In Defense of Fr. Irvine
“Self righteousness. Self assuredness. Emphasising unity of administration. Not understanding the importance of Church music. The Freemason Conspiracy Theory. Aggressiveness…..”
The other day, I happened upon an online discussion of Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine and his dislike of Isabel Hapgood. One commentator, whom I would credit if I knew his/her real name, said, “I understand that Fr. Nathaniel Irvine is called the ‘Prophet of American Orthodoxy’. Reading his quotes, all I can say is mores the pity for American Orthodoxy.” When asked to clarify, the commentator offered the above list of criticisms: “Self righteousness. Self assuredness. Emphasising unity of administration. Not understanding the importance of Church music. The Freemason Conspiracy Theory. Aggressiveness…..”
I found this response to be intriguing, in that it largely parallels the critiques that many of Irvine’s contemporaries would have offered against him. Was he self-righteous and self-assured? Having read a huge number of his writings (both private and public), I would certainly call him “confident,” but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say he was those other things. He did stake out a position and fight for it; what’s striking is that he usually turned out to be right.
Take the “emphasizing unity of administration” critique. Nowadays, more and more American Orthodox Christians realize that unity of church administration is extremely important. Shoot, it’s not just American Orthodox Christians — the recent Chambesy decision indicates that the Mother Churches agree, and, frankly, “unity of administration” is enshrined in the ancient canons themselves. Back in Irvine’s day, many (and probably most) American Orthodox Christians would have said that unity of administration was not really important. Ethnic and nationlistic interests were just too strong then, and only a few (such as Irvine and St. Tikhon) really got the picture. I find it odd that someone today would criticize Irvine for emphasizing administrative unity, but it would have been an unsurprising critique a hundred years ago.
“Not understanding the importance of Church music”? Isabel Hapgood certainly would have agreed with that one, but Irvine’s own response to Hapgood shows that his position was rather nuanced. He did, in fact, understand and appreciate the importance of music in the Church, but he didn’t think it should take precedence over missionary and pastoral efforts.
“The Freemason Conspiracy Theory”? I have yet to print Irvine’s entire letter against Aftimios Ofiesh’s consecration, but I can tell you that Irvine speaks from experience, having had problems with a Freemason bishop’s divided loyalties when he was an Episcopal priest. Come to think of it, that’s why Orthodox priests (and laity) are not allowed to be members of secret societies — such societies divide one’s loyalty, which should be to God and the Church.
I particularly like the “aggressiveness” critique, because, of course, Irvine was aggressive. Aren’t all prophets? Prophets speak the hard but necessary word to the people of God, and to people in power. They do so without regard for their personal well-being. This is why I referred to Irvine as a “prophet.” I didn’t mean to equate him with the Biblical prophets, but rather to illustrate (perhaps too dramatically) that he was one of those rare individuals who could see what was wrong and what needed to happen, say what needed to be said, and care not a bit about the negative consequences to himself. Irvine was “loud,” as he himself admitted; at the same time, he spoke “lovingly,” with the aim not simply to attack but to correct. He pushed for the use of English. He rebuked Syrian parents for keeping their children out of church on Sundays, and for letting them attend Protestant and Roman Catholic services rather than Orthodox ones. He spoke out against the beloved Isabel Hapgood when she claimed that a good choir was worth more than twenty “little new parishes,” and he argued against the consecration of Aftimios Ofiesh, who would indeed prove to be unworthy of the episcopate. Irvine may not have been right one hundred percent of the time, but he was right pretty darned often, and you can bet that if he were alive today, he’d be just as vocal and just as polarizing.
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