American Orthodox

Church Shopping in the 80s

Back in the early 80s, I lived in Louisville (that's pronounced lou-a-vull, for those who don't know, not lou-is-ville or lou-ee-ville; that's why those bumperstickers say "I heart lou-a-vull"), where I was a chef. While there, I was, for some reason, surrounded by Episcopalians of the nutty variety. Also, since Lousiville has to have more Catholic churches per capita than anywhere else on the planet (Louisville is so densely populated with Catholics that it is its own archdiocese), I attended a number of parishes.

Reagan was in the White House, and moonbats were howling and shrieking 24/7. And that conservative/liberal parish thing I referred to some time ago was more than obvious in Louisville.

On Bardstown Road, the bohemian section of Louisville, there is a Byzantine architecture church, St. James. It's a lovely church from the outside — but then, you go inside and if you look up, you see the lidless eye of Sauron glaring down at you from the center of the dome.

Sister Mary Trotsky led the Intercessions. We prayed that we would all give up our earthly belongings, we prayed for the continued victory of the Sandanistas, you get the general drift.

This was, for the young'uns, a period of time when churches all over the United States were illegally sheltering refugees from Latin America (El Salvador and Honduras, mostly).

The Homily (sermon) was twenty minutes of yowling and yammering about the evils of US foreign policy, and of course, our President.

Then there is St. Louis Bertrand on Sixth Street, in South Louisville, administered by the Dominican Friars. St. Louis Bertrand is a beautiful Renaissance architecture church, with a high altar, where communicants still kneel at the altar rail. Mass is dignified and solemn, and it was as conservative as St. James was liberal.

On the same side of the spectrum was St. Martin of Tours, east of downtown Louisville on Shelby Street. St. Louis Bertrand is surely the epitome of period beauty, and it's just as beautifully kept up. St. Martin's is a large church of the shabbier variety, the statues painted in bold colors, with its two side altars sitting atop glass sarcophogi holding the remains of two first century saints. Yet, there was something very inviting and sacred about St. Martin's, despite the fact that it was (most likely still is) a poor parish.

The pastor was Father Robertson, a kindly old man with bright blue glittering eyes. Like Cardinal Newman, he had been raised an Episcopalian, and had converted as a priest. He was theologically orthodox, and I'm sorry to say that I recently found out that he died some years ago. Father Robertson gave the Tridentine Mass at St. Martin's once a week when we were there, and St. Martin's was home to the Blue Army. I assume that St. Martin's is not much changed since Father Robertson passed away, as I see on their webpage that, "Since opening our Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration Chapel on April 14, 1996, Saint Martin  of Tours is the only church in the Metro-Louisville area that keeps its doors open to the public 24 hours a day-seven days a week, for adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament."

Then, there was The Church of the Epiphany in Anchorage, not unlike St. Josef Stalin right across the street (literally) from our front door. Holy water fonts designed to represent the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ultra-modern, neo-barn architecture. No kneelers (or kneeling). Louisville's Episcopal-wannabe Catholic parish.

Then there is the Cathedral of the Assumption, the seat of the Archdiocese of Louisville, one of those "renovated" old churches that now looks utterly dreadful.

I grew up not far from St. Meinrad Archabbey, my First Communion before the Vatican II liturgical changes, in a densely German-American Catholic area of the country, not far from Louisville. I was not entertained by the excesses after Vatican II and I lapsed. Church hopping in Louisville was an experiment, to see if I could reintegrate, and if so, where.

But the Catholics were sane compared to the Episcopalians, who were just downright nutty. There was a Father Lose (I'm not sure if I've spelled his name correctly), who did not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection. It's one thing, of course, to encounter a layman who does not accept orthodox theology, but I was wholly unprepared to encounter a priest like that. "And you're a priest because …?" I wanted to ask him, but never did. I just couldn't get my jaw off the floor to ask him anything. (I'm not sure if it was a coincidence or not, but our dog would without fail poop on the steps of Cavalry Episcopal, his parish — yes, it sounds funny now, but it was fairly awful at the time.)

I did ask him what Episcopalians believe, and he told me, "The Lambeth Quadrilateral" (the four key theological points of Anglican unity). As one of these four points is, "the Apostles' and the Nicene Creed," and as he had already told me he believed neither in the virgin birth nor the resurrection, I probed him. Here, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is the Nicene Creed (emphases mine):

"We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven:

All bow during these two lines. All kneel during the words "and became man" for all Christmas Masses:

by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen."

Do you see why I was mystified? Knowing the Nicene Creed by heart, I asked him about those passages emphasized above, in relation to what he had said about not believing in the virgin birth or the resurrection, and he said that he believed it, just not literally.

