"Thy fate is the common fate of all," the hirsute Longfellow once wrote: "Into each life some rain must fall."
Here it is, Bright Week, and after our Gospel processions yesterday one of the faithful brandished a folded page from our metrop's daily, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- from the April 15th edition, in particular.
For a moment, I imagined that the good editors decided to run an article on Orthodoxy in honor of Pascha.
But instead of meditating on the glories of Christ descending into the center of death and revolutionizing time, the article saw fit to speculate on the dull mysteries and mind-numbing eccentricities of Orthodox ecclesiastical unity.
My wife -- who keeps herself better informed about these matters -- tells me that the article is making the rounds on the fb and tweeting circuit. It might have even appeared on Tumblr and Reddit by now.
Now, I must say that the article is not nearly as sullen as the ray of sunshine published by the New York Times, which runs under the rather strained metaphorical title "Ripples on the Surface of Easter." Instead of saying Christos Voskrese, which would have done the Gray Lady some spiritual good, she smirks rather about a recent rant by Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus and about the airbrushed rapture of a Breguet Réveil du Tsar (very pretty, that: I'm obviously in the wrong jurisdiction) that had somehow perched itself on the hierarchical wrist of Patriarch Kirill I.
Here in Pittsburgh, where we are neither so cosmopolitan nor hard-bitten, we are treated to an article written by a local reporter. I must also say, here, that you can tell you live in one of the greater Orthodox communities of the Diaspora, when you have a writer of the quality of Ann Rodgers, who is so much better than the usual religion writer that, when given an Orthodox assignment and he finds to his dismay two more pieces of the Cross than the usual two, writes like a deer staring at halogen lamps on a Pennsylvania highway late at night in the mountain fog.
I don't know how she did it, but Ms. Rodgers was able to quote, in a single article, the likes of His Grace Bishop Melchisedek, layman Cal Oren of Baltimore, Charles Ajalat Esquire of Southern California, Associate Director Andrew Walsh of the Leonard Greenberg Center at Trinity College (Hartford CT), Rev. Josiah Trenham (media relations officer for the Assembly of Bishops), Executive Director George Matsoukas of the OCL (you need no legend here), His Eminence Metropolitan Savas of GOA Pittsburgh, President Rev. Radu Bordelanu of the Orthodox Theological Society in America and Duquesne professor.
How she got around to these voices I cannot understand. One thing is clear, however: Ms. Rodgers is much better connected than I.
I will not bury my negative prejudice under a bushel: I'm gonna let it shine, as the song goes, and won't let Satan blow it out either. I have never gotten excited about unity or union. But seeing as I got this article on Bright Monday, I thought I'd give the hopeful (and jejeune, I might add) paragraphs a once-over to see if the environment's changed for the better, and if I had moved into a better mood.
All in all, I found some interesting dreams/hopes/aspirations/beliefs articulated in the various interviews. I will list these cognitions (or logismoi), in the order of their appearance in the article, under the heading, "Union Benefits."
... or, "Nice Things that Will Happen If Orthodox America Is Subsumed Under a Single Administrative Structure"
1. Administrative Unity will establish the proper canonical practice of one bishop residing in and ruling from one city.
First of all, I am thrilled that there is so much concern for the canonical quality of our administration. Here in Pittsburgh we have four Orthodox bishops, I think. And in New York there are nine. This must present an insufferable problem, as most unionists quickly don their Cassandra costume and hint darkly about the creation of "unnecessary conflict."
So I will segue quickly into the second benefit:
2. Administrative Unity will prevent unnecessary conflict.
There: let's just let that sentence stand bleakly in the space of black and white for a second. Or, if you'd like, let's turn it around to savor the sense of the proposition: "Unnecessary conflict will be prevented by Administrative Unity." I wonder about the Apostles, in light of this assertion. No one doubts their canonicity, and they probably subsisted under a sort of Administrative Unity: was conflict prevented, even after Pentecost? Or: how about the history of unification projects in protestant America? What was the fruit of those endeavors?
