4523 Six Forks Rd. Raleigh, NC 27609  919-787-7590

What does it mean for us in Saint Timothy’s parish to be “orthodox?”

What does it mean for us in Saint Timothy’s parish to be “orthodox?”  I was left wondering about that after our parish meeting with Canon Catherine Massey the other week.  At least one of the discussion tables during that meeting reported out using the word “orthodox” as one that they hoped would (continue to) describe our parish.  During the next couple of days, a couple of our parishioners asked me what was meant when that word was used. Hence, this article, which I hope will be of help to everyone as you engage in the process of calling your next rector.

First, let’s consider the word “orthodox” within an historical and theological context.  Used with a capital “O,” “Orthodox” refers to that (mostly) Eastern branch of the Christian Church, as opposed to the word “Catholic,” by which we generally refer to the Western branch of Christianity.  A split in the Church occurred in 1054, resulting in the two branches. The reasons for that split are not important to this article. What is important is that we remember that the mutual excommunication issued in 1054 has now been repealed by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches (plural:  there are any number of them, generally defined along national lines, but all in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople). In common lingo, you can say they are trying to work things out with each other.

Used with a small “o,” “orthodox” (in the sense we are using it here) means something along the lines of “correct” or “sound,” and generally refers to religious beliefs and practices.  I sense that was the intended meaning of the word as used during our parish meeting.

To ask if Saint Timothy’s is “orthodox” is really to ask a much broader and more substantial question.  Saint Timothy’s is a not an independent, stand-alone church on Six Forks Road. Rather, as the parish bylaws make very clear, this parish is a constituent part of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina; and, as the bylaws go on to say, we accede to the authority of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, including its constitution and canons, to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, and to the authority of the Bishop of North Carolina and the constitution and canons of this diocese.  In that regard, we are utterly and entirely “orthodox,” and that orthodoxy grows out of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the only recognized member in the United States. Other churches may use the words “Episcopal” and “Anglican” here in America, but they are not in communion with the See (Archbishop) of Canterbury, which defines membership in the Anglican Communion.

So where does that orthodoxy come from?  In our Anglican tradition, the orthodoxy and catholicity of any branch of the Church is determined by its acceptance of the doctrinal decisions of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils, held between 325 A.D. and 787 A.D., all of which took place when the Church was united before its 1054 schism.  Even today, however, there are several branches of the ancient Church that separated prior to the larger 1054 split. Think of the Churches in Egypt, Armenia, and Ethiopia, all of which have never accepted the 451 A.D. Council of Chalcedon’s definition of the union between the divine and human natures of Christ.  “Orthodoxy,” then, is about the correct substantial belief of the Church, as defined by the Ecumenical Councils, affirmed in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, and lived out in the faithful administration of the Sacraments and active preaching of the Gospel.

Now think of how the word “tradition” might differ from the word “orthodox.”  Like capital “O” and small “o” “orthodox,” “tradition” is used with both a capital “T” and a small “t.”  At least within the life of the Church, “Tradition” is that great body of belief and practice that has grown out of the orthodox affirmations of the Church; with a small “t,” “tradition” is the way that history has guided us in our expression of the “Tradition.”  Something that is “traditional” is a longstanding way of expressing—living out in our worship and church practice—the “Tradition” of the Church. Older Bible translations and Prayer Books can be described as “traditional” when they are still in regular use. After that, they become “historic,” useful for gaining insights from the past, not for fleeing from the present.  

In that regard, I think the word “traditional” would be better than the word “orthodox” as used at the parish meeting.  But the answer is the same: Saint Timothy’s is both “orthodox” and “traditional”: except when it isn’t, because tradition is always in the eye of the beholder.  The use of a beautifully flowered Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday has been a tradition in Saint Timothy’s for a number of years, but it is very much a Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition unknown to most of the rest of the Episcopal Church.  We must always be careful not to assume that our traditions are correct for everyone, even everyone in our own parish. Traditions are of great value in a parish, but only to the extent that they remain helpful and appropriate expressions of the Faith for the people of the parish.  Traditions have little or no value apart from that.

Which leads me to conclude this article with a pastoral word on what might be helpful as you continue your parish self-evaluation and search process.  There is a long and sordid history in the Church of labeling those with whom we disagree as heretical or heterodox, in contrast to what we perceive to be our own orthodoxy.   It’s akin to calling someone a traitor because we disagree with that person’s political beliefs. It is in no way helpful. And slinging around epithets of heresy and issuing dire warnings of impending doom if certain traditions are not maintained is also not helpful.  Bear with each other. Don’t beat each other up. If you really want to keep the holy Faith of the Church, live the Gospel. In it, Jesus has a whole lot to say about love. So love God and love each other. Because, in the end, that’s what it really means to be an orthodox Christian.


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