Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America

The American Interest
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Published on: February 10, 2016

Religion & Other Curiosities

Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America
Peter Berger

In the American context, how can Orthodoxy cope with the dynamics of the denominational system—essentially a free market of religious options?

On January 22-23 there took place a meeting (technically called a synaxis) of all Eastern Orthodox primates (presiding bishops or patriarchs in different parts of the world). The meeting took place at the Orthodox Center in Chambesy, near Geneva, and was presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who (rather uncomfortably) resides in Constantinople, now called Istanbul. This is the city that was called “the new Rome” after the Emperor Constantine transferred to it the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 CE. Needless to say, Old Rome, now the seat of its bishop become the Pope, was not amused. The two patriarchs, after many years of quarrel about who was to be superior to the other in the universal Church, finally split and excommunicated each other in 1059 CE. They knew how to do things in style in those days: in the midst of the liturgy in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, the Pope’s emissaries deposited the papal decree of excommunication on the high altar. The reciprocal excommunication followed promptly.
Eastern Orthodoxy was represented in the “ecumenical movement” for Christian unity almost from the beginning and has been part of the World Council of Churches since its founding in 1948 and the sprawling bureaucracy that spread around it in and around Geneva (of course it could not replicate the splendor of the Vatican, but then it was in the soberly Protestant part of Switzerland). Rome did not join, so the Orthodox presence was very useful to the Protestant leadership of the WCC in the claim that this organization was really ecumenical/universal. The Orthodox, with their icons and their tall black hats certainly contributed a dash of exotica. The Evangelicals also mainly stayed away, so often the Orthodox were the only ones that said “no” to the politically progressive agenda pushed by the mainline Protestants in charge. Given the inanities that were frequently proposed in this agenda, “naysaying” was probably a rather useful function. But that inhibited the positive influence that Orthodoxy might otherwise have had. The same goes for the Orthodox role in America, in the National Council of Churches and other interdenominational organizations. I think that this missing voice is to be regretted.
The “synaxis” of Orthodox primates recently concluded was animated by a move to end the almost bizarre structure of Orthodoxy, both internationally and in the US, mostly based on national and ethnic criteria. The meeting on the shore of Lake Geneva was to be in preparation of a more ambitious meeting later this year, a Holy and Great Council of Orthodox Churches which is to meet on July 16-27 at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, where under the wings of the Church of Greece the assembly should be protected from the contamination of un-Orthodox ideas emanating from the Protestant-dominated World Council of Churches. To make sure that the topic of Orthodox unity is not ignored, those attending the meeting on Crete will have received a document originally published in 2000 by an American organization, Orthodox Christian Laity. Its title expresses the urgent wish for unity within the U.S. context—“An Orthodox Christian Church in the United States, Unified and Self-Governing”. The purpose is to initiate, step by step, the creation of an American church body free of ethnic divisions, and granted “autocephalous” status (that is having its own primate directly recognized by Constantinople).
In discussions of Christian unity there are typically two reasons given why such unity is to be sought. One reason is Scriptural: because Jesus is reported to have prayed for such unity just before he was arrested in the midst of his disciples (John 17:20-23). The other is supposedly empirical: because the Christian faith will be more plausible to non-believers if believers are united. I leave it to New Testament scholars whether it is likely that Jesus actually spoke these words just before the end of his life, and if so, why this unity was important for him at that moment.
As to the empirical reason, as a generalization, I am skeptical. For example, I doubt whether Americans are turned off from Christian faith because there is this huge diversity of denominations. In the case of Orthodoxy in America, I do think that its surreal diversity of ethnically defined church bodies makes it harder for individuals without the particular ethnic backgrounds to even have access to an Orthodox congregation let alone to take its truth claims seriously. I was first aware of this problem for converts (of which there are quite a few) years ago. I was then teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York. A young man, with an American accent and a very WASP name, came up after my lecture with some questions. Since the New School had many older students who worked full-time while pursuing a graduate degree, I asked him what he did besides school. He replied: I am an Albanian priest. He smiled when he saw that I was baffled, and explained: He was a convert with an Episcopalian background and when he decided to study for the priesthood he was advised that the Albanian Orthodox Church in America had a shortage of priests and welcomed converts. I asked him whether he had to learn Albanian; he said no, he might have to eventually, but most in his parish spoke English.
Let me now have a closer look at this ethnic cacophony and how it came about. Eastern Orthodox Christians are not a huge population in the U.S.— according to something called the National Orthodox Census the total in 2010 was about 1.5 million. I haven’t arrived at a conclusive count, but there are around 14 separate churches, almost all ethnically defined. The biggest is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. The Greek government in Athens naturally has a strong interest in this Archdiocese for any help in matters where American public opinion or government are to be influenced.
