Passing Judgment on the Past
This week, I’ve written about two topics that can be somewhat divisive: clergy dress, and pews. From the feedback I’ve been getting, it seems that some people want me to come down on one side or the other. Should priests wear cassocks everwhere? Should they wear collars? Should our churches have pews, or shouldn’t they?
I have been reticent to get into those questions, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I support neither the vehemently “traditionalist” position, which would require all cassocks all the time and nary a pew in sight, nor the just as vehemently “modernist” side, which would ban all cassocks and mandate a one-hour liturgy with frequent ups and downs in the pews. I’m not this way on every issue, but when it comes to clergy dress and pews, I’ve heard all the arguments on both sides, and I’m pretty middle-of-the-road. Sorry.
But then, there’s a more important issue: should I, as an historian, be required to pass judgment on the people of the past? Must I take a side? Ultimately, I do think the historian can, at times, say of some past decision, “This was a good decision,” or, “This was a bad one.” But we need not always do so. And if I am going to “judge” past decisions, I would rather focus on the broader issue — namely, Americanization in all its forms — than on the narrow question of whether a parish should or should not have installed pews.
And what does “Americanization” involve? Among other things:
- forms of church governance (e.g. trustees; also administrative unity)
- the use of English
- church architecture (including pews)
- music (including organs and mixed choirs)
- clergy appearance (dress, facial hair)
- intermarriage with non-Orthodox
- the calendar issue
- reception of American converts
I know that I’m missing other relevant topics, but, when I talk about Americanization, those are the sorts of things that I have in mind. If I’m going to pass any judgments at all, they will be more broad than a simple pro or con. Every one of those issues listed above is complex, and many have both positives and negatives.
And here’s the other thing: nobody — literally, not a single person on this earth — knows enough about American Orthodox history to make those sorts of judgments. At least, not yet. I mean, how many people have deeply studied American Orthodox history — not just one jurisdiction or ethnic group, but the whole field? I think I can number such people on one hand, maybe two. And none of those (including me) are experts, in the sense that someone might be a Civil War expert or an expert in Byzantine history. We’re only beginning to learn our history; it’s a little soon to be making sweeping judgments.
From our privileged position as the latest people in the history of the world (so far), we can sometimes look back and say, “This turned out well,” or, “This turned out poorly.” But you and I don’t yet know why Greek churches began to install pews in the 1920s — I’ve only just learned that they did this in the first place. So, if it’s your idea of a good time, feel free to debate the merits of pews and cassocks and collars all you want. As for me, I will be busy trying to figure out why those decisions were made to begin with. That, I think, is a far more interesting question.
- SOCHA, American Orthodox History, and the Digital Humanities
- Toward an American Orthodox historical narrative
- Searching for a narrative for Eastern Orthodox in America
- What is an Armenian parish?
- How I View the Church History Work of Orthodoxhistory.org
- What is a parish?
- On blogging history: a response to some critics
- Guest article on St. Peter the Aleut
- Is the St. Peter the Aleut story true?
- Fr. Oliver Herbel on St. Peter the Aleut