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Posts Tagged 'Christian Unity'

Xenophobia, xenophilia, and watching what everybody else is doing

There’s a C. S. Lewis quote from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer that Orthodox love to pull out:

What pleased me most about a Greek Orthodox mass I once attended was that there seemeed to be no prescribed behaviour for the congregation. Some stood, some sat, some knelt, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing. (p. 10)

My instinct is that the reason why this dynamic worked is because except for him and his wife (elsewhere he mentions attending the Divine Liturgy when they were honeymooning in Greece), everybody and their families had been Orthodox as long as anybody could remember, and it was an entirely natural thing to be there and to be doing whatever they were used to doing.

I suggest that we Orthodox Christians in America, cradle and convert alike, have been less successful in reproducing this dynamic, and it seems to me there are a number of reasons for this. For us converts, we’re new to this, everything is totally unfamiliar, and we’re all here because we think Orthodox Christianity is Right and therefore we want to do things the Right Way.

I might also suggest that the presence of pews or rows of seating otherwise in many American churches, contributing to the sense of passive participation as it does (see article by Paul Meyendorff here), also makes us even more afraid to do something different from what the congregation as a whole might be doing.

So, to some extent, we think we have to take notice of everybody else; we’re all sort of nervously and self-consciously glancing sideways at the rest of the congregation, not wanting to stick out like a sore thumb and wanting to Do Thing the Right Way.

Among cradles, I’ve seen definite reactions to what they perceive as “things only done in the Old Country”; I’ve seen ethnic Arabs freak out when fasting gets talked about, or when there’s a conversation about possibly removing chairs from the nave, for example. I’ve also seen a Romanian woman get very nervous and almost confrontational when it seemed like women wearing headscarves was something that might catch on at a particular parish.

I’d say that for both cradle and convert alike, there can be a worry that, if you do something that I don’t, it’s because you think that you’re holier than I am, and if what you do catches on and becomes normative, I’m going to be judged because I don’t. Another nuance could be that there’s something disingenuous-seeming about somebody telling you how non-legalistic and non-clericalist Orthodox Christianity is, just before that same person, say, does three metanias before asking for a priest’s blessing, kissing his hand, and then looking at you expectantly to see if you’re going to do the same thing. (In the interest of clarity, I don’t shake priests’ hands, I kiss them, so this is not a knock against that practice by any means.)

It’s an odd mixture of self-consciousness and pride. Is that uniquely American? Could be — I’m not sure.

There’s a deeper aspect to taking too much notice of what other people are doing, however, and that’s a particular xenophobia, as well as its twin, xenophilia, that can occur with converts. There’s the person who wants to be Orthodox for convictions of faith, but upon encountering anything the slightest bit Greek, Arabic, Russian, or otherwise non-Western, gets extremely uncomfortable and wants to write off all of these things as ethnic custom, “little-t tradition,” that we should jettison as quickly as possible and replace with practices which seem more “American.” There’s also the exact reverse of this person, who will tell you why the Orthodox traditions of <fill in the blank with a country name> are actually the “purest” version of Orthodox practice, and anything else is a deviation.

These are two manifestations of the same overall problem: preoccupation with something which seems exotic, which we could restate, in keeping with our present theme, as preoccupation with what somebody else does.

Realistically, this is going to take a few generations to work out, but I think figuring out how to be Orthodox Americans in a non-self-conscious manner is going to be a necessary step towards unity, and, to get back to what I was saying yesterday, I think having our own saints, our own indigenous models of sanctity, will be one of the major things that helps us do that.

One other thought along these lines — as some have pointed out, there is an irony to a foreign-born hierarch telling American-born priests what is American and what isn’t. Surely, as the natural reaction to this goes, this isn’t 1970 anymore, and people aren’t going to make negative assumptions about somebody with a beard these days.

Here’s where I think the disconnect is — I think Met. PHILIP and company have a very Wall Street-level perspective of what “being American” is. I think the question they’re asking is, “What do wealthy, powerful Americans do, how do they dress, how do they act?” This is not totally unexpected, given that Met. PHILIP has made it clear that those are the very people he wants to be able to influence. Those are, nonetheless, exactly the people who don’t care about Orthodox Christianity, simply because they are least likely to have any reason to care. What we do will be far more effective in the long run, I am convinced, if we ask ourselves what the urban poor, the lower class, and the rural would do and to what they can relate. If you’re going to build a big church in a bad part of town, throw your doors open to your neighbors — don’t do everything you can to keep them out. Minister to the masses, and the classes will follow. Minister to the classes, and the masses aren’t going to care. Isn’t that what Christ told us to do in the first place?

