Ordering Hospitality: Christian celebrations “on the same page”

In the recent annals of Pray Tell Blog, you can find a brief report from the August 2023 Maynooth gathering of Societas Liturgica by Rita Ferrone. It was, as she says, a joyful gathering after a long in-person absence, and an extremely fulsome and busy congress. Societas Liturgica is always ecumenical, and that was highlighted this time by the thematic focus on liturgy and ecumenism. Although we were sadly missing many of our Eastern Christian siblings, there was an ecumenical breadth of Western Christianity reflected in the attendees and in the daily prayers. Any time Christians pray together across ecclesial communal lines (and increasingly, within particular communities) we need a road map so that participation can be facilitated – participation in the elements of the corporate prayer being observed and participation in a sense of the movement of the prayer and how it calls each individual to move together as the body of Christ in glorifying God and engaging in our corporate sanctification. Continue reading “Ordering Hospitality: Christian celebrations “on the same page””

Societas Liturgica at Maynooth

“Within the first 30 minutes of my arrival on the campus I was greeting friends from Norway, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, and England,” a friend of mine commented; “I think heaven will be like that.”

The Societas Congress held at St. Patrick College in Maynooth, Ireland, from August 7 – 10, was truly a grand experience. It felt even more powerful because it had been such a while since our last in-person gathering. (The pandemic had caused the previous congress to be held virtually.)  Pray Tell contributor Neil Xavier O’Donoghue did a fine job hosting, ably assisted by an excellent local team. The campus itself holds historic interest. Established in the eighteenth century, it includes the ruins of a castle and is home to the oldest tree in Ireland, the Yew of Silken Thomas, which is 800 years old.

Continue reading “Societas Liturgica at Maynooth”

Book Review: When Church Stops Working

When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation
beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation
By Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand

This a specially designed, shorter text, aimed at reaching ordinary people, clergy as well as lay, in serious reading and reflection on the local church, namely the parish. It distills a long, remarkable series of previous books by Andrew Root: Faith Formation in a Secular Age, The Pastor in a Secular Age, The Congregation in a Secular Age, The Church after Innovation, Churches after the Crisis of Decline,  Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2017, 2019, 2021, 2022, 2022. I too have tried to take on the situation of congregations in decline and shrinkage. The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish and Ministry in the 21st Century, and Community as Church, Church as Community, Eugene OR: Cascade Publications, 2016, 2021.

In the Root-Bertrand volume of less than two hundred pages, many of the really fascinating earlier studies are omitted. I think for example, of what makes for the secular age in which we live. Charles Taylor’s massive study is the primary source. There is much that is transformed in the secular age. One example is that this is a time in which we cannot take anything beyond what is observable, measurable, verifiable as truth. Given the recent rise in “alternative facts” and the deniability of even documented statements by political operative, the complex character of our secular age goes without saying. This disenchantment of the world, reduction to the experience and feelings of the individual—an eclipse of community—all this is a huge challenge for communities of faith. Similarly, the corporate world presents strategies of growth, marketing methods that work for businesses of all kinds. So too, we have been told, for the church. If we are not constantly active in our congregations, if we are not consistently increasing membership and income, if we are not producing new and exciting programs, if we are not employing the efforts of megachurches in worship and member retention, then we are condemned to further shrinkage, closure, disappearance of congregations. Growth and change are the keywords of the church.

Root and now with his graduate school colleague Bertrand raise a very Barthian “NO” to all of this. Congregations need to again realize that the grace and power of God come from without, from beyond the church. Parishes need to stop their frantic busyness, for this is, in their view, a “killer cocktail,” busy people, busy church. Contrary to what secular culture seems to say—something Taylor himself was emphatic about—people of faith can indeed have a communal, public existence, something that has continues for more than two millennia despite all kinds of historical challenges. However, rather than reacting, struggling to find always newer ways of worshipping and reaching out, they need to be still, to wait on God, to learn again to resonate with each other, with the world in which they live, and most importantly, with God. The authors are calmly certain on that score, namely that God continues to speak to God’s people, through the scriptures, sacraments, their fellowship and learning, their ministry to their neighbors. Congregations need to learn again from the liturgy, the liturgical year, the scriptures, the feasts, that is, the tradition that has been passed down to them from apostolic times. They need not to try to recreate the primitive church, yet likewise they have to fight the urge, very much pressured upon them by consultants and specialists, to keep engineering newer and more attractive ways of being church.

