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Hospitality, worship and openness
June 3, 2008 – Hospitality, openness and a common commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ were abundantly evident in Church-to-Church visits to two member communions conducted by National Council of Churches (NCC) delegations.
Both primates welcomed the delegations warmly.
"Feel at home here," said H.E. the Most Rev. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) following prayers in St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York May 28.
Similarly, the following day H.E. the Most Rev. Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim of the Syrian (Syriac) Orthodox Church of Antioch said in the church's Teaneck, N.J., offices, "We tell our visitors, 'You are home.'"
"We did indeed feel at home," said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC General Secretary. "These visits express the reality that the National Council of Churches is a community of Christian communions, not a program agency in uptown Manhattan that does things on behalf of the churches."
The Church to Church visits are mandated by the Council's Strategic Plan for 2007-2011 to strengthen relationships of member churches to each other and to identify ways the NCC can assist churches as they carry out their ecumenical calling, Kinnamon said. The goal is to visit all 35 member communions in the next four years.
Quoting from a book by the church's former Catholicos in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, the late Karekin I, Kinnamon summarized the spirit of the meetings: "Ecumenism is the very essence of our Christian faith. Common prayer is the most important element of our life together – the opening up of one to the other."
Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern)
True to Armenian hospitality, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian told the NCC visitors that they will be welcome at all the anniversary celebrations, including a concert and art exhibition on June 19 and a special ceremony honoring the original planners and builders October 12 taking place this year.
The first of 35 projected church-to-church visits by representatives of NCC member communions took place at the Armenian diocese.
NCC General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, said, "We begin here not only because of the ecumenical heritage of this church, and not only because of the 40th anniversary of this great cathedral, but also in honor of our President, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian.”
The purpose of the visits, Kinnamon said, is to enable member communions to get to know one another better, "so we know how and when to pray for one another, celebrate our anniversaries, share in one another’s lives, and have a deeper understanding of one another as Christians. "
"We are here to ask how the NCC can be even more fully a place where your ecumenical calling is lived out as a church.”
Archbishop Barsamian thanked the NCC delegation for "taking this initiative in coming. Ecumenism is a tradition in our diocese, thanks to the leadership of former primates."
One of those former primates was Barsamian's predecessor, the legendary Archbishop Torkom Manoogian , who served six terms as head of the Eastern Diocese before becoming the 96th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1990. Manoogian served on the NCC Governing Board and was president of the board of Religion in American Life. Barsamian was Manoogian's vicar.
The Armenian Church has been faithful to its ecumenical commitments over the years, although many of its members have been uneasy with what they consider excessive politicization of the NCC.
Natasha Aljalian, a pastor's spouse and attorney from Boston, said "this impression of a politicized NCC risks alienating certain members that don't take into consideration the differences between interfaith and faith and order."
"Social problems are a part of the NCC," said NCC President Archbishop Aykazian. "But it goes far beyond that. We are a Christian organization concerned about suffering in the world."
Kinnamon added, "We're far more radical than left and right in politics. We won't back off issues, but we will ground them in faith. And the full participation of all our member churches is a way of helping us keep that balance."
Father Tateos Abdalian, an American-born priest and director of the diocese's Department of Mission Parishes, talked of the challenges visiting 23 mission parishes in the eastern U.S. less than once a month.
"Many in these churches come from the former Soviet Union where they were never allowed to worship," he said. "They are ignorant about God and church manners, but I find they have a great hunger for Christ and God. But if we have services in each church less than once a month, they must question whether the Armenian Church is their mother church or is it a place they visit once a month?"
Father Tateos also noted that one of the evils faced by all communions "is the secularization of Sundays. Sundays are no longer the Lord's Day but a day that belongs to the world. Parents want their children to go to church Sundays, but have to contend with Sunday morning soccer games. There needs to be some effort to bring back Christ's presence on Sundays."
Kinnamon said other NCC member communions probably have the same concerns.
"This would be a great test case," he said. "As we move from conversation to conversation, we can take issues like this with us to find out how many of us have similar goals.
Syrian (Syriac) Orthodox Church of Antioch
Teaneck, N.J., May 29, 2008 – Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim gathered the NCC delegation with Syriac church priests and lay leaders in a comfortable parlor and served manna, the biblical pastry associated with God's love and protection.
Karim, a tall man with a graying black beard and ready smile, welcomed the group as "brothers and sisters of the one body of Christ."
He noted that the church of Antioch,"was the first ecumenical church and the first universal catholic church." The bible records that "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26). The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its history back to the days immediately following the resurrection of Jesus. Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still used in the church's liturgy and in many homes, Karim said. "In visiting us you are visiting a tradition as old as Christianity."
Karim, a life-long ecumenist who has served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and the Governing Board of the NCC, told the group gathered in the parlor that the visit "truly expressed the nature of the National Council of Churches – churches working together."
The group participated in a wide-ranging discussion of the pluses and minuses of their relationships. They agreed that the NCC could uses its good offices to increase American awareness that there are Christians in Syria. Members of the group exchanged stories of their experiences returning to the U.S. from the Middle East. In some cases, Homeland Security agents refused to believe there are Christian churches in Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations.
Kinnamon said NCC member communions must "bear witness that if you are persecuted we all are persecuted. I am not a Christian American, I'm an American Christian. You are part of a body that is much larger."
Another area in which the NCC could enhance the effectiveness of individual communions is to counter the secularization of Christian holidays. "Our children are missing the whole meaning of Christmas and Easter," a woman said.
Children are also missing the historical significance of those holidays, she added. "When our children sing, 'O little Town of Bethlehem,' do they know there are children suffering in that little town of Bethlehem?"
Another concern of Orthodox Christians has been the proselyting efforts of some Protestant denominations, Karim said. "It was a very sad phase of history when our churches were a field of missionary work by Protestant churches," he said. "Thank God that kind of activity ceases as we got to know each other better."
The NCC's concern, Kinnamon said, is not they churches try to convert one another, "our concern is that we be Christians together."
The group noted that some developments are bringing churches closer together.
The Very Rev. Fr. John Khoury noted that Protestants are showing "a growing appreciation of the ancient Patristic tradition," once little known among non-Orthodox Christians. "That can build a very important bridge," Father Khoury said.
The Very Rev. Fr. John Meno said one of the oldest dialogues between churches was established between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's not so much a discussion of theological issues as on the pastoral concerns of interest to us all," Father Meno said. In the past, "there has been a tendency only to stress our differences rather than the things that we share in common," he said. Talking about those ties that bind "is one of the most beautiful things about our membership in the NCC."
The Rev. Melvin Wilson, pastor of St. Luke's African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York, a member of the NCC delegation, shared some history of the founding of his church in 1787 by the Rev. Richard Allen in Philadelphia.
"Could we worship together?" Rev. Wilson asked? "Our people will benefit from that and our people in the pew will realize that if we rely on CNN we'll never know there's a church in Syria."
Father Meno reached his hand our to Rev. Wilson. "Name the date," he said, "and we're there."
"When we worship with you," Wilson said, smiling, "don't change a thing. Do it the way you do it. Because when you come to us, I'm going to do it the way we do it."
In addition to Kinnamon and Wilson, members of the NCC delegation included NCC President Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Bishop Fritz Mutti of the United Methodist Church, Rev. Lydia Veliko, ecumenical officer of the United Church of Christ, and Philip E. Jenks, NCC staff.
NCC News contact: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCnews@ncccusa.org
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