Glory to God for All Things

Living in Difficult Times

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One of the most influential books in my life crossed my path during my college years. It was a collection of essays, edited and contributed to by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. From Under the Rubble offered more insight than the then more popular novels and the Gulag Achipelago that had vaulted the writer into his position of fame. The essays made it clear that this writer – always described as a “Soviet Dissident” in the American press – was, in fact, a devout Orthodox Christian. I was profoundly struck by this fact – and began to read his works with a different eye. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s courage did two things for me. First, he offered me the example of a Christian hero at a time when most heroes were missing in action or simply missing. Second, he offered me the suggestion that there were possibilities to be found in Orthodox Christianity that I had never considered – this point was a lot longer in maturing.

In one of his essays addressing his fellow Soviet citizens he wrote in bold type: DO NOT LIE. REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LIE. The sentence nearly jumped off the page. As I would later discover in reading about Solzhenitsyn, he was living this maxim in a dangerous game with the Soviet regime. Too much truth, too quickly, and they’ll kill you. Too little truth, and you’re as good as dead. Eventually the regime settled matters by sending the author into exile. He continued to write and speak here in the West, until his Christianity became too obvious for the American press. After his famous Harvard Address, the American press began to ignore him.

But his words never left my thoughts. Years later, as I lived my life within the ranks of Episcopal clergy, I would find those words to be constantly haunting. I was not living in a Soviet regime, but I had come to see life within a mainline Protestant bureaucracy as something marked by constant “double-speak.” The Creed was said in services, but not believed in many places. Clergy who had taken an oath to “conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the Episcopal Church stretched the meaning of the oath to the place of meaninglessness.

I had to argue with seminary faculty about the divinity of Christ (I do not exaggerate). I was told by one of my bishops that the Virgin Birth was “optional” as a doctrine. When I authored a diocesan canon on clergy sexual misconduct (requiring that all clergy within the diocese “maintain a standard of faithful sexual conduct, abstaining from all sexual activity outsides the bond of holy matrimony,”) I was labeled a “homophobe” and watched a long line of diocesan clergy all but perjure themselves as they stood before a diocesan assembly arguing against the proposed canon with every possible argument other than that they personally favored homosexual unions. This included clergy who were at the time active homosexuals. The canon lost by a very considerable margin. Those voting told themselves that they were not voting in favor of homosexual unions, but were resisting a “non-Anglican” attempt to legislate a matter that was not necessary to be legislated.

Ten years later the same denomination would finally do openly what was being done in secret and approve and ordain a practicing homosexual as a bishop of the Church.

My arguments here are not about sexual issues. My thoughts are instead about life in a climate of half-truths and unstated facts – not to mention just plain lies.

Many people, including clergy, are no stranger today to this kind of climate. Many of the so-called mainline denominations have some aspect of this climate. Doctrines are gradually eroding – some would say they are being “reinterpreted.” New orthodoxies are being invented (feminism is required in most seminaries in a far stricter manner than classical Christian doctrine ever was). 

There are organizations in most of these denominations that support efforts of “traditional” or “conservative” clergy and laity to resist the refashioning of the Christian faith. I have great sympathy for their work and pray for them in their struggle. As mainline denominations jettison vital aspects of Christian teaching or morality, the larger culture is weakened or even aided in its own mad rush to post-Christianity. The Orthodox Church, most particularly the Moscow Patriarchate, has been quite vocal in its support of these conservative efforts.

But I come back to Solzhenitsyn. For what is at stake in life is far more than culture struggles and the coming and going of intellectual tides in culture-Protestantism. What is at stake for men and women in these situations is their own souls.

It is possible to agree with the entire revisionist agenda of mainline Protestantism and perhaps have less danger to one’s soul than those who disagree with it and seek to make accommodation. The soul and its accommodation to what is false or what one knows to be false is a deeply profound matter.

David Steinmetz, Professor of Church History at Duke University (I took some courses from him back in the 80′s), recently published an editorial in which he commented on the eight or nine parishes in Virginia that have chosen to break with the Episcopal Church. His concluding observation was quite telling. Relating the saga of the past two decades or so in Anglicanism, he noted that conservative Episcopalians had reached a breaking point:

The conservatives did not buy it [the mainline suggestion that sexual issues were matters that Christians could agree to disagree about], declared the differences between them “irreconcilable,” and began to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. Some parishes formed a conservative network within the Episcopal Church, while others seceded — with or without their church property — to align with conservative provinces in Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, or South America.

