Monday, August 06, 2007

The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

Originally published in the Charleston, SC, POST AND COURIER, on 8/7/07, as "What is the Church that Jesus left us?"

The recent release of the Vatican’s seven questions and answers entitled, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church” has raised much concern across the spectrum of self-professed Christians. Where is the Church? Does it matter?

I write from a unique position as an Orthodox priest, since, according to the document, the Orthodox Churches (unlike the Protestants) can properly be called Churches, yet we “lack something”, namely a supreme pontiff subsisting in the person of the Pope of Rome. I suspect we should be grateful that the Vatican recognizes us Orthodox as a church. At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t move us or flatter us. It neither enrages nor engages us, since we believe that the history of the Christian Church shows a different—though related—reality. The Orthodox Churches are as old as the Roman. After all, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians (to name a few), who are still Orthodox to this day.

The battle for “Church” is not a battle of “valid” versus “invalid”; “visible” versus “invisible”; “scriptural” versus “traditional”; “Protestant” versus “Roman Catholic”. These are the sixteenth century battles of western European Christianity, already 500 years removed from Orthodox Christianity. The real question is “what did Jesus actually leave with us?” More historically phrased, “what has always been believed?” Biblically stated, “what is the faith once for all delivered to the saints?” Theologically asked, “what does it mean to be ‘in communion’?”

As Father Kirby wrote in his irenic column a few weeks ago, our Lord Jesus Christ did found only one Church. Christ is not and cannot be divided; a head cannot have many bodies. Jesus is the head of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Church is holy in that she is divinely established and sustained. She is catholic in that she is whole and complete in every local church in every time and place, and faithfully teaches what all Christians have always believed. She is apostolic in that her bishops (episkopoi, over-seers), are ordained in the same line as the bishops first appointed by the apostles and teach the same doctrines as do the Twelve.

Reading the documents of the Church from the first century forward through the eleventh, laying aside our present day preconceptions about “church”, we will find this true Church. We will even find a great deal of honor paid to the Bishop of Rome, who from the beginning was considered to be primus-inter-pares (chief among equals) of all the Bishops. This cannot be denied historically.

However, through the history, we will not find the infallible, supreme pontiff the papal office has become. The pope was for a long time the honorable chairman of a group of bishops seated (figuratively) at a round table, around which the Orthodox Bishops are still sitting.

It is not until post-eleventh century western Christianity that the Pope sits (again, figuratively) at a rectangular table, he alone occupying the head. Don’t take my word for it; read the history! The Charleston County library holds a 38 volume collection entitled the Antenicene, Nicene, and Postnicene Fathers which contain, in English, the most significant writings of the first Christian millennium. It can also be read, in full, online at

The history is critically important, but there is a deeper reality which must always remain intimately linked to the Church’s historical lineage: by our sins, every man, woman, and child is terminally ill and desperately needs spiritual medical attention. The Church is, theologically and historically, the hospital in which are found the doctors who can rightly identify the reality of the disease and who dispense the only tonics which can heal this infectious and vicious malady.

Jesus Christ instituted and entrusted his medicines (the Sacraments—baptism, Holy Communion, confession, unction, etc.) to his apostles and through them, to the Bishops. It is through this succession that the medicines can be both rightly administered and guaranteed. More directly put: the Church is the hospital which has board-certified physicians-of-the-soul and medicines which have been carefully preserved under the strictest supervision.

If you knew you were terminally ill, would you prefer to visit a true hospital or an individually and recently established clinic, run by a fellow who printed his MD on his laserjet? The gifted and well-studied clinician might save you. He might just be talented enough to pull it all together. But the hospital’s methods, medicines, and personnel are time-tested and sure. This is the case with the Church, only moreso, because it is also one, holy, catholic, and apostolic!

So, we dying men and women, if we hope to live, must seek and find Jesus Christ in his Church which has never been anything other than visible, living, and active. As the Vatican has rightly taught, the Church’s touchstones include bishops in apostolic order who, to quote St. Paul to Timothy, “rightly divide the word of truth”. These bishops, though, have never been subjected to the universal jurisdiction of an infallible Pope. As Jesus said of divorce, so too the Orthodox have always taught about this false teaching, “from the beginning it was not so.”

Rather, the bishops, as brothers in council, are the guardians of the medicines of the hospital for sinners, without which we die. (Our Lord did say, for example, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.”) We can be confident of the medications, meals, and remedies here in the Church. God is certainly free to move outside the boundaries of his own creation, but why put him to the test?

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or by email at

Pet Luxuries

Originally published in the Charleston, SC, POST and COURIER on July 22, 2007, as "Humanity can get lost in consumerism"

I recently saw a catalog advertising beautiful sterling-silver necklaces with interchangeable and engravable pendants. Their themes were among those we wouldn’t see on older women, but they might certainly be worn by young girls or boys. “Colorful necklaces feature Swarovski crystals.” But these were different.

In an online catalog, I read of a lavish, $4400 bed, described like this: a “formal Louis XVI four-poster [bed] … inspired by the classic designed by the King himself. Shown here in this traditional French plaid taffeta with coordinating trim and linings, the curtains and skirt are removable for dry-cleaning. All [beds] are custom designed with the…owner’s needs in mind. Clients may select from a range of fabrics, trims and finishes.”[1]

I saw regal beds like this one on a recent vacation to Williamsburg. I imagined what it must have been like to be the Governor of colonial Virginia. But the bed as described was different.

