Orthodoxy and Me

These reflections were inspired by an article in the Guardian which deals with the negative influence the Orthodox tradition (and Roman Catholicism) had on Anglicanism and personally on the Archbishop of Canterbury, and by a conversation with one of our friends, a Lutheran, who considered my attitude to Orthodoxy odd (himself being a fan of Joseph Ratzinger and his theology). Perhaps we will come back to the article (Loukas wants to write more about it if other duties allow him), and for now I would only like to use this occasion to reflect for a moment on my attitude to the Orthodox and Eastern traditions.

St. Aleksander Newski Orthodox Cathedral in the city I come from, Lodz

“Beauty will save the world”
Let’s start apophatically, that is from what it IS NOT about. It is neither about the Orthodox chant nor about the icons. Not that I don’t like them. I adore them! But they are not the essence of the matter. As an illustration, I can invoke my (our) genuine fascination with Prof. Jerzy Nowosielski – an (icon) painter and religious thinker. It took me a long time to appreciate his icons, but it was almost from the first letter I read that his THOUGHT fascinated me, his view on religion, Christianity, Orthodoxy. It is like that with Anglicanism as well. I appreciate the beauty of the Anglican chant, the Anglican liturgy, the evensong (you can read a bit more about this liturgical form peculiar to Anglicanism here). I feel at home in a classic, Gothic or at least Neo-Gothic Anglican church. I allow myself to be “lured” by that Anglican antiquarian style. I like this game, even if I know the Anglican history too well to forget that it is just a game (if sometimes taken very seriously; but that is the secret of a good game) – just as the outfits of Her Majesty’s courtiers, which look ancient but were designed mostly in the 19th century. Whenever I have a chance to take part in it, I do. But, even though I do not say that these elements of the Anglican heritage didn’t play any role in my journey to Anglicanism, it wasn’t them that lead me to it. And, as for beauty that saves the world, if you take this sentence of Dostoevsky (which is often abused, by the way) as an impulse to realize the role of the aesthetic dimension in religion, I agree with it. What is more, I proclaim together with Nowosielski that the church has for centuries stressed ethics too much, at the expense of aesthetics. Yet not many things irritate me as much as a sentimental aestheticization of religion. And I look with some amusement both at those who seek “spiritual experiences” in courses like “Become Andrey Rublev in one weekend”, and those who fill churches of different traditions during evensongs, treating them only as concert halls.

The West and the East
I was born in Poland – a melting pot of various cultures, languages and religions, a country where you can taste not only carp but even ham in the “Jewish fashion” (sic!) and whose national totem is the Byzantine-Ruthenian icon of the Black Madonna. From my father’s side I’m Polish, form my mother’s side – a descendant of settlers from Frisia, Germany and Bohemia. As a child a few times a year I used to be (my family wasn’t really of the churchgoing sort) with one grandparents in the (Lutheran) church, desgined after the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, and with the other in the little Neo-Gothic church of the Mariavites. But two 19th century Orthodox churches were closest to the place where we lived – relics of the times when my city was ruled by Russians. During holidays, spent in the former Prussia, where my family lived for centuries (in the part of it which currently belongs to Poland, for the Russian part – with the former city of Königsberg -was then almost completely cut off from the outside world), we would also visit the house where my grandfather was born, the former Lutheran parish house built in the characteristic style brought there by Mennonite settlers. A Ukraine family lives there now and they are Byzantine Catholic. My ancestors where driven out from there by the Red Army, and they were (let us use a thought abbreviation here) driven in by it. The son of that family began novitiate in a Byzantine Catholic order when I was about to start studying theology. Growing up in such an environment, it’s hard not to be “familiar” with the culture of the East, the religious culture included.

It helped me also to learn to destinguish between Orthodoxy and Eastern Christianity, for the first Eastern Christians I met were Byzantine Catholic and not Orthodox. But above all, it was in a Byzantine Catholic church in Slovakia that, as an 11 years old boy, I experienced something which, however difficult to describe, played a great role in the development of my spirituality (at the same time giving it a strong Marian character, which didn’t suit Protestantism at all). So I realized soon that not everything Eastern is at the same time Orthodox. Over time it was coupled with another – now much more surprising – experience, namely that not everything Orthodox is Eastern, for their is also (if in an embryonic form) Western rite Orthodoxy. In any case, all these experiences and encounters made me sensitive to the interpenetration of cultures. Until this day it is with great pleasure that I worship in (mainly Byzantine Catholic) churches of Podkarpacie and Slovakia, where the West meets the East and the Ruthenian-Byzantine style mixes with Rustic Baroque. I was also enchanted by the Byzantine Catholic church (designed by Nowosielski who himself grew up in a cultural and religious borderland) in Gorowo Ilaweckie, which used to be Protestant and originally Catholic.

