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Archive for September, 2008

“Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ” in my CD player

My review copy of this has arrived (thank you, Mark!). More to come soon.

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Oh, man, you’re killin’ me

Yesterday, a well-meaning person asked me what the Orthodox tradition was with respect to paid — as in full-time and salaried — choir directors.

And, when I was done wiping the tears away from the peals of hysterical laughter, I explained that, in a nutshell, in historically Orthodox countries, it happens; in this country, lotsa luck. There are a very small number (single digit, I’d expect) of parishes in this country that can afford even a half-time salary for a choir director, let alone a full-time salary. If I had to guess, I’d say that probably being the chapel choir director at someplace like St. Vlad’s or Holy Cross Seminary is probably as good as it gets. I get a stipend, but it’s less than minimum wage once one figures out the actual hourly rate (particularly during Holy Week). “Professional Orthodox Church Musician” — we’re just not there yet, alas.

Someday somebody’s going to have start educating donors about the idea of endowing certain kinds of positions and ministries. It’s not unheard of, at least outside of Orthodox circles, for choir directors and music ministries in general to have their own endowments. Unfortunately, right now it’s not unheard of within Orthodox circles for priests to not be paid. All in good time.

The vision of Fr. John Peck, in which the author sighs, “It’s all Greek to me”

Read my re-post of Fr. John Peck’s “The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow” first, and possibly Anna Pougas’ post on American Orthodoxy as background if you haven’t already.

When I was in New York for the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius conference, my friends Peter and Soula called me, saying they just wanted to let me know I was hanging out with them before I headed home. The way this was going to be best effected was for me to spend Sunday morning with them, and they were good enough to pick me up at St. Vlad’s and take me out to Ss. Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church, a Greek parish in West Nyack, New York. Oh, by the way, they told me as we walked in, you’re helping with Orthros.

The priest, Fr. Nicholas Samaras, arrived. He gave me a blessing and asked where I was from. “Bloomington, Indiana,” I replied. He sized me up a bit and said, “Ah. Sounds like a good place to be from.”

Orthros/Matins wasn’t a problem; Mr. Michaels, their psaltis, would sing a verse of something in Greek, I’d sing a verse of something in English (occasionally in Greek if I knew it well enough), then Peter would alternate between Greek and English, and Soula read the psalms and prayers. It was a wonderful church in which to sing; it’s a big building with a high ceiling, and you don’t feel like you have to push at all to be heard (unlike what I’m used to, alas).

The Divine Liturgy was sung by a choir rather than the psaltai (ευχαριστώ πολυ Στέφανε αλλά τώρα είμαι συγκεχυμένος — είναι οι ψάλτες ή οι ψάλται;), but Peter and I alternated on verses for the antiphons with the choir singing the refrains. It was also mentioned to me, “Usually somebody chants the Epistle in Greek and somebody else reads it in English, but the guy who chants it isn’t here — do you want to chant it in English?” And so I did. (I purposefully don’t travel with my reader’s cassock, but this was a morning where I wished I’d had it.)

After the Liturgy, I went through the line to venerate the priest’s cross and get a blessing. Fr. Samaras blessed me and said, “Um… don’t move. Just… just don’t go anywhere for a moment.” Uh oh, I thought. I stepped on some toes and I’m going to hear about manners when one is a guest. When all had been blessed, he turned to me and said, “What time do you have?”

I looked at my watch. “Quarter after twelve.”

“Ah, okay. And how long will it take to move you and your wife out here?”

Following that, there were a couple of very kind older gentlemen who thumped me on the chest and told me, “Young man, you’ve got a gift from God.” Peter’s parents (who I had just met for the first time a week and a half earlier when they had visited Bloomingon) referred to me as “family”. Fr. Samaras was very serious about wanting to keep in touch, and we’ve kept up a correspondence since. Don’t tell me that Greeks (to say nothing of New Yorkers!) aren’t welcoming; I don’t want to hear it. I’ve also found Holy Assumption Church in Scottsdale, AZ to be very welcoming with a terrific priest, as well as Holy Apostles in Shoreline, WA (where I attended my very first Divine Liturgy). The blanket assumption that “Greeks would prefer non-Greeks to stay away” is categorically false; let’s make that clear.

