Saturday, December 20, 2014

Charlie Brown and the Lonely Walk of Faith

If you are at all like me, it is not Christmas until you have seen the holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has been shown seasonally every year since it first appeared in 1965.  I have watched it faithfully every year since I can remember, and have the whole wonderful thing more or less memorized by heart.  Who can forget Charlie Brown taking his seat at Lucy’s outdoor doctor’s office (the sign announcing “The Doctor is Real In”), or his complaining to Linus that he feels depressed every Christmas season?  Or who can forget Snoopy doing his famous dance of joy on the top of Schroeder’s piano, or Charlie Brown and Linus going to look for a tree for their Christmas pageant and finding in the middle of a forest of large pink metallic trees a pathetic little tree which just needed a little love?  Or Linus’ spot-litsoliloquy, wherein he quotes the Gospel of Luke for a then unprecedented forty-five seconds on national television?  The images and dialogue have become imbedded in North American culture to the point that they are instantly recognizable, even when affectionately satirized on The Simpsons.
            The point of the story of course revolves around the need to transcend the materialism of the Christmas season by returning to “what Christmas is all about”.  Charlie Brown’s agonized and poignant cry asking that question showed that he had no clue what Christmas was all about.  It was Linus, his friend and the voice of creator Charles Schulz, that provided the answer to his question and the antidote to the materialism of his friends.  Linus’ forty-five second reading of theNativity story from Luke’s Gospel not only made television history.  It also brought the Gospel to the open and trembling heart of Charlie Brown. 
            So far, so good.  When I watched the show this year, it was exactly like every other blessed year before.  Charlie Brown and Linus had brought to their pageant the pathetic little tree which seemed to be dying before the eyes of all.  He had clearly failed in his assigned task, revealing that he had no appreciation for the commercialism so dear to everyone else waiting for him to return with a big, splendid, pink tree.  When he returned with the little tree everyone laughed at him, mocking him, disdaining him, making him feel even more of a failure and outcast than he already was.   He cried out, asking whether anybody could tell him what Christmas was all about, and Linus answered by reciting from the Gospel of Luke.  Then Charlie Brown got the true meaning of Christmas.  He had his epiphany, his conversion.  A Methodist might say that his heart was strangely warmed.  That was when I saw it, something I had never noticed before—Charlie Brown picked up his little tree and walked out steadily and unashamed before the rest of the wordless and wondering crowd.  He no longer cared what they thought, or whether they disdained him.  His moment of illumination raised him above such cares.  The fear of man bringeth a snare, the Scripture says, but his new faith made Charlie Brown immune to such snares.  He was prepared to walk in that faith alone, even if no one else followed.                                          
          This is the way it has always been, and Christian hymnography has recognized and celebrated it.  The moment we decide for Christ, we are prepared to follow Him regardless of the shame it brings.  The evangelical hymn sings, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.  Though none go with me, still I will follow, no turning back, no turning back.”  Our own Octoechos says the same thing:  “You were held by lawless men, O Christ, but You are my God, and I am not ashamed; You were smitten on the cheek, but I do not deny You; You were nailed to the cross and I do not conceal it.”  Faith allows us to stand for Christ crucified, even if it means standing alone.  We can take up the tree, the tree of the Cross, and calmly walk past those who deride us.                                                               
           I noticed one other thing from that story:  the crowd that once derided Charlie Brown as a fool (“Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown!  What kind of a tree is that?”) afterward themselves came to comfort him.  Charlie Brown took the tree home and tried to decorate it himself.  He placed a single decoration on its little branch, which bent over with its weight.  He thought, “I’ve killed it.  Oh!  Everything I touch gets ruined!” and he walked away in despair.  It was then that his friends who followed him came to the rescue.  “Charlie Brown is a block-head, but he did get a nice tree,” they said, and repaired and decorated the tree themselves so that when Charlie Brown returned, he found the tree a fully decorated and splendid.  All joined together in unity, singing “Hark the herald angels sing” as the final credits rolled.  This was, in fact, an image of the Church:  when one of us fails and falls, the rest are called to gather round and help heal the hurt. (Fanciful?  Maybe.  But for what it’s worth, count the people decorating the tree:  there are twelve of them.)  We need one another, and can only sing together to God once forgiveness and unity have been restored.  I don’t imagine that Charles Schulz was trying to make a theological statement about faith or ecclesiology with his hastily-prepared seasonal offering.  But Schulz was a Christian, and so wrote from his own experience of Christ.  That involved writing theology, whether he knew it consciously or not.                                                                                                                                 
          Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas never disappoints.  Good ol’ Linus always comes through, and brings a revelation to Charlie Brown.  This year the Peanuts gang brought a revelation to those of us living in a militantly post-Christian world.  That world may laugh and deride us if it wishes.  We can walk the lonely walk of faith alone if we have to. We know what Christmas is all about.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Magical Thinking in the Orthodox Church

          In any sustained discussion regarding the progress of liberal theology in the Orthodox Church, one sooner or later encounters magical thinking.  Magical thinking is defined by Wikipedia (that modern oracle) as the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation”.   In my experience, it often begins like this:  someone (often a convert from a liberal Christian denomination, like the Episcopalians) warns that North American Orthodoxy is exhibiting the same signs of creeping liberalism as did their former liberal denomination, and suggests that this should be a source of concern for those who do not wish Orthodoxy to become similarly liberal.  
