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 everywhere? 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
  • fasting
  • 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.

11 Replies to “Passing Judgment on the Past”

  1. I think this gets back to your July post regarding “What was, what should have been, what should be”. History will only tell us what was; the rest is the domain of the theologian, canonist, synod, bishop and pastor – though informed by the incarnated reality of the Church as lived, precedent. We are not a Church that believes a given person, saint, parish, monastery, diocese, local church, etc. is immune from error – only the Church Ecumenical, its local churches, its bishops and people as a whole can be such. Patriarchs fall into heresy, as do local churches and individuals; revered monasteries go into schism and fall into error. It would seem the height of hubris to assume that there is an exceptionalism in this regard for Orthodoxy in America. (The massive apostasy rates of both cradle and convert Orthodoxy over decades points to our lack of strength.)

  2. Yes, history tells us what was. I would add that it can tell us WHY things were the way they were. Hopefully, at some point I will be able to say, “Pews were introduced for the following reasons…”

  3. One question I haven’t much seen discussed, but I think would be very interesting historical research, is the question of electric lighting. I’ve been to at least one Orthodox Church that had fake electric candles in some places, and I’ve been to several monasteries which had only small electric lamps on the reader’s stands but no other electricity. I heard a story of a Metropolitan visiting from the Middle East and being scandalized, not by the pews, but by how bright the interior was!

    I guess this related to church architecture bullet point, though.

    (Thank you for this wonderful website, by the way).

  4. That’s a great point, Matthew. I’ve never seen any reference at all to the introduction of electric lighting in Orthodox churches. It’s the sort of thing which, I suspect, happened more organically than pews or organs. With pews and organs, you have elements which were (mostly) foreign to Orthodoxy, but were common among non-Orthodox groups, being introduced into Orthodox churches. With electric lighting, you had something which was probably seen as merely a practical, technological improvement to an already-existing element (candles).

  5. Agreed. However, being comfortable with practical/technological innovation might be a sign of Americanization, too…

    It would be interesting to do an architectural comparison of Orthodox churches built in America in the early part of last century vs. comparable sized Orthodox churches build in Greece and Eastern Europe. But I imagine that would be a lot of work and scholarship.

  6. Yes, it should be considered among the other aspects of Americanization. The problem will be in getting hard evidence. It’s difficult enough to nail down when (and especially why) pews were introduced; something as comparatively mundane as light fixtures will be even more challenging.

    I know that there are some scholars who are beginning to look at American Orthodox church architecture, and may be able to do comparisons with churches overseas. It’s a wonderful idea, but, as you say, one that will require a lot of work.

  7. “I think this gets back to your July post regarding “What was, what should have been, what should be”. History will only tell us what was; the rest is the domain of the theologian, canonist, synod, bishop and pastor – though informed by the incarnated reality of the Church as lived, precedent.”

    I was milling over the same thing when you wrote this, on the aims and implications of historical theology answering the questons of what was, what should have been and what should be.

    Of course, recent events reinforce the ties between the answers to these questions:
    “The 2nd round pan-Orthodox meeting opens today in Chemin de Chambésy in Switzerland, in preparation for the first pan-Orthodox Synod of the modern era…The first meeting in June decided on the creation of Episcopal conferences in the countries of the Diaspora, who will refer to Constantinople; in today’s meeting – which will last one week – the issue of autonomy and the autocephalous nature of the Orthodox Churches will be discussed . In short the debate will centre of the cannons to define and accept the autonomy and autocephalous status of the new Churches within the spectrum of the Orthodox world. The meeting aims to resolve issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent emergence of new nation states, whose churches have sought independence from the Patriarchate of Moscow, demanding so a return to the status they had before the birth of’ USSR…The first round last June, dealt with the issue of the Orthodox Diaspora, namely the management and jurisdiction of the Orthodox Churches founded by the Diaspora. This question has caused friction between Constantinople and Moscow, especially after the collapse of communist regimes and the subsequent massive migration of Eastern peoples outside their national borders. Until then, the Orthodox flock was under the jurisdiction of their national church, and the Diaspora under that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, according to the current canons of the Eastern Church.”

