Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | April 8, 2009

St. Tikhon, Metropolitan Philip, and What Not to Wear

In case you missed it in this month’s (April) The Word, Metropolitan Philip made a few points about acculturation:

“Well, I saw pictures of St. Tikhon around the beginning of the 20th Century, and he was dressed like me. He had a collar and suit – a black suit and black shirt. I don’t think we can relate to this culture, we can relate to these people, to the people in this culture, if we all have cassocks and black jibbees and the Turkish hat, the black hat, and go to Nashville, Tennessee, or to Appalachia or somewhere. People will think that we are somehow from outer space. How can they relate to us? I mean first of all, they wouldn’t approach us to say hello or something. They’ll get scared of us. This is about external appearance.

We have not decided yet what kind of dress we should adopt in this country. I see some of my own priests, you see, in the Antiochian Archdiocese, walking around with ponytails and with long beards. Is that necessary for salvation? What does that have to do with the history of salvation? We don’t know whether our Lord had a beard or not. They paint Him or they picture Him as he had a beard. Everybody in those days had a beard. Everybody. And everybody had a cassock and an outer garment over the cassock, and the Turkish hat is an innovation. I mean it entered the Church during the Ottoman time.

We have to agree on our external identity, our identity as Orthodox, liturgically, we have to. We’re still using liturgies of the ancient world. I’m happy with it because I grew in Lebanon and I am familiar with the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and I wouldn’t change it for anything else, because I am very familiar with it. But will the future Orthodox generation in this country accept this liturgy? This is up to them how to express themselves culturally, how to express their feelings, in their culture, in the Church. The music, for example. The music – we use Byzantine music. I like it. I am familiar with it, but some people don’t like it. Is that the music which we should have for the Church in this country?”

I worship in the Western Rite. I’m okay with it. I like the parish and I like the priest. The rite is supposed to be something I’m used to, but the fact is that I’m from the Broad Church of the Anglican world… smack dab in the middle between high (think Anglocatholic) and low (think clap happy). There was a time when the Lattitudinarian party… well.. we won’t go there. It was the happy medium of the Virginia Seminary across the river, so this whole high church bit is new to me. And though I went to an Episcopalian day school here in town at the National Cathedral, hey… we were kids. We had chapel three to four times during the school week,  and you acclimated. You sang, “Your feet smell.” And someone else would sing back, “Yeah, dude, and you forgot to shower.” The choir boys actually sang the real words… so there was always a cover up… but with most of the teachers back in the lounge getting that last cup of coffee or cigarette before the “little terrors” haunted their day, well… there were only a few old eggs on “ruler patrol”… and what can I say, “All religious institutions are not alike.”

Fact is, I think the dirty little (not so) secret is that if it weren’t for the liturgy of St. John, I wouldn’t be Orthodox. Maybe. I don’t know. Anyway… my ear’s only beef is with the Byzantine “harmony”…. which may have been Greek… and was probably Hebrew before that…. is… uh… “So you call this harmony?” That said, I enjoy Fr. Apostolos Hill’s recordings… and then after a while, I need to get back to the my ear’s native home. ‘Cause let’s face it, I’m one of those European-stock  heritage dudes, and that’s the harmony I understand… so East European, Russian, something… anything… seems more my speed. Not doing Asian or Indian either if we have a choice, but Native American or African – that’s cool. At St. Gregory’s we do the Rite of St. Gregory the Great… and it’s fine. I like it a lot, too. The hymns…. uh…. fit my wife’s old Methodist complaint about the Episcopalian so-called hymnal: “Dirges, dirges, and more dirges.” Whereas, I love just about anything Capella Romana wants to sing.

Okay. That’s my true confession. Now the extent to which Metropolitan Philip is right… I can attest it might have helped convert my wife to Orthodoxy, too. His notes… well they do indeed echo things she’s said put her off, so I read them to her, and she said, “They should listen to him.  He’s on to something.” Yeah. So it didn’t happen. Which means I guess I’m free to move about the country… only I’m not liking doing it alone every Sunday. Makes you feel kind of like some sort of Basque Separatist.. without the guns.

But life is what it is, and the Orthodox faith is so rich, you take it as it comes… or at least some of us do. And let me be quick to add that the Christianity she manages by nature, I come to through a thicker skin, with effort, with learning, and all my artifice and few redeeming qualities… but it is especially my knowledge of God and my relationship of love with God… that all come by way of her. So if ever one of us makes the hallowed pearly gates… yours truly will be let in only because, “Oh you’re with her? Alright… I guess if we have to.”