Root and Bertrand are not at all interested in a how-to-do-it book, a manual for reviving a congregation, for ending shrinkage and decline. It may just be that our 21st century needs smaller, calmer and devoted congregations. People of God who know that waiting is one of the most biblical things they can do. What the authors propose is counterintuitive in the present, but absolutely right. They offer a couple of case studies of very different parishes—Queenston UCC and Prince of Peace Lutheran– and how these communities learned what might have appeared counter-intuitive. They call on Bonhoeffer, a potent source on community as church. They also at some length consult a major modern theologian who has been a special focus of my own study, the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard, and I believe they bring readers the very best both of these have to offer, not to mention Karl Barth and Martin Luther King Jr. among others.

This admirably clear and succinct book can well be accessed by people in parishes, lay and clergy. As such it deserves a commensurately straightforward review and one which finds a great deal of wisdom of the best and most faithful kind. I have reviewed many of Root’s earlier publications in the same manner. Admittedly here and there I have found myself held up by some assumptions, one being that all Christians are Protestants. Granted the authors are and so they write, but well, not so all facing the challenge of being followers of Jesus today. I missed the centrality of the Eucharist, something fundamental and ecumenically so, in my biographical experience in churches East and West. This said, this is a solid and wise book and I hope it will be read and pondered.

Root, Andrew and Blair D. Bertrand. When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023. 176 pages. $21.99. ISBN: 9781587435782.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

Brief Book Review: Historical Foundations of Worship

Historical Foundations of Worship:
Catholic Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives
Edited by Melanie C. Ross and Mark A. Lamport

What is this book? This book is the second in the Baker Worship Foundations series (the earlier Theological Foundations volume is reviewed here). It is an edited volume with essays by 18 authors from different liturgical traditions. It is divided into four sections dealing with different area of liturgical history: the common heritage of the early church, the Orthodox experience, the Roman Catholic experience and the Protestant experience. It provides a good introduction to the subject, but it is also offers a good refresher to non-beginners. The book is up to date and each chapter is written by experts in the particular area.

Who’s it for? The book is for any student of liturgy. It is written with the general US graduate student who is beginning their academic study of Christian liturgy in mind. But it can be profitably read by any interested reader and anyone who wants an up-to-date refresh of their understanding of liturgical history.

What difference will this book make? It provides a common basis for the study of liturgical history that can be appreciated by readers of any Christian tradition.  This could be very helpful in a diverse classroom with students from many ecclesial backgrounds and fosters a deeper ecumenical scholarship with the majority of the authors writing from within the traditions they are describing. The introductory section that deals with the common early history is also a great starting point for all study of liturgical history.

Why is this book significant / important This book is what it says on the tin, the title says it all: it provides the reader with an edited progression of chapters by individual authors on the Historical Foundations of Worship, from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives.

Why is this book useful / practical? It provides a one-volume history that in under 300 pages provides a manageable introduction to liturgical history. None of the chapters says everything, but all offer a good starting point and all of them provide suggestions for further reading.

Suggestion/Quibble? A minor quibble, but I think there was a tendency to conflate all Eastern liturgical rites and traditions into the Byzantine. The section dealing with the Orthodox experience is the shortest with only two chapters. The essays do occasionally mention other rites, but these get very little attention.  The section on Protestant experience has eight chapters (and Roman Catholicism has three); I would have appreciated another chapter in this section with a short introduction to each of the non-Byzantine Eastern rites.

Next steps. I am a huge fan of introductions and half the books I read are introductions of one sort or another. It’s no surprise that I think that one introduction, no matter how good, is never enough. However, this book is as good a place as any to start. I would recommend that those for whom this is their first book on liturgical history, follow on with a few other general historical overviews, such as the Oxford History of Christian Worship, Liturgy: the Illustrated History , A Brief History of Christian Worship or History of the Liturgy: The Major Stages. Then the novice would be well served by some monographs on the common liturgical heritage of the early Church. After this they could continue reading about the time period, particular rite or denominational tradition that captures their interest.

