Divisive language in the church

Clearly. Obviously. Of course. Definitely. Naturally. Absolutely. Exactly. Never. Always. False. Fake. Authentic. Leftist. Rightist. Far right. Far left.

For those who prefer audio, the link can be found here. I recommend that as it flows better and is followed by a Q&A!

As it is Lent, the theme is repentance, a change of mind, a turning away from a wrong. There’s been significant public discourse about secular polarity, virtue signalling, and extremism. I think it might be worth taking a look at where we do this exact same thing in the Church. The ‘language of extremes’, as I’ll call it, is a personal disease of egoism (I have it, too!), and causes alienation to many. This will be a multi-part series as well.

Clearly. Obviously. Of course. Definitely. Naturally. Absolutely. Exactly. Never. Always. False. Fake. Authentic. Leftist. Rightist. Far right. Far left.

These, among others, are the kinds of terms used in contemporary discourse as part of the rhetoric of discord. People present an idea, thought or expression, and claim how it is obviously good or clearly bad. Things are said in such a way as to make sure you understand what stance you are supposed to have because it is obvious, of course!

You might respond to this language with: Absolutely! Obviously I’m not Islamophobic. Naturally, nobody here is against abortion. Of course I have nothing against…

Some people refer to this as ‘virtue signalling’.  This is the concept of a person or a group publicly expressing opinions or characteristics that they view to be virtuous, of what they view to be what a good person would think or do. The signalling has an aim of influencing public discourse and action.

This phenomenon’s impact can be observed in various ways, it is heard in statements like “…of course I don’t think that, I’m not an Islamophobe/Homophobe/Racist/Anti-Semite/Leftist/Far-Rightist/Liberal/Conservative!” It can be demonstrated in changing one’s Facebook profile to match the trending issues, like a Pride Flag for LGBT-related issues, the Paris flag after the bombings and many more besides these. In saying such things or doing such things, one is participating in a public campaign of what is perceived to be the good thing to do, the right position to have. 

Although I would love to discuss the impact that has on us as Christians in the world, actually, I want to turn our attention to how this same secular phenomenon is happening inside our churches and parishes with spirituality, ritual and tradition, because I think we are harming one another. The problem with this, is that the signalling is trying to point at a dogma that may or may not exist about something.

To discuss this, I will bring up some sensitive topics, but the intention is not to be provocative. I want to use real problems to have a real discussion and point at real issues. I welcome your comments and dialogue and will do my best to reply to them.

I want to make it very clear that every example I am using is an example that I have done myself and/or many people are doing. I am issuing that warning because I have had conversations with many individuals about this, and I fear any individual thinking that I am taking my specific conversation with them, putting them on blast, and then responding to them publicly rather than privately. I am very sensitive about not doing anything like that.

All of these examples have come up at almost all the churches I have served at, and those are very many.  Again, I am often guilty of this thing myself. We’re all trying to repent; to stop our wrongs.

First Example:

Language of Extremes: ‘That is definitely not an icon. That is at best a painting.’ ’Those are cartoons, not icons.’ ’This, this is an icon!’ ‘Here is a real icon.’

What is it signalling: Real iconography is whatever the speaker believes it to be. That usually means hand-written, gold-leaf and traditional – but not always. It depends on who is speaking.

Discussion: I have said these exact words myself. What is the problem with this language? It is not just that it is often said with antagonism, sarcasm and disdain (all of which are questionable in terms of spiritual conduct), but that it suggests that an absolute about icons actually exists. It suggests that there is something extremely right or extremely wrong about one kind of art over another. To assess the claim, however, one has to ask many questions (and these are not exhaustive):

– Are there canons about icons in our church or not? Are being followed?
– If there are canons, where did they come from and under what circumstances were they formed? Are they binding or non-binding canons?
– Do I care about all canons in the same way that I care about these canons (if they exist)?
– We must look at history and ask, did icons always exist in the Church?
– Where did icons come from?
– Did the first iconographer (whether it was Saint Luke or not) have in mind that what he was ‘writing’, not ‘painting’?
– Did he know he was painting an icon and not a portrait?
– How did the icon move from his house to the parish?
– How did it go from a parish to all the parishes?
– If at the time instead of painting he had digital means to draw, would he have used them?
– Is the aspect of an icon being ‘hand-written’ only finding meaning in the materials used?
– Is the offering of nature a lesser offering than the offering of the intellect that also used nature to make something electronic? Why or why not?