The Byzantine Catholic Church in Telgart, Slovakia

So the religious tradition of Orthodoxy is for me not so much the tradition of the East as the COMMON ROOTS OF CHRISTIANITY AND AT THE SAME TIME ONE OF THE PILLARS OF THE EUROPEAN CULTURE. When I read the Greek Fathers, I don’t have the impression of entering another cultural context. What is more, I don’t have such an impression also when I read the Syriac or Coptic Fathers (not without a reason St. Isaac the Syrian is my patron saint in the Ecumenical Mariavite Congregation). Discovering Orthodoxy (like Oriental Christianity, honest confrontation with which is still in a large degree awaiting us) means rediscovering those common roots, which are partly forgotten.

What I am really fascinated with, then?
Here too I shall take the ‘via negativa’ first. It goes without saying that I am not only not fascinated with, but don’t have any understanding for Orthodox ecclesiological triumphalism, the Byzantine alliance of throne and altar, which is being revived in Russia, amd for the – often mindless – traditionalism, which characterizes many Orthodox Christians. Attending the Liturgies, I personally suffer from the lack of Eucharistic hospitality, which I consider the gravest example of ecclesial hybris (pride), which cannot be justified by anything – any doctrinal or theological considerations! I was told once by an Orthodox monk, personally a very nice man whom I respect very much, that in this way I can share in Christ’s suffering caused by divisions in the Church – his living body. I couldn’t bring myself to answer him then, so I will answer now – him and anyone who engages in manipulation in order to justify this outrageous scandal: I can explain it to myself like that. The question is whether you – one of the perpetrators, inflicting that suffering – also can allow yourself to do it… I am also repulsed by Orthodox proselytism taking place in Western Europe and America, especially in the light of constant complaining going on in Russia on Western proselytism. I am not able to remain clam when listening to converts defaming the churches they come from and thus disdaining (often a large) part of their lives and their previous choices. Less and less often I listen to the Ancient Faith Radio – an Orthodox internet radio. Even though I like the chants it plays and the theological podcasts, I consider its proselytizing activities far worse than ‘Anglicanorum coetibus’ and the Ordinariates (even though I can better understand an Anglican converting to Orthodoxy than an Anglican choosing the jurisdiction of Rome). I won’t elaborate on the attitude to women and the LGBTQ persons, for how often can you write about the same thing? But I can’t refrain from saying that, despite the fact that I’m not Byzantine Catholic myself, I am completely outraged and hurt by the scandalous attitude of the Orthodox to those Christians of the East who are in union with Rome. Even though I know about the historical context, I believe that dwelling on past traumas which leads to rejecting other people completely is not irreconcilable with the message of the Gospel. How the Orthodox treat unites I consider one of the worst examples of Christian negative witness of our times.

So why then would I call myself as our internet friend, Joe Rawls, does: a “Byzantine Anglo-Catholic”? The formation I received in the Old Catholic seminary makes me refer here to the sphere of ecclesiology immediately. The vision of the church at the foundation of which you can find the local Eucharistic community gathered around its bishop, who leads it above all not because he has jurisdictional power over it, but because he presides over the Eucharist, survived in the Church thanks to Orthodoxy. In the West, the Anglican and Old Catholic churches embraced it anew, but the fact that they had something to embrace was due to the Orthodox East. Of course, also Eastern patriarchs often violated it. The will to power affects in the same degree the Eastern and the Western hierarchs. However, from the Eastern perspective the doctrine(!) of the so called “universal jurisdiction” of any of the patriarchs would be unthinkable. And even if in the ancient times the Ecumenical Patriarchs was, and today the Patriarch of Moscow is ruling with a stronger hand than many bishops of Rome did, which is the reason why some local Eastern churches prefer union with Rome to Russian imperialism, just like centuries ago Copts in Egypt preferred the rule of Arab Muslims to the Byzantine opression, we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that only the church of Rome made the universal jurisdiction of its head a matter of doctrine.

