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Sunday, November 2, A.D. 2008
Boring Church Politics

Andrew was my O.C.A. news source, and without him around, I do not learn of the latest multi-jurisdictional news in a timely manner. So, I was a bit shocked to learn that Metropolitan Herman of the Orthodox Church in America retired at the beginning of September. Evidently, the O.C.A. has had a difficult time lately with administrative incompetence and corruption. The main financial official pocketed Church money or something like that, and a report released last month blames several bishops with the mess, including Metropolitan Herman. The Metropolitan was already experiencing health problems, too. So, Metropolitan Herman retired, and the O.C.A. will elect a new primate soon. There is talk on O.C.A. sites of getting a bishop from the Moscow Patriarchate to become the new metropolitan or of electing the Antiochians’ American exarch, Metropolitan Phillip, to head the O.C.A. in a move to integrate further the two jurisdictions.

What I find interesting in all of this is my general lack of interest. I am interested, but in the same way that I might be interested in a German election. Perhaps, it is due to my parochialism; it is somebody else’s issue. However, the leadership of the O.C.A. has an effect on Orthodox relations in the Americas, and as such, it does affect me. Yet, it does not affect me much.

I think that the real reason that I do not care that much for Church politics is my assurance that such elections are not very consequential. Christians elect shepherds, not architectural designers or messianic saviors. We already have human nature, and Christ has already shown himself to us. Thus, a bishop should lead the flock by tending to its needs and by keeping the wolves away. There is no need to create anew the sheep.

The passion and zeal involved in secular politics have manifested at times in Church politics, as well. During the controversies of the early councils, theological disagreements trickled down to the fish market. Cities had riots during the Arian controversy—riots! Yet, those days are long done. For the Orthodox, it does not really seem to matter who gets power where. The faith is the faith, and the election of Bishop Basil rather than Bishop Theodoret does not entail much of a difference. That is not to say that one candidate may not be a better overseer for the flock than another. However, “new directions” and “change” do not gain much traction in Orthodox Church politics.

The charismatic leader of a latest-mutation-Protestant movement may attack contemporary Orthodox sobriety as a sign of deadened faith and worldly complacency. He, instead, promises to stir things up in winning souls for Christ, while the crowd shouts “Amen.” Yet, I think that such whirlpools of human emotion are perhaps signs of things less promising than being on fire for Jesus. Insecurity often ignites heightenend passions, and theological insecurity is more likely to happen in the circles of the charismatic Protestant than among us—ironic, given their taste for salvational security. However, one could look to the Old Believers or the Old Calendarist movements for an Orthodox equivalent to this sort of insecurity—where the pious think that the world has abandoned God as society goes whoring after idols. The twentieth century was a heavy cross for Orthodox Christians, given the tyranny of Communism, the stresses and persecutions that occurred during and followed the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration, and the onslaught of secularism throughout the world. We, therefore, do see some signs of stress, especially among those who worry about ecumenism. I also am concerned about secularizing and modernizing forces—you can detect their mischief even in Orthodox circles. However, the threat is insignificant compared to what is happening in other religious traditions. Consider how the upheaval of the 1960’s disturbed the Latins—where the immovable appeared to have moved itself. The confusion of that era remains to this day. No similar trauma has happened to the Orthodox; the real threats were external, while the inner threats were minimal. In Orthodox Church politics, nothing is at stake. Our interest should be in living lives modeled after Christ, and theological stability facilitates such.

That is not to say that I am hunky dory with the state of affairs. Constantinople almost always makes me wince; the latest gathering of primatial bishops there was nauseating in its international N.G.O. jargon. The petty turf battles between Moscow and Constantinople, among others, are disheartening. The creeping secularization of the Greeks and the Westernizing of the Arabs in America are painful, too. I am concerned about Moscow, especially now after R.O.C.O.R.‘s reconciliation with the M.P. About half of the statements issued by Moscow’s external relations bishop Kirill strike fear into me when I consider that he could be the next patriarch. For example, consider his meeting with Castro:

Speaking about the recent consecration of the first Russian Church in Cuba conducted by Metropolitan Kirill, Castro noted that the capital of his country “has been enriched with a church worthy of a prestigious Russian Orthodox Church.” According to the Cuban leader, it is an irrefutable proof of Cuba’s respect to “one of the fundamental principle of human rights, which is consonant to the profound and radical socialist revolution.”

Of course, this is Castro’s spin on their meeting, but it makes me wonder. Perhaps, Kirill is merely following in the footsteps of Byzantine diplomacy, but I suspect much worse when he speaks like a Hegelian or a postmodern “multipolar” multiculturalist. I start to worry about the Soviet Man’s intellectual formation and how such may spell trouble for us long after U.S.S.R. There are many legitimate critiques of the West from an Orthodox perspective; I certainly do not expect a Russian bishop to extol capitalism, liberalism, and the American way. Yet, such criticism should ring closer to Saint John Chrysostom’s sermons rather than to the language of the Marxists. Solzenitzen was no cheerleader for Western society, but he spoke against its flaws as a man with an Orthodox phronema. I expect no less of our bishops; it is their job to articulate such a vision to their people.

Anyway, I am not oblivious to the dangers of electing unworthy men to the episcopate. However, such dangers seem quite remote. Constantinople is no longer the standard-bearer that it once was, and Kirill is, as I understand it, on the fringe within the Russian hierarchy. The renewal of Orthodoxy in the lands that survived theomachy is a promising sign for this generation, and if the hell of the twentieth century could at most muster up the so-called “Pan-Orthodox Congress” of A.D. 1923, then I think that it is safe to say that widespread apostasy will not happen anytime soon.

No, Church politics will remain boring. Let us entreat the Lord that they remain so.

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, November 2, Anno Domini 2008
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