Ortho Dixie: Orthodox Christianity and Southern Identity

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Anyone who has grown up in the melting pot of immigrant religiosity of the industrial northeast has a very specific vision of Southern religiosity – evangelical, provincial, low-church, and rabidly anti-Catholic, among other things. Even growing up in a household sympathetic to the South, I had plenty of condescending ignorance about the way Southrons practiced their religion. Grab a Bible, flip on Billy Graham, and say “Amen”, and you’re more than half-way there.

Nuance to any ignorant view comes only with closer acquaintance – and that closer acquaintance for me took the form of spending more than three quarters of my adult life south of the Mason-Dixon, from Washington, DC to Memphis, TN, thence to Maryland and now in Georgia. I found the rich history of traditional Christianity throughout the South and met a large number of High Church Southern men and women, Anglicans and Catholics and – especially surprising to me – Orthodox Christians. It is this last group that played the greatest role in my religious life: I was received into the Orthodox Church by a Georgian; in Pennsylvania I heard liturgy at a parish Bishop George, abbot of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in West Virginia, and the pastor of my parish now is an Appalachian convert.

Today, there are more than two hundred thousand Orthodox believers throughout the South and seventeen Orthodox monasteries. They are a mix of immigrant communities and American converts: Greeks, Syrians, Russians, and a half dozen other Orthodox nationalities and jurisdictions, many taking root in the heart of the so-called “Bible Belt”. With the massive demographic shift occurring in the South due to improving economy and growing cities – especially apparent around Atlanta and in Northern Virginia – it is worth considering the way Orthodoxy fits into Southern identity and a Southern way of life, and why the growth of an Orthodox community does not have to mean a change to Southern culture such as other population shifts have effected.

Orthodoxy finds itself suited, in a strange way, to the South. It comes with a worthy pedigree—the first Orthodox believer in the Americas was a Virginian, Col. Philip Ludwell III, who gave George Washington his commission in the British Army in 1753 and whose former manservant, John Wayles, gave his daughter Martha in marriage to Thomas Jefferson in 1772. Ludwell was tied to the Lee family twice over, as a brother-in-law to Henry Lee II (both men married daughters of Charles Grymes) and as a father-in-law to William Lee of Stratford Hall, and his mother was a member of the illustrious Harrison family that would produce two US presidents.

Thus in the highest rungs of Virginia’s young aristocracy, the seed of Orthodoxy first found “good ground, and brought forth fruit”. Col. Ludwell’s three daughters were baptized in the Church, and at least one of them, Lucy, was married in the Church. (Her husband, John Paradise, whose father was a mutual friend of Ludwell and the Russian Ambassador in London, Count Vorontsov, was one of Thomas Jefferson’s many creditors.)  The Russian Church, considering the situation in Virginia, where non-Protestant forms were outlawed, extended to the Ludwells the privilege to carry the Holy Gifts back to Virginia in a tabernacle, and new written evidence suggests that William Lee’s sons may have preserved their grandfather’s Orthodox devotions and even held Orthodox beliefs about the Eucharist, though they were baptized and confessing Anglicans.

Today, while Orthodoxy remains statistically underrepresented in the whole of the South, many of those who have crossed the Bosporus and the River Bug belong to a burgeoning intellectual class who actively engage with their own Southern identity. Why is it that Orthodoxy has found this foothold? What mystery is hiding behind those wafting clouds of incense? In many ways, it is not mysterious at all: the South has always been a land deeply planted with those peculiar Christian sensibilities at the very heart of Orthodoxy. True, the term “orthodoxy” (“correct belief”) seems rather to appeal to parochial, Puritan strictures, but in action Orthodoxy has never been the legalistic faith of the American Northeast, a land so deeply concerned with minor disagreements with people hundreds of miles away of their farms and hearths. Rather, it is a faith of deep-seated tradition and preserved inheritance, concerned with the spread of the gospel by example rather than by armed proselytization. The history is demonstrative: while the Puritans carried their faith to Dixie on bayonets and in carpetbags; Orthodoxy sought out a “fine and private place” in the household of Col. Ludwell and was content to wait until the time was right to go further beyond.

