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Reflection on Trip to Moscow (cont 3)

As I continue to process my trip to Moscow this summer I thought, perhaps, to share some of my reflections with you. Over the next month or so I will write some short reflections for the bulletin that I hope will be to your benefit. -Fr John

In what I believe will be my final reflection on my summer trip to Moscow I would like to think a bit about Tradition with a “T”. It is very common for people to think of the Russian Orthodox Church as conservative (as in, “things never change”) and to associate this conservatism with Tradition or being “traditional”. Even a casual survey of Russian Church history and practice over the past few centuries, however, should cause us to think more carefully about both Tradition and the Russian Orthodox Church.

By far the biggest example of changes in the Russian Orthodox Church are the somewhat infamous liturgical reforms under Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century. Infamous, of course, because these reforms were handled poorly in some instances and haphazardly in others, thus being at least partly responsible for the tragic schism of the Old Believers. But the intention of the reforms - to correct obvious errors in the liturgical books - was more or less correct. My point here is not to debate the reforms but to simply highlight them precisely as deliberate and intentional changes.

Another more recent and better example is the Great Council of 1917-18. On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution and following the abdication of the Tzar, the Russian Church convened a local council for the first time in over 200 years. This was a major event leading, most significantly, to the restoration of the Patriarchate, ending the Synodal system instituted by Peter the Great which had hamstrung the Russian Church for centuries. Due to the Revolution and the ensuing chaos the Council’s work was severely limited and many of the decisions were unable to be implemented. Nevertheless, the changes proposed and those which were debated or tabled due to the limitations imposed by the times were far-reaching and aimed at restoring the vitality of the church from the Patriarch down to the parish, clergy, and laity. (Interestingly, the Russian Church today, as it rebuilds following the communist era, is seeking to continue the work initiated by the Council, which is highly regarded.)

Other examples of intentional change could be given, though less universal in scope, perhaps. For example, on our visit to Sretensky Monastery we visited the lower church where Baptismal Liturgies are served approximately every four to six weeks. The same monastery has begun to serve evening Divine Liturgies- not Vesperal Liturgies as are often served in America on the eve of feasts - where people fast for at least six hours before receiving Communion in the evening, a practical necessity in a now more capitalist culture that, like ours, does not readily permit persons to attend a morning Liturgy during the week.

The point I want to make is simple: change is sometimes necessary and desirable in order to be faithful to the Tradition. Tradition, in other words, does not mean a “nothing ever changes” preservation of the status quo (“knee-jerk” or “reactionary conservatism”, we might call it), but rather preservation of the Church’s Faith and practice - Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis. And thus, perhaps counter-intuitively, being faithful to Tradition sometimes necessitates change.

As Orthodox Christians we are called to keep the Tradition of the Church, but this requires great discernment, particularly on the part of our hierarchs (which is why we pray in the Liturgy that they may “rightly divide the word of truth”). On one hand, the spirit of the age preaches - rather naively - an approach to history that actively promotes change as the means of development and progress. This is why “progressive” churches are most often at odds with the Orthodox Tradition, seeing it only as something to be transcended at best or jettisoned at worst. On the other hand, a knee-jerk conservatism that seeks comfort in simply maintaining the status quo - regardless of whether or not it is actually faithful to Tradition - must be rejected, as well. To quote the great Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

The Orthodox Church has nothing to fear from necessary and proper change, granted, of course, that the change is according to the Tradition of the Church. But this change can only properly be discerned by those living and contemplating the Orthodox Faith and Life within the Church, not by those simply seeking progress or development based on outside (heterodox) notions of what is good or desirable.

In closing I would like to quote at length the Orthodox theologian George Mantzarides who, in speaking about St Gregory Palamas and the essence-energies distinction, describes quite nicely the proper attitude toward Tradition and change, or innovation, within the Church.

Palamas…does indeed open up new horizons in theology and create new theological forms. At first sight he may give the impression of being an innovator, because he teaches things which had not yet been clearly articulated in the previous tradition of the Church. But Palamas is able to do this precisely because he has truly entered into the inner meaning of the Church's tradition. Tradition means movement, not standing still. Attachment to tradition is not realized through contemplating it in a static way, but through active participation in it…. This means that traditionality and innovation are not necessarily irreconcilable. Rather, the opposite is true; the one often supplements and completes the other. Tradition innovates. The most authentic innovations have been the products of tradition. Gregory Palamas, as a traditionalist theologian, was a man of innovations. His innovation was both authentic and traditional. He can therefore be very well characterized as a traditional innovator.

With love in Christ,

Fr John

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