Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Renouncing Iconoclasm

Yesterday on my favorite blog, Fr. Stephen shared with his readers some thoughts about icons and human nature inspired by the Sunday of Orthodoxy. My friends will recognize these both as recurring subjects in my own thinking, reflected most clearly, perhaps, in my occasional lectures on Marian devotion, icons, and (what else?) Marian icons. I commend the whole post for your consideration, but especially these concluding paragraphs:

Thus when we celebrate the return of icons to the Churches, we also have to look at ourselves. The icon, the image of God, must be restored to the Temple of our self. We must renounce false images and embrace what God has revealed of Himself. The Holy Icons of Christ are precisely part of that revelation. We honor Him in His icon lest we fail to honor Him in the Truth.

At the same time we have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is indeed eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

May the Holy Icons truly be honored and may we all be restored to the image in which we were created. Thy Kingdom Come, O Lord!

Sunday, February 25, 2007


After I formally joined the Orthodox catechumenate earlier this month, my friend Trevor (not my fellow catechumen, but a different Trevor) congratulated me on my catechumenation, then asked if that was a word. I decided that if it wasn't already, it should be!

The catechumenate is a period of preparation for the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation, just as engagement is a period of preparation for the sacrament of Marriage.

I was the fourth catechumen. Two others had begun in late November, and one sometime before that. We have recently been joined frequently by a catechumen from a Western Rite mission who intends to transfer to Holy Cross after she is chrismated next month.

Today we added six new catechumens. Six! After the homily, when we went forward for the Prayer of the Catechumens, we had nine catechumens and at least five of our sponsors gathered in front of the icon of Christ Pantocrator with Deacon Mark, who led the prayer. In a small parish where 140 is a good attendance on Sunday, we now make up a sizeable share of the congregation.

Today was another highly appropriate date for catechumenation – arguably even better than the Presentation (though I wouldn't trade) – the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On the first Sunday of Lent, we commemorate the Church's first victory over the heresy of Iconoclasm in AD 787, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the Church's second victory over Iconoclasm in AD 843, with the subsequent restoration of icons. But we also celebrate the Seventh EC as the last ecumenical council, which finally settled the christological disputes that had rent the Church – and, indeed, the Empire – for the preceding four centuries. This council is understood to have established the Orthodox faith as we know it today. Therefore it has become customary to celebrate the occasion with a procession of icons and the recitation of this portion of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy:

As the prophets beheld, as the apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have dogmatized, as the universe has agreed, as grace has shown forth, as truth has revealed, as falsehood has been banished, as wisdom has declared, as Christ has assured, thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach: honoring Christ our true God, and honoring his saints, in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in holy icons; in the first instance worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and in the second honoring them as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.

This is the faith of the Apostles,
this is the faith of the Fathers,
this is the faith of the Orthodox,
this is the faith on which the universe is established.

UPDATE: Catechumen number 11 joined us today, 4 March!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Second Thoughts

I must precede this post with a double apology. First, I am sorry to have kept my readers waiting so long for this post. Second, I'm sorry that it isn't quite up to my usual standards. I actually began composing this one in my mind before I started the blog, intending it to be my second post. I finally began drafting it more than a week ago and have been editing it ever since. It still hasn't quite come together, but I need to let it go and get it off my plate. I can't continue working on it because it upsets me to dwell so much on these issues. But I don't think I can proceed with my apologia until this one is posted.

To summarize my post from earlier this month . . . To the extent that my departure from Anglicanism is a response to current events, I am fleeing more from Archbishop Akinola than from Bishop Robinson. The latter, along with the rest of the liberal leadership of the Episcopal Church, will soon be irrelevant. Unfortunately, the process of excommunicating them is likely either to 1) break up the Anglican Communion, or 2) marginalize Anglo-Catholics.

After I reached my decision and talked with Fr. Gregory about becoming Orthodox, I made an appointment with my rector to inform him of my decision. The very day before the scheduled appointment, I had an experience that induced second thoughts. I was going through my Orthodox links and clicked onto the Interfax religion page for the first time in ages. I saw stories that reminded me once again of my misgivings about the ambitions of the Moscow Patriarchate and its attempts to exert authority over the rest of the Orthodox world. Patriarch Alexy II reminds me too much of Archbishop Akinola.

Just as Nigeria is numerically the biggest Anglican province, Russia is the largest Orthodox jurisdiction. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church claims more members than all other Orthodox jurisdictions combined. One would think the responsibility of overseeing such a large flock and rebuilding it after seven decades of communism would be more than enough to keep the Russian bishops busy. One might also make similar suppositions about Nigeria, where the rapidly growing church must deal with widespread corruption in society and conflict with Islam. The leaders of both churches, however, seem to think their churches' size and growth in the face of obstacles heighten their authority and responsibility on the world stage. Just as Nigeria sometimes seems to think it should displace Canterbury as the center of world Anglicanism, Moscow often appears jealous of the status of Constantinople as the senior Orthodox see. While some (including me) might dismiss both churches as young and immature, they see themselves, rather, as vital and enthusiastic, in contrast to the more cautious, established churches that have become comfortable and settled in wealthier, more stable cultures. And while some (again including me) see in both churches a dangerous hubris and knee-jerk conservatism, they see themselves as maintaining a purer, more traditional form of their respective religious traditions than the churches of other nations.

