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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Orthodoxy - the Glory and the Shame

By the grace of God I am an Orthodox Christian; moreover I am also by the grace of God a priest serving God and His People in this Church. It was not the church of my baptism, that being the Church of England whose priesthood I also served for 12 years before becoming Orthodox. Grateful as I am to God for my nurturing in the Christian faith within the Anglican Church, I am aware that the last 12 years of my growth in the Orthodox Church have exceeded all my expectations and established me more securely in this Church than any other. Indeed without intending to offend my fellow Christians in other churches I truly believe that this is the one holy catholic apostolic Church that we see in the New Testament and unfolded through Christ in the Old. I cannot even begin to imagine being anywhere else. I shall die in this Church.

I say this because I want you, dear reader, to understand how much the Orthodox Church means to me. It is here that I have discovered the full depth and riches of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is my God-bearing family, and I a sinner find myself here amongst saints. It is a humbling thing to come home to God in Orthodoxy, knowing that if I can only repent, I also shall see the glory of the Lord.

Please also understand that I am a thinking, feeling, striving man, flesh and blood. I did not leave my critical faculties, my God given mind at the door upon entering holy Orthodoxy. I am no crypto-fundamentalist. I submitted to God as one who heals and strengthens me, who calls upon me to love him with all my heart, my mind, my soul, my strength. I cannot do that if I am an automaton, if submission simply means blind belief, unquestioning practice and a disabled conscience. God did not give me all my faculties for them to remain dormant. Serving Him means using them, transformed by His grace to their fullest extent.

By now you are probably feeling that there is a gathering storm here; that Father has lost the plot, that he is going to instruct Orthodoxy rather than be instructed by Orthodoxy, that he is reverting to type; an anguished crypto-Protestant Christian in reality, unable to accept the treasure that has been entrusted not only to him but also through him for and to the others in his care. Far from it! God forbid! If I speak against anything that the Church has handed down under inspiration of the Spirit, cease listening to me at that point. But, as you can probably gather by now; I am not an entirely happy man. How so?

Firstly and positively it must be said that I believe that Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy alone has kept the faith “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). It contains within it all that is necessary to set people free, to unite them with God and hallow all that is good and true. This is Orthodoxy – right belief, true glory. But there is another neglected “Ortho--,” OrthoPRAXY, meaning right or true action of practice. It is by our Orthopraxy that we fulfil and prove our Orthodoxy and it is here that I am troubled; first of course by myself.

Understand please that I am not here to “fix the Church.” If the Church is to be fixed it is I who must be fixed first. I am fixed by all the usual means ... it is the same for all Orthodox Christians: faith, repentance, denying oneself, following Christ, serving God in my sisters and brothers, acquiring the Holy Spirit. That’s not the problem. The problem I carry is that I cannot do my job properly as a priest of this Church because of certain dysfunctions, certain shortcomings in Orthopraxy in the Church at large. As I said, it is not my job to fix these. I am not the Holy Spirit nor am I a bishop charged with addressing such matters. I only ask that my concerns be heard so that I, together with my fellow ministers of the gospel both lay and ordained may become more faithful and effective stewards of the mysteries of God both in His Word and by His Sacraments, in living out the Gospel in the world.

What are these problems of Orthopraxy that hinder me in my work? The first has a fancy name. It is called phyletism. It first reared itself in 1872 when the Bulgarian patriarchate established a bishopfric in Constantinople (Istanbul) open only to Bulgarians. This was interpreting Orthodoxy simple as a national phenomenon, an adjunct of cultural identity rather than a subsistence in Christ in whom there is neither east nor west and certainly no earthly national sovereignty. Since then things have deteriorated fast. Because there has been no resolution of the issue as to who has the responsibility for the governance of Orthodox churches in the west, (although Constantinople claims that), all the Orthodox churches now more or less operate simultaneously on the same territory. The canonical requirement that there be just one bishop for one city or region has now been effectively abandoned.

