American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism by Fr. Nicholas Ferencz

In my research for the article on historiography of Orthodox Christianity in America, I encountered the book Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism by an Carpatho-Russian priest named Fr. Nicholas Ferencz. It was evidently his doctoral dissertation at Duquesne University, and it was published in 2006 by Gorgias Press under their “Gorgias Dissertations” imprint. It is, I think, a book that should be carefully read and considered by Orthodox Christians in America, and is far more of an intellectually honest look at certain issues than certain other books out there. Unfortunately, those certain other books are $15 a pop and Fr. Nicholas’ is $99 (the perils of a small boutique academic press, alas), so that’s unlikely to happen, but I’d like to make what case for the book I can.

Fr. Nicholas’ thesis is that “trusteeism” or congregationalism is unambiguously outside of Orthodox Christian tradition, but that it is nonetheless the de facto arrangement, at least in a modified form, for American parishes, and that this state of things represents a troubling gap between belief and practice in Orthodox Christianity as it is practiced in this country. “American Orthodoxy,” he contends, “lives out an experience of church which is at odds with its professed understanding of church,” a problem which most church leaders either cannot or will not acknowledge publicly, and of which most laity are unaware (p. 2).

The model of “modified congregationalism” within which most parishes function, he argues, boils down to the laity controlling the material assets of the community. At the same time, the laity allows the clergy (including the episcopate) more or less limited authority in the spiritual realm, but with the right implicitly reserved to either revoke that allowance, or to use material authority in a way that trumps the spiritual authority — that is, “the earthly coercive power of control” (p. 204). This is a problem, and a big one:

[C]ongregationalism does not work in practice within the Orthodox Church. Parish life does not divide into such neatly fragmented categories as spiritual/cleric on one side and material/laic on the other. A congregationalist structure merely serves to maintain a fiction which undermines the authority and responsibility of both the clergy and the laity, to the detriment of the parish and, therefore, of the church. (p. 7)

This state of affairs exists for a number of reasons, and there are three in particular on which Fr. Nicholas concentrates. The first is what he terms “the moral absence of the hierarchy,” both in the formative years and up to the present, the second is the long-term impact of the circumstances surrounding St. Alexis Toth’s bringing many of the Uniate parishes into the Orthodox Church, and the third is the result of lay societies being the engine which drove the formation of many early Orthodox parishes. Without going into the minutiae of his argument, the way that Fr. Nicholas lays out the historical circumstances in which the theoretical/practical gap developed in Orthodox Christianity as practiced in the United States is fascinating reading, and excellent food for thought.

So, what’s the way forward? There are several generations in this country, from cradle and convert stock alike, who are very used to things being the way they are, they don’t want to hear that what they’re doing is at variance with traditional Orthodox practice, and in fact they might even argue that we haven’t gone far enough towards congregationalism. So what do we do? Is it possible that there’s just no other way for Orthodox Christianity to function in this country? Is there just too much of a cultural disconnect for it to be otherwise?

Fr. Nicholas suggests that “[r]eal conciliarity on a parish level could be the beginning of the healing of the divisiveness of congregationalism,” (p. 210) with conciliarity being defined as “an authority structure which requires that all the People of God, ordained and unordained, participate in the authority of the church and the exercise of that authority as one, whole Body” (p. 209). At the same time, however, conciliarity is emphatically not “the gathering of an… ‘amorphous mass’ for the purpose of casting votes… [that is,] a democracy. It is the gathering, the coming together, of the Body of Christ in unity and in wholeness” (ibid.). This being the case, it is vital that we realize “[t]he participation of each member of the church is not exactly the same, uniform, and undifferentiated. Each person is called to share in Christ’s authority to the degree and in the manner in which they have received God’s grace to do so” (ibid.). It’s not an easy way forward in a culture where we don’t readily make a distinction between difference in function and difference in quality, so I don’t know how we get around that, but I suspect Fr. Nicholas is right regardless.

There’s much more to the book than this necessarily brief review will allow me to explore, but I recommend seeking it out. If you don’t want to fork out the $99 to buy it, interlibrary loan should be able to produce a copy. It’s very much worth reading and discussing further.


10 Responses to “<i>American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism</i> by Fr. Nicholas Ferencz”

  1. 1 daniel greeson 10 October 2009 at 12:50 pm


    I believe Fr Alexander Atty also pursued this very thing in his recent Dmin work. He gave the same type of historical background and way forward. Let’s hope this kind of work gets more press!

