Archive for January 3rd, 2007

Living in Difficult Times

January 3, 2007


One of the most influential books in my life crossed my path during my college years. It was a collection of essays, edited and contributed to by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. From Under the Rubble offered more insight than the then more popular novels and the Gulag Achipelago that had vaulted the writer into his position of fame. The essays made it clear that this writer – always described as a “Soviet Dissident” in the American press – was, in fact, a devout Orthodox Christian. I was profoundly struck by this fact – and began to read his works with a different eye. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s courage did two things for me. First, he offered me the example of a Christian hero at a time when most heroes were missing in action or simply missing. Second, he offered me the suggestion that there were possibilities to be found in Orthodox Christianity that I had never considered – this point was a lot longer in maturing.

In one of his essays addressing his fellow Soviet citizens he wrote in bold type: DO NOT LIE. REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LIE. The sentence nearly jumped off the page. As I would later discover in reading about Solzhenitsyn, he was living this maxim in a dangerous game with the Soviet regime. Too much truth, too quickly, and they’ll kill you. Too little truth, and you’re as good as dead. Eventually the regime settled matters by sending the author into exile. He continued to write and speak here in the West, until his Christianity became too obvious for the American press. After his famous Harvard Address, the American press began to ignore him.

But his words never left my thoughts. Years later, as I lived my life within the ranks of Episcopal clergy, I would find those words to be constantly haunting. I was not living in a Soviet regime, but I had come to see life within a mainline Protestant bureaucracy as something marked by constant “double-speak.” The Creed was said in services, but not believed in many places. Clergy who had taken an oath to “conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the Episcopal Church stretched the meaning of the oath to the place of meaninglessness.

I had to argue with seminary faculty about the divinity of Christ (I do not exaggerate). I was told by one of my bishops that the Virgin Birth was “optional” as a doctrine. When I authored a diocesan canon on clergy sexual misconduct (requiring that all clergy within the diocese “maintain a standard of faithful sexual conduct, abstaining from all sexual activity outsides the bond of holy matrimony,”) I was labeled a “homophobe” and watched a long line of diocesan clergy all but perjure themselves as they stood before a diocesan assembly arguing against the proposed canon with every possible argument other than that they personally favored homosexual unions. This included clergy who were at the time active homosexuals. The canon lost by a very considerable margin. Those voting told themselves that they were not voting in favor of homosexual unions, but were resisting a “non-Anglican” attempt to legislate a matter that was not necessary to be legislated.

Ten years later the same denomination would finally do openly what was being done in secret and approve and ordain a practicing homosexual as a bishop of the Church.

My arguments here are not about sexual issues. My thoughts are instead about life in a climate of half-truths and unstated facts – not to mention just plain lies.

Many people, including clergy, are no stranger today to this kind of climate. Many of the so-called mainline denominations have some aspect of this climate. Doctrines are gradually eroding – some would say they are being “reinterpreted.” New orthodoxies are being invented (feminism is required in most seminaries in a far stricter manner than classical Christian doctrine ever was). 

There are organizations in most of these denominations that support efforts of “traditional” or “conservative” clergy and laity to resist the refashioning of the Christian faith. I have great sympathy for their work and pray for them in their struggle. As mainline denominations jettison vital aspects of Christian teaching or morality, the larger culture is weakened or even aided in its own mad rush to post-Christianity. The Orthodox Church, most particularly the Moscow Patriarchate, has been quite vocal in its support of these conservative efforts.

But I come back to Solzhenitsyn. For what is at stake in life is far more than culture struggles and the coming and going of intellectual tides in culture-Protestantism. What is at stake for men and women in these situations is their own souls.

It is possible to agree with the entire revisionist agenda of mainline Protestantism and perhaps have less danger to one’s soul than those who disagree with it and seek to make accommodation. The soul and its accommodation to what is false or what one knows to be false is a deeply profound matter.

David Steinmetz, Professor of Church History at Duke University (I took some courses from him back in the 80’s), recently published an editorial in which he commented on the eight or nine parishes in Virginia that have chosen to break with the Episcopal Church. His concluding observation was quite telling. Relating the saga of the past two decades or so in Anglicanism, he noted that conservative Episcopalians had reached a breaking point:

The conservatives did not buy it [the mainline suggestion that sexual issues were matters that Christians could agree to disagree about], declared the differences between them “irreconcilable,” and began to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. Some parishes formed a conservative network within the Episcopal Church, while others seceded — with or without their church property — to align with conservative provinces in Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, or South America.

Which is why the decision of nine parishes in the Virginia Diocese — including the large, wealthy, and historic parishes of Truro and Falls Church — did not come as a complete surprise.

What did come as a surprise was the timing. Like divorce, withdrawal from a family of churches is supposed to be a last resort, used only when all intermediate steps to reconcile existing differences have been tried and failed. The decision of the churches in Virginia to depart bears all the marks of impatience — or, at the very least, of the failure of the Christian virtue of hope.

No one has any right to be happy about this secession, least of all the departing congregations, who have only begun to tally up their losses.

Unfortunately, history demonstrates that schism like divorce is easier to do than to undo and a premature goodbye to one’s first love may last forever.

Steinmetz is a student of Church history – but in this case he is failing to look at the far larger picture of history. The language of the bureaucracy in Anglicanism has been one of “dialog,” “listening,” and “patience,” for nearly 50 years. During that time this language of patience has been directed towards those holding traditional positions while the reality of Church teaching, policy and practice have continued an unbroken march towards a radical revision of the Christian faith.

All of this would be comparable to earlier periods of Church history when the great doctrinal debates raged (as in the years of the Ecumenical Councils), if what was actually taking place were a debate. Instead there is the politics of control and the spirituality of accommodation. Christ directed his disciples to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” The life of accommodation is neither yes nor no.

In my own life, words such as those of Solzhenitsyn haunted me – but with an abiding hope of salvation. His actions and writings suggested that it was entirely possible to live and act with integrity even during a time when everyone would counsel accommodation. Eventually that hope would force me to speak the truth to myself and make decisions in accordance with what I spoke. Those decisions brought me to the Orthodox Church.

We live in a very dangerous age – in a time when people are not asked to change their beliefs so much as to hold their opinions and thoughts to themselves. Steinmetz is wrong in his observations. The more accurate question would be, “What took you so long?” 

We need not rush to judge others, or to say that others can’t think anything they jolly well like. “We live in a free country.” But for the human heart to be free – it must come to grips with the truth and plunge into its consequences. The lesson of Solzhenitsyn is that such a life is possible.

Since my conversion I have had opportunity to meet “confessors,” priests who suffered under communism, in some cases imprisoned for their courageous commitment to the truth. I also have had opportunity to hear stories of priests who did not fare so well – who became informers or otherwise accommodated themselves to the lie under which they lived. Perhaps their story and their choices were clearer than those that face Christians in the modern West.

My own belief is that we all face similar choices at all times. The choices between an accommodated soul and a soul that lives the truth can be created by any number of circumstances. But the reality of a soul’s decision remains the same.

There are living saints among us (I am not one of them). Men and women who have revealed the power of God in the simple act of telling the truth and acting in accordance with it. They make the same inner choices that saints have always had to make. In the end, there may be no other road to salvation.