Those are just a handful of meaningful questions to have a real discussion. I am not being even remotely sarcastic when I ask those questions, lest my tone be lost in writing that would not be seen when saying this aloud in person. The fact that those very questions can be discussed, rather than answered with extremes is because no clear (to my knowledge) dogma exists on any of these things. The point here, and I am not an iconography expert, is that there was a development and history of the use of art in churches, and each place was influenced by its own culture, and by its own artists, who developed traditions and meditations.

Some traditions lasted, others did not. So a tradition of iconography could have (and did) develop in different places. My point, however, is that they were all developments. So rather than calling something definitely or clearly something or another, perhaps it is better to simply acknowledge that everything has an origin, none are absolute (in this case), and that many things are a matter of taste. I know many people have been angered by my saying ‘matter of taste’, but really, is it not so? 

I prayed liturgy at a Ukrainian Orthodox Church that one of our parishes rents out, and they kindly permit us to use their sanctuary and altar for our liturgy. The church itself was built by the Ukrainians, it was not purchased from another tradition. The iconostasis had more or less traditional Ukrainian icons (as far as my understanding goes), but the bosom of the Father was a very white, western, Latter-Day Saints-ish Jesus of North American television. It was not Ukrainian. It was not ’traditional’ in the Eastern sense.  

Why am I bringing up this example? Because often in the signalling debates that occur around iconography, Copts are quick to talk about how everyone ‘loves this Western stuff which are not icons’, and ‘the Eastern churches, they would never [language of extreme] do something so hideous to their churches’. Imagine my surprise when I found that an Eastern church did exactly that (and later, I found, many have)!

But really, it is not about who does what. There’s a question of whether there is a definitive and absolute right and wrong. If there is not, present your case, but do not present it as dogma. Churches should be beautiful, I think (leads to question of what is beauty!). I think for such and such reason. I am not personally a fan of such and such style of art or iconography. I have a preference for such and such for such and such reasons. Then you can talk about the history, the development, the meanings etc.. If you approach it without definitiveness (when no definitiveness exists), you will have a much better dialogue.

I had a specific discussion about this once with a beloved iconographer of my home parish in Canada, and because, I believe, there was sincerity in dialogue (not debate!), I learned a lot from him in a very short conversation. When people approach another dogmatically, rather than dialogically (I hope that’s a word) you get a debate with antagonism, and both parties leave upset. It’s an exercise of ego and intellect.

In all this, I have not put my opinion on what is right or wrong with respect to this matter, because that is exactly the point: it would only be an opinion. It would not be a dogma, no matter who I am in the Church. There are ancient beautiful churches with no icons, and there are modern ones as well. Icons are a tool used by the Church and they can be beautiful, but let us not speak dogmatically where we cannot speak dogmatically.

Remember that the point of this is repentance, we should all reflect on the ways we speak and if it conforms to the two arms of speaking: in love and with Truth. We often presume we have the former, but we usually lack both.


Language of Extremes: ‘Get these horrible things out of the church at once.’ ‘These are the ruin of the church.’ ‘These are the best things that have happened to us, we can finally pray.’ ‘Anyone opposed to these is just ignorant.’ ‘People who want these have no appreciation of liturgy.’ 

What is it signalling: How the speaker views liturgy and participation is the dogmatic truth about liturgy and participation.

Discussion: Once again, the language of extremes is signalling some supposed dogma about the use of technology in the church, of which none (actually) exists. What is really happening is that each side is trying to make a point, a point that would be very valuable to have a discussion about, and each side is presenting its points as dogmas.

There are some who will argue that the screens are hideous (subjective)), that they hide the iconostasis (possibly objectively true), and they take a person away from liturgy (probably a subjective statement). There are others who argue that it helps one concentrate (probably a subjective statement), they encourage more participation (probably subjective), they can be placed in a way that does not block the iconostasis (objective), and can even be made to fit in beautifully (subjective). Someone will say that it makes people stop putting effort into following liturgy, another will say the same about the books. Then, everyone adds an anecdotal story about someone they knew (or themselves) whose lives dramatically changed when the thing they object to happened, or the thing that they wanted happened, as though that should give finality to the issue at hand. 

I will not pretend that I do not have an opinion about screens, I do have one, I do not like them. I dislike them and yet, that  is so irrelevant. Yet, the point is not whose opinion belongs to whom, the point is that it is an opinion. Regarding screens themselves there is no dogma, and consequently, I can not declare a fatwa that screens are just wrong. They are not, even if I, personally do not like or prefer them at all. With the language of extremes, we antagonise another person and make a person feel that because of not having the same view as myself, they are somehow wrong, unenlightened, uncultured, non-respectful of the church, shallow, and a host of other negative things, because if they were not those things, they would obviously have the same view as me. This is so wrong and so dangerous and terribly against the gospel! There is nothing wrong with having a good discussion about the pros and cons of something about which there is no dogma. It is good to find out what are peoples’ concerns. 