Which is why the decision of nine parishes in the Virginia Diocese — including the large, wealthy, and historic parishes of Truro and Falls Church — did not come as a complete surprise.

What did come as a surprise was the timing. Like divorce, withdrawal from a family of churches is supposed to be a last resort, used only when all intermediate steps to reconcile existing differences have been tried and failed. The decision of the churches in Virginia to depart bears all the marks of impatience — or, at the very least, of the failure of the Christian virtue of hope.

No one has any right to be happy about this secession, least of all the departing congregations, who have only begun to tally up their losses.

Unfortunately, history demonstrates that schism like divorce is easier to do than to undo and a premature goodbye to one’s first love may last forever.

Steinmetz is a student of Church history – but in this case he is failing to look at the far larger picture of history. The language of the bureaucracy in Anglicanism has been one of “dialog,” “listening,” and “patience,” for nearly 50 years. During that time this language of patience has been directed towards those holding traditional positions while the reality of Church teaching, policy and practice have continued an unbroken march towards a radical revision of the Christian faith.

All of this would be comparable to earlier periods of Church history when the great doctrinal debates raged (as in the years of the Ecumenical Councils), if what was actually taking place were a debate. Instead there is the politics of control and the spirituality of accommodation. Christ directed his disciples to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” The life of accommodation is neither yes nor no.

In my own life, words such as those of Solzhenitsyn haunted me – but with an abiding hope of salvation. His actions and writings suggested that it was entirely possible to live and act with integrity even during a time when everyone would counsel accommodation. Eventually that hope would force me to speak the truth to myself and make decisions in accordance with what I spoke. Those decisions brought me to the Orthodox Church.

We live in a very dangerous age – in a time when people are not asked to change their beliefs so much as to hold their opinions and thoughts to themselves. Steinmetz is wrong in his observations. The more accurate question would be, “What took you so long?” 

We need not rush to judge others, or to say that others can’t think anything they jolly well like. “We live in a free country.” But for the human heart to be free – it must come to grips with the truth and plunge into its consequences. The lesson of Solzhenitsyn is that such a life is possible.

Since my conversion I have had opportunity to meet “confessors,” priests who suffered under communism, in some cases imprisoned for their courageous commitment to the truth. I also have had opportunity to hear stories of priests who did not fare so well – who became informers or otherwise accommodated themselves to the lie under which they lived. Perhaps their story and their choices were clearer than those that face Christians in the modern West.

My own belief is that we all face similar choices at all times. The choices between an accommodated soul and a soul that lives the truth can be created by any number of circumstances. But the reality of a soul’s decision remains the same.

There are living saints among us (I am not one of them). Men and women who have revealed the power of God in the simple act of telling the truth and acting in accordance with it. They make the same inner choices that saints have always had to make. In the end, there may be no other road to salvation.

17 Responses to “Living in Difficult Times”

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  1. Mark says:

    Father, you wrote:

    “We live in a very dangerous age – in a time when people are not asked to change their beliefs so much as to hold their opinions and thoughts to themselves.”

    In my limited experience, this call “not to change but to be quiet” sometimes appears in a modified form: we may say whatever we want (so long as it’s not too harsh), and so long as everyone else is permitted to say what they believe as well… We may contradict one another so long as we don’t act on those mutually exclusive claims — “unity” trumps truth. That was the unstated purpose of a “reconciliation commission” to which I was appointed in the last months of my tenure in the ECUSA.

    I found that atmosphere to be poisonous and debilitating and I had to flee to where the air was breathable. Others, apparently, have not had the same sense of desperation.

    Lord have mercy on us all.

  2. Mark,

    It is indeed an atmosphere that can be poisonous. And it’s not right to blame others for creating the atmosphere. When I did that all it did was make me angry and depressed – it did nothing to save my soul. The issue finally was with me – for me to tell the truth and to “plunge into its consequences.” That alone, for anyone, makes it possible for us to even know the truth.

    There is an old Southern joke that tells of two men who went hunting and treed what they thought was a racoon, but turned out to be a bobcat. One man climbed the tree and found himself in a lot of trouble. He began to shout to his friend, “Shoot, shoot!”

    His friend said, “I can’t. I might hit you.”

    “I don’t care,” the man called back. Just hit one of us and stop the misery!”

    It seemed too close to reality for me, once upon a time.

  3. Phil says:

    “It is possible to agree with the entire revisionist agenda of mainline Protestantism and perhaps have less danger to one’s soul than those who disagree with it and seek to make accommodation. The soul and its accommodation to what is false or what one knows to be false is a deeply profound matter.”

