Return To The Tradition
My familiarity with the OCA goes back to the 70s when, after all, the ‘new Orthodoxy’ of St Vladimir’s was imported wholesale into England and France.
For some reason I have been asked by various members of the OCA to say what I think should perhaps happen in their Church in the future. Reluctantly, I have agreed to express some views, and that is all they are, and with three reservations.
First of all, let me make it clear that in my view, which from the other side of the Atlantic is a very limited view, there are OCA parishes which do not need to ‘return’ to the Russian Orthodox Tradition, on which the OCA is based, for the simple reason that they never left it. For example, a quarter of OCA parishes still keep the Orthodox calendar (contemptuously called ‘the old calendar’ by modernists).
Secondly, nothing that follows below concerns in any way Romanian, Bulgarian and Albanian parishes, which for reasons of their own are at the moment under the jurisdiction of the OCA. These Local Churches have their own Orthodox Traditions and they should remain faithful to them. The martyrs died for the Tradition and the confessors were persecuted for it. What follows concerns only those of the Russian Orthodox Tradition, whatever the language they use.
Thirdly, I would make it clear that what follows is some ideas, and no more than that, which might be of interest to Slavonic and English-language parishes, not only in the OCA, but also in other Churches in North America and elsewhere too.
Introduction: Abandoning the Tradition
Before anybody reads what is below, I would first ask them to reflect on why parts of the OCA seem to have abandoned the Russian Orthodox Tradition. Here, in fairness, there are surely many elements.
The reasons for this could be that the OCA was based on Uniatism from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These Uniats never brought with them, through no fault of their own, the undiluted Russian Orthodox Tradition in any case.
The reasons could include the historical fact of the Cold War, when American citizens wanted, for reasons of their comfort and convenience, to distance themselves from anything Russian, which was then seen as inimical to ‘the American way of life’. (Very understandable in the traumatic period of McCarthyism).
The reasons could include the period when the old Metropolia changed into the OCA through top-down decree (a matter of regret for many OCA members) and consequent loss of the Tradition, as people were fitted into an inorganic OCA straitjacket.
One reason could be that the generation of the episcopate that was born in North America simply wanted, like the children of virtually all immigrants, to conform to the host-country, not wishing to stand out. (That is understandable, the USA especially is a very conformist country, no doubt because of its extremely narrow, Protestant culture).
It could be that many converts of the 60s and 70s never integrated the Russian Orthodox Tradition (they were not encouraged to do so) and preferred to think in their Protestant, conformist cultural conditioning. Therefore, they never abandoned the Tradition – they simply never had any Tradition to abandon. (An American Orthodox Tradition simply does not exist and it will not exist until there are American saints to give birth to it. The nearest we have so far is the ever-memorable Hieromonk Seraphim Rose, and he was not a member of the OCA and, as far as we know, God has not yet revealed him to be a saint to the Church).
It should be noted that all these motives for abandoning the Russian Tradition belong to the past. The Austro-Hunagrian Empire and Unaitism are gone nearly 100 years ago, the Cold War is long since over, the OCA was founded nearly forty years ago, the third and fourth generations of immigrants are now increasingly in control and today’s converts know that the 60s and 70s are over and that now we have to be serious.
1. The. Liturgical Calendar
The first obvious lapse from the Tradition is the use of the Roman Catholic calendar (called by modernists the ‘new’ or ‘revised Julian calendar’). It is obvious that we cannot be taken seriously as Russian Orthodox, if we do not keep the Russian Orthodox calendar. The return to the calendar for the fixed feasts (the moveable ones are already on the Orthodox calendar) is becoming more and more important in the OCA, as increasing numbers of new immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine fill OCA parishes. Obviously, any return to the Orthodox liturgical calendar must be introduced gradually, without making the mistake of calendar persecution that the OCA elite made in the early 70s, which ruined so many people’s lives.
