A Quick Addendum for the Weekend

A clergyman I respect sent me a private message in which he said 1) the essay on abuse was largely spot-on but 2) still came across a bit as a solution searching for a problem.  I think this is good feedback and so I am going to take a huge risk by opening up a little in public (and God help me if this turns out to be cyber-suicidal).

Part of what lies behind my call to an engaged and non-abusive Orthodox Christianity would be three factors.  First, without getting into details, ’cause I know that WOULD be cyber-suicidal, let me just say that Orthodoxy, including the priesthood, has been a long and very very hard path.  I’m sure this plays a role.  Second, I have friends and colleagues that I have seen hurt and wounded and some of them burnt out while others have all but been run out.  I know this sounds offensive to some, heck, maybe even most, I don’t know, but I really, truly do think we Orthodox have some serious dysfunctions and I don’t think we’re being honest enough about them.  Third, I’m from a part of the country where openness and honesty are highly valued and problems are often solved collaboratively (even when a hierarchical structure is in place).  I have to tell you, I’ve seen very little of that in Orthodoxy–very little–and so I’m sure this is a factor as well.  So, although I admit there is a lot more work to be done and some groundwork for the previous post could have been helpful, know that it didn’t come from nowhere.  It was born out of over a decade of ministry and what I have seen and experienced during that time as well as trends I’ve seen and even historical work I’ve done (for the sectarianism is something one can find there too).

I appreciate all the comments and I’m very thankful for the hard work from Brandon, Dn. Nicholas, and Adam, not to mention our guest posters.  I think we’ve got a good thing started here at RRO and I hope to see it continue.  Stay tuned!  I have another post scheduled for Monday.

Abusive Hierarchy and Breaking Orthodoxy

Many have seen the series “Breaking Bad.”  I’ve only see parts of a couple episodes.  It never stuck with me, but the premiss is simple enough:  a man (chemistry teacher) is driven to desperation to “break bad” and start making meth.  In the last two days, there have been three posts that come together in my mind that relate to people who “break Orthodoxy” or leave for another expression of faith:  Fr. Richard Rene’s post looking at why some leave Orthodoxy, Adam DeVille’s post regarding bishop qualifications,  and Owen White’s response to Fr. Richard.  The first two may be seen on this website.  Owen’s post may be found here:


There are elements of all of this that need to be unpacked and so I thought I’d write this post as a way of unpacking (a little) a couple dimensions relating to scandal and abuse with regard to Orthodox hierarchy.  It is difficult to think of something more comical, silly, or downright strange than Orthodox hierarchy, from priests to bishops.  Honestly, let’s be real about it.  It is.  I’m not ripping on hierarchy per se (for I am in the military, after all).  What I am saying is the presentation and modus operandi of Orthodox hierarchy (at least in America and the West) is greatly problematic and does relate to why people leave the Orthodox Church.

In his post, Fr. Richard did not get into this aspect but it is true.  This can be a factor on the ground in parishes.  Priests can, at times, be abusive (primarily emotionally and verbally, I’m not suggesting it is common for priests to get physically violent).  This can happen.  I think priests actually have to fight this temptation because we often see ourselves as the “answer man” of our community and, to be fair, a good number of parishioners also see us this way.  Also, some priests have so bought into the notion of “hierarchy,” that they operate their parishes as mini-fiefdoms.  Some priests express this by micromanaging every little detail in the parish.  Or a priest might not trust parishioners with any real sense of leadership.  Some priests might even see some of their parishioners as “the enemy,” inasmuch as parish life revolves around a priest-versus-paying (or not) laity.  To be fair, I’ve seen laity whose behavior all but forced some priests into that position, so the problem with fiefdoms is not just centered on the priests.  Other ways a fiefdom can happen is the priest controls all the decisions.  One of the worst ways one can have a fiefdom can be abusive use of the sacrament of confession and spiritual guruship (if I may so coin such a term–I’m sure someone already has anyhow).  This can be seen when priests overemphasize the teachings of Ephramite monasteries and begin to dictate sexual behaviors within a marriage–and I don’t mean deal with pornography and adultery, but literally dictate parishioners’ sex lives.  A priest is responsible before God for the ministry of the parish but that should not entail mini-dictatorships.

And, lest the reader think I’m picking on priests too much here, the bishops can do this 100 times worse.  Again, I’m not saying they all do this, what I’m saying is it can be expressed at a greater magnitude when it does happen because it directly affects so many people all at once.  Furthermore, there is little recourse except to pressure the other bishops to do something, and that pressure normally has to be removing funding.  With no emperor to counterbalance abusive bishops, the laity’s pocketbook seems to be the only counterbalance we have.

