Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Orthodoxy in the West: The Eastern-Rite Mainline?
According to Fr Gregory Jensen, an academic and priest of the 'Orthodox Church in America' (the denomination with Russian immigrant origins that former Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan joined) Eastern Orthodoxy in North America on the ground - as opposed to how it appears from behind the rose-coloured spectacles of prospective Protestant converts - is rapidly becoming as liberal as the Protestant mainline churches many of those converts are fleeing. So much so that he says the Orthodox Church in all its ethnic branches in the US looks increasingly like 'the Eastern-Rite Mainline'.*
How so? Support for abortion and gay marriage runs disturbingly high among the laity, politicians of Orthodox background publicly support positions which stand in stark contradiction to the Church's moral teaching and priests are 'not effectively communicating the [Christian] moral tradition', thus surrendering the laity to the forces of secularisation and cultural barbarism. Not to mention, and Fr Gregory doesn't, but anyone who keeps a 'weather eye' on the Orthodox Church will know, that the various sexual and financial scandals among the Orthodox hierarchy in the US have clearly demoralised many of the devout clergy and laity.**
Part of the solution, Fr Gregory avers, is for the Orthodox in the West to draw upon the riches of the Western Christian tradition, specifically the Catholic tradition's 'partnership of faith and reason, natural law, and the objective and universal character of Christian morality'. I think he's an insightful and brave man for saying this, because most articulate Orthodox - especially Western converts - that I have come across have a strong animus against the Christian West, with Augustine being their favourite whipping boy. In their eyes the great North African Father is to blame not only for Roman Catholicism but also, by way of reaction, for Luther and hence 'Protestantism' (and in speaking about 'Protestantism' the Orthodox tend to make no distinction between a snake-handling Pentecostal and a confessional Lutheran, thereby only displaying their ignorance of the heritage of the Christian West after the Reformation). But, surely, without a sympathetic Orthodox engagement with Augustine - and indeed with Luther - there is unlikely to be any significant rapprochement between Orthodoxy and the Christian West beyond the usual glad-handing at ecumenical gatherings.
I would also respectfully suggest to Fr Gregory that he not overlook what can be learned from the experience of those confessional churches of the Reformation which have taken a different path from their liberal Protestant cousins. A big part of Orthodoxy's problems, in my view, stem from the reality that it is not actually a 'confessional' church, but a 'big tent' church. The question for Orthodoxy now is just how big is its tent, given that they now have their own vocal and prominent proponents for recognition of the right to abortion, women's ordination and even revision of the church's teaching on homosexuality?
Finally, I think we are witnessing yet another confirmation of Dr Sasse's prescient observation of 50 or so years ago that in the modern world all the great Christian communions will face the same theological problems, without exception. The obvious moral for small 'o' orthodox Western Christians in all of this - especially Lutherans - who might think that Constantinople offers a safe haven from the destructive winds of modernism that have wrought such havoc in our own churches, is to look before you leap into the Bosphorus.
Fr Jensen's reflection can be found here
* For Australian readers, the Americans refer to the major historical Protestant denominations collectively as 'the Protestant Mainline' denominations, because they were once the numerically and culturally dominant forms of American Protestantism. Since succumbing to theological liberalism in the 20th C., the membership and influence of these denominations has declined significantly.
** While it's beyond our purview here, it should be noted that there have also been astonishing sexual and financial scandals involving Orthodox clergy and bishops in Greece, where the Church seems to have totally abdicated its moral authority (does this explain the present parlous state of Greek society or is it symptomatic of it?), and financial corruption has also been uncovered in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in matters pertaining to the unauthorised sale of church land to the state of Israel and the disappearance of the funds from these sales.
I tread carefully here, because there will always be 'bad apples' and hypocrites among the clergy, and no church body is immune from them, but when persistent patterns of aberrant behaviour become evident in a particular church culture, one is surely entitled to ask whether it is not just 'occasional sin' on the part of individuals but the 'systemic sin' of the institution that has been uncovered? Is there something about the administrative systems of such a church body itself, systems which inevitably reflect its official theology/ecclesiology, that fosters these particular sins?
And if the astute reader is wondering 'Is there a connection between this post and the last one on Edwin Muir's poem 'The Castle', the answer is yes - the enemy most to be feared is the one within the castle walls!