Byzantine Orthodox Ethos: A threat to Our Liturgical Theology?

edited June 2014 in Faith Issues
Wow the Indian Orthodox seem to have suspicions concerning EO just like we do. But check out Abouna Mat's response to that suspicion:

Byzantine Orthodox Ethos: A threat to Our Liturgical Theology?

There are many reasons why I do not deserve to be a priest in God’s Holy Church, but ‘graduating from a Byzantine Seminary’ is not one of those reasons. I am really confused, it’s not just Fr. Shebaly (reference his editorial on Orthodox herald), but many others from India have told me that we in America who are educated at Byzantine seminaries are Byzantine influenced and lack the Malankara Syrian ethos. Let’s leave the world of theoreticals and be specific. What is it that we “do” that is so Byzantine and seems to upset so many people?
Is it because some of us wear black cassocks? When I was ordained, I was given a black cassock, that is what I wear. From now on, just think of it as, we who are from America are greater sinners than those from India and so we need to wear black. (this is manifested most especially in my lack of skill in getting fish curry stains out of a white cassock ;).
Is it because we prefer meaningful icons to protestant or catholic style portrait paintings? Icons are deeply rooted in the Syriac tradition as well.
Also, I’ve seen the same movement back to icons in Kottayam and Bombay Diocese. So, perhaps Kottayam diocese lacks this Malankara ethos too.
Is it because many of the American students prefer not to use the keyboard during worship? Or they enjoy using the traditional 8 tones instead of the
modern western tunes used all over India?
Is it because we teach the Jesus Prayer? The Philokalia and its teachings is also appreciated and taught by His Holiness Didymus I and His Grace Mar Ivanios. I guess His Holiness is Byzantine influenced as well.

Dn. Shaun mentioned something about interpreting Denaha the Syriac way versus the Byzantine way and an article by Varghese Achen. I have not read that article, perhaps you could send it to me. But, I first read St Ephrem, St Severus, and VC Samuel at a Byzantine seminary. In addition, I never understood why we put the cross in the baptismal font during Denaha until I saw what the Byzantines do in their tradition. (and no, I’m not going to share, to find out everyone will have to do the ghastly act of researching another Orthodox experience)

Our exposure to other Orthodox traditions is not a threat, it’s a blessing and helps us understand ourselves better. In seminary I got to learn about Russian, Antiochene, Greek, Ethiopian, and even Armenian traditions. It was an amazing experience. We will not lose our Malankara ethos (whatever you define that as) by opening ourselves to experience the way the Holy Spirit has worked through a people and a culture different than ours. If anything, the Byzantines have learned from us too. Several Byzantine students studied Syriac with us at the Armenian seminary.

Something I’ve noticed is that when a priest or bishop from India studies from a Catholic or Protestant school, it is to their credit. When someone from America studies at an Orthodox institution, it is our handicap. Why? Is that something in the Malankara ethos that I can’t understand?
Let me be clear, none of my comments are to demean the experience of those who go to Kottayam Seminary, a wonderful and historic institution of our Church. The worship in the chapel at Old Seminary is truly amazing. I rejoice because God is doing great things there and also here. I’ll even take it a step further and completely agree that a graduate of Kottayam Seminary will be a much better priest than me. But that’s not because I’m Byzantine influenced.

Fr. Mat Alexander
Youth Minister for the churches in Dallas, Texas


  • He is correct in many things, but I think the worry in the Coptic Church (not sure about the Malankara) is the post-Chalcedonian tradition.  From what I see, those who do go to EO seminaries (which I think are great, and it's a wonderful thing to do for learning purposes so long as you go with a bit of discernment and wisdom) is that sometimes they will quote from post-Chalcedonian EO sources as if they are acceptable saints of the Church.  Again, not saying that the quotes are bad or non-Orthodox, but it might tend to lead to a neglect of our traditions.  I've explained to someone else that sadly the OO Church is rediscovering slowly her post-Chalcedonian history.  Until then, everything pre-Chalcedonian is virtually agreed upon and depended on EO sources.  But why don't we also learn about the Copto-Arabic fathers or the Syriac fathers of the Middle Ages, or the Armenian fathers and how they dealt with the problems they faced?

