Eastern Orthodox

Return of (part of) the chaplaincy story

Editor's note: There was no "On Religion" column this past week due to the death of Terry Mattingly's mother, Berta Geraldine Mattingly, in Texas. The following post originally ran at GetReligion.org ****

It seems that we are going to see more mainstream coverage of those debates about religious liberty, military chaplains and Don't Ask, Don't Tell." So let's back up and note a few basic fact, some of which were handled quite well in that CNN.com report that I praised the other day in the post called, "Chaplain questions older than DADT."

As that title implied, I wanted to note that church-state questions about military chaplains are not new.

The military powers that be have been arguing for a long time about doctrinal and legal issues linked to public prayers, God talk, preaching, evangelism/proselytism and a variety of subjects. Tensions between the traditionalist camp and what the oldline-Universalist-progressive camp are not new. It's much harder for an evangelical, charismatic of Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest to lead a wide variety of vague rites that mesh with various other traditions than for a liberal Episcopal priest to do that same. It's easier for a Reform rabbi to function in a state-funded religious environment than it is for a Southern Baptist, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran or an Eastern Orthodox priest (to name a few examples).

These hot-button issues almost always revolve around public expressions of doctrine, as opposed to silent, private beliefs.

When looking at DADT, however, the current state of things clearly affects the left as well as the right. As mentioned in the GetReligion comments pages, clergy in religious groups that favor DADT repeal have had their hands tied in public ministries to gays and lesbians in the military.

However, the must crucial question is not whether many doctrinal traditionalists will have to leave the military if DADT is repealed. The real question is whether many will leave rather than face punishment for public or even one-on-one expressions of their religious beliefs. Thus, it was important that the CNN.com story included this crucial slice of the Pentagon DADT report:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, "A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains' free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement," the report said.

Or, as Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America put it in a letter to the chaplains board:

"If our chaplains were in any way ... prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as 'prejudice' or the denunciation of homosexuality as 'hate language,' or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service."

So there is much more to this story than what happens if DADT is repealed. The question is how DADT repeal (or the continuation of the policy) will affect the ministry of military chaplains -- liberal and conservative -- and the rights of the soldiers that they serve -- liberal and conservative.

This brings us to the new story on these issues in the Washington Post, which adds some useful information on the point of view of liberal clergy, such as:

The Rev. Dennis Camp, a retired Army colonel, said it pained him when gay soldiers came to him to complain of the burden they felt from keeping their sexuality a secret. They could not display pictures of their loved ones or talk freely about their personal lives, he recalled. But he could not encourage them to be honest about their orientation, he said.

"They were forced by the situation, the system, to be dishonest, and that took its toll on them. And me," said Camp, a United Methodist minister who retired in 1996 after 27 years of service. "It was horrible. Right from the beginning I was saying, 'This is bad. This is wrong. It really has no place in our military community.' "

Yet in the paragraphs immediately before these lines, the Post framed the debate in the following manner:

The authors of the report noted that only three out of the 145 chaplains who participated in focus groups suggested that they would quit or retire if the law was changed. Many chaplains expressed opposition to repeal, while many others said they would not object, according to the report.

"In the course of our review, we heard some chaplains condemn in the strongest possible terms homosexuality as a sin and an abomination, and inform us that they would refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual," the report stated. "In equally strong terms, other chaplains, including those who also believe homosexuality is a sin, informed us that 'we are all sinners,' and that it is a chaplain's duty to care for all Service members."

Once again, repeal is not the ultimate issue for the leaders of traditional religious groups. The issue is hidden in that phrase "care for all Service members." Does "care" equal acceptance of homosexual activity? For example, I cannot imagine many traditional clergy actually saying that they would "refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual."

Really? Did the Pentagon offer any direct quotes from chaplains expressing those views, or is that an official bureaucratic interpretation of what women and men said in these interviews? What is the legal content of those words "support," "comfort" and "assist"?

The Post report does offer the following information from someone who is worried about protecting the rights of clergy who advocate traditional views on sexuality issues.

Many conservatives worry that lifting the policy would muzzle chaplains whose religions require them to preach against homosexuality. The Rev. Douglas E. Lee, a retired Presbyterian Air Force chaplain and brigadier general who now counsels and credentials chaplains, said chaplains generally point out their views on homosexuality before counseling a service member on that issue. He worried that military policies may prohibit even that level of conversation if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains' behavior.

"There's a strong possibility that a chaplain wouldn't be allowed to proclaim what their own faith believes, and not give people the information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you," he said. "If there's no protection for the chaplain to be able to speak according to his faith group, that might affect the number of chaplains we recruit or our ability to do our duty for the troops."

Once again, note the following inserted -- but valid -- commentary noting that Lee made these comments, "even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains' behavior."

That's true, although the Pentagon would find itself involved in court cases challenging those policies. Where are the crucial decisions being made, these days, on these kinds of moral and cultural issues?

