Just as we all thought that global Orthodoxy was in a state of deep crisis, God had a surprise for us. Indeed, with four members of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches refusing an invitation from Patriarch Bartholomew to attend the Holy and Great Council of Crete that had been in preparation for over 70 years, and the saga with the Ukrainian autocephaly unfolding before our eyes during the past couple of months, many felt that the worst stereotypes about Orthodoxy were coming true. And yet, in January 2019, in the Romanian city of Iaşi, an impressive gathering of people took place. The mixed crowd who gathered for a four-day conference were people with exactly the same right to represent the Orthodox Church as those whose names are usually preceded by numerous medieval titles but who need much lower maintenance than the latter. All ranks of the Orthodox cosmos were present, those with heads decorated with mitres and those whose heads were not. Here was a gathering of intelligent, interesting, socially and ecclesiastically-engaged, passionate, humorous people, some of whom happen to be bishops and priests. Here was IOTA.
When a little more than a year ago I was asked to become a co-chair of the section ‘Asceticism and spirituality’ of IOTA, I said ‘yes’ and then asked, ‘and what is IOTA?’. I was not the only one who asked this question. IOTA, the acronym for International Orthodox Theological Association, was an organisation that did not yet exist but was already eagerly awaited for. It was an organisation that confirmed the sublime meaning of the Greek concept of Kairos: it happened at the ‘right’ time in contrast with ‘any time’. It happened at the time of crisis implying that the previous course of events has posed a problem which called for a decision at this time. And, finally, it happened at the time when something should happen or be done, that is – the best time. The idea of IOTA was conceived in the rooms for external observes of the Council of Crete. It has been brought to existence by people who have positions in the academia. It is firmly committed to conciliarity and academic quality, to serving the Church through the ability to engage scholars in dialogue and make their voices heard in the field of ecclesiastical politics.
IOTA is organised as an academic professional association: it is divided into study groups or sections, each has two chairs and a steering committee. The chairs represent their field of study and are academically acclaimed experts. The structure is registered as a non-profit in the USA and abides by the US bylaws. IOTA is a pan-Orthodox scholarly and professional organisation whose meetings take place under the auspices of the local church. Several primates of the Orthodox church look favourably upon the endeavour. While the organisation is registered and governed from the US, the conferences and other gatherings of the association take place in Europe. The purpose and activity of the association is academic: it commissions conferences, seminars and other forms of academic practice.
The first inaugural conference took place in Romania with the blessing of the Romanian patriarch Daniel and was launched in Iaşi, with the local metropolitan Theophanes offering kind hospitality which we found beyond all expectations (especially given the relative poverty of the country). IOTA has 26 study groups focusing on topics varying from patristics to political theology. Each group had a chance to propose a pre-arranged session, either alone or in collaboration with another group for the inaugural conference, and also received proposals for the so called ‘open sessions’. In my experience, for a new association to harvest more than 250 proposals for a conference was an exceedingly good result. Our section received 12 proposals of which we could only accept 5. Despite the normal dropout rate, and the failure of some speakers to appear for various reasons, which included snow, the total attendance was no less than 300 people. Despite running 5-7 parallel sessions, I cannot remember the time when papers discussing Philokalia would attract about 50 people in the audience.
But let me go back to the beginning. The orchestration of the conference was a work of creative minds. The conference opened with a Te Deum service offered by the Metropolitan of Iaşi in the Cathedral which is famous for hosting the relics of St Paraskeva (the Romanians received these in the 17th century as a reward from Constantinople for paying the debts of the Constantinople patriarch). Conveniently, the massive Cathedral was opposite to the National Theatre of Iaşi, and the crowd of ‘Iotians’ proceeded gracefully across the street, still lit with Christmas decorations, to another magnificent venue. If guests expected some glamour at the opening, their expectations were greatly surpassed. At conferences we all behave a little bit like children, as we get temporarily relieved of our normal boring work and family duties. There, in the old-fashioned theatre with its red velvet chairs and golden balustrades, I felt like Natasha Rostova at her first ball. While I did not met my Andrey Bolkonsky there, I certainly fell in love with the inimitable Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who, now in his 80s, dazzled minds and satisfied our intellectual senses with a beautifully crafted and worded presentation. More than his graceful presentation, we were stunned by the words of wisdom and warning. His excellency did not mince his words about the Council of Crete and Ukrainian autocephaly. He explained clearly how the Cretan conciliar agenda was hopelessly lagging behind or not even trying to catch up with the real issues of the orthodox world. He challenged the historical argument about Ukrainian autocephaly but pointed out that the breaking of Eucharistic communion should not be used as a weapon. He definitely set the tone for the discussions to come. What followed was simply an intellectual feast. The range of topics discussed at IOTA could be described by the following tagline: “All That You Wanted to Know About Orthodoxy But Were Too Afraid To Ask”:
Why did Palamas refrain from distinguishing between essence and energy kat’ epinoian? How should theologians approach the Orthodox diaspora? Who has the right to grant autocephaly? Why do the conservative trends in Orthodox countries prevail on the issues of marriage and sexuality? What are the goals of religious education from an Orthodox point of view in public schools? Can we approach the Forth Crusade as an act of colonialism from the West, and Ukrainian autocephalous movement as an act of decolonisation? How to distinguish primal power from authority in the church? And finally, my favourite, is there a place of humour within the Church?
The experience of IOTA was both strange and familiar: sitting long hours in closed rooms, waking up the tired grey cells with a strong coffee, going back to one’s seat, walking 20 meters to the next location in order to sit down again and engage in a conversation with the speaker from the previous session, ending the day in drinking with another speaker and discussing his or her paper and going to bed late, waking up with a headache, going to sit down all day long again. And so on. Yet, apart from the familiar exercise in physical immobility which seems to be a prerequisite for the intellectual luminosity, IOTA was also a site for some new experiences. I cannot recall any paper which was straightforwardly boring. Discussions spilled out of the conference rooms into the floors, the air was thick with conversation and exchange of opinions. There were differences in standpoints between the speakers and this was embraced as positive. The atmosphere was amiable and positive. It was not enforced or faked, it was genuine. One attendant compared it to some youth conference experience. A serious scholar said that he met his intellectual opponent for the first time, and they had great conversation. We learned to disagree in genial way. We learned to be friends with those with whom we disagree. We embraced unity in diversity.
Perhaps, this is the future of Orthodoxy, through this creative approach to dialogue and conciliarity. The next conference of IOTA, wherever it will take place – in Bulgaria, or Cyprus, or Estonia, who knows, will bring even more participants and the word will be spread and some scepticism and reservations will be overcome. We have at least one space where the Orthodox, as diverse as they are, will be able to speak openly, intelligently and with respect to the other.
Irina Paert on usuteaduskonna kirikuloo vanemteadur. /
Irina Paert is a Senior Research Fellow in Church History at the School of Theology and Religious Studies.