Ross, Melanie C. and Mark A. Lamport, eds.Historical Foundations of Worship: Catholic Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022. xxiv + 294 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9781540962522.

REVIEWER: Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest
of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, U.S.A.
He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Programmes
in St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland
and as Executive Secretary for Liturgy to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Amen Corner: Orthodoxy’s Kryptonite

Previously published in Worship 97 (April 2023).

Orthodoxy’s Kryptonite:
False Neutrality and Complicity on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

By Nicholas Denysenko

The one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has passed. Intelligence agencies warned us about the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, but most of us were still surprised when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Predictions of Ukraine’s surrender and a swift end to the war were wrong. The global audience grimaced at images of Ukrainian citizens rushing into bomb shelters as Russian missiles destroyed hospitals, schools, and homes in addition to “military targets.”

Global leaders condemned the attack and imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The United States and NATO supplied Ukraine with weapons, intelligence, and training. Experts predicted that the weight of economic sanctions would force Russia to arrange a compromise with Ukraine. Instead, Russia doubled down. Not only did they relentlessly bomb cities and civilian targets, but Russian soldiers committed war crimes by executing civilians in cities like Bucha and Irpin, trying to conceal these evil acts in hastily arranged mass graves. (1) War crimes investigators have reported teenage soldiers raping and impregnating women old enough to be their mothers and girls as young as nine years old.

A reality check beckons us to acknowledge the cold geopolitical realities of Russia’s invasion. Multiple countries maintained a neutral stance on the war. Countries like Hungary, India, Israel, and China maintained neutrality and often admonished observers to consider “both” sides of the story before rushing to condemnation. Iran has recently created an alliance with Russia. It seems that Vladimir Putin is hoping that Western support for Ukraine will waver, and NATO will push Ukraine into an agreement favorable for Russia. Russian’s relentless attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure expose the hope that the cold winter will force Ukraine to submit.

No one will lament a lasting ceasefire in Ukraine. Many will bemoan the unnecessary violence, death, and trauma caused by Russia’s aggression and war crimes.

The experts have reflected at length on Putin’s motivations for waging this vicious war. Some say that NATO’s expansion and America’s support for democracy and Europeanization in Ukraine provoked Putin. (2) Others referred to his desire to monopolize the fossil fuels market by taking Ukraine’s natural resources in the East and forcing Europe to capitulate to Russian pricing without an immediate transition to clean energy. Numerous commentators claim that Putin’s ideological platform fueled the invasion, especially his firm belief that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus constitute one nation and people.

Religion has also fanned the flames of Russian violence. Ukrainians are quick to remind everyone else that Russia’s war on Ukraine started in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea and the arming and assisting of the Donbas separatists. Russia responded violently to the Maidan Revolution of Dignity that started in 2013 and continued through the ouster of Victor Yanukovich as president. The religious dimension of Russian violence was evident in the vitriol expressed toward Ukrainians as traitors among Russian Orthodox clergy and people, and the creation of a “Russian Orthodox army.” (3)

The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (Gundaev), has justified the war from the pulpit. He went so far as to give the “Our Lady of Augustow” icon to the head of the Russian National Guard on the first Sunday of Lent 2022, to lead Russia to victory over the Ukrainian “Nazis.” Patriarch Kirill is also responsible for the Russkii Mir ideology that depicts Europe as a malevolent force of contemporary vices as opposed to the Russkii Mir—an Orthodox civilization based on the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russkii Mir ideology argues that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are truly one people, descendants of a united medieval Rus’ originating in Kyiv. (4) This ideology echoes Putin’s July 2021 speech on the unity of Ukraine and Russia. The Russkii Mir is dangerous because it belongs to the larger ideological apparatus that defines Russia in neo-imperial terms, and therefore dismisses the legitimacy of Ukrainian and Belarusian sovereignty and distinctiveness.

Kirill’s activities in the Church have been aggressive. He defended Russia’s invasion as a necessary response to the alleged atrocities committed by Ukraine against the people of Donbas, parroting a popular accusation without a shred of evidence. He depicted Russian aggression in Manichean terms, as an image of a larger, metaphysical war of good versus evil. Kirill undermined Metropolitan Onufry, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), by ignoring Onufry’s pleas for the Church’s intervention. When Onufry took a small step away from the Russian Church by organizing for May 27, 2022, a council that changed the statute of the UOC-MP, Kirill eventually responded by simply seizing two eparchies that had previously belonged to the UOC-MP. Kirill’s public actions have consistently justified the war and shifted blame to Ukraine and the West.