However, it should also be said that the besetting sin of Orthodox is not that some have transferred to the Roman Catholic calendar, and most not, but rather that they have no calendar at all. In other words, Orthodox need to start living according to the Church calendar, and not to the secular one. This means living according to the saints in heaven, not according to the timetable of Antichrist.
There is no reason to abbreviate services any more than they are already. Parish services are already abbreviated from monastic services. For example, it is inconceivable that a Vigil Service can be done in much less than two hours. Nobody is demanding that parishes celebrate monastic offices, but there are good parish models. Why not follow them?
If parishioners wish to play bingo in parish halls on Saturday evenings, that is their choice. But it should not mean that the parish priest and the faithful cannot serve a Vigil Service on Saturday evenings at the same time. If they have never done this, then start with Vespers and then work up to a full service. If nobody comes, so what? The services are acts of worship of God and repentance for us. They will do us good, in any case. In general, with paid clergy, liturgical life could be much improved in some OCA parishes.
The Metropolia did some wonderful work with translations and settings for Church music. Sadly, much that has come out of the OCA has not been up to standard and its texts constantly have to be amended to correspond to the originals. Use faithful translations into liturgical (not ugly and workaday) English..
Some people will say: But these Russians and Greeks are all ‘foreign saints’ (In fact, no saints can be foreign to Orthodox Christians). ‘We are of English/Irish/German origin’. In that case, people should know that there are now many Orthodox liturgical services to the saints of Western Europe. If the people ask for them, then let them be celebrated in church. There are no excuses here.
3. Confession and Communion
It is praiseworthy that many OCA members take communion regularly. However, we should be careful about preparation for communion. Equally, if we are taking communion regularly, then we need to have confession regularly. Not once a year, but about once every forty days, with the understanding that confession may be required very often at certain points in our lives. As for general confession, it has been categorically rejected by the whole Orthodox world and Russian Orthodox elders as a piece of Soviet renovationism. I find it profoundly saddening and difficult to believe that it still exists.
4. Monasticism and Clergy
Many OCA members have remarked to me that the core of the OCA’s problems is the lack of monastic life. This fact reflects on the parish clergy. In the Russian Tradition, married clergy were always prepared in monasteries, not academic institutes cut off from parish realities. The OCA has the solution to the problem within itself at St Tikhon’s. Here there is a monastery, a seminary and now a monastic-minded bishop, all in an area of parishes. Above all, it is a monastery (which does excellent translations) which has the Tradition going back now over a hundred years to a saint, Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow. As one Russian visitor and acquaintance of mine said of St Tikhon’s, apart from the calendar, it could be anywhere in the Russian Orthodox world.
The transfer of energy from prayer into the social and community sphere under the OCA (though it began before the OCA) means that everything linked with prayer sometimes seems to have been devalued in parts of the OCA, whether it is the calendar, the services, preparation for communion, the sacraments, monasticism and fasting. In asking for the return to fasting, nobody is asking anyone to become a pharisee, to become a loopy convert who spends his life reading about the ingredients of packets of biscuits. But we can all make an effort. In a land where the obesity crisis of the Western world began, let Orthodox begin to build our Orthodox counter-culture by striving to observe Orthodox rules of fasting. This is the Tradition. It seems extraordinary that at least one OCA seminary used to force candidates for the priesthood not to fast.
The OCA has printed many books. Some are useful, some are academic and spiritually empty, others are made unreadable by modernist commentaries, which occasionally border on the heretical and even encourage apostasy. Personally, my own Orthodox reading is nearly all in Russian, because of the poor standards in so much of Orthodox literature in English. It is extraordinary that the liturgical books have not been translated by the OCA. It seems incredible that the OCA has not translated the Lives of the Saints – unlike the Serbian Church in the USA, with its full and uncensored translation of the Prologue of Ochrid, or the gallant and underfinanced attempts by ROCOR individuals. It seems particularly sad that so little of the literature on the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia has been translated into English by the OCA, with all its resources. And where are the translations of the Russian literature on and by the holy elders?
