Let us begin with the issue on everyone’s mind: why we say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about ‘we, pronoun’ (quotations by the OED giving usage omitted):
2. Used by a single person to denote himself:
a. by a sovereign or ruler. Often defined by the name or title added.
b. by a speaker or writer, in order to secure an impersonal style and tone, or to avoid the obtrusive repetition of ‘I’. (The OED notes about this usage: ‘Regularly so used in editorials and unsigned articles in newspapers and other periodicals, where the writer is understood to be supported in his opinions by the editorial staff collectively.’)
We do not suffer from multiple personality disorder. There is only one of us. Of course we are not a king—unless king of the blog, which is a far cry from King of some country. Of course we are not on the editorial staff of some collective periodical, nor do we speak on behalf of anyone but ourselves. Now we find Jennifer’s email charming; and we prefer to say that ‘we’ find her email charming, speaking as an Orthodox monk, than ‘I’ find her email charming, speaking as a man who one day might meet Jennifer. For us, the ‘I’ is far too personal, being suitable for a blog in which the author discusses how he felt when he got up in the morning, what he ate for breakfast and what he did over the weekend. So it’s ‘we’ on the blog.
Jennifer’s email is quite apt, pointing out a very serious problem within the Orthodox Church. But writing a post explaining the problem and the solution is difficult, very difficult. If it were easy, Jennifer would already have found a solution: one would be already waiting for her somewhere.
Let’s start of with the self-identity of the Church. For the Orthodox Church, the core statement of belief is the Nicene Creed. It is the Nicene Creed that a person must ultimately confess in order to become a catechumen in the Orthodox Church; today the service of the catechumen is usually done just before the actual baptism so one might think it is part of the actual service of baptism. It isn’t. Anciently there could be years between the two services. In the service of the catechumen the person, facing west, renounces the Devil and spits on the Devil, and then turning to the east and facing the icon of Christ formally joins himself to Christ. In infant baptism this is done on the child’s behalf by the godparent. The person then recites the Nicene Creed as their profession of faith; the godparent does so in the case of an infant. Then the priest—saint or sinner; it doesn’t matter for the efficacy of the prayers—reads certain prayers over the person. So if Jennifer or Tess or anyone else wants to become Orthodox, the Nicene Creed is the bottom line on what they have to believe.
Now the classical belief of the Orthodox Church is that it itself is in whole and not in part the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ confessed in the Nicene Creed. The classical belief of the Orthodox Church is not that it is a part of the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ but that it is the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. Moreover, the Orthodox Church is largely silent theologically on the status of professed Christians outside the Orthodox Church.
This Orthodox belief is the same belief that the Roman Catholic Church has about itself. The Roman Catholic Church believes (Vatican II) that the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church also believes that non-Roman Catholic Christians are joined in some fashion to the Roman Catholic Church whether they know it or not. The Pope is the ‘Vicar of Christ’ for all Christians whether they know it or not. This of course makes for a collision with the Orthodox belief: there can’t be two ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Churches’.
The Anglican view is that the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ subsists in various co-equal branches, among which branches are the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Anglican or Episcopal national churches. According to this view (called the ‘Branch Theory’ by its detractors), there is a spiritual unity among these branches so that the sum of them is the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’, even though they co-exist in visible disunity.
The Calvinist view is that the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ is comprised of all believers who have been ‘born again’ through accepting salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, something given to them by an eternal personal predestination to salvation. Hence, according to the Calvinist view the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ picks and chooses among the members of the various Protestant denominations, selecting those who are born again. It might also pick and choose among Catholics and Orthodox if they too have been ‘born again’ according to Calvinist criteria (not just baptized—some Calvinists even give greater spiritual weight to the ‘born again’ experience over the actual practice of baptism, treating baptism as mere confirmation of the born-again experience). This would explain, among those Calvinists that believe in the Rapture (a belief dating from the 19th Century that entails a two-part Second Coming), why they believe that among all the Christian denominations some persons will be raptured up when Christ comes back the first time and some won’t: the born-again will be raptured up and the non-born-again whether baptized or not won’t. It also explains why the Rapturists are so sure that they themselves will be raptured up: they know they have been ‘born again’.
