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.


Trevor said...

There's a lot that could be said here--most of it probably not terribly productive, and probably not helpful for starting off Lent, either :-) As I'm sure you know, I tend to lean more pro-Russian, but don't worry--there's no need to ask my forgiveness again. I'll just point out a couple of things and then get to my main response. If you ask some ROCOR and Greek Old Calendarists, the OCA is practically an agent of the devil; but Met. Herman has spoken out on the side of Russia against the schismatic meddling of Constantinople in the recent case of the Russian Orthodox split in England. My point here is that it's not just the hubris of Moscow that puts the EP in questionable territory. Second, the most scathing critique that I've seen of the EP's meeting with the Pope has come not from Russia but from Mt. Athos, within the EP's own direct jurisdiction. (And I'm talking here about the letter from the leadership of Mt. Athos to the EP, which is more toned-down than some.)

The divide you're talking about in Orthodoxy (ecumenist vs. anti-ecumenist, new calendar vs. old calendar, or however you want to describe it) is not merely a split between the MP and the EP, and it is not merely a problem of the MP getting too big for its britches. Across the spectrum of Orthodox jurisdictions there are those who think the EP and others with him are going too far in one direction. Arguably, they themselves are going too far in the other, but this is sadly the norm of fallen humanity. What I see in the history of the Church is that it has done best when the tension can be preserved with some degree of love and communion, where one extreme never has a chance to dominate the other. It happened between Antioch and Alexandria, between Constantinople and Rome, and now between Constantinople and Moscow. Personally, I would hate to see what the Orthodox Church would look like if we didn't have Moscow. Numbers don't necessarily make it more right, but what can we say about the EP's precarious political situation and empty episcopates? Again, I think we need the balance between the two.

And having Russian Orthodoxy provides a canonical home for those who have difficulty stomaching the EP. How many more Old Calendarist schismatic groups would there be, if ROCOR and the MP did not exist? Again, the tension has its negative points, but it allows the Church to remain catholic.

I think in the end we're both saying the same thing--that what makes Orthodoxy great is the way it's held together through the various tensions. I'm just taking a little bit different tack on Moscow's role vis a vis Constantinople in the current situation.

One more freebie. Here in America, we have two aberrations--the OCA, which exists nowhere else, and the fairly idiosyncratic Antiochian Archdiocese. The options are somewhat different throughout the rest of the world, and in general it seems like the Russians carry the banner of cultural contextualization, over against the Hellenism of the EP. (If you don't already know the answer, ask yourself, why did Fr. Daniel move the Indonesian Orthodox Church from the jurisdiction of the EP into that of ROCOR?)

I have not meant to offend in this response. If I have, once again, I must ask your forgiveness.

Roland said...


Yeah, I knew this post would be provocative, and I was afraid you might be among the provoked. My intention was not to provoke, but just to share another facet of my (undoubtedly disordered) thinking in making the jump from Anglican to Orthodox. I think too many people come into Orthodoxy with an idealized notion of what they are getting into. I want to face up to the difficulties – and to consider seriously whether I can deal with them – instead of putting on blinders.

I've read the Athos monks' letter to the EP regarding the Pope's visit. It mostly reads like anti-ecumenical and anti-Uniate boilerplate. The first specific charge is that during the service, the Pope wore an omophorion. But this is demonstrably false. The only liturgical vestment the Pope wore at the Doxology or the Divine Liturgy was a red stole - the same thing any Catholic priest would have worn at Mass that day. (I went back and watched on-line recordings of both services to confirm this.)

In general, the fact that the Orthodox Church will neither permit its members to receive communion in a Catholic church nor administer communion to Catholics makes the impaired status of relations between the two churches perfectly clear. There is nothing Patriarch Bartholomew could have done (or not done) that would speak more clearly than that, and nothing he could have done (or not done) that would mitigate that terrible separation in the least.

As for Russian cultural contextualization vs. Hellenism . . . The situation in Sourozh is so complex that I'm not sure anyone will ever understand it entirely. But one interpretation of what happened is that the MP was trying to Russify a diocese that had previously been enculturated in England.

Constantinople, on the other hand, has taken in a lot of stray Orthodox jurisdictions over the years, including the Carpatho-Russians and the Ukrainians in this country. They are under no pressure to Hellenize. But they are, no doubt, acutely aware of what has happened to other Orthodox jurisdictions that were absorbed by Russia.

A casual reading of Russian history and knowledge of Russian culture - plus my seven years as a Soviet/Russian intelligence analyst - make me wary of Russian intentions. Russian imperialism never dies, it just takes new forms. The fact that the current patriarch and the older bishops all had close ties to the KGB is further reason for wariness.

Anonymous said...

"Now What"

A phrase popping up in my mind, more often recently. My toddler's repeated viewing of a movie who's plot ends with the attainment of the characters purpose - ends with this statement, "Now What". (Finding Nemo)

I am interested in your thoughts, Roland. Now being Orthodox, understanding the politics. "Now What?" Do you simply expect enjoy double festivals/feasts since the calendars are off and you still intend to attend St Pauls for special occasions. Intend to enjoy the break from serving at the alter? ... How, in the new congregation, do you expect to fit in, to serve, to grow?
WHN (Happy ash wed)

Roland said...

I am still in the middle of the movie! Until my chrismation, which might not happen for several months, there are limits on what I can do in Orthodoxy. I'm not looking ahead very far into the future.

As for my future relationship with my old Episcopal parish, assuming I am eventually chrismated in the Orthodox Church, I anticipate returning primarily for occasional meetings of the Society of Mary and for special services. The SoM meets monthly, and I might attend every second or third month. Special services, apart from Holy Week, might occur three or four times a year.

We don't observe Ash Wednesday in the Orthodox Church. Lent begins two days earlier for us, on Monday. And Monday begins on Sunday evening, when we kick off Lent with Forgiveness Vespers. In this service, every person goes to every other person present, and we forgive each other, whether we are conscious of particular offenses or not.