Another way priests and bishops can be abusive, however, is by leading poor lives.  Many Orthodox priests have crashed and burned.  No, not the majority, but a significant enough of a minority that anyone who is Orthodox knows a few stories (if not more).  Priest X stole money, slept with so-and-so, is an alcoholic, etc.  We all know this stuff.  It abuses people because it sets such a scandalous example.  No, it’s not a direct abuse (at least not physically and not when a parishioner is not the one the priest slept with or stole from) but often such priests act and behave in ways that take advantage of parishioners’ charity and that is a form of abuse.

Another way that Orthodox hierarchy is “abusive” is that it abuses the notion of hierarchy in the first place.  Hierarchy should allow for push back.  Hierarchy should be engaged and relevant.  Orthodox hierarchy is, too often, neither.  Push back has been met with anger and retaliation, especially from bishops.  Examples of this are not hard to find, much as I wish they were.  Oh, we have some good and loving bishops and have had such in the past, but we have also had more than our fair share of hardliners, who interpreted push back as threats (for if not a threat, why retaliate?).  When it comes to being engaged, so as to be effective, ask yourself: how often do my bishops seem to “get” the modern world?  Sadly, this could be asked of priests, too.

When converts first encounter some of these abuses, they normally write them off.  Oh, this doesn’t happen much or you cannot judge the whole by a small part.  I agree one shouldn’t dismiss Orthodoxy by a small part of its membership, but over time, the examples of abuse can become disconcerting and then later disgusting and overwhelming.  When that happens, some will leave.  Although Owen said he did not disengage from Orthodoxy because of the scandal of Metropolitan Philip’s behavior, some people do, and Owen did note that Orthodoxy did not seem to produce the kind of people its theology suggests it should. I think this latter aspect is actually just a side affect of abuse.  If we’re behaving in ways that actually make us worse (as Owen suggests) then we are abusing the faith once delivered.  I think Owen is right that getting too caught up in hyperdoxy can make a person worse.  Of course, Schmemann said this before Owen, so I hope Owen didn’t surprise us on this score.  Indeed, if a problem noted by Schmemann is still present, and present among converts to such a degree, what can be done?  Must we always be stuck with abusive views of hierarchy?

Well, I guess if the poor will always be with us, so too will the hyperhierarchical hyperdox, but as with poverty, we are still called to strive against it and do battle with it.  So, I’d like to make the following highly controversial suggestions for what we laity, deacons, priests, and bishops can do:

1) Get a hair cut.

Yes, you read that right.  Get rid of the Turkokratia Trappings.  The Turkish Empire no longer exists but its ghost continues to haunt the Orthodox Church.  The Turkokratia Trappings need to go.  Fathers, no more bowling in your cassocks.  Let’s cut the pony tails and get rid of the long beards hanging from our chins.  Prayer ropes are for prayer time.  There are other colors to wear besides black.

I know this suggestion will receive a lot of push back.  That’s OK, and some of the push back will come from clergy I consider friends and I truly respect, but I do mean this.  I think we make a mistake the more we show, by our dress and appearance, that we are different and strange.  I am fully aware that some will say looking odd leads to conversations about the Gospel.  I’m sure it sometimes does, at least when someone is brave enough to ask what church you go to or why you look so weird, but I find I have conversations about Christ and church without needing to look bizarre.  We need to be engaged, so that we will be heard.  Are we dressed to be engaged or dressed to look out of place?  This applies not just to clergy, but to laity and especially converts.  Schmemann too had picked up on this, with converts seeking to look like monks.  It’s not good and it’s not healthy and, I believe, encourages a guru approach to hierarchy.

There are two items of Turkokratia that also need to be rethought.  First and foremost is the hierarchical liturgy itself.  Really, people, the bishop is not an emperor.  Brandon Gallaher has, in fact, spoken to this in his article, “Ecclesiology and Episcopate in a Post-Secular Age.”  We have applied secular symbols of power to our bishops in a liturgical context.  A second item is venerating priests and bishops.  This is a serious thing.  Look, I get that it is sort of like the salute in the Air Force and you do it to show respect to the office, and not the officer per se.  I get it.  We venerate the office of the bishop/priest and not the priest per se.  However, I am aware of this being abused and to be blunt, every time a priest or bishop assumes this is how he is to be greeted, there’s a serious, serious problem.  Dn. Nick has commented on this in a  recent book chapter on pastoral principles.  I’m glad he has.  To be clear, if priests want to have an “image” or an icon of themselves to keep in mind, they should look at the icon of Christ entering Jerusalem.  We take center stage there, brethren!  We’re the ass!  Yep, there we are!  We need to keep this in mind.  We bear Christ.  So, I propose we rethink how respect is shown to the sacerdotal office.  Do people really need to be kissing our hands all the time?  I prefer a handshake and direct eye contact and a polite hello.  What if we tried that more often?