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Sunday of Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy in America

This last Sunday, being the first Sunday in Great Lent, was the so-called “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” commemorating the victory of iconodules over iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (“Nicea II — The Wrath of Arius”). In years past, there has been a Sunday evening Vespers in Indianapolis, participated in by all the area clergy and their parishes. This year, instead of Vespers, a morning Divine Liturgy was planned at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, who had just started worshiping in their new building in December.

All Saints’ participation was determined rather late in the game; being an hour and twenty minutes south, and with some of our parishioners commuting from as much as an hour away even further south, it took some figuring out. Ultimately our deacon stayed behind and served a Typika for those who weren’t going to Indianapolis, allowing Fr. Peter to concelebrate and a group of us from All Saints to attend.

The morning was stunning in several respects. For the occasion, a new icon was commissioned of All Saints of North America, which now includes Indiana-born St. Barnabas. The original was put out for us to venerate, and we were all given prints of it as well. I’ve jokingly called Holy Trinity’s new building the satellite campus of Hagia Sophia, but it really is frickin’ huge. As the pictures make clear, I think we had close to a thousand people in there, and people were still having to gather in the narthex. We had everybody, too (among the clergy as well as the people); Serbians, Greeks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, American converts, and even a handful of Copts, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Indians. (Okay, I’m not sure we had any Finns or Estonians.) The communion of the faithful easily took half an hour, and that was with six chalices, I believe. Add another twenty minutes or so for the communion of the clergy.

Some general observations: Holy Trinity is an example of a church which I think would be too big for me to be comfortable in it as my home parish. It is a beautiful building, and it will only get more beautiful as they fresco it, marble the floors, put up the iconostasis, etc., but I’d rather see the design principles applied to a church maybe a quarter of the size. (This begs the question of why Holy Trinity, which I believe has something like 600 people, doesn’t plant some churches, but never mind that now.) I’ve heard it suggested that past 250 souls or so, you really overtax a priest’s ability to minister; I’ll throw out another possible metric, which is that you don’t want the building to be any larger than that in which the cantor can sing comfortably and be understood and heard without needing a microphone. (This assumes that churches are being built with attention to acoustics, which isn’t even necessarily the case with Holy Trinity, unfortunately — there were one or two odd decisions made on that front.) That said, I think it’s wonderful that a traditional-looking Byzantine temple now exists which is large enough to hold everybody in the metro area. I somewhat wonder if perhaps, with Detroit being, well, Detroit, there might not be talk behind the scenes of moving Metropolitan Nicholas’ throne to Indianapolis, hence the building being a size more appropriate to a cathedral than a parish church.

I wound up joining the choir; Max Murphy, my counterpart at Ss. Constantine and Elena, conducts the choir for these big combined services and I sing for him when I am able. The music was, more or less, OCA music with some simplified Byzantine things reworked for a large ensemble. My trouble is that the Orthodox musical heritage is so much richer than the utility music which tends to dominate services like this, but the reason why it dominates services like this is because it is easily scalable to huge ensembles (as well as makes congregational singing reasonably easy). Mark Bailey once told me that Kievan common chant is great because you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes; on the other hand, he freely admitted, the downside of Kievan common chant is that you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes. There wasn’t an overabundance of Kievan common chant at this service, but the principle was still largely the same. At any rate, it was, mostly, the music that virtually everybody in the Indianapolis area sings except Holy Trinity (and All Saints, for that matter), so it was familiar to Max, the majority of the choir, and a good chunk of the congregation.

There were some interesting moments during the procession of the icons; Fr. Taso (the pastor of Holy Trinity) originally asked the congregation to all sing the litany responses in their own languages, in the spirit of our coming together as a symbol of our unity as Orthodox Christians. This didn’t quite work the way he intended, so ultimately he led us in the Tone 4 threefold English “Lord, have mercy” common to Greek parishes (and Antiochian parishes during Holy Week if one is following Kazan). That worked just fine (although it was different from the responses the choir prepared — Max gave up when he realized that Fr. Taso was going off-script).

One always wonders what happens behind the scenes when that many clergy gather on another priest’s turf, particularly when the event functions something of a “coming out party” for said turf, but Fr. Peter made a point of bringing up that very question last night after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. “It was very peaceful, as surprising as that sounds,” he said. “Fr. Taso called us all together and said, ‘Brothers, what do you want to do?’ To have the protos do something like that, particularly at a Greek church, is unheard of.” (When there were some inevitable uncomfortable chuckles, he said, “That’s not a swipe against the Greeks — they’d tell you the same thing!”)

