Posts Tagged 'great synod of the church'

Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad: A Great Council of the Church — When and Why

For various reasons, I tend to not pay much attention to certain groups that have positioned themselves as voices within the Orthodox landscape of North America. Orthodox Christian Laity, as a general rule, tends to be one of those groups to whom I don’t pay much attention. I’d rather not go into a clinical level of detail about the reasons for this, except to offer the mild suggestion that their very name appears to set up a shibboleth about a particular view of ecclesial authority and its relationship to what a local, visibly unified both sacramentally and administratively, Orthodox Church in this country might eventually look like, and to note that certain parties associated with OCL appear to explicitly take the attitude of, “If you don’t agree with this,  then you are against having an American Orthodox Church.” (I will also mention that the word συνδιακονία appears to not actually exist; at the very least, it is not attested in the Great Scott, BDAG, or Sophocles. Perhaps it is in the Patristic Lexicon; I don’t know, because I don’t yet have that. Now, according to the Great Scott, συνδιακονός is attested to in the Classical literature as meaning “fellow-servant,” and according to Sophocles it means “fellow-deacon” in Byzantine works, but “co-ministry” seems to be, shall we say, a populist innovation along the lines of λειτουργεία meaning “work of the people” rather than “public service”. If I’m wrong, great — just let me know in which literature the word appears and has the meaning of “co-ministry”, and I’ll be more than happy to accept the correction.)

Nonetheless, Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad: A Great Council of the Church — When and Why, a collection of proceedings from a symposium held in 2007 to celebrate OCL’s twentieth anniversary, is a worthwhile read. It is somewhat less than satisfying as a scholarly document, since references are not plentiful (although there are a handful), but it is useful as a collection of differing points of view on just what the forthcoming Council (a more speculative matter at the time than it is now) might be able to accomplish, or, well, not. Abp. Nathaniel of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate (OCA) summarizes the question:

…[H]ow [is] autocephaly — or the right of self-rule, including election of its head — […] earned or recognized or taken[?] Who could answer this question? What body would decide? The idea was that perhaps the way to create this “united autocephalous” entity in North America is primarily through such a council. Among the possible answers to the question was: “Is this not the role of a Great Council of the Church?” (p. iv)

And depending on which paper you’re reading, the answer is, “Yes”. Or “No”. Or “Yes, but a Council shouldn’t happen right now anyway.” Or “Maybe, which is part of why a Council hasn’t happened yet.” Or “Yes, perhaps, but we’d rather it didn’t happen and we reserve the right to not play along anyway even if there is a Council and they do make a decision regarding North America.”

Metropolitan Christopher of the Serbian Orthodox Archdiocese of Midwestern America’s paper kicks off the book, and my two big takeaways were a) as long as he feels that the term “diaspora” is being used as a club by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to reserve as much control over the North American situation as possible, or being used at all for that matter, a Council cannot function properly, and he invokes the rhetoric of Fr. Justin Popovic that the Council as currently planned would cause further division; b) the Serbs keep their own counsel on the question of jurisdictional unity in this country.

Fr. Alexander Abramov, the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate to the United States, essentially says the same thing but with broader language; the basic points remain that Moscow doesn’t trust the EP’s intentions or procedures in trying to convene this Council, and that both the Patriarchal churches in this country as well as ROCOR may or may not choose to participate in a hypothetical united Orthodox Church in North America, depending on whether or not they perceive that it is in their interests to do so.

Fr. John Erickson of St. Vladimir’s Seminary gives a very useful historical overview of the series of events leading up to the present efforts to convene a Council, starting in 1930 (and including the material I examine here). He also offers a respectful analysis of the issues surrounding Chalcedon 28; while he refutes the understanding of it as giving control of the entire “diaspora” to Constantinople, he also says that “this assessment is not meant to diminish the leadership role that Constantinople could legitimately assume within the communion of the Orthodox churches… In this quest for tangible unity, the Patriarchate of Constantinople can play a leading role” (pp. 38-9).

Armenian Orthodox Dr. Vigen Guroian of the University of Virginia relates his perspective on how Orthodox youth seem to transcend the issues of ethnicity, and how he hopes this will plant the seeds of real Orthodox unity. I am tempted to designate this the “money quote” for the whole book:

The ethnic identities may serve the limited good of initially helping to bind the religious community together. That which is binding, however, may also keep apart those who share the same faith and ultimately reduce our mentality to a denominational one. (p. 57)

Finally, the paper of Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou of Boston University is unique in two ways. One, it provides what is probably the most scholarly analysis of the present situation. Secondly, she unequivocally defends the immediate need for the Council and the Ecumenical Patriarch’s prerogative in calling one at what she believes is a moment in history where we must be decisive.