2) Get a “secular” job.  Look, the future of Orthodoxy in America is small parishes.  We need to rethink how we are holding diocesan meetings.  I’d like to see census numbers.  I bet most priests are working and use vacation to attend church gatherings.  That will become more common.  The notion of “chapel” will become more important and “mission” will change by definition.  The more we encourage this, the more grounded our hierarchy will be.  St. Paul made tents.  The rest of us can do something too.

3) Require regular psychological testing for clergy across the board.  Do it before seminary and do it before ordination.  We have nothing to lose and sanity to gain.

4)  Stop trying to make the parish into a monastery.  Married people have sex.  It’s a good thing.  They should confess pornography and fornication and adultery, but let’s not micro-manage the rest.  Likewise, quit trying to do 100 extra services and then complain about lack of attendance.  The parish will never have high attendance rates outside of Sunday morning.  Here in the upper midwest, Wednesday night runs a close second–not Saturday night (unless we’re talking about Catholics hoping to golf or fish or just sleep in on Sunday morning).  Doing too many services actually burns out clergy (and key laity).  Of course, if we follow point 2, we will address this to some degree anyhow.

5)  Bishops and priests need to see their jobs as facilitators.  Everyone has a gift (and likely giftS) of the Spirit.  We should act like it.  We should discern their gifts and find ways to help them flourish.  We are not the know-it-alls.  We do not have all the solutions.  Our parishioners are talented.  Goodness, a priest doesn’t even NEED to be the ONLY one who ever gives sermons or teaches adult education or even catechesis.  And parish councils should be real councils.  There are parishes where there are councils by name only.  That’s wrong.

6) Accept and welcome push back.  Bishops and priests should not go into retaliation mode or “woe is me” victim mode.  That’s beneath the dignity of the office.

7) Be brave and Christian enough to give push back.  Too often priests act as silent sheep in the face of bishops’ behaviors that most priests wouldn’t do.  Of course, if we’d all get “secular” jobs, this might help give us freedom here too.  But really, my fellow ministers in Christ, we should be standing up for the flock, not cowering before tyrants.  I’ve seen the latter.

8)  Bishops and priests need to have identities, friendships, and hobbies outside their parishes.  There must be more to Fr. X than “Hi, I’m Fr. X” or Fr. X is mentally and emotionally unhealthy.

These eight steps won’t cure everything, but they would be a start.  We have abusive hierarchy.  Our abusive clergy and scandals do cause people to leave.  It happens.  I believe most of our clergy are good at heart but we need to fess up.  We need to take ownership and we need to do what we can to correct it.

What Do You Look for in a Bishop?

With the death this past week of Met. Philip, of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America (about whom Fr. Oliver Herbel’s most recent book offers  fascinating insights–I urge you to read it) and of Mor Ignatius Zakka, Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, two important primatial positions have become open. If you were one of the electors, or were called upon to advise them, what would you counsel? What kinds of things are essential in a bishop?

More than ten years ago now, I published, in a tiny obscure Canadian journal (is there any other kind?!) a “top ten” list of qualities bishops should possess. I can’t find that article just now to see how well it holds up, and I confess I can’t remember most of what I wrote. But one thing I have started to think about, which I did not include in my original list, was the issue of celibacy. (I’m at work on a book right now about married Catholic priests.) I know many fine married priests, Catholic and Orthodox,  whom I should happily appoint bishop were such an appointment within my gift. How sound is the argument for maintaining a celibate episcopate? (I confess that in many cases with which I’m familiar, the number of possible celibates is so small that by the time you root out the flagrant psychopaths you are left with a tiny handful of mere mediocrities–if you are lucky.) And, married or not, what would you look for in your new North American primate if you are a member currently of the Antiochian Church–or of the Syriac Church?

Leaving the Orthodox Church

Today, we are blessed to have a guest reflection from Fr. Richard Rene.  I expect this will lead to follow up posts!


As an Orthodox Christian priest, I am always interested in how people find and (sometimes) abandon their Orthodoxy. In a recent conversation with a close friend of mine, we found ourselves reflecting on friends of ours who have risen to prominence in parishes or theological or academic circles, only to ‘implode’ in a variety of ways, even going so far as to abandon their faith in God entirely.

As we speculated on these sad stories, we wondered if they shared something in common, and the conversation turned to the ways in which converts to Orthodox Christianity describe their encounter with the Church. We realized that in all of the stories of conversion, two metaphors are so prevalent as to be ubiquitous—that of the journey and the story. More than that, we saw the ways we tend to understand and apply the metaphors of story and journey have profoundly exacerbated (if not caused) the spiritual breakdowns we have witnessed in the lives of those converts who have lapsed from Orthodoxy.

