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.

7 Replies to “In Defense of Fr. Irvine”

  1. There are many folks who would take great exception with your comment regarding Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh as “unworthy of the episcopacy”. If we start throwing that opinion around plenty could be said today of the “unworthiness” of many of the Orthodox hierarchs in America today, regardless of jurisdiction. At least Ofiesh was honest enough to marry a girl instead of keeping a mistress or a homosexual lover on the sly, which is more than can be said for some contemporary hierarchs.

  2. btw, his real name is George.

    On the issue of music, I think that Fr. Irving was emphasizing music as an expression of piety, i.e. a faithful choir singing off key is better than a perfect choir which is less faithful away from the music stand. Hapgood’s approach dangerously comes to the brink of the Church honoring those who perhaps have made large donations or gained success in the secular world, but who have strayed from the Church’s teachings (we know what I am talking about). Favoring a show choir over 20 small but real Orthodox parishes is rather disturbing. Of course, perhaps, the fact that Hapgood never embraced Orthodoxy might be telling.

  3. Since Fr. Timothy’s comment was also posted on our Facebook page, I’m going to just re-post my response from there:

    I probably shouldn’t say “unworthy of the episcopacy” without backing it up. Sorry about that. We’ll get into Ofiesh in the future (with all the different interpretations, I promise), but I have a little trouble defending a bishop who decides to marry a 20-year-old girl. He also basically left the Orthodox Church in his later years, and even went so far as to prescribe that no religious service of any kind be held upon his death. Maybe “unfit for the episcopacy” would have been better than “unworthy,” but perhaps it would be better if I just said that I think he was not a very good bishop who did not do his job in defending the Orthodox faith. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty more like him (and worse); I just think Irvine was right in viewing him as a person who should not be a bishop.

  4. Isa,

    Hapgood’s whole approach to Orthodoxy was different than Irvine’s, or most any other Orthodox Christian’s. As you say, she was an Episcopalian, and like many of her fellow Episcopalians, she wanted to promote unity with the Orthodox. A show choir, which would create goodwill towards Orthodoxy among rich Americans, was a step in that direction (in her view). It would demonstrate to Americans that Orthodoxy wasn’t weird and backward and superstitious (as many thought), but refined and trendy. I doubt Hapgood ever set foot in one of those “little new parishes,” full of lower-class immigrants. Her dealings were with the hierarchy and the people at the Cathedral in New York City. Irvine, even as an Episcopalian, had been a mission priest in various unglamorous places. Hapgood’s experience of Christianity was much more upscale, I think.

  5. Keep in mind, on Irvine and music, that at one point, he did want a musical style that would be more “contemporary” though he didn’t use that word. He wanted musical instruments like what one saw in other non-Orthodox churches. The phrase “contemporary liturgy” had not yet been coined, but I took his comment to be in that vein. It would take me a while to find that again, but he did want to change things musically, so he didn’t bat .1000 on the music issue. That said, his opposition to a show choir does not mean opposition to church music.

    What intrigues me more, are the concerns raised by Fr. Timothy. Father, I am not sure what is gained by shifting from one issue to another. Matthew’s comments, from what I can tell, were directed to Aftimios’ behavior and not the behavior of contemporary hierarchs. Whether some current bishops ought to be bishops is certainly a question worth engaging, though probably better done over at than here. The question of Aftimios, however, is relevant to this site and I am curious as to who the “many” are who support him. Aftimios’ marriage to a lady so much younger than himself occurred under very suspicious circumstances. He and Miriam had decided to have the plan ready to go. When did he decide to act on it? When Fr. Boris Burden called Aftimios asking for help because parishioners were running Fr. Boris out of a parish for alleged sexual misconduct with young men in the parish. Fr. Boris had his struggles, so it is possible he was guilty in that case, but what is important for the discussion here is Aftimios’ response. When Fr. Boris is being accused of such actions, Aftimios goes and marries a young lady in a secular ceremony. From what was Aftimios running? Was he trying to prove something so as not to be implicated himself? Even if you believe he was running from nothing, why marry in this way? Rather than have a marriage as a backup plan for a rainy day, why not be more respectful about it? Why not ask to be laicized and still marry, live a faithful life, and have an Orthodox burial? If one wants a married episcopate, then why not ordain a married priest to be a bishop for HEOCACNA? To my knowledge, he did not want an Orthodox burial and so did not have one. I think when a bishop marries a girl in a secular ceremony according to a prearranged plan and refuses an Orthodox burial, a commentator is within reason to claim that bishop was not fit for office. Have I misunderstood your critique? If so, please let me know.

    Matthew, I would caution against using a comment from another thread as the basis for a posting. I can tell what you meant (the criticism is intriguing because that’s what was said in the past, too), but would caution against it lest we unintentionally cause undue offense. I think if someone comments on our facebook page or here, it is different. Likewise, any one of us could jump on the other thread if a member of that other group. I hope I’m not coming across too strongly here.

  6. Fr. Oliver,

    I commented on this on the Facebook page — in hindsight, I guess it’s not proper Internet etiquette to respond to message board comments in a different venue. However, my interest (as you note) was sparked by the similarity between those comments, and criticisms which would have been common in Irvine’s own day. In any event, my apologies to any and all who may have been offended.

    While, on the whole, the reactions I’ve seen to Irvine thus far have been positive, there have been a handful of people who have taken issue with one or more things that he said. I find that to be perfectly appropriate — in his lifetime, Irvine was a polarizing figure who was, typically, either loved or hated. With Irvine, it was hard to have no opinion.

  7. Wouldn’t all those sorts of comments be leveled against Ss. John Chrysostom, Symeon the New Theologian, Mark of Ephesus, or many other saints? In general, these men were marked by their aggressive style, extreme confidence in their position, abrasiveness, and love of the pedestrian level at the expense of the more showy. Every one of them was controversial in their own day. What I like about what’s been posted about Fr. Irvine is that he sounds like one of them. Of course we don’t have to agree with all his conclusions, but he was walking in well-trodden paths.

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