An Eastern Catholic critique of the ecumenical Vancouver letter regarding Franklin Graham

An Eastern Catholic critique of the ecumenical Vancouver letter regarding Franklin Graham February 26, 2017

Franklin and Billy Graham, in Cleveland Stadium, in Cleveland Ohio, in June 1994 - by Paul M. Walsh (Billy_Graham.jpg) (CC BY-SA [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en]), via Wikimedia Commons
Franklin and Billy Graham, in Cleveland Stadium, in Cleveland Ohio, in June 1994 – by Paul M. Walsh (Billy_Graham.jpg) (CC BY-SA [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en]), via Wikimedia Commons
The coming of the American evangelist Franklin Graham to headline the Festival of Hope in Vancouver has caused quite a stir in my hometown – and therefore, in the local church there too. A letter claiming to be an ecumenical statement of protest against Graham has been floating around since yesterday; this statement has garnered a fair bit of press in the Vancouver Sun, the Washington Post, and Christianity Today. A second letter from Streams of Justice was issued on the same day; it is indeed curious why there are two letters if the former claims to have the broad tent that it does, while the second also claims to be ‘part of a growing coalition of Christians on the Lower Mainland.’ While both letters call Graham out for his less-than-charitable public comments about Muslims, LGBTQ+ people, and black people as well as his outspoken political alignment with the current United States presidential administration, the second is much toothier in its materialist critique. By contrast, I feel that the first is overly deferential to the state (specifically, the municipal government – the City of Vancouver) and to the organizers of the Festival of Hope because it attempts to achieve an overlapping consensus among its signatories that is less about substance and more about form. However, it is the first, and not the second, that is more read and talked about, and so my critique will only be of the first of these two letters.

I am not a supporter of Franklin Graham, and I do not want him to go to Vancouver either. However, I also think that the more prominent parts of the opposition to his coming has been hamstrung by its own ideological blindspots, and I want to point them out in this post: the letter is too liberal, too deferential to Graham, and too aligned with the City of Vancouver – and I hope to show that these are ultimately theological weaknesses, because the attempt to do theology via a philosophically liberal approach – one that seeks an overlapping consensus among autonomous parties with their own vested interests – is ultimately not really the doing of theology at all, because theology – the speech of G-d to the world – finds its source in Jesus Christ, the Son of G-d.

What will hopefully become clear in the first part of my critique is that I can only write as a person in an Eastern Catholic church, which means that I will not be criticizing Protestants for simply being Protestants unless their Protestantism somehow implicates me, which I claim that the first letter does because it has been signed by the local Latin hierarch, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB. Even though it has not been signed by the local bishop of my sui juris church, the way it has been reported is that ‘Catholics’ are part of the consensus achieved by the letter. However, in writing these observations, I am only expressing my individual thoughts on the letter. I am not writing on behalf of my church, bishop, or temple, as neither persons in my church, nor any of its hierarchs, nor even my own spiritual father have signed off on this critique. I am simply a person who can read, and I am respectfully submitting these considerations because I am also Catholic, but I do not think the letter reflects a theology that upon closer inspection can be espoused by Catholics, Western or Eastern. Far from calling out the Latin hierarch for signing, though, I would like to submit this closer reading of a document that seems to have been hastily assembled for his consideration; because I am not part of his ecclesia sui juris, though, I must also clarify that I am not writing on behalf of my church, but only as a person who is being formed within it in full, visible communion with him.

I will need some space to explain more of the intricacies of this position and to clarify that a critique can be made in love even to a successor of the holy apostles, which means that it will take a great deal of space before I can critique the substance of the letter. What I am saying is that I first need to establish that I have the right as an Eastern Catholic to criticize something Protestants have done in Vancouver before I can say what it is with which I am unhappy. After all, it is unseemly for me as an Eastern Catholic to interfere in the internal affairs of the autonomous Protestant ecclesial communities in Vancouver. Unlike the rambling tone that marks my all-too-evangelical spiritual reflections elsewhere on this blog, I also feel the need to write more formally for this post, as I hope to actually do some theology here, especially in the conclusion, where I will draw from the ‘Vibrant Parish’ Pastoral Letter from my church, the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv, to make some suggestions about future ecumenical endeavours in the city that I continue to love. I realize that an academic critique will not be very popularly appealing, but I feel the need to speak with precision instead of my usual streams-of-consciousness tone, as what I am doing today is as much spiritual reflection as it is a critique of ideology. In so doing, I also hope to be writing for the edification of my more usual readers in such a way that shows that we all have much to learn from the experience of the church of Vancouver as she struggles with the question of ecumenical unity.

