Mainline Decline: What Lessons are There?

In my last post, I shared an article highlighting the Protestant Episcopal Church’s struggles to pay off budget and retain members.  Although I’m well aware that the internal struggles of the PECUSA are not the same as the various Eastern Christian Churches, I thought that article made sense to share in light of the recent posts on Matthew Heimbach.  Why?  Well, because the Heimbach scandal suggests there is something in Orthodoxy that has allowed him and his friends to latch onto Orthodoxy as supportive of their views.  So, what would happen if the Orthodox responded by knee-jerking in a completely opposite manner?  The PECUSA struggles suggest we’d lose members.  Now, numbers are not everything–quality is more important than mere quantity, as every mission plant pastor/priest knows, but they can be indicative at times and I suspect they might be in the case of the PECUSA.

There are some reasons to treat the drastic reduction cautiously, though.  Michael Hout, Andrew Greely, and Melissa Wilde, in “Birth Dearth: Demographics of Mainline Decline” Christian Century 2005, argued that the falling birth rate has hist the mainline churches as is the main cause.  In addition, Mark Chaves,American Religion, 2011, has argued that every major religious indicator has been trending downward, across the board, except diffuse spirituality (e.g. “spiritual but not religious”).  If Chaves is correct, we’re all in a world of hurt.

So, do these cautions undercut the previously posted article on the PECUSA?  Not entirely, but it should help put it in a larger context and perspective.  Yet, even with that context and perspective, it is clear that some people, and even parishes, are leaving the PECUSA over the discarding of traditional church positions on certain key issues.  I believe this ought to remind us that the response to one extreme (the TradYouth guys) might not be best performed as an extreme turn in another direction.

This brings me to one of the main lessons I think we Eastern Christians, especially we Orthodox, should learn from the PECUSA:  dividing the church too rigidly into the “liberals” and the “conservatives” hurts everyone.  Orthodox Christianity needs to find a way to express her faith such that it can transcend such divisions.  This is not easy, not at all.  I’m not claiming to have the silver bullet here but I would argue that one starting point would be to tackle each issue on its own, struggling against the temptation to reduce those who differ to stock arguments/positions.  For instance, I believe married bishops should be allowed again.  Am I a leftist?  I do not believe our church can perform “gay marriage.”  Am I a rightist?  Our Orthodox Church is too small to handle what is happening in the PECUSA.  We have erred in creating an environment that encouraged TradYouth to believe Orthodoxy supports them.  Yet we cannot err simply in going the route of the PECUSA.  That can’t be the answer either.  We need our own answer–one that seeks to be a transcendent voice.

When Liberal Means Broad, it Queries Liberal as a Willingness to Discard Traditional Values

Some of our posts have tended to challenge prevailing “myths” and/or viewpoints common to certain Orthodox sectors.  In this post, I thought I’d raise something that may challenge yet another sector.  A recent article reveals the difficulties faced in the Episcopalian Church as it struggles to come to terms with the loss of more conservative elements.  Note, these elements that are leaving cannot be dismissed simply as fundamentalists, for the division is deeper than that.  This isn’t a mass exodus of people leaving because they’re merely upset over incense swinging, facial hair, Book of Common Prayer editions (though sometimes this is raised), etc.  There is a real deep division over moral issues at least.  And this should be viewed by Eastern Christians (Orthodox or Catholics) as an opportunity to pray and view and learn (and notice I said pray not prey).  I think the recent decline and troubles in the Protestant Episcopal Church questions whether the future of American Christianity will be liberal, mainline Christianity.  Of course, this runs counter to those who would argue the “spiritual but not religious” group will eventually become affiliated with mainline Protestant Christianity.  I’m not sure which side is right, but I am willing to suggest that the Episcopalian situation needs a close examination but one honest and open, so that we Eastern Christians can make sure we’re learning the right lessons (admitting the right lessons might not always be the obviously apparent ones):

Why is the Episcopal Church Near Collapse?

