Real Orthodoxy – Not Just Smoke and Mirrors!

Why does fakery posing as Orthodoxy thrive so much in the world?

Why are there so many bogus groups being unquestionably accepted as Orthodox by so many people?

Why is the internet such a perilous place for those trying to navigate the obstacle course of what is presented as Orthodoxy?

Sadly, we see so much pseudo-Orthodoxy in the modern world, based on images, sound-bites, catchphrases and carrot-and-stick exciting ‘possibilities’ – the sort of ‘Orthodoxy’ that often seeks to boldly go where no bishop, priest or congregation has gone before!

Whether it’s the so-called ‘Gallican Orthodox’, ‘Celtic Orthodox’, the ‘Orthodox Church of France’, the ‘British Orthodox Church’ or any other vagante group (often originating from schism, a rogue Syro-Malabarese consecration or Old Catholic cross-pollination with schismatics), the history and ethos will no doubt be convincing and inviting, with a presented uniqueness that nobody else has, and all of the boxes pertaining to packaging and presentation will be ticked.

Of course, even canonical Orthodoxy has mavericks, who do their own thing and create their own mirage (in their own image and as a projection and extension of their own ego) within the protective environment of the Church. This can be even more dangerous.

Cyber-space is awash with slick, well-designed websites of such bogus ‘Orthodox’ communities, clergy or jurisdictions, where the power of the image is well understood; where the value of implied fact (subtle lies that avoid being able to be exactly pinned down or exposed) is deviously exploited; where deliberate vagueness brings misattribution and credit for someone else’s labours; where outright dishonesty leads the unsuspecting into spiritual danger.

The internet and technology makes all of this illusory play-acting increasingly dangerous, especially combined with the ability of any vagante, schismatic or layman-in-vestments with the financial wherewithal (or preferably with someone else’s cheque-book) to equip a convincing Orthodox ‘Temple’, replete with fine icons, splendid vestments, antique church fittings and all of the outward tokens of ‘authenticity’.

Such figures appear resplendent in rich vestments and finery, and may incidentally present a detailed diagram to demonstrate their apostolic succession and validity. When such things aren’t straight forward and simple, but need diagrams, alarm-bells should be ringing!

We especially see this in the various bogus attempts to create ‘Western Orthodoxy’ or autocephalous Western Metropolias, in which case vagante or schismatic idealogues exploit our genuine Orthodox struggle with nationalism and ethnicity to create something ‘new’, non-Slavic, non-Hellenic etc., to make a pseudo-Orthodoxy of their own liking, and one which is totally cut of from the living Sacred tradition of the Church and the spiritual inheritance of past generations. The result is nothing better than the renovationism of the so-called ‘Living Church’ supported by the Soviets.

This is also typical of ‘Genuine Orthodox’ or ‘True Orthodox’ groups (often with a taste for Old Believer primitivism), who have caught on to the power of the image and word in a spiritually naïve or ignorant media-driven world.

How many ‘Metropolitans’ of Moscow (plus a few anti-Patriarchs) are there, complete with their vagante entourage, in white cowls embroidered with seraphim?

Admittedly, sometimes such figures look like they’ve been to a historical costume sale at the local theatre, with their fur-edged mitres incorporating off-cuts of granny’s winter-hat, but increasingly the effect is well considered, convincing and persuasive for the naïve and unsuspecting.

What was farcically transparent ten or fifteen years ago, is becoming harder to spot, simply based on an external glance based on formalism alone.

Depending where we are in the world, when we look around a building, or a beautiful ecclesiastical interior, or when we experience a beautiful service and think “this must be legitimate”, purely based on externals, we may unsuspectingly be in a treacherous situation and are vulnerable to deception.

Yesterday, we celebrated the Sunday of the New Martyrs and Confessors, and the suffering Orthodoxy in which they served and for which they died was so often forcibly stripped and robbed of the outward trappings upon which the pseudo-Orthodox fakes rely so much, and through which they are able to trick the gullible.

In the homily, speaking of the danger of formalism, I did not have time to explore the fact that when our testing of Orthodoxy becomes reduced to formalistic signs and external evidence, and is only shaped by the material manifestations of Orthodoxy, we can be led into great spiritual danger.