    Of course, no such canons exist placing the “Diaspora” (a concept of dubious applicability in much of the “Diaspora”) under the EP, the topic of great importance to this site, and to which I will return. As for the status of the Churches before the Bolsheviks, they were all suffragans to the Holy Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, except Moscow, Kiev and the exarch in Tblisi, who served ex officio as members of the HGS. Georgia had reclaimed her autocephaly during the Bolshevik revolution, and I doubt the Catholicos of All Georgia wants to give up his independence from Moscow. Under Soviet control, Moscow granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Poland and the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. I doubt that they want to return to dependence on Russia and Serbia.

    All the rest of the Churches have the same status they have today as they had on December 25 1922, except the Orthodox Church in America and the Finnish Orthodox Church: the former being autocephalous and the latter autonomous under the EP (a status which has been brought up for negotiations every time the EP has questioned the Finns relations with the OCA. I note that the Vatican sponsered AsiaNews passes over this in silence, instead focusing on problems with Moscow, which see the Vatican has its own, related jurisdictional problems).

    AsianNews reports that “The deep desire of Bartholomew I to proceed quickly in order to convene the first major pan-Orthodox Synod of the modern era was also noted.” Along with this he had announced that 20 of his metropolitans of his “Turkish Diaspora” had applied to Ankara for citizenship, and has sent the “request” to each of his suffragans outside of the Turkish Republic that they “register at least one real estate property irreversibly in the legal name of the Patriarchate, as follows:“Ecumenical Patriarch, instituted according to the International Law whose See is in Constantinople (Istanbul).”
    It would seem that the EP is trying to transform what has been into what he thinks should be: was that, however, what was?

    The Patriarchate of Constantinople as we know it came into being around the turn of the previous century, and it seems revolving around the circles of Meletios Metaxakis and their vision of perpetuating and expanding what the Phanar was under the Sultan and what they thought it should be under the “Great Idea.”

    St. John Maximovich observed this firsthand, and saw it as a moral decline rather than a resurgence of canonical order.
    He starts at around the era covered by this site, opening “The primacy among Orthodox Churches is possessed by the Church of the New Rome, Constantinople, which is headed by a Patriarch who has the title of Ecumenical, and therefore is itself called the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which territorially reached the culmination of its development at the end of the 18th century,” i.e. at the time of the evangelization of North America. The Patriarch’s jurisdiction came not as Ecumenical Patriarch, but as millet-i Rum Baş: the Sultan abolished the patriarchates of the Bulgarians and Vlachs at Turnovo and of the Serbs at Pec, the autocephalous see of Ohrid, and reduced the other ancient patriarchates (and Cyprus) to provinces of the Phanar. That was, not because of canon 28 of Chalcedon, but the Firmans of the Padişah.

    Such showed the source and extent of the power and jursidiction of Constantinople in 1794, because where the Sultan did not hold sway, his ethnarch did not control the diptychs. The EP struck Pec, Turnovo and Ohrid from the diptychs, but in Montenegro and behind the lines of the Hungarian march, his word was neither law nor canon. The bishop of Cetinjd continued to rule his Diocese, and the Metropolitanat at Karlovci continued the line of bishops established since the Patriarchs left Pec and came to form a bulwark against the Ottomans in exchange for a haven against the Phanar. As exarchs of the Patriachate of Pec, they simply refused to acknowledge the EP’s annexation, and Pec’s autocephaly continued on, now in two Churches. In Transylvania, the Hapsburgs, exhausted by the Orthodox Romanians refusal to disappear, finally acknowledged the Orthodox existence and allowed an Orthodox bishop, not a suffragan to the Phanariot Exarch in Bucharest, but to the Serb Metropolitan in Karlovci. When Vienna gained the cities of Zadar and Kotor, Karlovci got their sees, and when in Moldavia, the “Holy Roman Emperor” tore off the Upper Land, he gave it and its bishoprick, now Bukowina, to his Orthodox Serb Metropolitan. The Metropolitan of Kiev on the Holy Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church held title to Galicia, and the Russian Church retook the sees in the lands of the Rus’ retaken by the Czar in the Partitions of Poland-Lithuania, When Russia took the Crimea, the EP transferred its metropolitan to St. Petersburg. Whereas the EP, during the time that the Metropolitan of Kiev served as his suffragan and he (the EP) appointed Metropolitans outside the empire in the Romanian lands etc., had jurisdiction outside/alongside the borders of the lands for which Constantinople served as capital, the Janissaries’ expansion of the empire and Christendom’s resistance to that expansion, rendered the EP’s jurisdiction coterminous with the Sultan’s borders.

