The competence of the laity: reflections on a summer of unofficial cantoring

The competence of the laity: reflections on a summer of unofficial cantoring September 17, 2018
our temple in Richmond – photo by Paul-san, who was recently received into our church

Yesterday I served my last Sunday as the unofficial cantor until December at our temple in Richmond. The school year at Northwestern University is finally starting, and I am back for a third year of teaching.

It was a fitting conclusion here in Richmond, at least for now. The Eparchy of New Westminster is on the New Calendar, so we just finished the cycle of eight tones, on the postfeast of the Elevation of the Cross no less. Next week, they’ll take up the challenge of self-organization with me remotely in Chicago (they will be fine), where I’ll attend liturgy with our mission there with my brother Julian Hayda and the rest of the gang. There, I literally go week back in time because they are on the Old Calendar. Richmond will have me back soon enough when I am back during my Winter Break whether they like it or not, although by then, I might be able to stand in the back and sing bass while someone else will probably stand up front and wave their hands ridiculously. I have, as it were, done my time, and it was very enjoyable, so much so that I want to pass it on to another person so that they can enjoy what I’ve enjoyed. I look forward to attending Immanuel Moleben in Richmond during St Philip’s Fast (on the New Calendar); the refrain for the part where my spiritual father brings out the icon of the Theotokos of the Sign is really pretty.

The word cantor is a funny word. I was telling one of the Orthodox guys in our circle of anti-racist friends in Chicago that when I’m up here in Vancouver, I have to do some cantoring in an unofficial capacity, and he looked at me funny. Are you Jewishhe asked, in all sincerity and without irony. It was an honest misunderstanding. He had never heard the term used in Orthodoxy before.

This encounter got me thinking more about what those of us do have to serve as cantors, whether formally or informally, are doing as we function as lay leaders during the liturgy. Among those of us who are anti-racist in our church – and our fellowship extends to my Orthodox friend too, promiscuous as we are about our aspirations to double communion – there is some emphasis on our continuity with the Jewish tradition. This impulse dovetails a bit with contemporary theological reflection on race, especially in the work of the theologian J. Kameron Carter, who demonstrates that modern notions of racial hierarchy (which is, frankly, what racism is) owe themselves to a kind of anti-semitism in which Jews are considered other to a Christian identity. The Jesus of what is called a ‘supersessionist’ theology – a view that Christianity has superseded Judaism and made it obsolete – is, Carter argues, one who has had his incarnation stripped from him. Our Lord worshipped as a Jew, the early Christians who got their start in Jerusalem were Jewish, the writings of what came to be canonized as the New Testament are replete with defences of how it is that acknowledging Jesus as the risen Messiah validly sits in continuity with the Torah and the Prophets, and the early Christian liturgies were adaptations of what was done in the synagogue. It therefore tickled me to no end that Orthodox readers of this blog early on were always so offended whenever I’d use the formulation G-d to describe the One who, though revealed in Jesus Christ and whose energies transform our hearts, cannot be grasped in his essence. We are not Jewish, the complaints would roll in. Having read the New Testament, I begged to differ, at least with their strident identity politics.

Frankly, I am far too unfamiliar with contemporary synagogue worship and the politics of Jewish communities to say anything definitive about our church’s praxis in comparison with theirs, though I would welcome the dialogue that I post like this might engender. What I do know, though, is that anything to undo the longstanding anti-semitic habits among Christian communities is probably a good thing. Some people suspected me of harboring neo-Nazi sympathies because of their warped perception of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church – the unfortunate official name of a people who are not all composed of ethnic Ukrainians and is therefore better described as the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv – and the political arena of anti-colonial contest that is Ukrainian civil society. Certainly, I can confess the sins of my own church, which includes clergy and lay people who have been anti-semitic and may even have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. But that confession also reinforces what those of us in our church who pursue an anti-racist politics are trying to do, which is to deeply examine our tradition for insights into how the evils of racism, including anti-semitism, can be undone in and through our ecclesial practice. Finding that we have so much more in common at the depths of our theological praxis with our Jewish friends than we previously imagined, we incorporate these insights into what we do and how we live as a people that welcomes everyone to meet the living G-d in our midst.

One of the dimensions of that practice, at least in my experience, is the emphasis on the agency of the lay people in the liturgical action of our church. As a cantor – and especially as an unofficial one – I am a lay person. The people who make up the kleros that we have organized in Richmond are lay people. When they select another point person in my absence – and I sincerely hope that I will be replaced not only as a stopgap measure, but permanently, so that I can return to Richmond in the future to fulfill my longstanding desire to make the bass parts of our liturgy part of my muscle memory – that unofficial cantor will also be a lay person. Our servers are lay people. Our readers are lay people. There is dignity to being unordained. Ours is not a church of all clergy and no people. Our people outnumber our priest, thirty to one. Our priest encourages us to keep self-organizing, to establish roots deep into the practice of our tradition, to not abdicate our agency as the people of G-d because we ourselves are his icons.

This kind of talking, I think, scares some people. Indeed, I’ve just moved through several scary topics – my transnational lifestyle, my rejection of Christian supersessionism (not to mention my unequivocal repudiation of antisemitism), my anti-colonial politics expressed through a church that has been the subject of much controversy in modern history, my advocacy for lay self-organization in a Catholic church. When I joined the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv, some of my evangelical friends accused me of trying to find an ecclesial structure that was more stable because there are clearer lines of authority. I denied it at the time, and I have come to realize that they were more right than I cared to admit about my impulses, but the impurity of my subjective desires does not change the fact that I barely understood at an objective level how radical the Kyivan Church can be. The larger apostolic churches, such as the Latin Church and the mega-Orthodox churches that are inexplicably still into imperialism (as opposed to the more humble ones that aren’t), may be able to incorporate the insecurities of their converts. But ours is a small church. We do not tolerate insecurity well, especially not the pretentious kind that converts like me usually bring to the table, the fake incompetence that feigns submission while seeking to ascend the ranks. Part of the conversion process involves giving up that fragile ambition. If you are going to politic in our church, it had better be personal, and you had better be telling the truth and living from within it, even if it’s inconvenient.

