Thursday, April 21, 2016

"My country, right or wrong."

“‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

- G. K. Chesterton, The Defendant (1901)
The phrase (often abbreviated to "my country, right or wrong") dates back to early 19th century America. Today it is used alternately as a tongue-in-cheek defense of something when it's obvious that things are not as they should be or as a straight-faced patriotic declaration. While this is commonly a political statement it is also a not atypical approach to the Church.

Things like head-coverings, the appearance or lack of a litany, the practice of a service at a certain time or its complete non-existence, etc. etc. are commented on because there is a variance in practice across Orthodoxy. Two parishes across the street from one another proclaim the same faith, but are not uniform in their expressions of that faith in ways that catch the eye. And, while we speak of the beauty of the universality (everywhere present) of the Church - often in imagery of fields of flowers or other such resplendent terms - we also see something "other" and are piqued to inquire further as to why another group does something differently.

At other times, differences are less immediately visible but still point to an "otherness" that causes some discomfiture. If I were to go to an unction service in one jurisdiction I might be told that I should be in a state capable of receiving such a blessing. To some Slavic minds healing of this sort must be prefaced with confession. Someone of another patrimony would receive no such warning from his priest because such a mentality is not present.

Who is right? Is there a single "right"? Can more than one truth exist? Are these differences even a matter of truth vs. well-intentioned fiction? All these questions are pertinent and wondering about diversity is normal. What I find abnormal and in need of rectification is what I see as party affiliation determining what is best in place of actual research of the topic. Just because you do something and they don't doesn't mean what they are doing is defective. Your addition could be a late addition or even *gasp* a Latinization.

This problem is only resolved by a process of maturation. We cling to the familiar and only when we are confident enough in ourselves or in the God-protected unity of the Church are we able to accept the opinions and practices of the other. Discovering why different jurisdictions do things differently requires research and, more importantly, an open mind.

"Wise people store up knowledge, but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction."
- Proverbs 10:14

I acknowledge that careful study is not going to turn every difference into an allowable deviation from one's own practices. As often as not the cause of the difference is that pernicious convenience: abbreviation. It can also be poor integration of services when there is some measure of latitude as to what smaller services might be called for. It could also be (more often than one might guess) simply a bad decision.

Our services are littered with dialogues between bishops, priests, and deacons that hold onto back-and-forths between them about things that are no longer part of the service. There are echoes of things gone by and there are things introduced in an ill-informed but good intentioned effort to return to earlier practices (e.g. Nikonian reforms); Uspensky, Woolfenden, Meyendorff, and others have delved into this topic many times. There are honorifics to some that are common to others (polystavron vestments, blessing with a cross, wearing a pectoral cross, hearing confessions) and things that simply don't exist in other traditions at all (triple candles at the blessing of water, Slava breads, koumbaroi). Our texts are not identical and are imperfect. Strive not to label things heterodox or the product of laziness or even just plain willful stupidity. Two thousand years is a long period of time and the world is an awfully large place. Embrace the beauty and the variety even as you are free to question what you see.

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
- Philippians 1:9-11

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