The same combination of tradition and antiquity that has been repeatedly cited as the first attractive quality of Orthodoxy to converts is what keeps Southerners tied to their heritage while the rest of America struggles to work out (shall we say “in fear and trembling”?) exactly what their heritage means. A common joke about the differences between Western Christendom and Orthodoxy points out that “reform” in Western Christianity involves changes to doctrine and the invention of entirely new liturgies, while in the East it consists of a priest having a shave. The South, too, has been known to experience change at slower rates than the rest of the United States – for similar reasons. The Orthodox Church and Southerners alike distrust small changes because they inevitably seem to lead to major changes, and a keen understanding of history teaches that major changes never come without great violence to necessary institutions. The Orthodox Church can be somewhat totalizing—very few of its institutions are of negotiable importance—so any change is treated with tremendous caution.

Historically, Southerners have known this suspicion—much of moneyed and landed class of Southern society before the War (that is, the slave-owning class) recognized the necessity of replacing chattel slavery with a superior moral and economic system. Aside from the principled objections to expanding federal power and the disregard for the Constitution shown by the inaugural Republican administration, the driving motivation to secession was an intelligent and rational fear that radical and immediate emancipation, with no steps taken for economic or educational preparation of the emancipated, would result in social chaos and economic collapse:  the former slaves would thrown into an economy in the throes of violent change and forced to find a place in a society which itself had not been educated or prepared to receive this new population. Such changes had historically always occurred gradually, and people had peacefully adapted to the new reality, and even then there had been hiccups.

Caution has likewise defined the Orthodox experience; since the Second Council of Nicaea in the 8th century, Roman Popes have overseen fifteen councils called “ecumenical” and dogmatically binding. In contrast, the Orthodox Church has seen only four, the most recent of which was in the 17th century, and the universality (albeit not the validity) of three of those councils has been questioned by some Orthodox prelates. Like the planter class of the South, the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church recognizes how irrevocable institutional change can be, and has therefore been wary to allow it. This has meant that Orthodoxy has preserved fixtures of the early church to a degree that no other Christian community has done. Even Orthodox clerics are bound by ancient canons governing the wearing of beards and hair, and the liturgical dress of the Orthodox priest is grounded firmly in that which was prescribed by Scripture for the Levite priests.

Above all, however, Orthodoxy is a religion of custom. The South is a place renowned for hospitality and propriety: in the years we’ve made our way throughout the South, my wife has observed several times that she has yet to find even a filling station where she has had to open the door for herself. A very famous anecdote is related of Metropolitan Bishop Anthony Bloom, serving liturgy in London gave the following sermon:

Yesterday evening a woman came to Vespers with a child; she was in slacks and wore no head covering. One of you made a comment to her. She then left. I don’t know who made this comment but I command this person to pray for this woman and her child to the end of his days, that the Lord would save them. Because of what was said to her she might never again enter the temple.

That is the entire text of the sermon. It is a sermon, ultimately, on the law of hospitality that seems to so permeate the South—and on the way in which hospitality and propriety are never in conflict. It seems rather an odd comparison to make, but I have had the good fortune to never have a Southern woman bless my soul. There’s a great deal of meaning carried in that saying—“Bless your soul”—and despite never having heard it said, every man and woman living in the South understands the meaning behind it. It speaks volumes to the culture of the South that what essentially amounts to an insult should reside in the form of a blessing. Outsiders may be quick to see sacrilege in the slang, but in reality it is a customary suppression of judgment and, whether the speaker is aware of it or not, it is a prayer at its core. It is rooted in a deep-seated Southern belief that no degree of impropriety on the part of another justifies vulgarity or impoliteness on one’s own part.