I also think that the convert or the inquirer who finds himself/herself in a community with a strong ethnic contingent needs to see such a situation as a gift from God, and to approach such a parish community with a dollop of humility roughly the same size as the dollop of sour cream which I put on my nachos. The “ethnic enclave” temptation faces the convert every bit as much as anybody else — you get a community of converts who read some Lossky, Schmemann, Hopko, etc. when they were still Episcopalians a couple of years ago, and there’s a danger of an exclusivist mindset developing, very similar to what the Greeks (or the Russians, or the Romanians, or whomever) get accused of having. Reading everything in a book doesn’t make you Orthodox; you can’t teach yourself to be Orthodox, period (thank you, Seraphim Danckaert, for sharing those words of wisdom oh so long ago; they’ve stuck with me). Whenever a convert/inquirer complains about the icons looking too weird or the music sounding too strange or the language being wrong (I know of one guy for whom liturgical English isn’t close enough to “the language of the people”, let alone Greek, Slavonic, or what have you), my first thought is simply, “You’re not ready yet.” There are some things you don’t like which you have to accept with humility, however good your reasons for not liking them seem to you at the time. Icons, incense, chant, vestments… and, yes, depending on where you wind up, pews, organs, people talking during Holy Communion, and liturgical schedules that are Sunday-only. Regardless, the aforementioned gift from God is the chance to learn the faith from people who have lived it for generations, however imperfectly, rather than building up a Platonic ideal in your head from books up to which no actual parish in the world can ever hope to measure. Learning the Orthodox Christian faith from somebody’s grandmother, believe it or not, is going to actually teach a person a lot more about what it means to live the life than reading Schmemann, even if it means having to move out to aisles to prostrate during the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian because pews get in the way otherwise. (And I say that as somebody who thinks you can never read enough Schmemann.) To the people who claim that we need an idiomatically and uniquely “American” cultural expression of Orthodox Christianity and we need it yesterday, I say: chill, guys. Receive the Tradition. Let it change you and yours for a couple of generations (at least) before deciding it needs updating.

All that said, I recognize that not everybody can go to your typical Greek parish and just help sing Matins or chant the Epistle as nothing more than a visitor passing through, and not everybody has a chance (or the interest, or overall inclination or ability) to take a Greek class (ancient or modern), and not everybody knows people where they’re traveling who can be a conduit to other people in the parish. So, I don’t pretend my experience, which in general has been unique, is necessarily the general case. Let’s also not pretend that every experience in every parish in every jurisdiction I’ve ever visited has been positive; they have not. I also don’t wish to pretend that I’ve never visited a parish and turned my nose up at it because it didn’t meet my expectations or cater to me; I most certainly have, and five years later — to demonstrate God’s sense of humor — I’m still there, my wife and I were chrismated there, we’ve seen four godchildren received into the faith, I’m the choir director/psaltis, and I’m on the parish council. Those people are my family in every sense of the word. First impressions really can be meaningless.

Coming on the heels of the situation regarding Fr. John Peck’s article is wind I caught yesterday of how Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers might work this coming winter. Holy Trinity, the big Greek parish in Indianapolis, wants to host; they’re just about to finish building the Indy regional campus of Hagia Sophia, and it will be, from a standpoint of both capacity and providing an exemplar of traditional Byzantine architecture, the ideal place to hold it.

There’s a catch, however — the choir made up of Orthodox singers from around the entire Indianapolis metro area (including Bloomington)? Gone. Part of the deal is, if you do it at Holy Trinity, you do everything in-house — their psaltai/psaltes (whichever it is — I’m confused now), their music, their organ (probably), end of story. That this runs entirely counter to the spirit of how the Indianapolis clergy have always tried to celebrate Sunday of Orthodoxy seems to be not an entirely relevant point. Okay, fine, that’s their right — but why suddenly take a hard line when it comes to playing with others?

To come back to Fr. John Peck, why come down so hard on a priest who, basically, is saying that those who identify with Orthodox Christianity on a basis of ethnicity and heritage are going to have to learn how to get along with those who identify on a basis of faith if they want the Church to survive in the United States? I don’t agree with everything Fr. John said; I think his view of the future is a little too rosy, but I think he’s got the point hands-down that the makeup of the clergy coming out of the next several class years of our seminaries is going to change some things, big time. What some want to hear or not, I nonetheless fail to see how what he says is hostile or out of line. It may not necessarily be what some people want to hear, but is it really that threatening for a priest to point out what is painfully obvious — that, as Fr. Seraphim Rose said thirty years ago, “ethnic Orthodoxy” is a dead end? The current generation, by and large, either isn’t learning the faith or aren’t learning to care about the faith — I know of priest’s kids at IU who, so far as I know, have never darkened the door of All Saints since maybe the first Sunday of classes their freshman year. My Greek class right now is three-quarters full of Greek American kids, some of whom, I’ve found, didn’t even know there was a church in Bloomington until I told them about it, and at whom I’ll be surprised (but pleasantly so) if they decide to come to a service. Now, let’s clarify — that’s not an “Orthodox problem,” but rather an “everybody problem”. Convincing kids they need church while they’re in college doesn’t work until they, well, realize they need church while they’re in college. But Greek/Russian/Serbian/Romanian/Albanian/whateverian families also need to realize that their kids aren’t necessarily picking up the faith of their forebears any better than their Anglo counterparts at Tenth United Methodist Church down the street — just because they have a language and a festival to associate with it doesn’t mean it sticks better. (Hats off to some very exceptional kids I know for whom it has stuck, and stuck very well. You know who you are and why I know you. You’re doing it right, guys.)