The consequences of phyletism have been dire in the waste of resources, the rancour of competitive nationalisms and occasional out breaks of turf and culture wars. This means that as a pastor of an Orthodox community in a large northern city in England where there are only 5 functioning Orthodox parishes I have no fellowship with my fellow clergy and there is no collaborative work between these communities. “Well Father,” you might say, “What have YOU done to remedy that?” A lot actually, but eventually you stop knocking at the door when there is no answer or it is slammed shut in your face. It is not as if this is an isolated example, a little local difficulty. Estonia, Ukraine, London, (Sourozh – Amphipolis) ... it doesn’t take too long to chronicle recent examples of this dysfunctionality. It’s no use pretending that “things are not too bad really” and “let’s not wash our dirty linen in public.” I might be a little bit more restrained if steps were being actively taken to address these problems nationally and internationally; but I don’t see it and neither do most other observers. So, in this matter, I cannot do my job properly. Can somebody help?

The Orthodox Christian faith is simply the gospel and the gospel life in worship and witness. This faith and life is for all. Those who gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost to hear the Apostles preach ... “the Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” did not assemble to divide the Church up amongst themselves, they did so (to continue the quotation):- to “hear them (the Apostles) speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” Notice that - “in our own tongues.” In short they were diverse peoples in language and culture but united in the Word; they heard and were understood. The drive to mission therefore starts and returns to this point time after time. It is the Holy Spirit that makes this possible. This is what our own (Antiochian) Patriarch Ignatius once said about this Spirit-filled mission of the Church when he was Metropolitan Archbishop of Latakia:-

“Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organisation,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evocation,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit ...
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.”

Now I cannot do my job as a mission priest as effectively as I might because many Orthodox still think in terms of cultural reinforcement rather than gospel mission. This means that credibility for evangelism is continually undermined by such attitudes. Too often many Orthodox resort to the mantra “we don’t proselytise” when what that actually means is “we don’t want to present the gospel outside our own community to ANYONE unless they become exactly like us or at least tolerate a foreign language.” So instead of the Pentecostal principle of Church mission other deadly inward looking principles are substituted such as:- “Keep the community together, teach them (the British that is) Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, whatever which of course reinforces the idea that Orthodoxy is ‘just for us.’” You see how this ties into phyletism? It perpetuates this heresy by refusing Orthodoxy to new cultures and keeping by it as an artefact of nationality and an overseas culture. It’s hardly surprising that your average interested British person concludes that Orthodoxy is lovely but not for me ... because in this expression, it isn’t. Of course I CAN still do my job within a loose association of like-minded communities across most of the jurisdictions but this is a car firing on 1 or 2 cylinders, not 4. It is a vehicle that is not going very far and that, neither smoothly nor fast.

Finally I cannot do my job effectively we have lost the facility of speaking to the indigenous, that is, western culture. This is frequently written off as irredeemably Protestant or intractably Catholic. Such despair (for that is what it is) is used to justify lack of engagement within these cultures, losing in the process all possibilities of transforming them. Such churches then wonder why they are losing their young people but this only prompts further retrenchment as it seems to offer yet further proof that integration is dangerous and, therefore, impermissible.

This impacts on my ministry because the ethnically enclosed Orthodox communities that could offer so much from the wealth of their experience and history simply refuse to help. We need, for example, services written for the British Orthodox saints of the first millennium. We need theological assessments of contemporary issues raised in the west concerning human sexuality, the role of science, bioethics, community development and other social aspects of our culture. Even where there is such engagement, usually amongst predominantly convert communities in the US, the results are not always Orthodox in breadth and scope. Too often such contributions are compromised by the reactive neo-fundamentalist positions of those who see themselves as in flight of all things liberal and who have mistakenly supposed that Orthodoxy is the last and only refuge from these positions that they have rejected in their former churches. So in Orthodoxy, apparently, one can hate gays, believe in a 6 day creation, spit at the very mention of women deacons and pursue with legalistic fervour the minutiae of calendars and fasting, despising those who are not “true Orthodox” who have sold out to “the opposition.” Frankly, you might as well be Amish ... except that Amish are much nicer people. I will be able to do my job properly when our theologians who truly teach from the Scriptures and the Fathers enter the arena of theological debate, in English and for a western audience. Then we shall be able to present Orthodoxy as it actually is rather than the hateful distortion it has become in some quarters.

So, do you still love Orthodoxy Father? You bet! It’s just those who despoil Orthodoxy and refuse God’s call that I find difficult. I need them to support me in “speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” not undermine me in so doing. Of course I could respond to this situation by ignoring them. There’s one big problem about that. They are my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. I could no more ignore them than ignore myself or God. So, we have to work this one out together. But the first step is honesty and this is the genesis of this article. What happens next depends ...