Hospitality and propriety are the cornerstones of any customary society. Orthodox Christians observe perhaps the strictest dietary rules of any Christian community (besides the Ethiopians, who out-fast even the strictest Eastern Orthodox monk). For the laity, though, this strict fasting is met with an even stricter rule of non-imposition. Even in the midst of the Lenten Fast, if one finds oneself the host of non-Orthodox, or is hosted by a non-Orthodox, the rule is to feast with one’s guest or one’s host, and never give the impression that a fast is being broken, holding the biblical imperative “when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast”, for the rule kept in secret is of greater value than the rule kept before men. Even further, to impose guilt upon a guest or host by reminding him that his presence has forced the breaking of a fast is a terrible violation of the law of hospitality.

The flexibility (albeit never so great to be laxity) in the East is the same flexibility that allowed sheriffs and local police to go about without guns in the Old South. Sometimes, enforcing the prescribed excommunication on a sinner can drive him deeper into the sin rather than save his soul: it could take years for a man to overcome a habitual sin, and without the support of the Church he could never overcome it. Thus priests and prelates are afforded the right to exercise economia, a temporary bending of a canon for an individual judged in need of it. It used to be custom in America to put the town drunk in a local jail cell for a night if he passed out in the street: because arresting him and bringing him to trial and sending him to prison would do him harm, but keep him in the community and keep and eye on him, and someday he might be converted. Malicious criminality is dealt with differently – a man who seeks to destroy not only himself but also others with him can be and is excommunicated just like the murderer or arsonist is cut off from society.

Col. Ludwell himself received this economia: having written to the Holy Synod in Russia requesting instruction on how to live an Orthodox life in Virginia, willing to take any instruction given to him, Ludwell was given instructions on private prayer and devotion and broad economia in public expressions of faith. He was allowed to attend Anglican services for the well-being of his family in Protestant America, and was given permission to keep the Holy Gifts in his family’s private chapel.

The caution, tradition, and customs of Orthodoxy are all rooted in a much deeper historicity about the religion: a link between the Apostles and the present believers—a continuous chain, in which new thinkers do not replace but add to their predecessors and their predecessors’ predecessors, back to the very earliest of the Fathers of the Church. It was a reading of these same Fathers that influenced Col. Ludwell to come into the Church; like his son-in-law John Paradise, he was a scholar and a man of immense linguistic gifts, with knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Russian at least. Count Vorontsov wrote that he had undertaken to read in the original languages the Greek and Russian Fathers, and from other sources we learn that he had translated for his own private devotions the Liturgy of S. John Chrysostom from Greek. A copy of his translation of S. Peter Moghila’s Catechism of the Orthodox Church even found its way into the hands and the library of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

This loyalty to the writings of the Fathers and the earliest Councils of the Church, preserving their original meaning and regarding every new interpretation with deep suspicion, is elemental to Orthodoxy. Originalism of this sort is hardly foreign to the South: indeed, the driving force behind the South’s legal identity is precisely this idea. The loyalty to the US Constitution among Southerners past and present has been informed by the desire to preserve the intention and meaning of the founding documents of the United States—and the intentions of the Founding Fathers. Orthodoxy is a faith driven by a similar desire to see the intention and the meaning of the Church Fathers preserved against new interpretations and “broad” readings of their original texts by contemporary theologians. Col. Ludwell’s love of the original Fathers and their Orthodox meaning anticipates the same veneration Southerners of every subsequent generation would hold for the founders of the American Republic and the documents they authored. In speaking of the history of Orthodoxy, one could easily mistake it for the South as a nation: it has suffered in silent dignity during this time, waiting for God to vindicate the Truth. It has approached change with extreme caution, knowing the importance of preserving the original intent of its founding documents and teachers. Its culture has been preserved through the living of its tradition through custom and customary behavior. Finally, despite its openness, it either is misunderstood or simply unknown to most outsiders.

From the Abbeville InstituteOriginal Story