Speaking the Truth in Love: Kyivan thoughts on criticizing Protestant liberalism and sister Catholics
While in principle I would be amenable to signing an open letter telling Franklin Graham that Vancouver does not need him to help us in our evangelism, I am critical of this letter in question because it is, in my reading, advancing a liberal ideology with its emphasis on ideological deference and the creation of an ‘overlapping consensus’ as a substitute for the harder work of re-establishing communion among churches in Vancouver in which saints are made, martyrs are formed, and theology is literally the speech of G-d into a concrete world that is as political and material as it is spiritual. This kind of liberal critique of Graham is insufficient, I claim, because Franklin Graham can easily portray the letter-writers as in bed with the liberal state based the ideological match between the churches and the City of Vancouver, and whatever the letter’s own protestations that it ‘was not written at the request of the City of Vancouver,’ the private meeting of some of the letter writers with the City on 10 February 2017, alongside Mayor Gregor Robertson’s own public statement about Graham, makes this relationship between the church and the state very suspicious indeed, however the internal relationships are actually constructed.

In some ways, I am bound to be critical of such a liberal letter because I am Eastern Catholic and the letter-writers are mostly Protestant, and in some ways, then, it is indeed odd of me to even be weighing in at all, especially on a blog titled Eastern Catholic Person. As wise persons in the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv have reminded me, it is not for me to weigh in on intra-Protestant fights, interesting as they are and as much as I write about them in a detached scholarly way in my academic work – to write about is not the same as writing within, which a theological critique would inevitably do. Certainly, I am as a person entitled to have my own views on Protestants in Vancouver, but to voice them, especially on a blog titled Eastern Catholic Person, would be unseemly because, frankly, since when do we write about Protestants here?

Because of this, I was hesitant to write a full-scale critique of the liberalism of the letter, mostly because Protestants on their own terms (and therefore outside of any ecumenical conversations they may be having with us, or the Latin Church, or the various Eastern churches) are entitled to be liberals. Moreover, any critique of mine that follows from the concepts of makrodiakonia I have been advancing on this blog and therefore playing around with in my own intellectual work as well would be unfair to Protestants, who do not share our church’s Byzantine tradition and therefore simply do not do theology the same way as me; to criticize them for that would be almost to call out the sky for being blue.

However, the slight game-changer here is that the local Latin hierarch, J. Michael Miller, CSB, signed the liberal letter. In some ways, I still should not care about this. After all, on this blog, I have been insistent about the status of my church as an ecclesia sui juris: we are autonomous, self-governing, of our own law, in free and full communion with all the Catholic churches, including our sister, the Latin Church. Respect for the autonomy of my sister church means that, in principle, I should not be writing about the Latin Church’s internal affairs, even when I disagree with a statement that they signed that presents a form of ecumenism that is insufficiently catholic. Because of this, I still felt hesitant about saying anything because the hierarch of our Kyivan church in the Eparchy of New Westminster did not sign the letter. In writing about this now, I am not writing on his behalf or at his behest; in fact, properly speaking, I am for now in the Eparchy of Chicago, which does not as of yet have a bishop.

Therefore, I felt that if I were to voice my thoughts about the peculiarities of the letter, especially the ones that I saw as self-undermining, I should be limiting myself to conversations on social media in which, as is my standard modus operandi, jokes and puns flow freely while substantial answers even to substantial questions are seldom forthcoming. That I should not say anything about churches that are not my own should not prevent me from having fun with them. In addition, I am from Vancouver and therefore tell many jokes about my own city, especially among friends, acquaintances, and even strangers who might comment on my social media.