Given events of the last few weeks, there have been conversations about what Orthodox unity in America means, if it can even happen at all now, if we’re looking a big step backwards, what’s the path from here, etc. etc. etc. I think that to some extent these nervous questions are a bit misguided; it’s not exactly like the AOCNA and OCA were preparing to announce an administrative merger next week and the news out of Damascus derailed it at the last second. However, I think we can look at events like this Sunday of Orthodoxy Divine Liturgy and make some informed guesses about what the practical side of jurisdictional unity might look like.

  • Somebody’s going to have to be the protos, as it were, and it’s probably going to be whoever has the resources to be so effectively, including the space to be a meeting ground for everybody. This was true in 1975 when Met. PHILIP and Met. MICHAEL unified the Antiochian churches in this country, and Met. MICHAEL stepped down; it will still be true going forward.
  • Along similar lines, there will be a group who is numerically dominant. There were ten or so parishes represented at Holy Trinity this last Sunday, and at least half of the congregation was Holy Trinity’s own people.
  • It will be up to the group who is numerically dominant and who functions as the “protos” to be a loving and welcoming brother in Christ. It will be up to the others to be receptive to that, and to return it in-kind.
  • It might be a bit of a cacophony for awhile until people figure things out. The job of the dominant group will be to help guide everybody into unity, and to do so in love.

Looking at these points, I’d argue this wouldn’t be a bad model for how things should be now, even, with or without unity on paper.

One other thought for the moment. That icon of All Saints of North America? A couple of them are American born; some of them were active in America. However, with the exception of St. Peter the Aleut (who was martyred young), none of those saints were both born here and active here. Let me suggest that before we have an indigenous church, we’re going to need indigenous saints. Some might argue that we should start with Fr. Seraphim Rose (which reminds me — I’m reading The Soul After Death right now); while recognizing he’s a controversial figure, I don’t really think that it’s in question that he is a native-born model of sanctity. I personally think he is a saint, and I believe he interceded to heal my mother from a heart issue a few years back, but I also think it will take time for the amen of American faithful to be uttered. I know a priest, and perhaps a bishop or two, who I believe might be glorified after their respective reposes. I have heard some suggest Lynette Hoppe; certainly this book seems designed to make that case. There are others I can think of, too.

My point is, until there are models of holiness who have been raised up out of “our people,” as it were, I’m not sure it makes any sense to be so neurotic and anxious about our earthly organization. Once we start producing saints, administrative questions will take care of themselves. The importance of saints who are local and recent, I have come to realize, is that they shine forth the light of Christ in a way that is immediate. What is more powerful, reading a story about somebody who supposedly did something fifteen hundred years ago, or hearing first-hand accounts of people who did those very things within the last few years? We run a great risk by holding ourselves at a distance from saints — they are less convicting that way, I suppose, meaning they’re more comfortable to be around, but they are also less compelling and convincing.

In other words — if we want a solution to the jurisdictional problem in this country, maybe what we need to do is, before we write a letter or join a lay activist organization or start a blog (all potentially worthy things to do, don’t get me wrong), we need to go out and be saints.

We will see.

Roman fever and so on

This is over a week old now, but this is the first chance I’ve really had to say anything about it.

Please refresh your memory on what I have said before regarding Orthodoxy and anti-Catholicism.

With that in mind, consider this posting, plus all the comments, over at Cathedra Unitatis.

Personal engagement of one’s faith is a really tricky thing. We are well past the days, for good or ill, when you simply were whatever your family was when you were born and you could count on your parents being the same thing, at least nominally, because they would have to be in order to get married. I would never have been born under such a societal expectation, because my parents have wildly divergent religious beliefs, and neither of my parents really are exactly what they were raised. Mom was raised Lutheran and left that in her 30s for Evangelical shores; Dad was raised nothing exactly, but my grandfather apparently believed in God at some level, and Dad, well, doesn’t. Mom had me baptized Lutheran, we were both baptized again by the non-denominational congregation she chose when I was seven, we drifted through Baptist waters briefly when I was a teenager, I received adult confirmation as an Episcopalian, and was received into Orthodox Christianity by chrismation. Call it “church shopping” if you want, for me, or Mom, or Dad. I call it doing the work of figuring out what you believe and taking it seriously. My father is an atheist because he takes very seriously his beliefs about the nature of the universe, and those beliefs make God irrelevant at best, assuming He even exists. My mother became an Evangelical because she became committed to the things which are distinctive to Evangelicals. I was confirmed as an Episcopalian because I found myself having to take seriously the concept of being in continuity with the Christianity of history when it was manifestly obvious to me that mainline American Christianity did not care about that continuity; I left the ECUSA because it was clear to me the ECUSA as a body was no longer actively interested in maintaining that continuity or even passively allowing for it.

