Tuesday, June 27, 2006

From the Mailbag: Byzantine Missions "Proper"?

Q: I read a message posted on an online forum by a purported expert on Western Rite Orthodoxy stating there are "Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate folks who feel thatthe Byzantine rite is not an appropriate tool for mission to Westernlands, that to be proper this has to occur by means of the Western rite." Is this true?

A. I have never heard, seen, or read of a single AWRV priest, writer, or layman saying anything of the sort (much less several Antiochian "folks"). I've only read Western Rite Christians express profound gratitude at the Orthodoxy's concession and good sense in blessing a Western Rite (beginning in 1870 for the "Tridentine" Liturgy of St. Gregory, and in 1904 for the Liturgy of St. Tikhon).

What could be "improper" about Orthodox bishops doing what they have done since they first set foot in Alaska centuries ago? Not only is a Byzantine mission "proper," but there is clearly some segment of the population that is at home in the Byzantine Rite, and another at home with either rite. God has blessed many in the West to come into Orthodoxy through the Byzantine Rite, and may He continue to bless such work. But numerical acceptance has precious little to do with the "propriety" of those serving God in canonical Orthodox missions.

Certainly, the Western Rite is more culturally amenable and familiar -- after all, we are in the West -- and mission-minded people would be wise to expand Western Orthodoxy's scope and visibility.

Most people initially investigate the Orthodox Church for reasons other than liturgy: Her unwavering defense of the truths of the Nicene Creed, Her apostolic foundations, Her steadfast refusal to compromise the moral standards of Christianity or bend to modern secular whims, Her ancient and changeless faith, etc. Most are drawn by their (correct) belief that Orthodoxy is the true Church. Because of the present dearth of canonincal Western Rite churches -- a situation that desperately needs corrected -- some inquirers learn to love the Byzantine rite (as I do), some tolerate it out of necessity, some persist despite it, and some abandon Orthodoxy altogether. I have received many e-mails from crestfallen inquirers who tell me they would gladly attend a Western Rite parish, if there were one around, but feel they cannot convert to Orthodoxy because of liturgy.

Before one judges them too harshly, recall there is more to the "Byzantine Rite" than the text of a eucharistic liturgy. Whatever the merits of the rite in theory, they are incarnated within the realities of the local parish. Thus, its piety, language, culture, and ethos play a vital role in acceptance or rejection of the rite and of Orthodoxy. The horror stories one reads of (insert ethnicity) giving visitors the cold shoulder, etc., cause pilgrims to reject the Orthodox Catholic Church as a whole.

Thankfully, many of these problems are absent from the Western Rite. The parishes are reverent, dignified, welcoming, and worship-oriented. In my experience, they are completely free of ethnic exclusivity and overzealous convert fanaticism. On top of this, the approved liturgies and devotions of the Western Rite are familiar and fully Orthodox, allowing visitors to pray and give thanks to God. It does not require those who accept the fullness of Orthodoxy to needlessly reject the legitimate portions of their own heritage. They do not have to take foreign language night courses or regain their bearings in a different liturgical tradition. If one can provide all this in a way that is fully approved and regarded as Orthodox by the Church, in a time of Western ecclesiastical disintegration, it would seem wise to invest in this mission strategy. This should give new impetus and import to establishing Western Rite missions throughout the West.

There is also a related but wholly different question to that of whether Byzantine missions are "proper": whether Byzantine missions represent "Western Orthodoxy." Many, including Bp. Kallistos Ware in his book The Orthodox Church, state their goal is to "baptize" the West: accept those elements of Western culture that are compatible with Orthodoxy, cleanse it of those that are incompatible, and return the West to the communion she enjoyed as part of the undivided Church of the first millenium. If that is their goal, it seems to assume some appropriation of historically normative Western praxis will take place on some level, as opposed to demanding Westerners become subsumed into the host parish's dominant ethnicity. The late bishop of the French Orthodox Church, Jean of St. Denys, delineated the differences between the Western Church vs. the Church in the West in this article.

But again, this is wholly independent of whether Byzantine missions are "proper."

Thank you for asking this and allowing us to clear this up.

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