Denver Post goes back to Orthodox future (sort of)

Every now and then, someone — sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left — decides to do a very free-church Protestant thing and start their own new and improved version of one of the ancient Christian churches. Sometimes, these innovators decide to submit themselves to the existing hierarchies, making the decision to officially join either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox folds (Memory eternal, Father Peter Gillquist). But often, they do not.

Either way, these attempts to put old wine into do-it-yourself containers can lead to interesting stories in the mainstream press. Interesting? Well, that can be interesting good or interesting bad — since explaining the history and traditions of the ancient churches is a must.

The Denver Post took a stab at one of these stories the other day, describing the doctrinal pilgrimage that led to the creation of a tiny ecclesiastical body that calls itself the Christian Orthodox Church of America (warning: I never did get that website to open). As is usually the case (think Charismatic Episcopal Church), the goal of the church is to fuse contemporary evangelicalism with ancient worship — but with the trailblazers automatically becoming the enthroned leaders of their own new communion.

The Post team did the right thing, at stage one, letting the leader of this tiny new operation — Archbishop P. Gregory Schell — explain his dream and his actions.

“This is a place where East meets West, and Christ is in the center,” says Schell, founder of the 10-year-old Christian Orthodox Church of America, a fusion of ancient Christianity and contemporary evangelical worship.

St. Isaac and the five other churches in Schell’s national network were inspired by Eastern Orthodoxy and likewise claim an apostolic tradition reaching back to A.D. 52 and St. Thomas.

Yet, it is in many respects a modern American faith offering — what Schell calls “convergence worship”: sacramental, liturgical, evangelical and charismatic.

“There is a hunger for real experience of God,” Schell says. “There’s a new generation looking for substance.” He is not daunted that the Eastern Orthodox establishment does not recognize his “orthodoxy,” which means correct or accepted practice. His network of churches — scattered from Rome, Pa., to Pasadena, Calif. — is not part of the Eastern Orthodox fellowship.

“We deeply love and respect the Orthodox faith and Roman Catholic Church. We’re one body in Christ,” Schell says. “As a native American Orthodoxy, we humbly seek to build relationships with them.”

For those who follow trends in American religion, this part of the story should set off several early alarms. Note, for example, that the Post team doesn’t realize that “convergence worship” is not a new term that originated with Schell. That term has been used in a wide variety of fusion worship movements over the past two or three decades. Plenty of other bodies have attempted, and continue to attempt, to mix smells and bells with pop-rock megachurch praise worship.

So “convergence worship” is not new. It’s a bad sign that no one involved in writing and editing this story knew that. The story, thus, contains no information about previous back-to-the-future efforts similar to this one.

Then there is the matter of the ancient past. While the story clearly states that this tiny movement is not linked to Eastern Orthodoxy, the Post team appears to have made no attempts to reach either Orthodox, Catholic or even Protestant historians to discuss the status of this kind of newborn communion. Instead, Schell seems to have served as the authority on all matters ecclesiastical. That works, when he is telling his own story, as he journeys from Roman Catholicism to charismatic Christianity and then on to his current fusion of Orthodox and nondenominational Protestantism.

Where are the historians and voices of authority in this story? Folks, I worked in Denver for nearly a decade and it’s easy to find church historians in a number of different traditions. If they’re busy, there are plenty of Orthodox parishes in the phone book. People will talk. Trust me on that.

In this kind of story, it’s a bad sign when the recent history gets messed up. Things get even messier when it comes time to deal with the ancient past. Eastern Orthodox believers — and Catholics, too — should brace themselves before reading this report’s background materials on church history. Ready? Here goes.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a tradition that formed in the 5th to 13th centuries as a slowly widening rift divided the bishops of Rome and Constantinople. Through the “Great Schism,” Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism developed distinctive identities. Eastern Orthodoxy allows married clergy and rejects universal papal authority.

Needless to say, authorities in the Eastern and Western churches would not agree on precisely how to state the history covered in that paragraph. However, historians on both sides would reject the statement that Eastern Orthodoxy “formed in the 5th to 13th centuries.” What we have here is a mini-train wreck. So, moving on.

