Saturday, October 03, 2009
Mr. Oren pulled to a stop, and as the children stayed in the car, the grown-ups gingerly padded into the sanctuary of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church....As he entered, a vespers service was under way. Maybe two dozen worshipers stood, chanting psalms and hymns. Incense filled the dark air. Icons of apostles and saints hung on the walls. The ancientness and austerity stood at a time-warp remove from the evangelical circles in which Mr. Oren traveled, so modern, extroverted and assertively relevant. “This was a Christianity I had never encountered before,” said Mr. Oren, 55, a marketing consultant in commercial construction. “I was frozen in my tracks. I felt like I was in the actual presence of God, almost as if I was in heaven...In 1995, he attended his first service at Holy Cross, an Antiochian church here, about 10 miles south of Baltimore. By late 1996, he was a regular, and in May 1997, he and his family converted and joined.
People used to find that in the Episcopal Church before the Church destroyed its liturgy, mounted a campaign to strip out every last bit of the numinous from its services and, most recently, began making efforts to simulate the style of successful evangelical churches in order to attract customers.
I thought seriously about joining an Orthodox church when I was in college and sometimes wish I had. My problem was the Filioque Clause. I still don't buy it, however the Anglican Church has been Filioque-optional since 1978 so that's no problem. The problem is that the Episcopal Church, which was once a wide tent with a little something for everyone is now split between a minority of churches drawn into the conservative evangelical orbit and the majority which don't do religion at all. They do "activities," of which the Sunday service is just one and by no means the most important.
I couldn't join an Orthodox church because they don't ordain women. Not that I care whether women are actually ordained or not: it's the principle of the thing. I can buy a lot of theology--at least I can plunk for theological claims and commit: metaphysics is always iffy and I'm used to it. But I cannot buy the claim that men and women are different in some metaphysically significant way. The issue isn't inequality, which doesn't particularly bother me, but la difference as such. Can't buy it any more than I could buy existentialism or astrology. If I thought that core Christian doctrine entailed that men and women were different in this way--which I don't--that would be a reducio for me.
It is also too culturally alien: different saints and different stories, a history that isn't my history and a different religious sensibility. It isn't on my culture tree. I might have become enculturated if I'd joined as an undergraduate but too late now because Anglicanism is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.
I suppose that's a peculiarity of mine. I connect to histories and to places. After spending most of my adult life in California I am still not connected, but when I go back east I am home. Last year at a conference in Baltimore I woke up and looked out the window. There were bits of slushy snow on the ground and bare, brown trees--I almost wept: this was my biome, the way land should look, the kind of plants that should grow outside. (One of the first thing that struck me when I came to Southern California was that there were houseplants growing outside). When I go back to England I feel even deeper into my history and when got to Italy almost 2 years ago I was overwhelmed with the sense that this was the root: the place where my culture began.
I am, of course, attracted to Orthodoxy because I'm a nut on Byzantine history and architecture. My visit to Italy was part of my drang nach abenland--a pilgrimage to the Hagia Sophia with side trips to all the domes I could catch along the way, including a number of churches in Greece as well as St. Paul's, the cathedral in Florence and San Marco. Once we got to Greece though I immediately recognized that I was out of my culture. The churches were wonderful but alien. They used space differently, without the focus one finds in western churches. With the altar behind the iconastasis, every place was equally holy. The central dome was just one of many domes and half-domes that was part of the bubble wrap. In one church I saw an old lady go up the stairs to kiss icons on the iconastasis--no sense that this part of the church was any holier than any other part. When I got back to England and to St. Paul's again I was stuck by how uncompromisingly western it was--all about the division between sacred and profane, movement, striving and power. There was no doubt whatsoever where the holy end was and you couldn't get within 10 feet of the high altar. It was going from Russian chant--warm, thick and homogeneous--to the Bach B Minor Mass.
I couldn't be authentically Orthodox--neither can most Americans any more than they could be authentically Hindu. However much we may romanticize it--and few people are as romantically attracted to all things Byzantine than I am--it simply isn't a cultural possibility, or a religious possibility to the extent that we're formed in a western tradition.
It stinks that the Episcopal Church, which has within its tradition the resources to be the heaven on earth Mr. Oren recognized in that Orthodox church he visited, has thrown that away. Disappointed and angry as I am, I still believe that Anglicanism is in principle Christianity in its ideal form. This is not a liturgical church but the liturgical church, which possesses the richest liturgy on earth because, like the English language, it has absorbed everything: everything western/Latin Christianity had and Anglican chant and Protestant hymnody and, in the 1982 hymnal, negro spirituals and chants from Eastern Orthodox sources. It has the biggest vocabulary, not only in its liturgy but in its history, literature and what I suppose could be called "spirituality."
Now the church is collapsing because the people who run it don't believe that religion is important or even interesting and are, in any case, convinced that it doesn't sell.