Posts tagged St Vladimir's Seminary
On today’s episode of my American Orthodox History podcast, we’re airing my talk, “The Myth of Past Unity,” given at the St Vladimir’s Seminary conference in June. For video of that lecture, click here.
I wrote an “author’s note” to go at the end of my paper. I didn’t have the opportunity to read that note at the conference, but I’m reprinting it here:
I am a lifelong Orthodox Christian of Lebanese descent, and I was raised in and am a member of the Antiochian Archdiocese. I have long been a proponent of Orthodox administrative unity in America, and I grew up wholly believing what I have now termed the “myth of unity.” When I began the research which ultimately led to this paper, my goal was to compile primary source documentation to support the view of the American Orthodox past as a “golden age.” I expected to find many and various pieces of evidence which would testify to the pre-1917 unity of American Orthodoxy, and I intended to publish this evidence in a book. This would, so I thought, help further the present cause of unity.
In the process of my research, it became apparent to me that the golden age of unity never actually existed. In fact, what I discovered was a great volume of evidence which directly contradicted this view. I reached my conclusions with not a small measure of disappointment, as it is always difficult to experience the virtual debunking of a long-held belief. However, I felt an obligation to continue my research and document, as best I could, the actual American Orthodox past. As I have done this, my perspective has changed. While I am still a very strong advocate of administrative unity – perhaps even more so than I was at the outset of my study – I no longer view the truth of the past as a disappointment or an obstacle. Quite the opposite: as I have argued in the conclusion to my paper, I consider the real past to be more positive, more encouraging, and more helpful to the present and future unity efforts than the old myth.
In this paper, I have singled out, among others, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as a prime advocate of the myth of unity. I have done this with some trepidation, as I am a great admirer of Schmemann. More than any other writer, he has had a profound influence on my life, and I consider his book For the Life of the World to be a defining text for me. While he was not principally an historian, his Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy is an admirable study of Church history. In his journals, he writes, “Ideally, the study of Church history should liberate people from enslavement to the past, which is rather typical for the Orthodox consciousness… I remember how slowly I became liberated from idealizing Byzantium, Old Russia, etc.” He goes on to say,
The historical events of the Church – such as the Ecumenical Councils – are important inasmuch as they are an answer to the world, an affirmation of salvation and transfiguration. As soon as they are absolutized, as soon as they gain a value per se, and not as related to the world; in other words, as soon as we transform them into sacred history, we deprive them of their genuine value and meaning. Therefore, the prerequisite for the study of church history must be to liberate it from being a sacred absolute, and not to be enslaved by it – which is so often a burden on Orthodoxy.
[Entry for Tuesday, November 12, 1974, published in The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann: 1973-1983 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 53-54.]
Schmemann unintentionally fails to follow these principles when he engages the American Orthodox past. Yet this is understandable: he engages that past not as a scholar but as an advocate for unity in the 1960s and 1970s. He – who, it should be remembered, arrived in America decades after the supposed golden age had ended – seeks, with the best of intentions, to use history as a tool to achieve a worthy end in the present. Because of his influence, I have had little choice but to quote and rebut him in particular. In doing this, however, I have meant no disrespect, and my high regard for Schmemann has in no way been diminished.
In making these clarifications, I hope I have demonstrated that I have not written this paper as an attack on any person or persons, and I have certainly not intended to hamper the effort for American Orthodox unity. I believe that an honest and accurate reading of our past is actually a step towards that unity, rather than away from it.
The video takes a few minutes to get going, but here is a roughly 80-minute history of the Russian council of 1917-18, bracketed by history of the Russian Metropolia, entitled True Faith and the Ground of Liberty (subtitled St. Tikhon and the 1917-1918 Council: Architect and Blueprint for the Orthodox Church in America), delivered by OCA chancellor Fr. Alexander Garklavs. It was delivered on June 18 at the recent conference held at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (the same conference which featured our own Matthew Namee).