3. Administrative Unity will erase the ethnic divisions that disrupt the American Orthodox community.
This statement, too, is abrupt and looks all the worse when it just stands there, frail and twisting like a single blade of grass in the breeze.
I would like to say something about ethnicity here, if only to get it off my chest. First of all: we all talk about ethnicity but more often than not, we mean a lot of different things by this word. Some people mean by "ethnic" the rather comic and vain practice of speaking a language that is not understood well by even the speaker, and is meant to exclude undesirable outsiders and to exude a level of tribal membership that hasn't really been gained yet. Others mean, by the same term, a collection of customs that might be unnecessary, but really do help with the experience and transmission of the faith.
Second: a person's family-of-origin (a dull term borrowed from my old family theory days) has a much greater impact on his thoughts and behaviors than does his ethnicity. His or her media immersion probably wields an even greater force. A coach has more moral authority, nowadays, in a young man's life than does a priest, especially if his locker room is housed in a multi-million dollar program.
All this to say that there is a dizzy array of many, many more ethnicities and tribal associations -- none of which are remotely benevolent or theological -- and these are the real bogeys that disrupt the American Orthodox community today.
4. Administrative Unity will enable the American Orthodox Church "to speak with one voice."
Well, that would matter if anyone were listening. If we ever get around to unifying and setting up house on K Street in DC, then we will find out for real whether a tree falling in the forest really makes a sound.
What is this "voice" about which there is so much concern? Will this disembodied voice, thundering from Mt. Cyber and in glossy four-color zines, say stuff like "Abortion is a sin! Racism is a sin! Co-habitation and sleeping around are sins! Mountaintop-removal, pollution and environmental degradation are sinful! Wall Street hyper-finance that siphons money away from the poor is wicked! And an Orthodox blessing on homosexual marriage has the proverbial chance of a snowball in a certain eschatological state!"
No, rather, one will be more likely tasked to a long day's journey into the night of reading endless dreary moral science treatises, without a scrap of humor or immediacy.
There will be no active voice.
5. Administrative Unity will standardize pastoral practice.
There are a number of reasons why pastoral practice is inconsistent in Orthodoxy, and in American Orthodoxy in particular. One is that "economia" has been practiced differently in different jurisdictions. As a result, now, we have different sets of precedents that have only gained in authority over time.
I think this is a surmountable problem, as many of these ethnic traditions are losing their force. It used to be, in my own community, that the odd practice of "First Holy Communion" was observed (and insisted upon) with no small amount of stridency. Nowadays, the practice has the status more of a vapor than of a reality.
But another problem remains; and it is the very old problem of church members whose money or social standing gives them an authority that is completely at odds with their spiritual state. This is probably the main reason why the real catechumenate evaporated from history, and why second and third divorces were ever countenanced.
The first task in any pastoral practice is not to look for consistence or standardization. It is to establish faithfulness. It is to root pastoral practice in deification. The priesthood without deification is a scary, depressing and haunted thing.
Pastoral practice has meaning only in terms of Holy Tradition, the fidelity of the clergy and the penitence of the faithful. Any other rubric will produce only digression and degeneracy.
And Administrative Unity is powerless to fix that.
6. Administrative Unity will save us money.
O. M. G.
My sardonic reading of Western Religious History -- particularly American Religious History -- makes me suspect that the opposite is true. Administrative unity will end up being much more expensive than the inefficient structures we have now.
Permit me merely to quote a passage from 1 Kingdoms: This will be the custom of the king who shall reign over you. He will take your sons … and your daughters … the best of your fields … a tenth of your grain … But the people were unwilling to listen to Samuel; and they said to him, "No, rather it is that we want a king to be over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, and our king will judge us and go out before us and fight our battles" (1 Kingdoms viii.11-20).
A good friend was airily wandering in his thoughts about union, dreaming about the day: "Just think, Jonathan, if we all got together we wouldn't need so many camps or seminaries or chanceries. Think of the money we'd save."
