Friday, 3 August 2012

A Letter To One Enquiring About Swimming the Bosphorus

While the Olympics are on seems an appropriate time to post the following (btw, does anyone else think the gloss has well and truly come off the Olympic Games since professionalism was allowed?). I wrote the following (re-written for posting here) in response to a question on a Lutheran forum I'm on as to whether anyone had ever considered converting to Eastern Orthodoxy:

"Dear _____
When reading about American Protestants "swimming the Bosphorus" (for blog readers: converting to Eastern Orthodoxy - the Bosphorus being the narrow strait that separates Europe and Turkey/Istanbul/Constantinople -see the pic, which actually shows people swimming the Bosphorus!) you have to factor in that the majority of American Protestants are Arminian (not Armenian!) in their theology. That is, they concede a lot to free will in conversion and the sanctification process. This synergism fits quite well with Eastern Orthodoxy, which derives its soteriology from the early Greek Fathers who were also basically synergistic. Thus, for a Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Holiness or even Pentecostal minister to "swim the Bosphorus" is not as great a feat as one might imagine. There is a basic commonality there already between two forms of theology and piety that attribute much to human ability in spiritual matters. 
What these Protestants seek and find on the far side of the Bosphorus is the authority and structure and connection to history that was largely missing in their original denominations, but their synergism remains intact and unchallenged. The remark about so many Protestant ministers taking retreats in monasteries is revealing because monasticism is synergism par excellence. If we remember our church history (and this is a thumb nail sketch) we will recall that it was the monastics formed in the Greek tradition who resided in the south of France who were among Augustine's most vociferous opponents in the debate concerning Pelagianism. While Augustinianism won that battle at the 2nd Council of Orange, it lost the war as monasticism with its synergistic piety became the foundation of the Western church into medieval times. Which brings us to Luther and the Reformation...
For a confessional Lutheran to "swim the Bosphorus" requires much more strenuous effort than that exerted by the typical Arminian Protestant because one will come up against the strong tide of the Reformation position on the bondage of the will, which is thoroughly scriptural. For this reason it is not surprising that more discontented Lutherans end up opting to "swim the Tiber" - Rome, at least in theory, allows one to remain more or less Augustinian in one's theology, the soteriology of Trent being a compromise between Augustinianism and synergism - the shortcomings of that compromise are not our immediate concern here. True, there are some Lutherans who have swum the Bosphorus, but the attraction seems to be liturgical rather than strictly theological - of course, on the swim they end up swallowing the Eastern theology with the liturgy: lex orandi lex credendi
Those Lutherans who have swum the Bosphorus seeking refuge from the storm over women's ordination could be in for a rude shock - women's ordination is considered an open question in Orthodoxy because a church council has never ruled on it. This position - which raises vital questions about the apostolicity of Orthodoxy (and you'll note I haven't even touched on the authority of scripture in Orthodoxy) - has been argued by prominent theologians such as Bishop Kallistos Ware and Elizabeth Behr-Sigel and seems to have won the day as far as Orthodox theologians are concerned (for e.g., it is rumoured that most of the faculty at the highly influential St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York are in favour of women's ordination - this pattern of progression of the argument for w.o. will sound familiar to Lutherans who have been through it). 
Also it is not generally known among Westerners, who tend to view Orthodoxy as massively traditional and patriarchal and resistant to modernity, that in contemporary times Orthodoxy has moved to ordain women as deacons and actually permits women to preach in the Divine Service (this also happens in the Roman church, but I digress). Whether the matter of women's ordination will be on the agenda at the forthcoming "Ecumenical Council", currently being planned, remains to be seen, but it has certainly been publicly remarked by Bishop Kallistos Ware, author of the books The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way, which most Bosphorus swimmers have read on their journey, that Orthodoxy cannot avoid a debate on the question, particularly as it becomes more present in the West.  That debate raises the real prospect of a schism in world Orthodoxy; indeed, Orthodoxy already mirrors the Western church in being divided into "liberal" and "fundamentalist" camps. Thus swimming the Bosphorus will not provide the refuge from ecclesiastical storms and tempests that one might expect while gazing longingly across the strait towards Constantinople, which seems so placid and resistant to change from a distance.     
I trust this explains at least some of the reasons why swimming the Bosphorus remains an unattractive  proposition to me.
Kind regards"


Lvka said...

Too wordy... Too intellectual... Here's how you properly dissuade people from becoming Orthodox, once and for all! :-)

Lvka said...

I doubt that "Augustinianism" is opposed to monasticism, insasmuch as the man himself, Augustine, was an ascetic monk.

Anonymous said...

When studying some ancient statues the last of Antiquity I was struck that Justin the second, successive of Justinian from around 565 to 578 was referred to as Divius. Divius was also use in Pagan Rome to refer to the emperor-this of course with the dicine. Anyway, Byzantium was more of a theocracy than most modern orthodox care to admit. Granted, there were bishops and Patriarchs that went against the emperor but there was a strong connection between church and state. What is interesting orthodox are heavily into free will with theology but usually until recent times had autocratic politics.

Mark Henderson said...


Augustine's 'monasticism' was more informal than that of the East or the later West. Nevertheless, my point is not that Augustine opposed monasticism but that he opposed 'synergism'.

epiklesis said...


David said...

The Eastern Orthodox has a strong emphasis on externals and liturgical drama, which in many parishes has taken pride of place. this reaches some very absurd proportions to where the laity assume that by proper choreography and going with the flow, they are somehow performing salvific works and attaining a state of grace. It is no longer the work of Christ on the Cross that redeems, but the proper jumping through the liturgical tap dance.

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks David. To this outside observer, that does seem to be the level of much Orthodox folk piety. The service is indeed quite beautiful and impressive, but how does the Orthodox Christian hear the Gospel when it is not conducted in a language he understands and the homilies lack instruction?