Toward an American Orthodox historical narrative
On December 30, we published an article by Daniel Silliman on the search for a narrative for Orthodoxy in America. As Daniel observed, mainstream religious scholars have paid precious little attention to Orthodoxy, and even we Orthodox haven’t done much to flesh out the narratives that shape our history.
I’ve done a fair bit of thinking over the years about overarching historical narratives. While I tend to prefer individual stories, I realize that those stories acquire much of their meaning as part of a broader narrative. And, as I believe I’ve said elsewhere, if American Orthodoxy could be summed up in one word, that word is encounter. Encounter between Orthodoxy and the West; encounter between long-isolated Orthodox ethnic groups; and encounter between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.
At the top, there have always been encounters. What makes American Orthodoxy unique is that, for the first time, regular laypeople from all the different Orthodox countries were thrown together in the same place. And what they discovered, back at the turn of the last century, was that they were not so very different from one another. That sentence may seem a bit odd in light of what happened afterwards — the ethnic fragmentation of American Orthodoxy. But in the beginning, there weren’t enough of any one ethnic group to justify forming a separate ethnic church. The Orthodox in America had to work together, to band together to preserve their faith in a foreign land. The seeds of fragmentation were present from the beginning, but so too were the seeds of unity. Ultimately, all of American Orthodox history seems, in my interpretation, to be converging on a point — a point which probably will never be fully realized. And that point is our unity as neither Russian nor Greek, Serb nor Arab, but one Church of Jesus Christ. In America, more than any other place or time in history, we are in a position to live out that unity. We’re all under the same roof, here. And resist it though we may, in the end, we will either come together in diverse unity, or we will marginalize ourselves and become a mere cultural museum piece.
So that’s one narrative. And as I said, “encounter” includes other factors. That obnoxious buzzword — “ecumenism” — has been a part of American Orthodoxy from Day 1. From the founding of Nicholas Bjerring’s New York chapel in 1870, to St. Tikhon’s friendship with the Episcopalian Bishop Grafton at the turn of the 20th century, to the Episcopal Church financing the Russian Metropolia during its time of troubles, to the World Council of Churches and the “Sorrowful Epistles” of ROCOR Metropolitan Philaret, to the present dialogues between the OCA and conservative Anglicans, American Orthodoxy has always engaged the non-Orthodox. Some of this engagement has led to conversions, from Bjerring and Irvine to the Evangelical Orthodox to the people who are about to be baptized this coming Theophany.
Those conversions are yet another piece of the narrative. My recent research on Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine has led me to revisit the problem — and it is a problem — of converts in American Orthodoxy. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean that converts are a problem. But there is most definitely a convert problem, and particularly (but definitely not only) a convert clergy problem. Beginning with Bjerring and James Chrystal in 1869-70, converts have been received by the Orthodox with great enthusiasm. They’ve received minimal catechesis; they’ve been ordained almost immediately; and in far too many cases, they’ve caused major problems and/or left the Church entirely. This isn’t really the fault of the converts themselves. Bjerring, Chrystal, Irvine, Morgan, Mythen and his circle, Fr. Boris Burden… the list goes on and on. Even the “good” early converts were, almost to a man, deeply flawed in their personal lives. And if you’ve been Orthodox for very long at all, you’ve no doubt known one (and probably many) convert clergymen who came in with a burst of energy and productivity, only to reveal themselves to be erratic (or even corrupt) men who eventually left the priesthood and/or the Church itself.
It is the oldest problem in American Orthodoxy, and I hope that we can eventually develop standards at the national level to combat it. But really, it’s tied for the oldest problem: the other big issue is the problem of the youth.
There’s nothing terribly exciting about this one. From the beginning, American Orthodoxy has struggled to retain its young people. It didn’t help that, for decades (and in some churches, up to the present) Orthodoxy was treated as more of a cultural artifact than a living faith. Old languages were preserved, and English was resisted, and most young people didn’t care about the misguided justifications for using only Greek or Slavonic or Arabic or what have you. Who wants to worship in a language they can’t understand? And no matter how beautiful a language is, if the people can’t understand it, it has failed in its fundamental purpose: to communicate meaning. We’ve been losing our youth for more than a century. Irvine railed against the resistance to English and against the indifference of nominal parents. But equally problematic is the fact that we, as a Church, have failed to communicate the essence of Orthodoxy to our children. Too often, Sunday Schools teach Orthodoxy like you’d teach Episcopalianism or Roman Catholicism — systematically, like a subject in school. Which has its place, but — as a dear friend recently put it — they teach the “what,” but they fail to teach the “why.” And this is not a new problem.
But all of this, I think, is encapsulated in the concept of “encounter.” We encountered the West, and we didn’t know what in the heck to do with it. We weren’t prepared. We flailed about, dancing with the Anglicans, wallowing in our nominalism, ordaining every male American convert who expressed the faintest interest in the priesthood. All too often, we have lacked a vision for our mission in America, and even our identity as the Apostolic Church — the Church. Sentimentalism, ethnic pride, a desire for acceptance, a pleasant feeling of surprise when we are accepted — these things all can be good, and they can have their place. But they can also be our downfall. My mentor, Bill James, has said, “Nostalgia is the greatest enemy of the truth.” And speaking as a historian of the historical Church, I share that opinion. We must always be on our guard against that passion.
But I don’t mean to be negative; I’m actually one of the most optimistic people you’ll meet regarding the prospects of American Orthodoxy. All historical narratives are ultimately incomplete and uncompleteable, but ours is particularly so. In twenty years, we will have a much clearer understanding of that narrative. If our Assembly of Bishops succeeds in creating a unified American Orthodox Church, then the circle of encounter, from the early multiethnic parishes to a single pan-Orthodox Local Church, will be, in one sense, complete. And we will look back and see that all of our history led us to this point, where we as a Church were ready to unite and, together, to engage our fellow Americans. But if the Assembly fails, we will interpret it as the greatest of many failures, and perhaps the last in any of our lifetimes, to come together as one American Church. In this way, the past depends upon the future for its ultimate meaning.
That’s not to say that the past is relative; it’s not. Past events are not relative. But our interpretation of those events is entirely dependent upon what follows them. We in the 21st century are, in a sense, still making — to say nothing of writing — the history of Orthodoxy at the turn of the 20th century. We will determine how that past is viewed by future generations.
I’m not an academic, so I’ve probably failed to address any number of issues a good academic historian would cover. But as one who spends an inordinate amount of time wandering around in the American Orthodox past, these are some of the things I’ve noticed. I would love to hear what others think.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
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