Anonymous said...

Bless, Father

Phyletism is a huge issue, for those of us who are Orthodox and not part of the supposed "accepted cultures". They are simply envious of God's love for his entire creation. I pray that God will grant them mercy.

Please take some time and re-examine Orthodoxy in the United States a bit closer. The Orthodox groups you describe are both the minority and the most vocal, not the majority. Plenty of protestant groups here still promote hatred of others, as well as harbor those who practice hatred of others.

I disagree with your suggestion that we need "need theological assessments of contemporary issues." The role of the Church is not political. None of the issues you mention will bring people closer to God. None of the issues you mentioned lead to salvation for those who do not seek it.

As the Episcopalians in America have demonstrated, the body of Christ cannot change. That is historically how the Church of England began and will probably forever be - Changing to please the contenporary desires of man.
Perhaps they would have benefitted by keeping the sacrament of repentence instead of abandoning it.

Thank you for posting a thought provoking entry.

Father Gregory said...

Thank you for this. i think we do neec to address issues such as abortion as the spiritual effects of this in our culture have been poisonous. Life is now regarded as disposable. That is a salvation issue. I could raise justifications for the rest but for now I just wish to say that the Christianisation of culture is a both a necessary pre-requisite and a necessary sequitur of the conversion of persons.

SteelCityGirl said...

Dear Saint in Christ,

Not only did I read what you had to say, I have lived what you had to say.

I have never been so unprepared as an American (carpatho-rusyn immigrant grandparents, carpatho-rusyn orthodox Dad, raised Protestant) to walk into a Syrian church and basically been asked repeatedly why I was there. To have the parishioners point out to me 'do ALL of these blond haired blue eyed boys belong to you’? And then of course the next point be to have the parishioner point out that this church was started by SYRIAN immigrants - there is a Ukrainian Orthodox church just down the road.

My husband didn't have much to say. I just comforted him by saying that he should be glad that we are not trying to attend the Greek Orthodox church!HAHA!He didn't quite get that - outside of my grandmother's funeral (a carpatho-rusyn orthodox church)he has no experience with orthodoxy, i.e., he just had not been exposed in any way to phyletism in the protestant world.

I could write a long essay in response to the many points that you have brought up in this read. The most important where, dare I even tempt to type it - the arena of contemporary issues and the Orthodox preparing their young. There - I typed it.

One fact I am grateful to God for is that He has always blessed me with hearing His word as it should be - not today's dumbed-down, watered down version. It produced the fruit of a discerning Spirit who still faithfully guides me!! Also - I will forever be grateful for the teaching that I received as a young to older teen in the arena of everything from the Godly worldview of 'life is holy' to marriage to the music that you listen all the way to dressing modestly - even managing money. All of these contemporary issues have served me well all the days of my life (ESPECIALLY as a mom with a 15 year old). I do not see this training in ANY Orthodox church that I have attended in the past 18 months. The Orthodox perform well in teaching young children about Orthodoxy, but in equipping young people with the full armor of God - to be prepared in presenting a strong argument to the world about their sinful ways and why those ways are sinful, remains to be seen (at least within my experience).

My husband is still bent on becoming full-fledge Orthodox (not just attending) and he is turning a blind eye to the issues that I try to speak with him about. He just doesn't understand. I completely agree that the Orthodox Church is the one True Church, but as a mom, I just think of how much we (as a blond haired, blue eyed family) have to overcome within the Orthodox (Syrian) church that he has chosen. I need to be around other believers. I need my cup filled. Instead of people watching me, I need mentors that God has chosen that will guide me. Church should be the place for that.

A side story - we brought our kids to a protestant (Free Methodist) vacation bible school this week. Again, it was worldly, watered-down, but great for our 3, 4, and 5 year old (I just wasn't up to the two and a half hour drive - one way- to get to the Orthodox vacation church school). While there, my husband met another father and this other dad asked my husband where we went to church. Well, we are all going to the Syrian church this Sunday. This family is also all blond, all blue eyed, all boy, and looking for a church.