The first fifteen minutes or so are the conference’s opening talk by seminary dean Fr. John Behr and the introduction of Garklavs by seminary chancellor Fr. Chad Hatfield.
Toward the beginning, Garklavs does include some sidelong remarks indicating he agrees with the conventional depiction of a mono-jurisdictional Orthodox administration prior to 1921, but his narrative largely avoids this question. He does comment at one point when mentioning the Greeks under the Russians that there were also Greeks outside the Russian jurisdiction.
Regarding America, he mainly focuses on the life of St. Tikhon and his work in America, as well as the effect of the Russian council of 1917-1918 on the Russian Metropolia and, subsequently, the OCA (and Tikhon’s effect on it, based on his experience in America). The bulk of the talk is on the council itself, based on reading primary sources coming out of the council. The last fifteen minutes come back to America and cover mainly administrative history.
There’s nothing too controversial here, as the parts of this speech concerned with America revisit well-worn ground regarding one of the great heroes of Orthodox history in America. One controversial comment is his suggestion that Tikhon’s model for administration—independent bishops whose jurisdiction is based on ethnicity rather than geography, but sitting together in synod—might represent a best hope for Orthodox unity in America.
It is probably not terribly controversial when Garklavs hails the 1917-18 Russian council as a proper “blueprint” for the OCA. What is more debatable, of course, is whether the blueprint was followed in the construction. Despite this conventional take on the council, I do recall one of my seminary professors (a cleric of the Moscow Patriarchate), who seemed to believe that the council was largely a failure and that the Bolshevik Revolution was God’s final judgment on such a colossal apostasy. That, I think, is somewhat of a minority view, at least here in America. I’d be interested to read what modern Russian Orthodox have to say about the council. To be sure, its effects are not felt there hardly at all (probably at least partly because of the later association of anything “progressive” with the Soviet-sponsored “Living Church” movement). I imagine American Orthodox talk about it quite a lot more.
Hat tip to Byzantine, TX.
The video of my own talk, “The Myth of Past Unity,” can be found here:
For audio only, click here.
At the “Orthodoxy in America: Past, Present and Future” conference at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, SOCHA member Matthew Namee presented his paper The Myth of Past Unity, addressing the issue of the character of administrative unity prior to the establishment of the Greek Archdiocese in 1921. You can listen to the recording of his presentation here (courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio).
For anyone interested in the topic of Orthodox administrative unity in America, this paper is must-read (or “must-listen”) material.
I watched some of the brief Q&A session that followed, and although there were a couple of criticisms of Matthew’s remarks, the most directly negative of them amounted to a restating of the “myth” that Matthew identified without offering counter-evidence. Another commented that there had been a single hierarchy in America, but that essentially begs its own question (i.e., does appointing a bishop for Alaska really give Russia control over a whole continent?) and misses Matthew’s actual assertion (i.e., no matter what may have been “officially” the case, the reality on the ground was clear disunity). Even if one accepts the focus-shift required by the “single hierarchy” comments, that still leaves the embarrassing problem of the Russian-American hierarchy’s lack of actual claim over well over 100 non-Russian parishes in its own published lists. That is, it represents an anachronistic reading of history.
Update: Mark Stokoe (of OCANews.org) offers some commentary on Matthew’s lecture.
And here’s a bit more from Lydia Berzonsky.
At the “Orthodoxy in America: Past, Present and Future” conference at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, SOCHA member Matthew Namee will be presenting his paper The Myth of Past Unity, addressing the issue of the character of administrative unity prior to the establishment of the Greek Archdiocese in 1921. A live video stream of the presentation can be seen on Saturday, June 20, starting at approximately 11:30am-12pm EDT:
The video can also be viewed at the dedicated website. Ancient Faith Radio should have the audio up in about an hour after the presentation. Take a look at AFR’s dedicated site for audio from the conference.
Update: The above embedded video is a recording.