[W]e, as the Church, are living in fundamentally different times and unprecedented conditions than those in which the Church has ever existed… human beings now possess the capacity to destroy all of God’s created order… [and] stand at the threshold of the capacity to create human life in a manner wholly separated from the act of erotic love. In this respect, the Church finds itself confronting the conditions whereby man believes that he can both threaten and — potentially — substitute for God’s role as Creator. The present moment, therefore, represents a combination of power and hubris unseen in human history or in the history of the Church… [N]either the canons of the Church in their current form, nor the full body of Holy Tradition understood as fixed, can begin to offer adequate responses to the unprecedented creative and destructive reality of the present historical moment. A Great and Holy Council, as an expression of the living Tradition of the Church, is a sine qua non for the Church in any meaningful effort to come to terms with, and transform, our current historical reality… [As well,] the need for a Great and Holy Council stems from the historically unprecedented condition of global religious pluralism, and — for Orthodox Christians in America — from the reality of incomparable religious diversity. (pp. 63-4)

As regards the Ecumenical Patriarchate,

it is important to voice support for the Ecumenical Patriarch to convene a Great and Holy Council. Laity, clergy, and hierarchy from the Orthodox world writ large must give voice to this message, which effectively acknowledges the ecclesiastical authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A crucial component of this message, however, must be the need for the absolute inclusiveness in the participation at the Council; everyone must be invited to this spiritual banquet, from all jurisdictions and from all strata (ordained and lay) in the church as the body of Christ. By empowering the Ecumenical Patriarch to convene the Council, and just as important, by charging that Patriarch to be all-inclusive, the red herring of authority, which, in reality, reflects the worst kinds of struggles over power, will be eliminated. (p. 70)

In the end, however, the Council needs to be seen as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself:

Orthodox Christians must recognize that the Great and Holy Council is not the answer, the terminus, the resolution of the challenges and opportunities confronting Orthodox people today. Instead, there is a need to reframe such an event in its proper context; specifically, the event of the Council is simply a part — albeit a crucial one — of the overall process of Orthodoxy’s continuing adjustment to, engagement with, and transformation of the world in which we live. (ibid.)

Overall, as I’ve said before, I feel sometimes like we’re a family of people who don’t like each other too much. There are, of course, historical reasons for this, but I will say that in reading this collection of papers, I find myself wanting to hope more in what the academics have to say than the clergy.

To sum up — it’s a quick read (80 pages or so), and provides a couple of exceptional essays as well as a good overview of what the various positions are. It’s worth your time.

Towards the Great Council

I mentioned earlier that I was researching the preparations that were going on in the 1970s for the Council that was supposed to happen at that time. Interlibrary loan hasn’t exactly been a ton of help; the acts of the preparatory meetings aren’t in any library that they can find, and then other publications are listed, but when a request is entered, it comes back as “unfillable”.

The one thing ILL has been able to come up with is the English edition of the collection of introductory reports of the Preparatory Commision, Towards the Great Council, prepared in 1971 and published in 1972. It’s a quick read, all of 52 pages. Here’s what the back cover says:

Preparations are under way for a Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, the first since the seventh Ecumenical Council of 787. No date has been fixed as yet, but it could take place as soon as the long stage of preparation is terminated. In 1974 the First Preconciliar Panorthodox Conference should convene at Chambésy near Geneva. Its task will be to examine the six reports prepared by the Interorthodox Preparatory Commission in 1971 and presented in this edition, as well as to revise the catalogue of themes for the Great Council which was prepared by the First Panorthodox Conference at Rhodes in 1961.

The Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church is planned to be held in all probability some time during 1974 and, in preparation for its discussions, the Interorthodox Preparatory Commission, representing the various Orthodox Churches, was commissioned to draw up a series of statements on six topics proposed, in 1968, by the Fourth Panorthodox Conference.

Well. I guess when you don’t have an emperor to see that things come together or else, four decade delays can happen, right?

There is much in here that is interesting and worthwhile; I’ve already discussed the report titled “Fuller participation by the laity in the worship and life of the Church”, which is two pages (well, just over one when you figure in the space for the title on the first page) and amounts to “This is not an issue of great concern; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The first report, “Divine Revelation and the way it expresses itself for the salvation of man”, has some very interesting things to say about Biblical scholarship.

…our Holy Orthodox Church declares that Scripture, being divinely inspired, preserves unimpaired within itself the presence of the Holy Spirit, in those revealed truths which it narrates, teaches and expounds for man’s salvation. In its words it preserves intact the collaboration between the divine and human factor in such a way that, even should the human presentation and clothing of God’s word be imperfect, yet the substance of the divine content of the revelation is not impaired. The essence and distinctive character of both remain intact; the human element is to be investigated according to human methods, while the divine aspect is not to be formulated in a one-sided, individualistic, and subjective fashion, but all the details are to be judged in accordance with the entirety of Holy Scripture and Revelation, and this entirety in its turn is to be judged in accordance with the Tradition of the Church from the beginning, there being but one source for both the unwritten and the written divine word. […]…it must be acknowledged that the attempt to ascertain which is the genuine and original Greek text according to tradition in the Orthodox Church, and the publication of an edition of the New Testament embodying such a text, is fraught with difficulties. This is especially so inasmuch as there exist several families and categories of different classes of manuscripts, on which most of the editions have been based, without any one of them being adjudged entirely accurate, complete, and perfect.