Atheist-Orthodox Dialogue Post 3

In this post, we continue our discussion of “origins,” turning now to the origin of the Bible.  I argue that there are many human authors behind the texts that make up the Bible and highlight the development of those texts into the Bible as we know it today, noting that the Bible is a product of the Christian Church: Origins of Bible  John also highlights that many authors are responsible but notes that given that authors were not always present at the events they depict and the exceptional quality of many of the events themselves, we should be skeptical that much weight should be given to such a collection of writings: Where did the Bible come from

Statements Concerning the Antiochian Archdiocese’s White Supremacy Scandal in Bloomington, IN

Well, I have to say, things have not died down since I saw things explode on Facebook and received the essay from Inga Leonova.  I fully expected that her essay would cross in the blogosphere with a large, robust outcry from above and it would be quashed.  That hasn’t happened, which has only allowed things to fester and, from what I can tell, grow worse.

There is now at least a statement on the webpage of All Saints Orthodox Church:

It is good to read this.   There is also another on the TradYouth’s website.  I won’t link to it because frankly, I don’t think people should be pandering their site.  The group is racist through and through.  The reason I mention their statement, though, is because it is a response to another post and in their response, they note specifically that Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist knew of their views prior to chrismation.  If you read the statement from Fr. Peter Jon, it seems TradYouth is telling the truth on this one.  Father admits to not understanding.  That’s not the same as denying any knowledge.  Subtle distinction.  Additionally, many threads on Facebook have comments that state Fr. PJG was forewarned, in person by concerned individuals, prior to chrismation.  That seems to back up TradYouth’s story.

So, what to do now?  That’s not an easy question.  On the one hand, it’s disappointing the bishops (or at least their bishop) and the parish didn’t coordinate to make a bold, clear response, especially if it would mean apologizing for not realizing how deeply the attitudes were held.  That didn’t happen.  So, we’ll see how it plays out.  For now, we have a statement on the parish website and a flurry of give and take on Facebook.  Please note the statement does insist that Mr. Heimbach cease and desist from racist activities.  That is good.  Also good is the acknowledgment that this is a public issue (I’d say scandal).  As other important statements are made, I’ll keep readers informed (to the best of my ability).  Until then, keep the faith (once for all for ALL) and pray that our Church seeks the kind of healing needed to prevent this from happening again.

Is there an Orthodox Bishop in the House? Or, will the Antiochian Archdiocese Address this Scandal?

I was asked to post the previous guest post not merely as a PDF but also as a full text article, so I’m doing that here.  I stand by my earlier introduction that I trust Inga’s work on this and I stand by my point that the irony is deep and abiding.  To that, I’d simply add that no one with this kind of public track record (Nightline called him an up and coming leader in the White Supremacist movement?) should be brought into the Orthodox Church without a similarly public repentance.  This is not simply a private pastoral issue.  This is a scandal.  Priests and bishops ought to know the difference.


Orthodoxy for the Whites?

Inga Leonova


At the end of Bright Week, a firestorm hit Facebook Orthodox pages. It has become known that a young white supremacist by the name of Matthew Heimbach has been received into the Orthodox Church on Lazarus Sunday in the parish of the Antiochian Archdiocese in Bloomington, IN. Mr. Heimbach has wasted no time utilizing his new religious association. On Bright Monday he and a fellow member of the white supremacist group called Traditionalist Youth Network used an eight-bar wooden Orthodox cross to beat up a protester at a hate counter-rally organized by TradYouth on a campus of Indiana University. Photos of this episode with celebratory write-ups were posted on TradYouth blog and their Facebook page.[1]


Matthew Heimbach, as it turns out, is well-known in the circles both sympathetic to white supremacist cause and opposed to it. In January, he was profiled by Nightline as “a rising star on the white nationalist scene” and “the next David Duke, with Duke’s blessing”. He is an activist with considerable flair for fame and public exposure. As more details of his reception into Orthodoxy had come to light, it became apparent that his activities had been made known to the priest prior to his reception, and moreover, that other members of his movement also identify themselves as Orthodox.


The issue of how to deal with this case from the perspective of church discipline remains with the local Antiochian bishop who is aware of the situation. However, it presents a wider challenge to the American Orthodoxy. It is no secret that we have long attracted a population which confesses bigotry and xenophobia, and that our very jurisdictional setup supports ethnic and even racial division.


