Saturday, May 8, 2010

Living Icons, Chapter 11

Fr Michael Plekon’s eleventh chapter is dedicated to Fr Alexander Men, “A Modern Martyr, Free in the Faith, Open to the World.” He starts with a dramatic scene: the public burning of books by Frs Nicolas Afanasiev, Alexander Schmemann, John Meyenodff, and Alexander Men in Russia on May 5, 1998. Fr Plekon writes:

Across the Orthodox churches, there is a growing conflict between perspectives and their adherents. Although some decry the use of such descriptions, it is not inaccurate to call one of these groups, as several in France have, integristes, traditionalists who oppose any development in liturgy or theology as “innovation” and who are against participation in ecumenical activity, particularly membership in the World Council of Churches, It is not clear what the other perspective should be labeled. Their opponents call them “liberals,” “innovators,” “Western contaminated,” “Protestants,” “ecumenists,” and generally “heretics. These are Orthodox clergy and laity convinced of the enormous freedom with the Great Tradition of the Church, the Scriptures, the Father, the councils, the liturgical services, and the whole heritage of the faith in various places and times. These Orthodox are open to, even fraternally disposed to, other Christian confessions, committed to the goal of healing the schism that divide Christianity. They point back to the undivided Church of the first millennium, to the great litany’s petition for the “union of all,” and even to more recent actions such as the embrace of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and the mutual lifting of anathemas a sings that then and now Christ and the Holy Spirit are “present everywhere, filling all things,” as the liturgical prayer to the Spirit and the New Testament say.

Such a cleavage certainly does exist, although I’d guess that the great majority of clergy and faithful would side with the traditionalists. But Fr Plekon’s understanding of “traditionalism” veers into the comic when he proposes the following as spokesmen for it: “the late Fr Seraphim Rose, Frs. Patrick Reardon, Alexy Young and Frank Schaeffer,” with Schaffer as “chief spokesman.”

Fr Men was certainly in the “liberal” camp. Fr Plekon writes:

Thus Father Men can recognize sanctity after the schism, outside the ecclesiastical boundaries of the Orthodox Church. In a couple of sentences, he brings together a sobor, or assembly of saints, starting in ecumenical breadth, reminiscent or the assemblies noted in Fr Lev Gillet’s Orthodox Spirituality and those depicted by Sister Joanna in frescoes at Saint Basil’s House chapel in London. Father Men brings together Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, Pope Martin and Maximus the Confessor, the Byzantine defenders of the icons and the Russian monastic proponents of poverty, the “nonpossessors.” He connects Fra Savonarola and Jan Hus with Maxim the Greek and Philip of Moscow. He sees the communion in the faith shared by Francis of Assisi, Sergius of Radonezh, and Andrew Rublev the iconographer, despite the schism.

Meanwhile, acts of piety such as the lighting of candles, the sign of the Cross, prayers, for the dead, and fasting can become reductions of the faith, turning us into pagans.

Towards end of the chapter, Fr Plekon returns to his leitmotif: the danger of traditionalism in the Church:

Insightful commentators have recognized the emergence of extremely conservative, even sectarian Orthodox tendencies in America and in Europe and the serious danger in these. It is no longer issues such as the retention of Greek, Arabic, or Slavonic in the liturgy, not even just the “old” calendar versus the “new.” Any contact with other “heterodox” Christians is being branded as the so-called heresy of ecumenism, based on their reading of several ancient canons. The Orthodox Churches of Georgia and Bulgaria have dropped out of the WCC and a pan-Orthodox consultation in Thessalonika has advocated only limited Orthodox participation in further WCC activities, including the recent general assembly. Very noticeable and significantly, Orthodox participants are by this consultation not to attend any liturgical services at such gatherings. While particularly problematic services have marked recent WCC gatherings, this decision seems to echo the current conservative claim that to pray with any non-Orthodox Christian is to defy the canonical ban on prayer with “heretics.”

Sadly, the list goes on: the claim that outside Orthodoxy Christ and the Holy Spirit are not present, that there is no Church and no grace, thus no sacraments, thereby requiring the rebaptizing of all who enter Orthodoxy; the outright rejection of the Balamand Statement of the international Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue and of the ideas of “sister churches” or of the church as “two lungs” of the Body as contemporary expressions of the despised “branch theory” of ecclesiology; refusal to take Ut Unum Sint of John Paul II as an authentic expression of a desire to heal the schism, and what can only be characterized as hostility, not only toward non-Orthodox Christians, but especially toward Orthodox clergy and laity who demonstrate openness and a desire to work for unity with them. The burning of books in Ekaterinburg was a notorious public expression of these attitudes, as was the public abuse of Nicolas Lossky and others in Moscow. Whether actions of “appeasement” or harassment, there have been others, those already described as well [as] the suspension of the best-known Russian iconographer Father Zinon and the suppression of his monastery in Pskov, the persecution of Fr Ignaty Krekshin and his monastic community, both for having maintained fraternal relationships with Roman Catholics, the suspension, reinstatement, and continued harassment of Fr George Kochetkov as mentioned earlier. In polemical attacks in print and on the Internet, both the living – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochan archdiocese, in America, retired Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Archdiocese in America, BIshop Kallistos in the U.K. – and the deceased – Archbishop Athenagoras of Thyteira and Great Britain, Ecumenical Patriarchs Meletios, Athenagoras, and Demetrius, and Moscow Patriarch Nikokim [sic] – are accused of heresy and heretical actions.

Thus we see the true aim of Fr Plekon’s volume, which is much less a hagiography as it is a polemic against “traditionalist” Orthodox by extolling figures, such as Fr Men, who fall on the other side of the perceived divide.

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