The Crumbling of America and the American Orthodox Church
The real institutional danger facing Orthodoxy in American arises less from malfeasance and more from reasonably well-intentioned individuals making decisions without a sense of their own limits and the frailty of the Church as a social institution.
On Holy Saturday, Peggy Noonan published an interesting and important editorial in the Wall Street Journal (The Catholic Church’s Catastrophe). She writes that often leaders of “mighty and venerable institutions” can, over time, “become blithely damaging” to the very institution they serve. This happens when we—and as a priest I need to include myself in this—allow ourselves “to think of the institution as invulnerable—to think that there is nothing [we] can do to really damage it, that the big, strong, proud establishment [we’re] part of can take any amount of abuse, that it doesn’t require from its members an attitude of protectiveness because it’s so strong, and has lasted so long.”
This has happened, she goes on to say, in “the past decade on Wall Street.” Ironically it was “those who said they loved what the street stood for, what it symbolized in American life” who “in the end tore it down, tore it to pieces” by their indifference to Wall Street’s institutional vulnerability. To be sure those who destroyed it “loved Wall Street” but their actions nevertheless “killed it.”
Moving from business to politics Noonan points out the same thing has “happen[ed] with legislators in Washington who’ve grown to old and middle age in the most powerful country in the world, and who can’t get it through their heads that the actions they’ve taken, most obviously in the area of spending, not only might deeply damage America but actually do it in.”
And then there is the Catholic Church,
…where hundreds of priests and bishops thought they could do anything, any amount of damage to the church, and it would be fine. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That is Mathew 16:18, of course, Christ’s great promise to his church. Catholics in the pews have been repeating it a lot lately as they—we—absorb the latest round of scandal stories. “The old church will survive.” But we see more clearly than church leaders the damage the scandals have done.
Sadly, Noonan is right. The damage done by what seems now to be the wide spread mishandling of clergy sexual misconduct has caused “damage that will last at least a generation. It is an actual catastrophe, a rolling catastrophe that became public first in the United States, now in Europe. It has lowered the standing, reputation and authority of the [Catholic Church].”
It is tempting to think that the Orthodox Church is some how immune from the kind of misconduct, and its mishandling, that we have seen in the Catholic Church, on Wall Street or in the US Congress. This is naive. Just as in these institutions there are Orthodox Christians who imagine that the Orthodox Church is invulnerable and this not simply in an ultimate sense but also concretely.
Like Wall Street and the US government, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are complex social organization. As such it takes surprisingly little to disrupt the otherwise normal ebb and flow of either Church’s life. Think here of a grain of sand in the gears of a watch. Further while it is tempting to believe—as some do—that the “rolling catastrophe” the Catholic Church is suffering is the result of wide spread collusion it isn’t. More likely it is the result of many, individual decisions made by men with incomplete information.
(While I want to focus the rest of this post on the American Orthodox Church, I would wonder how the decisions made by Catholic bishops in the face of clergy sexual misconduct compared with decisions made by other, secular, administrators at the same time. How, in other words, did the decisions of Catholic bishop in the 1950’s compare with how, for example, police or school administrators dealt with the same issue in their own ranks. This isn’t to excuse anyone, but I think to understand what went wrong we need to have a sense of the context within which decisions were made.)
If I’m correct, the real institutional danger facing Orthodoxy in American arises less from malfeasance and more from reasonably well-intentioned individuals making decisions without a sense of their own limits and the frailty of the Church as a social institution. Again, as Noonan points, more and more it seems that traditional social institutions are crumbling because its members wrongly assumed that “the institution [is] invulnerable.” Let me make this more concrete.
Trusting God, America and Ourselves
All social institutions depend upon the good will and trust of their members both for the institution itself and for each other. Psychologically and sociologically this trust is a function of consistency and predictability. At least in America, the consistency and predictability that makes trust possible is almost always embodied ethnically.
Greek parishes, Russian parishes, Ukrainian, Serbian, Arab Romanian and converts all have their own parishes. To be sure, there are mixed communities but even in these one will usually see a dominate culture. Put another way, we never encounter the Gospel apart from culture and, as I have said before, a parish always exists at the confluence of multiple traditions, secular and religious and ethnic.
In the coming weeks and months, the Orthodox bishops in American will gather to start the long process of consolidating administratively the American Orthodox Church. While such unity is good and necessary, it has its own kind of dangers. Among others is the (unintended) loss of the conditions that make consistency, predictability and so trust in the institution of the Church—and each other—possible.
If I’m right, in arguing that the Church ALWAYS exists as the point of confluence among different traditions, then to the degree that we rely simply on intra-traditional resources—ethnicity, or the “glories of Orthodoxy,” or our (putative) differences from Western Christianity and American culture—we are overestimating the strength of the Church and so undermining our shared life. This is why in an earlier essay I took to task the often unintended collusion of some Orthodox Christians with the social forces of barbarism. For better and worse, the Orthodox Church is organically and necessarily attached to American culture, even as it is to Greek and Russian cultures.
While it is not always an easy relationship, we would be foolish to assume that the Church can, or even should, try to sustain her ministry and life in America apart from, or worse hostile to, American culture. Yes, there are things in the culture that we must criticize but our criticism must be directed to challenging America, and Americans, to be its best self. To do fail to do this is to repeat the mistake of the Catholic Church in dealing with the sexual misconduct of her clergy, of those Wall Street traders who by their actions killed her, of those in Washington who imagine that there are no limits to what even a rich and powerful country like America can accomplish. The mistake is to imagine that the American Orthodox Church is so strong that it can exist without traditional ethnic Orthodox piety and customs, on the one hand, or without American culture on the other.
At least in America the Orthodox Church has lost the respect of her own faithful not because she has spoken in Greek or Slavonic but because she has not also spoken English. It is less because she is culturally Greek or Russian and more because she has not acknowledge that she is also culturally American that the Church has lost the standing, reputation and authority in the eyes of her own faithful she once had.
This means that as we move toward administrative unity we must keep in mind that the Church does not need to BECOME American; the Church is ALREADY American. What needs to change is our willingness to see the benefits of the Church’s American character. We must find the resources for unity not simply in our past as Greeks or Russians but also in the genius of the American experiment.