Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Catholicity - finding a silver lining in the cloud of jurisdictionalism

Because I was away on business, I was unable to attend the feast of Saints Athanasius and Cyril at our home parish Monday night.  Instead, I visited St. Paul Greek Orthodox parish in Savannah, where my business had taken me.  It was a wonderful service, and the experience struck me as a good example of the Catholicity of Orthodox Christianity.

One of the true clouds hanging over the Orthodox Church in this country is the scandal of jurisdictionalism.  Put in simple terms, this is the uncanonical situation where various Orthodox jurisdictions will have Bishops in the same City or geographic area.  Canonically, there is supposed to be only one Bishop for each city or geographic area, but in America, we literally have various Orthodox jurisdictions tripping over each other.  In Atlanta alone, there are eighteen Orthodox parishes, but those eighteen parishes are spread over eight separate canonical jurisdictions.  While I wish to state I am not defending jurisdictionalism, it is in part because of jurisdictionalism that I was able to observe the Catholicity of the Church in practice.

Being recent converts, and having never darkened the doors of an Orthodox Church before the late Spring of 2010, Stephanie and I have limited exposure to various jurisdictional and cultural differences in Orthodoxy.  Besides our home parish, we have visited only one other, and that was another Antiochian parish.  Rather than a separate parish in our Archdiocese, St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church was a parish not only from another Archdiocese, but in fact a different Antimension from a different Bishop under a different Archbishop within a different Patriarchate.

I confess I harbored a small amount of anticipation as I entered the Church.  It is a beautiful parish, as the photographs attest, but I am a new convert and I am rather comfortable with the particulars of the Church of Antioch.  Our home parish utilizes familiar translations, almost exclusively uses English in the Liturgy and prayer services, and has the beautiful sing-songy tones that are the hallmark of Arabic Christian liturgy.  Going outside that comfort zone, I did not quite know what to expect.

At St. Paul, the Liturgy was mostly in English, but Father Vasile used more Greek that I am accustomed to.  That's fine -- I actually understand more Greek than I do Arabic (which is to say "next to none" rather than "almost literally none"), so I was able to follow along without too much problem.  The English in use was more modernized -- more "yous and yours" and less "thees and thous."  The homily was at the end of the Liturgy rather than in the middle as I am used to seeing.  Instead of venerating the cross at the end of the Liturgy, the faithful were invited after the homily to receive the antidiron (blessed bread) and receive a blessing from Father Vasile. 

And yet, in the differences, what struck me was the utter sameness.  The Liturgy was different in the particulars, but it was still the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in all its fullness.  The piety was different in the particulars, but the piety was strong and uniquely Orthodox nonetheless.  The Church was laid out differently, but it was still the same iconostasis, the same essential order of icons -- Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, the Theotokos to the left, St. John the Forerunner to Christ's right, the patron Saint of the Church, St. Paul to Mary's left, and so on.  If we were all members of one "American Orthodox Church," under the same Metropolitan or Archbishop, with all parishes in the same geographic area under the same Bishop, it would be difficult to observe how the cultural distinctions not only between parishes, but in fact between Patriarchates, still result in fundamentally the same Church.  So while I grieve over the jurisdictional problem, and pray it is resolved quickly, I have to confess there is great comfort in actually being able to see with my own eyes that regardless of her local peculiarities, the Church remains truly whole, complete, and full. 

I hope my non-Orthodox friends will forgive me this observation, but as I departed St. Paul, a thought occurred to me:  "so this is what it means to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic!"


Fr. Andrew said...

Sounds like a great experience. I have to say, though, that one does not need jurisdictionalism in order for there to be diversity. Why can there not be parishes of multiple traditions sharing the same bishop? Indeed, this is already the case in South Africa, for instance, which has one bishop but multiple traditions represented - even multiple calendars and languages. One also thinks of the churches in pre-Schism Constantinople that served Western immigrants not only with Latin but the Western Mass! Yet the Ecumenical Patriarch was their bishop.

It can be done, has been done, and is being done.

David Garner said...

Father, bless.

Thank you for your comment and correction. I didn't make this clear in this post (because it wasn't intended to be primarily about the jurisdictional issue), but I think as a practical matter, Orthodox administrative unity in this country will work out exactly like that. But I considered that more of an historical accident than something that was well precedented. Thank you for clarifying that for me.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yup. There are a lot of things we finally "get" when we become Orthodox and live the Church's life for a while. Within the context of that life, everything finally makes sense, in fact seems rather obvious. "Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for, the obviousness of things unseen."