There also exist in our Eastern Church, on a somewhat more official level, editions issued by the local Orthodox Churches, such as (among others) the edition brought out in 1903 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This did not have the same aim as the so-called critical editions, that is, the discovery and restoration of the original text of the sacred books; but its aim was simply to restore the most ancient text…as found in the ecclesiastical tradition, and most notably in that of the Church of Constantinople. …[O]ur Holy Orthodox Church should entrust to expert Orthodox theologians the task of editing the best possible scholarly edition of the original Greek text of the New Testament, so that the text so prepared may thereafter be recognized and accepted by the whole of our Holy Orthodox Church. (pp. 6-7)

Now, there’s an interesting thought — that the Orthodox should take a bolder, more central role in Biblical scholarship, and that we should maybe be looking to the Greeks to produce the definitive critical edition of the Greek text.

It is the remaining four reports, “Adaptation of the ecclesiastical ordinances regarding fasting to meet present-day needs”, “Impediments to marriage”, “Concerning the calendar and the date of Easter”, and “Economy in the Orthodox Church”, where we get into material that no doubt sparks arguments.

The report on fasting is actually an illuminating — and sourced — walk through the history of fasting practices in Orthodox Christianity. It ultimately recommends what I would hesitate to call a relaxation of fasting norms (although they use that word), but rather more of a pastoral acknowledgment that one size doesn’t quite fit all. This, of course, already happens frequently at the parish level; here the recommendation is that this be formally and universally understood as what is going to happen. One of the big specific changes the Commission recommends is something that the Antiochians already do anyway — eliminate fasting altogether between Pascha and Ascension.

It is clear that the Commission views this recommendation as being made for pastoral reasons, not for purposes of modernizing:

[We recognize] that most of the faithful in the society of today do not keep all the rules of fasting, on account of the difficult circumstances in which they live. Contemporary conditions demand a form of fasting that is less severe and shorter in length. Such a change is necessary in order to avoid creating problems of conscience such as result from breaking the strict ecclesiastical ordinances — problems which poision the spiritual life of the faithful. A change in the rules of fasting currently in force does not conflict with the basic principles of fasting. (p. 28)

What’s fascinating, though — and what rather dates this text — is the bit about “the difficult circumstances in which” the faithful live necessitating changes. I would argue that nearly forty years later, at least in America and perhaps elsewhere, people don’t keep the fasts for exactly the opposite reasons — because their circumstances are great. Archimandrite Joseph (Morris), current abbot of St. Gregory Palamas Monastery in Ohio, tells a story about how after a homily given during Lent, one of the “cradles” in his parish came up to him and said, “Honey — ” (“They always call you ‘honey,'” he muses at this point in the story) “– Honey, I heard you talking about fasting. That’s the old country. We don’t do that here.” What seems to be implied is that many of the faithful with ethnic ties to the faith associate fasting with the poverty they or their forebears were trying to escape.

The calendar discussion, of course, is already controversial; the Commission recommends solving the problem by adopting the new calendar and the current manner of reckoning the vernal equinox, arguing that it is

quite evident that the First Ecumenical Council considered the astronomical factor as of prime importance for determining the common date of Easter. It thus follows that all the Orthodox Churches following the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council, are abound to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, according to the most precise calculations that scientific astronomy can provide. In each case, this means employing the calendar considered by expert astronomers to be the most exact. (p. 37)

To its credit, the Commission “acknowledges certain local pastoral difficulties” with enacting and enforcing this idea, and “therefore proposes that the time and way of applying the resolution should be left to the discretion of the local Churches” (p. 38).

“Economy in the Orthodox Church” is doubtless the part that gets people in certain circles growling the “e” and “h” words. This is the issue the Commission seeks to address:

The problems concerning exactness and economy have attained vast proportions in contemporary Church life; for never before in the Church’s history have the issues of inter-Church and inter-confessional relations, of the rapprochement and union of Christians, and of ecumenical unity, been raised so persistently and in so many different guises. (p.41)

To that end, the Commission proposes, we may say the following about non-Orthodox:

The Church being one, all who are alienated from her may be considered as standing on different rungs of one and the same ladder leading up to her when they desire to return to the Church. More precisely, we could say that the Holy Spirit acts upon other Christians in very many ways, depending on their degree of faith and hope. It is consequently clear that Christians outside the Church, even when they do not maintain their faith intact and immaculate, none the less keep their link with Christ, through their unwavering hope in Him. These Christians rejoice ‘with the joy of hope’ (Rom. 12.12). They confess that, through hope, they possess Christ, the common Lord, along with all Christians, because the confession of Christ unites us all, He being our common Lord and the hope of our final salvation. (p. 45)

However,

all [of Orthodoxy’s] relationships with [the other Christian Churches and Confessions] are founded on the quickest and most objective clarification possible of the ecclesiological question and of their doctrinal teaching as a whole. [The Orthodox Church] also recognizes that rapprochement with them will be brought about on terms having as their centre the divine-human structure of the Church. Yet she by no means intends to forget the existence also of the multiple pastoral responsibilities belonging to the Church of Christ, comprising her duty to preach the Gospel ‘unabridged’, and to remove from the conscience of the faithful everywhere all manner of censure; for it is truly a scandal to them that Christians are divided, since ‘Christ is not divided’ (1 Cor. 1.13).