In 2004, at the Eighth International Assemblage of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy revived the "Third Rome" theory, a 16th century notion that, with the fall of Constantinople (the Second Rome) to the Turks, Moscow inherited the prerogatives and responsibilities of Rome. It was on this basis that the Russian rulers adopted the title Tsar, which derives from Caesar. Since then, Russia has always maintained an inflated sense of national destiny. We see this manifested today in Russia's ham-fisted attempts to dominate the neighboring nations that it formerly controlled under the tsars and the communists, as well as in the Russian OC's ongoing attempts to meddle in the affairs of Orthodox churches outside Russia. (Hierourgos notes several such instances in recent months.) In Constantinople, meanwhile, Patriarch Bartholomew promptly dismissed the revived Third Rome theory as "foolish, hubristic, and blasphemous."

So, as I was approaching Orthodoxy, I was reminded that I would not be escaping the sorts of political problems that were wreaking havoc in Anglicanism. In many ways, Orthodox politics are even worse than those of Anglicanism: in their romanticization of the past, and their fantasy-prone views of the present; in their knee-jerk conservatism masquerading as tradition; in the extreme positions of its partisans, as well as their immoderate ways of expressing these positions. It can all be rather upsetting to someone coming from Anglo-Catholicism, where we pride ourselves on the subtlety and understatement with which we express arguments, insult opponents, and issue threats. Unfortunately, the whole world can't live in the rarefied atmosphere of Anglo-Catholicism (though perhaps the Anglo-Catholic diaspora will influence the churches that receive us for the better in such respects).

But Orthodox politics have one major advantage: Orthodox conflicts rarely lead to long-term excommunications or schisms. We somehow remain in communion with extremists whose Roman Catholic counterparts would be sedevacantist schismatics. (Yes, I know there are exceptions. But you can nearly count the schismatic Orthodox groups without running out of fingers. In Anglicanism, on the other hand, no one knows how many break-away groups there are. By this point, I'll bet there are more varieties of Anglicans than of Franciscans!)

So I can look forward to a church with plenty of political conflict, just like Anglicanism. But while I have to be in communion with "those people," they will also be stuck with me; to an anti-ecumenical Russian devotee of the Julian calendar, I am one of "those people." But unlike Western churches, where unresolvable conflicts too often end in schism, most Orthodox will just keep arguing until Judgment Day or the next Ecumenical Council, without imagining there is anywhere else to go.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ruth Gledhill Proposes Anglican Divorce

It would appear that Ruth Gledhill, proposing divorce on Valentine's Day, is no romantic. It would even appear that she regards divorce, in this instance, not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. Gledhill sees an upcoming Anglican split resulting in two churches, headquartered in Nigeria and the U.S., respectively. She concludes:

An obsession with unity is blinding Anglican leaders from seeing the truth now facing them. It would be a better, braver and more realistic course of action to separate. It is time for the Anglican Communion to divide up the assets and divorce.

I submitted the following response (which has not yet appeared – I assume responses on the Times site are moderated). It doesn't say anything I haven't already been saying for the past few months, but it says it in 998 characters – just under the 1,000-character limit for comments on the Times site).

The unity of the Church in England was a founding principle of the C of E in 1559, and its tradition of comprehension was how that principle was realized in practice. Today, however, the C of E no longer thinks of itself as THE Church OF England, but has settled for being just one sect among many. The rest of the communion has followed this lead. With this change of identity, many Anglicans no longer take the principle of unity as a given, and they have ceased working to accommodate one another.

Ruth Gledhill proposes that the two major factions should simply acquiesce to the inevitable and get on with the schism. But any church built on schism as a founding principle will be inherently Protestant. There will be no place in either post-Anglican denomination for those of us who do not regard ourselves as Protestants. For Anglo-Catholics, and for anyone else whose ecclesiology takes unity as essential, at least in principle, the proposed "solution" is the end of the Anglican road.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Presentation

Well, it's now official – as of a few hours ago, I am an Orthodox catechumen! At tonight's Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast of the Presentation, I went forward after the Gospel (there was no homily tonight) with my fellow catechumens and our sponsors to stand before the icon of Christ for the Prayers of the Catechumens.

I chose this date primarily for a practical reason – it was the first Divine Liturgy at Holy Cross since I completed my final duties at St. Paul's. But I also think it was symbolically appropriate to make my official Orthodox debut on the day when Jesus made his first visit to the temple.

On Tuesday morning I attended the early Mass at St. Paul's to celebrate the Feast of King Charles the Martyr and to receive communion for the last time as an Anglican. Tomorrow night I will make my first visit to St. Paul's as a non-Anglican for the annual Candlemas service, featuring the Blessing of Candles, a procession, and an orchestral Mass setting by Mozart. It is actually the same feast that we celebrated tonight at Holy Cross. Since the Antiochians normally observe great feasts that fall on weekdays on the eve, I will be able to celebrate one of my favorite feasts a second time!