And how did Schell get ordained and raised to the episcopate? As you would expect, this leads readers into the shadowy world of alternative Catholic orders. You know you are on shaky ground when you hit the phrase “network of independent Catholic jurisdictions founded in 1963.”

So what does the story get right? It appears that the Post talked to Schell and did a good job of telling his own take on his own story. That’s about it. There was so, so much more ground to cover — ancient past, recent past and even the present — and this story missed it all, by a mile.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    Schell appears to be claiming apostolic succession in the Orthodox tradition from what – at a quick glance – appears to me to be the Eastern version of the “Old Catholics” and their splinter groups having splinter groups going around with episcopi vagantes ordaining everyone and anyone.

    On the COCOA website, there is very little information, but he implies that his group have connections to the Syro-Malabar and/or St. Thomas Christians of the Church of the East (the mangled way he describes Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, and the avoidance of any concrete details makes it hard to know who or what he is claiming).

    So, another one of the ‘invent your own tradition’ lot, except this time he is going for Eastern rather than Western expression. I don’t think he’s entitled to call himself ‘archbishop’ but I suppose if the papers let the women priests call themselves Roman Catholic priests, an Eastern Catholic-plus-Oriental Orthodox archbishop can do the same?

  • Susan Davis

    “COCOA”? Seriously?

  • Jon in the Nati

    So, another one of the ‘invent your own tradition’ lot, except this time he is going for Eastern rather than Western expression. I don’t think he’s entitled to call himself ‘archbishop’ but I suppose if the papers let the women priests call themselves Roman Catholic priests, an Eastern Catholic-plus-Oriental Orthodox archbishop can do the same?

    Yeah. Seems to me this is basically the Eastern version of all those Old/Liberal/Independent Catholic groups. GR has dealt with coverage of such groups before. Media coverage of such folks ranges from skeptical to neutral to “Don’t tell these folks they’re not Catholic!” (especially when they’re liberal Catholics or WomenPriests, which many in the MSM love).

    The problem, as I see it, when covering such groups is that when reporters accept uncritically what the leaders of such groups say, confusion ensues. No, these people are not “Catholic” (or “Orthodox”) in the way the term is normally used. But the vast majority of reporters do not have the knowledge to dispute or even to clarify what all this means, and even if they did it isn’t really their place to dispute about whether the claims are genuine or not. To most, a church is a church, and a church is Catholic (or Orthodox) if it says it is.

    I’m not certain what the answer is, but there has to be one because situations like these lead almost inevitably to misleading reportage, even when the journalists have made a good faith attempt.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    But the vast majority of reporters do not have the knowledge to dispute or even to clarify what all this means, and even if they did it isn’t really their place to dispute about whether the claims are genuine or not.

    You’re right that it’s not the reporter’s place to dispute that claim. But it is the reporter’s place to know that that claim will be disputed by others (like those in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox hierarchy) and to get commentary from those people. So instead of what could have been a very informative story, we are left with merely a profile of another 21st century religion-maker-upper.

  • Jon in the Nati

    But it is the reporter’s place to know that that claim will be disputed by others (like those in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox hierarchy) and to get commentary from those people.

    I think you’re probably right; this is about as good a solution as there is.

    The history of these espiscopi vaganti, from which these groups draw their supposedly-legitimate orders, is immensely convoluted and silly; it does not lend itself to even brief treatment in the press. However, a comment from the local bishop, or even any legitimate clergyman from the relevant church body attempting to explain that these people are not Catholic (or Orthodox, or whatever) would be most welcome and appropriate.

    If you’re a reporter, it is easier to suss some of this out if we are talking about Catholics. There is only one (Roman) Catholic Church; you are either part of the institution that is led by the Roman pontiff, or you are not. Fairly simple; there aren’t really lots of different flavors of (Roman) Catholics. But there are multiple flavors of Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc.; those of us who make it either a business or hobby to know such things can taste the differences, but I am concerned that most reporters would not know enough about it to consider that one might be more or less legitimate than the others, and that clarification on the matter might be necessary. Simply, they have to know the questions to ask; you often don’t ask the question if you don’t think it is at issue.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    TMatt, I wouldn’t exactly say the leaders of the Charismatic Episcopal Church “automatically” became the leaders of their new communion in the process of its foundation 20 years ago. The founders of the CEC did first look around to find an existing liturgical/sacramental denomination to join that would welcome charismatic worship, and were offered instead the church basement on Friday nights (which, incidentally, is when and where my area’s Roman Catholic charismatics have their prayer/praise service because they are barred from Spirit-filled worship during any Mass). Some of them are now worshipping with us (legitmately, I would think). BTW, the Global South loves the way we worship. Check out the links on our site to Brazil, Africa and the Philippines.

