Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Western Orthodoxy?

I like to think of myself as a relatively balanced person. I mean, I can be idealistic at times, even something of a curmudgeon, but I think I usually do come back to reality at some point. Case in point--when we were trying to pick names for our first child, it was almost impossible to agree on a strictly biblical name. The main reason is that I wanted the name pronounced "correctly," not according to whatever warped English spelling and pronunciation had become commonplace. I now realize it was a silly thing. I still like to pronounce names correctly, especially if they're not very well-known, but I'm not going to jump all over someone else for following the norm. I also have what I think is a healthier sense of the fluidity involved. Pronunciations change over time and place, even if they don't move from one language to another. And sometimes it's just an educated guess what's original. Besides, the main point is that we all know what or whom we're talking about.

On the issue of American Orthodoxy, I suppose I have my preferences. I'll freely admit that I was attracted to Orthodoxy in part by the foreignness, or more specifically, the Easternness, of its worship. I don't like the idea of Western rite Orthodoxy--not that I've ever tried it (or have any specific plan to do so). I guess maybe the idea of reviving a pre-schism liturgy is fine (although it seems a bit like the whole primitivistic impulse in many forms of Evangelicalism), but my personal preference says that adapting the Anglican liturgy to make it Orthodox just misses the point. On the other hand, I don't want a liturgy I can't understand. I can appreciate the beauty of listening to it in Slavonic or Arabic, but I'd really rather be able to follow along. Maybe I'll feel differently once I've thoroughly memorized the flow of the services, so I don't need to hear the words to know what's going on. But for now, given the choice, I'll take it in English, thank you. But that just seems like a common sense necessity.

On other points, give me Eastern. Keep your pews and your organs, your shortened services, your heads uncovered, your four-part harmony, and your Westernized icons. Not that I'm particularly judgmental toward those who use such things. I understand the historical reasons for the various adaptations, and I understand everyone's in a different place. I also understand that I could easily get caught up in externals and forget about what's truly important. I'm just saying that, given the choice, I'd rather go old-world. Of course, I also recognize that there's a certain degree of irony. For instance, it's a later development to go back to strictly Byzantine iconography.

I guess I mostly just want to go on record, that for myself at least (and undoubtedly there are other converts and catechumens who feel the same way), the more traditional elements are a draw to Orthodoxy, rather than a turnoff. I worry sometimes that this point might get missed. Consider for a moment the Ark--the new online radio station that's supposed to broadcast contemporary Orthodox music. I somehow missed the "contemporary" part when I saw the announcement and spent a full day trying to figure out what they were thinking. You'd get the occasional liturgical piece, mixed with some contemporary music that I recognized as Orthodox. (I'm using the term "contemporary" loosely here. Evangelical music typically lags behind secular, and to me it seems like "contemporary" Orthodox music lags similarly behind Evangelical. I don't know the copyright dates, but from what I can tell, it's not a positive trend.) That apparently wasn't enough to fill up the time, so you also got a generous helping of Evangelical music, perhaps in some cases performed by Orthodox artists (what do I know?), but perhaps more often performed by well-known Evangelical artists. At least once I figured out what the station was supposed to be doing, I got some sense of the logic--if you can't fill your air time with what you really want, go with something similar--Orthodox but not contemporary, or contemporary but not Orthodox. I personally found the resulting product off-putting and haven't tuned in since.

I guess my next question after figuring out what they were up to was, "Why?" There was a time when I was up to my neck in the contemporary Evangelical music scene, and I remember the continuing battle to justify its existence. One of the favorite arguments you would see or hear (but one that no one I knew seemed to take seriously) was that it was an evangelistic tool. These kids will listen to anything that sounds good, and we might just sneak some words in there that will make a difference. Of course, the strategy only worked to the extent that they really weren't paying attention, in which case it was all quite pointless. Add to that the vague lyrics of many performers, and the incomprehensibility of their singing, and the fact that the quality of the music usually wasn't good enough to get someone to listen in the first place, and the whole thing really starts to fall apart. The plain truth was, the industry wasn't there as an outreach--it was there because Christian kids wanted music like their friends had, and their parents would more willingly take them to concerts and buy them CDs (being a bit anachronistic here) if they could attach a Christian label to it. My gut feeling is that the Ark is someone's bright idea to bring in new Orthodox converts and keep Orthodox kids from slipping away, but I have serious doubts that it's going to do much of that.

