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Friday, December 5, A.D. 2008
Of Patriarchs and Bishops

Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and all Russia died this morning. Memory Eternal!

You can read his obituary on ITAR-TASS and in the Times.

I found Metropolitan Hilarion of New York expressing what I and other children of the Russian Orthodox Church thought when we learnt the news: “It is noteworthy that Metropolitan Laurus and Patriarch Alexy both reposed this year, having already achieved the main task of their lives.” For Metropolitan Lauras died seven months ago, and the re-establishment of communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad occurred last year, ending eighty years of separation due to Communist theomachy and to the repression of the Russian Church.

A council of all the bishops and of representative priests and laymen must elect a successor. It will be the first time that a united Russian Church elects a patriarch since the patriarchate was reestablished in A.D. 1917, with the election of Saint Tikhon. As such, we hope that it will finally put the Soviet years to sorrowful but instructive memory.

It is odd that the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and the Orthodox Church in America all lost their head bishop this year.

Several weeks ago, I wrote on boring Church politics, where I mentioned that Church elections are not that important—no primate will succeed in betraying the apostolic tradition. Even Sergius generally safeguarded the faith. However, I also mentioned that the prospect of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk as the next patriarch worries me; for I fear what headaches he would cause. I also wonder how strong the new bonds between R.O.C.O.R. and Moscow actually are—someone like Kirill may exacerbate tensions in the Church Abroad and cause more parishes to go into schism. Let us hope and pray that the council elects a godly man who will shepherd the Russian Church well.

Speaking of primates, I just read this week an interesting speech by the O.C.A.‘s new Metropolitan Jonah, given earlier this year when he was still an abbot, which concerns the role of bishops in general and primates in particular—“Episcopacy, Primacy, and the Mother Churches: A Monastic Perspective.” It is worth reading.

It is refreshing to hear a bishop of such standing speak frankly about issues, though he delivered them while still an abbot. His words about Constantinople are rather shocking—shocking that he actually said them; for everyone knows them to be true. I also appreciate the speech’s Christocentric message and its emphasis on the pastoral role—the telos, really—of Christian bishops. On the whole, it is an insightful and powerful message, and the O.C.A. is fortunate to have such a bishop on the eagle.

However, there is an element of Protestantizing within the O.C.A., possibly from the O.C.A.‘s acclimatization to the religious culture of the United States, as has most definitely occurred among American Roman Catholics . . . you know, the pope’s Calvinists. Metropolitan Jonah’s words in this speech remind me, at certain points, of anti-clerical rants among Protestants. In “The Episcopacy: A Monastic Perspective,” he sounds awfully close to Seventh Day Adventists. Self-criticism is important, but I fear that his dismissal of seventeen centuries of ecclesial life, with respect to the bishops, goes a bit too far.

Undoubtedly, it is easier to live the life of the Gospel as marginalized, persecuted fringe elements. When society becomes Christian, leaders—and regular folks—have to juggle the demands of their faith and the demands of survival in a political community. The inherent difficulty in managing this tension of responsibilities is what underlies Christians’ rejection of Christendom, from Tertullian down to our own day. Yet, such difficulty also indicates an opportunity, and it was this vision of a Christian polity that inspired some of the greatest men of the last two millennia. Saving one’s soul in an isolated cell has its own challenges, but it is not, and it cannot be, the only Christian life. With any scenario, from Diocletian persecution to imperial “symphony,” there are challenges, temptations, and blessings.

Metropolitan Jonah’s cheerleading of the O.C.A. is also somewhat unfortunate. He says that with the O.C.A.‘s autocephaly in 1970, all other jurisdictions became uncanonical. Yet, the whole situation, including, one could argue, that very granting of autocephaly, was uncanonical. The hellish complexity of the twentieth century is not easily reduced to the O.C.A.‘s fancied image. A truly autocephalous local national Church will only be possible in Western lands with the consent of all, or almost all, of its Orthodox Christians and of the other autocephalous Churches around the world. Political machinations are part of the secularization of ecclesial authority that Metropolitan Jonah’s speech condemns, and, yet, are we to believe that Moscow’s tome of autocephaly in 1970 should have magically cleared up the horrible mess that resulted from the Bolshevik revolution?

I do not wish to insult anyone from the O.C.A. Good, pious Christians dealt with the unprecedented crisis in various ways, and it would behoove us to refrain from judging one another. However, when the O.C.A. proclaims itself the real representation of Orthodoxy in the Americas, it implicitly states that everyone else erred in their handling of the twentieth century and that the appropriate, canonical choice for everyone now is to climb aboard the Syosset ecclesiological train.

It will take much time and maturity to rebuild a unified Orthodox structure from the wreck that the Communists wrought. American Christians who have drunk too much Samuel Adams, literally and figuratively, of the beer and of the man, need to focus their energy on building the true unity of the Church—in the Christian life, not in external administrative organs, while crying about self-determination and repeating the slogans of that wretched blasphemer Thomas Paine. Until Orthodox Christians in America put aside their ethnocentrism, their pseudo-papism, their pseudo-Protestantism, their progressive and American hostility toward tradition and authority, their wariness of monasticism and the ascetic life, and their loyalties to their ancestral homelands that they put ahead of the Church, we shall not see an American Orthodox Church, and that is a good thing.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, December 5, Anno Domini 2008
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