Perhaps you feel that the screen will distract people from the altar, and you may be right, but can you objectively say that holding a book is not also a distraction, or would your answer be subjective? How do you weight that, for example, in a parish where the prayer is all English, and the screens are used to display Arabic for the kind grandmothers and grandfathers who speak only Arabic, who are attending with their children and grandchildren because they think it’s important to pray as a full family unit? I am not asking you to retort with, buy them Arabic books, because if you did retort that then you missed the point altogether! 🙂 The point is not which is right or wrong right now, but to say, are you able to engage in discussion when no dogma exists, or are you only able to assert your own correctness? The language of extremes moves all of us toward the latter, rather than the former. On the flip side, those who argue that it is the screen that helps them follow, why is it that a screen would help you but not a book? What if psychologically people are more inclined to stare at a screen than they are at a book (I am not suggesting this is true, but speculating aloud)? Are you able to acknowledge that there are situations where a screen is not better? Again, the point is precisely that there is not an absolute, and thus we must dialogue.

To give you a sense of how damaging the language is in that particular debate, let me share a humorous but telling story from one parish in which I served where this issue had been hotly debated (thankfully) before my arrival. Our Metropolitan had visited the parish and someone asked a question about the screens. He did not give a verdict for what the parish should do, but made it clear that one way or another was not dogmatically wrong. The person who asked the question was perceived to be one of the biggest proponents of the screens, and was comforted by what His Eminence had said. He came to speak to me after liturgy and told me, ‘You know, I actually seriously couldn’t care less about whether there’s a screen up or not. I understand liturgy and don’t need even the books. I have been fighting for screens because those people who do not want them try and frame anyone who wants them as ignorant and unappreciative of liturgy and they’re not.’ I was so taken aback by this and so happy that he said it to me. That is what the language of extremes did and I had never heard someone articulate it like that before in church.

Rituals and traditions:

Language of Extremes: ’That is just wrong.’ ‘Abouna wasn’t supposed to do it like that.’ ’That’s definitely not the rubric.’ ’This is going to be the worst Great Friday ever.’ ’That’s not what the 1904 book says’ (I don’t remember which year, before someone pounces on me! 🙂) ‘It’s not Christmas, it’s Nativity.’ 

What is it signalling: The rites that the speaker received are the right ones. The terminology the speaker uses is the right one.

Discussion: Not being a good rites person myself (I go by whatever I received without much emotion about it), this is a harder one to write about (pardon the pun). Some people will argue that English must never be prayed or spoken from the lectern on the Northern side, some say the Southern, some say it doesn’t matter. Some altar-servers will hold the cross and gospel when circling the altar, others will hold only the cross. Some do six stops, some (rare) do three. Some people chant the psalm during the procession, others do not. Is there a somewhat right way to do things? In the case of ritual, well, yes. What must be asked is, what is the local ritual and tradition, because even ritual emerged from somewhere and usually the somewhere was not heaven. Rituals develop from local customs and people wrote down rituals. Some rituals have canons associated with them, other rituals do not. So before using the language of extremes, it is important to find out the nature f the ritual you are defensive over and find out if you are justified in that. Even if you are, however, you ought also to recognise that rituals are symbolic physical gestures, and they can and do change, according to times, places and cultures. The synod can change rules about those rituals, it is within their rights. You can have a debate about whether they should or not, or how qualified in your view they are to do such a thing, but that is besides the point of this discussion, which is that you ought not to treat dogmatically what is not dogmatic. You may have a very learned and deep view about a ritual and why you think it ought to be a particular way, but it is good to always realise that at the end of the day, a ritual is not a dogma, it is a physical gesture that contains symbolic meaning (which can be very deep), but it is never the ritual itself that has done a single thing: God has. An imperfect ritual will still have God in it. The liturgy itself evolved over the last 2000 years – from a simple supper at a normal table with no iconostasis, to the elaborate celebration that it is today. To suggest that God can only work through a particular physical expression is to denigrate God, and is to suggest that earlier forms of liturgy that had no such ritual were void of grace, which is also a dangerous view to hold. The language of extremes diminishes from that reality and suggests a reality that is likely erroneous.


Language of Extremes: ‘It’s called theosis; people need to get over it.’ ‘Of course we do not believe in that.’ ‘Definitely that is not what the Fathers said.’ ‘All the Fathers said so.’