The various beliefs above are matters in what is called ‘ecclesiology’, the theology of the nature of the Church. It is clear that these various ecclesiological beliefs are incompatible. What to do? More conservative Orthodox theologians gravitate to the traditional view that the Orthodox Church is the ‘One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ However, there is a tendency among Orthodox theologians who are more ecumenically minded to gravitate to either the ‘Branch Theory’ or the Roman Catholic understanding of the nature of the Church. But of course this is not something that can be stated out loud. Moreover, it should be understood that the ecumenical movement is really a Protestant movement in its historical origins, so that it would tend either to a ‘Branch Theory’ ecclesiology or even to a Calvinist ecclesiology.
One of the issues underlying the problem Jennifer is addressing is that compared to the Roman Catholic Church, or even the Lutheran Church in its various forms, Orthodoxy is not as centrally organized. There is no central authority that imposes a uniformity of opinion either on theologians or on the various jurisdictions. This results in an openness to outside influences, usually Western Christian influences (we are speaking descriptively and historically here). Hence, we find a multiplicity of theological currents and ecclesiastical practices within the Orthodox Church.
Now the point at which the ecclesiological theories sketched above collide in a practical way is in the reception of Christian converts. Everyone agrees that non-Christians are to be received by baptism. However, the Nicene Creed professes ‘one baptism for the remission of sins’. So we can be baptized only once. But what happens when a Roman Catholic wishes to join the Orthodox Church (or vice versa), or an Anglican wishes to join the Orthodox Church, or a Mormon (where the Mormons have a supplementary book of revelation not accepted by traditional Christians)? In ancient times, Orthodox Christians received non-orthodox believers from other Christian groups either by baptism or by chrismation, or even by confession of faith, the method used depending on the particular group being received. St Basil the Great occupied himself with rules on this.
The Roman Catholic Church treats all Christian baptisms (with some exceptions) as valid baptisms. Indeed, according to the Roman Catholic Church a non-Christian can baptize a non-Christian in a valid baptism if intent is there and water is used. In our own experience, we know of a case where as a prank a non-Christian contemptuous of Christians baptized another non-Christian who wished to become Christian using water from a mud puddle. Voila! Newly baptized Christian.
Now, today the more conservative Orthodox prefer to receive converts from other Christian denominations by Orthodox baptism in accordance with a strict interpretation of the canons and in accordance with the view that the Orthodox Church is the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’, there being no divine grace in sacraments outside the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. Less conservative Orthodox prefer to receive Christian converts to the Orthodox Church by chrismation or even by confession of faith either because the Church supplies what is lacking in the original baptism or because the original baptism is actually valid. The first view supporting chrismation or confession, that the Church supplies what is lacking, while theologically arguable at least has the merit of being consistent with the classical self-identity of the Orthodox Church as the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. The second view supporting chrismation or confession, that the original baptism is valid, indicates that the theologian tends either to the ‘Branch Theory’ or to a Roman Catholic understanding of the Church.
From the discussion above we can now see the background of disputes in the Orthodox Church concerning ecumenism. They have to do with issues of the Orthodox Church’s self-identity. They also have to do with the doctrinal and moral liberalism and relativism found among the largely Protestant ecumenists. In other words, there is an issue both about how the Orthodox Church defines itself and about how the Orthodox Church responds to theologically fashionable currents within the ecumenical movement, most notably homosexuality and related moral issues, although there are also doctrinal issues concerning whether for example one actually believes in the Resurrection—some professed Christians who are ecumenists don’t.
However, it should be understand that issues of doctrinal and moral liberalism arise outside specifically ecumenist settings, so that they are an issue in some Orthodox jurisdictions even beyond the matter of formal ecumenism.
We can also see that connected with these broader issues is the very specific issue of how Jennifer is to be received into the Orthodox Church.
Moreover, because the Orthodox Church emphasizes tradition over reason, where tradition is correctly defined (by Vladimir Lossky) as the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, there is a tendency in the Orthodox Church for heresies or deviations to develop from an overemphasis on the external forms of tradition, most notable in our view being the Old-Calendarist schism in the Greek Church (20th Century) and the Old Believer schism in the Russian Church (17th Century). This would be different from tendencies to over-emphasize human reason, something that characterizes the West. Reactions in the West to the over-emphasis on reason led to the pietist movement in Lutheranism and also to the various Pentecostalist and fundamentalist sects.
So not only are there issues that arise from legitimate questions about how the self-identity of the Orthodox Church is viewed and how issues of doctrinal and moral liberalism or relativism are viewed but there are also issues that arise from an excessive adherence to the external shell of traditional practice in the Orthodox Church.