To be sure, many important Christian voices have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Church of England, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the World Council of Churches have implicated Russia. (5) Hundreds of individual members of the clergy and theologians have denounced the Russkii Mir ideology. The European Parliament placed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill. (6)

Pope Francis’s position has been inconsistent. On the one hand, he has clearly expressed his outrage over the war and his deep concern for refugees in his public actions. On the other hand, he has been too equivocal by suggesting that the West did indeed provoke Russia and by speaking of both “sides.” (7) There is one aggressor—Russia. And there is no defense or justification for the devastation, horror, violence, death, and trauma unleashed on the people of Ukraine.

In my estimation, as a lifelong, baptized, and anointed member of the Orthodox Church, and as a deacon with nearly twenty years of service, the greatest scandal is the refusal of the sister Orthodox Churches to hold Patriarch Kirill accountable for his contribution to the violence. Only a handful of Orthodox Church leaders have condemned Kirill for his complicity, especially the Churches of the Greek tradition. Too many Churches have either remained silent or have treaded carefully by expressing concern about the war without mentioning the patriarch.

My own Church, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), is an apt example. The OCA’s Holy Synod issued a statement calling for an end to the Russian invasion and condemning the war while expressing support for Metropolitan Onufry and his church. (8) The OCA’s leader, Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard), sent a letter to Patriarch Kirill asking him to intervene—though we do not know the precise details of the letter since it was delivered privately and never shared with the people of the Church led by the metropolitan.

The boldest action among Orthodox came from a cohort of clergy in the UOC-MP. More than four hundred priests signed a long letter addressed to the highest-ranking patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches to convene a tribunal that would assess the charge that Patriarch Kirill fanned the flames of war by promoting the dangerous Russkii Mir ideology. (9)

Parishes and clergy of the Russian church in Ukraine have protested Kirill’s complicity by refusing to commemorate him in the Liturgy. Metropolitan Onufry himself continues to commemorate Kirill, but he presides at Liturgy as if he was the primate of an autocephalous Church. An example of his liturgical expression of autocephaly is the intonation of the diptychs, the commemora- tions of all the primates of the autocephalous churches. This liturgical action demonstrates Onufry’s position—he appears poised to lead a de facto autocephalous church, even if it remains under Moscow’s jurisdiction de jure.

Most Orthodox Church leaders and synods have issued statements ranging from condemning Russian aggression to calling for peace and reconciliation on both sides. The appeal for peace is absurd; peace can be achieved only when all Russian forces leave Ukraine and respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Orthodox leaders and theologians have criticized the Roman Church for its steadfast defense of the papacy. The Orthodox claim that the Roman Church has invested too much power into the papacy and that the association of infallibility with the pope’s exercise of the extraordinary magisterium—rare as it is—leaves the Church with no avenue for correcting a false teaching or removing a dangerous pontiff, is, ironically, replicated in the Orthodox Church.

The sad irony is that Patriarch Kirill’s justification of Russia’s violent war on Ukraine has exposed Orthodoxy’s kryptonite. Orthodoxy’s pathetic response to the war reveals one urgent problem and one crisis.

The problem is that Orthodoxy also grants too much power to bishops, and especially to the archbishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs who preside over Church life. To date, the appeal of the four hundred priests for a tribunal to hold Patriarch Kirill has gone unheeded. It is highly unlikely that any such event will take place.

The Russian Orthodox Church exercises considerable influence in world Orthodoxy, especially over the Churches of Serbia, Antioch, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the OCA. None of these Churches have called Patriarch Kirill to accountability for his misdeeds. A special kind of power prevents Christian leaders from speaking prophetically when they are called to defend the vulnerable against violence and exploitation. The patriarch of the Russian Church possesses too much of this power, and there is no mechanism in place to call him to accountability. This is the problem the Orthodox response to the war reveals.

The response also reveals a crisis in Orthodoxy. The crisis is one of indifference. Orthodox readers might object to this assertion. After all, many Orthodox Churches have leaped into action by devoting themselves to humanitarian efforts. These initiatives are laudable. But it is not enough to concentrate spiritual energy solely on humanitarian aid. The Church has the resources to address the cause of the crisis.

