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Converts and Conservatives

Fr. Jonathan Tobias

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One of the many reasons why I left the Protestant community for the Orthodox Church was the latter's conservatism. It wasn't the main reason, but it was certainly one of the important ones.

I suspect that the same goes for many of my fellow wayfarers -- the clump of ex-protestants that streamed into Orthodoxy from the mid-eighties to 2000. Then, Orthodoxy had that hothouse spritz of the nouveau and exotic. Now, one can detect -- amongst the convert community -- a sort of fatigue setting in, seemingly from wan habituation and disenchantment.

Nevertheless, we are still conservative, and we are still true. The real enchantment obtains, despite the disappointments of the flesh. Orthodoxy, for all the apparent faults of the present community, is the reality of the Body of Christ. It is the revelation, and practice, of the Apostolic Church.

This next thing I suggest will sound a bit garish, so I beg your pardon in advance. Let me preface the offense with an avant-propos. Since I was allowed in the door (and I mean no irony here, because I really wanted in, and I was -- and remain -- happy that permission was granted), I have wondered why the Lord has beset the Orthodox Church with so many of us former evangelicals. Truth be told, we are not easy to manage or to get along with. Some of us have transmuted our protestant legalism into Orthodox legalism. Others of us have retained our congregationalism, and have attempted to import guitars and pastoral-search committees. Still others have complained loquaciously about ethnicity and a Balkanized jurisdictional Bayou, despite the fact that this very mess was what brought them the Gospel in the first place.

So I asked God this: "Why do You punish them with us? Wherever we go, we cannot let things alone: in our wake, we spread commissions, projects, marketing strategies, growth campaigns, and even blog sites (like this one). We don't know the ways of the old country, and we bumble and stumble every time we try to trill our r's. Why have You inflicted us on them?"

Indeed, we have even cajoled some of the "Cradle" Orthodox (whatever that means) into thinking that we are a blessing. Some time ago, I read, with a heavy squint, a nice Eastern European lady suggesting that the Orthodox community should jettison its old world ways and learn from the ex-protestants -- the sooner, the better. She extolled the converts' bent toward stewardship and community outreach and evangelistic programming.

Flummoxery and bamboozlement.

How mightily we "converts" have talked our revivalist game, and have published our glossy pages, and have duplicated our cassettes and CD's, and have advertised the wondrous fair invention of this dispensation: the "workshop."

How's this quote, lifted from Stefan Beck's article in the new New Criterion?

If there's one word that sums up everything that's gone wrong since the War, it's Workshop.

(From that wordsmith extraordinaire, Kingsley Amis, in Jake's Thing.)

But enough of the proem: here's the real goop and bit of garishness:

There is something that the converts have brought to the Orthodox Church, like a dowry. Despite the WASP-y awkwardness, and the ever-ready (and irritating) urge to smite custom into policies and agenda items, we do have our uses.

We have come to be saved, first and foremost. Let us never lose sight of that brightness.

But what can we bring, we poor bumpkins, to the Great House of the Ages?

We have come to help keep you conservative. For we are time travelers, arriving haggard from a possible and sans-Tradition, liberal future.

We know, from our protestant childhood, what the National Council of Churches is, what it looks like under the stump, what it tastes like and how it smells. Nice people sometimes, but as an organization? -- nothing to look up to. We saw what the liberalizing elite of a central administration can do to an entire denomination -- no matter what the people in the pew want, or sing on a Sunday (after all, many Methodists still sing "Just as I am"). We know, first hand, what happens when a seminary (dressing up for the University) jerks theology out of headship, and shoves it under the tail of philosophy -- whether the tail belongs to the Arian hegemony of Tübingen, or the pandering crowd-control of the Fuller Brush Institute.

And even though we don't like to admit it, we know what happens, inexorably, when the canons mandating chastity and male ordination are shelved. Ask any Episcopalian, former or no.

We have witnessed the results of every heterodox departure, and we were blessed with big numbers at every liberalization of those stodgy rules. When tradition bound us, we paid obeisance to the bottom line: we adjusted, fudged and dispensed with the old, and the bottom reared up, the people applauded, and we heralded ourselves as the anointed.

Sure, we had nice people, and a lot of our social needs were met. Sure, we had our thumb on the pulse of the market, we knew what people wanted (childcare, Starbucks in the Atrium, interest groups, no church on Christmas). Sure, we felt up-to-date and relevant.

But we also felt devolved.

So here we are with our poor gift, but we often don't know what we have to give you -- you who are blessed more than we in the sheer fact that you are cradle-born. I look up to you who are infant-baptized, chrismated in your godmother's arms, and taught the Sign of the Cross before you spoke. For you, Orthodoxy is second-nature if not the first, and don't you ever tell me again that I, as a convert, am better off because I am not like you.

But help me, and the rest of us bumpkins, give you what we have. Turn off our PowerPoint projectors. Drag us from our workshops and our book-signing tables. Don't listen to our nasal dismissals of all things ethnic and good. Overlook our boorishness.

But let us instead warn you of the days to come, and the Number of the Beast.

Let us tell stories of fractured faith and smorgasbord creeds. Let us recount tales of intellects gone awry when wrenched from apostolicity and theoria. Let us sing the dirges of reformations that spiral down into existential skepticism and fundamentalist ghetto.

Let us prove the impossibility of belief, apart from apostolicity, in the Holy Trinity. Let us catalogue the many phases of degradation resulting from anthropology automatized and atomized, shadowed from the light of ecclesial doctrine.

Let us carefully distinguish the difference between the conservancy of Holy Tradition (which is us), and the politics of conservatism (which is not necessarily us). Let us discern the non-conservative, consumptive character that inhabits the core of both national socialism and multi-national capitalism.

Let us remind you why we came, pounding on Noah's doors, as deluvian refugees.

And above all, let us, together, discover Orthodoxy as the stalwart redoubt of humanity against the approach of Leviathan. For it comes, its golden harbingers calling for license and leveling, and a negation of all custom and tradition, and an enthusiastic embrace instead of rational, totalitarian control.

One of these days, someone else will be able to say, once again, "L'État, c'est moi." But this time, he won't be a little man, his hand cozied in a waistcoat.

And the only ones who will notice will be Orthodox, and conservative, in the very best senses of the words.

Fr. Jonathan Tobias is an Orthodox priest and edits the Second Terrace blog.

Posted: 16-Sep-06

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