    This was a paragraph, Father, at which I stopped and thought. I believe you are correct. In my experience, which may be leading me to Orthodoxy, I think the events of the last forty years have shown that Anglicanism will fail, if it hasn’t already. It is showing itself to be unequal to the challenge of being “salt and light” in an aggressively secular world that, more and more, demands that even the Church kneel before it if it wishes to be considered politically and culturally acceptable. Most Episcopal Church leaders, do, indeed, wish for such approval.

    Then, too – to the point of your prior post – there is the corrosive effect of remaining in such a situation, which produces more, not less, hardening of one’s heart. I noted Alice Linsley said on that thread that many of her Anglican friends could not move at this time because of anger. For my own part, the emotion at the dissolution of Anglicanism is not anger, but sorrow.

  4. Jack says:

    A culture whose fundamental premise is individualism is one that will necessarily be manipulative. The naked individual in a culture whose first principle is the individual has no other grounds for defense but obfuscation. The ideal character type of such a culture when it matures and becomes aware of itself will be the ironic but effective manipulator. All character formation will be aimed toward exactly such an end; all virtue will be measured by this goal.

    Such a culture is not merely neutral. Christianity is essentially a communal tradition. It could never be individualistic. Our fruits are finally and fully revealing the mythology and pathology of our roots. Modernity is, as many of its elite architects well-understood, anti-Christian in inspiration.

    Father, could you pray for me? I am out-of-work and looking for some suitable occupation.

  5. Fatherstephen says:

    Jack,

    Certainly, I’ll pray. May God help you in your search for work and have mercy on us all.

  6. Jack says:

    Father,

    Thanks for the prayers. I really enjoy your essays.

    I don’t mention the manipulative character ideal out of pure spite, although undoubtedly my motives are not pure, I have no love for modernity. I mention it because it represents something of a revelation to me of our national character. We Americans are often manipulative with the very best of intentions. It is just that we have lost sight of *the* Good.

    I think what we need to look out for in these troubled times is a manipulative religiousity that only reinforces our disorder. Such a religiousity will be marked by an active creating of enthusiasm rather than an active reception of it. Thus, for instance, to a modern the so-called “gift of tears” will look like something he needs to do rather than a grace he can be open to receiving.

  7. Fatherstephen says:

    Jack,

    No doubt the most difficult thing for all of us is the fact that we are inevitably “modern” men – given the age we were born and nutured in. Finding God and living an authentic Christian life will have unique challenges for us – but every age has its challenge.

  8. Jack says:

    I guess I harbor the opinion that there have been ages in which cultures were less explicitly anti-Christian. I could be wrong. But, even if I’m not, your point stands. I believe it is the great grace of this particular moment in the history to reveal clearly to us that to be a Christian entails a serious counter-cultural choice even in a land that often proclaims itself to be a “Christian country.” The paradoxically stern but merciful faces typical of icons make more sense to me now.

  9. Roland says:

    I have to agree with David Steinmetz in finding the sin of impatience at work in the recent secessions of evangelical parishes in Virginia to CANA. But there is an even bigger problem at work here: To the extent that these evangelicals have any ecclesiology at all, it is a weak ecclesiology that places no value on the unity of Christ’s Body. Or to say the same thing from the opposite direction, they have no principle against schism.

    There are already processes at work in the Anglican Communion, whose purpose is to isolate the North American revisionists, expel them from full membership in the communion, and rescue the remaining conservative Anglicans in the U.S. and Canada. It will all come to a head no later than 2008, when the next Lambeth Conference is to be held. Is another 18 months really too long to wait?

    But the Nigerians, along with some of the other African provinces, have repeatedly broken ranks with the rest of the communion, violating agreements and doing their own thing. We first saw this sort of schismatic behavior with the formation of AMiA a few years ago.

    What happened in Virginia is not just a move to separate from ECUSA. It is also a power play by Nigeria against Canterbury, and of evangelical Anglicans against the catholic institutions and traditions of the Anglican Communion.

    Ultimately, the evangelicals will accomplish what the revisionists could not: They will break up the Anglican Communion. And then they will be rid not only of the revisionists, but of those annoying Anglo-Catholics, as well.

  10. Phil says:

    Roland, your comment is a strange one. Why would these Virginia churches work so diligently to remain under a bishop, in the Anglican Communion, if they have a weak or no ecclesiology?

    What happened in Virginia is precisely a move to separate from ECUSA. This institution – not “the evangelicals” – was warned clearly that its actions at GC03 would tear the Anglican Communion to pieces. In the event, of course, its secular agenda being its highest value, it blithely chose schism and went forward. As such, ECUSA is the organization that is working assiduously to “break up” the Communion.

