Monday, March 14, 2011

The Delusions of Grandeur surrounding Pan-Orthodoxy Vespers Celebrations

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Great Lent. That Sunday, historically, is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy because on the first Sunday in Great Lent back in 842 A.D. the Empress Theodora acting for her son, Basileus Michael, restored the icons of our Lord, His mother, and His Saints back to the churches in Constantinople and paved the way for their restoration in other parts of the Empire where their absence had been felt for nearly 150 years. The decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council were now finally put into reality and ever since that time, on this first Sunday, the faithful go forward in procession triumphantly displaying their icons which reaffirm the incarnational theology of the Orthodox Church and then read the Synodicon from that Ecumenical Council which firmly declares what our beliefs are.

As is the custom throughout the United States and some other countries, this Sunday is the time for all the local Orthodox churches in a city to come together to celebrate Vespers together. This year the Orthodox faithful of Omaha gathered at historic St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Omaha. I was not in attendance though I have attended every one prior for the past six years. But is this con-celebration necessary? I'm not opposed to Orthodox Christians of various jurisdictions worshiping together at all, but there seems to be a delusion as to what this con-celebration actually means. This is only my opinion, but there is no need for it, not because worshiping together is wrong (it isn't) but because it seems that this event is used to promote goals which cannot be realized at this time or shouldn't be realized at all. Let me break them down as I see it.

Argument # 1: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because Orthodox Christians in America are not united. Not united? Administratively, no. But by faith, absolutely! I ask which is more important? Is it more important that we have one bishop over all of us in Omaha and yet we have 10 different dogmas or that we have 10 bishops, each over 1/10 of us in Omaha, but one common dogma? Yes, I'm demonstrating absurdity by being absurd. But the fact is that we are united. Our faith unites us and it is the same faith. ELCA Lutherans in this country are administratively unified but there respective churches have a myriad of different beliefs differing from pew to pew in the same church, often.

Argument # 2: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because this will show the mother churches that we should have independence and the right to form an autocephalous American Orthodox Church. Let's be honest. Orthodox Christians in this country, coming together for one service for the entire year from the various jurisdictions, isn't going to show anybody. Yes, the situation here in America of having so many side-by-side jurisdictions is uncanonical. And, for right now, the "mother churches" are not going to grant such a release because America is filling the mother churches' coffers with money, whether in Serbia, Damascus, Romania, Constantinople and Moscow because the wealth is here. Will it happen in time? I believe it will. But let us not delude ourselves that coming together for one hour of worship (again, a great thing) is going to convince the mother churches that there should be an American Church. Such discussions are happening. The Episcopal Assemblies are a great first start and if a great and holy council is ever convened (we are about 900 years overdue), the subject will come up then.

Argument # 3: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because Orthodox don't all worship the same way. They don't? I can't recall the last time I heard a praise band in an Orthodox Church or an altar call or even a time on Sunday when the Liturgy wasn't celebrated. We do worship the same way; we just express it differently. Why should Byzantine chant be preferred over the Slavic Obihod block chanting style? Why should the Russian tones be preferred over the Byzantine tones? Why should the creed or Lord's prayer be chanted instead of merely said? We do worship the same way. Our Liturgies are the same. Now, a priest here and there may cut portions out, but there is no divergence of rites like what you have with the Episcopalians.

Argument # 4: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because we all need to worship in English. Now this is probably the argument that no one will actually yell out but is at the forefront of many people's brains--the idea that Orthodox worship in America has to be, must be, should be, will be in English at all times. The proponents of this line of thought are generally converts who don't "get" the ethnic flavorings of Orthodoxy or who are genuinely repulsed by it. The line of thinking generally goes that if our church services are in languages other than English, people won't convert. Well, Orthodoxy is growing due to a huge influx of converts and a great many of Orthodox parishes, especially Antiochian and OCA do use English almost exclusively. Many Greek parishes are now bilingual. Many of the MP churches, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, etc. may still use traditional languages but even that is changing. But why begrudge Greeks to worship in Greek or Romanians in Romanian or Russians/Serbs in Slavonic? If a church doesn't meet our language demands, there's usually another one. If not, missions are being built all the time.

Change in the Orthodox Church has always been organic. The canons are in place not because the Church wanted to make praxis and dogma rigid with no wiggle room but were created to affirm what was already practiced and believed. Similarly, the German settlers in this part of the country had their church services in German for the longest period of time until the 1940s. Granted, a World War against Germany helped that cause greatly, but the change didn't come from a bunch of German pastors mandating English; it happened organically. Such will be the same with many Orthodox parishes here in this country especially as more and more second and third generations of Serbs, Romanians, Russians, Arabs and Greeks are born here and use English as their mother tongue. But to insist that all Orthodox churches totally be deprived of their "mother tongues" is hubristic and shows little pastoral concern.

Yes, let us worship together but let's not be hung up on whether or not we have one bishop or 20, or one language or five, or one chant style or seven. The Orthodox Faith is the same faith given to us by Christ once and for all. It is the same the Apostles preached. It is the same the martyrs died for. It is the same the Confessors defended. It is the same preached from our pulpits. Let's not get hung up on the variations on the theme.


  1. Do you honestly think that the Russian or the Romanian churches financially depend on their small American dependencies? That would be delusional. Those Churches are far wealthier because of the land and real estate they own than even a united American jurisdiction will be.

  2. I'm not able to speak about Russian or Romanian churches, as my experience is mainly been what I have observed with regards to the Greek, Antiochian and Serbian churches here in the states and how much money is diverted back overseas.