SEPTEMBER 6, 2020
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, anyone wanting to find out about Orthodox Christianity, at least in the English-speaking world, was at a disadvantage. What few resources there were concerned a strange, exotic form of Christianity, only likely to be encountered far away, in the East: Serbia, Greece, Russia, or even farther afield. Scholarly works some of these were, but they presented as a kind of anthropology, exploring fairly remote cultures and ways of life. Histories of the Church regularly forgot about the East after the fifth century, only encountering it again with the Great Schism in the 11th century, soon followed by the Crusades. Readers of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–’89) would be better informed, but about an Eastern Church shadowing and contributing to the long decline of the Roman Empire, which for Gibbon had attained its apogee while Christianity was still a small, persecuted religion.
The situation is very different now, so much so that some might even wonder whether there is room for yet another introduction to the Eastern Orthodox Church and its history. For more than half a century now, there has been The Orthodox Church by one who called himself “Timothy Ware” (the name still appears on the book’s cover), but who is now better known as “Metropolitan Kallistos Ware,” a metropolitan bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. First published in 1963, only five years or so after its author’s conversion to Orthodoxy, and revised from time to time since, this work still holds the field, and must have been the introduction to Orthodoxy for many a convert over the last half-century. There are several books that stand alongside it: from works by native Orthodox authors, such as Friar John Meyendorff’s The Orthodox Church: Its Past and Its Role in the World Today (1962), to introductions intended for tourists who might encounter Orthodoxy on Greek islands, for instance, such as Katherine Clark’s excellent little book, The Orthodox Church (2009). The quality of these books is fairly high; the main differences lie in the intended audience.
Archpriest John McGuckin has already contributed to this field with a large book called The Orthodox Church (2008) and an even larger edited collection in two volumes, to which he contributed a good deal, the Wiley-Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity (2011). Why, one might ask, the present work, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History? My own response would be framed in terms of audience: this is a book not primarily directed to the curious, but to those seriously drawn to Orthodoxy and wondering about what their next steps might be, as well what they would be letting themselves in for. It is a fairly self-contained work that tells you what you need to know but doesn’t make much of an attempt to feed your curiosity. If you want to know more, the author seems only to point to his bigger book. The bibliography is hardly a guide to further reading; it is rather an indication of the author’s own sources (half the works cited are, indeed, by the author himself).
McGuckin is well placed to write a book like this. First and foremost, he has an engaging style. He combines good storytelling with a facility for explaining some of the more complex corners of the development of Orthodoxy in a way that helps you see the forest and not get lost in the trees. The prelude to the book is eye- (and mind-) catching: taking his cue from Henry Reed’s famous poem, “Naming of Parts,” McGuckin makes it clear that there is no way round “naming the parts,” however pointless this may sometimes seem. As a form of Christianity, “Eastern Orthodoxy” is both familiar and unfamiliar, not because it is an exotic Christianity, but rather the reverse: it is a form of Christianity not ashamed of its history and of the way it must still carry with it a lot of baggage from its long past. In the modern Western world, marked by forgetfulness of the past, the Orthodox Church must seem a bit like Borges’s Funes the Memorious, the one who cannot forget anything.
McGuckin moves from the naming of parts to making a fundamental point about Orthodoxy which most in the West will find somewhere between baffling and offensive. Namely, that the Orthodox Church sees itself not as one denomination among others, but as the Church, the “one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” that we confess in the creed. So what about other Christians? Indeed, are there any others entitled to call themselves “Christian”? On the face of it, no: for the Orthodox there is only one Church — the Orthodox one. McGuckin introduces this notion in a nuanced way, but he does not disguise the fact that there are Orthodox Christians who are not in the least nuanced about their claim to belong to the one and only Church.
This leaves, throughout the book, a kind of lack of definition concerning its very subject: the book is, McGuckin writes, a “history” — a history of the Church, which is the Orthodox Church — but he leaves relatively unexplored where those Christians who are not Orthodox belong in this story. This is related to two further overall points: first, that the New Testament itself makes clear that the Church is an eschatological reality, part of the “last things” inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that it cannot be reduced to that institution the history of which we can relate (as McGuckin will do in the book); and this entails, following from that, what he calls a “philosophy of history” that sees the Church as belonging to the transcendent realm of the angels and saints, which cannot be understood in terms of sociological reality that constitutes the Church at any point in history.
