Bose did not work this year and we both left rather unhappy.
For those not in the know, Bose is a Roman Catholic monastery in northern Italy, in the foothills of the western Alps, founded thirty years ago by its present abbot, Enzo Bianchi, and a key place of Roman-Catholic – Orthodox dialogue. Every year in early September they do a four-day conference on Orthodox spirituality, with a different theme.
Every year they invite representatives from every Orthodox Church, and anyone else is free to come. This was my fourth visit.
The ‘every Orthodox church’ was part of the problem. To (be seen to) visit Bose has become one of the things to do for every Orthodox (and ‘near’-Orthodox) church. Apart from having to politely listen to and clap greetings from every Patriarch and his brother, all saying essentially the same thing, it means that, at least for the first couple of days, the place is flooded with bishops. If they were outgoing it would not be a problem, but since they are mostly bad linguists and huddle together among themselves and with their retinues, and for a humble deacon like me the implicit rule is ‘don’t speak until you are spoken to’, one feels something of a second-class citizen.
This links into something else, which is becoming increasingly clear and I am beginning to find words for. In my mind, the main differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, are not directly theological (with a sharp mind you can break down just about every theological barrier - filioque, papal infallibility, the Immaculate conception that have been put up in the last 150 years) or even to do directly with spirituality (no, Orthodoxy does not have the monopoly of theosis that it sometimes pretends), but has everything to do with the general ethos. It is the difference between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’. Orthodoxy is still very ‘top-down’ – modelling the way societies have worked and still work in their home countries. Catholicism has, since Vatican II, become much more ‘bottom-up’, with an active and educated laity which has forced the episcopacy to listen to it. In Orthodoxy, by and large (less so perhaps in Greece and the USA, but definitely in Russia) the episcopacy think they can totally set the tone. This could prove a very major barrier in any real cooperation.
More generally, ecumenism is a funny game. Basically, for the main body of normal believers, the large part of them in the majority church of their particular part of the world, ecumenism is all a bit distant, and really not the ‘scandal of division’ certain people make it out to be. And in mixed situations – like my wife’s icon painting academy in Brussels – seriously committed Christians get on perfectly well despite the supposed division. The only ones who don’t are those for whom confessionality is tied up to identity and who would be out of a job or pastime, and travel to various nice places around the globe, as and when formal unity arrives.
I for one want to move on from this: yes, we in the various churches may not be officially ‘married’, but we are happily ‘living together’, with perhaps more informal inter-communion (especially Orthodox visiting Western Europe) than the authorities would want to know about. For me, inter-religious dialogue – especially with the Moslem world – is becoming the real challenge where I live. Ecumenism is simply passé.
I’m not saying Bose is all bad. We made some very good contacts which made the time and cost of travel worthwhile. Probably we will go again, but only from day 3, when the bishops have largely gone back home.