A religious ideology that has come off the rails and contributed to the transition from the exercise of soft to hard power is immune to humanitarian aid. Church leaders need to speak prophetically, and one component of using the voice God has given is to come together to call Patriarch Kirill to accountability for his complicity in the violence Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine.

There are many excuses offered for the cautious approach. What good would it do to criticize Kirill publicly if Putin will simply remove and replace him with a yes-man? Condemning Kirill could incite reprisal—perhaps the Russian Church would annul the canonical status of autocephaly (independence) it has given to the Churches of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the OCA.

Holding Patriarch Kirill accountable for his bellicose activity could certainly have consequences for these Orthodox Churches. The Russian Church might alienate them, threaten to annul autocephaly, or sever communion. Each and every one of these consequences is worth retaining the gift of prophecy that God has given to Christians. As of this writing, most of the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Churches are refusing to exercise the prophetic ministry by ignoring appeals—many of them from within the Church—to hold Kirill accountable.

The loss resulting from burying the gift of prophecy is much worse than all the other consequences combined. It is akin to denying the call coming from the Lord himself, to deny ourselves, carry our crosses, and follow him. Those called to protect the needy are abandoning the vulnerable. Those called to be shepherds are taking cover and allowing the wolves to tear apart the flock.

The Orthodox Churches can recover the gift of prophecy so many of them have decided to bury, by the grace of God. The Church—the whole Church, all of Christ’s body, including the laity—has a lot of work to do to create mechanisms that limit the power borne by leaders and hold those who abuse their power to account.

For the time being, the refusal of Orthodox leaders to condemn Kirill for his actions is a terrible scandal that permits the Russian patriarch to use his office to justify an unjust and evil war. The people belonging to the Churches that refuse to speak out have no reason to have confidence in their leaders. If Church leaders cannot and will not speak out and act to defend and protect the vulnerable, the faithful have no reason to trust leaders with themselves, their resources, and their children.

The world now knows Orthodoxy’s kryptonite—a combination of exploitative power and indifference. May God heal that which is infirm in Orthodoxy through the prayers of the Ukrainian martyrs killed in Russia’s unholy war.

(1) Carlotta Gall, “Bucha’s Month of Terror,” New York Times, April 11, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/04/11/world/europe/bucha-terror.html, accessed January 11, 2023.

(2) Isaac Chotiner, “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine,” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john -mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine, accessed August 22, 2022.

(3) See Mikhail Suslov, “The Russian Orthodox Church and the Crisis in Ukraine,” in Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis, ed. Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 133–62.

(4) For a more in-depth exploration of Russkii Mir, see David K. Goodin, “The Rise of the Third Rome: Russkii Mir and the Rebirth of Christendom,” Journal of the Council for Research on Religion 2, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2021): 71–88, https://creor-ejournal .library.mcgill.ca/article/view/56, accessed January 30, 2023.

(5) “Church of England General Synod Hears of Ukrainian Suffering as It Votes to Condemn Russian Invasion,” Anglican Ink blog, July 11, 2022, https://anglican .ink/2022/07/11/church-of-england-general-synod-hears-of-ukrainian-suffering-as-it -votes-to-condemn-russian-invasion/, accessed August 22, 2022.

(6) “A Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir) Teaching,” Public Orthodoxy blog, March 13, 2022, https://publicorthodoxy.org/2022/03/13/a-declaration-on-the-russian -world-russkii-mir-teaching/, accessed August 22, 2022.

(7) Luanna Muniz, “Pope Francis: Russian War in Ukraine Was ‘Perhaps Provoked,’” Politico, June 14, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/pope-francis-says-war-in -ukraine-perhaps-provoked-or-unprevented/, accessed August 22, 2022.

(8) Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, “Statement on Ukraine,” Orthodox Church in America website, https://www.oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod /statement-on-ukraine, accessed August 22, 2022.

(9) “Open Appeal of the Priests of the UOC-MP to the Primates of Local Orthodox Churches,” Public Orthodoxy blog, April 26, 2022, https://publicorthodoxy.org/2022 /04/26/open-appeal-of-uoc-priests/, accessed August 22, 2022.