7. External and Internal Architecture
Perhaps the most obvious feature of some OCA church buildings is that they do not ‘look Orthodox’. Here I do not at all mean that they have been converted from former Protestant buildings. If we do not have enough money to build our own church, then we have to make do with what we can get. Nobody can criticise that. What I mean is that, on the inside some churches do not ‘look Orthodox’. And that is not just a question of pews, which often go back to Uniat times, it is simply the loss of any Orthodox sense.
8. Dress and Conduct in Church
Surely it is time that Orthodox clergy dressed as clergy. How else can they be taken seriously? What in England is everywhere called ‘the dog-collar’ is really outdated now. Nobody is saying that all Orthodox clergy must have beards and hair three feet long and dress in cassocks, a liturgical cross and headware every time they go and buy some bread. But there is a minimum, which means dressing in clerical dress whenever we are working on direct Church matters. I have always founded it strange when clergy arrive at church in lay dress and change when they get to church. This is not the Orthodox way. There is a minimum and we are all capable of that, even if we do have to go to a secular job during the week.
Then there is the matter of lay dress. Men do not come to church in shorts, as though they were going to a barbecue on 4th July. And women are to dress modestly for church, in an ordinary skirt or dress (yes, ordinary, neither a prom dress, nor something that looks as though it has been found in a dumpster, nor the shortest or lowest-cut dress in the store) and wear a head-covering (and that does not mean a winter-duty table-cloth). It is simple. This is our Orthodox identity. Little wonder that Orthodox from Russia who see American Orthodox dressed otherwise think that they have lost their identity, lost the Tradition.
There is a Protestant hymn, which I remember from school assemblies in England, which goes: ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus…’ Yes, we Orthodox stand in church. We are in the presence of Christ, not in a theatre. Though this does not mean that you cannot have some benches for the sick, elderly and pregnant women around the walls of the back of the church.
And in church, we also discipline our children, as we discipline ourselves - hopefully. Children are quiet in church. Otherwise we take them out. If they cannot stand, then children can sit or kneel on the floor and play with a quiet toy and not run around. This is all a matter of self-discipline. And that is very good for us, because modern, unChristian Western societies with their ‘let it all hang out’ culture of comfort and convenience do not have this. Self-discipline is all part of the counter-culture of the Church. Nowadays, if we do not get this counter-culture in the Church, we may not get it anywhere else. It is up to the world to adapt to the Church, not the other way round.
It seems to me that all the Churches, not just the OCA, that claim to be descended from the Russian Tradition need to return to it in its integrity. It should be all the more obvious in North America, where the Russian Tradition was actually brought to Alaska. We all need to get back to our roots, not ethnic roots (many Russian Orthodox do not have any Russian blood), but above all spiritual roots. And I will affirm again, if it is not yet clear, that this has nothing to do with language and ‘going back to Church Slavonic’. That is a false and futile path. The main language of the parishes of the OCA is English and will remain so. But English in no way needs to mean Non-Orthodox.
It is not certain what the future of the OCA is. There have even been rumours that ‘Moscow will take back the Tomos’, the decree that set up the OCA. I do not know about that, though it would please the Greek jurisdiction there. What I think is likely is that there will be some reconfiguration of the Russian and Russian-origin Church scene in North America, as we all face generational change. But none of this is the point. Indeed, none of the above is the point. The real point is that what needs restoring all over North America and elsewhere is the spirit of Orthodoxy and in the case of the OCA the spirit of its roots, the Russian Orthodox Tradition.
Today, through the prayers and spiritual feats of the New Martyrs and Confessors, the Russian Orthodox Church has risen from the dead. It would be very sad if we did not share in this Resurrection and the unity in Christ that it is already bringing.
Finally, I apologise to anyone I have offended with the above. It most certainly is not my intention. My intention is to put forward some ideas and suggestions for discussion. It is the Church of Christ in which you live.
Priest Andrew Phillips
22 March/4 April