Uhm, what could that possibly mean? Either you believe the Creed (hence the word "creed") or you don't. It's not rocket science. The Nicene Creed is the core of orthodox Christian theology. That's why it was adopted in the fourth century AD. Yet, he just kept giving me the same thing. Virgin birth could mean this, or it could mean that, or it could mean this other thing. And perhaps died isn't really died as in dead, but just a temporary coma. Whatever. But when he said that the bishop likewise did not believe in either the virgin birth or the resurrection, I was in a state of shock. I honestly could not imagine how a priest in my living room, much less a bishop, could openly and guiltlessly admit heresy. Sure, we had our own heretic priests, followers of so-callled liberation theology (Marxism with Jesus substituted for Lenin), but they were most emphatically not representative of the Vatican. And as far as I knew, if you asked them if they believed in the Nicene Creed, they would say that they did, and mean it.

But you see, that was before I figured out that the Episcopals were really Unitarian Universalists with smells and bells. And when I did figure it out, my mistake was that I thought this was somehow a Louisville phenomenon.

There was Grace Episcopal Church, which seemed to be the only Episcopal church in the area that actually held to orthodox theology. At the time, they were seriously considering breaking with the Anglican Communion for precisely that reason.

But the breakaway groups, they were really nutty. There was some sort of Anglican Catholic group, St. Michael and All Archangels, or something like that, who did not have a church so they met in a Nazarene church (?!). Nobody there, not even the priest, had been either Episcopal or Catholic, which I found to be just bizarre. They had all been Baptists or Methodists or something, and how they all found themselves in this tiny splinter group, I never did figure out. They used the 16th century Book of Common Prayer for their liturgies, yet none had any personal connection with the religious tradition they were trying to resurrect.

Liturgy is important, but when it becomes the very focus of your religious life, I humbly suggest that you're missing the point.

There is, or was (since I can't find it on the web) an Order of the Knights of Malta in Louisville, not a splinter group, of course, but because they have liturgical independence, are (or were) much like going to Mass when I was young. There was something a bit creepy and dusty about them, though, something that made me uneasy. I found St. Michael — and Orthodoxy — in Louisville, and was sublimely happy until we moved to Bloomington so I could go to grad school.

That was when I found out that nutty Episcopalianism was not a Louisville thing. In fact, the Bloomington Episcopals made their Louisville counterparts look absolutely orthodox.

There was a priestess, whose name I no longer remember (and it's probably just as well). She went as often to the local evangelical church as she did her own Episcopal parish, which in itself isn't too odd. After all, if you believe in something more than "believe anything you want to believe," you almost have to go elsewhere. Well, it was a bit odd that someone of an evangelical bent would go to seminary and be ordained an Episcopal priest, but that was the most normal thing about her.

She was quite fond of all this post-modernist Mother Goddess Chi Energy Great Spirit liturgical stuff. She was particularly fond of doing Earth Mother interpretive dances around the altar, you know, in the middle of the liturgy, she would just break out in this odd, pseudo-Egyptian cum Michael Jackson thing. It was utterly incongruous with her evangelical side.

By far the strangest thing, however, was that nobody at the Episcopal church there seemed to find her the least bit odd. Everybody seemed to find her normal, as if there weren't anything strange at all about doing neo-pagan witch dances widdershins about the high altar.

Maybe she belonged to an evangelical coven. Or something.

Also in Bloomington, and just as odd, was the Russian Synod mission. Like that bizarre, Anglo-Catholic group in Louisville, they were all converts, even the priest, but from odd groups you wouldn't expect. Pentecostals. Nazarenes. Assembly of God. But while the Anglo-Catholic group in Louisville seemed interested only in patting themselves on the back for resurrecting a liturgical tradition that had been dead over a hundred years, the Synod group was obsessed with restoring the Czar to power. It was all they ever talked about. And frankly, I couldn't have cared less about the Czar at the time, and still don't — plus, I've always been mystified by Americans who seem to be fascinated with monarchs. I mean, can we say 1776? But it didn't stop there. When they weren't raving about how the Czar should be ruling in Russia, they were yammering about the evil Gregorian calendar (for those of you who don't know, the Synod still uses the Julian calendar).

Then there were the surprise visits from the priest during Lent, solely so he could check my refrigerator and make sure there were no meat or dairy products in it. But when he insisted on re-baptizing me, I had had it. I said no, and washed my hands of that bunch.

There are nuts here in Pennsylvania, too, but my home is Holy Trinity Orthodox Church.

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