Fr. Cherubim has left a considerable wake; the tip of the iceberg is in his contribution to a wave of committed Evangelicals deciding that being Orthodox is an indispensible aid to pursuing their cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church. The sycophant excitedly commented, “Yes; there was an article on this phenomenon in The Onion Dome. It was a bit like that article in The Onion, um, what was it… there was a woman, a strong woman, who overcame years of childhood abuse to become a successful porn star…”
The Western Rite: “Chaotic Neutral” Orthodoxy
When I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school , one of the cardinal rules surrounded alignments: “Lawful Good”, “Neutral Good”, “Chaotic Good”, “Lawful Neutral”, “True Neutral”, “Chaotic Neutral”, “Lawful Evil”, “Neutral Evil”, and “Chaotic Evil”. Each of these alignments was quite different from each other, but there was a common undergirding: no matter what alignment you play, you pick a course of action and you stick with it. You may be a hero or a villain; you may be believe in organized cooperation or the power of the individual, but whatever your choice may be, you are shirking due diligence as a role playing gamer unless you pick a course of action and stick with it.
Except for one exception. “Chaotic Neutral” isn’t exactly a matter of picking a course of action and sticking it with it. “Chaotic Neutral” role play can be described as “You can do anything you want, as long as you don’t do it twice,” and it is the closest alignment to acting like a hero one day and a villain the next. It has a bad reputation among gamers, perhaps because it disproportionately draws gamers who want to dodge proper handling of one cardinal aspect of game play, and quite possibly may dodge due diligence in other areas as well. And the Western Rite seems in large measure to be the “Chaotic Neutral” of Orthodoxy.
Q: Why do some Protestants keep trying to reconstruct the ancient Church?
A: The “Great Apostasy”
If you are trying to understand Protestant Christianity, one of the key features you should understand is the “Great Apostasy”, even if the term is unfamiliar to many Protestants today. Today the Internet is in working order, and regardless of what may happen in the future, it would be a strange thing to seek out venture capitalists now to help fund the great endeavor of reconstructing the Internet. It doesn’t make sense to “reconstruct the Internet” unless the Internet is dead, which it isn’t. And it also doesn’t make sense to try to “reconstruct the authentic ancient Church” unless the ancient Church died and left no surviving continuation into our day.
The Reformers asserted that there were serious problems in the Catholic Church they knew, and on that score many loyal Romans agreed with them. (For that matter, there are problems in Orthodoxy today—real problems.) What the Reformers asserted was something stronger: some time between the days of the Apostles and their days, the genuine Church had vanished altogether, on some accounts very soon after the Apostles passed away, and this belief impelled them to a great project of scholarly research and antiquarian reconstruction to reconstruct the (genuine) ancient Church. And so we have the Evangelical cottage industry of trying to reconstruct the ancient Church, which only makes sense if the Church had vanished and, in Orthodox terms, there was no living Tradition whose milk we should turn to nurse from. It is not an accident that the Reformers abandoned Church vestments in favor of scholar’s robes; understanding the Bible was no longer through reading the words of holy saints, but through secular antiquarian research. (This attitude still holds in the secular discipline of Bible scholarship today.)
Q: And why does the Western Rite keep trying to reconstruct Western Orthodoxy?
A: Their own version of the “Great Apostasy.”
The Western Rite’s project does make some sense here: the Western Church did in fact go through a Great Apostasy, and while I have never heard someone from the Western Rite find a Great Apostasy and say that the Orthodox Church has died out in Antiochian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Georgian, etc. living Tradition, none the less it is not a provocative thing to say that the West was once canonically Orthodox and has ceased to be that.
But in my conversations with Western Orthodox and what I have read, the plumbline of Orthodoxy is always a Protestant-style reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy from the time the West was Orthodox. Hence one asserts, for instance, that the vestments used follow the pattern of the time when East and West wore the same liturgical vestments, before the East changed. And this is not an isolated example; things keep coming up where the offered reason for a decision is that this is closest to what historical lessons tell us things were like in the ancient Church. It is a Protestant tune that is foreign to non-Western Rite Orthodox, and it keeps coming up.