Our Holy Orthodox Church will in no way fail to apply akribeia [translated earlier as “exactness”] to those articles of faith and sources of grace which must be upheld, yet she will not neglect to employ oikonomia wherever permissible in local contacts with those outside her — provided always that they believe in God adored in Trinity and the basic tenets of the Orthodox faith which follow from this, remaining always within the framework of the teaching of the ancient Church, one and indivisible.

A further goal is, on the one hand, to provide a living witness to Christ and the true faith within a secular society and a world which for the most part does not follow Christ and, on the other hand, to lead all to the one Lord, the one faith, the one baptism, the one breaking of bread, the one God and Father of all (Eph. 4.5-6). (p. 50)

Thus, among the goals the Commission recommends, we find the following:

Within the bounds of economy — identified with the extreme loving-kindness of the Godhead — to find ways and means of applying this economy to the contemporary situation of good relations between the Christian Churches; with a view to furthering all aspects of common life in Christ: ecclesiastical practice, worship, common prayer, theological collaboration and consultation, etc., until the efforts of all the Churches toward union have been crowned with success.

And:

To act together on particular occasions, under the presuppositions accepted by the Orthodox Church…, in a spirit of mutual respect, striving, and cooperating in common for the edification of all in Christ. (p. 51)

Finally, the Commission maintains that, economy being the particular prerogative of the Orthodox Church and which “constitutes the only means whereby the church makes allowance for human weakness” (p. 51), these goals would constitute an application of economy “so that the work of man’s salvation on earth may come to fulfilment and all things may be reconciled in Christ at the last day” (p. 52).

If somebody would like to lend a hand in helping me unpack all of that, I’d be much obliged. It seems like there’s a lot there to which the people who feel strongly, one way or the other, about ecumenical activities might react, and I invite comments from all sides.

What is the most telling report of all in this little book, at least to me, is the section “Impediments to marriage”. Of particular interest is the two pages dealing with mixed marriages; we may sum up these two pages by saying, “We all handle this question a little differently, so we’re not sure what to do here.” It observes that each national church has a varying practice when it comes to mixed marriages, and that uniformity of practice would be good, but they are uncertain how to achieve that. Thus, “the Commission proposes that ways and means of applying economy in this matter be studied, and that in the meantime it should be left to the local Orthodox Churches to determine whether to apply economy under circumstances of necessity” (p. 35).

I had a professor of medieval history in my undergrad who said that a problem a unified Christendom ran into was that differing practices don’t have to be a problem, but that only works as long as they don’t have to be right next to each other, or as long as two groups in communion with each other but with different practices aren’t trying to evangelize the same people. Along related lines, in reading Clogg’s A Concise History of Greece recently, it became clear to me that part of the reason the various ethnic jurisdictions kept to themselves in this country for so long is because, well, they don’t like each other too terribly much (and not for bad historical reasons).

I am reminded of an edict from Rome I heard discussed a few years ago that Byzantine Catholic married priests are to stay away from the Vatican, because they will only serve to confuse the issue of priestly celibacy. Basically, the reality of different practices seems to be, “Sure, we can coexist and be in communion, but I’m afraid your difference in how you do things will only confuse my people if we interact too closely,” with a concomitant fear that efforts to standardize practice can only result in laxity (or rigidity, perhaps).

I have no idea how much this particular set of reports will inform the planned Council in its current form, but it is interesting to see what problems the Church hoped to solve at that time. The announced issues to be discussed this time around are as follows, per this article:

  1. The Orthodox diaspora, where the jurisdiction over the Orthodox flock beyond national borders will be defined. According to the canons now in effect, before the growth in the phenomenon of emigration the faithful outside of their home country belong to the ecumenical patriarchate.
  2. The manner of recognizing the status of autocephalous Church.
  3. The manner of recognizing the status of Church autonomy.
  4. Dypticha, meaning the rules of mutual canonical recognition among the Orthodox Churches.
  5. Establishing a common calendar for feasts. For example, some Churches celebrate the Nativity on December 25, others 10 (sic) days later.
  6. Impediments and canonicity of the sacrament of matrimony.
  7. The question of fasting in the contemporary world.
  8. Relationships with the other Christian confessions.
  9. The ecumenical movement.
  10. The contribution of the Orthodox in affirming the Christian ideals of peace, fraternity, and freedom.

Nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 seem to be directly related to what’s discussed in Towards the Great Council; we’ll see how much has changed in the intervening years when it comes down to actually talking about them.