In his young life Matthew Heimbach has moved from one church to another, seeking a spiritual home for his racist ideology. His prior affiliation was with the infamous Society of St. Pius X, a schismatic Roman Catholic sect known for its extreme bigotry and anti-semitism. He has finally found his spiritual home in the Orthodox Church. In one interview, he lists as his inspirations the leader of Romanian ultra-nationalist organization “Legion of St. Michael the Archangel” Corneliu Codreanu, and St. John Chrysostom (the latter for his homilies “Against the Jews”).[2] His Facebook page and the TradYouth page have multiple posts dedicated to the Russian “Black Hundred” (a general term describing several ultra-nationalist monarchist Orthodox organizations in early 20th c. Russia), and to St. John of Kronstadt, a popular Russian saint who unfortunately provided considerable spiritual support to this movement. He asserts that the fascist political principles are completely in accordance with Orthodoxy as far as they outline the social structures. He also uses the ethnic structure of the Orthodox Church as proof of the legitimacy of racial segregation that he preaches:


“As an Orthodox Christian I believe in the separation of races into ethnically based Church’s. That is why even in Orthodoxy there is for instance a Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, etc. Orthodox Church. Regional and racial identity is a fundamental principle of Christianity, must to the dismay of Leftists. I believe black Christians should be in their black Church’s, with black priests, having black kids, going to black Christian schools, etc.”[3]


Can we say in all honesty that all this is but a caricature? Nationalism dressed up in Orthodox garb is on the rise in the Orthodox countries in the Old World. “Golden Dawn” in Greece and ultra-nationalist movements in Russia not only position themselves as fundamentally Orthodox but enjoy considerable support of local and even foreign Orthodox clergy and hierarchy. Orthodox Church has never had its Nostra Aetate. Our hymnody is replete with anti-Jewish sentiment, and our inter-jurisdictional relations are plagued by ethnic strife. Just recently the Episcopal Assembly in America was shaken by the démarche of the ROCOR representatives demanding that the ethnic jurisdictional status quo be inviolate. Our official stance on contemporary social issues is firmly aligned with right-wing politics. We have no involvement in human rights movement aside from a still-controversial stand taken by the Greek Abp. Iakovos alongside Martin Luther King in 1964. Is it so surprising that we present a welcoming appearance to the likes of Matthew Heimbach and his comrades? According to the researches from Southern Poverty Law Center who monitor white supremacist group communications, the appeal of the Orthodox Church has been spreading in those circles for a while now, and certainly not for the good reasons. Even a cursory look at the Orthodox online discussions demonstrates, for instance, a wide-spread support for the Russian President Putin as a “righteous defender of Orthodoxy” against “degenerate liberal Western values” – the exact rhetoric of the Traditionalist Youth bloggers and their enthusiastic commentators.


In a paradoxical way it can be said that by asserting that Orthodoxy supports his racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic politics, Mr. Heimbach has accused the Orthodox. It seems to me that it is upon the American Orthodox to stand condemned or to rise to the challenge. The public exposure of this case presents Orthodox bishops in America, regardless of the jurisdiction, with an opportunity to begin honest soul-searching of how we manage to appear as a natural haven for people who stand against the message of the Gospel in their very core. For these are people who call Christ as their witness: “But we as so-called “right-wingers” could not be right-wing without the existence of Jesus Christ, for it is Jesus Christ that makes us Right Wing. His message of a top-down authority system originating from God’s Sovereignty over mankind and having it manifested into a divinely ordained order of natural hierarchy, contracts and covenants, universal and natural law that all must obey is the coroner stone of what defined our ideological ancestors when they sat on the right side of the General Assembly in revolutionary France.”[4]


Or we can do nothing and sweep this under the ever-bulging rug, as has long been our custom. What will it be?..



Is Orthodoxy Christian Enough to Call White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis in Her Midst to Repentance?