These uncompromising assertions govern the whole of the “history of the Church” that follows. This is the book’s great strength — the picture of the Church that emerges is one that any Orthodox Christian will recognize. It is also, perhaps, its Achilles’ heel in that, speaking for myself as another “ancient historian” (as McGuckin also describes himself), it seems to me, at many points, that things are more complex than McGuckin is prepared to let on.
This history of the Church is presented in eight episodes: 1. Ecclesial Foundations: Proto- and Post-Apostolic Times; 2. Shaping Orthodoxy, Mapping Heresy (covering the second and third centuries); 3. The Classical Patristic Period (the fourth to the seventh centuries); 4. The Byzantine Imperial Church (more thematic than historical); 5. The Church’s Expansion (the conversion of the Slavs, but also the place of monasticism); 6. Orthodox Life under and after Islamic Dominion (what the Greeks call the Tourkokratia, covering both the restricted life of the Church under Islam — the earliest experience of living under Islam, the seventh to the 12th centuries, is passed over — as well as survival and revival, especially monastic, under the Turks, leading to liberation during the 19th century); 7. Orthodoxy under the Communists (Russia and Eastern Europe in the last century); 8. The 20th-Century Orthodox Diaspora (covering both the theological revival based in Paris, and the establishment of Orthodox Churches in the West during the last century). What a lot, you might well say! But thanks to his skills as storyteller and expounder of Orthodox attitudes, the author is on the whole remarkably successful, partly because of the way he weaves this historical strand with moments during which he pauses to look more deeply.
Chapter nine alters the pace by describing three Orthodox Christians of the last century: Maria Skobtsova, who died in Ravensbrück and is venerated as a martyr, St. Maria of Paris; Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, the most outstanding woman Orthodox theologian of the last century; and Elder Cleopa Ilie, a renowned Romanian spiritual father who lived his monastic life under the communist regime, often taking to the mountains to survive.
The book ends with some account of day-to-day life in an Orthodox church — here, by way of appendix, but in Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Welcome to the Orthodox Church (2015) it forms the structure for an entire introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy — as well as some reflections on the role of Orthodoxy in a postmodern environment, the core of which is that what postmodern men and women miss is a sense of their own transcendent reality, and are “as such, profoundly strange even to themselves.”
There are at least two points where I find myself critical of McGuckin. The first concerns his presentation of the first Christian millennium: it is, in effect (with a very few exceptions), an account of what later came to constitute the “Orthodox Church” as the “Church,” which means that the Western Church barely gets a mention and, when it does, it is only from the perspective of later Orthodoxy. Yet Orthodoxy, as it evolved in the first millennium, thought of itself as governed by the “Pentarchy” of patriarchs, senior-most of which was the Bishop of Rome. Orthodoxy, as it developed in the second millennium, was damaged by its loss of Rome; one evidence of this is the emerging struggle (which McGuckin notes) between Constantinople, with its diminishing political significance, and Moscow, with its political power in the ascendant — a struggle damaging Orthodoxy today.
Another point, in fact closely related, concerns McGuckin’s eulogistic attitude to the Byzantine Empire, with its ideal of symphonia between priesthood and political power. Eulogy of the Byzantine Empire is, indeed, not in the least unusual among the Orthodox, but it involves complicity with some ugly features of that empire, either by drawing a veil over them or simply endorsing them. The Byzantine emperors increasingly wanted a homogeneous people, the most striking challenge to which was the continued existence of the Jews. Their forcible conversion became imperial policy from time to time, resisted (to their credit) by notable churchmen, beginning in the 630s with St. Maximos the Confessor. Attempts to revive the Byzantine symphonia in more recent times have not been free of antisemitism, which is hardly surprising. Not unrelated, the Byzantine Empire was an oppressive regime, which readily had recourse to harassment, even persecution, of those unwilling to toe the imperial line. Again, Maximos comes to mind as one who paid the price for refusing to accept the requirements of symphonia. The Russian Empire was only following its Byzantine model in suppressing its subjects who thought differently. Something the Orthodox Church often colluded in. Memory is an important feature of Orthodox consciousness, but that memory sometimes calls for repentance.
As a whole, and in most of its parts, this book is a triumph. It succeeds in presenting all the memories and convictions that constitute what one might call “Orthodox consciousness” — the long memory that is reluctant to let go of any experience in which the glory of God, manifest in the Cross, has been encountered and experienced. In someone with less experience as a priest, scholar, and writer, the narrative would not have held together, and the reader would have encountered crevasses of obscurity or lack of meaning. But not so here. This is a book that will be read and pondered for decades to come.