The Orthodox Church is gearing up for the “Holy and Great Council” to meet this June. This is a big deal. We have not had a gathering like this in over a thousand years. And church leaders started planning for this particular meeting in the 1960s. That is over fifty years ago! The Orthodox Church is a bit like a confederacy. We are a bunch of different Orthodox Church-es, more or less divided along national boundaries, that agree that we are really just one church. The upside of this power structure is that it keeps us from doing anything too stupid all at once. The downside is that it can be hard for us to do anything at all. So on the one hand our polity makes us inevitably conservative, but on the other hand that conservatism can get confused with the spirit of Orthodoxy itself.
The fact that the Orthodox Church changes slowly does not mean that the Orthodox Church does not change. Conservative Orthodox often quote the Vincentian Canon to illustrate this point, saying that we should keep doing and believing “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all” (as if that is our motto). Thus the Orthodox Church is one of the few places where saying, “But we have never done it that way,” is actually a pretty persuasive argument. Persuasive, but not accurate. Not by a long shot!
Blanket statements about what beliefs are or are not Orthodox are little more than thin veils for our intellectual prejudices. To say that we should believe “that which has been believed everywhere” is more often than not to say we should believe “that which [I believe] has been believed everywhere.” The Vincentian Canon can be a snake that eats itself. It allows those who quote it to select evidence that suits them and dismiss contrary evidence as not being Orthodox. Consider what should be the relatively uncontroversial matter of whether menstruating women should take Communion. Some ancient churches saw no problem with that. Others did. Quoters of Vincent often fail to see that they are given the latter greater weight than the former, never mind that such a prohibition rests on a ritual purity taboo totally out of keeping with the spirit of Orthodoxy itself. There was a great deal of variation in ancient Christian thought.
All of us must be careful not to paint history with our favorite hue. It is not enough to say we have or have not always done something that way. What matters is how what we have or have not done is in keeping with the gospel. The Orthodox Church has changed, and it continues to change. And whether or not we do change should have nothing to do with whether or not we did it that way before.
A better example to illustrate how people inconsistently appeal to the tradition is the office of the deaconess. The office goes back to the New Testament itself, but it fell out of use over time. Those who oppose reviving the office make theological arguments that, really, the role of the deaconess was to preserve modesty back when adults were baptized in the nude and received a fully body anointing. (This is only partly true.) Ironically, then, those who in this case want to revive a more ancient practice are accused of being liberals because having female ministers seems feminist.
The problem in the cases of menstruating women and the deaconess is an inconsistent application of “the Tradition.”So in one case, history trumps theology. In the other case, anxiety about feminism trumps history. But Orthodoxy is not some kind of box of dogmas that Jesus left with his disciples before ascending into heaven. Orthodoxy is alive, and so is our Tradition.
Conservatism is not native to Orthodoxy or any church for that matter. There is plenty of conservatism, but that can have as much to do with human sinfulness as a desire for fidelity. Sometimes when we seem to cling to the past we are, in reality, just clinging to our fears. The church exists in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God has already come in fulness in Jesus Christ, but it has not yet fully come. We exist between the ascension of Christ into heaven and his coming again. The tradition is what goes on in the interim. To deny that the tradition can grow and change over time is to deny life to the Church herself. It is to manifest distrust in the power of the Holy Spirit and succumb instead to a “spirit of fear” (2 Tim 1:7).
There are some who say that the tradition never changes, just our way of explaining it. But that is patently false. The church did not always know that the Son was homoousion. The Spirit had to reveal it. Nor did the church always know there was a distinction between worshipping idols and venerating icons. It took a while to figure things out. And you know what? We were okay.
I worry about this Great and Holy Council. But I do not worry for the same reasons as fundamentalist reactionaries. I worry because of fundamentalist reactionaries. The elements of fear are so strong in our church today (but not nearly so strong as elements of greed and lust for power). What comes out of the council may be a reaction to modernity, like Vatican I, rather than a prophetic word of faith and hope to modernity, which is the essence of the gospel itself. The church is good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and recovery of site for the blind (Luke 4:18). Anything else isn’t really Orthodox, no matter how allegedly “traditional.”