SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY

The Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the Unity of Orthodoxy, what does that mean?  We commemorate the end of a 100 year controversy over our reverence to icons with human images.  Orthodoxy triumphed over those who did not approve icons in the year 843 – nearly 1200 years ago.  You can still see, today, in many old and not currently active churches in Asia Minor, the icon areas in the church, such as behind the alter, or the Pantocratora, plastered over and painted with geometric designs.  It is a stark reminder of a very real conflict that caused many decades of bitterness, violence and division.  But, is that all the Triumph of Orthodoxy means – or should mean?

After the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection, first his disciples, and then more and more men and women, spread the message of his birth, life, teachings, death and Resurrection.  Families and small communities gathered to hear and celebrate the message, often in someone’s home.  How this small beginning grew, over the centuries, into the large church organization, the priesthood, the church edifices we have today, is mind-boggling. 

The early church faced brutal opposition from the Roman Empire.  Many were martyred.  We are very familiar with that.

We are probably less familiar with the many opposing and contradictory forces within the church itself.  In the first century of growth the church community struggled to frame its beliefs, to keep the truth from fragmenting and being overwhelmed.  Without attributing any bad faith to anyone, there were many – priests, monks, governmental rulers and officials, and simply people – who were listening, thinking and talking.  There were many “councils” of the church to explore what was truth and what heresy or simply misguided thought.  We don’t even recognize all of these councils as official councils of the Orthodox Church.  Some of them, both recognized and not, were fraught with attempts to control who was present and could be heard – from kidnaping, to violence, to more benign forms of vote-packing.  Some were fraught with debate so arcane that today we would have to struggle to understand the differing positions.  We celebrate, at another time, the Nicene Council, which finalized our statement of beliefs in the Creed.

The last major controversy of the early church – and which also involved a great deal of violence wreaked on people and churches – was the icon controversy.  Its end was recognized as a “unification” of the Orthodox peoples and churches.

Are we a unified Orthodox Church today?  The answer is quite clearly no.  And, we are not even not addressing the splitting off of many churches in the first 500 years over various of the wordings that the councils fought over – such as the Assyrians and the Copts.  Nor are we addressing the splitting off of the Roman Catholic Church in 1054, again over a word problem with the Creed – the filioque.  We are also ignoring the fact that many of those fragmentations of the church had political and economic motivations in addition to religious ones. 

Our church has grown, from the disciples, and then growing numbers of individuals in communities, to the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, as well as 9 other autocephalous churches – Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland and Albania.  Russia has not only the Russian Orthodox branch, but the Orthodox Church of America Russians who did not want to be associated with a church it viewed as run by, or oppressed by,  a Communist government.   Each of these churches has its own structure, priesthood, hierarchy, finances, language, music and ethnic traditions.

Immigrants from each of these older Orthodox churches settled in Western Europe, North and South America and Australia.  Those immigrants established churches in their old images and languages wherever they settled.  Many of these immigrants married spouses who were not originally Orthodox, and had children who were native born.  All of these churches today have members who are several generations removed from the original immigrants, and who are, first and foremost, citizens and natives of their ancestors’ adopted countries.  In addition, each of these churches is home to other converts who were never associated, by marriage or relations, with the original ethnic heritage.  Many of these members have been Orthodox for a generation or more, so they can hardly be called converts.  Our tendency to think of anyone not of the original ethnic heritage as a convert is both wrong and divisive. 

Finally, add to this mix the fact that there are many Orthodox, both native born and more recent converts, from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and other areas.  Many of these full-fledged and dedicated Orthodox Christians, like the earlier immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe and Greece, are moving to Western Europe, North and South America and Australia.  The Orthodox churches that already exist –  for example, here in the United States – are not of the newer immigrants’ ethnic origin.  Few people would suggest that every Orthodox who immigrates to this, or another country, should found a new Orthodox church of their country of origin.  And, what of the Orthodox already here – again, for example, in the United States –  who are not of Greek, Russian or Eastern European background?  Should they leave our churches and establish their own?  The very idea is bizarre and un-Christian. 

Existing ethnic Orthodox churches in the United States and elsewhere would be poorer for not being enriched by the contributions and fellowship of other Orthodox of every background.  Those Orthodox who are not of the ethnic heritage of a presently existing Orthodox church would be poorer for losing the incredible beauty and spiritually uplifting services and music that the ethnic churches have built over hundreds of years.  

We are hearing discussions today among churches and laity in North and South America about becoming autocephalous, under one hierarchy, or one for North and one for South America.   We could be, but are not, hearing serious discussions of even wider Orthodox unity. 

There is not a great deal of dissent from the view that unity of all Orthodox is – in theory – a good idea.  It would be very difficult to disagree with that goal.  What unity means, however, is open to many interpretations.  There is no one right answer to the question.  One would hope the answer would accommodate and celebrate all the diversity in language and music and tradition that is Orthodoxy, without also excluding the numerous and growing number of Orthodox who do not share the ethnic roots of the older churches.  One would hope that those discussing the issue would not assume that exploration of the issue would pit those who love the services and traditions of one ethnic church against Orthodox who do not share that particular ethnicity. Many people who are not Greek or Russian, for example, love and are moved by the Greek or Russian services and liturgical music.  Clearly, there are changes and accommodations that, with good will, reasoned discussion, and, most of all, faith, might be welcomed by all of the Orthodox community.

As for the goal of unity –  people and organizations are suspicious of change.  Change means things will be something different from what they are now, but one is never sure what that will be, or what will evolve from it.  Change is, for that reason, often faced with opposition, fear and jealous guarding of the status quo.  One can never predict an outcome, but one ought to trust that when one is working in good faith – and with faith in God – toward a goal that has in the past, and today, been recognized as worthy of celebrating, unity of the Orthodox, that things will work out for the better.

Although we are today celebrating the end of the iconoclastic controversy and the unity of the Orthodox thereafter, we are not a church frozen in the past.  We, who are Orthodox, cannot ignore the present.  We are not unified as Orthodox.  We need to open our hearts and minds to working toward a new level of unity – whatever that may turn out to be.