However, a wise Latin friend in Vancouver reminded me that the intricacies of Catholic communion are seldom legible to those who are unfamiliar with Eastern Catholicism. Both the Vancouver Sun and the Washington Post, for example, calls Archbishop Miller the ‘Vancouver Catholic archbishop,’ and Christianity Today says that the letter was signed by a number of evangelical churches ‘along with representatives from Catholic and mainline churches.’ Because of this, all Catholics in Vancouver – Latin, Kyivan, Melkite, and Chaldean – have been represented by the press as being included in the consensus of the letter, regardless of our church sui juris. As my friend went on to show me, taking my comments on social media that were making fun of the letter’s liberalism seriously would also implicate me as impugning a successor to the apostles with quite a theological scandal, creating the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church over a Protestant debacle, should things get too far. Rebuking me as Catholic to Catholic, my friend helped me to see that there was another way forward: I should develop my concerns more fully in writing in order to charitably show the Latin hierarch, his sheep, and all of our fellow Catholics in all the sui juris churches that there are still some legitimate concerns to be had with the letter. I repeat again: I do not write on behalf of my church sui juris; I state these concerns purely as an individual.

However, as a person being formed as a Christian within my own church sui juris, I am observing as a simple lay person that the model for this kind of speaking the truth in love can be found in the ways that the hierarchs of my own church relate, say, to the Latin Church. In saying this, I am not writing on behalf of my bishops; I am instead of thanking them for being vessels by which the Lord Jesus is forming my soul. In its quest for ecumenism, the Latin Church, for example, has sometimes caused our church great pain in its negotiations with Moscow, especially when it spoke in the Havana Declaration of our church’s status as an ‘ecclesial community’ and the war in Ukraine as a ‘hostility’ and ‘conflict’ without noting the fact of Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine. While some in our church have been extremely hostile to the Bishop of Rome as a result, the hierarchs of our church have shown me, a sinner, another way forward. Our Patriarch, for example, praised Francis’s deep spiritual openness to dialogue even with the Moscow Patriarchate while saying firmly to the press that nobody has the right to tell us whether or not we should exist. In such a way, I observed that our hierarchs were offer us, the simple people of G-d, a model: we can indeed voice our concerns to our sister Latin Church when our church is implicated by its actions, but we always speak the truth in love. Again, I am not writing on behalf of my church, but simply as one being formed into the likeness of Christ within it by the example of my hierarchs.

What I am saying is this, in brief: I am not critiquing Protestants for the sake of being Protestants, but I am attempting to speak the truth in love to the Catholic Church in Vancouver as an Eastern Catholic because the signature of the Latin hierarch on a liberal ecumenical letter implicates all Catholics when this letter is discussed in the press. In turn, I am not accusing the Latin Church in Vancouver of being liberal – experience is enough to show to show that it is far from such danger – but I wish to point out some things that may have been overlooked in perhaps an overly hasty reading of the letter. I therefore acknowledge that Archbishop Miller’s signing of the letter was well-intentioned, as anything that brings the Body of Christ together should be received with joy. My intention in writing this critique is that we may continue in that joy, weeding out the foxes in our vineyard that may undermine our love, as the Song of Solomon puts it so poetically.

An overly liberal letter: the weaknesses of ecumenism by overlapping consensus
At first blush, the ‘Open Letter Concerning Franklin Graham’s Visit to Vancouver, Canada’ seems uncontroversial enough. The letter opens with an affirmation that the letter writers ‘deeply believe in a Jesus who is “for” all human beings.’ Elaborating on its theology, the letter frames the Christian Gospel in relatively uncontestable terms: ‘Jesus’s life, sacrificial death, and resurrection ensure that justice will ultimately prevail in the world, that the universe will be restored to its full goodness and wellbeing, and that everyone may find in Jesus forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with the Creator who knows and loves each of us in our unique particularity.’ The letter writers also acknowledge that a broad ideological tent that can be found in any church can be had from this shared understanding of the Gospel: ‘Christians can legitimately disagree with one another on many issues of political and religious policy, and we do engage in ongoing conversation about these issues. Biblical ethics do not sort neatly into “conservative” and “progressive” circles, even less so among Canadian Christians than our American counterparts.’ Indeed, all Christians – Western and Eastern – can agree more or less with these statements, and if these theological statements, drawn from the rich sources of Christian tradition, were the basis of the agreements by which the letter was written, I would have no objections.

What is also uncontroversial about the letter – and these are the parts that the press picked up – are the public statements that Graham has made around a variety of people for which he has drawn some controversy. The letter helpfully bullet-points these offences:

Regrettably, Franklin Graham’s public comments appear to compromise Jesus’s mission of love and justice for all. He has made disparaging and uncharitable remarks about Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community, while portraying the election, administration and policies of U.S. President Donald Trump as intrinsically aligned with the Christian Church.