And yet it is not ecclesiology that I like about Orthodoxy the most. Even though traces of such an attitude are sometimes very difficult to be found in statements of Orthodox hierarchs and theologians, I think that Jerzy Nowosielski was right to say:

Orthodoxy likes questions without answers very much. It is the other way around with the Roman Catholic Church. It likes answering questions which principally should be left without answers.

I am attracted by the questioning, searching, “unfinished” character of the Orthodox religious reflection – by the awareness, always present in it, of dealing with a mystery and not a riddle that you can solve some time, but indeed with an insoluble mystery. The West has to a large extent lost this awareness, even if it sometimes thinks otherwise. In Orthodoxy I sense greater willingness to accept the fact that you can never say the last word in religion. You can see it as well in the process of taking doctrinal decisions by the church. When controversies would arise, a council was summoned in order to take decision with the view of resolving these controversies. But only after the council began the process of accepting and implementing those decisions by the local churches. That process on more than one occasion lead to another council. The formation of doctrine in Orthodoxy is a true never ending story, with no place for any “infallible” instances, for only the church as a whole can be infallible, and it is the subject of this process itself. This processual character of the formation of doctrine makes it more apparent in the Orthodox tradition than it the Western one that no problem the church has ever struggled with has been finally solved. Even condemning a particular “heretic” and his ideas was not such a solution, for, as it turns out, these ideas tend to come back over and over again. That is why it is the East and not the West that preserved such controversial visions as for example apocatastasis, but also elements of Christian Gnosis, which in the West have been almost entirely pushed into the collective subconscious of the church. I believe that Loukas is right to propose that it is thinkable that “Orthodoxy is semi-Gnostic” despite all the battles that have been fought with Gnosticism in the past…

The iconostasis of Jerzy Nowosielski in the Byzantine-Catholic church in Gorowo Ilaweckie

Let us go back for a moment to the liturgy, for, as many people say, “Orthodoxy is the liturgy”. I often encounter people who are enchanted by the Eastern liturgy. Of course, the icons, the chanting, the incense, the vestments, create a unique atmosphere. I remember how I myself attended a Divine Liturgy, celebrated by the members of the Catholic Brotherhood of the Byzantine Rite in the Hague, after years of not being at one. It made a tremendous impression on me. It was indeed like entering another world, the “Blessed Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. The impression was amplified by the fact that the Liturgy was celebrated in a living room of an ordinary house. On the other hand, when I ask myself why I love the Eastern Liturgies, what comes to my mind first is not their aesthetic value but above all their theological content. The West has been for centuries cultivating the Biblical character of its Liturgies, which in effect often seem to be a sophisticated mosaic of fragments of the Scripture. The Liturgies of the East are, on the other hand, a theological reflection expressed in poetic symbols – often of the highest sort. When at an Eastern Liturgy, I actually almost never regret that if there is no sermon. It itself is the best sermon and the best mystagogical catechesis.

Between iritation and a sense of closeness
I am often irritated very much by the attitude of many Western Christians, including Anglicans, towards Orthodoxy. From the lips of the bearded gentlemen in black rassons we accept without slightest protest things we would never accept for example from the pope. I personally wish the Archbishop of Canterbury a bit more of that firmness the former Lutheran Bishop, Dr. Margot Kässmann, showed when she resigned from the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches because of the anti-ecumenical attitude of the Orthodox hierarchs. I wish that we had more self-confidence in the dialog with the Orthodox. Self-confidence which doesn’t result from the conviction that we are “better”, but from the belief that, even though we represent different views, we are not less rooted in the tradition of the church of the first centuries. I wish that we were able, like we sometimes (perhaps also too rarely?) are able to confront Roman Catholicism with another model – “the reformed Catholicism”,  to say also that we have our own Anglican model of orthodoxy, our own vision of what orthodoxy can and should be. This doesn’t change the fact, however, that, unlike my Lutheran friend, I feel closer to Constantinople or Antioch than to Rome or many churches of the Reformation. And I think that this sense of closeness does indeed come from my Anglican identity

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