October 24, 2014

As We Move Towards Unity

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Comments

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    Geo Michalopulos says:

    powerful words, Fr Gregory. I would add that we Orthodox in America have also lost the Gospel to a great extent. I see this when certain priests who know better retrench back into their ethnic ghettos because they don’t want to (or can’t) challenge well-crafted arguments and questions about their various jurisdictions multiple failings. It’s always, “the Church will always survive, Jesus said so.” Your words are a bracing corrective.

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    Michael Bauman says:

    The “institutional church” is always dead. It is the life of the Holy Trinity in the mysteries and the hearts of the people that will not be overcome as death cannot overcome life. However, we can choose to be dead, to allow ourselves to be caught in legalism, moralism, ….isms to infinity.

    We either approach the Church as a living icon of the Incarnate Lord or we approach it as a dead idol.

    Our choice

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    Scott Pennington says:

    “For better and worse, the Orthodox Church is organically and necessarily attached to American culture, even as it is to Greek and Russian cultures.”

    What about Orthodox culture? Do you know what Russian and Greek culture were like before their respective Christianizations? Such is the present state of America and Western Europe. Before the twentieth century, if you were to go to most any Orthodox country, you would have seen much the same basic pattern of worship and morality. You could go into a church in Moscow or Petersburg and you would see no pews, women with their heads covered, etc. you would not hear a word about civil unions or toleration of abortion. Same in Greece. Same in Romania. Etc. You would hear the Gospel proclaimed and a fairly austere way of living proclaimed (at least in comparison to modern America).

    It bears repeating ad nauseum until it sinks in: There is nothing unique about the souls of Americans or Western Europeans as opposed to all others on earth from time immemorial. There is nothing normatively valid about modern Western culture. Americans and Western Europeans are just as needful of traditional Orthodoxy, in theology and practice, as all other cultures. Nothing about American democracy or (bad) habits learned from Protestants, Catholics or secular liberals should change or influence this.

    “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.”

    This is not true. All we are seeing is SCOBA II.

    “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.”

    American culture is high rates of abortion, destruction of the family, exhibitionism, promiscuity, feminism, etc. If we are not hostile to American culture, we are not Christians.

    “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.”

    There is no genius in the “American experiment”. Witness its results.

    If Orthodoxy in America cannot survive without tribalism or being Americanized in its practices and morality, it is already largely dead and not worth saving.

    Why not just commit to the greatest common denominator of practice in the various Orthodox Churches prior to the 20th century (a/k/a the Age of Apostasy)?

    What is actually more promising is the idea that a minimizing of ethnicity and a rejection of the norms of the sick culture might produce a smaller, more pious and more committed Orthodox Church here composed of ethnic Orthodox and converts alike, whose commitment is to the Gospel. Not American culture. Not the particular culture of their ancestors’ country.

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    cynthia curran says:

    Well, I heard both Greece and Russia have high abortion rates as well. And Greeks like Americans don’t think you have to save it for marriage. On the other hand, probably the churches in both Greece and Russia are better than their American Counterparts.

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      Scott Pennington says:

      Today Russia and Greece have high abortion rates. Up through the nineteenth century, Orthodox culture was very pro family. Children were a source of wealth and pride. There were abortions, I’m sure. But there was a tremendous stigma attached, as well as legal sanctions, and the rates I’m sure were much lower than now. Now the emphasis is on individual autonomy and equality – – which result in high abortion rates, high rates of divorce, etc. An evil worldview results in evil consequences.

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    cynthia curran says:

    Well, the US is kind of similar to Constantinoples’s influence during the reign of Theodosius the first. It can be decadence, wealthy, and powerful. And while the church had an impact, there were still sports like Chariot racing which could killed both man and horse. Gangs like the supporters of the blues and greens. Porn plays where women only covered their private parts. So, I think that the Orthodox church needs to deal with the US like it did in Constantinople at the end of the 4th century. Also, much earlier both St Peter and St Paul were in Rome at the end of their lives according to Eusebius and other early church fathers, Rome was a course also weathly, decadance and powerful. The us is compared to Rome. So, God still thought even if Rome was the way it was, the church was to be there.

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      Scott Pennington says:

      “So, God still thought even if Rome was the way it was, the church was to be there.”

