Update: increasing numbers of comments here – some incredibly intolerant, others on the mark – you decide… The Roman Catholic Church at least has a system of canon law designed to be both predictable and equitable. The only kind of rudder I want to know anything about is the one on my boat!
Whatever is the problem, it is certainly six from one and half a dozen from the other.
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As I have mused over the news of yesterday about the Russian Orthodox western riters, it brings home to me many of the thoughts that have gone through my own mind over the years.
The nearest I ever got to Orthodoxy was occasionally attending the Byzantine Liturgy with the Moscow Patriarchate Russians in London, my friendship with the late Dr Ray Winch and correspondence with Fr Anthony Bondi. I was quite keen on the idea of western “uniate” Orthodoxy in the 1980’s, but I saw that it had a limited practical application in the USA and none in Europe. I met up with Bishop Germain of the Eglise Catholique-Orthodoxe de France on a couple of occasions, but I was never attracted to their way. More recently, there has been a ROCOR western rite community in England, and someone has thought I was airbrushing it. I now fear it will go the same way as the Americans, since its canonical basis is now removed. I have seen the idea that it grew too fast for its own good, and am inclined to agree.
Can we westerners relate to an ecclesiastical tradition that is so far removed from our experience? I have always liked what I have read of their theologians. I studied ecclesiology and trinitarian theology at Fribourg largely from an Orthodox and ressourcement point of view. But the click never happened. I have only seen things as an outsider and from a distance, so I keep out of Orthodox discussions.
I have been an observer of this particular world since about 1988, but I have not had any contact with the American Antiochian communities. All the same, I see two tendencies – one being an aspiration to an older and more traditional form of liturgical life than is found in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation traditions, and the other being the search for a “true church” and a foundational myth. I have often reflected about the foundational myth, a form of self-justification and attempt to keep one’s religious life focused and identifiable. All Christian communities have this foundational myth to justify their existence and legitimacy (as opposed to “imitations”).
I have been reading over these last few days the same foundational myth as I read in some of Dr Ray Winch’s writings – that western countries were once Orthodox. They were in a way, through being in communion with Rome and Rome still being in communion with the other Apostolic sees until the schism of 1054. The procedure is to airbrush everything between 1054 and our own times out, and then restoring what little is known about western Catholicism prior to 1054, and attempting a little in the way of “creative anachronism” – how things might have been had there been no schism in 1054. We all do this to an extent.
Many Anglicans speculate about how things would have been in England had there been no Reformation. My own answer is – more or less what happened in France (though there were the Wars of Religion over here that destroyed and pillaged monasteries and churches). I have often discussed “northern Catholicism” and “conciliar Catholicism”, and commenters will often show how imperfect these foundational myths are. Christianity itself rests on a fragile foundational myth.
We need to get beyond foundational myths and find a more robust basis, which I fear would entail our being more “honest to God” in many respects.
Like with Rome or any institutional church, there is the dilemma between doctrine and liturgical rites and traditions. Some Orthodox have (rightly) observed that those former Anglicans and Roman Catholics going to them wanted only a canonical basis (foundational myth) for their previous Catholicism and high-church Anglicanism, and had little interest in the mainstream Orthodox spiritual, theological and liturgical tradition. This is a situation that is compared with multiculturalism and the acceptance of Islam in western Europe and North America. In very low concentrations, eccentricities can be tolerated, but not in high concentrations.
Anglo-Catholicism indeed seems to be a kind of Roman Catholicism without the Pope (and dioceses and Vatican bureaucracy) and I see the generalised use of the Roman liturgy as codified just after the Council of Trent, translated into English and “harmonised” with the Book of Common Prayer. Thus the English Missal and the Anglican Missal. Perhaps this is a good thing…?
In the Orthodox world, this is what the Antiochians do, as they (rightly?) fear creative anachronisms and where that tendency can logically lead. We are caught between another manifestation of Tridentine / “Old” Catholicism and the kind of archaeologism that seeks beyond 1054 in time, a totally academic exercise. What there was between 1054 and 1570 seems a little forgotten. Five centuries is a quarter of our era since Christ! It is closer to our own experience and does something to give a link between the two separated “parts” of tradition.
One thing that is evident is that you can’t separate liturgical practices from other aspects of Church life. With the liturgical life, we have our study of doctrine and theology, our prayer and contemplative life within the tradition we were brought up in. Christians are displaced because of the upheavals in Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism and the Protestant denominations – ordination of women, the homosexuality question, changes in the liturgies and intolerant “liberalism”.
Perhaps we have to get over our thirst for anachronism and come to terms with modernity, as in the Roman Catholic Church à la Pope Francis. Maybe that’s fine with those who were brought up Roman Catholics. It doesn’t attract me. Likewise, Orthodoxy is someone else’s Church. Some westerners seem to adapt well, and perhaps they are more or less happy. Fine. There is the option of Protestantism and Pentecostalism or Evangelicalism. There are many choices in the religious supermarket. Some of the consumer products might be attractive, or utterly and bitterly repulsive!
I am interested in this middle way between extreme (pre-1054) archaeologism and having to come to terms with Counter-Reformation or modern liturgical styles. The real issue is unifying the entire temporal Catholicity of the Church. I am frank in being inspired by the spirit than emerged in the nineteenth century among intellectuals and aesthetes. True, these two categories do not make a Church, but should surely be included in an existing ecclesial structure. I think this current of thought and aesthetic sensitivity that was cruelly halted by World War I should be revived and allowed to subsist within the Churches people belong to.
The events around the ROCOR western rite communities, their collapse, will cause us all to think. Perhaps we should embrace a-cultural “pure gospel” Christianity, or conclude that Christianity has had its day. There is also the saying that Christianity has not failed but has never been tried. Only caricatures have ruled over men and women over the centuries. Is Christianity still possible or even accessible – the whole point of sacrament and liturgy?
We have all to reflect very deeply on these things, and the only conclusion that seems to come out of all this is that we need to stop looking for “true churches” and foundational myths that fall under the most casual critical thought. A more solid basis would be living our aspirations in our micro-communities or on our own and sticking with it, persevering and living our secular life in a Christian way. We must not forget Blessed Charles de Foucauld – surrounded by Muslims and who did not make one single convert. He just did good where he was. There are certainly many like him in the Russian and Greek traditions like St Seraphim of Zarov, the holy fool for Christ.
We seem to have our priorities inverted, for the Church is spiritual and sacramental before being institutional. Perhaps this is the lesson we have to learn.