    The EP was not unaware of the “Diaspora.” After all, many Greeks had fled the sack of 1204 and the conquest of 1453 and didn’t come back. Greek refugees secured the right to build a Church in Venice in the 15th century and in 1577 Metropolitan Gabriel II of Philadelphia in Asia refused to go to his see, rather setting himself in the comforts of Venice instead, and the titular see was translated there. When the Metropolitan submitted to the Vatican in 1712, the EP abolished the Metropolitanate (thought the cathedral remained, and successors did sit in Venice off and on until 1797). In 1670 Greek refugees secured permission from the bishop of London to build and Church, and they were joined in 1676 by the bishop of Samos, who came to get his writings published: their Church was confiscated in 1684, and they had to worship in the Russian embassy. However, I have not seen anything how and if the EP ever regularized these canonically, if indeed London ever was before the 1922: Venice’s modern Tomos, the first act of the present EP, doesn’t seem to be based on the defunct sojourn of the Metropolitan of Philadelphia there but Meletios’ establishment of the Exarchate of Thyrateira, though Venice is menitoned in the title of the 1908 Constantinople-CoG Tomos on the Greek Diaspora, which seems to stand as the first

    Hence the EP’s jurisdiction was limited by the Sultan’s reach, and for our purposes here we must mention that the Sultan never reached the New World: the colonists of New Smyrna never had an Orthodox priest, whether because the Phanar, at the bidding of Topkapi, forbad one to go, or the colony’s uniate mistress got the Latin priest for the vast majority, Latin and uniate (only one colonist is recorded as Orthodox, ), yields the same result. Nothing I have seen from the 18th or 19th century defines that jurisdiction other than the Ottoman domain (including the ancient patriarchs, at the time appointed from and among the Phanar). That is what was, it is what should have been?

    It is what had always been. The Fathers elevated Constantinople, as they plainly stated, because she was the capital of the baptized Roman empire. Now she was an arm of the “Exalted Ottoman State,” the Greek mask of the Turkokratia, the means by which the Turkish caliph fleeced his Christian flock. As the Eastern Patriarchs responded to the Vatican’s claims to jurisdiction over them in 1848:

    ” His Holiness says (p. ix. 1.12) that the Corinthians, divided among themselves, referred the matter to Clement, Pope of Rome, who wrote to them his decision on the case; and they so prized his decision that they read it in the Churches. But this event is a very weak support for the Papal authority in the house of God. For Rome being then the center of the Imperial Province and the chief City, in which the Emperors lived, it was proper that any question of importance, as history shows that of the Corinthians to have been, should be decided there, especially if one of the contending parties ran thither for external aid: as is done even to this day. The Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, when unexpected points of difficulty arise, write to the Patriarch of Constantinople, because of its being the seat of Empire, as also on account of its synodical privileges; and if this brotherly aid shall rectify that which should be rectified, it is well; but if not, the matter is reported to the province, according to the established system…In the case of the Corinthians, moreover, it is to be remarked that the Patriarchal Thrones being then but three, Rome was the nearer and more accessible to the Corinthians, to which, therefore, it was proper to have resort. In all this we see nothing extraordinary, nor any proof of the despotic power of the Pope in the free Church of God.”

