This morning, Dr William Tighe sent out an e-mail with some links about people who become Orthodox and leave. Leaving the Orthodox Church is a poignant posting, as are several others on this blog that reveal some of the same problems as any expression of Christianity in contact with modern western culture.
It gets me out of my recent little bout of “writer’s block”!
There is even a posting Abusive Hierarchy and Breaking Orthodoxy that recommends a kind of aggiornamento and advises Orthodox priests to shave and get haircuts in order to fit into the modern western world! Perhaps the long hair might fit into some circles of modern life, other than American middle class suburban life. The Orthodox have other reasons, and I don’t intend to discuss them here.
I came across the same problems – in analogy – when I was in the Institute of Christ the King. Here in France, buzz cuts and black cassocks mean extreme right-wing politics. Wearing fringes, lace and baroque trappings makes it even worse. We are brought to the idea of the priest being close to the people. Putting it the most simply, a priest can take off his cassock and choose his secular style – businessman or hippie – and still be a bastard. Alternatively, he can simply his style moderately and work on his sense of empathy for other people and be a human being!
The first article I mentioned speculates on reasons why people leave Orthodoxy, but it can also apply to Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism or anything.
First of all, people will leave their church to be atheists, spiritual-but-not-religious or to join another church. The posting considers the case of converts more than those born into a family that is a part of the community. Orthodoxy depends most on the ethnic community (Greek, Russian, Serbian, Syrian, etc.) but Roman Catholicism does too to an extent. In the USA, ethnic Roman Catholicism was made up mainly of expatriate European communities, the Irish and Italians in particular, fortified by Eastern Europeans and Hispanics from across the border. In England, it was traditionally a matter of the “old” Catholics, descended from recusant families, and the Irish immigration. It is sure that an ethnic minority in a foreign country where people have immigrated for political or economic reasons will use religion to bolster its identity. Religion is strongest where the ethnic identity is strongest.
A convert to Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism will feel very much like a gate-crasher into someone’s private party, and may be perceived as one by the “owners” of that particular community. The convert became convinced that the Church he was joining was the “true Church” (outside of which there is no salvation) and that he would be welcomed as a kind of prodigal son. Not so, he can believe the doctrines that Church teaches, be attracted to the liturgy and popular religious practices – but he doesn’t belong because his family is not a part of the community. This fact of Orthodoxy is just as true in French traditionalist Roman Catholicism. The best way to get on in French traditionalist circles is to have been born in Versailles in a minor aristocratic family from a father who is an army officer. The boy goes through the right schools and the Scouts, and has his place carved out in the old way. His Saint-Cyr shaven back and sides is just as stereotypical as the long hair and beard of the Greek, Russian or Serbian immigrant.
The fact is that religion is a part of a social identity marker, and it practically does not exist outside these limits. This is perhaps the source of a “religionless Christianity” – surely Christ broke out of his Jewish mould to address the Gentiles, and all the Apostles went far away from Israel to propagate the Gospel. Surely, the idea was to separate Christianity both from ethnicity and tribalism and from the religious instinct. I am personally unable to buy “religionless Christianity”, because it would be atheism in its purest expression, perfectly suited to a global “civilisation” where no one has any right to any sense of identity.
Christianity is tied to the sense of identity, because religion supplies a fundamental human need. But, perhaps there are other forms of culture and social identity in which Christianity can flourish. We have to find them. I myself write as a “failed convert”, having been received by the SSPX, having spent 1983 to 1995 in the “official” Church and then having been a “hanger-on” from late 1996 to early 1998. My own experience was not having difficulties with any particular dogma or moral doctrine or the liturgy of the traditionalist groups. I just didn’t belong and I was told as much. My own alienation became complete as I was never a part of the conservative ideology of the traditionalists, nor of the “ordinary” parish and diocesan system. What remained was a kind of mixture of high Anglicanism and the last shreds of French rural Catholicism where I actually did find a warm welcome. The TAC and then the ACC seem to have been able to accommodate my own eccentricities and messed-up religious instincts as a priest.
I can easily understand the drama of the individual convert making up his own foundational myth and seeking support for it is some kind of “lost paradise”. Many, perhaps even most, converts assimilate the reality they find, and they “stick”. The problems are the same for the 23-year old Englishman who ventures out to France and someone who seeks the “myth” in Orthodoxy. One thing that many of us ignore is the fact that all churches and indeed all human communities are imperfect and limited. Perhaps the church can be a stepping stone of the soul’s journey, until a community that tolerates difference and eccentricity is found, or the individual ventures out into uncharted waters.
Do we have the right to be different or to seek perfection? All human communities would say – If you want to stay with us, the answer is no. That community can be a Church, the business corporation we work for that requires absolute conformity to be a part of the team or simply the conventions of modern society. We can go the way we feel driven, but that will bring loneliness and suffering. That suffering can be the consequence of our selfishness and sin, or our quest for the Absolute and the way of prophets and saints. The dividing line is all too brief.