Meanwhile, the CNN.com report was much stronger in this regard, since it noted that the current policies that guide the work of military chaplains already contain the very tensions about the public and one-on-one expressions of doctrine that are now being linked to the DADT debate. Again, here is that section of the CNN.com story:

"Existing regulations state that chaplains 'will not be required to perform a religious role ... in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.' At the same time, regulations state that 'Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.' "

Once again, someone will need to define the word "care."

In other words, these doctrinal tensions are not new. The DADT debates are merely the latest chapter in a larger church-state story, once in which voices on the left and right must be reported accurately.

God and Caesar, 2009

There is nothing new about Christians deciding that, when political push comes to legal shove, they cannot render unto Caesar what they truly believe belongs to God. Nevertheless, it still makes news when believers vow to act on this conviction.

"Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required," proclaimed a coalition of Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Protestants on Nov. 20, in their 4,700-word "Manhattan Declaration."

"There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. ... King's willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring."

Thus, the declaration's authors vowed to reject "any edict that purports to compel our institutions" to compromise on centuries of doctrine about marriage, human sexuality and the sanctity of human life. The text was written by evangelical activist Charles Colson, church historian Timothy George of the evangelical Beeson Divinity School and the Catholic scholar Robert George of Princeton University.

The Los Angeles Times offered an especially brutal evaluation of the text, claiming that it offered a "specious invocation of King" and that its logic was ultimately "irresponsible and dangerous."

But the editorial board reserved its strongest words for the Catholics bishops who signed, asking if they considered "how their endorsement of lawbreaking in a higher cause might embolden the antiabortion terrorists they claim to condemn? Did they stop to think that, by reserving the right to resist laws they don't like, they forfeit the authority to intervene in the enactment of those laws, as they have done in the congressional debate over healthcare reform?"

So far, 19 Catholic bishops and archbishops have signed, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and the Catholic shepherds in Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, among other cities.

At mid-week, the project (ManhattanDeclaration.org) had attracted about 230,000 endorsements, including those of famous evangelicals such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, Evangelicals for Social Action Director Ron Sider and Bishop Henry Jackson, Jr., a Pentecostal leader in the Washington, D.C., area. Orthodox leaders who have signed include Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen of the Orthodox Church in America and Wichita (Kan.) Bishop Basil Essey of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

Responding to claims that the declaration is merely a partisan attack on President Barack Obama, Colson noted that it states that in the Roe v. Wade era, "elected officials and appointees of both major political parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to the 'Culture of Death.' "

On sexuality, the document stresses that some people are "disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. ... We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God's intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God's patience, love and forgiveness."

While nothing in the Manhattan Declaration is truly new, arguments about its call for civil disobedience will help draw sharper lines between traditional believers and the powers that be in an increasingly diverse and secular America, said Dr. H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., senior editor of the Christian Bioethics journal at Oxford University. He is professor emeritus at the Baylor College of Medicine and a philosophy professor at Rice University.

"This document is the product of a political coalition, but it's not political in the same sense that the tax code is political," said Engelhardt, who is advising several Eastern Orthodox leaders who are studying the text. "This is political in the sense that these Christians are working together on certain issues that have moral and public implications."

The reality is that its authors believe there are "certain God-ordained truths" that continue to have authority and weight in American life, he said. The big question: Are they right or wrong?

"You could make a case," concluded Engelhardt, "that anyone who recites the Nicene Creed, or anyone who believes that God has established any requirements for how we are supposed to live our lives can now be called a Fundamentalist in the context of this secular culture. ... That is what this debate is actually about."

Sacred meals, Baptist and Orthodox

It's hard to hold a proper Southern Baptist dinner on the grounds without someone bringing a lemon pound cake.

The recipe John David Finley grew up with was as down to earth as cooking can get, with one cup of butter, four eggs, the grated peel of half a lemon and the right amounts of flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, salt and nutmeg.

But somewhere between the lines is the joy of his paternal grandmother, Lula Mae Finley. And those black-eyed peas -- you'll need a ham bone -- are just black-eyed peas, unless you have the chopped bell pepper and jalapenos in there. Then you're talking about New Year's dinner with Owen Jefferson "Popo" Finley, Sr. That homemade vanilla ice cream? That's part of the legacy of the Rev. Owen Jefferson Finley, Jr., who survived the hell of Omaha Beach on D-Day before spending 38 years as pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in McAlester, Okla. The list goes on and on.

People used to teach old recipes to their children back in the days before interstate highways, fast-food empires and televisions ate the family dinner hour, said Father John David Finley, author of "Sacred Meals: From Our Family Table." It's a book about cooking, of course, but it's also a memoir about the ties that bind his past as a Southern Baptist preacher's kid to his adult life as an Eastern Orthodox priest, composer and evangelist in Southern California.

"One of the most important things I've learned in life is that food isn't just food," he said. "At some point, I realized that I was preparing and serving certain foods at certain times of the year not just to honor or remember my grandparents and my parents, but to enter into a kind of communion with them. ...

"Suddenly I saw the Communion of the Saints in a whole different way. I realized why food has been so important to the church's theology since the very beginning."