    I think that's the worry, but for the most part, I agree with Fr. Mat here, and he does make excellent points.  We just need to be careful and go with discernment.

    God bless.
  • edited June 2014
    Hi Mina 
    Happy Feast of The Consecration of the Church of Mari Mina at Maryut.
    I totally agree that much of the Orthodox world would benefit from a ressourcement of our Local Church's Tradition. From what I've heard about St Nersess Seminary in NJ, the Armenians are doing a wonderful job at uncovering the theology "post-Chalcedon" but I'm not sure that we can easily demarcate post vs pre Chalcedonian theology. 

    It might be possible (this is just a theory) that there was always some synthesis among the Churches even after Chalcedon (ie. like look at the Theodoran Style Coptic Icons at St Anthony's Monastery in Egypt, where does "Byzantine" stop and "Coptic" begin? or the Ethiopian Akhathist "Harp of Glory" which Fr John Anthony McGuckin says 'The poetry, as it were, bears a direct relation to Byzantine forms, but is painted in distinctive and radiant earth-colors taken from the highlands of Africa').  

    What is concerning is the suppression of Orthodox thought from another Church because of a reduction to anachronistic categories. These categories seem to perpetuate a sort of auto-response much like the Anti-Western rhetoric that flies around in EO circles, or the Anti-East (we're Oriental not Eastern ;P) stance that can sometimes be seen in our Coptic Orthodox Church today. 

    I agree that discernment is very very important but often times our warnings to be careful with anything "non-Coptic" or "non-Oriental" can sometimes be a way to pre-empt actual encounter with other Orthodox. The warning becomes a sort of way to advocate spiritual nationalism, a way to obscure our theological confusion (or nationalist rigorism) and build ethnic ghettos (or spiritual ghettos).

    What is interesting is that the Byzantine Seminaries that do exist have provided an opportunity for all Orthodox to raise the theological bar. At least in North America, where EO seminaries have been established for over 60 years, I'm not quite sure why our Church is so insistent on creating a parallel institution instead of partnering directly with the EO. It's a bit of reinventing the wheel no? Perhaps it is because we have adopted the model of jurisdictionalism or the fact we have bought into denominationalism. Perhaps it is related to nationalism...a triumphalist gesture that we've created something better or something of our own. Fr Mat's most telling statement is that "Our exposure to other Orthodox traditions is not a threat, it’s a blessing and helps us understand ourselves better." 

    If perhaps we have experienced a Babylonian Captivity say under Islam or even because of post-reformation RC or Protestant proselytization, I think Fr Mat's statement suggests that we can learn or relearn what may have been forgotten because of this captivity. Even external liturgical gestures like processions outside the Church can shed light on a why Orthodox do things and what those liturgical movements imply. We also have much to offer to the EO but I don't think we can do it in isolation or without learning what Orthodox theology is.

    Maybe one day we won't define ourselves as Eastern or Oriental...but as Orthodox.

    "These churches have differences in some details of tradition, but have one Faith and one Tradition." 
    Fr. Tadros Malaty, Traditon and Orthodoxy, 56

    "...once you get underneath what they say of the surface and the verbal conflict, two nature, one nature and so on, they are all trying to express the same thing but with different starting points." 
    Dr Sebastian Brock, On the Syriac tradition in Christianity
  • This following quote is not intended as a proof text just thought it would be of interest concerning the possibility of Orthodox synthesis and dialogue way after Chalcedon:

    "Church historians have normally told the story of the schisms in the Christian community resulting from the decisions of the councils of Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451 as having come about gradually, roughly during the century that elapsed between the time of the council of Chalcedon and the council of Constantinople II in 553. The latter council in particular gave definitive force to the policy of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (r. 527-65) to enforce Chalcedonian orthodoxy throughout the Roman Empire. It is a story told almost exclusively from the point of view of Roman imperial orthodoxy, which even uses the denominational adjectives anachronistically, the polemically inspired epithets, Nestorian, Jacobite, and Melkite, and, of course, the entirely polemical designation Monophysite, as designations for what are then regarded as dissident churches. 