    This comports with the interpretation of Chalcedon c. 28 of St. Nikodemus the Athonite, at the turn of the 18th/19th century in the Pedalion, which the Greek Churches followed and which the EP gave official stamp of full authority in 1902:
    “Since at this Fourth Council c. III of the Second Council was read, which decrees that the Bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy priorities of honor with the Bishop of Rome, seeing that it is New Rome, therefore the fathers of this Council too, by means of their present Canon, renew and confirm the said Canon, and they decree and vote the same things as regards the priorities of the same city of Constantinople which is also known as New Rome. For, they say, just as the Fathers bestowed privileges upon the throne of Old Rome on account of the fact that it was the capital of an empire, and were fully justified in doing so, owing, that is to say, to his being first in point of order among the rest of the Patriarchs. In exactly the same way and motivated by exactly the same object and aim, the one hundred and fifty most God-beloved bishops of the second Council have bestowed exactly the same and equal privileges of honor also upon the most holy throne of New Rome[112] — of Constantinople, that is to say — deeming it quite reasonable that this city, in view of the fact that it has been honored by being made the seat of an empire and of a senate, in a similar manner as has also (old) Rome, ought to enjoy the same and equal privileges in a similar manner as has also (old) Rome, and to be magnified herself also in exactly the same way as the latter is in connection with ecclesiastical matters, with the sole difference that old Rome is to be first in order, while new Rome is to be second in order. In addition to these things we decree and vote that only the Metropolitans (but not also the Bishops, that is to say, that are subject to the Metropolitans; for each of these is ordained by his own Metropolitan together with the bishops of the province, just as the divine Canons prescribe, especially c. VI of the First) shall be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of Constantinople. Not only are the Metropolitans of the said dioceses to be ordained by him, but indeed also the bishops located in barbarian regions that border on the said dioceses, as, for instance, those called Alani are adjacent to and flank the diocese of Pontus, while the Russians border on that of Thrace. Nevertheless, the said Metropolitans are not to be ordained by the Bishop of Constantinople just as he pleases and decides, but he must take the votes of the Synod under him into consideration as reported to him in accordance with established custom, and then ordain those men on whom the voters have agreed, either unanimously or as a majority.[113]”

    So it would seem things were as they should have been in America up until at least 1867: Russia, now autocephalous and an Orthodox Empire in its own right, flanking and evangelizing North America down to California. The question of the accuracy of this statement has the problem that we must retroject what should have been by what we believe what should be, because the situation was that no one else had a presence or asserted jurisdiction at the time. The Russian Church was the only Church in town. What happened at the time of the Alaskan Cession and the establishment of Holy Trinity at New Orleans, I’ll leave to a (soon, Lord willing) future post.

    1. Isa, I think you really need to get your own weblog! 🙂 I honestly can’t follow many of your responses, which seem at first to be a comment on the post they’re attached to, but then go somewhere entirely different. Please try to keep in mind that this site is mainly for discussing “what was” and not really for advocating some particular jurisdiction’s agenda. (I think you’ve made it clear that you’re in favor of the MP/OCA narrative!)

  8. My point is that, until at the very earliest 1865/1867, there is no narrative but the MP/OCA narrative. I welcome any documentation of the contrary on “what was.”

    Related to this is the major revision of history that the Tomos of 1908 represents, both at the time, and in its present repurcusions. The Tomos, I argue, did not appear in a vacuum, nor does it seem (I’ve only seen excerpts: I haven’t been able to get the full text) reflected only concerns over the “Diaspora.” I think it must be seen in the context of the Church politics in the Balkans and the Middle East at the time, North America being only a pawn in that chess game.

  9. But Isa, there is no narrative at all before the 1860s.

    Archb. Meletios’ account of his stand off with Archbishop Alexander makes it clear what was at the time (1918) was that they both had a definite and clear idea of what narrative they followed and the resulting canonical order that they expected the other to follow. Whereas Meletios was, it seems, following one out of a vacuum, Archbp. Alexander had a sustained narrative from 1794 at the latest.

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