For example, Orthodox in the west today are reproducing the same patterns of behaviour  as did Anglicanism in the 1960s regarding women’s ordination.  Some of our theologians are solemnly declaring the issue a very complex one and the question an open one; denunciations are made of those decrying the ordination of women as people who are narrow, stupid, retrogressive, and (of course) fundamentalist; groups are being formed under the dubious patronage of women saints such as St. Catherine or St. Nina for the purpose of advancing the feminist agenda; and the push is made to ordain deaconesses.  When one calls attention to the historical fact that these are all symptoms of creeping liberalism in the Church and that this is precisely the road trod by the liberal Protestants a generation ago, one is shouted down as a convert who has no right to speak.  One is diagnosed with Post Episcopalian Stress Syndrome, and more or less ordered to bed.  One is told that the Orthodox Church in North America was getting on very well on its own without us and our kind, thank you very much.  Your warnings are not appreciated or welcome.   Please take a pill or something, and chill out.
This means that the Orthodox Church in North America could be the one institution which considers that years of experience of certain events actually disqualifies one from speaking about them.  In every other outfit, experience is considering as qualifying one to speak authoritatively, not as a disqualification.  It is very strange.  It is also a form of bullying and of attempted ideological intimidation.  In fact one’s long experience of Anglican liberalism does not mean that that person is afflicted with some sort of nervous disorder, or that their hands begin to shake if a copy of the revised Book of Common Prayer is somewhere in the room.  It just means that said person has personal experience of how creeping liberalism works over a generation and can speak from the authority of that experience.  That the warnings and words are not welcome does not at all alter the fact that they come from experience.
It is just here that magical thinking comes in.  All of these regrettable changes occurred in Anglicanism and Lutheranism and Methodism and God knows where else, but they could never happen here, with us.  Orthodoxy is somehow immune to the liberalism and worldliness that afflicts everyone else in North America.  I call this conviction “magical thinking” because (to quote Wikipedia again) the supposed stability and sanctity of individual Orthodox in North America “cannot be justified by reason and observation”.   Perusing blogs and their comment sections, and Facebook, and reading journals and scholarly books, and listening to Orthodox lectures on Youtube provide abundant evidence that Orthodox people can be just as thick and worldly as anyone else, and that we have by no means cornered the market on wisdom and holiness.  We have many good and wise people, and many worldly ones—just like every other group.  Saying that our status as the true Church bestows upon us an immunity from worldliness is triumphalistic nonsense.   It is also lousy history:  the Church in the fourth century was also “the true Church” and yet it was greatly afflicted by Arianism which spread like a wildfire for many years.  Indeed, at one point, as St. Jerome once wrote, the “whole world groaned to find itself Arian”.  The Church as a whole survived, but not without pain, and schism, and the loss of many souls to heresy.  We have no justification that we are now somehow immune to heresy simply because we are “the true Church”. 