    But the fact is that none of the communities designated by these names existed as fully developed, ecclesial entities in the sixth century, albeit that the Christological controversies out of which they emerged were certainly in full spate at that time. It was not until almost fifty years later, after the time when the emperor Heraclius (r. 610-41) lost the territories of the so-called Oriental Patriarchates to the Islamic conquest at the battle of the Yarmuk in 636, that at the council of Constantinople III (681) Roman imperial orthodoxy found its own full doctrinal definition in formulas that would prove lasting. It was reaffirmed finally just over a century later, in connection with the Byzantine Iconoclast controversy, at the council of Nicea II in 787. But another forty-some years was wanted before the publication of the earlier forms of the Synodicon of Orthodoxy in 843, and the establishment of the Feast of Orthodoxy.

    So in fact the ecclesial identities of the enduring churches in the East did not come to their maturity until well after the rise of Islam. This being the case, and since most of the non-Chalcedonian Christians lived under Muslim rule in the Oriental Patriarchates, one must consider the challenge of Islam as itself having been a factor in the Christian, community-building process. This was especially the case of the three communities who lived with the Muslims, the Nestorians, the Jacobites, and the Melkites, to use the troika of names one finds most frequently in Muslim sources for them...

    ...The Christians who lived in the world of Islam shaped their enduring ecclesial identities, both culturally and intellectually, within the context of several local determining circumstances: their encounter with the Muslims, their adoption of the Arabic language, and their isolation from other Christian communities outside of the Islamic world."

    Fr Sidney H. Griffith. "THE CHURCH IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOSQUE: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) 129-130.

    Of course this can be read in multiple ways:

    1) Ecclesial Identities were solidified because of the millet system...perhaps even defined by the subsequent Islamic dynasties.
    2) Churches cooperated on some level because of the isolation from the other Patriarchates
    3) There wasn't such a big break but rather an eventual 'nationalizing' because of the proximity to each other under persecution, and isolation from the Latin and Byzantine Traditions. 
    4) all of the above actually have nothing to do with the previous post ;P
    5) Fr Sydney is RC and that opens up a whole other debate :D
  • Also sometimes the same warnings don't get raised for a lot of the popular books that circulate in the Church today:



  • One more quote:

    "(3) CATECHESIS AND THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION, through which mutual appreciation of the richness of our respective traditions is fostered. There is undoubtedly a need for popular literature in this subject area, which can be distributed to the people in our parishes and used as the basis for parish study groups. But perhaps more importantly, there is a need for us to make each other known in our seminaries and houses of theological study.

    Here I would especially like to challenge the non-Chalcedonian traditions to make courses in their spirituality, liturgy, and patristic traditions available to the Chalcedonian theological seminaries. Because the Chalcedonian communities in this country are larger, they have developed the more established centers of theological learning. It makes good sense for the smaller non-Chalcedonian communities to maintain houses of studies in association with the established Chalcedonian seminary — much like St. Nersess does with St. Vladimir’s. But the non-Chalcedonian house of studies should make courses in its tradition available to the students of the Chalcedonian seminary as well. Thus, while it is easy enough for a St. Nersess student to avail himself of courses here that can give him an appreciation of the Byzantine liturgical tradition and of the Greek patristic tradition, I would like to see our students have the opportunity to take a course in the Armenian liturgical tradition or in the thought of the Armenian church Fathers. In other words, while in our seminaries we Chalcedonians have felt ourselves enormously enriched by the presence of non-Chalcedonian students, we have not always been able to familiarize ourselves with their heritage as extensively as we might like. The association between seminary and house of studies should provide opportunities for “theological cross-fertilization.” If our future theologians and pastors, while in seminary, come to a healthy and substantial respect and appreciation for our respective traditions, we can be certain that some of that mutuality will filter down to a popular level, where it can bear much fruit."

  • edited June 2014
    Well put. I don't mind a Coptic seminary in affiliation with St. Vlad's (or even a Coptic history and theological tradition course). That would be a wonderful idea. The problem is we have had our own contemporary theological controversies. Hopefully with Coptic theological graduates coming from all over, these controversies do not become so manifest so that we can be affiliated with St. Vlad's without bringing our embarrassing baggage to them.
  • :) :) :)
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