My ignorance often surprises me. Until this week, I did not know who Joseph Julian Overbeck was, and I was similarly unaware of how old certain ecumenical tendencies were. For the last week, I have casually been reading about the history of relations between the Orthodox and the Anglicans. I have found some surprising discoveries.
For example, after Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky) of the Metropolia broke relations with the Karlovtsy Synod in the mid 1920’s, he tried to establish an autonomous church in the United States, the American Orthodox Catholic Church. He charged Aftimios Ofiesh, the bishop of Brooklyn and the successor to Bishop Rafael, to carry out this task. However, Platon withdrew his support for the new church after American Episcopalians found it objectionable, as they considered themselves to be the senior church in America. This indicates the degree to which the leadership of the Metropolia respected (and, might we wonder, recognized) an Anglican ecclesiological claim. How some things never change . . .
From what I have read, Saint Tikhon and many other bishops and priests had very cordial relations with the Anglicans in the relative past. The Anglicans were extremely generous to the Orthodox in this country and even globally, as Britain and her children ascended to being the most powerful political and economic forces in the world. Anglicans assisted Greece after Greek independance from the Ottomans, Anglicans developed cordial relations with imperial Russia, Anglicans allowed Orthodox Christians in America to use their facilities for worship and for community functions, and Anglicans sent medical and educational supplies to Orthodox Christians in the Dar al-Islam. Yet, do such friendly relations necessarily lead to a willingness to blind oneself to ecclesiological inconvenient facts? The most modernist bishops like Platon or Meletios (Metaxakis) of Constantinople leant toward recognizing the Anglicans as part of the Church along the lines of Anglican branch theory. Yet, the cynical side of me also wonders why these very same modernists were so power hungry in their episcopal activities and likewise had a history of rebellion against the authority of their superiors and conciliar decisions, not to mention the tradition of the Church. Were the wealthier and more powerful Anglicans simply a tool for these men’s own worldy ambitions? Were they willing to trade the continuity and doctrine of the Church for money and prestige? Of course, I cannot judge their hearts, but their actions should caution us in our assessment of their work.
However, the story of Joseph Julian Overbeck marks quite a contrast to that of Platon, though the partisans of the West might accuse him of selling himself to the East for the same reasons. The readiness to accuse betrayal might depend on one’s perspective. According to his OrthodoxWiki entry, Overbeck was German professor and a priest in the Roman Church. In the mid nineteenth century, he left the Roman Church and began attending Lutheran services. After studying Ephraim the Syrian, he began to explore Orthodoxy, to which he eventually converted. Following his conversion, Overbeck attempted to establish what we now call the Western rite. He wanted to refound the Western Churches that had departed the apostolic faith.
I discovered Overbeck through his Catholic Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism, A Word about Intercommunion between the English and the Orthodox Churches, published in A.D. 1866. Google Books also has a copy of it. I was shocked to learn how the ecumenical themes have not changed. Of course, the ecumenical issues between East and West present themselves given the history and doctrines of the Orthodox, Rome, and the Protestants, but I was surprised that already in Overbeck’s time, men were discussing the same issues in the same way as they continue to do so.
The nineteenth century was the historical century. The West began an intense search for its roots—an endeavor that had been largely ignored for the previous centuries of “Enlightenment.” You can see such a movement in the arts with Romanticism and in the celebration of national and of folk traditions. Consider the amazing developments in philology, archaeology, and hermeneutics in the age of Schleiermacher, Schliemann, Grimm, Newman, and Hugo. Even the Scottish Calvinists bequeathed us their monumental Ante-Nicene Fathers collection.
I knew about the intense interest of nineteenth century Europeans and Americans in their history, but I was not aware that the resourcement manifested in interest in the Orthodox Church. I assumed that such did not come about until the twentieth century, but I was wrong. Though Overbeck was a German, he found kindred spirits in the Oxford Movement. His OrthodoxWiki article notes that one hundred twenty-two men involved in the Oxford Movement joined Overbeck in requesting the Russian Church to establish a Western rite in Orthodoxy. The article also mentions how the Greeks were quite wary of the idea and that their opposition effectively stopped the movement. However, the Russians and the Arabs did establish a Western rite, but it has remained rather marginal and small. The Greeks continue to dismiss the possibility of Western rite Orthodoxy, and most Western converts to Orthodoxy abandon their ancestral liturgical forms when they ecclesially orient themselves.
What is dispiriting in this is that Overbeck seems to have been wrong about the spiritual hunger of disaffected Westerners. I would like to believe that theologically curious and intellectual honest Protestants would necessarily convert to Orthodoxy, or at least to Rome like Newman, once they were exposed to the apostolic faith. For it appears that they pine in their sectarian chaos and faddish theological confusion for the solid wholeness of the continuously lived ancient Christian way, delivered to the apostles and guarded by the faithful. I fancied that only residual anti-Roman bigotry and lack of opportunity condemned Protestants—and confused modernist Roman Catholics ignorant of the riches within their own tradition—to remain adrift in a sea of trendy superficial religious gimmicktry, resigned apathy, or resentful agnosticism. However, the English speaking world has had several generations of freedom and of opportunity to escape the spiral of apostasy and of heresy so rampant in their societies. Most people would rather live horizontal, hedonist lives, and the religiously committed minority seems content to ignore the theological contradictions of their ever mutating “denominations.” Even those folks seemingly most ripe for conversion, such as the Anglo-Catholics or various communities of traditionalist Old Catholics, appear to indulge in the sectarianism so prevalent in the so called episcopi vagantes cultures. Overbeck and Newman, who opted to swim the Tiber, are not typical men. They offer no omen for the future. The future for so many Western Christians, it seems, will be a never ending cycle of hustlers and charlatans peddling heresies like the gospel of wealth, the “living church,” or the “emerging church.” Like perpertual adolescents, these Protestants rebel without end, all the time trying to find their way home but too ignorant, too independent, and too proud to answer the call of their fathers.