It is undoubtedly true, however, that we are unlike our Protestant friends in one important respect:  we define ourselves by the Fathers, and at least pay them lip service, even when we veer off in directions which cause them to spin in their patristic graves.  We have to at least pretend we are faithful to the Fathers, even when we aren’t.  (Part of the trick here is to denounce fidelity to the Fathers as “patristic fundamentalism”, or as a simplistic reading of the Fathers.)  This means that even if parts of the Orthodox Church did ordain women, or marry gays, or conform to whatever the canons of modernity will demand in the future, large parts of the Church would not follow.  In other words, such capitulation to the world would result in a schism.  No one really doubts this, even if modern liberals like Behr-Sigel might plead for a “disciplinary pluralism”—i.e. a tolerance of heresy.  For the issue here is not simply one of discipline, but of the Faith.  What would St. Athanasius have thought of a “disciplinary pluralism” which tolerated Arianism?  Count on it:  if parts of the Orthodox Church ordain women or marry homosexuals, there will be schism.
I often am tempted to think that the certainty of such a schism is the real reason why many bishops would never take such action (though whether their inaction springs from courage to resist heresy or fear of schism is perhaps an open question).  As always, the Faith, though defined by the bishops, is guarded by the faithful, as the Patriarchs themselves insisted in their letter to Pope Pius IX in 1848.  Our episcopal leaders are smart enough men, and know that such changes would not be countenanced by many of their North American faithful.  The liberal proponents of change of course suggest that if the Church were to “modernize” by making these changes, multitudes of secular people would come piling into the Church to fill its empty pews, and this would more than offset those lost to schism.  Again, this is magical thinking.  The experience of Anglicanism shows that such a happy stampede will never occur.  If the Orthodox Church becomes secular in its faith and praxis, the secular world will praise us for our enlightened approach and then go back to ignoring us.  We may, it is true, be applauded periodically in the Huffington Post and on the CBC, but this is, to my mind, a thin reward for scrapping two millennia of Tradition and provoking a schism. 
What remains certain is that we must live in the real world, and look at our selves as reflected in the mirror or blogs, organizations, and Facebook.  There is not a shred of evidence to suggest North American Orthodoxy is immune to the worldliness and liberalism affecting everyone around us.  Magical thinking must give place to thinking, and to realistic appraisal regarding our current state.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mary Magdalene as Mrs. Jesus

You can tell it’s almost Christmas when one observes 1. lots of cars in the mall parking lots; 2. inane secular Christmas songs blaring in the mall, and 3. even more inane articles on Jesus in the media.  Foremost in this year’s inevitable inanity is an article by Simcha Jacobovici, published in (where else) the Huffington Post.   It is provocatively titled, “Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene Is Fact, Not Fiction”.  Unpacking and refuting every absurdity in it would be more trouble than it is worth.  Mr. Jacobovici laments in his article that the “paradigm-shifting discovery” he shares with us resulted in “nothing” from the scholarly world, so that “between 1980 and 1996 no archaelologists even reported the find”.  Similarly when he produced his 2007 documentary The Last Tomb of Jesus and co-authored his book The Jesus Family Tomb “to propel the find onto the headlines”, the “world’s reaction” was “again, nothing”. That may give thoughtful people their first clue as to the value of his scholarship and his “find”.  It looks as if the archaeologists writing between 1980 and 1996 were any more inclined to waste their time examining nonsense than I am. 
            But in the spirit of the season, I will offer a brief reply to one of Mr. Jacobovici’s arguments.  In one part of his disjointed piece he writes,  the Gospels agree that it was Mary the Magdalene who went early Sunday morning to wash and anoint Jesus’ crucified body (Mark 16:1)...What the Gospels are telling us is that Mary the Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb to prepare his body for burial. That’s the Gospels, not me. Then and now, no woman would touch the naked body of a dead Rabbi, unless she was family. Jesus was whipped, beat [sic] and crucified. No woman would wash the blood and sweat off his private parts unless she was his wife.” 