In Catacomb services during the Soviet period, poor vestments made from any suitable material took the place of the fine vestments previously worn to celebrate the Liturgy; the absence of holy vessels meant improvising something approximating to the required utensils of the Liturgy; sheets hung from the ceiling, bearing a few little paper icons might be the makeshift iconostasis; any white bread might have taken the place of prosfory, fermented cranberry juice for wine and a bit of conifer resin as the incense in a censer made from a tin can.

As we know from NKVD/KGB files, as well as from the accounts of the faithful, preserved sacred-items from churches and chapels were hidden in houses, where coded knocks on a door or a tune whistled outside a window gained the faithful access to a hidden, quiet service in a makeshift sanctuary, behind carefully masked windows in houses in quiet corners of town.

In prison camps improvisation had to be more imaginative.

The Holy New Martyr, Bishop Maxim of Serpukhov described such a makeshift setting in a box-like fish-drying structure in the Solovetsk Gulag:

“Here was the box, about nine yards long, without windows, the door scarcely noticeable. Light twilight, the sky covered with dark clouds. We knock three times and then twice. Fr. Nicholas opens. Vladika Victor and Vladika Ilarion are already here… In a few minutes Vladika Nektary also comes. The interior of the box has been converted into a church. On the floor, on the wails, spruce branches. Several candles flickering. Small paper icons. The small Plashchanitsa is buried in green branches. Ten people have come to pray. Later another four or five come, of whom two are monks. The service begins, in a whisper. It seemed that we had no bodies, but were only souls. Nothing distracted or interfered with prayer… I don’t remember how we went “home,” i.e., to our Companies. The Lord covered us!”

The same material hardship and poverty characterised Church services in camps in which displaced persons found themselves in Western Europe at the end of the Second World War.

Such observations do not imply that catacomb-like conditions, poverty and improvisation are somehow indicators of Orthodoxy any more or less than the expected normal requisites of liturgical parish life are, but they challenge us to stop and think.

The lack of everything needed for a normal Holy Week and Pascha did not some how nullify or cancel the validity of what the incarcerated New Martyrs and Confessors were celebrating, but neither do the bright and shiny items and vestments from church suppliers confer validity on what we do week by week – whether we are genuine or impostors.

They may tick the formalistic boxes of those who think the outer details enough, but without Faith, without true Holy Mysteries, without clergy who really are clergy, ordained and consecrated by the successors of the apostles – chalice sets, censers, lamps and sacred items become meaningless bric-a-brac and items on a theatre-set.

And, even within legitimate Orthodoxy, the accounts from the suffering Soviet Union remind us that the quality of our Faith is essentially spiritual, not determined by liturgical-materialism, however much we rightly desire the normal essentials of Orthodox liturgical life.

In our Orthodox lives, some of us have worshipped in summer houses and sheds, converted shops, in rooms of houses, in gardens – with very few icons, homemade vestments and furnishings, even with homemade incense when Orthodox incense was difficult to obtain. Though conscious of the poverty of our celebrations, we were comforted by the fact that in no way did it diminish the grace of the services and Holy Mysteries of the Church.

Others visited, and never returned, scandalised by the home-made, the improvised, the lack of a beautiful iconostasis, the ropey singing or the fact that the Liturgy was in a little wooden building at the bottom of a garden.

Of course, at the same time that we struggled in these straightened circumstances, throughout the world, impostors imitating Orthodoxy were able to ‘celebrate’ in beautiful, well-appointed places of ‘worship’, yet devoid of everything true and spiritual and with empty, graceless rituals.

Sadly, the boxes of formalism can easily remain unticked by the connoisseurs and aesthetes, who with their obsession with the outward signs of ‘Orthodoxy’, turn their backs on the Church, on the Holy Mysteries, and on God, Himself, preferring the formalistic trappings of Byzantium to the reality of Orthodox Faith.

We must beware of formalism, and see the bigger picture! We seek to worship God in the beauty of holiness, but beauty without holiness and true Faith is a soul-destroying temptation leading to spiritual death.

It’s better to struggle in Orthodoxy with things home-made, the makeshift and far from perfect, than to have an overflowing sacristy, a gleaming ‘temple’ and everything except Orthodoxy.

Lord, have mercy.

Let us always put FAITH first. Everything is an extra blessing!

Posted in Homily/Sermon.