For instance, Franklin Graham has said that:

  • All Muslims should be banned from the United States because Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion” at war with the Christian West;

  • LGBTQ+ persons should not be allowed to enter churches or even enter as guests into Christian homes, because “the Enemy [Satan] wants to devour our homes”;

  • The outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election was due to “the hand of God,” giving the impression that the Christian church as an institution is partisanly aligned with an administration and its policies.

The letter then explains the problems with these items, and again, I have no problem with the following items being elaborated:

Such blending of politics and religion is dangerous. First, it comes close to aligning the power of the church with the power of the state. Second, it does so by seeming to develop a false religious narrative to support an exalted and troubling American nationalism. Third, it can divide Christians who do not view things the same way as Mr. Graham. Fourth, we are concerned that some of the policies of the Trump administration have introduced unprecedented structural shifts that put the most vulnerable in our world at risk of greater harm. These policies may jeopardize refugees and reinforce prejudice.

That Graham has made all the statements that he is being accused of making is incontrovertible – the letter even provides a helpful link to what Graham has actually said on the public record. That these implications about Graham’s merging of church and state, especially the xenophobic and Islamophobic policies of the Trump Administration, can be also found from a direct reading of Graham’s comments is also relatively uncontroversial.

The problems with the letter, then, lie not with its statement of facts, its analysis of Graham’s comments, or even its stated theological affirmations. It is rather that its liberal theological methodology, I claim, hamstrings ecumenical relations and subverts its own noble purposes, for the letter’s attempt to construct an opposition to Graham is not ultimatley derived from Christian tradition; it is from ‘dialogue,’ much of it private.

In principle, I am not opposed to dialogue; the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, for example, writes – and I agree with most of what he says, even though my affinity for him may itself be controversial among some Catholics – that ‘dialogue’ is the ‘correct method’ in the ‘task of liberation.’ However, not all dialogues are created equal. For Freire, the point of dialogue is to develop what he calls the people’s ‘conscientizaçao,’ their own consciousness of their own consciousness, an awareness, for example, of the way that they have been exploited, turned into objects, and therefore dehumanized and oppressed (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 67). Though Freire is often mistakenly read as a secular Marxist, his understanding of dialogue is stated throughout his work as closer to a Catholic understanding of ‘communion’ than a liberal overlapping consensus. He goes so far as to quote Pope St John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra to criticize the ‘disinterested aid’ of international organizations that think they can engage in developmental work without engaging in communion with the people whom they are supposed to be helping as equally created in the image and likeness of G-d (Pedagogy, p. 140).

But the open-minded development of a new consciousness is not the point of dialogue in this open letter; an overlapping consensus is, often from private arenas. There is talk, for example, of a dialogue with the Festival of Hope organizers that took place over nine months: ‘We have attempted to resolve this matter through dialogue with Festival organizers, who we had hoped would be open to inviting a speaker with a message that more clearly aligns with the Good News of Jesus Christ.’ Why this private dialogue was needed in the first place, and why the persons involved in the dialogue represented ‘this matter’ of Graham’s undermining of the Gospel through his statements, is not altogether clear. After all, the buzz about the Festival of Hope was public, even nine months ago, with the Church of Vancouver blog even supporting the event (even though this current controversy is now being reported on that same blog, which now seems to oppose it) and the Vancouver Sun‘s religion columnist Douglas Todd reporting critical comments about it in an open letter that was released at that time already.

Of course, it may be obvious to some evangelicals that what is being practiced in the private dialogue with the Festival of Hope are the prescriptions in Matthew 18.15-17:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have gained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

However, what is obvious to evangelicals is not immediately obvious to me, and here I represent no one but myself in my reading of this passage. In this passage, the Lord Jesus is talking about a personal fault committed between two persons in the church, perhaps even a fault that the offender does not even know that she or he has committed. The arena here, as the biblical exegete Sam Tsang points out, is a private one; therefore, it necessitates a private conversation that may expand if the offender does not repent of his or her offensive action.

