Orthodoxy: Unbruised by the Culture Wars

Why aren't Orthodox Christians fighting over gay marriage, women priests, and more? Because we accept the wisdom of the past.

BY: Frederica Mathewes-Green


"What are the controversial issues in Orthodoxy?" This question, recently posed on a Beliefnet message board, is the dandelion in the lawn of Orthodox inquirers. It's the question I kept asking, fifteen years ago, when my family was deciding to leave our mainline denomination. If we became Orthodox, what would we be getting into? Was it going to be the same heartbreaking arguments over sexuality, scripture, and more--just over pierogies instead of doughnuts?

Well, there are controversies in Orthodoxy, all right, but they're not those controversies. You can find people on the internet arguing heatedly about whether churches should follow the old or the new calendar, or whether Orthodox should participate in any kind of ecumenical dialogue. But the fierce internet debates don't seem to come up much at the parish level (though you'll find garden-variety power struggles, nominal faith, and other frustrations that plague any church).

Some very big controversies are actually on the mend. For a century there was a split between those Orthodox who left Russia in order to preserve the faith, and those who stayed behind. But on the feast of Pentecost (June 19, 2005), leaders of both bodies signed an agreement that paves the way for reunion. That's cause for rejoicing.

So, yes, there are controversies--but that's not what American inquirers mean. What about gay marriage? What about women's ordination? Is there an abortion-rights movement in Orthodoxy? Are there bishops who teach that the Resurrection was a myth?

Those are the questions causing turmoil in most American denominations. When my husband and I began looking into Orthodoxy, gay issues weren't yet on the horizon, and we didn't have any problem with women's ordination. (I attended seminary myself and sought ordination, until I got a good look at how hard a pastor's job is.) What concerned us instead was theological upheaval - for example, bishops questioning the Virgin Birth, miracles, and the bodily Resurrection. We wanted to find a place where our children could be secure in the original faith. My husband had a T-shirt that read, "Have a Nicene Day!"

But as I moved toward my chrismation I felt worried. I could see that Orthodoxy was preserving the faith just fine - for now. But it had no visible means of enforcing that faith. The Orthodox hierarchy doesn't have the kind of power that high-ranking clergy do in other churches. There isn't even a worldwide governing board to hold all the various Orthodox bodies together. On the ground it looked pretty ad hoc, especially in America, where waves of immigrants have set up parallel administrative bodies.

And there didn't even seem to be an Orthodox catechism, for goodness' sake. It seemed like the faith was supposed to be learned almost by osmosis, by living it. How could that work? If a church with an infallible pope and a magisterium could have as much rioting in the pews as the Catholics did, what hope did the Orthodox have? So I figured it was just a matter of time. Trying to maintain the classic faith without a powerful hierarchy didn't look like doing a high-wire act without the net; it looked like doing it without the wire.

The following fifteen years have been devastating to the peace of most American churches. People who have lived through these battles are battered and worn. And yet - unbelievably enough -- Orthodoxy has remained untouched. It's as if the contemporary American furor is just a tiny blip in history, and not our concern. We still don't have demands for gay marriage, or nuns agitating for women in the priesthood. We don't see theological revision or liturgical innovation. The biggest controversy today would be the painful wrangle among Greek Orthodox about their charter - yet, when it comes to theological and moral issues, people on both sides still believe the same things. That's what being Orthodox means: holding a common faith. All the "big questions" were settled over a millennium ago, and no one is inclined to revise them.

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