    In any case, perhaps you should become more familiar with the landscape. ECUSA, by dissolving Catholic faith and order starting in the ‘70s, has already driven out most of the Anglo-Catholics, and it appears the last bastions of the same are squarely in the gunsights of the new regime.

  11. Fatherstephen says:

    My thoughts are spelled out clearly enough in my posting. But I cannot fathom the charge of impatience, given what has gone on. And the wait one year, wait two years, wait three year and then… has been said so many times to no effect.

    Many evangelicals in the Anglican Communion do have a weak ecclesiology – but the ecclesiology of the communion itself at large is also weak – it is built on bureaucratic existence, not ecclesial communion.

    I published at length on the subject of Anglican ecclesiology back in the mid 1990′s and think that I was correct in my assessment then. Anglicanism needs an ecclesiology – but has not had one to any extent for a very long time. The Elizabethan Compromise was largely an agreement to have a Church that was “one” in a juridical sense, but not “one” in doctrine, discipline and worship, other than agreement on certain anti-Roman doctrines, and that fell apart in the 19th century (victory for the Anglo-Catholics).

    Some of the most fruitful theological work of Anglicans came in their dialog with the Orthodox. But that has become a matter of the past.

    At present, I pray for them all. It is a very difficult time. It is especially a difficult time to maintain integrity and practice the truth.

    Orthodoxy treats schism as a serious sin, but we sever communion relatively quickly when a serious matter occurs, and then begin the work of putting things back together. Sometimes it takes years – but it says that coming to the cup without true unity is even more dangerous than schism.

    This next Spring, I believe on the feast of the Ascension, Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, will end their broken communion in a service in Moscow. This is very welcome despite whatever difficulties we may meet as it is implemented. I pray for their success.

  12. Jack says:

    Athanasius was fairly impatient.

    In all charity, to an outsider the Anglican communion looks more like a collection. One doesn’t see one mind at work there. I fear that contemporary Roman Catholicism is heading down the same road which is why traditional Catholics might see the new indult for the Trent rite as problematic. Traditional Catholics may be revealed to be yesterday’s Anglo-Catholicism, extending the life of an institution when deeper questions need to be asked.

    I don’t completely understand the Orthodox perspective. How do Orthodox account for and respond to institutional failures in a fruitful way?

  13. Fatherstephen says:

    We deal with institutional failures as the sin that they are. We repent and get on with life. It has thus been that way since the beginning of the Church. There have been some colossal institutional failures in history. But what has not failed in Orthodoxy, is the faith and truth as it is in Christ. This we have kept, or rather, by God’s grace, He has preserved us in the Truth. As He promised.

    But we have no theories of institutional perfection. Never have. We expect there to be failures as much as we expect that people will sin. Our beloved Lord gave us remedies for sin. Painful, but they work.

  14. Roland says:

    Phil,

    The CANA parishes in Virginia are now separate not only from ECUSA, but also from those that separated from ECUSA earlier (e.g., AMiA) and those that are preparing to separate from ECUSA in the next year (e.g., the Diocese of San Joaquin). We all know why the Virginia parishes want to be separate from ECUSA, but why do they want to be separate from these other traditional Anglicans – arguably more traditional than themselves – as well?

    For the past decade, the various Orthodox jurisdictions in North America have been working slowly and methodically to lay the groundwork for eventual unification as a single church. Anglicans in North America, OTOH, are now racing heedlessly in the opposite direction, creating a patchwork of jurisdictions answerable either to foreign archbishops or to no one.

    Abp. Akinola, the Primate of Nigeria and overseer of CANA, has been quite bold in the past year in downplaying the significance of Canterbury and the importance of the Anglican Communion. Some of his fellow conservative Anglican primates have described Akinola’s maneuvers as not only impatient, but scandalous.

    As an Anglo-Catholic now on my way out of ECUSA (28 days and counting!) more because of Abp. Akinola than because of Bp. Robinson, I’ll have more to say about this in my own blog in the next few weeks.

  15. Phil says:

    Roland – perhaps you are right. I do know for a fact that these departing parishes looked unfavorably on AMiA for the very reason that its relationship with the rest of the Communion is unclear. That was not thought to be a problem (of course, the evaluation may be incorrect) with CANA.

    I have to agree that the effect looks the same either way – further splintering.

    I look forward to seeing what you have to say on your blog. In any case, I am also Anglo-Catholic and not far behind you. I pray for God’s blessings on your move.

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