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.