      Amen. Orthodoxy should transform the culture though, not meet it half way, which is what I took to be the gist of Fr. Gregory’s article.

      The problem is the “big T tradition” vs. “little t tradition” mentality. First of all it is arbitrary picking and choosing based on no firm criteria or historical precedent within Orthodoxy. Apart from language, food, etc., there’s no good reason to adopt “American”/Protestant/Catholic/secular-liberal practices in the Church. It just waters down the faith, results in a corruption of the Church culture and is a source of division between those who wish to continue traditional practices and those who, for example, want altar girls, etc. It recognizes this decadent culture as a valid normative source to be incorporated into Orthodox practice. It results in the laity acquiring the same attitudes toward morality and family life as the surrounding culture. It is arrogant and misguided in that it looks at the Church from the perspective of salesmanship without respect to the quality or integrity of the thing being sold.

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        Michael Bauman says:

        Scott, to the extent that we each are inseparable from our culture, Fr. Gregory is correct. Plus you have to love the people in order to evangelize.

        However, I wish Fr. Gregory would be more precise in what he finds valuable in western Christianity. As nearly as I can work out, it is natural law. Since he agrees with me that all too often the natural law approach ends in deism or some other dualistic approach to God (heresy) I come away still wondering.

        Although I would get a lot of arguments on this, the foundation of our politics could be seen as a continuation of English Civil War with its inherent anti-monarchical, iconoclastic bent.

        Certainly Americans tend to be a-historical and anti-traditional.

        The Church seems to have the best fit with the most radical in our society, those most unhappy with the way things are and how they got there, but are still searching for a transcendent truth. Despite that we seem intent (as a whole) on seeking the approval of the elites, i.e., those farthest into the secular, nihilisitic void.

        Rather than seeking to make friends with such we should be strongly prophetic and make friends with the disaffected, the needy and those who are seeking the truth. In otherwords we are doing it backwards.

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    Scott Pennington says:

    Michael,

    “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.”

    “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.”

    Perhaps I assumed I knew what Fr. Gregory was talking about from past exchanges. Looking above to his article, I too really am not sure what he’s talking about in American culture that he thinks is good or a basis to work with.

    I simply don’t know what he means by stating we don’t have to become American but are already American. This is meaningless unless you define what it means to be American. In the first quote above, I do not know what he means by “American culture”. To me, there is very little culture left in America. But he may have something specific, concrete in mind.

    Also, I find the reference to “traditional ethnic Orthodox piety and customs” to be a canard of sorts. I have no objection to ethnically distinctive practices. But there is a body of traditional Orthodox practice that is not ethnic specific. There is nothing, for example, ethnic specific about crossing oneself after each of the petitions in the litany. There is nothing ethnically specific about crossing with bows at the Trisagion. These customs may have been forgotten in some ethnic quarters but they are universal. As is women’s headcovering, as is open space in church for worship and to allow for bowing and prostration. These things are not Greek or Arab or Russian. They are Orthodox. Also, conversely, cluttering the place up with pews, women ignoring St. Paul’s injuction, etc. are not “American” or “American culture”, they are just unorthodox. I think it is important to be patient with those who have modernist tendencies but not to let modernism entrench itself any further than it has already.

    I also don’t know what he means by “American character” in the second quote above. I do tend to read modernistic tendencies in American Orthodoxy into these types of statements. Broad meaningless statements, much like those used by political liberals, are typical of modernist Orthodox – – statements so meaningless and broad they could justify anything. “You’re talking about externals and externals aren’t important.” I’ve heard that one a number of times. What it really means is that the speaker is concerned with externals but feels those externals you are concerned with are too old fashioned or no longer necessary. They’re not interested in getting rid of the iconostasis or vestiments, just the externals they don’t like.

    As far as the “genius of the American experiment”, the phrase is overused and no longer appropriate. It may be that there was some genius at work in the original organization of our constitutional republic at its founding. The seeds of destruction were also there though, as De Tocqueville pointed out. Moreover, as time passed on, the states and federal government lost whatever commitment they had to Christian morality.

    The result is what is officially, at the level of state and federal government, a post-Christian government generally modestly hostile toward religion and rejecting traditional morality. That is not “genius”. It is foolishness institutionalized.

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