At the deepest level, there is the bread and wine consecrated in the altar rites of the Divine Liturgy. But the ordinary foods of life play key roles in the Eastern fasting traditions of Great Lent, the six-week season in which observant Orthodox believers strive not to eat meat and dairy products. The fasting traditions of Great Lent lead to Holy Week and the great feast of Pascha, or Easter. The Orthodox feast this year is on April 23, using the ancient Julian calendar.

Father Finley said the goal, through the church's feasts and fasts, is for families to realize that the meals they share together are also sacred. Thus, the altar table and the family table are linked. Both are "manifestations of the ways that God feeds us throughout our lives," he said.

It's hard to grasp this in an age in which food is surrounded by golden arches and plastic toys more often than golden vestments, incense and icons.

"There's no room for fellowship in a McDonald's culture," he said. "Every now and then people realize this. They feel isolated and rushed and cheated. They know something is wrong."

"Sacred Meals" features commentary on this subject from an Eastern Orthodox pioneer in North America, the late theologian Father Alexander Schmemann.

"Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian," he wrote. "A meal is still a rite -- the last 'natural sacrament' of family and friendship, of life that is more than 'eating' and 'drinking.' To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that 'something more' is, but they nevertheless desire to celebrate it."

This is precisely what Finley and his family will celebrate Sunday when the midnight rites of Holy Pascha give way to a communal feast -- rich in meats, cheeses, eggs and non-Lenten treats -- that will last into the hours just before dawn.

"Our basket will have to include ham, because I can't imagine a Finley feast without ham," said the priest. "Then there is that great Pascha cheese that the Russians make. It's almost like cheesecake that you spread with a knife. They eat it with that wonderful bread called 'Kulich.'

"I have to make that for the children. You know a food has become a family tradition when the children yell at you if you don't make it."

No need for Orthodox pickles

Week after week, Eastern Orthodox hierarchs guide their flocks through the incense-shrouded rites that define their ancient faith.

Bishops also become experts at another intricate ritual -- banquets.

So Metropolitan Philip, the Antiochian Orthodox archbishop of North America, was not surprised when he was asked to make a few remarks at the final banquet of the 2004 Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Church in New York City. He was surprised when Greek Archbishop Demetrios indicated that this was more than a polite request.

"I reminded him that when I speak, I tell it like it is," said Philip.

What happened next caused shock waves that reached all the way to Istanbul, even if the archbishop's words would have seemed mild to outsiders who could not break the Byzantine code.

Philip addressed the delegates as Americans -- not Greeks.

The Lebanese-born archbishop said it was time to challenge the ties that bind the new world to the old. He said what he has been saying since 1966, when he assumed control of a diocese that has grown from 66 to 250 parishes on his watch.

Philip brought greetings from Patriarch Ignatius IV in Damascus and his ancient church founded by Peter and Paul. Then he ventured into an ecclesiastical minefield, offering greetings from the 1000 Antiochian Orthodox delegates who, days earlier, had voted unanimously to approve what many Greek lay people have long demanded -- a constitution granting them control of their own church in North America.

The delegates burst into applause. Philip plunged on.

"I told them that if I could sum up this new constitution, I would begin with the words, 'We the people,' " he said. "The hall erupted again. I told them we cannot ignore this truth -- Americans are infested with freedom. We cannot ignore that our churches are in America and we are here to stay."

That was all Philip needed to say. Nikki Stephanopoulos, the veteran press officer for the Greek archdiocese, described the scene this way: "It would be accurate to say that he received an enthusiastic response."

The response was different in Istanbul. According to the National Herald, the Greek-American daily newspaper, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew criticized Demetrios for allowing Philip to "spread his propaganda in favor of establishing an autocephalous," or independent, "Orthodox Church in America!" When Demetrios said that Philip spoke as vice president of the Standing Council of Canonical Bishops in the Americas, Bartholomew reportedly exclaimed: "You should have stopped him!"

Months later, Metropolitan Philip continues to travel from altar to altar and banquet to banquet, offering his own people an even blunter version of the sermon he preached to the Greeks. This past week he was in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The archbishop continues to tell familiar stories about life in the Middle East. He still asks second- and third-generation Arab children if they can speak Arabic.

But Philip said Eastern Orthodox Christians must embrace Americans who seek ancient roots in the confusion of modern times. This will mean learning from converts who are not afraid to use words like "missions," "tithing" and even "evangelism." A symbolic sign of change: One of his newly consecrated bishops once taught biblical studies at Oral Roberts University.

Change will be difficult, but bishops must realize that they are called to spread their faith to others, not just to "to preserve it for ourselves," he said. The heart of Orthodoxy must stay the same, but it is not enough to "put our faith into pickle jar and preserve it. We have enough pickles in America already."

Orthodox leaders will find a way to save the traditions of their homelands, said Philip. But the clergy and laity must realize that their own children and grandchildren are Americans who need a faith that is stronger than old music, familiar foods, folk dancing and traces of an ancient language.

"I believe in Orthodox unity, with diversity," he stressed. "We will not melt into the Greek archdiocese and the Greeks will not melt into our archdiocese. ... But we must have a united synod that speaks to this country. We must speak to America, not as Arabs and Greeks and Russians and Romanians and Bulgarians. We need to speak with one Orthodox voice on the issues that affect our country and our country is America."