Converts from the same tradition
One thing that concerns me is that Western Rite Orthodox are by and large not former Roman Catholics, but former Anglicans: one who understood Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism would be much more wary of former Anglicans practicing the Western Rite than former Romans. But let us waive that aside.
One point of spiritual danger for converts to the Orthodox Church is to overly associate with other converts from the same place, an arrangement that seems to invite subtle regressions to how the former confession places things. I have heard friends commenting how an Orthodox group of former Catholics was getting a bit unhealthy, and I have seen it in a mailing list of former Evangelicals. The Western Rite is largely a group of former Anglicans, and subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) bits and pieces of Anglicanism seem to keep cropping up.
The Western Rite was unknown until St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco started to create it on his own authority; it is not a continuous, living tradition preserving Orthodoxy, and here nature abhors a vacuum. Converts practicing Western Orthodoxy, not in a position to nurse from the bosom of a living rite of Eastern Orthodoxy, willingly or unwillingly regress to the milk of an Anglicanism whose Archbishop of Canterbury is a Druid. (Some have said that the Anglican way is not via media as proclaimed, but “cut, copy, and paste.” But let us leave that aside.)
Must I adopt a foreign culture?
Christ did not invent baptism, nor did John the Baptist. Baptism was practiced in Judaism for the reception of non-Jewish pagans into Judaism: it was bringing in someone who was unambiguously portrayed as an outsider. What Christ did that was distinctive was to say that baptism is for everyone, Jew as much as Greek pagan. We all start outside.
The introduction to Bishop NIKOLAI’s Prayers by the Lake speaks of “the Christ-fighting Slavic soul”: Russians and Serbs need to swim upstream. And I remember a discussion with one Serb on Facebook who was a devout Orthodox and corrected my assumption that he had grown up in Orthodoxy: he grew up an atheist and learned that the giants of Serbian history were all Orthodox, and then discovered something much bigger than nationalism when he discovered Holy Orthodoxy.
One of the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is that in Catholicism, philosophy and culture can be swapped in and out; Thomism is is a usual standby but Patriarch JOHN PAUL was a phenomenologist. In Orthodoxy, however, philosophy and culture are not something you change like a garment, and the Orthodox Church in its way keeps alive philosophies and cultures long after the West apostasized. Today’s Western culture boasts a millenium of apostasy and is scarcely closer to tenth century England than it is to present-day India. If you’re going to aim for what Western culture was when it was still Orthodox, you have at least as far to go as if you join an Orthodox Church and start to absorb its culture along the way.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but former Catholics and Protestants can only enter the Church as reconciled heretics; we may wish it were some other way, but former Anglicans (among others) are reconciled heretics who particularly need to submit to the Church as one shaped outside of her ways.
Is there any alternative?
Let’s leave aside generalities for just one moment and talk in the specific. My priest is a protopresbyter or archpriest within ROCOR, and a former Anglican deacon. He is glad that he was not immediately ordained when he entered the Orthodox Church, but spent some time as a layman growing Orthodox roots. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I have never heard him argue, in Western Rite style, “This book says that this is how something was done in the ancient Church, so we should implement a program of change to restore this part of ancient Christianity.”
Not that he has any particular desire to throw out the old; he’s rather conservative. But one particular decision he has made is interesting. As well as being a priest he is a physician, a doctor who treats patients at the extremes of pain and suffering, and he has brought together an icon shrine devoted to one of the “holy unmercenary physicians”, saints who healed without charge. And he has placed, very near together, an icon of the ancient Roman St. Panteleimon next to a hand-painted icon of the twentieth century Blessed St. Luke. Another icon shows all of the holy unmercenaries across all the centuries, and as it so happens, the specific saint the corner is named after is St. Panteleimon. From the same fount as this icon corner comes a priest who will accept wisdom from a saint of any century, and again, I have never heard him argue, “This is what my book research says about how things were way back several centuries ago, or nineteenth century Russia or whatever, so we should change what we are doing to reconstruct the past.”
Looking at all the reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy that looms so large in the Western Rite, and seeing such an incredibly Anglican demeanor among Anglican converts who do not seem to really see themselves as reconciled heretics, wild olive branches grafted onto the Vine, leads me to want to say, “Oops… Could the Western Rite please try again?”