I wonder sometimes if part of the problem is money. By and large — that is, excluding Tom Hanks and maybe Chris Hillman (late of The Byrds and The Desert Rose Band), the converts coming into Orthodox Christianity are not wealthy people, at least based on what I’ve seen; we all do what we can, to be sure, but for example, my parish right now wouldn’t be able to build the janitor’s closet of Holy Trinity’s new building. We’re a community of mostly middle-to-lower class working folks as well as people from the university community, and we’re able to keep the lights on in our humble “temporary” space and pay our priest’s salary and benefits without much left over. That seems to be fairly representative of what I’ve seen in the parishes I’ve visited — converts keep the candle fund replenished, and the Greek and Lebanese doctors and lawyers, if there are any in the community to begin with, are the ones paying for the frescoing of the walls and the maintenance of the dome. Enough converts for a critical mass and the small, cradle-less community can at least be self-sustaining, but building even a simple, small traditional Byzantine church is going to be beyond the means of that kind of group. Could it be that for some “ethnic” Orthodox who actually do write substantial checks and whose grandfather may have helped to carve the iconostasis, they just don’t want to be told what to do and held in contempt by somebody who was a Baptist perhaps as recently as a year ago and whose offering might buy the incense for Holy Week? That’s perhaps ignoring the lesson of the widow’s mite, but I know from my own experience that the convert who’s given their two pennies can probably still pick up a broom or wash a dish, and not to put too fine a point on it, but that might even be what’s needed from them more than a discussion of how Byzantine chant is driving non-Greek inquirers away or the icons aren’t Byzantine- (or Russian-) looking enough.

One more thought, and then I think my bag of prolix dust is empty for the evening. There is a certain irony to me that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who in the early/mid-’80s suddenly wouldn’t give the Evangelical Orthodox the time of day (perhaps not for terrible reasons, depending on whose version of the story you’re hearing), has become a haven for certain former EOC communities who broke off from Antioch.

My hope is that Fr. John Peck comes out of this okay. What he had to say would ideally generate a conversation which needs to happen, and that isn’t anything over which he should be penalized. If he doesn’t, I hope he sticks to his guns — Antioch would probably take him with open arms (assuming a canonical release — Antioch is kinda touchy about such things). Pray for him, pray for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and pray that all Orthodox in America see something in Fr. John’s article, and the response it has received, from which they can learn.

The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow by Fr. John Peck

In the interest trying to be part of a solution rather than a problem, I would like to repost the following essay. It was originally posted here; I did not say anything about it here when it was posted because plenty of other folks were saying enough about it. It having been taken down, and given the circumstances under which it seems this occurred, I am doing what I can to help make sure it remains available. I don’t agree with everything Fr. John says, but I agree with the spirit of it and am decidedly in disagreement with those who would silence and penalize him. I will comment in another post.

The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow
By Fr. John A. Peck

There is an interesting phenomenon occurring in Orthodox Christianity in America today, and reflected powerfully in our seminaries. Seminaries are loaded almost exclusively with converts, reverts (cradle Orthodox who left the faith, and were re-converted to it again), and the sons and grandsons of clergy.

I believe we are looking at the future of the American Orthodox Church — today.

The notion that traditionally Orthodox ethnic groups (the group of ‘our people’ we hear so much about from our primates and hierarchs) are going to populate the ranks of the clergy, and therefore, the Church in the future is, frankly, a pipe dream. Orthodoxy, despite the failings of its leadership, has actually lived up to its own press. The truth of the Orthodox faith, as presented on paper, is actually being believed – by those who have no familial or historical connection with the Orthodox. These poor deluded souls (of which I count myself) actually believe what they are reading about the Orthodox faith, and expect the Church to act like, well, the Church. They refuse to accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch. No old world embassies will be tolerated for much longer – they will go the way of the dodo. No one will have to work against them; they will simply die from atrophy and neglect. The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes.

