Recently, I have been told that as a now former Orthodox Christian, I should no longer address Orthodox issues. Sometimes this is through a relatively polite comment, and sometimes via nasty personal messages in which I am accused of being “at best dishonest” and at worst “remarkably disingenuous.”

Such outrage at my commentary is hardly new, but as not a few Orthodox friends predicted, leaving Orthodoxy simply gives critics one more weapon in the battle to silence disagreement. I think it is worth more extended comments on just how problematic are the assumptions which underlie this form of silencing.

Contemporary Orthodoxy appears to have very little capacity to handle disagreement. Declaring tout court that non-Orthodox have nothing to contribute to Orthodoxy only underscores the insistence on conformity and the silencing of disagreement which is currently commonplace within Orthodoxy. The current silencing of priests who disagree on issues of pastoral care, the constant threat that they may lose their livelihood when exercising pastoral discernment, reveal that the crisis is not really about non-Orthodox impudently offering an unwanted opinion. It is a fundamental unwillingness to engage in certain conversations. I was once pulled aside by another Orthodox scholar who said, “the Orthodox church needs your considerable gifts, please don’t pigeonhole yourself by only talking about gender.” In other words, “please talk about something we all think we need to hear.” While I am aware that some Orthodox traditions believe that disagreement and question-asking are themselves acts of disobedience, that is not the Orthodox tradition in which I was raised. Many Orthodox, mostly converts, have invited me to go elsewhere, and each time, it is more a ploy to silence challenge and disagreement than a reflection of either Orthodox ecclesiology or interest in my personal participation in God.

I speak out of a deep love and care for Orthodoxy. Loving a family does not mean it is not abusive. But pointing out its abusiveness may cost you the family. This is the only analogy I have found that adequately describes the love I have for Orthodoxy, the betrayal I feel at its hands, and the immense relief at no longer being at the mercy of its capriciousness.

Contemporary Orthodoxy is systematically abusive because, as an institution, its commitment to unchanging tradition is already a lie that was never true. Those who adhere to this idea of changelessness cannot make reality fit the lie, so they punish those who speak out. As a result, many remain in silence because they love this version of Orthodoxy more than it hurts them. Perhaps they are fortunate enough to be, for the moment, in one of the few safer parishes. Perhaps their opinions and loves do not put them in direct conflict with the church, so they do not experience its abusive side. I simply was never one of those who could remain silent.

That isn’t going to stop, though it will likely shift. Here is why:

The idea that by no longer participating as an Orthodox communicant one simply stops being Orthodox and has nothing to say is a poor understanding of the depth of formation that occurs in community. Many cradle (and a very few adult-joiners) have reminded me that despite my membership in the Episcopal Church, “once Orthodox, always Orthodox.” They have a point — identities don’t just change; they accrue over time. That said, my identity as a Christian has already been formed by other Christian bodies, and it will continue to be distinctly formed by participation in the Anglican Communion via The Episcopal Church.

I was raised under the theological influence of some of the greatest Orthodox ecumenists of the twentieth century. If I continue to speak to and about Orthodoxy, it is out of a deep commitment to Christian unity and the conviction that we must talk about the reality of ourselves and our communities. Orthodoxy tends to think of itself as sufficient unto itself — as neither wanting nor needing the reflections of other Christians. This reflects a profound lack of ecclesial humility. It fails to consider the possibility that the theanthropic Body of Christ is, like all other bodies in which Christ now dwells, in the process of deification. I reject both papal and ecclesial infallibility, and believe that ecumenism requires talking about our failures as well as what is beautiful. It is my fervent hope that I can continue to do both in a way that encourages all Christians into further participation, which may require turning away from practices we come to recognize as destructive, and rejoicing in sharing ancient and new practices which encourage abundant life.

I am a scholar whose expertise lies in Eastern Christian theology and ethics. Changing ecclesial affiliation does not suddenly nullify that expertise, nor the interest and passion which fueled its accrual. As a person with insatiable curiosity, I am delighted to expand my areas of knowledge, and perhaps expertise. As someone whose strength is seeing patterns and making connections across supposedly disparate systems, I will always articulate that knowledge in conversation across systems. As an Orthodox, I was often frustrated with the phrase, “Christians, Catholics and Protestant”… as if Orthodox didn’t exist. Where I think my work is appropriate across Christian borders, I will say so, and I will include Orthodoxy in that list.

These days I am constantly shocked at the astonishing joy of being in a family that may be messy, but is, at least so far, not abusive. (I admit that my bar may be a bit low.) But the reality is, my path to The Episcopal Church is shaped by theologians such as Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley, both of whom articulate some of the most beautiful bits of Eastern Christian theology and hope in the language of the Anglican Communion. In other words, I am already a blend of traditions, of families, and I hope that my theological conversation comes to reflect the best of both.

It is up to Orthodox, or Episcopalians, if they see such a conversation as worth engaging.

