On April 25th, Orthodoxy in Dialogue reprinted an article, “An Increasingly Unorthodox World,” that originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report on the preceding St. Nicholas Day. The article documents the decline in growth of Orthodox Christianity. The author observes that, currently, “Orthodox followers account for 12 percent of Christians worldwide, down 8 percentage points from the levels in 1910.”
This could sound alarm bells for those who see numbers as indicating something about the health of Orthodoxy. While it is debatable precisely what these declines signify, they at least might provoke a useful conversation about how the Church can move forward, avoid extinction, and possibly grow as we move into the 21st century. In this spirit, I would like to propose several points for consideration. They each reflect upon the question, “How might we pass on Orthodox tradition?” These thoughts are preliminary, intended to encourage discussion rather than offer definitive answers.
1) To pass something on, we need to know what it is that we are passing on.
In our current mode, the Church often refrains from making itself understandable. Not just converts, but cradle Orthodox are encouraged to see comprehension of the Church as something fundamentally unattainable. Many people engage in church activities or partake of the sacraments without developing a coherent understanding of how doing so relates to the big picture of spiritual life. We encourage a notion of humility and obedience that makes people shy even to approach the question of why they are doing what they are doing. Parishioners fear that if they develop a rationale that is personally compelling to them, regarding how and why they participate in Orthodox life, it will inevitably be one filled with prelest––with spiritual delusion—or contaminated by Protestantism, Scholasticism, or a variation of some Frankish heresy. The result of our mystification and obfuscation is that parishioners may eventually learn what to think, but not how to think. We haven’t considered them worthy of possessing a means by which they themselves might evaluate the healthiness of spiritual teachings.
2) To pass something on, what is passed on has to be of a scale such that it can be passed on.
The Church, in some ways, is easy to understand. The central dogmatic truths are finite in number, as are the Councils in which these truths received their credal form. Catechism lends itself well to memorization. Even a child can learn the central dogmatic truths, and begin to develop an understanding of the hierarchy that exists amongst those truths (for example, the existence of God, the love of God, the Incarnation and passion as the expression of that love, the Resurrection and Ascension as the fulfilling of that love, and the bestowal of the Spirit as the basis for our participation in God’s transformation of the universe).
The perception that Orthodoxy is an infinite series of esoteric teachings derives from the fact that we have lost our grasp of the core in which all Orthodox teachings subsist. The idea that any word, written by any elder—considered without reference to our central scriptural and dogmatic scheme—carries equal weight, merely produces connoisseurs of spiritual esoterica, and knowledge of a kind that “puffeth up” (1 Cor 8:1), not love that builds up. We need to emphasize that Scripture—not writings such as The Philokalia, or the counsels of this or that particular Romanian elder—forms the central narrative of our theological tradition. If we are going to cite the Fathers responsibly, for example, we need to understand their orientation towards Scripture, and towards the other elements of Orthodox tradition. The many different kinds of writings that make up the treasury of Orthodox literature can be beneficially appropriated only when we first understand the lens through which they are to be understood. Without that exegetical key, without a grasp of the canon, they mislead.
The need to be able to prioritize certain aspects of the tradition applies also to liturgical life. In his Introduction to Liturgical Theology (SVS Press, 1986), Father Alexander Schmemann notes that the Church’s rubrics are considered, by some, to be uniformly sacrosanct and unquestionable. “For some people everything that is printed in the Typicon or in any ‘rubric’ is an absolute and immutable law, and to touch or change this material in any way whatever is tantamount to the subversion of Orthodoxy” (p. 37). Father Schmemann argues that it is important to understand the logic of liturgical services, how their meaning derives from and concentrates around the Eucharist. Extending this further, we can see how the eucharistic liturgy reflects the central mystery of Christianity, revealed in the Triduum of Holy Week and Pascha.
This encouragement to recognize the guiding rationale of liturgical worship has been criticized by some as a modernistic innovation. If such a rationale is not passed on, however, as we pass Orthodoxy on to others, the inheritors of the tradition are left without means of determining what is most essential when it comes to scheduling services in mission settings, where the idea of doing everything prescribed in the Typicon is absurd.
3) To pass something on, we have to have something that one might desire to receive.
In other words, Orthodoxy must be willing to stand alongside other expressions of Christian tradition, and persuade spiritual seekers that it has something worth embracing. We cannot simply exempt ourselves from competition in the marketplace of Christian denominationalism by claiming that we are the one true Church—and that it therefore doesn’t matter whether we successfully inculcate love in our adherents, help families remain together, or help people deal with their concrete life challenges. We need to consider the possibility that the claim to be the one true Church will be demonstrable by the way we tend to these very concerns, not by the way we dismiss such concerns as merely an indication of the superficiality of Western culture. If we believe that what people are looking for in Christian experience is off the mark, our evangelistic effort needs to include persuasion as to how that is so.
We need to present something that is attractive in the life of Orthodox Christianity, and worthy of being desired, rather than assuming the epithet “one true Church” ought to be persuasive all by itself. Ironically, the word “orthodox,” spelled with lowercase “o,” sometimes carries more authority than the same word when capitalized, “Orthodox.” The former requires accountability to what “orthodox, as an adjective, means. In some cases, our use of the word “Orthodox” is a means by which we presume authority, by way of an ad hominem shortcut.
I know of people who are persuaded that the Orthodox Church is the “one true Church,” but do not perceive it as offering a path that they can follow, given the contingencies of their actual lives. For this reason, they choose some other path that, while it may not present them with an impeccable historical pedigree, at least offers them a practical way to move forward in Christian life. A less-than-perfect, yet accessible, path has more appeal than a perfect one, whose entrance seems to be impossibly barred. We would do well to take such people into account, and ask ourselves whether the obstacles we present to them are indispensable.
A common theme might be identified amongst the preceding ideas. The decline in Orthodoxy’s size is perhaps necessary, so that we can recover the essence of what it is we hope to pass on. A church that has forgotten what it is transmitting, forgotten that its truths must be accessible to real people, and forgotten that its claim to truth ought to be reflected in a way of life that is also desirable and accessible, will have difficulty growing—and will not be to anyone’s real benefit if it does. Perhaps we need to remember the mustard seed origins of the Kingdom of God, and how the Truth, in its entirety, abode in such small beginnings.
Like someone who reduces an hour-long speech onto an outline that can fit on a three-by-five card, and thereby distils what is essential and worth communicating in the first place, we might be served by becoming small again.
The Church can grow, once it becomes the Church again.
V. Rev. Isaac Skidmore holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and a PhD in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria CA. He served as rector at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church (OCA) in Ashland OR during a decade of its growth as a mission parish, where he remains attached as auxiliary priest. He practices as a licensed counselor in Southern Oregon.
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