Yes, the title is serious.  This week we have been blessed with an essay from Inga Leonova who raises this real problem, a problem that has, unfortunately, come to light across Facebook and so is now a real, live issue.  Given how preposterous this might sound, I should note, here, that  although I cannot verify every detail,  I have seen the threads that indicate she is correct and I trust her work here–and pray that something is going to be done about this soon on behalf of the Orthodox Church, for this is now a scandal.  As a church historian, I must admit that there is a real deep and abiding irony here.  Think of Desloge Missouri.  Or Greeks in Nebraska.  Or any other number of events in the history of American Orthodoxy when the KKK and others caught up in anti-immigration and racist sentiments ran Orthodox out of town and committed atrocities.  Perhaps I should post on such things in the future.  For now, though, I prefer not to side track us.  Everyone is made in the image of God.  Maybe not everyone will pursue the likeness of Christ, but everyone is made in God’s image.  Leonova’s essay brings home that point if nothing else (and that’s under selling it–I hope you read it).  I present it here in PDF for easier reading and dissemination:

Orthodoxy for the Whites-1

Small Orthodox Parishes in Focus

An upcoming forum dedicated to helping small Orthodox parishes navigate reality will occur later this year in July in Ohio.  I think this could well be a good thing.  I haven’t had a chance to articulate my thoughts on this fully, but I think small Orthodox parishes are the growing trend and I also think we need to rethink how we’ve been doing “mission” and “chapels.”  Some things work well, but times are changing demographically and we need to prepare for them.  Lately, I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing an article proposing what I would call a “Neo-Ignatian” approach to Orthodox parish life for the future, excepting the larger cathedrals and larger Greek parishes.  Perhaps, some day, I shall.  I won’t make the forum this year, as I have some obligations come July, but I hope those who are willing and able to go will.  If you’re interested, read more here.

The Internet and Religious Demographics

Christ is risen!

Today I thought it might be worth jumping back into a blogging presence by raising the question of whether internet usage is inherently “bad for religion.”  Recently, an article claiming precisely this has been receiving some attention.  Since we did not blog during Holy Week and not for a bit after Easter, the question seems appropriate.  Weren’t we, here at RRO, implicitly acknowledging this very fact?

To give the short answer, no, we weren’t, but I think if we turn to investigate what the article is explicitly addressing, we’ll find the point isn’t so much about behavior in terms of how we treat people, but behavior with respect to church attendance.  The author, Downey, cautions that although correlation cannot equal causation (for the cause-effect might work the other way around, or other factors could be involved), it seems to him that an increase in internet usage leads to a decrease in church attendance.  That is, a cautious conclusion may be drawn from correlations if one is unable to account for other likely causes.  Two other correlations to keep in mind are that religious upbringing affect people’s later commitments in life and that college education is correlated with a drop in church affiliation (though to a lesser degree than internet usage).  BTW, if you don’t have time to read the original article in pdf, you may try this piece, which reflects on it.

What is interesting is that even Downey acknowledges this doesn’t account for all loss of attendance and affiliation because younger people are less likely to be affiliated but being born at a later date, in itself, isn’t causal.  That is to say, there seems to be a trajectory here.  This is where I believe reflections such as are found here on RRO (not to mention other sites) can be a positive first step.  There is a serious problem in America and anyone who thinks his/her church is unaffected simply is not living in reality.  More than that, it is important for us to get at what is good and what is bad about the internet itself.  After all, it’s not going anywhere, so we need conversations and discussions centered on what can be “baptized” and used and what should be avoided.

I realize Downey’s article is centered on whether internet usage itself isn’t inherently a problem, but I suspect most of us realize we cannot avoid it and that behavior toward one another online is of consequence.  I certainly believe it is and, in fact, I am currently working on a short book that uses a virtue ethic (derived from iconography no less) that explores cyberethics.  It’s not being written in ivory tower fashion, either, so hopefully, it will be usable to the rest of us in the church building.  But even without that book being finished, I have no trouble admitting there are people who use the internet in better and worse ways toward one another.  There are a few people who have had comments not see the light of day here, for example, because they simply hurled an insult or two.  Ad hominem need not apply.  Likewise, in a medium in which it is easy to talk past one another, we have likely all experienced someone who purposely chose not to read what we typed but simply kept rejecting our first point, as though we hadn’t added any qualifiers.  We also have seen church leaders use the internet to tear down other church leaders.  For example, one bishop who claimed (whether truthfully or facetiously doesn’t matter) that he he typed his rapid-fire attacks at others on while on the toilet certainly didn’t help increase the respect people have for clergy.  The point isn’t clergy disagreeing or having different views, but the ways in which we disagree and share those views.  We can also probably each name an internet “troll” or two (or more!).