Truth be told, however, I suspect a lot of people, if they were honest about it, would ask, “Why bother?” I’ve read opinions before from people who say that apologetics and convert stories are inherently unconvincing to Joe Average because they’re written from a point of view which already takes this stuff far more seriously than most people ever will. It’s extremely unusual, so the argument goes, for the average person to actually engage faith on such a level–more often than not, people will just fall away rather than attempt to go deeper. Maybe that’s true; I don’t know. So, sure–“why bother?” I can’t really speak for either of my parents, but I bother because my belief that Christianity is true compels me to engage it and take it seriously. It is, as I like to say, that simple and that complicated.

Still, it’s all well and good to say, as I have elsewhere, that I became an Orthodox Christian because I believe it is true (or as Fr. Stephen Freeman likes to say, it is the truth in its fullness). That doesn’t alter the cultural reality that the questions I had are, in this country, far more easily and readily answered by Roman Catholicism, or the personal reality that I was already quite far along on my path to Rome before a couple of chance occurrences redirected my steps towards Constantinople. At the time I realized I couldn’t remain an Episcopalian, Orthodoxy wasn’t even a blip on my radar, and all sights were set on the Vatican. Save for a couple of chance occurrences, I could very well have attended Mass at the various churches I visited in Europe last summer as a communicant. (Yes, yes, I know that as far as Rome is concerned, I still can. As far as the bishop under whose jurisdiction I fall is concerned, however, that’s not the case.) People far wiser than myself have chosen to swim the Tiber; others, also far wiser than myself, have chosen to swim the Bosphorus. I cannot argue with or judge either choice, because various factors make it difficult and painful either way. Whenever somebody suggests that Orthodox converts are inherently anti-Catholic or people who just ultimately couldn’t set aside a cultural anti-Catholicism or people who didn’t consider the evidence with enough faith, I want to both laugh and cry.

I said something about a cultural reality in the last paragraph. I have an Orthodox friend who has periodic bouts of what he terms “Roman fever.” He spent a number of years examining the arguments on the Catholic and Orthodox sides, and ultimately found the Catholic argument unconvincing. He spent a bit longer evaluating the Rome vs. Constantinople case than it really took for him to be convinced because, as he says, he didn’t want there to be any historical or theological “gotchas” that could take him by surprise later–and there haven’t been. What there have been, however, are spiritual and cultural “gotchas,” and those have been much harder to deal with. As he says, it gets hardest around the Nativity Fast and Christmas–it occurs to him, as he’s at the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity listening to texts and music that bear zero relation to anything which has been familiar to him, that just down the street at the Roman Catholic parish is a Christmas service that is using the prayers and carols he knows as somebody who is culturally Western, and he begins to wonder if Orthodoxy isn’t, in practice, really some kind of society for the preservation of Byzantine culture. How in the world does the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom have anything to do with the modern world, the here and now? What impact on our culture can these alien externals of icons, incense, chanting, vestments, and so on actually have when it seems like we’re basically ignored by most people as “an ethnic thing”, and converts can go off the deep end in terms of embracing ethnic customs that aren’t really theirs in any kind of an organic sense? The history and theology keep my friend where he is, but not without significant and ongoing cultural pain.

Truth be told, while I haven’t had the same issues adapting to the Byzantine Rite, I’m not unsympathetic to any of this. Those of us in the West who convert to Orthodox Christianity are culturally Western; there is no getting around this, and I don’t agree with those Orthodox who would take a stance which amounts to “all things Western are of the devil.” Despite the differences, Western and Eastern Christianity grew from the same seed, and that common origin is more than evident. (See Fr. Stephen Freeman’s excellent posts which relate to this here, here, and here.) It is the various Western liturgies and chant repertoires which are, even from an Orthodox point of view, the spiritual patrimony of pre-schismatic Western Christendom, not the Byzantine; one can go on and on. From this standpoint, I’m very much in favor of the use of the Gregorian Mass by Western Rite parishes. If you take a look at my CD collection, I’ve got recordings from the St. Gregory Society, Westminster Cathedral, and so on. I’ve got books by the current pope from when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I have my own copy of the Liber Usualis. If I can ever get my blogroll to display again, you’ll see I link to many Catholic blogs, all of which I read regularly. Images, incense, chant, and vestments, up until the last generation or two, were universal throughout what I might call “catholic minded” communions–Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, even Lutheran. (In fact, the first time I ever experienced incense in church was at an LCMS service.) That which seems “Byzantine” now perhaps seems so largely because it’s far more rare than it used to be (although it is to be hoped that Summorum Pontificum will in the long run make this less the case).