            Two things.  First of all, “what the Gospels are telling us” is that the “blood and sweat” was “washed off his private parts” by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus at the time of His burial  (Matthew 28:57f, Mark 15:42f, Luke 23:50f, John 19:38f), not by Mary Magdalene.  The subsequent visit of Mary Magdalene to the tomb was not to wash off anything after Jesus had been whipped, beaten, and crucified, but simply as a devotional act.  The Lord’s body was not naked, but was by then wrapped in a linen sheet.   Secondly, Mary Magdalene came to perform this devotional act along with other women (known to Orthodoxy as “the myrrh-bearers”), women such as Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1).  Presumably these women were not all married to Jesus.  It is obvious to anyone who has actually read the Gospel texts that the women came not to perform the duties of family preparing Jesus for burial, but simply as disciples who loved Him.  The visit of the Mary Magdalene to the tomb proves precisely nothing about anything.
            Finally, also in the spirit of the season, I would like to offer a free and unsolicited piece of advice so that one can readily identify nonsense and separate fact from inane fiction.  Any new “discovery” or “find” which involves giving credence to “lost” literature or Gnostic Gospels, or which involves “paradigm-shifting” archaeological finds may be safely discounted from the start.  Real scholars know this.  It is only film-makers who get excited about such things in order to promote their films and sell their books.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Should We Restore the Order of Deaconess?

          Of late, a pan-Orthodox organization of Orthodox women called “St. Catherine’s Vision” has issued a “Call for the Rejuvenation of the Ministry of the Ordained Deaconess”.  The call is addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarch with the hopes of being blessed and acted upon by the upcoming Great and Holy Council, and is being widely distributed by them for “prayerful reflection by hierarchs, clergy and laity”.  That is, it is the latest salvo in the ongoing attempt to advance the cause of the ordination of women in the Orthodox Church.
            It is important to place this “Call” and invitation for “prayerful reflection” in its wider historical context.  The drive to legitimate the ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopate within the Orthodox Church is not new.  It has been ongoing for some time now, reflected in the writings of Eva C. Topping, Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.  Even Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, usually a bastion of academic reserve and scholarly balance, has weighed in, observing in the revised version of his classic The Orthodox Church that, “There is a small but growing minority within Orthodoxy which feels strongly that the whole question [of women’s ordination] has yet to receive from Orthodox bishops and theologians the rigorous, searching examination that it requires”.  In his article “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ”, in the volume Women and the Priesthood (edited by Thomas Hopko), Ware further writes “As yet we are still at the very beginning of our exploration; let us not be too hasty or premature in our judgments”.
As a former Anglican one has a distinct feeling of deja-vu:  I well recall how Anglican theologians first pushed the envelope of women’s ordination by suggesting that it was an open question.  Not that they were necessarily asserting that women should be ordained, you understand.  No, no.  They were just asking the question.  Those declaring that the Biblical and universal practice of the Church for two millennia should be upheld were scolded for not being willing to give the whole question the rigorous, searching examination it required.  After all, one must not be too hasty or premature in one’s judgments.   
One can see now how the strategy was used and the game played.  By accepting that a closed question was in fact still an open one, the battle was effectively won by the proponents of women’s ordination before the first debate was held.  For just think about it:  if, for example, the Church decided that the question of the divinity of Christ or the legitimacy of icons were after all open questions, what would that tell you about the Church?  Would it not indicate that the Church no longer had faith in its own tradition?  And if that were so, clearly that tradition was no longer authoritative or binding.  That being the case, why not say that the Arians or the iconoclasts were right after all?—or that women may indeed be ordained?   It is important to discern which questions are open ones which require rigorous, searching examination, and which questions are closed, having been long ago authoritatively decided.  Clearly the issue of the ordination of women to priesthood and episcopate is among the latter, and placing it among the former simply questions the authority of our tradition.  It then becomes not an issue of the ordination of women, but of the authority of holy Scripture and apostolic Tradition.   
            The Anglicans did not move immediately to ordain women.  They already had an order of deaconesses, though the order was not much in parochial use.  The first move was to declare these deaconesses to be deacons—despite the fact that not all the deaconesses desired this.  Then, since there were female deacons, why not female priests?  Not bishops, you understand.  No, no.  Just priests.  And then (blink three times), after there were female priests, why not female bishops?  And voila.  Welcome to England 2014. 