The Russians are next in size but much more complicated. In the eighteenth century the Moscow Patriarchate sent missionaries to Alaska (then Russian territory) and established a diocese in Sitka, but most Orthodox Russians came to America in large waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their parishes were administered by a Metropolitan of North America and the Aleutian Islands (nice title) appointed by Moscow. After the atheist Russian Revolution of 1917, Patriarch St. Tikhon of Moscow ordered all churches outside of Russia to govern themselves autonomously until such a moment when communication and central administration could be coherently restored. By the 1920s, there existed two distinct Russian Orthodox churches in America: the Metropolia, also known as the Russian Orthodox Greek-Catholic Church in North America, which was the direct descendant of the Russian diocese in America; and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), which was formed by a group of Russian bishops fleeing persecution at the hands of the Bolsheviks. In 1970, the Metropolia, which had gradually been shedding its Russian ethnicity anyway, became the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), and began in large part conducting its liturgy in English only. ROCOR signed the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate on May 17, 2007, in large part bringing its schism to an end. The OCA remains autocephalous.1
There are ethnically defined churches for Ukrainians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians. Albanians have an Archdiocese loosely associated with the OCA. There are parishes affiliated with the Patriarchate of Antioch in Syria, most of whose members from the Middle East speak Arabic and whose liturgical language was traditionally Syriac, derived from the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. However, most Antiochian parishes use English, probably because they have the largest number of non-ethnic American converts (about the same number as the OCA). There is a sizable proportion among the latter who used to be Evangelical Protestants, and (perhaps not surprisingly) they now constitute a very conservative faction in American Orthodoxy
As if this were not complicated enough, there are the so-called Oriental Churches, Eastern churches that refused to recognize the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). The most important of these are the Armenian and Coptic (Egyptian and Ethiopian) churches derived from the Monophysite heresy. There is also the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church, originally resulting from the Nestorian heresy that flourished in the territory of the Patriarch of Antioch (the Monophysites came from Alexandria in Egypt). The Nestorians founded the huge Great Church of the East, which stretched from the Middle East to China; the Malankaran outfit’s “home church” is in Kerala, in southern India. While Rome and Constantinople have been making nice with each other, there is the group of so-called Uniate churches, who recognize the authority of the Pope, but who use Eastern liturgies and whose priests may marry.
There is increasing rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow (whose Patriarch Kirill, encouraged by Vladimir Putin, would like to re-invent Moscow as “the Third Rome”)…
[DISCLAIMER: I have tried hard to get all this right, but I may have made some big mistakes in correlating ethnic labels with heretical ones. In any case, the above may be enough to support my view that the Orthodox voice would be better heard in America if it were more united, less cacophonous. As I write this, naturally, my very rudimentary Greek comes back: The latter adjective comes from two Greek words: kakos/ugly and phone/sound.]
Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity spread from the religiously very pluralistic Asia Minor (which a Roman saying referred to as the vagina deorum/the womb of gods). But after Christianity became the religion of the Roman state, this affinity of pluralism and the new faith came to an end. Since then, Eastern Christian Orthodoxy has existed in three socio-political forms: as a state religion in Byzantium, Russia and the Balkan states emerging from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire; as a persecuted or barely tolerated community under Islamic or Communist rule; and as a diaspora community defined by ethnicity. None of these experiences have prepared Orthodoxy for modern religious pluralism, especially if combined with legally guaranteed religious freedom. In the American context, how can Orthodoxy cope with the dynamics of the denominational system—essentially a free market of religious options?
I think the Bolshevik Revolution marks an important turning point. Among the refugees from Russia, there was an extraordinarily gifted group of intellectuals who in 1925 founded the St. Serge Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris. Of course they had been familiar with European thought while still in Russia, but in Paris they urgently grappled with the relation of this thought with their faith. In other words, they consciously faced the challenge of modern pluralism under conditions of freedom. The most famous intellectuals in this group were Nicholas Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov. Three of them—Georges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann, and John Meyendorff—emigrated to America and founded a sort of mission outpost of St.Serge, the St.Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. The only one of the three that I came to know was Schmemann, who first impressed one as a worldly-wise, sophisticated French intellectual. He spoke excellent English with a French accent. After a while one sensed a profound piety that originated far to the east of Paris.