  2. 2 Mickey 10 October 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Maybe Google will scan it for us.

  3. 4 rwp 12 October 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I’ll have to read it. The problem with the topic is how one defines congregationalism. Where do you draw the line?

    • 5 Richard Barrett 12 October 2009 at 3:19 pm

      This is a question he spends some time answering, but he does so in a way that points out that that question cuts both ways. I think Fr. Nicholas would probably be on board with the idea of more bishops covering smaller territories as a way of dealing with the problem (the impossibly wide geographic areas that bishops have had to cover in the Americas contributing to the problem of “moral absence” that he describes).

  4. 6 Dan 12 October 2009 at 11:21 pm

    While I have not read the book it seems to me that what is often condemned as “congregationalism” tends to result for two reasons:

    1) It occurs as a result of a lack of leadership on the part of the church hierarchy and clergy.

    2) It occurs as a result of bad leadership on the part of church hierarchy and clergy.

    In either case strong lay societies grow out of necessity. Granted there is plenty of blame to go around but to point the finger at the lay people and accuse them of being “congregationalist” is like the pot calling the kettle black. The clergy and hierarchs are just as bad.

    • 7 Richard Barrett 13 October 2009 at 7:56 am

      I don’t think you would find much disagreement in the book with your points, given that the first reason he explores for congregationalism is, as noted in the review, what he terms the “moral absence of the hierarchy”. I didn’t read anything in the book that came across as “finger-pointing”; rather, it was simply being descriptive of what Fr. Nicholas sees as the problem.

  5. 8 Fr. Oliver 13 October 2009 at 12:19 pm

    You are correct, Richard. In fact, Fr. Nicholas noted that there is precedent in the lay fraternities in Europe when many Orthodox had little or no hierarchical oversight in places.

    For what it is worth, I have read the book and highly recommend it. Yes, I suppose I’d quibble here and there, but to what end? Overall, this is a great resource and points in the direction of important primary sources, too. This book is what first put Gorgias Press on my radar. You’re right about the prices and the reason for them. Though I wish it were otherwise, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

    • 9 Richard Barrett 14 October 2009 at 10:09 am

      Gorgias Press has been on my radar for a couple of years because they’re the only ones to publish certain Syriac language resources. And yes, they’re just as expensive as everything else they publish, if not more. Ah well.

      WorldCat shows something like 23 libraries worldwide that have a copy of Fr. Nicholas’ book. At least Fr. John McGuckin’s book from last year, The Orthodox Church, despite being similarly priced out of any potential market by Blackwell, has 216 copies in circulation according to WorldCat. Talk about a book that deserves an audience it won’t ever find, particularly since it sounds like the paperback isn’t likely to happen.

  1. 1 » Blog Archive » Book Review: American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism by Fr. Nicholas Ferencz Trackback on 16 February 2011 at 3:30 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

adventures in writing alexander lingas all saints bloomington all saints orthodox church american orthodox architecture american orthodox music american orthodoxy Antiochian Archdiocese Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America Antiochians books byzantine chant cappella romana chant church architecture ecclesiastical chant ethnomusicologists ethnomusicology fellowship of ss. alban and sergius Greece Greek greek food greekness hazards of church music international travel tips ioannis arvanitis joe mckamey john michael boyer kurt sander Latin liturgical adventures liturgical architecture liturgical music liturgical texts and translation liturgy liturgy and life lycourgos angelopoulos medieval byzantine chant Metropolitan PHILIP militant americanist orthodoxy modern byzantine architecture modern greek music music as iconography my kids will latin and greek when they're newborns my kids will learn latin and greek when they're newborns orthodox architecture orthodox architecture is bloody expensive Orthodox choir schools Orthodox Ecclesiology orthodox outreach orthodox travel pascha at the singing school Patriarchate of Antioch Patriarch IGNATIUS IV Patriarch of Antioch publishing random acts of chant richard barrett in greece richard toensing rod dreher sacred music st. vlads st john of damascus society Syriac the Bishop MARK fan club the convert dilemma the dark knight The Episcopacy The Episcopate the only good language is a dead language this american church life travel we need more american saints why do we need beautiful music in churches?

Blog Stats

  • 242,848 hits

Flickr Photos

%d bloggers like this: