Push Away The Pulpit, Please

greek priest sermon

“Moralism has prevailed for good in our lives, as well as in the life of the Church. It is taught is seminary and represents for all Christians, something on par – if not greater and more important – than doctrine. Violation of doctrine is more and more acceptable in society, as well as in the Church, however, the violation of morality is unacceptable. The interesting thing is that in our Orthodox tradition, moralism – even as a term – was unknown until recent years.

It appears almost nowhere in the writings of the Church Fathers, nor was it taught in seminaries until recently. It is a term that is of Western origin, which, however, has become rooted in our Church, like so many other things.” This statement belongs to Metropolitan John of Permanon, a senior cleric of the Ecumenical Throne and renowned academician at a recent conference (Ontology and Ethics).

In the same introduction, published in the journal Sept-Oct 2013 edition of the journal Frear, this leading Orthodox theologian also notes three trends in Orthodoxy today in regards to the encroachment of ethics into the faith: First, the “fundamentalist” position, which is reminiscent of ultraconservative Protestantism, where Gospel passages are taken word for word to shape moral teachings.

Second, the “legalistic” trend, which is reminiscent of Roman Catholicism, and in which a church representative pontificates on ethical issues and tries to create the “official” Church position on these matters. (Metropolitan John points out that this trend is still in its early stages in the Orthodox Church, which still retains enough antibodies to resist this legalistic approach, altogether foreign to its philosophy.) Finally, the “charismatic” approach, according to which “spiritual” people are entrusted to offer moral instruction.

As if this situation is not confusing enough, the faithful have the added problem of dealing with a plethora of subpar sermons that do more to chase away the faithful than attract them. Somewhere along the way, every parish priest has decided to become a preacher, irrespective of training, rhetorical skill, or preparation. The two positions are not necessarily interchangeable, which can be surmised by the fact that there would not be a need for separate preachers if every priest could satisfy this duty effectively.

Sadly, along with an overkill of moralism encroaching into the Church, there is a growing trend of rhetorically-challenged priests wanting to speak longer and longer, while saying less and less, to the detriment of the faithful forced to listen to platitudes, pietism, explanations that often contain factual errors, or worse yet, lessons that are unorthodox… oh, and the occasional butchering of the Greek language (in the ever-decreasing instances that priests or bishops try to use this mode of communication).

More and more, stage-hogging priests will increasingly divert from the “seven minute rule” taught in seminary and talk at the parishioners for increments of 20, 30, or even 40 minutes. Those with greater patience may find an opportunity for some levity, such as hearing accounts of how St. Basil was persecuted by “the Turks” (sic) or how the Akathyst Hymn historically followed the Salutations (sic).

What is not as funny is the questionably Orthodox teaching of self-styled preachers, i.e., illnesses as punishments for sins, the main function of the Church is to be a center of philanthropy, guidelines on the handling of holy water (use it for seven days and then bring it back to the parish to pour into the church sink basins, which are blessed), etc.

Being that all parish council candidates are forced to attend the same boring seminar year in and year out just to be allowed to run in parish elections, reciprocity would hold that parish priests be mandated to attend seminars as well. What better sermon than a refresher course in the rules of rhetoric? Better yet, a persuasive speech by a charismatic speaker against improvising on the pulpit.

There is nothing wrong with remaining silent and celebrating the Divine Liturgy in awe. After all, that, not the celebrant, is the main reason for attending church. Only those priests with a proven acumen for preaching should be allowed to expound upon their ideas, while the rest should be laconic, brief, and take great pains to ensure that they are not adulterating the doctrines of the Church or rewriting history through their appetite for verbosity.

Sadly, most generalizations in the standard Sunday sermon might just have easily been delivered by an atheist. After all, there are plenty of agnostics or atheists who believe strongly in leading ethical lives or who cling to certain moral principles for their own reasons.

The challenge for the Orthodox preacher is to illustrate and highlight the Orthodox Christian worldview the different insight it offers into the world in which we live the hierarchy of needs that differentiate Orthodoxy from other standpoints, and the “cultural otherness” that it cultivates.

Without this, a sermon is little more than a regular reminder of the fact that the only things worse than an uneducated person is a semi-educated one, because the latter actually thinks he knows something, and thus cause much greater harm.

Greek 19th Century literary great Alexandros Papadiamantis, who so eloquently expresses the Orthodox perspective, wrote the following: “The tribune of the church is not like the judicial tribune or the political tribune, where there are orators and counter-orators. There is only one speaker. It is assumed that he is not delivering a lecture, but imparting conclusions, accepted, unquestioned doctrines. Improvised nonsense is allowed there…”

If, then, mandated seminars are to annually be utilized by the Church, let them at least be directed towards remedying a problem far more pronounced than indoctrinating parish council candidates.

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1 Comment

  1. The writer is right; that’s what is happening in most Orthodox Churches worldwide. One of the reasons many, especially the young, find our Orthodox Church very irrelevant, out of touch with contemporary society.
    Future priests have to be educated by enlightened teachers; also to be evaluated psychologically if they qualify for such a calling in our modern world. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Our Holy Cross Seminary in this country is just surviving, while the patriarchate is trying to reopen an old seminary in a foreign and hostile land, where the “byzantine” mentality of Orthodoxy is still dominating the scene.

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