This is a well known problem. Statistical studies taken a mere seven years ago predicted that within 10 years the Orthodox Church in the United States would for all practical purposes, no longer be viable. If nothing was done within five years (that’s two years ago) the decline would be irreversible. Demographics determine destiny, as they say. As you may have imagined, not only was “nothing done,” such reports were surreptitiously filed away, while the calls for a solution from clergy and laity alike only increased. Larger jurisdictions will, of course, have a little more time, but not a different result.

What we are looking at, of course, is of the highest concern to the hierarchy. They know, in their heart of hearts, that they cannot reverse this trend. Yet they fight a rearguard action, hoping against hope to forestall the historically inevitable movement toward an American Orthodox Church.

Statistical studies taken a mere seven years ago predicted that within 10 years the Orthodox Church in the United States would for all practical purposes, no longer be viable. The laity has already moved on. Americans, generally, don’t fall for very much strong arm intimidation or brow beating, don’t go for bullying by insecure leaders, and certainly don’t see the value of taking on and promoting someone else’s ethnic culture. They care about the Gospel, and the Gospel does not require Slavonic or Koine Greek, or even English for that matter. The Gospel requires context, which is why it cannot be transmitted in any language unknown to the listener.

When we look at our seminaries, we are looking at the Church of Tomorrow, the Church twenty years from now. Indeed, this is the Church we are building today.

Twenty years from now, I anticipate we will see the following:

Vastly diminished parishes, both in size and number. There will be a few exceptions, (and they will be exceptional!) but for the most part, most current Orthodox parishioners will age and die, and have no one to replace them. Why? Because as they have taught the context of their culture, instead teaching the context of their faith. Some parishes will simply be merged with others. Many will close outright. A few will change how they do ministry, with a new vision of parochial ecclesiology. These newer parishes will be lighthouses of genuine Orthodox piety and experience. Some parishes, I believe, will actually be formed specifically, in the old fashion, by purchasing land, building a chapel or Temple in the midst of it, and parishioners building or buying homes around it. The Church will be the center of their lives, and many will come from far and wide to experience their way of life.

Publicly renowned Orthodox media and apologetic ministries. These ministries are the ones providing a living and powerful apologetic for the Orthodox faith in our culture (that is, our 21st Century life in the United States), and actually providing the Gospel in its proper context – engaged in society and the public arena. These will succeed in visibility and public awareness more than all the speeches before the U.N. and odd newspaper stories about Orthodox Easter or Folk Dance Festivals could ever do. In other words, the Orthodox Christian faith will become that most dangerous of all things – relevant to the lives of Americans, and known to all Americans as a genuinely American Christian entity.

More (and younger) bishops. If our current slate of bishops has been mostly a disappointment, reducing their number will only tighten this closed circle, making the hierarchy less and less accessible, and more and more immune to things like, oh, the needs and concerns of their flock. The process of selection for the episcopacy will contain a far more thorough investigation, and men with active homosexual tendencies, psychological problems, insecurities, or addictions will simply not make the cut. We aren’t far from open persecution of Christians by secularists in this country, and we need bishops who know the score. With better bishops, no one will be able to ‘buy’ a priest out of a parish with a gift of cash. Conversely, parish councils will no longer be able to bully priests into staying out of their affairs, and will be required to get out of the restaurant/festival business and get into the soul saving business.

A very different demographic of clergy. Our priests will be composed of converts, reverts, and the sons and grandsons of venerable, long-suffering clergy. These men all know the score. They won’t tolerate nonsense like homosexual clergy (especially bishops), women’s ordination, or financial corruption. They will not tolerate the Church being regularly and unapologetically dishonored by her own clergy. Twenty years from now, these convert and revert priests will be sending life-long Orthodox men, a new cradle generation, en masse to our seminaries. They will be white, black, Asian, Polynesian, Hispanic, and everything in between. Fewer will be Russian, Greek, or any other traditionally Orthodox background.

Orthodox Biblical Studies. Orthodox Biblical scholarship will flourish, and will actually advance Biblical Studies, rather than tag along for the latest trends, staying a minimum safe distance back in case the latest theory tanks unexpectedly. Septuagint studies are already on the rise and Orthodox scholars will usurp the lead in this arena, establishing a powerful and lasting influence in Biblical Studies for decades to come. Orthodox higher education — specifically in Biblical Studies in the Orthodox tradition — will finally have a place at the doctoral level in the Western hemisphere, and it will become a thriving academic entity. The whole Church will feed on the gleanings of this new scholarship and Scriptural knowledge, preaching, and Biblical morality will invigorate the Church for generations.