What is it signalling: The preference in doctrine of the speaker is the right one.

This is possibly one of the most contentious areas in the Church today. There is a very poor distinction between dogma, doctrine and tradition (not Tradition), and the language of extremes is exacerbating all of it. Briefly, dogma is a proclaimed tenet of the Church about which there is no debate permissible. A dogma is something belonging to the faith in such a way that if you disagree with it, you cannot consider yourself a member of the Church. You cannot remain Orthodox and say that you reject the Trinity, for example. Doctrine, however, is a well-established teaching (that cannot contradict Dogma), but has room for discussion about it, or different interpretations. For example, we dogmatically believe in heaven and the Kingdom of God. What does heaven or the kingdom of God look like? Well, there are different doctrines about that. Some people believe in levels of heaven, others do not. Some people believe in literal material crowns for righteous people, some do not. Yet, both views are permitted within Orthodoxy, irrespective of your leaning. Finally, are traditions, which are something akin to folk stories, that you can believe or not, practice or not, and it’s not a big deal. We know the Holy Family went to Egypt, but the traditions about what happened while they were there, are not mandated by the Church for believers to accept. There are traditions that you should not chew gum on Sunday or walk barefoot. They are pious traditions with nice meanings, but you are not obligated to adhere to these by the catholic Church. 

The problem that has been arising, is that the language of extremes used show that people are treating their stances on traditions and doctrines as though they are dogmas. I want to emphasise the language here, not the subjects of the debate themselves, that is not the scope of this particular blog. If I insist on using the word theosis, for example, knowing that some people understand the word to mean one thing, and other people understand it to mean another, then should my language emphasise the word or the meaning? If I insist on my word for it, is my aim to force someone to bow to my terminology? Why? When I was a child, the word ‘gay’ was still understood by many to mean happy (I read a lot of British books). Today, very few, if any, will think ‘happy’ before they think ‘homosexual’. Should I, for the sake of preserving the word ‘gay’ in its original sense, start using the word ‘gay’ as often as I can, wherever I go, wanting everyone to start relinking it to a meaning it also has? What is my objective in doing so? We must remember that culture, time and history affect the way and usage of words, and that is not a horrible thing, it’s natural. Consequently, we adapt and develop our language to make sure that the language serves us, not we the language. The language of extremes reverses this, and makes it about the language rather than the meaning. I do not care if you say theosis, divinisation, theopoiesis, or other terminology (unless a dogma or canon exists about it), I care to know what you mean when you say it. When Saint Athanasius insisted on homoousios, he didn’t make a word holy. He insisted on a word in reaction to a context. If the Arian controversy never happened, we might never have cared much about that word. Context is everything. Words are not holy, but they can signify holy things. 

The other language of extremes in this category that seems to happen often, is the whole ’the fathers’ did or didn’t say something. This often intrigues me. Many people speak as though the fathers were always unanimous in their assent or rejection of something. While that sometimes did happen, I am not sure if it is as common as many people make it out to be! The fathers themselves had various views on various issues, and each wrote in his own context and times. If you use the language of extremes, ask yourself if you can even cite the ‘fathers’ you are referring to when you make that claim, or if you are simply using their names in vain! 🙂 Yet, people do this nonetheless, and make it sound like whatever their personal view was on something, it is the dogmatically correct one, on the authority of the fathers that often they have not even read. 

Closing thoughts:

The language of extremes produces clubs, cliques, extremism, anger, and discord. Extremism produces extremism. Extremism results in antagonism and and aggression. It strongly enforces polarity. What it is doing in our churches is creating camps and clubs, sub parishes within parishes, separatist groups, apostasy, and renunciation of churches. It’s not a small matter; it’s a really big deal. People have been kicked out of service for their views, and people have left of their own volition because of this, and all of that sounds entirely contrary to the gospel. 

What must we do? I think the key is to start by reocognising the error of elevating doctrines and traditions to dogmas. I am asking though, that we not look at ’them’ to do that, start looking at us, me and you. We need to look at where we are elevating our own ego, our own will, our own thoughts, our own views, to the level of dogma, not just where we think others are doing that. If we do that, we will become people of dialogue ourselves, not people of debate. If we recognise that we are not absolute, then we acknowledge that there is a space for us to learn from others, to understand others, to ask others why they think what they think and from where they formed their opinions. We will have interest in their views and mindsets, because we will no longer deify our own. We will be cautious not to say things that give a meaning that the person in front of us is somehow inferior in any way, because in the absence of dogma, there is not an absolute. This will help us understand if something is more right than another in a particular context

May God grant all of us to have hearts of dialogue.

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