Meanwhile, I’d still love to get my hands on the other preparatory materials from the 1970s in a way that doesn’t involve me having to travel to Geneva. If anybody has any thoughts, I’m all ears.

Mediterranean microtonal melismas are not unAmerican: making time for some musical musings

A few things have come out recently to which I’ve been meaning to respond, and I’m finally able to take a moment to do so.

First of all, the issue of AGAIN which just came out, among other things, reprints Fr. John Finley’s essay, “Authentic Church Music”. This was originally a talk given to the the AOCNA Conference on Missions and Evangelism in 2002, and I have seen it in at least two print publications since then — PSALM‘s newsletter, PSALM Notes, and now AGAIN. It is also, as the link shows, posted on the Antiochian website itself, so clearly Fr. John’s piece has found an audience. Give it a read; I’ll come back to this.

Second, there was this short piece which was run on PBS a couple of weeks ago. I’d love to find a way to embed it, but I haven’t yet, so click on the link, watch it, then come back.

Third, RightWingProf has a couple of posts on music with which I tend to agree. The earlier is here, and a more recent one is here. Go read those, too.

Okay. You got all of that?

I’ve met Fr. John Finley a number of times. I met him at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in 2004, and again at the PSALM National Conference in 2006. I also love his cookbook. He’s a good man, so far as I can tell he’s a good priest, and we know many of the same people. He’s also one of the people to whom I’ve tried talking about the choir school model (an idea which I just seem to have the darndest time communicating in a form that makes sense to anybody but me).

There’s a reason Fr. John’s article has a continuing audience; it is well-written, it expresses a point of view clearly, and it is a point of view which is popular among many American converts to Orthodox Christianity:

Some may negatively assume that such a proposal must necessarily lead to the development of an American Orthodox music, which will sound like Protestant music or the 70’s rock and roll Christian music of the baby boomer generation’s surfer churches. On the contrary, we are hinting at the development of authentic sacred music for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America, a music founded on “that which has been delivered to us”, but which is also the result of our interaction as Orthodox Christians with the surrounding American culture. (emphasis mine)

Fully Orthodox and fully American! Orthodox as the Seven Ecumenical Councils and American as apple pie! Isn’t that what we all want?

The trouble that I have with the article, and what I offer as a critique, is that Fr. John unfortunately buys into what Alexander Lingas refers to as “the narrative of decline” with respect to Byzantine music as part of his argument. Specifically, this paragraph is problematic:

Is the Byzantine music that we sing today really Byzantine, i.e. from the Byzantine era of the 4th through the 15th Centuries? Are we not aware that the Church music of the See of Constantinople was heavily influenced by the demands of the Turks after the fall of the empire in 1453 AD? Are we aware that the authentic music of the Byzantine Church lost its diatonic character and accepted enharmonic and chromatic intervals during this period of the Turkish yoke? Are we aware that the music of today’s churches in the Byzantine tradition throughout the entire Mediterranean region of the world is the result of the codification of these oriental elements by Chrysanthus in the 19th Century and is scarcely 200 years old?

Checking his footnotes, his citations are predictable — Strunk (1977) and Tillyard (1923). It’s an appealing narrative for many folks; hey, you know that stuff in Byzantine music that makes you feel uncomfortable as an American because it sounds, well, Eastern? It’s not actually as Orthodox as the Hellenophiles and Arabicists want you to think! It’s a later development which occurred under the Turkish yoke! It’s a narrative which validates the supposed biases of the “Western ear” (whatever that means) and knocks the practices of various national churches down a peg or two all at the same time — it’s a very economical argument in that regard.

There’s something else it manages to accomplish, too, which is hinted at in the body of the text and made explicit in a footnote:

We should continue the work of transcribing Byzantine notation into modern western linear notation and adopt modern western scale intervals.* We need to simplify the melodies in connection with the texts and encourage congregational participation. We should encourage the harmonization of the melodies. I have heard it said that the great musical contribution of the East is its melodies and the great contribution of the West is its development of harmony. What better place than America to bring these two great traditions together to form something uniquely American in terms of Orthodox Music? This, of course, has already been done in Russia, and will undoubtedly be a powerful influence on what is done in America in this area of musical development.

* This will, given time, effectively conform all Byzantine melodies to a diatonic equal-tempered scale. According to Byzantine Musical theorists, Medieval Byzantine Music was wholly diatonic anyway. So this could be construed as a move back toward a more pure form of Byzantine chant rather than a perversion of it.

So, actually, the more we file the edges and corners off of Byzantine music, the more Byzantine we make it, in fact! Better yet — we also make it more American at the same time. Perfect.

Also present is the fallacy that somehow congregational singing and congregational participation are coterminous. This seems to be one of those assumptions that makes people feel good but for which I have never actually seen any evidence. Don’t take this as me meaning that I’m against congregational singing; I’m not, not at all. What I disagree with is the “everybody sings everything or they’re not participating” model that seems to be the core postulate of many modern liturgists; that makes as much sense to me as saying “everybody paints the icons or they’re not praying with them”.