What is unclear is that how this is even applicable to the Graham comments. First, Graham made his comments in a public arena, which rightfully elicited a public response reported by Douglas Todd nine months ago and engendered a public debate reported by the Church of Vancouver blog. Second, Graham’s comments offended Muslims, LGBTQ+ people, and black people, but the ‘we’ in the dialogue with the Festival of Hope is not really the ‘we’ who have been offended, the ones who should (in the rubrics of Matthew 18) go and show Graham and his supporters his fault. Indeed, none of the final signatories are Muslim, none are black to my knowledge, and while a few of the clergy are openly gay, it does not follow that this is a statement from LGBTQ+ communities in Vancouver.

Instead, the aims of the dialogue seem one-sided; its objective was to convince the Festival of Hope organizers to rescind its invitation to Graham on behalf of the groups of people Graham may have offended. These are therefore Protestants speaking to Protestants on behalf of people who may or may not Protestant in a private arena with the attempt to develop an overlapping consensus that Graham should be disinvited. It is not clear that the Festival of Hope organizers, of course, ever agreed that this was the overlapping consensus for which they were also seeking, but the result is clear: they did not budge. For this reason, one cannot even be sure if what occurred in this ‘dialogue’ was even a dialogue; it sounds to me more like a monologue.

Around this time, a new dialogue seems to have developed about taking the concerns from this private dialogue public in an open letter – even though there was already a vibrant public debate about Graham among Christians in Vancouver already for nine months in the Vancouver Sun and the Church of Vancouver blog. This second has, it seems, become accidentally seen as not only a private dialogue with the City of Vancouver, but also as the churches acting as the benign arm of the police state. On 10 February, Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson and city councillor Tim Stevenson called a meeting with local clergy to express their displeasure at Graham coming. Simply the fact that that meeting occurred seems to have generated some public confusion, as it is easy to portray this meeting as developing a new private dialogue now between the letter-writers and the City, with the new consensus being that an open letter should be written by the churches to tell Graham not to come. Indeed, such confusion can be construed from a natural reading about the initial report about the meeting with the City on the Church of Vancouver blog on February 16: ‘Mayor Gregor Robertson called a meeting with a number of senior Christian leaders and city councillor Tim Stevenson last Friday (February 10) to discuss his concerns about Graham’s intolerant language. Those leaders are expected to release a statement this week – and it will, almost certainly, not welcome his role in the Festival.’ The first sentence, in other words, describes the meeting; the second sentence about the letter follows naturally from the first.

On 21 February, Douglas Todd also reported in the Vancouver Sun that at this private meeting were ‘Vancouver Catholic Archbishop Michael Miller; Regent College academic dean Paul Spilsbury [whose name does not seem to have made it onto the letter]; Richard Topping, president of Vancouver School of Theology; Jonathan Bird, president of the evangelical organization City Gate Leadership Forum, and Peter Elliot, Dean of Christ Church (Anglican) Cathedral.’ Todd then underscored that the meeting with the city was private by calling attention to how ‘others who attended the meeting did not want their names made public at this time’ and that ‘similar privacy concerns’ were being had among a letter that had been circulated in connection with the meeting. That letter is now the published letter I am critiquing, and in the letter’s cover statement, it says that ‘we had planned to release the letter on February 21st, but agreed to hold it until today [February 24] to give Mr. Graham time to reply in writing.’ This agreement with Graham (which I will talk about next) was also private, which likely meant that this agreement was not communicated to the mayor. The circumstantial evidence instead shows that with no letter in sight, Mayor Robertson himself spoke out about the Festival of Hope on February 23, asking the organizers to ‘to drop Graham for what he calls “extraordinarily derogative” comments.’ With such timing, Robertson’s comments suggest that – at least for him – the letter that he had expected to be forthcoming from the meeting was supposed to have said what he wanted to have said, but with an inexplicable delay in the letter, the true master had to emerge from the shadows to say directly what he had wished to say before through a proxy.

This suspicious timing has not been lost on the letter writers. Surely, they must have understood, for example, the irony of their position – that while accusing Franklin Graham of ‘aligning the power of the church with the power of the state,’ they could be accused of much the same thing. Indeed, the optics of this are quite bad: in targeting a religious event like the Festival of Hope and commenting about Graham’s speech, the City appears to be sacrificing at the altar of public order all four of the ‘fundamental freedoms’ listed in the second section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s federal constitution:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

  • (d) freedom of association.