The point is, we're not going to win many points by trying to copy what seems popular in Western culture, especially if we start with Western Christianity as our prototype. In that vein, here's a tip. No one likes pews to begin with. If you want to be Western and win friends, go with chairs--movie theater-style, with high backs, soft cushions, and cup-holder armrests would be a good place to start. They're not big on organs either. A guitar would go a lot further and probably cost quite a bit less to install. They also won't know how to harmonize, because they haven't used hymn books in ages, and you don't put sheet music on PowerPoint. I should also dispel a myth about service length. Yes, Westerners are probably used to shorter services than you traditionally get in an Orthodox church. But keep in mind that an Evangelical service typically spends 30-40 min. on the sermon--the least interactive part. If you cut the sermon down to 15 min. and give people something to do through the rest of the service, surely you can take more time at it.

OK, this is getting rather long. I should make some kind of point and wrap it up. All that other stuff is basically my rant, to say that somehow Orthodoxy attracts Westerners without being particularly Western, and it's not always a step forward to become more Western, depending on what "Western" means. I'm sure there are those who are more likely to come to an Orthodox service if it's shorter, or they have a chance to sit, or something else that might be more familiar or less daunting. But there's a point at which this kind of accommodation gets you numbers but doesn't get you Orthodox converts. In other words, if Orthodoxy has to become something it's not to meet them where they are, something Orthodoxy is not may be all they'll ever get. That's not to say that any Westernization is a slippery slope to oblivion; I just think sometimes we need to put in perspective the push to fit the culture.

On the other hand, we don't need to treat church like it's some kind of boot camp, where we're trying to weed out the weak. We don't need to go out of our way to make it difficult. We certainly need to welcome people with love, regardless of their cultural background. We need to be gentle with their human weakness, wherever they are now. And I'm sure that Orthodoxy in America will take on its own local flavor over time. I am, however, in favor of taking things slowly. This isn't pagan Russia with a newly converted emperor. This is a culture that was born out of Protestantism, and a lot of the converts coming into Orthodoxy right now are coming from some kind of churched background. Somewhere we need to draw the line between contextualization and Protestantization, and I'm honestly not sure where that line should go.


Trevor said...

It was interesting to see later in the day how much my post had in common with some remarks I found on an Old Calendarist site :-) At least I got a little bit better perspective on Western rite liturgies, but I'm still not quite ready to go back and revise what I said here.

I should clarify something, though. I don't mean to indicate that Christian music can never function evangelistically. My point was that it seems to be a fairly minor aspect of what such music achieves, compared with the weight sometimes given to its value. Also, in most cases where it does become a form of outreach, it's because of other human elements--a message presented at a concert, the time the performers take to talk with prospective converts, a friend inviting someone to go, etc.

Roland said...

Keep your pews and your organs, your shortened services, your heads uncovered, your four-part harmony, and your Westernized icons.

Umm . . . you do realize we use a Russian setting of the Divine Liturgy featuring four-part harmony at Holy Cross, I hope? And a lot of Russian/Ukrainian/Ruthenian churches have Westernized icons. Thanks to Peter the Great, Russia - including the Russian Orthodox Church - became quite Westernized. The ROC even sent its best seminarians to Rome to study in those days!

In practice, most Western Rite Orthodox churches in the U.S. serve to facilitate the transition of converts into Orthodoxy. The Western Rite mission in DC has held relatively steady at 30 members for a decade, despite the fact that new people are always coming in. Eventually, most of the converts either move on to a Byzantine parish or move away from DC, which usually entails moving to a Byzantine parish.

Trevor said...

