Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine on ecumenism in 1907

Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine

Recently, I happened to revisit an essay by Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, published in St. Raphael’s Al Kalimat (The Word) magazine. I don’t have the precise date, but I think it was written in 1907. The whole article is on the subject of “Church Unity” — what, today, we would call “ecumenism.”

Irvine’s ecclesiology is interesting. Focusing just on his terminology, it is easy to mistakenly think that he has a rather “liberal” position on ecumenism. He speaks of Orthodoxy as being a “portion of the Church of Christ,” and he makes multiple references to the “undivided Church,” which implies that the Church was “divided” after 1054. But, when reading this sort of thing, it is essential to remember that Irvine was the product of late 19th century Anglicanism. While his underlying ecclesiology is indeed Orthodox, his vocabulary retains traces of Anglican ecclesiology, which can lead to confusion.

As a practical matter, Irvine was uncompromising. Unity, in Irvine’s view, meant that other Christian bodies had to conform to the Orthodox standard. The Orthodox Church, writes Irvine, is “the only one which has a right to dictate conditions of Unity if any approachment should be made to her.” Irvine flatly rejected any notion of papal supremacy: “The Church of Christ will never be brought together either under the lash of the Roman Curia or by the wiles of the need of an earthly universal, visible head, or on the ground of Papal claims to a Divine right of existence.” In fact, Irvine was so opposed to any compromise with Rome that he actually considered the fall of Constantinople, while tragic, to be ultimately providential:

We regard the destruction of the Eastern Empire by the Turk and Mahamadon as a providence of God to protect the Holy Eastern Church from the influence which might have been brought to bear upon her by the West. He knew what the result would be if there would not have remained any portion of His Holy Church steadfast “in the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship and in breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” There would have been left no part of His Church true to Antiquity if the East had followed in the wake of the West in adding new doctrines or accepting those which had been proclaimed from time to time by Rome.

It is Orthodoxy, declares Irvine, which is the “Mother Church of Christendom,” and has alone “neither added to nor taken from ‘the Faith once for all delivered unto the Saints.'” Irvine continues:

The chief factor in the unity of Christendom, therefore, is the Holy Orthodox Eastern Catholic Church. This Church is free from all the entanglements of Rome; free from the perplexing questions of the Anglican Reformation or the Continental Protestant Revolution. She has had neither hand nor part in any of these. Rome, of course, will still hold on to her presumptions. She will still blindly hold herself up as the centre of Catholicity and Christianity, but her stand in this matter will, as it is now apparent, be passed by; for as the dismembered portions of Western Christianity come together they will ask the question Where can the Ancient Faith be found unchanged and unadulterated? And learned and reasonable men will say as they have already said “it can be found alone in the Holy Eastern Church.”

According to Irvine, the Orthodox Christians in the West — and particularly in the United States — have a particularly serious responsibility. First, says Irvine, the Orthodox in America must remain true to the Church, “and under no circumstances whatever be induced to either join the Church of Rome, the Anglican Church or any Protestant Church.” Furthermore, Orthodoxy must adapt, externally, to its new home in America. Speaking as a Westerner, Irvine writes, “We want to see the Eastern Church in the dress of the language of England and America. We can never study her well in either Slavonic, Greek or in Syrian Arabic or in any other foreign language.” This leads to Irvine’s second point:

We want, therefore, the Holy Orthodox people to build Churches for their English speaking children and place at those altars priests who can speak the English language and look upon the Christians of the English speaking world as friends who are enquiring after “the truth as it is in Jesus.”

Finally, says Irvine, “We need here a class of priests of the Holy Orthodox Church who, however dear their native land may seem to be to them, and however great the temptation in a financial way, should regard the building up of the Holy Eastern Church in the United States and the proclaiming of her Ancient Faith and practices a greater duty than going home.” In other words, American Orthodoxy needs missionary, rather than mercenary, priests.

Especially at this early stage of his Orthodox career, Irvine viewed himself as a bridge between Western and Eastern Christianity. He closes his article with an anecdote about a recent Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York. Bishop Innocent Pustynsky of Alaska (not to be confused with the earlier St. Innocent) was the celebrant, and was assisted by Irvine and the cathedral dean St. Alexander Hotovitzky. An Episcopalian priest, Rev. Dr. Calbreth Perry, was allowed to stand in the sanctuary, wearing his Anglican vestments, and while he in no way concelebrated or communed with the Orthodox clergy, he was clearly treated with great honor. For Irvine, Perry’s presence was especially important. Perry had been Irvine’s Sunday School teacher, and was representative of those in the Episcopal Church who were not upset by Irvine’s Orthodox “reordination” in 1905.

Irvine argues that he — Irvine — is “the one man who could well explain the position of the Holy Eastern Church to a congregation of Anglican Priests. There ought to be such a gathering.” He goes on, “Both sides now, surely understand that there was never intercommunion and that, therefore, the reordination of Dr. Irvine was no offence but God’s way of giving a terrific shock to the dreadful sin of schism. May the effect of that shock raise us all up to the real sense of our duty.” To Irvine, that “duty” is the “reunion” of Christendom, which is nothing less than the conversion of other Christian groups to Orthodoxy, whether individually or institutionally.