In pre-modern societies, a person’s identity was forged almost entirely in relation to his tribe. In the context of family and clan, the metaphors of story and journey were well-defined and concrete. The story was the ancestral history—a collection of myths and customs by which the tribe identified itself—and the individual’s purpose was to assimilate himself into this pre-existing narrative. The journey was the process of assimilation, which also had a well-defined markers in the form of rituals of birth, coming-of-age, marriage, the making of war, the establishing of peace, and death.

By their communal nature, tribal societies guaranteed the safety of the metaphors of story and journey. Individuals journeyed into a story their community had defined, on a journey their ancestors had taken before them.

By contrast, modern societies have consciously abandoned the tribe as the locus of personal identity. Since the industrial revolution, the tie between the individual and their community has largely been severed. Detached from these roots, our understanding of the metaphors of story and journey have also become unmoored. While the tribal story was collectively known and understood and handed down from generation to generation, now we have no narrative to adopt, and are compelled to create our own myths from which to draw meaning. While the journey that one undertook to become part the tribal story was well-established in communal rites and rituals, now we must invent not only the destination (whatever constitutes personal fulfillment), but also the route and the markers of meaning along the way.

I think of myself as a typical example of this modern situation. Upon learning that I am an Eastern Orthodox priest, people have often asked whether I am ethnically Slavic. The question itself is telling: the assumption is that I entered the priesthood because it is my tribal religion. In reality, I was born in the Seychelles, raised in southern and eastern Africa, and immigrated to western Canada. I chose to attend an Orthodox Church independently of my family, who found my decision strange and alienating. Far from being an inevitable step in the fixing of my tribal identity—a Slavic boy following taking up the clerical family business—my entering the priesthood was very personal: my journey, a development in my story. In a pre-modern society, I could not have conceived of such a path. Modernity has allowed me to make the kinds of social decisions that led to what I have become.

In one sense, then, we converts can be grateful for the breakdown of tribally-defined barriers that the modern ethos has afforded. For one thing, it has made it possible for us to discover a rich Orthodox spiritual heritage that would otherwise have remained sequestered in Slavic, Greek or Palestinian tribal ghettos. At the same time, the detaching of the individual from the tribal in the forging of spiritual identity has a dark side, and it is this that I would like to draw our attention to here. For the very same modern phenomenon that has permitted some of us to discover a faith that would otherwise have been concealed from us also contains within itself a set of assumptions that, as long as we ignore them, could lead us to abandon the same faith almost readily as we embraced it.

Consider the metaphor of the journey to faith. As long as we accept as axiomatic that the individual is on a personal journey whose destination is self-defined and determined, two assumptions follow. Firstly, we come to assume that every destination is equally valid. Secondly, because each individual is on his own journey, we assume that he must know the best way to get where he is going; to that extent, we tend to regard whatever path he chooses as the right one relative to him.

Similar assumptions may be made when we as moderns interpret the story metaphor. If we believe that the individual must conceive his own story, rather than simply appropriate the tribal story, then forging our identities primarily involves conceiving of and articulating a myth that is uniquely our own. Rather than asking how we fit into the story that we have inherited, we ask how our experiences fit into a story whose lines are necessarily in flux, developing according to our subjective inclinations. As a result, we make choices, not so that we can better approximate our place in the communal narrative, but on the basis of whether or not we believe that those choices fit into a narrative we have constructed.

These approaches to the metaphors of journey and story are potentially dangerous for the modern Orthodox convert. If every spiritual destination is valid, why should one’s encounter with Orthodoxy be the end point, and not simply a temporary stop along the way to somewhere else, equally fulfilling? And if every path one chooses is right as long as you consider it a part of ‘your journey,’ then Orthodox Christianity, which considers itself the fullness of the way to human salvation through Jesus Christ, is no more right than any other system that claims to offer spiritual guidance in human life.

Likewise, when we make our encounter with the Orthodox Church merely a part of ‘my story,’ we build in the possibility that the encounter may not be the ‘end,’ but rather just one chapter, to be followed by others. And if our life in the Orthodox Church starts to involve uncomfortable, inconvenient and even unpleasant experiences that don’t ‘fit’ our notions of how things should unfold; if our newly-adopted Orthodox narrative comes into conflict with other narratives, such as those of the LGBT or feminist communities—what then? Might we not tempted to turn the page on Orthodoxy and ‘start a new chapter’ in our lives, seeking to weave in the alternative plotlines we find so personally compelling?

In short, when we uncritically adopt the modern interpretation of these key metaphors, we unwittingly allow for the possibility of reducing Christianity to a purely subjective faith whose staying power depends on our fickle notions of ‘personal fulfillment.’ Planted in such rocky soil, our spirituality may quickly and joyfully spring to life when it suits us, but lacking a root, it may wither and die just as quickly.