Yes, I do realize what we do at Holy Cross. No parish is perfect :-) Fortunately, we at least get a mix with some Byzantine hymns, and most of what the chanters do. I still wish I could spend more energy on thinking about the words to the hymns and less on picking which part I'm going to sing. I guess my ideal parish would be one that used Byzantine liturgical style (but at least mostly in English) and iconography (including a more open iconostasis), but without the pews and with the longer services like you typically get in ROCOR parishes. Maybe that's another similarity I have with Greek Old Calendarists--it's getting kind of scary. But maybe there are such things in the church of Greece, too. My experience is limited, of course. All I can say is that of the parishes I've tried around here, HC has about the best blend.

And I realize that a lot of Slavic churches have Westernized icons. This was my sawed-off shotgun rant--I tried to hit everybody at some point :-) Seriously, though, I did refer to the irony, that it's a more current trend to go back and undo some of the Western iconography that's been around for quite a while.

I guess I'm glad (in a way) to hear that most Western Rite Orthodox churches simply provide a gateway to something else--at least, if that's the case, it's not something that's going to grow into a major faction of the Church. But on the other hand, I'm not quite comfortable with the idea of a church that's mostly for beginners. It seems to violate the rule of catholicity, if growing up means moving on somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how to feel about this post. It sounds a little like "thank God that we are not like THEM!" and so it is offensive to me in that respect. It smacks of self-righteousness.

I am a lifelong Lutheran who will (very)soon be an Orthodox Christian. I love the organs and western hymnody - all 4 parts of it! (and I will miss these things because they have helped to lead me to Orthodoxy!). I say, thanks be to God for the Lutheran Church, without which I would never have found my way.


Trevor said...

I guess my point was to speak out more for the benefit of retaining *Eastern* Orthodoxy. I don't begrudge those other elements to Western churches. They can do what they like, and there are positives. Personally, I still get something out of attending an Evangelical service with an amplified praise band, where I can sing at the top of my lungs and feel like I'm not standing out. And although many of the songs are thin on theology, some of them do help me feel like I'm worshiping (in some sense).

But personally I do appreciate the different flavor of Byzantine worship. And although it may be that one day Orthodoxy in the West will take on its own flavor, I'm not convinced it's quite time for that. Right now, it seems like most of it comes across as simply copying various Catholic or Protestant traditions.

Roland said...

I mostly share your Eastern preferences. Apart from HC, most of my Byzantine liturgical experience has been with the Melkite Greek Catholics and the Carpatho-Russians, both of which use the traditional plainchant of their respective localities. The Carpatho-Russians, in fact, pride themselves on preserving the Eastern Slavic plainchant that was mostly lost by the Russians and Ukrainians when they adopted composed settings of the Liturgy. And the Melkites do some old-fashioned things that I've never seen in an Orthodox church.

I agree that it's too soon to develop a distinctively American Orthodox liturgical flavor. Distinctive local liturgical quirks are things that should evolve organically over a period of centuries. Any attempt to bring them into being self-consciously would probably amount to little more than a game of identity politics.

I know I'm in a tiny minority on this one, but I would also prefer not to rush towards a united American Orthodox Church. I think we should be content to retain our old-country ties for at least another generation. As an ex-Episcopalian, I am painfully aware of what happens when you let Americans grab too much independence!

Trevor said...

I mostly agree about holding off on American unity. I guess it kind of goes along with what I'm saying here. I mean, I think unity is a goal, and a worthy one. I'm just not convinced that we're quite ready for it, or that it would best come in the form of an autocephalous American Church. It seems like maybe we're trying to solve too many issues with this one thing. Has there ever been another national Church that's become autocephalous out of disunity? On the other hand, I'm not sure how we get there without becoming autocephalous. (Now that everyone's got a piece of the action, is it at all realistic to think we could return to one national jurisdiction other than American?) But in any case, I think it might be a good thing for the Church in America to remain largely dependent on outside jurisdictions for a while. If there's one thing we Americans need, it's cultural humility :-)