But rather than suppose as many might, that Metropolitan Philip’s comments and my own echo a protestant approach to the faith… I would underscore his emphasis on these as externals. And I think he’s seeing beyond the details… but I don’t think it’s all or none, nor is it one and not the other either. Rather there’s surely risk in change of one hair on one’s head – so all needs to be done with care. I realize this seems to go down the American Orthodoxy versus Orthodox-in-America split… but I don’t think it has to be seen that way, nor do I think that is the good Metropolitan’s suggestion.

Seems the point is simply that we all need to be realists. The more authentically realistic and non-pretentious we are while still maintaining the reverence for all that is sacred and holy and integrating this into our lives, our worship and our church in ways that clearly evince that the gospel of Jesus Christ lies at the core, the more we will have become Orthodox… not faux Orthodox, Orthodox Lite, or American Orthodox, or Disney, Greek, Russian, Antiochian or any other sort of hyphenated or non-hyphenated Orthodox… but the real thing.  Everyone of us has our givens and druthers… but that’s just not the point. The one given and druther common to all is for each of us to be whom we were meant to be… no more and no less.


  1. “The more authentically realistic and non-pretentious we are while still maintaining the reverence for all that is sacred and holy and integrating this into our lives, our worship and our church in ways that clearly evince that the gospel of Jesus Christ lies at the core, the more we will have become Orthodox… not faux Orthodox, Orthodox Lite, or American Orthodox, or Disney, Greek, Russian, Antiochian or any other sort of hyphenated or non-hyphenated Orthodox… but the real thing.”

    Well said. Well said.

  2. Excellent. The thing that most of us zealous newbies miss is that EVERYTHING in “Orthodox praxis” was an innovation at one time, including the Liturgy of St. John. The fact the the Church has accepted it means the Church can change it, which in fact. it has over the centuries. The “Typikon” morphs in every century and in every culture. What should not and cannot change is whether or not we will be Christians in this age, not Christians imitating some past “glory day” of some foreign culture.

  3. For whatever it’s worth, Byzantine chant is explicitly not harmonized. It’s a monophonic chant tradition (accompanied by an ison drone), as are all the ancient and “home-grown” chant traditions of the Orthodox Church (Byzantine, Gregorian, Znamenny, Prostopinije, etc.). The introduction of modern harmony and chord progressions into music in Orthodox churches is a relatively late and localized phenomenon.

  4. Fr. Andrew:

    Thanks for visiting… and of course thanks for the point. I guess it’s just a personal idiosyncratic prejudice and redundancy… and I’m obviously not a real medieval music fan… whether it’s liturgical music or folk music…. East or West. Guess that makes me a narrow minded modernist know-nothing twit. 🙂 I’m okay with “if the shoe fits, wear it” thing. I like Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the Academy of Ancient Music… and all that… but when they get too authentic… when they bring in the recorders…. I run if I can. 🙂

    Fairly, I would have had a 2,000 year headache if Id grown up in Ancient Rome or Greece. Even the musical parts in Shakespeare give me a headache. But this is just to say it’s the period probably more than anything else…. ’cause things weren’t all that great in the West either. The Brits did use bagpipes in front of their army to scare people off… and it still works….except for some reason on St. Patty’s Day when it is supposed to advertise a place where you can get a bad hangover AND have an earache as well. And for unknown reasons it packs them in. I think of the Irish… and can’t imagine the pick-up lines…. someone saying to their sweet honey: “Hey… a little romance, a little candlelight, some wine… thee, thou… and a couple of bagpipe tunes…who knows what could happen?” If they weren’t so doggone good looking… they never would have made it to a second generation!

  5. I’d have to say that what I want out of music used in a worship context is “purity.” I have found that in some (not all) Byzantine music, in some (not all) Quaker and Mennonite music, and in a very few instances, in mainline Protestant and modern Catholic music. Whether harmonic or monophonic, slow or fast, it’s gotta have integrity — the sense of sounding like you’re praying, only more tunefully. Dirges and drones have their place when the subject is mourning and sorrow; that fits. Hosannas ought not to sound “cute” and Glory to God should not sound real “top 40,” or the meaning of the message will get lost in the music of the medium.

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