our Tradition than merely a dismissal of serious interactions and joint prayer.