Now might be a good time to point out that in the last week, thanks to the magic of Inter-Library Loan, I’ve read Towards the Great Council: Introductory Reports of the Inter-Orthodox Commission in Preparation for the Next Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, published in 1971, back when they thought the next Synod would be occurring around 1974 or 1975. I’ll discuss it in more depth later, but Section 2 of this document is called “Fuller participation by the laity in the worship and life of the Church.” It is all of two pages. This section seems relevant to the present discussion:

…the nature of lay participation in the life of the Church is clearly expressed in her dogmatic and canonical teaching; it is not a question causing special concern to the Orthodox Church and, for the time being at any rate, it does not constitute a burning problem for her. In all conscience the Orthodox church believes that there has never been, nor is there now, a spontaneous movement among the laity to acquire greater rights and duties in the Church, different from those which they have had since the Church’s foundation. For they have always participated actively in worship and administration, in the pastoral work and teaching ministry of the Church, according to the rights and duties clearly laid upon them by Holy Tradition and the Canons. Their main rights and duties, as lay people and members of the Church, are to live in the fullness of the gifts and divine grace within our Holy Church and to witness by word and way of life to Christ the Saviour and to His gospel. (p. 23)

Obviously, this being 1971, this need not be the last word on the subject, but let’s keep in mind that this was in the immediate wake of 1970 Roman Missal taking a pair of pinking shears to the Mass in the name of “active participation,” and the Commission which drafted this document appears to be intending to head off any such attempts in the Orthodox world.

I must disagree with Fr. John about Byzantine notation and intervals; on a practical level, I might suggest that we might have an easier time getting the Greeks on board with the mission in America if we would stop treating their music as something we just found on the bottom of our shoe that somehow we have to fix and rescue from itself.

On a technical level, I wholeheartedly disagree about harmonization of Byzantine melodies. They function modally, not tonally; you cannot harmonize them according to conventions of Western functional harmony without eliminating the distinctives of the eight-mode system and reducing it to effectively two modes. This already happens when the well-meaning beginning isocratima thinks that the Second and Fourth Modes are intended to be major in character and mistakenly drones away on ni because it sounds like a tonic. The attempts at harmonizing many of these melodies which I have seen have been well-intentioned but nonetheless unfortunate; part-writing errors abound, to some extent unavoidably because the melodies are simply not conceived in the same way as melodies which follow Western conventions. Unavoidable though they may be, they still look, and sound, like part-writing errors.

On a level of Orthodox spirituality — here’s one idea: how about we immerse ourselves in the received tradition before we start trying to “fix” it? Might not something emerge organically over time if we were to do that? That’s not to say that we can’t try things to see if they work, but my thinking is that we’d be best off doing so in continuity with the tradition, not at variance from. If we want to make Byzantine music conceptually more accessible to Western ears, the first step is recomposing melodies to fit the English texts according to Byzantine conventions, not just sanding off the corners of pre-existing melodies and shoehorning in the English. There are increasingly good models for doing so — we should follow them.

From the standpoint of scholarship — at the very least, I would encourage Fr. John to at least familiarize himself with, and subsequently engage, the scholarship which recasts the narrative into one of continuity rather than decline. A place to start might be Lingas’ essay “Medieval Byzantine chant and the sound of Orthodoxy” in the book Byzantine Orthodoxies, Louth and Casiday, eds.

This brings me to the PBS piece on Emily Lowe at Holy Cross in Linthicum, MD. I am not certain if I’ve met Ms. Lowe; I met several people from Holy Cross at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in ’04, and she looks familiar, but I honestly can’t remember. She has a lovely voice; the church is beautiful, and they’ve got her singing one of the signature hymns of Sunday Matins. It’s also kind of fun seeing people like Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green and Terry Mattingly in the choir.

The problem is when things like this are said (which I copy here from the transcript):

During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek chants took on sort of a very Middle Eastern character, and that’s when you hear this sort of dissonant, odd sounding things:  (singing) Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, glory to thee oh God.”  It sounds very foreign to Western ears.

Again, there’s that narrative of decline and cultural captivity with respect to Byzantine music. Granted, there are a lot of people in the Antiochian Archdiocese who teach that, including Fr. John, so it’s not a huge surprise, but my guess is that if the PBS documentarians were to have interviewed somebody like John Michael Boyer, they would have had a different set of quotes.

Ms. Lowe describes herself in one of the comments on the video’s page as “a piano teacher who just loves to sing”. I’m going to guess we have a lot in common; we’re what you might call armchair Byzantine musicologists. We’ve read a lot, we’ve heard a lot of recordings, been to a PSALM event or two and/or the Sacred Music Institute at the Antiochian Village, and we do our best with what we have, which are, as a rule, the Kazan transcriptions. I know I haven’t yet had a chance to actually study with a chant teacher who genuinely knows what they are doing and has direct contact with the received tradition, and my hunch is that neither has Ms. Lowe. The practical reality for me is that there isn’t anybody within a 4-5 hour drive for me to learn from; the closest person about whom I know is protopsaltis at Holy Trinity in Nashville, TN.

