Saturday, 22 October 2016

Turning to Tradition, by Oliver Herbel

Dr. Oliver Herbel, Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church, 2014 Oxford University Press

This book looks at some relatively high profile converts to Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States. The author examines their lives and activities through the lens of the American Anti-Traditionalist tradition. By this, he basically means restorationism, the rejection of historical traditions in favour of a return to apostolic purity. His thesis is that while many of the men he covers were turning to an ancient and historic ecclesiastical tradition, the psychology under which they were operating was similar to that of those who formed American restorationist sects, such as the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Christ.

The first convert covered is Fr Alexis Toth, a Ruthenian Catholic priest who converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and brought a huge influx of Ruthenian Catholics into schismatic Orthodoxy after him. This is a depressing chapter for a Catholic to read. When Fr Alexis Toth arrived in the USA, he presented himself to the local bishop, John Ireland, who expressed disgust that Toth was a widower and denied that he was a true Catholic, contrary to the canon law of the Church. Increasing alienation, already arising from tensions between the Latin and Byzantine rites in his native Hungary, led him to turn to Orthodoxy to recover his Slavonic ecclesiastical identity. Some of these Ruthenians did return to the Catholic Church, particularly many priests, unhappy with Orthodox pay and conditions, but also because of a tendency of the Russian Orthodox to try and impose their cultural and liturgical ethos on the Ruthenian converts.

The book offers chapters on two African-American converts to Orthodoxy, Fr Raphael Morgan, founder of the African Orthodox Church and Fr. Moses Berry. This is a nice counterweight to unfortunate tendencies to racism among some Eastern Orthodox, however, it does appear slightly unrepresentative and possibly misleading to spend half the book talking about African-American conversions when the majority of converts to Orthodoxy are white. It runs the risk of making American Orthodoxy seem an awful lot more multicultural and diverse than it actually is on the ground.

I found the chapter on Peter Gillquist and the Evangelical Orthodox Church very interesting, having come from a restorationist Charismatic Evangelical background. They had decided to try to form a back-to-the-basics Orthodox sect on restorationist lines, without any apostolic succession. They were eventually received en masse into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Our author charts their development from a restorationist sect to full integration into Orthodoxy, with quite a few crises along the way.

This book was an interesting read, if at times it felt too obviously a reprint of a PhD thesis. I think the methodology of looking at high profile converts who have led others into Orthodoxy runs the risk of failing to offer much insight into the average American convert to Orthodoxy, whether an unwitting bloke who wants to marry a Greek-American girl or an Evangelical who has been driven mad by inane contemporary worship music. I suspect a lot of Orthodox converts will fail to recognize themselves in the profiles of converts reviewed here. There is nothing here about traditionalist Latin-rite Catholics or Anglicans who have turned to Orthodoxy. Nor is there anything about the establishment and development of Western-rite Orthodoxy.

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