12 thoughts

  1. Thank-you for your beautiful words for those of us who are Orthodox and now members of the Episcopal Church. Although a difficult transition from the beauty of such a rich liturgical and theological tradition I find true agape love amongst the Episcopalians. As a former Orthodox priest I confess that the ECUSA could benefit from our rich experience as followers of the Orthodox Way.

  2. Thanks, Maria, for these prophetic words. The family analogy is certainly apt. I’ve struggled for years over the question of whether witness to the truth of Christ is better borne by staying in the church, willing to be crucified by those who’ve made our faith into idolatry, or by leaving, the idea being that at some point the institution becomes so corrupt that staying in becomes dishonest. And I honestly don’t know which is the honest action in this case. It’s often true that the most difficult and painful choice is the truest one, but in this case, both actions seem equally painful to me. I’m leaning pretty strongly toward leaving at this point. To be clear, those who make our tradition into an idol have always been in the church (look back to the Epistle to the Galatians…), but in the 21st century Orthodox Church, they steer the boat. And those opposed to that kind of idolatry are timid, afraid to confront the dishonesty, afraid to defend those who do, and, in the case of clergy and theologians, too cautious about keeping their jobs. I’ve actually been scolded a few times with that as the basis: “Well, you don’t understand, he has a family to support.” And I try imagine Christ on the cross concerning himself with the mortgage of one of the people who, two thousand years after the event, made careers in the academic discipline that (amusingly, to me) ultimately arose out of the self-emptying of God. Cognitive dissonance. I think it’s important to distinguish between those who leave the church who’ve “lost their faith” or came not to believe that stuff any more, etc., from those, like us I think, who found the family so dysfunctional that it made better sense to be outside, recognizing that one is always in the family, even if the family, with it’s many cantankerous adopted members, has rejected us (how’s that for pressing an analogy?). I take heart from my experience of being away from the Church for several years around the turn of the millennium. Though I was not participating literally, there was this surprisingly strong sense of still being being there in some way. It wasn’t sentimentality or inertia. My non-participation didn’t do away with my participation in some subtle level. Or not so subtle even. Maybe it’s simliar for you.

    1. Dave, at this point, a growing part of me simply does not want to participate in even a subtle level, but I find I cannot so easily leave my love aside. I think that when people like you, who speak out clearly, should stay if they can. I want to hope that Orthodoxy can change, and it will only do so if people stay and speak. I just found that I was simply no longer allowed to stay.

      Blessings, whether you stay or go.

  3. As the mother of the blogger, I find that THIS IS RIDICULOUS that it should be implied that my daughter can not talk about Orthodox issues. She was deliberately brought up in the Orthodox church to experience and acquire spirituality!

  4. After I left the Episcopal Church, I was told in no uncertain terms by several priests that I no longer have a right to voice a critical opinion about Anglicanism and especially about the Episcopal Church. Such is the way of things, no matter which side of the street one presently lives on. Not saying it’s right or healthy.

  5. Maria,

    Thanks for posting this. I frequently check-in to your site here and always find your articles to be interesting, well written, and thought provoking, even when I disagree.

    I am an American convert to the Orthodox faith. (I hope this fact doesn’t dismiss my questions and comments) I’ve been on the receiving end of disdain due to this so I think I can understand, at least to a some degree, your frustration.

    I want to make sure I’m understanding you and then share how I am inclined to interpret your recent blog post here. I want to make sure I’m understanding you and that you’re speaking for yourself. Seems like the fair and charitable thing to do.

    Am I correct that the issues you’re speaking about not getting a hearing on would be primarily related to marriage (and pastoral responses to) and ordination? While you don’t come out and say it, reading between the lines, that’s how read this based on previous writing and I think many others would as well. Perhaps my misreading you here?

    When you write that “Contemporary Orthodoxy appears to have very little capacity to handle disagreement … It is a fundamental unwillingness to engage in certain conversations”, are you saying that in certain informal contexts (e.g., blogs, social media) there is this unwillingness? Or do you perceive or have you encountered an unwillingness on a larger and more formal level (Orthodox academic community, publishers, bishops)?

    When you write that “Contemporary Orthodoxy is systematically abusive because, as an institution, its commitment to unchanging tradition is already a lie that was never true”, what do you mean by systematically abusive? Many will read you here as saying that “contemporary Orthodoxy is abusive because it rejects and continues to reject what I want it to accept”. Again, I’m assuming you’re speaking of homosexual marriage and maybe female ordination. I could be wrong here. Can you be specific about the relationship between a commitment to unchanging tradition and systemic abuse?

    This leads me to questions about dissent and dialogue. When does dialogue reach the end point? Are conversations endless? At what point does a dissenter say, “my position is outside of the accepted position. I still disagree but accept that my position not the accepted position”? What obligation is there on the part of the church to entertain dialogue and who determines what dialogue topic warrants discussion? I’m just thinking out loud here. I would hope that in our ever-changing world the discussion of how to offer pastoral responses to our current challenges will remain ongoing. There are other forms of dialogue (dare I say dissent) that seem less genuine to me.

