Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Western Rite Orthodoxy as an Ecumenical Problem

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Western Rite Orthodoxy as an Ecumenical Problem

Article excerpt

Though there are many issues that continue to separate the Eastern Orthodox Church from the various Western confessions, issues that in themselves have received more attention because of their status as long-standing grievances between the two sides, one potential problem yet unconsidered by those engaged in ecumenical dialogue is the role of Western Rite Orthodoxy. The Western Rite Orthodox are those Christians who, while sharing the same beliefs as Eastern Rite Orthodox Christians, utilize a modified version of the Western liturgy. The two most common liturgies are a modified form of the Tridentine mass and the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer eucharistic liturgy; both of these are used in the Western Rite Vicariates of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. (1) There are also liturgies that purport to be reconstructions of pre-schism Western liturgies, whether of the English liturgical tradition, based mostly on the Sarum use, or the medieval Gallican liturgy that was used in France.

As a proportion of the Orthodox Church, Western Rite Orthodox are a small minority, even in North America, where the vast majority of Western Rite parishes are located. Given that Western Rite Orthodox represent such a small proportion of an overall worldwide communion, it is difficult to imagine how it might be problematic in some way. Yet, Western Rite Orthodoxy has been a source of friction for inter-Orthodox relations, (2) and it has potential in the long term to disrupt ecumenical relationships between the Orthodox Church and any of its Western dialogue partners. Simultaneously, Western Rite Orthodoxy is often conceived of as a means of bringing Orthodoxy to the West, by presenting Orthodoxy in a familiar Western liturgical form, as well as allowing for an Orthodox expression of the convert's Western Christian "culture." There are issues related to the question of how familiar the rite is to Western Christians today, but, given that at least part of the focus for Western Rite Orthodoxy is the evangelization of the West, it begs the question of just how problematic Western Rite Orthodoxy might become for ecumenical relations between Orthodox and Western Christians if it were to gain some success in attracting converts. Consequently, Western Rite Orthodoxy has the possibility of becoming an ecumenical problem.

Western Rite Orthodoxy's Evangelistic Potential

Initially, Western Rite Orthodoxy was envisioned as a means of reaching out to Western Christians who were attracted to the faith of Eastern Christianity but who were unable to accept the Eastern Rite or who felt out of place in ethnically based Orthodox parishes. This was the explicit mission given to William Nichols when he was consecrated Bishop of Washington by Aftimios Ofiesh in 1931 and founded the Society of St. Basil; it was explicitly reaffirmed when the Western Rite Vicariate of the Syrian Archdiocese was created from the Basilians society in 1961. (3) However, in neither case was there evidence of any groundswell within the Western churches toward Orthodoxy. The Society of St. Basil, then under the leadership of Alexander Turner, always understood itself as a legitimate part of the Orthodox Church in general and the Antiochian Church specifically, since the only reason it had fallen outside of Orthodoxy was due to the jurisdictional confusion in North America following the Bolshevik Revolution and the deposition of Ofiesh after his marriage, contrary to Orthodox canon law. (4) Nichols, though once an Episcopal priest, brought no followers with him when he came to the Orthodox Church and did not attract many converts, given his near abandonment of Orthodoxy in the 1940's. (5)

After the foundation of the Western Rite Vicariate, there were some successes in attracting converts. Edwin Elliot West, concerned about the theological opinions of Episcopal Bishop James Pike, entered the Vicariate with his parish in Palo Alto, California, in 1963. …

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