To clear up a small point in Jennifer’s letter before we go on, Jennifer says that she is considering being baptized again in order to become Orthodox. She does not state whether her first baptism was Orthodox but if so she is already Orthodox—unless she has in the meantime denied Christ or joined another religion—and it is a matter of being taught the beliefs of the Church and getting herself sorted out with the mystery of confession of sins. Of course if Jennifer has denied Christ or joined another religion, then the canons of the Church provide that she be re-chrismated. Denial of Christ is a formal renunciation of Christ; if one has the thought that they might have done this it should be discussed with a priest empowered to hear confessions before any weight is assigned to this possibility. If in fact there has been a formal renunciation of Christ, it is better for the ministering priest to explain why re-chrismation is necessary.
However, if Jennifer was baptized originally with a non-Orthodox baptism, then we are back to the issue of how she is to be received into the Orthodox Church, and here we pick up the thread of her email.
In our view the best thing to do for someone joining the Orthodox Church is to receive a canonical baptism in the Orthodox Church even if they have previously been baptized as a Christian. By ‘canonical baptism’ we mean the full service of baptism, including the service of the catechumen, as found in the priest’s book of prayers. Then the person should concentrate on the inner spiritual transformation that begins with baptism, as lived within a healthy canonical parish. By ‘canonical parish’ we mean a parish whose Bishop is in communion with the various Patriarchs and Hierarchs of the national churches of the Orthodox Church.
It is ultimately the conscious contact with the Holy Spirit received in the heart in Orthodox baptism that forms the Orthodox conscience of the believer and this Orthodox conscience solves all the problems of jurisdiction and belief and hatred that Jennifer refers to. In the particular case of Jennifer’s situation, she might wish to look at the Russian Church Outside of Russia as a possible entry point into Orthodoxy—assuming that the parish is in communion with the Patriarch of Moscow.
Now let us look at particular issues raised by Jennifer’s email.
The first issue is that Jennifer lives in a country where there is only a sprinkling of Orthodox parishes. We don’t know details.
Jennifer remarks on the lack of aggressive missionary work by the Orthodox Church. Speaking humanly, not preaching the Gospel is a weakness of the Orthodox Church. The charge to preach the Gospel ‘to all Creation’ is given by Christ himself. The Orthodox Church is weak on this, and especially on inner preaching—to those who are nominally Orthodox but who really do not believe. However, this preaching whether on the institutional or individual level is quite different from the proselytization that Jennifer refers to (hard core knocking on doors to make converts).
I interpreted this (correct me if I’m wrong) as the Orthodox Church being satisfied with co-existing with other religious movements, acknowledging that other people have other beliefs, and that—even though they may not agree that their beliefs lead to salvation the way the Orthodox Church sees it, they certainly have the capacity to guide people spiritually into living more fulfilled and righteous lives.
Here we enter into the dynamic of Jennifer’s own conversion or not to Orthodoxy. The norm in Orthodoxy is the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, a loosely defined group of authors over the centuries who among themselves define good Orthodox dogma, thus interpreting the Gospel, which ultimately is itself the criterion of sound belief. What Jennifer is going to have to do—perhaps for the rest of her life—is to study how the Fathers of the Church handled this very issue of non-Orthodox and non-Christian believers who may indeed be pious in the context of their own belief system and from at least a human point of view virtuous. On a more practical level it is something she will have to discuss with the parish priest who catechizes her. On a more theological level we would recommend St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) where both in Archimandrite Sophrony’s extended introduction and in St. Silouan’s own writings this issue is touched upon. We think that Jennifer will appreciate St. Silouan’s attitude.
It has come to my attention that quite a severe schism has been going on for quite some time between the more conservative parts of the Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement (as well as that about the calendars), and one of the largest ‘counter-ecumenical’ movements is the largest Orthodox parish in my country. I am confused. Is it not the teaching of the Orthodox Church that love for another should be extended, whether or not we are of the same opinion, and that forgiveness should be given whether asked for or not? I understand why you might not want to admit their teachings to be the way of salvation, but is there a need to proclaim half the world to be heretics and blasphemers?