    I’ve probably gone on for too long considering this a quick response to a blog post. At any rate, it is a shame that anyone would tell you that you couldn’t speak opinions on Orthodox matters.


    1. Brian, I appreciate and welcome your engagement here. Thank you.

      I am going to try to keep my answers short (okay, after writing, they aren’t really short), which is not entirely fair but each questions is likely a blog post on its own. I will mostly go in order of your questions.

      Issues: You are partly correct I am speaking primarily about marriage and ordination as there are the issues close to my heart. However, I think that many issues fall in to this category: fasting, liturgical change/development, jurisdictionalism, misuse of power, relation to state/politics. Many social/ethical issues are poorly addressed, in part because there is a significant divide between theologians and episcopacy. We no longer have theologian-bishops, and so theological discussion where decisions are made tends to be fairly poor.

      Fundamental Unwillingness: So, the ‘fundamental unwillingness’ is in both ‘informal’ contexts, where disagreement is shouted down as heresy and scathing character attacks replace thoughtful engagement, and ‘formal’ contexts, where expertise is not consulted or invited if it is perceived as too controversial. For example, on the issue of the ordination of women: the non-response to the call to restore female deacons at Rhodes in 1988, conferences on women in ministry that oddly rarely include those who are actual experts on the topic, the dearth of women in teaching positions in Orthodox seminaries (where priests are preferred, automatically eliminating women), the lack of engagement between bishops and said experts, is ultimately an avoidance of conversation.

      Dissent and Dialogue: Which leads me to skip to ‘dissent and dialogue’ where it would be one thing if there really had been a serious dialogue on these topics, public, occurring, respectfully engaging disagreement and examining our theology carefully and in love. That simply has not happened. For example, regarding the ordination of women: Kallistos Ware shifted his position to one that acknowledges that Orthodox theological reasons for not ordaining women are poor, and says that more work must be done to openly examine the issue. Both Metrs. Anthony Bloom and John Zizioulas are on record saying there is no reason that women cannot be ordained, at least no good one. Yet no action has taken place to restore female deacons, and no one will touch priesthood. Those of us who have written on it are met with silence. So, there cannot be an end point to a conversation in which no one with authority is willing to engage. I know academics and clergy who think that yes, it is likely that women can be ordained to the priesthood, but will not say so out loud b/c to do so is to invite controversy, the scathing character attacks I mentioned above, and guarantee that nothing else they say will be taken seriously.

      My experience (and I am not accusing you of this) is that people who ask “haven’t we discussed this enough” in regards to women (and homosexuality) are folks who don’t actually think a conversation is necessary.

      To be totally honest, however, since I think these are matters of justice and the recognition of the work of God, unless I were convinced otherwise, I likely would not stop pressing for the conversation. That said, there simply is no such conversation. Had I not been denied both communion and community, I might have staid as a member of the ‘loyal opposition’ for decades more. But, no communion or no community removes the heart of what it is to be a Christian (for me), and is simply personally unsustainable.

      Systematically Abusive: I am sure that many will characterize me as you have noted. I can’t really fix that. It is fair to ask for clarification however. First, there is no such thing as an “unchanging tradition” in Orthodoxy. At least not in regards to women (homosexuality is more complicated, I recognize that). Orthodox tradition has changed in many, many areas, and I think it is a rhetorical ploy to claim otherwise. The goal of this ploy (intentional or not) seems to be to assure people that what they are comfortable with now is what has always been. Yet if you look at the way 20th c. liturgical theology is derisively described as ‘liturgical archeology’ which should be ignored, you can see an example of how Orthodoxy tends towards what becomes abusive behavior for those who challenge the illusion of unchanging tradition. Those who point out the constancy of change, and argue that we must continue to do so, are maligned as ‘non-Orthodox’ or ‘not-Orthodox-enough’ without actual engagement with the factual reality of what they are addressing. This maligning becomes abusive when it revolves around women, who by claiming a vocation to ordination are characterized as somehow violating their god-given ‘mode’ of being, or homosexuals, who are told they have a sickness which must be healed. These are, to those women and homosexuals, destructive methods of pastoral ‘care.’ And these methods of pastoral ‘care’ depend a great deal on the insistence that our tradition is unchanging. The abusiveness also lies in the shaming, hostility, and slander meted out to those who dare to disagree in writing or practice. Many priests would offer quite different pastoral care were they not afraid to lose their jobs, and those who do constantly risk being ‘outed.’

      At this point, I am not sure I actually believe the Orthodox Church can change on these things. It is to fragile, unable to survive well in the West, retreating to an insular preservationism that pits it against anything that challenges its current way of being. It is rife with ethno-philetism, political turmoil, and latching on the sexually depraved West is a convenient way to rally around a common enemy. The best of Orthodox theological history, its creative engagement with contemporary science, philosophy and anthropology, seems impossible to imitate at this time. It is a terrible loss. But I think people need to continue to try. Perhaps not me, but those who can stay should, and should speak out. If they can.

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