The antidote to this malaise would seem to involve restoring a tribal basis for personal identity. However, this too is fraught with pitfalls. Too often, especially in convert circles, the return to tribalism has devolved into sectarianism as members, perhaps unconsciously aware of their modern spiritual fragility, adhere to communal rules that focus on externals (such as beards, head coverings and so on), while adopting a rigid formalism and literalism in their interpretation of liturgical and biblical texts. In this way, they hope to restore the understanding of journey and the story to its pre-modern state, containing the destructiveness of individual autonomy that modernity has unleashed.

The dangers here are relatively obvious. Aside from robbing a rich spiritual tradition of its depth and nuance, reducing it to a collection of mere forms to be observed unquestioningly and unthinkingly, such sectarian endeavours inevitably deprive the Gospel of its power to penetrate and overcome cultural, social, economic and religious barriers. Quite simply, the artificial and superficial restoration of tribalism that we see in many convert communities perverts the apostolic understanding of a Church and a unity in Christ where there is truly neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.

Rather than applying such simplistic answers to the question of modernity, we must begin by confronting the extent to which modernity has shaped and continues to shape our sensibilities, regardless of whether we brand ourselves ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal.’ Second, we must actively engage in reclaiming the metaphors of story and journey, rather than simply adopting them wholly and uncritically. We can and should celebrate the power of modernity to break down barriers and allow the Gospel to flourish in places from it would otherwise be excluded; however, we should avoid its tendency to relativize and render all things equally valid (and therefore equally meaningless).

If we are to talk about a ‘journey of faith’ (and not to do so would be difficult), we need to consciously recall that the destination—the fullness of Christ—is a given, as is the way to get to that destination in the tradition of the one apostolic Church. The paths we take, therefore, are not all equally valid or good, but must prove themselves consistent with the path of the saints—those who have walked before us.

Similarly, if we must think of our journey as being a part of a larger narrative, we need to remind ourselves both individually and collectively this is not a narrative of our own making; it too is a given. Our responsibility is not to continually deliberate on how the events and experiences of our lives ‘fit’ into the myth we have created for ourselves. Rather, our task is to make the most informed and wisest choices in council with the Body of which we are members, and then leave the Head of that Body, the Author of lives to establish their ultimate significance in relation to His story, the story of universal salvation.

Can You Teach Orthodox Practices in a University to Non-Orthodox?

Following up on Dr. Christopher Johnson’s recent post on here, I wanted to raise a few questions that emerged after I read this fascinating article, “Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students.” There the author rather strikingly and boldly argues that even in state schools, we should not be afraid to teach not merely the beliefs about, or theory of, religions, but actual practices of actual religions as lived by people every day. We should, moreover, not be shy about doing so in order to provide guidance and structure to students who often end up drifting rather aimlessly through university and through life without having any sense of purpose or coherent meaning to their life. As the American university has moved more and more towards specialization, and has shied every more strongly away from helping students find meaning and structure, order and purpose, in their studies and perforce their life and the life of the world, can teaching religious practices help remedy these crying absences?

I confess that even as one teaching in a private Catholic university, and even as one who, twenty years ago was deeply influenced by Stanley Hauerwas’s argument that the study of theology requires, as he puts it, the “qualification of the self” (an argument the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre fleshed out in detail in his Gifford Lectures, published as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry), I find myself stopping a bit short of Poe’s proposal. Why is that? I suspect that again Hauerwas might have the answer: we have no problem with experts telling us that you have to diet or exercise, or believe certain things and live certain practices about health or science or geometry, or biology, but when it comes to “religion” it’s suddenly every man for himself, and every person’s an expert. The idea, as Hauerwas puts it, that to become a Christian might require a long, rigorous “apprenticeship” under a trusted senior Christian offends American individualism. Or, to use a story of his I’m fond of quoting: consider the difference between a medical student and a seminary student. The seminary student says “I don’t want to take a course about the doctrine of God. I want to spend a semester just finding myself.” Too many times the response is “Yes, that’s right. Go find yourself and discover your own spiritual identity.” Contrast that with the medical student who says “I don’t want to study gross anatomy and physiology. I want to spend a semester finding myself.” The medical school says “To hell with that. Take anatomy and physiology or get out!” Is it any wonder, Hauerwas says, that doctors are today’s high priests and real priests are increasingly irrelevant?

