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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

'Utmost purity': A parable.

Amy Johnson Frykholm's Christian Century essay on Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the United States is rich and fascinating, but I can't help but extract a parable from one portion of her article:

In central Colorado, far from the traditional centers of Orthodoxy in Constantinople, Moscow and Mount Athos, is a small monastery where five monks live together on the sagebrush foothills of the Buffalo Range. Their abbot, Archbishop Gregory, is a renowned iconographer and something of a renegade. The denomination to which he belongs, the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC), is not in communion with most other Orthodox, who it claims have strayed from the true faith via the evils of “ecumenism.” Archbishop Gregory has joined and left several different groups on the fringes of Orthodoxy, and the Colorado monastery itself has changed hands more than once.

Brother John is a young monk who joined the monastery during his years at Trinity University in San Antonio. A former Presbyterian, Brother John recounted to me his early dismay at the liberalism he saw in the Presbyterian Church. He felt that the church was in “open denial of Christ and the apostles” and not adhering to biblical principles, and had been corrupted through accommodation to the world. At the end of his first year of college, he was seeking to be baptized into the Orthodox Church. Not only had he found the Bible-adhering church he sought, but he was also convinced that it was the one holy church founded by Christ and the apostles.

Most Orthodox churches do not rebaptize converts from other Christian denominations since the Orthodox teach that baptism is a one-time-only sacrament. Those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit need only to be chrismated—anointed—to be received fully into the church. But Brother John felt that his baptism as a Presbyterian was not truly a baptism. His local priest in the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) refused to baptize him, and he grew frustrated. Much in the OCA seemed impure and wayward to him, and he began to look into groups farther from the Orthodox mainstream. His search for greater purity ended in an encounter with then Archimandrite Gregory in the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church. The leaders of the ROAC consider the Russian Orthodox Church to be apostate and have broken communion with all those whom they consider “ecumenical.”

Brother John gave me a tour of the monastery grounds, including the recently built Byzantine-style church, which looked at home on the rocky hills. The walls of the church were covered with the strikingly clear and sparse iconography of Archbishop Gregory. Later, as Brother John walked me to my car, he said quietly, “American Christians need to understand that they are not where they need to be. God wants them in the Orthodox Church. All of the other churches and religions are not being fully faithful to Christ.”

Although he was adamantly countercultural in his approach, something of Brother John’s version of Orthodoxy struck me as distinctly American. In a search for the utmost purity, he had to link up with the smallest possible unit of religious organization he could find. Like many Americans of other denominations and generations, he had to become an outsider in order to assure himself that his faith was genuine.

"The smallest possible unit of religious organization he could find": Now there's a temptation that afflicts religious liberals, too.

("Smells and Bells," Amy Johnson Frykholm, Christian Century 12.28.04)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 11 January 2005 at 10:10 PM

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Brian Duffin:

January 12, 2005 08:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

"The smallest possible unit of religious organization he could find": I'm not sure that this is an affliction only for religious liberals.

I have often felt lost in a crowd of souls when attending large religious gatherings/meetings.

Perhaps the true symptom to the affliction is anonymity. I believe that most people seek some level of acknowledgement of their existence in a congregation.

In simple terms, we all have four basic hungers that need to be fed:
-Hunger to be love
-Hunger for appreciation
-Hunger for understanding
-Hunger to be trusted

In the vast religious crowds, are the pastors of thousands truly feeding their flocks, or do they merely enjoy hearing their own voices? Perhaps this is why so many flock to or seek out smaller congregations.

Thanks for sharing the parable!


January 12, 2005 10:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

Brian, while the personal experience of feeling lost in the crowd undoubtedly explains what draws so many of us to small groups, no matter how large our congregations or denominations are, the phenomenon here is specifically dogmatic and intellectual: The attraction, for a small minority of religious people, toward dogmatic purity in ever-smaller sects of right-thinking folks. It's rooted in an impatience with the presence of heretics, moderates, pragmatists, and lukewarm believers. And it's phenomenon that occurs in religions left, right, and center — and in political movements, too.


January 12, 2005 11:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

There is an enduring instinct of religious separatism that is deeply ingrained in the American character. This is only a recent example. One of the earliest examples -- really, the archetype and source of all the others -- is our very own First Parish (UU) in Plymouth, Mass., founded in Scrooby, England, in 1608. They left England, first retreating to Holland and ultimately across the ocean to an unsettled wilderness, in order to escape corrupting influences. (They aren't nearly as diffident now as they were then, though.)

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