All of that is to say, if PBS came knocking on my door, I’d tell them I’m the wrong guy, everything I know I know because I read it in a book or have imitated a recording, I’m not an expert, I’m not an authority, and that they need to go talk to somebody like Boyer or Leonidas Kotsiris in Nashville, who have studied with great teachers (who were themselves students of great teachers and who have been singing these services in this idiom since they were blastocytes), and are themselves teaching it and passing it on. I would tell them they need to talk to people, not who are trying synthesize water from hydrogen and oxygen, but who have actually drunk from the well, if not marinated themselves in it.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m absolutely not attacking Ms. Lowe here. I have bags and bags and bags of admiration for her. She’s clearly wonderful, and a huge asset to Holy Cross. She does what she does very well, loves to do it, and offers it humbly in the service of Christ. That should be the big takeaway from this video, and it should be a model which all of us who use our voices in the service of the Church follow. It would be an honor to sing a service with her, anytime, anywhere. The trouble is the editors of the video presenting the content as authoritative and normative when it isn’t.

Finally, for the most part, all I really have to say about RightWingProf’s posts is — right on, brother. I take issue with a lot of the four-part writing which is out there for English translations for many of the same reasons he does. I don’t think it has to be that way; I think passing 7ths and 2nds can work okay, but they can’t be used as a sentimental harmonic trick.

There are a few little points I wish to engage, however.

I tend to disagree that professional choirs are somehow undesirable. Yes, fine, the Rachmaninoff Vigil is going to be too much for a parish choir as a rule. However, if you’ve got a cathedral choir that can pull it off — defined, as far as I’m concerned, as being able to sing it well and prayerfully — I don’t see a problem using it liturgically. My overall discomfort is that we approach a mindset that says, “You’re too good of a musician to serve the Church with the fullness of your gifts.” I can’t imagine telling an architect or an iconographer that, but we seem really comfortable telling singers that. No, it’s not a concert, but there’s a dichotomy between worship and performance which I think approaches being a false dichotomy at some point. My belief has always been, with respect to that dichotomy, if you sacrifice one for the other, you will do neither well. I completely own that I say that as a former Anglican, however, and that this informs my point of view.

I also fundamentally disagree with the blanket assumption, constantly asserted by many, that Slavic music is “more accessible to American ears”. If sung well, in English, with a melody that actually fits the text in terms of stresses and meter, Byzantine music is plenty accessible to American ears. By contrast, Slavic music sung poorly with stresses and meter distributed in such a way as to do violence to the English text is going to be just as inaccessible to the American ear as people so frequently proclaim Byzantine music as being. This is not a slam against Slavic music or Orthodox music in the Slavic idiom; I’m a big fan of Fr. Sergei Glagolev (who was kind enough to inscribe my volume of his music at PSALM in 2006), and the Kurt Sander settings I’ve sung I’ve really liked. All I’m saying is that I think it is an error to say that somehow one national idiom of Orthodox music is fundamentally more accessible than another and to privilege that idiom based on that assertion. There may very well be reasons to privilege particular idioms in particular contexts, but I don’t think this one holds up at all, and I think recent recordings of Byzantine chant in English bear that out.

Along similar lines, and to repeat a point made earlier, not everything needs to be sung along with by the congregation. Yes, it’s church, not a concert; I might reply by saying it’s church, not a campfire singalong. Melisma serves a particular function in the Byzantine idiom — frankly, that of following the rubrics. ἀργὰ καὶ μελὠς, “slowly and melodically”, is sometimes what the rubrics call for. It is not the aberration many would make it, so I can’t agree that it should be absolutely avoided in the parish.

That said, a parish choir needs to fight its weight. Period. If a choir can’t sing it well and prayerfully, they shouldn’t sing it at all. So, from that standpoint, I agree that there is nothing wrong with “keeping it simple,” insofar as what we mean by that is that the music should be no more complicated than what the choir can sing well and prayerfully. In all likelihood, that’s probably going to mean keeping things a lot simpler than we might otherwise like for the time being — heck, we use the Antiochian Village camp music book as the normative setting at All Saints — but it doesn’t necessarily follow that choirs and congregations can’t ultimately grow into certain kinds of repertoire.

If I were helping to start a mission, what I would be very curious to try, if I had 3-4 other singers who were up for it and who could sing it well and prayerfully, plus an acoustic which would complement it at least somewhat, is using the Thyateira translation with the Boyer/Lingas Byzantine arrangements, as found on The Divine Liturgy in English, as the standard music, and setting it up from the get-go in an antiphonal formation. The idea would be to make a particular traditional practice normative from the get-go so that people are used to it from the start, rather than the mission making it up as they go along. I’ve seen what that can look like, and I can’t quite shake the idea that it is self-defeating and ultimately serves to paint missions into corners.