A much higher moral standard from all clergy. The next twenty years will see a revival of practical ethics. Instead of trailing military or business ethics, the Church will, once again, require the highest standard of ethical and professional behavior from her clergy — and they will respond! The clergy will not tolerate lying, cheating, or stealing and hold to account those who practice these vices. They will vigorously defend the honor of Christ’s priesthood, and Christ’s Church. I dare say, even the clergy will finally respect their own priesthood.

Vocations will explode. As a result of the elevated ethical standard publicly expected from the clergy, candidates in far greater numbers will flock to the priesthood. There will be very full classes, distance education, self-study and continuing education going on in every location. Education at a basal level will disappear, except in introductory parish classes. Clergy will powerfully articulate Orthodoxy to the faithful and to the culture around them. Personal opinion will no longer be the standard for clergy when articulating Orthodox ethics and morality. Our seminaries must become beacons for this teaching, and give up “training culture” once and for all. We will finally begin to penetrate our society, rather than go along for the ride like a tick on a dog’s back.

Philanthropy will flow like the floodgates of heaven. Finally, the many Orthodox Christian philanthropists who annually give millions of dollars to secular institutions will finally find their own Church completely transparent, completely accountable, and worthy of their faith-building support. Let’s face it, there is more than enough money in Orthodoxy right now to build hospitals, clinics, schools, colleges, universities, and a new Hagia Sophia right here in the United States. The reason this is not being done is because these philanthropists are intelligent men and women who do not trust the hierarchy to do the right thing with their millions. This will change in short order once it is shown that transparency doesn’t destroy the Church, but strengthens it immeasurably. Frankly, I don’t anticipate every jurisdiction to do this in the next twenty years, but those that are practicing transparency will emerge as the leaders in every arena of Church existence.

Hope
This all may seem unlikely today, but it is coming.

How do I know this? For one thing, the last holdouts of corruption, Byzantine intrigue and phyletism (a fancy theological term for ethnic preference) are clinging desperately to a vision of the Church that is, quite frankly, dying fast. Oh, they are doing everything to shore up their power and influence, and busy serving their own needs, but their vision is dying. And where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).

As frightening and disconcerting as it may seem to our leaders, they will learn that emerging from a cocoon, even a Byzantine cocoon, is not a bad thing. Orthodoxy is about to take flight on new beautiful wings. These are the birth pangs of a new era for Orthodoxy. God is giving us a time of freedom and light.

This new Orthodox Church will have a different face, will be ready for contemporary challenges, and will have begun to penetrate American society at every stage and on every level. This Church is the one that will be ready for the challenges of open persecution, fighting for the soul of every American, regardless of their genetic affiliation. This Church will be the one our grandchildren and great grandchildren will grow up in, looking back on the late 20th-early 21st century as a time of sentimental darkness from which burst forth the light of the Gospel. Let it begin.

Fr. John A. Peck is pastor of Prescott Orthodox Church in Prescott, Ariz.

a haiku

economy sucks

obama will save us all

ending this is hard

A preview of “Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ”

Cappella Romana has been good enough to allow me to post the link to the newsletter subscribers-only preview for “Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ.” Take a look and a listen for yourselves, pre-order a copy if you feel moved to do so, and please note that if you sign up with your e-mail address in the box on the right marked “Stay in touch,” you’ll get these previews without me having to tell you about them!

Enjoy, and I’ll have more to say about this later.

Coming soon: Cappella Romana, “Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ”

I was treated this morning to a sneak preview of yet another new Cappella Romana recording. (I could in theory link to it, but for various reasons I don’t know if the link is to be made public at this time.) This one is of a setting of St. Romanos the Melodist’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ by contemporary American composer Richard Toensing, who also happens to be Orthodox himself (much like my friend John Muehleisen) and is at, I believe, St. Luke’s Orthodox Church (Antiochian) in Lafayette, Colorado. The CD will be out in October; I am told a review copy is coming my way, and as soon as I’m able I’ll post something (and possibly more; watch this space for details).

Looking forward to this one; I’ve met Dr. Toensing once and sung one of his settings of the Divine Liturgy, and what the press release says about his work being intended to “bridge the gap between Byzantine and American hymnody” is something I find very intriguing. My own setting of “O gladsome light” is an initial experiment in that direction, although from a monophonic perspective (which is where I personally believe we have to begin — the Western harmonic system didn’t just spring fully-grown from the head of Bach, but from centuries of development starting with monophonic melodies as starting points). I’m continuing to explore this idea; as I have things to share (maybe even recordings!) I’ll post them.

Meanwhile — if the samples I heard today are any indication, we’re in for another treat. I’ll keep you posted.


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