If we are to take the suspicious timing of the mayor’s comments seriously, it seems that with a sort of frustration at the church’s slowness to do his dirty work for him, he made clear his own intentions to put public order ahead of Canada’s fundamental freedoms, thereby implicating all of the letter’s signatories in his plan, regardless of whatever they thought they were doing by meeting with him. Seeking to take back the narrative, the open letter, issued on February 24, opens with a cover letter with a clarification about this: ‘We want to make clear that our letter was not written at the request of the City of Vancouver. It was already in draft form when a few of us met with the Mayor earlier this month. The Mayor called that meeting because he wanted to share his concerns and to ask what the Christian community could do to diminish the potential risk of inciting violence that he and the Vancouver Police Department perceived.’ Here, we see that what the letter writers had attempted to do with the Festival of Hope – generate an overlapping consensus with a party that was not interested in overlapping – the City was also able to do with the letter writers: create a consensus among them in a private meeting that the ‘Christian community’ could act as the arm of the state in enforcing public order over against Charter freedoms by diminishing ‘the potential risk of inciting violence that he and the Vancouver Police Department perceived.’ After all, if religious communities themselves could limit their own religious freedom, communication, assembly, and association, the state would not show its shadowy face.

It is unclear if the ‘Christian community’ shares this self-understanding of themselves as the benign arm of the police state; perhaps there is even some confusion on this part in both the cover and the actual letter. In the cover, we see the Christian community attempt to wiggle out of an overlapping consensus to which they did not explicitly agree. But the letter itself is much more ambiguous. In an action point at the conclusion of the letter that can only be called bizarre because it is so completely out of left field, the letter commits its signatories to ‘encouraging our elected leaders when they work for a just and peace-filled society that comes closer to God’s vision of flourishing life, while challenging them when they enact policies that oppress others.’ Not only does this action point run the risk of applying to the letter-writers themselves directly the accusation that Graham is ‘aligning the power of the church with the power of the state,’ but it also aligns the letter writers with the City’s working for ‘for a just and peace-filled society that comes closer to God’s vision of flourishing life,’ which in this case is to prevent Graham from coming to Vancouver on account of the public disorder he might cause. Though the letter says it is not in an overlapping consensus with the liberal state, its very wording is. The lack of clarity here is damning: it would be bad enough if churches aligned themselves with the interests of the state as Charter agents, but in this case, the churches are being framed – with no clear objection from themselves – as the agents of the state to deprive the Festival of Hope and even Franklin Graham of the fundamental freedoms enumerated in the Charter, in effect to aid the state in contradicting its own fundamental law. All Graham would have to say, then, at the Festival of Hope is that the churches have teamed up with the state to violate his and his supporters’ constitutional freedoms – in effect calling them out for failing to follow through their commitment to challenge the state ‘when they enact policies that oppress others’ – and the political legitimacy of both the City of Vancouver and all the churches that signed the letter representing ‘over 60% of the Christians in the metro area’ (so the letter says) would be called into question.

But there is even more. After the letter was written, dialogue was then had with Graham and his representatives based on the letter, during which the letter writers bound themselves in deference to Graham because of their private dialogue with him. It is not clear from some of my own conversations with some of the signatories that they were even part of this third overlapping consensus, even though on paper, it says that they were. ‘We had planned to release the letter on February 21st,’ the letter says – and this is why some of my friends signed – but they were not part of the agreement (they tell me) ‘to hold it until today to give Mr. Graham time to reply in writing.’ In this third consensus that apparently then included some of the signatories but not others (which begs the question of how much of a consensus there really was), the objective seems to have been to privately convince Graham to retract some of his public statements. The response, it appears, was also private: ‘We received Mr. Graham’s reply last night (the 23rd). We are encouraged that he gave us a gracious response and has publicly pledged to avoid controversial topics while in Vancouver and to focus on the “simple Gospel.”‘ However, the letter writers’ release of their end of the private dialogue has not made Graham release his: ‘We urge Mr. Graham to release the reply he sent us.’

To this, Graham could of course say that he has said all that he wished to say in a statement that had already been released when he got wind of the letter’s circulation prior to any dialogue that seems to have bound only one party to silence. In this statement, Graham has already capitalized on this theme of dialogue, asking all to ‘come see and hear it for themselves’ and to come together around the Gospel instead of politics: ‘Politics, policies, economics and commerce are significant matters, but for these three days we will come together in Vancouver to focus on the most important thing of all: God’s love for each and every one of us.’ Part of this Gospel, apparently, is ‘all kinds of music with something for the entire family.’ The third consensus here is clear: the Gospel is apolitical, a point affirmed by both Graham and the writers of the cover letter who applaud Graham’s ‘gracious’ commitment to preach ‘the simple Gospel.’