Please pray for us - all of us. This family is really nice; they have their act together and really want a church home. Pray that we are at least met with friendly smiles and a welcoming attitude. The priest there is a very Godly man - I hope he is there this Sunday. He is the only reason that our family still goes. And yes, Father Gregory, he also would side with you on the myriad of good discussion that you bring up.

I have to remember that washing my dirty laundry in public also allows people to see it drying, ever so cleanly in the bright sun, a full witness for all to see.

Glory and Honor to Christ in all that I do, say, think, and act!!


Father Gregory said...

This makes me want to weep ... but the struggle for something better is worth it.

I think that part of the problem you are facing about practical Christian living is that in "home-country-Orthodoxy" this tends to happen almost exclusively in the family itself.

The growth of the Sunday School movement (which started in the UK in the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the urban unchurched) was, I believe, a concession to the reality that IN SUCH AREAS the Christian family wasn't working anymore ... indeed Christianity (excepting Wesley and the Evangelicl Revivals) wasn't penetrating the urban masses at all.

If we fast forward now to this century we see "home-country-Orthodox" bemused that such family based stuff shuld have to happen in church. It's a bit like putting granny in an old folks' home. You just don't do that.

Mind you, this family-Orthodoxy is breaking down now in immigrant 2nd / 3rd generation Orthodox communities ... so they are moving to the same strategy ... slowly and painfully. You are on the cusp of that change.

Whether it is a good change or simply a far from ideal adjustment to a bad situation remains to be seen.

Anonymous said...

Hard things to say Father. But an issue that some Orthodox need to ponder over...
Thank you


Anonymous said...

You are so right on the waste of resources! In New Zealand the big cities have a church for each major immigrant Orthodox nation. Outside the cities Othodoxy isn't heard at all. If there was one Orthodox church there they would have the resources to cover the country.

Steve Hayes said...

Thank you for that. And Amen to that. You have said many things that I have wanted to say better than I could say them.

Anonymous said...


You have written affectingly of your love for the Church, and my heart rejoices that you have found your spiritual home.

You may find the above comment rather glib when you learn that I am an Anglican. However, I am an eager reader of books from the Orthodox tradition, and there is a very great deal in Orthodoxy that I love and count as part of my identity. As you will be aware, it is normal for Anglicans who read religious books to step outside their own tradition; indeed it is a necessity as 'Anglican theology' seems a pretty slim field!

Likewise, such Anglicans such as myself must interrogate themselves on an ongoing basis as to the reasons they remain within Anglicanism, when they are so deeply attached to another tradition.

In these times, who can be certain that some kind of meltdown within Anglicanism might not bring such thoughts in many people to the surface and result in action? Denominations likely to be on the receiving end of any such mass defections beware!

All of this is a lengthy preamble to say that I found your comments rang true to me, an interested outsider. Jurisdictional chaos is at the very least confusing, and suggestive of ethnic battlements keeping out the foreigner, without even taking into account the outright inter-jurisdictional argy-bargy that must, as you have suggested, inevitably arise as a result.

But what is to me more perturbing is the possibility of encountering a peculiar English kind of orthodoxy, whose identity is founded on a negative reaction to Anglicanism and its perceived liberalism. Where, as you say, it's ok to hate gays, etc. This reminds me of the very type of Anglicanism that I am uneasy with and might be hoping to get away from in Orthodoxy, that clings dearly to the cudgels of the Reformation, and that is certain of one thing above all others: whatever the Catholics are, we're the opposite!

Apart from the tragically negative motivation behind such spirituality, if one can honour it with that word, it is childishly simplistic. Perhaps Luther had a good point in reminding the world of justification by faith: the tragedy was that he was lured by the appeal of one simple overriding principle into reordering and thereby distorting the whole rest of Christianity to slavishly reflect that one concept. Even to the extent of adjusting the canon of the Bible! Though he did at least have second thoughts about that.

Replacing justification by faith with sexual purity, or any other such issue, allowing it to enter into the core motivation for your faith and religious practice, around which everything else must be must be rearranged, must be lead to departure from the true Church.

Yours, Father, seems a voice of balance, obedience to Tradition, and discernment, which those blessed with the charism of leadership in all denominations so desperately need to avoid falling into the polarised interest group mindset that one encounters so much in our society.

Thank you


HanseaticEd said...

Father, thank you for your candour. Your serious engagement with with 'issues' - be they ecclesiological or cosmological - is always encouraging. Having said that, I think there is reason for you to be more enheartened than perhaps you are in your current circumstances.