            The women of St. Catherine’s Vision are treading upon this well-worn way.  The first step is push for the restoration of the order of deaconess (called its “rejuvenation”, which presupposes it just needs freshening up, despite the fact that it died out centuries ago).  It is true, of course, that centuries ago women were ordained deaconesses.  It is true that the deaconess was called a “deacon” (Greek he diakon, “he” being the feminine definite article). But it is historically incorrect and mischievous to assert that the female deacon was simply a feminine version of her male counterpart.  In fact, she was nothing of the kind.  Her ministry did not exist for the first two hundred years of church history, was never universal, and was restricted to ministering to her gender.  The difference between deacon and deaconess is even seen in the different ordination prayers and rituals used:  the deacon knelt on one knee and placed his head on the altar table during the ordination; the deaconess stood back with head bowed.  The deacon was given the Chalice, which he then used to administer Holy Communion; the deaconess was given the Chalice symbolically, and she gave it right back.  It is useless to attempt to evade the significance of these differences by saying (with  Professor Theodorou, quoted in the “Call”) that “the ordination of the female deacon took place in the presence of the whole Church, during the Divine Liturgy at the same time as the male deacon’s ordination” or that then the “two prayers of epiclesis of the Holy Spirit, ‘Theia Charis’ (‘the Grace Divine’) (are) proclaimed by the bishop, as with every ordination”.  Such similarity of detail does not prove that a male deacon and a female deaconess belong to the same order.  History reveals they did not.  Deaconesses existed largely to minister to women during baptism (for everyone was baptized naked in those early days) and during sickness.  It was obvious to all that a man could not anoint the naked body of female baptismal candidate, nor visit her in her sickroom to bathe her.  That was the task of the deaconess, and when adult baptism at length gave way to infant baptism, the order of deaconess was no longer needed.  That was why it died out, after becoming for a time merely honourific.
            The feminist strategy now is to push for women clergy in the form of deaconesses.  The order of deaconess is already being declared to be more or less identical to that of male deacons.  The next step is to push for women presbyters.  The Call, of course, explicitly denies this:  as Theodorou says, “liturgically speaking, deaconesses do not have it on their minds that they wish to be ordained to the presbyterate or episcopacy”.  One wonders how he knows what is on their minds, but little matter.  Recent history shows how quickly such a thin diaconal edge succeeds in advancing the progress of a presbyteral and episcopal wedge.  And writers like Topping and Behr-Sigel have already made clear that such ordination is “on their minds”.  It is either na├»ve or disingenuous to deny where this diaconal path leads.
            That St. Catherine’s Vision is not concerned with reviving the historical order of deaconess but simply advancing the modern feminist agenda is clear from their “Suggested Initial Parameters” of their “Pilot Program”.  In this pilot program, the proposed deaconess may be married.  Further, no minimum age is required.  This itself reveals that they are proposing an entirely different order than the historic one, for deaconesses in the early church had to be single, and (as the Quinisext Council ruled) at least forty years old.  (The minimum age for deacons was twenty-five.)  Also, theological education would be required for the candidate, as it never was for deaconesses.  It is nonsense to attempt to fudge these differences by saying that one “appreciate(s) how the structure and duties of a contemporary ministry of deaconesses may differ in some ways from place to place from the early centuries”, for it is not simply the structure and duties which have been changed in this proposal, but the entire life of the candidate and the nature of her ministry.  Greater honesty would compel one to admit the proposal of the creation of an entirely new order, and not the rejuvenation of an old one. 
            Even the Call admits that such a rejuvenated (or new) order is just the beginning.  It mentions with approval the Rhodes Statement of 1988, which “encourages further study for the possibility of women to enter into the lower orders [of Reader and Subdeacon]”.  One sees here how quickly the wedge’s thin edge will be pushed.
            The issue ultimately is not the restoration of an order of deaconess.  The true and underlying issue is whether the Orthodox Church will retain its confidence in its sacred past, its apostolic Tradition, and its Holy Scriptures.  The Anglican Communion, as a whole, did not retain such confidence, and has experienced the inevitable subsequent decline.  Orthodoxy must look at the Call issued by St. Catherine’s Vision and decide whether or not it will continue to be Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, or whether it will become simply a form of Byzantine Episcopalianism.

To hear Fr. Lawrence's interview with Fr. Chad Hatfield, Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary, click here.