Monday, July 16, 2012

College Days and Yesteryear

          I recently came across a description of a theological college which I know and love.  Because of my love for the college, I propose to withhold its name in these reflections.  A professor who had been with the college for many years was writing a piece in the college’s magazine comparing new and old days, and in particular the college’s transition from the old to the new.  He wrote that a certain person “moved into what we now call the Principal’s Lodge in 1975 just as [the college] was leaving behind a past where single men trained for the priesthood, and was entering its future as an inclusive theological community of clergy and lay, male and female, single and married, young and old…[The college] was quite unprepared for this new reality.  [The Principal’s] predecessor was a widower; the Dean of Students was a bachelor; and all the rhythms and regulations of college life were rooted in yesteryear”.  There is certainly no denying the accuracy of the professor’s observation about a change from “yesteryear”:  photos provided in the rest of the magazine showed a student body where many of the graduates were older than they were in my day, and at least half were female.  One photo of recently ordained clergy consisted of “Pam, Beth, Rachel, Pam, and Leslie”—all women.  This is indeed a change from yesteryear.  The church which this college serves, like the college itself, is an “inclusive theological community”.
            It is also a shrinking one.  There is one thing about the church of “yesteryear”—it was considerably fuller than the one now, and spent less of its time angsting over its identity.  Ironically, the first article in the magazine dealt with a conference organized to help repair crumbling unity and recover a common identity, saying, “What is an Anglican? This is a big question…Our church is changing, and so is its identity…”  The church or college of yesteryear, whatever its flaws, did not feel the need to hold conferences to try to answer questions of fundamental identity.  It knew what it was about, and got on with its job, aided by its widowed Principal, its bachelor Dean of Students, and its single men being trained for priesthood.
            The piece quoted above celebrating the change from the old form in yesteryear to the present bright form as an inclusive theological community struck me as all the more poignant in view of another piece I read the same day—namely, a piece written by Ross Douthat in the New York Times Sunday Review, entitled Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?  In this piece, Mr. Douthat quotes the statistics that the Anglican/ Episcopal Church church attendance figures dropped 23% in the past decade, and that no American Episcopal diocese saw churchgoing increase.  To quote Mr. Douthat:  “Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis.  Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.”  
The transition and changes from yesteryear to today were doubtless undertaken to help the church become more “relevant” (that wonderful ‘60’s buzzword, now wonderfully dated, like the hoola-hoop).  It was expected that making the church more “inclusive” (our ‘90’s buzzword), would enable it to more effectively reach the unchurched population with the Gospel, so that untold multitudes would again darken the church door.  Our liberal inclusivism has not worked, as the depressing statistics reveal.  Douthat again: “Instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.”   It is almost as if the perceived solution for the raging fire consuming the church is to pour on more liberal gasoline. 
This should offer a cautionary tale for us Orthodox.  We are not immune to the same forces which currently afflict the liberal Protestant churches and threaten them with extinction in the decades or century to come.  Unfaithfulness to the Holy Tradition brings its own price.  Liberal Christians may rejoice in the changes and tell themselves that this is all for the better (the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in a 2006 interview rejoiced in the low numbers of Episcopalians, saying that Episcopalians valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves), but the prospect eventual self-extinction is not a cause for celebration, but for self-examination and penitence.  Ultimately, the slow extinction of a church reflects the judgment of God upon a community which has lost its way.  The word which Christ offered to the first-century church of Ephesus He offers to us as well:  “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5).  When we Orthodox are tempted to become “relevant” or “inclusive” or whatever will become the buzzword of the next decade, and abandon our Holy Tradition, we must remember this word of Christ.  We must remember “yesteryear” from where we have fallen, and do the deeds we did at first.  Otherwise we too may experience a disastrous decline.  We do not possess any immunity from God’s judgment.  Our North American lampstand can also be removed from its place.


  1. I had a very interesting chat with a woman who is part of the Mennonite Brethren church and has been turning her gaze more and more to the Orthodox church in recent years. Our discussion was centred on the use and function of patristic writings (she is part of a highly academic circle). My observation, having spent a number of energetic and theologically trained years amongst a variety of Protestants, was that the Church Fathers always seemed to be treated as a thing of the past, regulated to history, and the early church something of a lamented loss, never to return again. I expressed to her that as I grow in the Orthodox church, more and more I find that there is no such thing as 'history' in so much as the church fathers are here, present, relevant today as much as they were when they walked the earth, and how the "early church" doesn't seem as foreign as it once did in my theological training. Not to have a naive perspective, there are undoubtedly temptations all around to drive the church into any number of directions (as the Protestants so clearly demonstrate), but there is still a strong and comforting thread which keeps us connected to something rooted so much deeper than cultural or societal trends and that's got to speak for something. If nothing else, we continue to pray for the preservation of the Church and for God's mercy on its members.

  2. Diana Butler Bass's response to Douthat's article. Could she be right?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.