The truth of the matter is, at the level of externals, traditional Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy aren’t all that dissimilar–with the subsequent irony that this makes the differences which seem minor all the more serious. I’ve got a Roman Catholic friend who has made the comment, “I have to keep reminding myself you’re not Catholic,” to which I’ve replied, “I have to keep reminding myself you’re not Orthodox.” Nonetheless, when he visited my parish, while saying the Divine Liturgy was basically the same as a High Mass, he did not genuflect at the altar; I understood why, and I didn’t expect him to. I don’t genuflect at a Roman Catholic altar, either–not out of spite, not out of any kind of inherent anti-Catholicism, but because whatever anybody else may say, we’re not in communion. I do not claim Rome is “utterly devoid of grace” as some do, but neither can I positively affirm Rome’s Mysteries, any more than I would expect my Roman Catholic friend to affirm ours. That isn’t anti-anything; that’s acknowledging the truth, however painful, of the state that exists between the Patriarchate of Rome and the Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, Moscow, and so on. If we all believe what we say we believe about Holy Communion (Orthodox and Catholic alike), it can hardly be otherwise. It’s not hostility, it is the tragic reality which must be respected until the reality changes.

So, to relate this back to Cathedra Unitatis’ update, the comments, and my own earlier post…

As with the friend I mentioned earlier (and for all I know, my friend is Cathedra Unitatis, since CU is thus far anonymous), I am sympathetic to the journey he has taken over the last year in the hard task of personally engaging his beliefs, and I find that I would have been unable to judge him either way he went. Do I think CU made the right choice? Yes, I’m Orthodox, so of course I do, but this whole business in the comments of it now becoming an issue of “whose ox is gored” is absurd. There is, apparently, an unfortunate double standard among some on both sides–if you argue in favor of your position, you are being hostile towards my position; if I argue in favor of my position, I am only doing what is my unquestionable duty, and you disagreeing with that only shows how hostile you really are. Maybe that’s unavoidable, and a symptom of how deep the issues actually go; I don’t know, but I know I don’t want to contribute to the problem, and I would hope that none of my fellow Orthodox would either.

I support CU’s current focus on trying to play his own small part in building Christian unity, which is something we should all be doing–with the caveat that unity cannot be based on false pretenses, on a “wishing away” of the genuine differences and issues which need to be worked out. An ecumenism which is based on a wink and a nudge or a papering over of problems is a false ecumenism, and false ecumenism is a cure which is ultimately going to be worse than the disease. Let us embrace each other as brothers, let us mourn together the fact that we may not gather around the same altar at the present moment, let us talk and work together to solve the problems which divide us, but let us not simply pretend those problems don’t exist, and let us not assume our brother wishes us ill because conscience will not let them cross a line–charity demands better of us. There are, without question, Orthodox who are nastily anti-Catholic, and there are also, without question, Catholics who are nastily anti-Orthodox; it is our job to not let those people control the conversation–but it is also our job to be discerning about what is hostility and what is an honest sticking to one’s guns.

The paradox is this–as laypeople, we have to be obedient to our bishops, and as such, we can’t just take it upon ourselves to ignore the question of with whom we are and are not in communion. However, neither can our bishops impose Christian unity from the top down if it is to mean anything–they can only formally recognize a unity which already exists in the hearts of the laypeople. The Council of Florence should have taught us all that. As I’ve said before, I think the key here is to set aside concerns of concelebration and communion and forget about “dialogue”–those are all things about which our bishops need to be doing the worrying. The focus of those of us on the ground should be on cooperation and conversation–the “beer and pizza rule,” as Rod Dreher likes to put it, implying a willingness to lay aside the assumption that the other party intends for us the worst.

Judging each other harshly is a big part of why Christian disunity exists. Let’s not be in the business of repeating the same mistakes.


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