  • Martha

    Okay, it’s confusing, but best as I can make out: it’s not really a “new” denomination/church, it’s just one more in a line of “old” splinter groups, a tangle of Old Catholic and – for a change – involving Oriental Orthodox churchs of the Indian West Syrian tradition (and I apologise to my Orthodox brethren if I’m mangling that myself).

    What I can gather from the COCOA website is that Archbishop Paul/Mar Gregorious claims, by his consecration by Archbishop Dr. Joseph Mar Narsai, apostolic succession from the Indian church of St. Thomas through the lineage of what was the American Catholic Church (now the Federation of the St. Thomas Christians of America).

    And sifting through their website, they were founded in 1892 by an ex-Roman Catholic seminarian, who (with the encouragement of a local Episcopalian bishop) obtained ordination in the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht. After falling out with the Episcopalians, he went East and was consecrated archbishop under the auspices of Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, Goa, and India and the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.

    However, this didn’t last all that long; to quote from the website:

    “The American Catholic Church (Mar Timotheos I) did not maintain ties to the Independent Catholic Church of Goa or the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. One reason for this separation had to do with political and religious turmoil in both the east and the west.

    …It should be mentioned here that the church remained primarily Latin rite from its inception. However, some changes began to occur in the 1960′s when many clergy in the Vilatte lineage began to take interest in their Thomasine and Antiochian identity.”

    So ultimately they are claiming succession through the West Syrian Orthodox lineage of India, and it would be up to the Orthodox to say whether or not these guys are valid but illicit or whatever.

  • Julia

    This mess helps to explain why Benedict is going to such lengths to re-unite the SSPX. If not re-united, they will go on ordaining more illicit priests and bishops – becoming as much a problem as the Old Catholics.

  • Tad Klopcic

    It’s a bit of revisionism to say that the founders of the ICCEC were looking for other groups to join – Adler, Kessler, and even Bates had their own thriving enterprises when the ball got rolling, and none has ever bemoaned not being able to give all that up and sit under the authority of another established institution.

  • Martha

    Oh, by comparison, the SSPX are practically wallflowers – they’ve been more or less scrupulous about the kinds of people they ordain (though Bishop Willamson is an unfortunate example) and the doctrines they teach, so reconciliation is not impossible.

    The Old Catholics, though, have grown like briars and a lot of them have ended up very far from their originating roots.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Not sure why my comment got spiked, as I thought it pertained to the article and really only meant to say that it’s interesting that reporters click to married priests as a significant difference between west and east. Of course, the Eastern Catholic Churches, and the Latin Rite, by exception, have married priests anyway.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Well, since I wrote what I have heard from the lips of the three men you cite, I guess I have some basis for believing it. The CEC went through a serious testing a few years back, and some people haven’t gotten over it. The rest of us, however, have. There’s no question now that deciding not to join an established denomination was the right one.

  • Tad Klopcic

    Yeah … I also heard from Adler’s lips that Fr. Peter Gillquist (of blessed repose) had prophetically endorsed the ICCEC. This turned out to be patently false, as did a lot of things that Adler said. Considering his (and others) leadership of the ICCEC, I don’t see anything to invalidate Mattingly’s viewpoint.

  • Steve

    Hearing it from their (Adler, Kessler, Bates) own lips is hardly a reason to believe the veracity of their account. Isn’t that the point of this article. People make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims.

    Having been personally involved in the founding of the CEC, the founders all became the de facto leaders. Without exception. The (continued) astronomically high rate of clergy to lay ratio is further evidence. You will be hard pressed to find any founder who wasn’t also ordained.