Reflections on the CHurch


By Fr. Thomas Hopko

This article is part of a reflection from Fr. Hopko on letters he has written regarding matters concerning certain problems facing the OCA for which we should all be praying. I find his reflections on "pseudomorphosis" well worth reading.

Several people who commented on my letters and suggestions asked me for an example of how what goes on in our church today is a "pseudomorphosis" produced by confused interpretations and applications of church life in the past. I offer the following "scenario" as such an example.

An Orthodox bishop comes to a congregation in his diocese headed by a presbyter. He is greeted at the church door in the most solemn manner. He is wearing a decorated monastic mantia even though he may have never actually lived a monastic life, and never was, and is not now, under monastic obedience to anyone. His clothing is that of the Turkish period. He is wearing a Turkish judge's robe and hat, covered with a monastic veil.

After entering the church, the bishop is solemnly vested in clothing that was once worn by the Byzantine-Roman emperor. He puts on a sakkos (instead of a phelonion), a mitre and decorated crosses and medallions. He carries a staff, stands on an eagle rug and sits on a throne in the nave where the imperial authority used to sit. He may have long hair, the sign of secular authority in Byzantium that was given to the Christian clerics by the Turks, and later adopted in the Russian Empire.

In this solemn liturgical setting, the local pastor and the servers and singers are nervous and scared. They fear making mistakes that will incur the bishop's wrath. The people, for the most part, wonder what all this is about and why it is at all necessary. Some people enjoy it. Others endure it. Others stay home or go to another church on that day.

Almost no one, including the clergy themselves, understand it.

At this liturgy, the vesting of the bishop and the entrance with the singing of many hymns and multiple intonations of "Many Years, Master (Eis polla eti, Despota)" and many repetitions of the Trisagion, with many petitions and blessings, goes on for a very long time. The scripture readings are read in ways that make them difficult, sometime even impossible to understand because of language, style of chanting, and noise from a clanging incenser with bells on it. There is no sermon explaining the scripture readings, or if there is, it has little or nothing to do with them. Multiple litanies are chanted, which include expulsions of catechumens who are either not there, or don't leave the gathering if they are. The Eucharistic Canon, which is the very heart and highpoint of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, takes only a few minutes. How long it takes depends on the length of the singing. The bishop rushes through the prayers silently and quickly, if he even reads them at all. The faithful people hear only the ends of the sentences of the prayers which, by themselves, make no sense whatsoever.

During and after the liturgy, the bishop asserts his dignity, power and authority over those "under" him according to his understanding of later Byzantine teachings about "ecclesiastical hierarchies." He explains that he has powers and graces that others don't have. He says that he mediates these powers and graces to his "inferiors," i.e. to presbyters, through deacons and sub-deacons and readers, to the "lay people" who no longer have any Christian ministry whatsoever. All power, authority and grace, he teaches, rests in and is derived from the bishop alone, as it were "personally," by virtue of his ordination and consecration that is then theologically explained and defended in an anti-Protestant, counter-Reformation Roman Catholic manner that entered Orthodoxy after the 16th century. In this view, the priesthood is considered to be "one of the seven sacraments" understood as "visible signs conveying invisible graces" instituted by Christ.

Then, to further explain and enforce all of this, teachings of 2nd and 3rd century church fathers are quoted who, in a completely different setting and context, said striking things about the place and ministry of the bishop in the church. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch will be quoted who said that nothing should be done in the church apart from the bishop who "holds the place of God" in the community, and is "God's icon." Or, as another example, St. Cyprian of Carthage is quoted as saying that the bishop is "another Christ."

Teachings about the position, authority and service of the bishop by such 4th, 5th and 6th century saints as Ambrose of Milan, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great are added to demonstrate the bishop's awesome character.

When all of these things are is mixed together without a proper understanding of their original meaning and purpose, both those that are truly Christian and Orthodox, and those that are from alien religious and cultural sources, we have a marvelous example of what Fr. Georges Florovsky called a "pseudomorphosis." This means that words, teachings, rites, symbols and even clothing that meant one thing in their original context come now to mean something completely different in their new setting. The whole thing is misunderstood and distorted, and the door is open to all sorts of conflict, confusion and chaos.

To complete my example, we can add that Orthodox people with virtually no knowledge of the Bible or Church history enter into the liturgical gathering. Some say, "Hey, this is the modern world. We now have democracy, with freedom, equality, liberty and justice for all women and men. What is going on here anyway?" While others say, "We are Orthodox Christians in a traditional, hierarchal church with sacraments, dogmas and canons. Everything in our church is from the Holy Spirit. We must obey the teachings, keep the traditions, enforce the laws and submit to our leaders." And others don't know what to think or say, including many who read the Bible, say their prayers, participate in the sacraments, take up their crosses and desire with all their hearts to serve God and their neighbors according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is the kind of thing that can happen, and does happen, today, not only in North America, but everywhere on earth where there are Orthodox people. I believe that our very existence as the Orthodox Church depends on our attempt to untangle and understand the elements that make up contemporary church life, and to do something about it. Discovering what that "something" is that we must "do about it" for the Church's fruitful life and mission in the world today depends on our common prayer, ascetical practice, study and discussion. But most of all, it depends on our willingness to face reality, both human and divine, and to do God's will, whatever it may be.

Fr Thomas Hopko
Dean Emeritus
St. Vladimir's Seminary