By Dr. Peter Bouteneff
This writing assignment intrigued me: ask people who are committed to the Church why they are “still” here. The implication is that there are reasons not to want to be involved with the Church, and of course there are. “Organized religion” can be a hard sell, generally speaking. Increasing information about the multiplicity of religious and non-religious viewpoints, many of which seem very wise and reasonable, make people wonder why anyone would want to commit to just one view as “the true way.” And, for us cradle-Orthodox, the Church is so easy to associate exclusively with our family background and with our ethnicity, something that we ought to transcend as we grow up, even if we retain a sentimental attachment to it. And then of course there are scandals financial and sexual, Church squabbles, and Church priorities which sometimes seem all askew.
All of these factors are serious, and all of them have affected me – sometimes powerfully – at points in my life.
When I think of the many factors that have kept me in the Church, for which I thank God every day, I think a lot about the people I was surrounded with. Since my childhood I was close to people who were completely genuine, and also completely committed to the Church. Their relationship to the Church was real and penetrated their whole being. One such person was my confessor through my entire childhood, up until his death when I was 23 years old. He was Fr Alexander Schmemann. Partly owing to his influence, and that of my parents whose relationship to the Church was also deep-set and organic (yes, ethnic, but never obsessively so), the church-types I gravitated towards were normal people. They weren’t ideologues. Which means that their real priorities didn’t lie with things like the calendar (old or new), ecumenism or anti-ecumenism, or The One Right Kind of Iconography. They knew when God was properly praised, when Christ was rightly confessed, and when people were being real. Their BS-sensors were finely tuned. Like me, their reactions to the ideologues was some combination of puzzlement, “yuck,” and boredom.
Not everyone can grow up with Fr Schmemann as an uncle-figure, and not everyone who grew up in his orbit ended up sticking with the Church, as many of my extended family attest! But aside from the overall benefits of being around genuineness and realism, one specific thing all this taught me was how to “place” sin and holiness within the Church experience. Because, let’s be honest, the whole thing can sound so confusing and so schizophrenic: on the one hand, we profess faith in “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” an inherently sinless body. And on the other hand, we don’t have to probe very far to find signs of everything that is opposite to unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Oh look – news of another schism, another financial scandal, another act of bigotry in the name of pious Holy Orthodoxy. A clergy fist-fight in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for crying out loud! (Google it if you must.)
So where is the Church? What do we even mean by the word? Here are a couple of principles I’ve learned to try to live by:
First, although there is mud, don’t get stuck in it. Learn to recognize, first and foremost, holiness in the Church. It’s there. Right among you, in your parish, as well as in what you see when you travel, what you read in its pages. Holiness is there in sometimes unexpected, unassuming, imperfect ways, and sometimes in very clear-cut ways. And holiness wins.
Second, don’t be in denial of the mud, the sin. This can be hard for some people to do, because their definition of the Church is so totally exalted and so undifferentiated that they can’t figure out how the word “sin” could possibly figure into the picture. They’re right, Church is holy. But guess what: its members are all sinners, striving for holiness. The Church is not the sum total of its sinful members. It is their hospital. It is our hospital.
These lead to the third point: the mud is not the Church. Never let sin define the Church for you, because that would be seeing things really, completely backwards. The Church is Jesus Christ: not of the world, yet fully in the world – and sinless, with the holiness of God himself. The Church’s members, from the very top on down, are charged with being Christ’s body. We simultaneously are the Church, and are striving to become the Church.
Fourth, when thinking of scandals, don’t get self-righteous: recall that you and I are sinners too. We’re the scandal. Sin takes us away from the reality of the Church, such that we have to be called back into it. That’s why the priest says after we’ve confessed our sins: “Reunite this, your servant, with your holy flock.” We have to be the Church. Together. Calling ourselves and each other into it, constantly.
The upshot is that every time we recite that line in the creed, “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” we can take it as an invitation to reflect on what that Church is. We can try to ensure that it’s not simply a Church that we are conceptualizing in our own image, or along the pattern of our own possibly deluded ideals. Because our pursuit of identifying the real Church, as an article of faith, as a body that we seek constantly to represent, is finally the pursuit of Jesus Christ himself. The Church, after all, is his body – it is the continuation of his incarnate life. That is what we are saying is holy, whole, full, and sent into the world (i.e., one, holy, catholic, apostolic). And that’s what I want to be in, that is what I want to partake in, eat of, implicate myself in, and continue to grow closer to. And I want to do it together with all these nutty people who, like myself, are groping our way forward in a messy world. That’s why I’m still here.