Perhaps it is good that I am not helping to start a mission.

The preparations for the Great and Holy Council… in 1976

As noted earlier, preparations are underway to convene a pan-Orthodox synod. Looking into the background of this synod, I’ve seen references to the last big push to try to get something like this going, which occurred in the late 1960s/early 1970s and into the mid-1980s at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Geneva.

Fun fact: the first “preconciliar” conference started on the very day I was born, 21 November 1976 (Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple on the Revised Julian Calendar).

So, there are nine published volumes of the acts and minutes of these various preparatory meetings. WorldCat doesn’t seem to be able to find any of them.

There also seem to have been things published in the Center’s journal, Episkepsis, but I can’t find that indexed anywhere.

Still, there’s also a collection of “introductory reports” published in 1972, and WorldCat was able to find that. I requested both the Greek and the English version via interlibrary loan.

Anyway, all of this leads me to two questions —

  1. Anybody have a sense off the top of their head how I could track these materials down?
  2. In terms of general scholarly practice, what does one do when one knows particular sources exist, but can’t find them through regular channels?

As a very general musing — how would this kind of research have been done in the days before the Internet?

By the way — my wife has a hatched chicken of her own, and I’m very proud of her. I’m not sure this one can be announced yet, but I’ll go into detail once I know I can. (No, she’s not pregnant.)

Asia News: Journey begins toward convening of grand pan-Orthodox synod

Perhaps this could be the topic of my West European Studies Masters thesis. From Asia News:

The invitation letters have gone out for the two preparatory meetings that will be held in June and December. Ten topics of discussion. The ecumenical patriarchate has been trying to hold a synod of Orthodox Churches since 1901.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – With the sending of letters of invitation to all the heads of the Orthodox Churches for the two preparatory meetings for the grand pan-Orthodox synod, scheduled for June and December of this year, Bartholomew has set in motion the decisions made at the recent pan-Orthodox meeting in October, held in Constantinople, and attended by deceased patriarch of Moscow Alexy as his last act in life.

Bartholomew has stepped up the pace for the convening of the grand synod, which has the objective of responding to all of the problems that have built up over the course of centuries, and continue to plague relations among the Orthodox Churches, with extensive repercussions for the dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics as well. The schism of 1054, with all of its grave consequences for the universal Church, also deprived the Orthodox Church of the necessary impetus and ability to be constantly present in the course of history.

In the recent past, a first initiative for the convening of a pan-Orthodox synod was undertaken by Patriarch Ioakim III in 1901. He wanted to smooth over the tensions among the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, in the conviction that only an Orthodox Church engaged in a constant and constructive inner dialogue could face the challenges of the contemporary world and act with one voice and one heart. This initiative did not succeed, in part because the Orthodox Churches, which had recently emerged from
Ottoman rule, were seeking their identity in an exaggerated identification with the nation, and the full breadth of the Christian message was not instilled in their clergy.

After various mishaps, in 1961 a pan-Orthodox conference was convened in Rhodes, with significant pressure from patriarch Athenagoras, for the purpose of preparing an Orthodox synod. This conference was also followed by numerous obstacles, because as theologian Giorgos Tetsetis observes, the local Churches did not have a clear idea of what they wanted from the Synod.

Now, the letters sent for the two preparatory meetings to be held in June, in Cyprus, and in December, in a place to be determined, present the following topics:

  1. The Orthodox diaspora, where the jurisdiction over the Orthodox flock beyond national borders will be defined. According to the canons now in effect, before the growth in the phenomenon of emigration the faithful outside of their home country belong to the ecumenical patriarchate.
  2. The manner of recognizing the status of autocephalous Church.
  3. The manner of recognizing the status of Church autonomy.
  4. Dypticha, meaning the rules of mutual canonical recognition among the Orthodox Churches.
  5. Establishing a common calendar for feasts. For example, some Churches celebrate the Nativity on December 25, others 10 (sic) days later.
  6. Impediments and canonicity of the sacrament of matrimony.
  7. The question of fasting in the contemporary world.
  8. Relationships with the other Christian confessions.
  9. The ecumenical movement.
  10. The contribution of the Orthodox in affirming the Christian ideals of peace, fraternity, and freedom.

The first four questions were the cause of friction in 1993 and 1999 with the patriarch of Moscow, because of participation in the work of the autonomous Estonian Church, with Moscow does not recognize.

“It is time,” says Fr. Tetsetis, a theologian for the ecumenical patriarchate, “that our Church finally realize that it is doing poorly as a whole. The Church needs an open and sincere dialogue. Because it is only then, with its rich tradition as a compass, that it will be able to emerge from its blind alley and together face its existential problems, which are becoming increasingly severe and complicated. It is only then that the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s initiative can be understood.” According to the journalist Aris Viketos, the letter from Bartholomew is being well received in the Orthodox world.

Well, the misunderstanding about the difference between calendars aside, isn’t that interesting. Oh, to be a lay observer in the planning meetings…


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