As I think I may have mentioned to you in an e-mail some time ago, I came to a love of Orthodoxy when living in Canada. Under the mentorship of an Orthodox employer (now a priest in the OCA), I was exposed to a world of mystical beauty that I had never before imagined existed. Yet beyond all those things that appealed to my intellectual and romantic sensibilities, I was also priviledged to see a vibrant, outward-looking scene.

Case in point: the place where I worked under this now-priest was an Anglican bookshop in city centre Montreal. Apparently the mission of the shop was to serve the Christian community, and so it did, with a focus on the overwhelmingly Catholic population of the city. But 'Catholic' here was interpreted by my manager in the truest sense. The shelves were packed with books by Schmemann, Meyendorff, Behr, Ware, and the rest of the great Orthodox theologians of the last 50 years or so, along with Nichols, Taft, Ratzinger, John Paul II, and all the other great Catholic authors of the same period. Then, of course, there were the Fathers. All this in a store whose walls were covered with icons from St Isaac of Syria Skete and Holy Transfiguration Monastery. The environment was wonderful.

In any case, as I remember it, young adults from all sorts of jurisdictions would come to the store both to browse and to visit the manager. It was as much like a centre for spiritual direction as it was a shop. But one day, a young Egyptian man came in - he was probably around 16 years old. He spied a volume of the ascetical homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, picked up the book, embraced it, and asked if I might put it aside for him until he could afford it. For the next few weeks, he would come in with a bit more money, until finally, one day, he was able to leave with his book.

The point of recounting this is that, in spite of the fact that jurisdictionally this young man was Coptic*, and that according to the society in which he was being raised, his interest in the words of a saint should not have been of any interest to him, he was 'on fire' for his faith. Like him, so many of the young Orthodox I met had no regard for jurisdiction, and would attend whatever event, or whatever Liturgy, they happened to have opportunity to attend. I am certain that there were and are jurisdictional parishes in Montreal that stay isolated by virtue of their ethnicity, but by far the most noteable face of Orthodoxy there is that of this [almost subversive] vibrancy. Further, I know that my old friend serves the whole city as more of a general supply priest, no matter what the jurisdiction, than as a priest of the OCA.

In any case, I know this has all been anecdotal, and perhaps a bit rambling; but I hope it has not been altogethr unhelpful. This correspondent's experience of Orthodoxy from the outside has been one of exciting life and subversive appeal, and NOT of division and ethnic isolation. I could say more, but you should know that when I attended your parish for a Liturgy a few years back, my sense was of a priest and community that corresponded exactly with what I have described above.

Yours, in Christ.

* I am aware of the disctinction between Coptic Christianity and Orthodoxy, but in terms of this situation, it was much more the case of a young Orthodox man disregarding distinctions for the love of the Faith.

Father Gregory said...

"Your Mileage May Vary" as they say! Yes, I am aware of wonderful work being done. I guess I am painfully aware of just how much more could be achieved when all this gets connected up to the "structures." Thank you for such an encouraging witness. I hope I may see you again in Manchester sometime. The biggest thing you will notice is the vast increase in ethnic backgrounds represented in our community. I am about to start a group for Chinese students. So, yes, it is also an exciting and wonderful time to be on the Ground Floor building up.

Anonymous said...

Greek Altar Boy Crib Sheet: The most common incantation in the Greek
Liturgy is "Gyro Lays On" which is to bless the slapping of meat on
gyros a shadow set of altar boys are making in the basement. The next
most common is "Docks apartheid, go carts for nobody" to bless the
racial segreagation of Greek ships, which were the primary vehicle for
bringing slaves to America. They also say "To rhapsody the duckies,
shoot them, shoot them some more" and "Socks on we must go that not
just egg nog sold by garlic Louie" Their lordie prayer is really a
witches brew: "Butter lemon on the horizon against dominance, alter
the fasolia sou, general tomatoes, eastern horizons, obtuse geese,
does the mean simmering, tuna tuna is monitors in pussing, coffee
serve offering man, eastern offer toffee latte, alter geese, obtuse

Father Gregory said...

Very funny, friend! I might enjoy it more if I knew liturgical Greek. As it is I have to use my barbarian tongue.

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