The problem with this consensus is that it completely contradicts the orthodox theological statements with which the letter opens and neuters the letter’s objections to Graham. The letter declares, after all:

Jesus inaugurated his ministry in and for the world by announcing, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).

In this passage from the Holy Prophet Isaiah, ‘the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth’ does not seem at least in my humble, individual, and literal reading to be apolitical, as the Streams of Justice letter further points out, because it aligns the Gospel with what might has been called in Catholic social teaching a preferential option for the poor. Moreover, the liberal letter itself complains that the Festival organizers should have invited ‘a speaker with a message that more clearly aligns with the Good News of Jesus Christ.’ But instead of arriving at the logical conclusion that therefore Franklin Graham proclaims a different gospel than the one that would be proclaimed if one had a preferential option for the poor, the letter suggests that what is shared in common is ‘the Good News about Jesus of Nazareth,’ and the cover asserts without any substantiation that it is worth trusting ‘that many will find new life in Christ at the Festival of Hope over these next few days and that, irrespective of anything else, this city will experience the love of God in new and profound ways. We pray to that end.’ What we learn, then, is that even though the content of the Gospel may be different between the letter writers and Franklin Graham (as Streams of Justice suggests outright), Christ can work through Graham’s different gospel message to make new disciples of the letter writers’ Jesus of Nazareth. This, then, is the letter’s most tremendous theological feat: Christ himself is reincarnated in the overlapping consensus.

It turns out, then, that this ‘simple Gospel’ is not simple at all; it is a way of establishing a consensus that does not question Franklin Graham’s material practices and the legacy of the institutions of which he is a part. The letter-writers, for example, feel compelled to clarify that ‘we continue to respect Franklin’s father, the prominent evangelist Billy Graham, and we appreciate the life-saving work that Franklin’s international relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse, does in some of the world’s most challenged regions. It is not our intention to vilify the Festival’s organizing committee.’ In order to establish that that respect remains intact, the theological content of Graham’s Gospel must not be questioned, even while the purpose of the letter is precisely to question it. What this means is that at the end of the day, it is this operating consensus out of which the letter’s theology is derived, not the Christian tradition that the letter itself quotes.

Certainly, Protestants in all of their diverse ecclesial communities have every right to do theology in the ways enumerated above. However, such a theological methodology seems to me, a sinner, to be foreign to any Catholic way of speaking about G-d, Western or Eastern. After all, all theologies that are called Catholic are derived from communion with G-d as his people, and part of that communion entails a fidelity to the tradition passed down from the apostles. In fact, the logic of calling Archbishop Miller, as well as my own Kyivan bishop in Vancouver, successors of the apostles is because they are among the guardians of this holy tradition, making present the apostles in our time. Because the letter itself quotes from this holy tradition, especially from Scripture, a cursory reading may of course not have revealed the theological traps that lay therein for Catholics. As my wise friend reminds me, this is where I must respectfully submit my own findings to the successor of the apostles who signed this document, deferring to his signature but presenting troubling conclusions to him that I am quite sure he did not want to imply when he signed this letter. This critique is thus submitted out of love for the whole Church – Western and Eastern – which I would assume in the fullness of charity does not want to be seen as speaking for persons who are oppressed instead of hearing their voices directly, acting as the police arm of a state seeking to curb constitutional rights to ensure public order, and reinventing the Gospel passed down to us by the apostles through the process of an overlapping consensus. By saying these things, I am writing only as an individual who loves the Church, Eastern and Western, and in closing, I would like to suggest – again, solely as an individual and as a sinner – a new way forward amenable to Catholic Christians for ecumenism.