My teacher Alfred Schutz liked to tell the joke of the society lady trapped sitting next to an insect specialist throughout a dinner party. The insect specialist never tired of telling her about the fascinating creatures he studied professionally. When, to her relief, she could finally leave the table, she said to her neighbor: “This is very interesting, if you are interested in it.” Schutz used this joke to illustrate his concept of “relevance structure”. To whom are these Orthodox curiosities relevant? Put differently, Why should anyone care?
Speaking for myself, I have never been tempted “to swim in the Bosphorus” (a phrase to describe converts to Orthodoxy; to differentiate them from those who go “to swim in the Tiber”). But I have many times been strongly moved by attending the Orthodox liturgy. I recall the first time I attended the Easter liturgy during my student days in New York. It was in the Russian cathedral on East 2nd Street, which then was under the authority of the old Russian Metropolia. When the service began late on Saturday evening the cathedral was dimly lit, all the hangings and the altar cover were black in the color of Good Friday. Then the entire congregation went out into the street and marched slowly around the block. It was very cold. When we returned the cathedral was brilliantly lit and the color of everything was very bright. Easter had arrived. The choir burst out with the triumphant praise of the risen Christ, “who trampled death by death, to bring life to those in the grave” (of course I didn’t understand the words in Old Slavonic, but an English translation had been handed out). Then something quite startling happened: Very close to where I was standing, a side door opened and out came an old man wearing the dress uniform of a tsarist officer, crossed himself and stood reverently.
There is the probably fictional story of how Russia became Orthodox, but one can appreciate it even if one doubts its historical accuracy. Vladimir the Great (958-1015 CE), a pagan who ruled the first Russian state from Kiev, decided to become a Christian (probably for strategic reasons). He was unsure whether to pledge allegiance to Rome or to Constantinople. He sent emissaries to both places. In the latter the emissaries attended the liturgy in Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral (now a museum, a favored tourist destination in Istanbul). The emissaries returned to Kiev and reported: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth.” Vladimir was impressed. But it is not just a matter of aesthetic appreciation (one can enjoy the music of Bach without becoming a Lutheran). Orthodoxy has created a very distinctive version of Christian faith, sharply different from that of the West.
Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970) was one of the scholars teaching at St. Serge in Paris. He wrote several books (all in French). Michael Plekon (a sociologist on the faculty of the City University of New York, and a priest of the OCA) has lovingly translated and published some of Evdokimov’s writings. In one passage there is, I think, a very insightful comparison of Western/Latin and Eastern/Greek and Russian Christianity: In the West, the encounter between God and man takes place in a courtroom. Man is sinful, God cannot just forgive him, God’s justice demands that the penalty for sin be paid. Jesus in his suffering has taken the sin on himself and pays the penalty. By contrast, in the East the encounter takes place in a hospital. Man is sick and sin is part of the sickness. This condition has ultimately been caused by Satan, God’s adversary (not by pitiful, henpecked Adam). The risen Christ has defeated Satan and thereby initiated the process of cosmic redemption.
Put differently, the West—Catholic as well as Protestant—has a piety focused on Good Friday. Eastern piety is fixated on Easter. I think it is important to understand that these are not differences that can simply be resolved by doctrinal reformulations. A WCC-sponsored commission of Western and Eastern theologians spent several years discussing one word, filioque / ”and the Son”, which a Latin medieval synod inserted into the description of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed—“the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son”. The East deemed this change heretical. The commission finally concluded that the contentious word was really not necessary and should be given up by Western churches for the sake of Christian unity. I am not saying that this sort of doctrinal dialogue has no value, but rather that one must ask what different core experiences and ideas underlie the doctrinal formulations.
The same point was also made by a more systematic method called “motif research” by Gustav Aulen, a Swedish scholar, in his book Christus Victor (1931). The book contrasts two different understandings of the atonement. There is the “satisfaction theory” (Evdokimov’s “courtroom” transaction), first formulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) and then adopted by all Western churches, Catholic and Protestant. But then there is the Eastern idea of Christ’s victory over the adversary who originally spoiled God’s creation, and still holds man captive to suffering, sin and death. Aulen was one of a group of scholars at Lund University who developed “motif research” as a method to differentiate the core experience of a religious tradition from its more abstract theological interpretations. By the way, Aulen (who was a bishop of the Lutheran Church of Sweden in addition to being an academic) thought that Luther was closer to the Eastern approach than to Anselm’s. I rather fancy that interpretation, though I’m not at all sure that it is correct. On the other hand, there was the story that Luther threw an inkpot at the devil when the latter distracted him from the work of translating the Bible into German…
1. We are indebted to our readers for pointing out errors in this paragraph. It has been amended.






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About Fr. Orthohippo

The blog of a retired Anglican priest (MSJ), his musings, journey, humor, wonderment, and comments on today's scene.
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