The word that has haunted my summer cantoring is competence. It is a term that I’ve struggled with, mostly because being competent in the past has gotten me into a lot of trouble. If you reply to messages too quickly, you just get more. If you are too good at organizing, you will become the point person for everything. If you write a lot too quickly, your readers get intimidated. If you are a single guy with a full plate, you might scare off potential girlfriends. And worse, if you are good at doing things in church, you might be accused of pride.

Competence also has racial dimensions. I don’t think I really understood what antisemitism was until I read Hannah Arendt’s history of it. Arendt delivers a story about Jews in Europe acting as financial agents for the aristocracy, only to have the nation-state crumble into cross-border empires that made their status increasingly irrelevant. For Arendt, that trajectory set the stage for Jews to be branded as part of an international conspiracy to control the means of production. I used to think that stereotypes that lead to bad results are all negative ones, ones related to why the poor are poor or the way that racialized groups have a ‘culture of poverty.’ I never thought about how images of competence can be damning as well, which is why it took me a long time to understand what antisemitism even was. In some ways – though not exactly – it is comparable to what Asian Americans have called the model minority, the idea that Asians are outwhiting the whites at their own educational game. The explanation of this myth does not lie in an international conspiracy, but in familial culture that is attributed to being Asian. Eastern Europeans migrating to the United States have a similar story, though theirs is couched in the language of assimilation, the desire to live the American Way of Life in such a way that ethnicity is totally forsaken for the sake of appearing economically and socially competent. In this way, writing about competence in the ways that I’ve just discussed it has its liabilities: I am an Asian American in the Kyivan Church with a sense of its continuities with Jewish practices of cantoring.

It’s not like we don’t know the ways in which our lives have been framed for us, and I suspect that the joke that Eastern Catholics don’t believe in organized religion because ours is disorganized reveals a little more than it should. I will take my chances and say that at least in my own spiritual journey, I have found that this kind of gaslighting results in the strange phenomenon of competent people pretending to be incompetent because they delude themselves into thinking that will get them out of any of the requisite stereotypes doing them harm – antisemitism, model minority, assimilation, even uniatism, for that matter, the kind that Cyril Korolevsky talks about where Eastern Catholics drool over the Latin Church because somehow they think that their own tradition, whether Greek, Syriac, Coptic, or whatever, is not good enough in itself to be Catholic. Full communion is not a matter of drooling. Quite the opposite: it is about being a person, and a real person is usually capable of at least making do with what they have to engage in their lives. This complex that can be described as a contrived inferiority leads to a paralyzing depression, one based in fiction but felt as totalizing and oppressive, with real consequences for the person.

The reflection I have had over the summer is that I have finally made some progress in getting free from this complex. Call it conscientization in the sense of finally getting a handle on the structures of my own consciousness or simply the results of a mystagogy that has been at least two years in the making, I am not only returning to my own sense of competence in my work and in my life, but am also ready to assert that the people of God themselves are competent too. Perhaps herein lies my reflection on cantoring over the summer in Richmond. When I stopped second-guessing about whether I could do the job, I started hearing the people at the temple – and not just the kleros that is going into four-part harmony – singing loudly, confidently, in sync, and not in the utter state of anarchy that first endeared them to me when I joined. It turned out that my place in the community does not lie in me pretending to hide my talents in the interest of being relatable, which is what so many fools who have lied to me have told me to do since I was an undergraduate, so much so that over time and with a few more years of exhaustion packed in, I stopped fighting them and took on their persona. If indeed the work of mystagogy is to make the person more fully personal and thus to make clear the iconic dimension of what it means that I as a Christian am an icon of Christ, then competence really is what will really be a byproduct of the process for me, as well as anyone else undergoing mystagogical formation.

The lay people, I am saying, are competent by virtue of being persons, and it took the weekly work of cantoring over this summer for me to unlearn my previous contrived incompetence and come to understand that everyone in the temple is capable of doing that for which the Lord has made them to do. Contrary to the ideologies that reject the competence of the laity in favour of systems to which we might cede our agency, my growth in the practice of our church’s liturgy has started to spill out into my everyday life. It turns out that being incompetent is not the way to resist the myths of the model minority, uniatism, assimilation, and the perils of antisemitism. The trick is to democratize the competence, to say that my being capable augments and does not diminish my neighbour’s capability. Together, we form a society where our life is lived in common. That sensibility begins in the liturgy, the site where life is the realest that it is because it is there that we directly and mysteriously encounter the G-d who made us and the world.

Of course this confidence then spills out into life in that world, challenging the false humilities and contrived incompetencies in the name of a diaconal service that does the works of him who called us out of darkness into light. And if there are people whose insecurities lead them to chalk it all up to an international conspiracy or a familial culture or the powers of assimilation and therefore call down authoritarian systems to gaslight us, incarcerate us, and deny us our agency, then it is they who have excluded themselves from this society by virtue of their fascism. The byproduct of such democratic competence is that we do not have patience for fascists and their delusions. Both figuratively and literally, they can go to hell.

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