Poe’s article, combined with another article I read recently about how music affects our brains, has got me to wondering about possible changes to my courses. We spend weeks talking about the theology of liturgy, the role of liturgy, and the actual structural units of liturgy before we watch clips of liturgies and before students attend a local Orthodox church to observe a liturgy first-hand and then write about it. But what if I changed my class and started teaching them how to join in the chanting at the liturgy–what if I brought in a music instructor (because, as my late granny used to say, “you can’t carry a tune in a bucket!”) to teach them Byzantine or Galician or Kyivan or Serbian chant? What if we spent a few classes doing nothing but quietly reciting the Jesus Prayer together, or, during Lent, reciting the Prayer of St. Ephraim with prostrations in between listening to readings from St. John of the Ladder or the vita of St. Mary of Egypt? What if we had a cooking session in which we learned to prepare vegan dishes suitable for those keeping a strict fast? What if I brought in an iconographer in my course on icons, and instead of reading about iconoclasm and iconography, and about the techniques of icon painting and the theology of icons, we actually all painted an icon ourselves?

What if we moved from individual practices to talk to students and tell them that the ultimate purpose, order, and meaning in life is to be found in theosis–in becoming like God and entering into deeper communion with Him?  That, it seems to me, would likely be the outer limit of what would be possible in an academic context: after that, they would need to step into a parish or monastic community and enter into the sacramental life of the Church.

But could we do even this much? Perhaps more important, would we allow ourselves to do it? Are there dangers here?

When Orthodox Were Told to Become Episcopalians:

One of the Orthodox responses against ecumenical relations that one hears now and again may be that “all of church history” or “all of the tradition” weighs against joint “non-sacramental” services (e.g. an Akhathis or even Adam’s suggestion of joint participation in Forgiveness Vespers) and “praying with heretics” (where “heretics” is applied to all non-Orthodox, even other Trinitarian Christians).  If one is to appeal to all of Orthodox Church history, though, one will find that the responses toward non-Orthodox have varied quite a bit.  In North Dakota, one such variance occurred in the early twentieth century.  Although many people might not know this, North Dakota actually received a small influx of Syro-Lebanese immigrants in the late nineteenth century.  There never was a Syro-Lebanese Orthodox Church established anywhere on the plains of North Dakota, from what I’ve been able to learn thus far.  What happened, instead, was a more “circuit-riding” approach, of priests (and once a bishop) who traveled now and then into the area.  North Dakota was fairly remote at the time and travel would have been a long one, with clergy coming from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Sioux City, Iowa, and once, apparently, Nebraska.

In 1914 an “archbishop” and a “priest” held a liturgy in the rural school of Reno Valley Township, south of Rugby, ND.  The bishop in question informed the faithful that they should attend the Episcopalian churches and that is also the message the faithful seem to have received from priests who would visit as well.  So, who was this bishop and why would he do such a thing?  Isn’t communion with non-Orthodox against the whole of tradition?  Well, we should keep in mind that at the time, the relationship between the two churches was close, much much closer than today.  It wasn’t perfect, though, and the case of Fr. Irvine shows that quite clearly (Irvine was a converted Episcopalian priest and his ordination in November, 1905, to the Orthodox priesthood caused a stir across the Protestant Episcopal Church at the time).  So, this bishop in question knew the complexities and yet still gave the recommendation he gave.  One could, of course, point to exigencies, but still, he could have insisted on the founding of an Orthodox parish.  There are enough people in a picture from the event to justify such a demand.  Yet, the demand was not made. In fact, the practical consequence of what they were told was that they became Episcopalians, and it would seem the bishop had to know this would be the case.

I am unsure who this “archbishop” was.  It is difficult to tell from the photograph.  It was not Archbishop Alexander (Nemolovsky).  It likely was not Metropolitan Platon, as he left for Russia on June 2nd of 1914.  I must also admit the pictured bishop does not look much like Metropolitan Platon to me anyhow (but I cannot share the picture due to copyright concerns at the moment).  It is possibly St. Raphael (Hawaweeny), who did take a trip through Minneapolis in 1914.  Did he journey into North Dakota?  I haven’t had the time to research, but it seems likely, especially since he was already in Minneapolis.  It’s not like there were many Orthodox bishops on American soil at the time and if not Bishop Alexander or Metropolitan Platon, St. Raphael is the next logical choice.  The Greek bishop, Metropolitan Meletios wouldn’t arrive in America until 1918 and I’m not aware of bishops other than those from the Russian Orthodox Church being in America at that time.

So, it seems that when it came to facing the realities of Orthodox on the plains, rather than tell Orthodox immigrants to found parishes, St. Raphael did the prudent thing and told them to go to Episcopalian parishes.  Nor was this unique, by the way, as Orthodox immigrants elsewhere did this as well.

This helps remind us that sweeping generalizations against inter-confessional prayer involving Orthodox do not hold up upon close examination.  In fairness, the opposite extreme should also not be concluded from this.  My point, here, is not to champion ecclesiological relativism.  Rather, my point is that we do possibly have a saint who sought to balance a faithfulness to Orthodoxy with a willingness to see what was good and true in a non-Orthodox Church, to the point of telling his flock to go to that other church.