This article is fascinating – The antidote to this malaise would seem to involve restoring a tribal basis for personal identity. What about a “medieval village”? I don’t think it’s something I would fancy, and I know of no attempt that has succeeded. I can only think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the famous story of a bunch of plane-wrecked English schoolboys turning to darkness and evil. We humans are fragile, and the attempt to found the medieval village would consist of rigid legalism and formalism, an obsession with externals. We cannot be born in the modern world and return to pre-modernism – containing the destructiveness of individual autonomy that modernity has unleashed.
Bonhöffer’s ghost returns to taunt us with the idea that we are modern and post-modern. Here in Europe, religion has nothing to do with society, a society which has become secular. Religionlessness is not an option, but a fact of life. Not only has the convert’s experience in a Church failed, but the Church itself is dis-incarnated from a world that no longer tolerates its eccentricity and “anti-social” values. The convert is doubly alienated – from the Church and from secular society. No amount of praying will get the genie back into the bottle. Christ uses the analogy of being “born again” and even gives an explanation to the obvious question asked by Nicodemus. It would seem that you can only be “born again” once!
I have also mentioned the elite basis of Christianity, the monastic life. That might seem a romantic idea, until one actually acquires some experience of the gritty reality of forty or sixty men living in a large building and going about their daily routine. There is the family side, and there is another side that makes the abbey resemble an army barracks – down to the pervading smells of boot polish, masculine sweat and boiled cabbage from the kitchen. Certainly, there are inspirations to be taken from the Rule in our attempts to live and survive, but somehow, it doesn’t quite fit. Perhaps we can consider ourselves to be inspired by the Rule when we take as much care of our kitchens, workshops, tools and everything as our chapels and sacristies!
We need local societies in which Christianity can flourish, as it cannot in globalist modernity. The Nation? Throughout the twentieth century, Roman Catholicism sought the support of totalitarian, national socialist and fascist dictatorships in its combat against atheistic Communism and its desire to restore the “social Kingship of Christ”. The French traditionalists still have this dream by supporting the National Front of Marine Le Pen. If they can’t get a king back on the throne, there has to be some way of bringing people back to Christianity by making them observe Christian morality! We find ourselves confronted with the drama of the Grand Inquisitor. We can’t be forced to be good! Or can we?
I’m certainly “preaching to my own parish”. I can only see the world through my own experience, knowing that others have become good Orthodox and Roman Catholics. I am not originally from the Church to which I now belong. I was baptised in the Church of England and only became a regular Christian from age 13 through school chapel and my interest in church music and architecture. I was always part of some kind of elite, whether latterly in the clergy (Roman Catholic) or formerly in the choir or engaged as an organist. I have never really known parish life at a popular level.
I am brought to the notion of elite Christianity, that of construct common interest groups: music, the liturgy, high culture, art, &c. When I use the word elite, it doesn’t to me mean exclusivity and a snotty attitude in regard to those who are not in the group. I do mean defining the group by the common interest and ability of the group’s members. To belong to an orchestra, you have to be able to play an instrument to the required standard. If the group is defined by a common interest, you need to be interested in it. The group becomes an elite by definition. We can find our identity in this way where all the other social ties we have are changed or have become something that repels and alienates us.
In working out something to promote the Use of Sarum, I have tried to identify some kind of social context in which such an endeavour could be made to work, to avoid being self-destructive through too many differences of culture and ecclesial affiliation. Perhaps an atheist would feel out of place in a Sarum study group, as I would feel in a charismatic renewal group, however much effort I put into it. Diversity and small groups seem to be the answer. My sailing club is an elite – though we welcome all comers. The only thing is that not everyone is interested in boats. The common interest is its own limiter.
Many are alienated by “normal” parishes and modern life in general. We priests need to become involved with clubs and associations of people interested in different things, preferably those associations that promote things we are interested in too. Some “non-religious” matters of interest are most compatible with Christian spiritual growth. One is art. Another is music. Spiritual life needs to be open to beauty and harmony, as the latter often lead souls to the former. Artists often feel excluded from churches, which is nothing new!
I am interested in the idea of common-interest groups that are outside the institutional Churches, outside their control, so that no one may feel that he walking into a trap. I do believe that priests need to belong to an institutional Church, as I do, because the priesthood implies a notion of mission. We are called by being sent. We do not send ourselves. At the same time, we are called to exercise initiatives beyond the parish boundaries and in alternative forms of communities as they form around man’s aspirations and ability to affirm his identity in a world that want to strip him of it.
I get a little further with my thought about these things. We need to change and adapt. The question has always been – To what? The answer is any form of human social and personal life open to God and the Absolute. There is the clay waiting for the potter’s hand.