The Orthodox Christian online community is a buzz with the recent announcement that St Vladimir’s Theological Seminary is going to award an honorary doctorate in divinity to the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (see for example the conversation on the American Orthodox Institute’s The Observer). According to the press release from the seminary, Archbishop Williams is being granted this degree “in recognition of his contribution to the academic study of Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality.” It goes on to quote the dean of St Vladimir’s, the Very Rev Dr John Behr who says that “Many Orthodox Christians may be unaware of Rowan Williams’s research and contribution to the field of Orthodox theology.” In addition to his support of the The Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius, a society of Eastern and Western Christians, Rowan is “a pioneer in this field, with outstanding breadth and depth.” His doctoral dissertation examined “the work of the great Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky” and was “the first academic study of the émigré theologians.”
Not everyone however is as supportive of Rowan receiving an honorary doctorate from an Orthodox seminary. Fr Patrick Reardon is the balanced voice among those who disagree with the decision. In an open letter to His Beatitude Metropolitan JONAH, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America and President of St Vladimir’s, Fr Patrick writes, “Although the scholarly publications of Dr. Williams may be cited as adequate reason for his lecture at the seminary, news of the plan to honor him is already prompting a popular consternation and even scandal.” Mincing no words on the matter, Reardon says that “Outside of academic circles,” Rowan Williams “is chiefly known for his public support for sexual perversion within the Anglican Communion.”
Whether or not the decision by the seminary is a source of widespread consternation and scandal is not clear to me. Indeed outside of a relatively small number of clergy and laity, I suspect most Orthodox Christians neither know about the decision nor, if they know, particularly care one way or the other.
This is not to say that the controversy is manufactured much less that it is unimportant or meaningless. Far from it.
The real import of the disagreement is (1) that we are PUBLICLY disagreeing with each other and (2) what this disagreement suggests about the underlying social dynamics of American Orthodox Christianity. In the following series of post, I want to look at each of these and I would invite your thoughts on the matter.
Let’s begin with reflecting on the fact of a public disagreement.
First of all, the public face of Orthodox Christianity in America is one of great unanimity. We pray the same way, we believe the same things. Lex orandi, lex crendi has become as much, or more, a marketing tool as it is a description of the Church’s internal life. To be sure, “Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition” of the Church.
However in Liturgy we never hear simply one voice; nor does one voice ever dominate in the assembly even if that voice is the voice of the presiding hierarch or presbyter. Liturgy, like truth and like the Holy Trinity, is symphonic both in expression and content. And this is where the problem arises. We have come to accept (even if only passively) an ideology of uniformity that obscures to those outside and within the Church the pluriformity of our shared life in Christ.
The working out this pluriformity is not unlike the experience of Liturgy. Yes the texts and the rubrics of Vespers, Orthros, the Divine Liturgy and rest of the Church’s daily and sacramental cycle are fixed. But when we “gather as the Church” (see 1 Corinthians 11:18), we gather as unique individuals and so we necessarily must struggle to sing not simply the same words, but to sing and pray the same words together. This requires not only a degree of technical proficiency that only comes through practice, but also humility, patience and mutual tolerance in the face of human difference. If I read St Paul epistle to the Church at Corinth correctly, this can all be summed up by saying that the unity of the Church is the fruit both of the Holy Spirit and our commitment to love one another sacrificially and not simply nominally.
None of this, however, can be the fruit of a mere ideological commitment to the Tradition of the Church and this leads me to my second point. Faith in the Tradition of the Church, even a shared faith in the Tradition, is different that a shared faith or trust in each other. Let me go further, I would suggest that whether intentionally or mistakenly I often substitute the former for the latter.
I will, in my next post look at what I would call an ideological attachment to Holy Tradition.
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, they are actively sought.