So in light of that, and Downey’s article, can one still make an argument for a beneficial use and engagement with technology from a Christian perspective?   I think so, and though it will be arguing that some expressions are not virtue-producing, I hope my book will become one very very small pastoral example of how this could be.  Nonetheless, Downey’s article presents a real challenge.  If the church is to survive the internet age, it must find a way of navigating this new technology.  The fact that this is, at best, only half the problem, is likewise sobering but anyone following American Christianity has known something is not right for some time.

Entering Holy Week and Bright Week

Although I do not think one needs to cease any and all internet communication during Holy Week and/or Bright Week, I think there can be benefits to reducing it at such times.  For me, personally, it will be a busy time.  So, we here at Red River Orthodoxy are going to take a break until Bright Week.  I don’t know for sure when the next post will be online–maybe Tuesday of Bright Week, or later.  I do not expect it on Easter Monday (Bright Monday).

I hope and pray that each and every one of us participates in Holy Week and Pascha/Easter.  Whether we tend to call it Easter or tend to call it Pascha, we should all call it the Gospel.  Whether we think our church(es) need to be more politically liberal or are disappointed our church(es) don’t speak out against “liberalism” enough, I hope we take time to encounter a King above all other earthly rulers.  However we look through our prism of the dark glass this side of eternity, what we are about to enter into should shape us deeply and profoundly.  Indeed, I hope and pray that the Good News of Christ crucified and risen will help each and every one of us look at all the issues discussed here thus far in a new light–the Light of the Resurrection.  For it is only in that Light that we can truly begin to see God’s handiwork all around us.

Converts and the Dangers of Abstraction

Though I loathe autobiography (as the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted, when asked about why he didn’t talk more about his own life, autobiography is a uniquely treacherous genre, and unless, he said, one has the genius of an Augustine, it is best avoided), and though even as a small child I wanted to defenestrate any teacher who made us get into groups and share our thoughts and (dread word!) feelings, and though I believe (as Evelyn Waugh puts it about the dowager empress Helena, in his hilarious historical novel of that name) that “a post of honour is a private station,” perhaps I might break all my own taboos in order to venture a few thoughts here to further the necessary and healthful discussion Fr. Oliver and many others have been having about the problems of converts and their practices in the Orthodox Church. Less windily, let me link back to the first post I wrote on here and talk about the dangers of abstraction and the importance of face-to-face encounters.

By the middle 1990s, it was clear to me that the beloved Anglican Church of my upbringing was in rapid and bewildering decline, with bishops plainly unfamiliar with the law of non-contradiction openly teaching contradictory things (cf. John Spong vs. George Carey on, say, the resurrection of Christ, the virginity of the Theotokos, and a thousand other things) and in general making a hash out of orthodox Christianity. With a real sense of sorrow I began to realize that such incoherence as I was finding was intellectually intolerable to me and so, following the logic Anglican bishops had themselves laid out in such documents as The Gift of Authority, I began to look around for doctrinal coherence and clear teaching, and found it in the bishop and Church of Rome: “The only see which makes any claim to universal primacy and which has exercised and still exercises such episcope is the see of Rome, the city where Peter and Paul died” as Anglicans and Catholics agreed as far back as 1976 .(I was aware of Orthodoxy, but never considered it a viable option because every Orthodox parish had an ethnic label stuck in front of the word “Orthodox,” thus rendering me, I figured, more or less ineligible or at least incapable of comprehending the liturgy as I did not then know Greek and do not now know Slavonic.)

I had two wonderful Anglican parishes in my childhood and early adulthood, and it pained me greatly to leave either of them: both were composed of warm, colourful, tremendously supportive people who had seen me through my own near-death as well as other terrible sorrows in the life of my family. Both, too, had given me a wonderful experience of liturgy with all the splendor and dignity for which Cranmer’s prose and the English choral tradition are justly celebrated. To trade all this for status as one faceless individual in some massive Roman Catholic parish, with hideously banal liturgy of the most unspeakable kind, was–almost–a bridge too far for me. But after making the fatal mistake of reading John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, I knew there was no choice but to swim the Tiber (and then, as it were, the Dnieper), which I did.