Just ask the Catholics how the wholesale closure of elementary and secondary schools is working out for them on the long term.
By contrast, I suggest to you that we don't have nearly enough seminaries or camps or monasteries (perhaps there are enough chanceries). But if seminaries would leave off the professionalization standard as dangled in front of them by the mainline protestants, then every single metropolis ought to have a pragmatic seminary that is semi-monastic in practice.
In the tragic-comic history of administration culture, money is never saved by unification. "Unification," in the understanding of administration, can only be meant as "aggrandizement."
7. Administrative Unity will save us.
This statement was never said out loud, but it was sure intended. It lurked as the rather neurotic insecurity at the nearly-unconscious edges of the interviewed speech.
I bear honest pity toward this position. I have no patience, whatsoever, for any agenda that has anything to do with power or domination. If anyone is attempting hegemony or aggrandizement under the sign of unity (for the sake of the hoi polloi), then they will find out the hard way that nominalism is the only universal that does not exist.
But some people worry that American Orthodoxy, to survive, must unify.
I always wanted my daughters to never have to worry about survival. I am happy that my wife and I probably succeeded in this regard, because childhood should not be burdened with this worry.
Well. Permit me to quote another verse: If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matthew vii.11)
Since when did God permit us to worry about survival? Even the survival of His Church in this time, in this place?
I do not oppose unity in the least. I pray the petition, "… and for the union of them all" with gusto.
But this sort of union we pray for is already present. It is the union of koinonia, rooted in the Eucharist.
It is a pragmatic, practical union that permits me to serve at other Orthodox temples. It encourages my parish to cooperate with our neighborhood GOA parish in providing a summer church school to the community.
I am willing to stipulate that an administrative unity would be convenient, but it is not a necessary objective that must be achieved before the realization of its organic manifestation.
In fact, premature administrative unity might turn out to be injurious, and just might end up producing disunity and even alienation. It is not difficult for me to imagine that a single administration might founder itself in the bubonic mud of our present, and very stupid, national political discourse.
(I will tell you this despondent news, if it is any news at all: the ranks of the Orthodox priesthood are now dividing up into clumps of political partisans, in dilineations very similar to the junior high cafeteria quality of rhetoric one meets in the protestant clergy as a whole. I have seen too many shrill alarums, too many recitations of talking points, too many epithets, too much wealth-and-power protection, too much affiliation with political thinking that derives from patently antichristian thinking.)
I can see, in my spotty crystal ball, a statement by an American Patriarch on economic justice (with which I would completely agree) exciting choirs of Facebook sacerdotal refutations, some of which might turn positively scatological. The raspberries and catcalls would be breathtaking.
I can see, even more clearly (from the patterns of American religious history) the usual institutional degeneration in dogma and morals. In American history, religious unions have always tended toward doctrinal ambiguity and moral laxity.
We cannot assume that we would escape this sinkhole.
We will not.
I can see this because I do not see, in unionist statements, much mention of repentance or deification. I see all sorts of reference to self-rule and autonomy and independence, which are sort of embarrassing terms in the context of Holy Tradition.
It is entirely possible that culture demands of us a single organization. We are, as one of the experts in the article opined, "hard to understand." Our Greekness and Russianness get mistaken for denominations. Or so he said.
The marketplace, perhaps, wants our institutional unification and our "tidying up" more than the Spirit does. We would become, then, a more manageable population, and the potential market would be much easier to tap. Think of the publishing and trinketing opportunities. The prospect of producing conferences and retreats under the rubric of a unified administration might by itself make all this "worth" while.
But I really do not care what the world thinks about the Church. The Body of Christ has ever been confusing to people who would rather see institutions than fellowship.
Real unity will prevail in America after prayer and fasting, and the practice of Holy Tradition, and more monasteries than we have now.
An administrative union that is established before, or even apart from this condition, is a union that will, unfortunately, not be real.
Unfortunately, that is precisely where we are headed. Gravity has ordained it so.