St Paul the Apostle remarks to the Corinthians concerning schisms among them that to a certain extent he can believe it because that way it can be seen who is authentic. However, he certainly doesn’t encourage schism. And writing to the Corinthians he says that we should make love our aim. In practical terms, Jennifer should first of all only have to do with canonical non-schismatic jurisdictions in communion with the Patriarchs and Hierarchs of the various national Orthodox churches. She should have nothing to do with schismatic or ‘fly-by-night’ self-erected ‘Orthodox’ churches, of which unfortunately there are a number. However, even if a parish is canonical, Jennifer should be ‘cunning as a snake and innocent as a dove’, sizing up the parish using the criterion of the Gospel: ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ If a parish is characterized by hatred and anger, it is not acting under the impulsion of the Holy Spirit and Jennifer should go elsewhere.
Is there not a fundamental difference here between learning about the ways of the other and adopting them yourself? Enough strength in one’s own belief should make it possible to meet others without fear of losing oneself. I was taken aback when seeing some very harsh comments on the subject and, not having found my place in the Church yet, I fear I will discover the whole Church to be like this. Should I make inquiries here on the political opinions of the priests and of the Bishop of the parish I hope to enter, to make sure we see ‘eye-to-eye’? I had rather hoped I could avoid such a political mix into my stumbling attempts at spiritual advancement. (Wow, that sounded bitter!)
I believe good advice is good advice wherever it comes from (now we are obviously not talking Gospel, but simple humility, aid and comfort of a purely humanitarian nature). This basic view is, I fear, rather well established in me by now (I am 33) so how can I see and believe in the wisdom of priests who seem so full of anger and are so hell-bent on their way as being the right one that they will not even talk to some fellow priest who has chosen another path? I mean, these guys are fellow Christians, granted maybe not of the same kind. But at least they’re not of some weird cult from New Guinea that wants to shrink your head. One could think they could find SOMETHING to talk about over dinner...
The answer to the preceding should now be clear. While the Orthodox Church bears witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ it does so under the impulsion of the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Truth and Love, and not under the impulsion of other spirits of anger and hatred.
Problem is: am I too open-minded? Have I lived too long in a world of multiple ways of the mind to be welcome and able to stay on the road I want to follow? Does Orthodoxy imply not only that I choose to believe in the path of Orthodoxy but also that I must reject those others who for their own reasons may have chosen another path? Am I on the wrong path in searching Orthodoxy with this mind-set?
We think that Jennifer is going to have to search for sound teachers to catechize her. She is going to have to hear the Gospel presented in its entirety and either accept or reject it. Some of what she now believes she will have to discard; some she will have to purify; some she will have to retain. This is a matter of a year or more.
… The crux is that I fear I will enter the Orthodox Church retaining the feeling that my view of the world is ‘better’ and that I need to convince these people to change, or at least to give them a new perspective. But I came to get a new perspective myself! In the secular world I have the ‘I-know-what-the-problem-here-is-and-I-am-going-to-fix-it’ mentality, and I am currently struggling to get out of that business. Changing that was (is?) one of the steps down the road to change.
While no one is going to make a serious change to Jennifer’s character at the age of 33 without doing her serious psychological damage of a very nasty kind (cults, brainwashing and all that), still as Jennifer well realizes we join the Orthodox Church to change ourselves, not to change the Church. There is a dynamic here between learning humbly and then later serving God in various ways given our own human capacity and character.
… So now we have arrived at the interesting conclusion that the problem is not that of Orthodox priests arguing but of me believing I know better. Ergo, solution will be to grab the first priest I come across and start listening, without concern for his political background.
Not at all, unless Jennifer is intent on self-destruction. ‘Cunning as a snake; innocent as a dove.’ ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’
Great! See—you can even get good advice from a silent computer screen. Now I don’t even have to bother sending the letter. But I will anyway (tomorrow) for three, no four, reasons:
3. In diagnosing myself I may be back to my well-known original sin again. (The reasoning is circular—will this ever end? Does this mean I have to doubt every time I think I understand something; otherwise I’m just full of pride?)
We are not so convinced that this is pride. Moreover, as Jennifer will learn when she begins to practise the Jesus Prayer, we are more than the flow or stream of our intellectual ideation. Part of coming into contact with the Holy Spirit in the heart through the practice of the Jesus Prayer is learning to go beyond our thoughts to our heart (which is not our emotions but our spiritual centre). St Diadochos of Photiki discusses this progression (click on the Diadochos label in the right-hand margin).
4. Most importantly—I am very curious to hear why you refer to yourself in plural.
We’re curious why it’s important.
Sorry about the ranting. I will stop now. Do whatever you want with this (as long as you answer question number 4).
Thanks. It’s been a pleasure. Answer with your thoughts. –Orthodox Monk