I think I was rather obnoxious after that (from the peanut gallery: when are you ever not obnoxious?). It took me several years to realize but one summer I felt myself and my conduct severely convicted by reading a story the Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas tells of himself: after he went off to Yale in the early 60s, he returned home one summer to his working-class family and his brick-laying father and mother in Texas, who, for his birthday one year, gave him a gun. The sophomoric Hauerwas was aghast and instead of responding gratefully to a gracious gift given with love, subjected his parents to a lecture about the evils of violence. While he believed what he said was true, he hurt his parents because his speech lacked love, and thus, for a Christian, he failed St. Paul’s simple test: to speak the truth in love. Too much of what Christians read and write on-line fails this test, alas.

In looking back, I recall a distinct sense, for perhaps close to a decade, that any interactions with my former Anglican Church would somehow “contaminate” me and the “purity” of my safe, secure harbor (to use Newman’s term) in the Catholic Church, and so I stenuously avoided every Anglican Church and Anglican friend I could. (As Flannery O’Connor has put it, “snobbery is the Catholic sin”!) More than that, like Hauerwas, I indulged my fondness for polemics and rarely missed an opportunity in conversation and in print to slag my former home often in lurid terms bordering on the grotesque. At one point about a decade ago, it got back to me that some things I had written had caused real hurt to a number of people who found my attitude bewildering and did not know how to approach me to talk to me. I was taken aback and provoked to re-think an approach that seems very much to be in common with the kind of “sectarian” mindset that has been discussed on here previously.

I have moved away from that mentality not only because I think it is unworthy of a scholar and, perforce, a Christian to hurt others. It is, moreover, profoundly unhelpful and off-putting to others–counter-productive to one’s ultimate goal of trying to show everyone why they should become Catholic (or Orthodox). If this is the face I give to others–smug, self-righteous, gleefully indulging in Schadenfreude at every new revelation of Anglican craziness–then who is going to be attracted by that or persuaded thereby to embrace the faith and the Church? To put it in the most nakedly self-interested way: you are shooting yourself in the foot if your defense and promotion of Catholicism or Orthodoxy consists largely in running others down while also preening about with your head-scarves, prayer ropes/rosaries, icons/statues, fasting schedules, etc. (As Fr. Oliver has said, none of those practices in themselves are bad, but too often they fail to do what they should do because of our misuse of them.)

Rather than this sectarian-puritan mindset, which I would suggest is unhelpfully common among converts of all types, whose Pharisaical nature serves nobody well (and likely sets you up for stiff treatment before the “awesome tribunal of Christ” as we say in the Byzantine liturgy), I came to realize, as the late Lutheran-cum-Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus put it, that one can and must see what good remains in one’s previous ecclesial home and not condemn it tout court. In other words, as Fr. Oliver recently put it, we must recognize and accept “honest historical continuity,” something Neuhaus winsomely described thus on his reception into the Catholic Church in 1990:

To those of you with whom I have traveled in the past, know that we travel together still. In the mystery of Christ and his Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. If, as I am persuaded, my communion with Christ’s Church is now the fuller, then it follows that my unity with all who are in Christ is now the stronger. We travel together still.

For a time I didn’t want to “travel together still” with Anglicans, but I came to realize, not least in face-to-face encounters with my somewhat upset and anxious maternal grandmother who thought I was rejecting the Anglican Church she loved and served deeply her whole life, that I was not rejecting her, or it, or anything that was good in our shared past. Indeed, it became apparent to me that to reject that past would make it almost impossible to have arrived where I did: without the Anglican upbringing, I would very likely have no faith at all today, and no membership in any Church. It is the honest, humble recognition of what we owe to others, and of how we have been shaped, that too often seems missing in convert narratives, whose strong bluster and zealously unbending defense of the truth belies a desperate insecurity.

In some cases (as in mine), I think patience and the passage of years allows one to mature and grow out of this attitude. In others, people need to be called directly to account by those skilled in the practice of an appropriate, healthy, mature, non-vengeful, non-sanctimonious “fraternal correction” that seeks only the good of the person and the Church, reminding the former that the good of the latter is not served by an uncharitable slandering of other Christians or an uncritical embrace of one’s new home.