Sunday, July 12, 2009

flying Simon

I had the opportunity last night to attend the patronal feast-day vigil at the ROC chapel of Ss. Peter and Paul here in Elkridge. (As much as I would love to have a full Orthodox parish within walking distance, it is still very cool to have a little chapel nearby, like some old-world village where scrounging up a priest to come out and celebrate the patronal feast at a local, all-but-abandoned shrine is an annual highlight. Or more to the point, I would love to see a revival of the tradition where everyone goes to the church dedicated to a particular saint on that saint's feast day. My circumstances don't always allow me to do it, but getting to the only Orthodox house of worship in Elkridge for its patronal feast is definitely going to be high on my recurring priorities.)

I had two revelations in the course of the service. (Not that kind.) First, knowing how to read Greek (loosely interpreted as meaning, at least I know the alphabet and a few other odds and ends) apparently means that I can follow along in the printed Slavonic service books. I hadn't really tried before. In the past, I just relied on my general knowledge of how the services run and getting my bearings whenever they switched to English. But at some point last night I started watching the Slavonic pages as well, and although I can't put together the sounds on my own, I found that I could track in the book with what was being chanted. That was helpful in keeping my place in the service; it also gave me some hope that, even without actually learning Slavonic, I might be able to pick up the pronunciation and improve my understanding of the script just by following along.

The second revelation had to do with the content of the service. Once again, I'm stuck having to rely on a passing observation, without finding a copy of the text; but I'm positive that one of the odes of the canon referred to the confrontation between Peter, Paul, and Simon Magus, where he flew about over the city of Rome, and they prayed to cast him down. I think it was back when I was in college that I was preparing a sermon outline or some such thing on the first part of Acts 8. In looking for more information about Simon Magus (I suppose I was trying to ascertain whether his conversion was genuine or not), I came across this passage in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Paul:
Then Simon went up upon the tower in the face of all, and, crowned with laurels, he stretched forth his hands, and began to fly. And when Nero saw him flying, he said to Peter: This Simon is true; but you and Paul are deceivers. To whom Peter said: Immediately shall you know that we are true disciples of Christ; but that he is not Christ, but a magician, and a malefactor. Nero said: Do you still persist? Behold, you see him going up into heaven. Then Peter, looking steadfastly upon Paul, said: Paul, look up and see. And Paul, having looked up, full of tears, and seeing Simon flying, said: Peter, why are you idle? Finish what you have begun; for already our Lord Jesus Christ is calling us. And Nero hearing them, smiled a little, and said: These men see themselves worsted already, and are gone mad. Peter said: Now you shall know that we are not mad. Paul said to Peter: Do at once what you do.

And Peter, looking steadfastly against Simon, said: I adjure you, you angels of Satan, who are carrying him into the air, to deceive the hearts of the unbelievers, by the God that created all things, and by Jesus Christ, whom on the third day He raised from the dead, no longer from this hour to keep him up, but to let him go. And immediately, being let go, he fell into a place called Sacra Via, that is,Holy Way, and was divided into four parts, having perished by an evil fate.

The story stuck in my head at the time, probably as evidence of how wildly fanciful these apocryphal stories were. But apparently it was embraced in the Tradition of the Church as an authentic encounter. This doesn't mean that the book itself is inspired Scripture, but at least in this instance it happens to record something that actually happened. After a few years of reading lives of saints, I like to think that my take on what's "wildly fanciful" is a bit less biased than it used to be. For some reason, Evangelical Protestants have developed a habit of accepting at face value the supernatural powers manifested in biblical narratives, while discounting out of hand anything extra-biblical that really goes no further. Does it require more faith to believe that Simon flew by demonic power than to believe that demons could give superhuman strength or send a herd of pigs over a cliff? Is it any more fantastic that Peter would pray to end this blasphemous display than any exorcism found in the New Testament? Which came first--the assumption that such things only happened in the first century, or the refusal to accept them on any authority but the Bible?

Anyway, my point in bringing this up is not to preach. I'm just tickled that, after all these years, it turns out I can believe the story really happened.

Monday, July 6, 2009

cautiously optimistic about Chambésy

Most of the reactions that I've seen online to the recent Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in Chambésy have been either dismissive--it won't change much of anything--or downright negative--it's a step backward from the goal of Orthodox unity. Personally, I didn't feel like there was enough on which to comment until the publication this weekend of the official statement, and particularly of the promised "rules of operation." Having seen them, I must say I think there's reason to be hopeful.

Some have said that the proposed regional episcopal assemblies won't contribute anything to the American situation in particular, since we already have SCOBA. But there is a definitive difference--SCOBA's membership corresponds with that of the proposed Executive Committee: "the Primatial Bishops of each of the canonical Churches in the Region." The assembly itself, however, will consist of "all Orthodox Bishops of each region . . . who are in canonical communion with all the local Autocephalous Orthodox Churches." This is not only a more canonical arrangement (all bishops participate as equals), but it promises more balanced representation. Instead of, for instance, Bp. Ilia of the Albanian Diocese under the Ecumenical Patriarchate (representing two parishes) holding equal standing with Met. Jonah of the OCA (representing hundreds of parishes), the assembly would include all of the OCA bishops (not to mention, all of the Greek bishops, all of the Antiochian, etc.). It won't be strictly based on numbers of parishes or parishoners represented, but in general the larger jurisdictions will have more bishops in the assembly.

Another important point made clear in the statement is that this is an interim measure, designed to bridge the gap until a fully canonical resolution can be established at a future Pan-Orthodox Council. I realize there is a lot of cynicism about whether such a Council will ever happen, but there should still be at least two positive outcomes. First, the assemblies, to the extent that they perform their desired functions, should foster a unifying process over time. There is even an explicit prohibition on "actions that could hinder the above process for a canonical resolution of the issue of the Diaspora." For instance, there should be less confusion about clerical appointments and discipline: "It must record every decision relating to clerics promulgated by their bishops, in order that this decision is applied among all the Orthodox Churches in the Region." Second, they are specifically directed to work on developing canonical solutions. If that actually happens, we'll probably find ourselves in a better position further down the line, even if a Council never materializes. The latter outcome is safeguarded by specific requirements to meet regularly, and a mechanism for the bishops to call meetings even without the chairman's initiative. The assembly meets at least annually but may meet more often; the executive committee meets at least quarterly. One-third of the membership of either body may call a meeting.

Another point that should not be discounted is that this proposal has the stamp of approval from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. There seems to be a lot of negativity about this--whether anyone will accept the requirement that the chairman must be the ranking EP bishop, whether more conservative jurisdictions will follow, etc. (How much difference will it make that the MP is endorsing this plan?) But it seems to me that at least the perception of SCOBA is that its efforts at unity have stalled in the past because of EP intervention. If that's no longer going to be an obstacle, isn't that reason to be optimistic? Also, given the composition of the assembly and the directive to operate by consensus, I don't think anyone will need to fear a partisan agenda (liberal or otherwise) being pushed through against the wishes of certain jurisdictions.

Of course, if the American bishops aren't also hopeful about this proposal, it probably won't go anywhere. But my ignorant assessment is that it's a workable structure, and probably the best possible arrangement we can hope for right now. There will be time later to see whether the push is toward complete EP dominance, but for right now, taken at face value, I think it's a good opportunity to work out our own issues on our own soil.