Ecumenism in the local church: what the Church of Vancouver can learn from the Church of Kyiv
As critical as I am of the liberalism of the letter to oppose Franklin Graham coming to Vancouver, the spirit of the letter still speaks to a deeper longing for the unity of the churches in Vancouver. Sundered by over 500 years of division – 1,000 if we count the Orthodox and 1,600 if we include the Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, and Assyrians – the Spirit still works to bring about the fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer that all may be one, as he and the Father are one, ‘so that the world may believe’ that the Father has sent the Son (John 17. 21). Behind all talk of evangelism, including in the flawed attempts by the Festival of Hope, is therefore usually a longing for ecumenism. Indeed, this is evident from Graham’s reference to a coalition of ‘327 churches of various denominations’ supporting his event, the letter’s assertion that it represents ’60 percent of Christians in the metro area,’ and Streams of Justice’s letter that it is part of a ‘growing coalition’ of Christians seeking justice in Vancouver. The attempt at an overlapping consensus, flawed as it is, likely also comes from such an urge, and I will bet that Archbishop Miller signed the letter with the joyful eschatological hope that Catholics and Protestants will find a way to walk together again.

As I end my critique of this letter, perhaps I could offer a constructive suggestion forward, an alternative to the overlapping consensus for ecumenism in the local church in Vancouver that is fully displaying the agonies of its longings for unity. For this, I turn to the resources of my own church, the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv, but while I write as a person being formed in this church, I do not write on behalf of this church; again, I am only discerning as an individual and a sinner what my church has taught me up to this point in my young life as a Kyivan Catholic.

One of the reasons I joined the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv is because I read a pastoral letter that our patriarch wrote titled ‘The Vibrant Parish – a place to encounter the living Christ!’ Patriarch Sviatoslav makes many practical suggestions for how to develop a ‘vibrant parish’ – centering the word of G-d, being a community of communities, engaging in diakonia (which I have been writing about on this blog), building leadership structures, and evangelizing. One of the key points that is pertinent to our discussion here is his understanding of reuniting the local church, which for us is centered in the city of Kyiv. The church of Kyiv, as he notes, shares the common baptism of St Volodymyr in 989; however, it has now been sundered into many parts, of which we are but one. This should be a cause for both sadness and motivation:

We cannot be indifferent to the fact that the descendants of the Baptism under St. Volodymyr today are divided and estranged from one another. At the Last Supper, Christ prayed to His Heavenly Father for His disciples, “that all may be one” (John 17:21). Bearing in mind these words of Christ, I sincerely ask you all today – let us pray for the unity of the Church, let us pray for the restoration of unity of all the churches of the Kyivan tradition.

What is interesting, however, is that the mode of ecumenism being pursued in Kyiv (as Metropolitan John of Pergamon relates in the last chapter of his groundbreaking book on ecclesiology, Being as Communion) is not to absorb each other or to create an overlapping consensus. Instead, it is simply to re-establish communion between the hierarchies of all the local Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches. If we can take communion together, it is good enough.

But on what is communion based? Communion is where the Lord is made present in the Divine Liturgy, where the hierarch or his presbyteral representative make present in our midst the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The local hierarch is the successor of the apostles: it means that we share in the apostolic tradition. The eucharist is bread and wine that are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus: it means that we share in material communion, sharing all things in common, especially with the poor. It is in the gathering of the people of G-d that the Lord comes: Christ is enthroned among us in our liturgical acts, the work of the people in praising him. As the Holy Spirit is called down upon the gifts in the epiklesis, it is shouted: Amen! Amen! Amen!

Ecumenism is not achieved, therefore, by an overlapping consensus about ideology. While Christians of different churches cannot take communion together yet, these implications mean that there is much still be shared as we walk together in the hope against hope that we someday may yet be one. Material things can be shared, especially for the poor. Services can be done together without communion; in our church, the best service to come to is the All-Night Vigil every Saturday night, where we just sing. The apostolic tradition can be jointly studied, our common Scriptures and in the theological texts passed down to us from our holy mothers and fathers in both the Western and Eastern churches. In this way, a critique of Graham would come from a shared reading of the common tradition, a hard look at his material participation in acts of oppression, and the observation that there was never a need for a Festival of Hope to give the church in Vancouver its songs to praise G-d, its message proclaiming the mighty deeds of G-d, and its acts of diakonia in seeing Christ in one another. The Spirit of the Lord Jesus is already among us. He has already anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor. He has already sent us to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

As we thus sing as the Gospel comes among the people in the Little Entrance of the Divine Liturgy: Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ! Son of G-d, risen from the dead, save us who sing to you, alleluia!

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  • Kevin Lamb

    Exactly what are you trying to say? What a painful 7,600 word piece that has almost nothing worthwhile to say. For anyone looking for mental flagellation for Lent, this is for you!