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.

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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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How can we resist the cultural tides this way? I have a theory. I think it's because you can only change something if you have the authority to change it. You have to be in a position of power, enabled to explain and define the faith anew; or you can battle noisily against those in that position, and make it awkward for them to use their power. In any case, faith is understood as something eternally under construction, responding to the challenges of each new generation.

But in the Orthodox Church, nobody has that kind of power. The church is too decentralized for that. Even those who are our leaders are a different kind of leader. Orthodoxy is less of an institution (like, say, the Episcopal Church) and more of a spiritual path (like Buddhism). It's a treasury of wisdom about how to grow in union with God--theosis.

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