I dare say this is in contrast to the knee jerk (“all of tradition” or “all of church history”) reactions to Adam’s more recent post.  Given that it’s Lent, I thought Adam’s point worth praying over more thoughtfully.  Those who wish to so pray might be encouraged to know that it is not simply a perspective found only here on this website in the twenty-first century, but one that can be found in other times and places as well.  Hopefully, in the future, I can post on some of those other times and places (lest someone conclude this is merely the “one” exception that proves the rule).  Times have changed and the Protestant Episcopal Church has certainly changed, to the point where telling Orthodox to commune at Episcopalian churches would be highly questioned.  Nonetheless, perhaps with other traditional, liturgical Christians, we Orthodox have more to draw on from our Tradition than merely a dismissal of serious interactions and joint prayer.

The Great and Holy Synod Approaches?

The recent gathering of Orthodox hierarchs in Constantinople seems to have settled on 2016 as the date for the much-promised, but much-delayed, “great and holy synod” of all Orthodox leaders, the first such gathering, we are told, since Nicaea II in 787. If this comes to pass, it will be news of the first order, and a cause for bells to ring throughout the world in thanksgiving to God who makes all things new.

If it does come to pass, someone will need to do some thinking about the meaning of the phrase “ecumenical council,” which the Latins have continued to use to describe their councils up to and including Vatican II. Will this promised council be the eighth ecumenical council recognized by the Byzantine Orthodox Churches? Will it be more fully ecumenical by including the Oriental Orthodox? Will it be more fully ecumenical still by including Catholic and Protestant participants? And then, after it happens, how will Catholics and Orthodox, separately and together, reckon (and perhaps reconcile?) their respective meanings of “ecumenical council”?

As an ecclesiologist, I have followed these discussions with great interest, and I very much hope that this synod not only comes to pass, but actually manages to be a productive and profitable encounter for all concerned. (I should be happy to fly to Constantinople as an official observer, or unofficial valet or sous-chef or whatever it takes to be the proverbial fly on the wall.) The fact that it has not yet happened, after more than a half-century of promises, reminds me of the saying, attributed to various people, that “Eastern Christianity is the right religion given to the wrong people.” Or, to use another aphorism a friend of mine often uses in response to the people who say “I’m not into organized religion”: try Eastern Christianity–we’re not organized at all!

Organization is not everything, but it’s not nothing. One of the things I’ve learned as a professor, and more recently a departmental chairman reviewing student complaints about colleagues, is that you can easily avoid many student complaints by nothing more dramatic or complicated than having a coherent and clear syllabus, and sticking to it–following a set schedule for lectures, assignments, exams, etc. Deviate from that more than once and you are in trouble, but if you do what you planned to do most busy and anxious students are happy to go along, and grateful for the clarity.

The “syllabus” for the upcoming synod is said to include ten points, including topics such as fasting, autocephaly, the social challenges of our present economic and political contexts, and ecumenical relations. If you were present at the synod, what would you say? What are the greatest priorities for the Orthodox Church to address today and why? What things do you think the bishops have not put on their agenda, but should?

In Which We All Run Screaming into the Sea…

Can we bear one more article on same-sex marriage without running screaming into the sea? I cannot. So let’s not talk about it. Instead, let me ask a question I’ve been asking for five years now. I am still trying to work through a coherent answer, but have moved from assuming there must be one to wondering whether a coherent and fully developed answer is even possible. That question is the following: what is the theological purpose of human sexual differentiation? What, that is, do we think/know/assume to have been God’s purpose in creating us male and female? In other words, why does God create us male and female? Is there a purpose to that differentiation, and if so, what is it? Can we know what it is, and if we can know it, can we draw conclusions from that purpose governing our behavior? (Pace Hume, I’m inclined to think that in some cases at least you can draw an ought from an is.) E.g., if we assume that God had a purpose in mind, can we derive from that purpose, say, a prohibition on sex-reassignment surgery?

Forgive me for sounding like a pedant, but as I always have to tell my students: consider carefully what the question is asking and not asking. As I’ve been thinking about this question, and trying, and then failing, to write a book about it (though I’m still hoping to salvage an article and publish it later this year), here are some dead-ends I will not go down again because I think they are unprofitable or just plain wrong:

  • God is some great “complementarian” who somehow matches up male and female bodies as well as personalities, psyches, temperaments, etc. This, it seems to me, was the great weakness of the much overblown “theology of the body” of the late John Paul II (and many other Christians I’ve read–Orthodox, evangelical, and Catholic) which, frankly, I’ve largely considered a weird mixture of cultural nostalgia and philosophical romanticism but theologically vacuous.
  • Sex and gender are the same thing. Here I would agree with much of feminist thought that sex and gender are not in fact the same thing, and that the former may be biologically determined in significant measure while the latter is much more culturally conditioned. Thus even if I conclude that God has a purpose in creating us male and female, I find it very hard to believe that such divine teleology goes so far as to assign cultural roles too. In other words, God may have a purpose to our being male and female, but He likely doesn’t care that a man is a stay-at-home dad while his wife is a cut-throat CEO.
  • Male and female are the same as masculine and feminine: From my second point this follows closely. I generally subscribe to the belief that notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” are largely culturally determined and not theologically significant or even very interesting. In other words, I don’t think God cares two hoots if I join a crochet club while my wife joins the Marines. I am not, in other words, an “essentialist.”
  • Sexual differentiation means nothing theologically: Some would have us believe that God creating the human person as male and female means nothing–that it is no more theologically significant or even interesting than the fact that some of us are Chinese, black, or Polish; that some have red hair or black; that some eyes are blue and others hazel. I don’t buy this argument at all, and find it very trivializing. Eye color and race do not merit discussion in Genesis: sexual differentiation does. However you interpret that text, it’s not nothing.
  • Sexual differentiation means nothing eschatologically: Some Orthodox theologians (e.g., Valerie Karras), ostensibly basing themselves on a difficult and controverted text of St. Gregory of Nyssa, seem (if I understand them correctly) to argue that sexual differentiation is given to us now as a post-lapsarian concession purely for reproduction, but in the eschaton all this will disappear or at least be irrelevant, and that therefore it can hardly be said to have great relevance or meaning now. (Through this dodge one is able to smuggle in approval for both same-sex relations as well as the priestly ordination of women.) Having read Nyssa, I think his ambiguous text is made to bear too much weight here. Moreover, I’m not concerned with trying to peer into the eschaton and then retroject meaning from that back into our temporal existence here and now. The plain fact is we are sexually differentiated now. Why?
  • Procreation: I’m not convinced that procreation is the sole reason, though I think it is one of the significant reasons, and any theology of sexual differentiation cannot overlook it–nor rest its case entirely on it.

So, to return to my question: why does God create the human person male and female?

Let me tell you where I’m at with this question in my own on-going reflection: I think that there must be some purpose to it, that sexual differentiation is not irrelevant, and that a coherent theology of sexual differentiation will be useful in shoring up traditional teaching on marriage as well as the restriction of presbyteral ordination to men. My hunch–a very inchoate hunch at this point–is that the theological meaning of differentiation must lie in Trinitarian theology in which there is difference that does not destroy lived in unity that does not consume. But how to, well, “flesh” this out?

Red River Valley Atheist-Orthodox Exchange Post 1

With this post, I introduce what will (hopefully) exist as a monthly series on this blog.  Jon Lindgren, professor emeritus of economics at NDSU and former mayor of Fargo, ND, who is a member of the local Red River Freethinkers group, and I have decided to go public with our exchanges online.  Now, please note that although it says “atheist” in the headline and title, Jon would tend to prefer “skeptic” or “humanist.”  I, of course, will be coming from an Orthodox Christian position.  It is who I am and so to claim anything else in this dialogue would be disingenuous.  Originally, we had conceived this exchange as something that could occur monthly in the regional newspaper here but we have decided to move forward with this and start posting it here instead.  You will notice that we tend to have two different styles of writing, representing two different processes for thinking.  I’m sure psychologists could have a field day with that alone!  Rather than being a distraction, we hope it will add a layer of depth and interest.

Readers should also note that we are neither scientists nor philosophers.  To some, this could be seen as a weakness.  We hope it will be seen as a strength.  The issues we will discuss are important to humanity and important issues should be taken on (with humility of course) by all serious thinkers and anyone willing to put in the hard work necessary.  We also hope that our essays will therefore avoid overly technical terminology and phrases.  Readers should also note that our essays are short–400 words each.  We did this because we originally had the newspaper in mind.  We hope by keeping to this format, we will stay on topic and provide a column that is digestible.

Readers should also note that these essays each derive from at least one conversation prior to their posting.  Jon and I are known to chat over coffee and email each other and so when we write an essay, we will have a previous conversation in mind.  The point is to try to introduce you to an ongoing conversation.  We hope this format will be more reflective and helpful than a tit-fot-tat debate style.

To keep things a bit even, I will rotate which essay is listed first and which one second.  For this first post, mine is listed first and Jon’s second and then we alternate thereafter.  These two initial essays simply introduce our goals–why it is we are doing this and what we hope to achieve.

So, with no further ado, here is my first essay: Why Do This

And here is Jon’s first essay: Intro