During that same trip to Williamsburg, we befriended the period-dressed chef of the Governor’s Palace, who worked in his colonial kitchen, preparing meals as if for the 17th century Governor. I was particularly intrigued to watch him with sew bacon fat into a rabbit, apparently a savory favorite of the ruler. Later, I saw a similarly lavish meal described in a magazine ad. “Restaurant-inspired…Angus beef…for the real meat lover in the family.” But this, too, was different.

On another occasion, I was reading of some beautiful condos. They featured both one and two bedroom suites, complete with television, a security system, indoor and outdoor play areas, and a nature trail. The description of these condos sounded just like the ones where we stayed in Williamsburg, but they also were different.

What was the common difference between all of these luxuries: the sterling jewelry, the regal bed, the high-end steak meal, and the condo? All of these items are for pets. For dogs and cats. There is now a market for $72 sterling jewelry for cats. $4000, four-poster beds for dogs. Steak dinners in a can for Fido. Kitty condos for a feline’s much-deserved vacation. And all this hardly to mention “pet insurance” which surely has developed to “save” people money when they opt for everything from ACL replacement surgery for their pet to animal organ transplants.

I feel somewhat strange writing about luxury pet boutiques and related animal consumerism. Why such a column—in the Faith and Values section? Because this is truly animal consumerism. Consumerism gone wild.

I am almost struck dumb with all of the above when I compare it all to a recent deeply-personal experience. A few weeks back, I met a fellow—let’s call him Xenon (Greek for ‘stranger’). Xenon was standing in a parking lot asking for assistance. He had no jewelry at all—not even a watch. And his reading glasses were held together by scotch tape. He was approachable, though something was clearly wrong—a combination sick and homeless. He’s spent over thirty years too disabled to hold a job. As he told me (which I verified by visiting him there), he sleeps on the floor of an abandoned house where he has no running water or electricity. He hadn’t had a hot meal in days. Occasionally, he said, he found help from kind people, but for the most part, “no one has the time”. Xenon lives (barely) day to day, and for him, to sit at a table and share a meal is like the kingdom of Heaven.

Now we can surely debate the merits of social medicine, and we can list the various social agencies which exist to help needy folks like Xenon. Or whether or not (Lord, have mercy!) Xenon “deserves” or “really needs” help. And if we’d like to debate this, let the debate begin!

But two questions arise in my own heart, and I hope in yours, as we compare the sad story of Xenon to the luxuries of pet condos, $4000 animal beds, and Angus-flavored Alpo—or any time or way we spend more on our pets than on needy human beings. When was the last time I even looked at someone like Xenon in the eyes and smiled (much less actually said hello and offered to help)? And when was the last time I took even one bag of groceries to a place like ECCO, the East Cooper Community Outreach, one local clearinghouse of help for the extremely needy among us? These are simple human behaviors to which Christians are called in the most profound ways.

For the love of God—literally—let’s treat animals like animals and human beings like human beings. Pets are important, but not more important than our human neighbors, known or unknown. We ought to treat animals humanely, but not humans like animals.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at or by phone at 881-5010.


Scandal of the Cross

The Scandal of the Cross
By Fr. John Parker
Published in Touchstone Magazine, June 2007

The first time I visited the sacristy of the Wren Chapel at the College of William and Mary, where the chapel’s brass cross now resides out of sight of the visitor, I waited there, dressed in black, sweaty palmed, being reminded to breathe, sequestered till the arrival of my bride at the west end of the chapel. On cue, I departed the colonial room and followed the priest, along with my three groomsmen, to the small but unmistakably English altar, which still faces ad orientem, one reminder of the age of the chapel.

For the second visit, a few years later, I was also dressed in black, though this time under my festal white vestments. I was the celebrant of someone else’s wedding — my brother’s. On this occasion, I was the breathing coach. I remember moving the chalice and paten from this sacristy to the altar before the service. I remember celebrating the wedding and giving thanks where Anglican and Episcopal priests have served since the late 1700s.

The sacristy of any church is the guarded location of its sacred vessels. It is no surprise that we had to take the Eucharistic vessels out of the safe and put them on the altar, but it has come as an outrage to some and a surprise to a great many that the altar Cross, given in 1931 to the college by Bruton Parish — the oldest Episcopal parish in the United States — now has its home in the sacristy, except when the chapel is used for a specifically Christian event.

Late last year (yes, October 2006), the President of the College unilaterally ordered its removal from the altar, saying the cross “sends a message that the Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders.”

Apparently, it is thought that the architecture of the building sends no such message, despite the fact the chapel is a precise model of an English church: with its fixed altar, the altar rail complete with closing gate and kneelers, the pulpit, the chancel choir (with the pews facing one another), the choir loft, and the organ. It is hardly a generic chapel, like one might find in an airport or secular hospital.

It is not necessary to re-address what so many others have already capably investigated and reported: the balance of having an historic Christian Chapel in a public University, the question as to whether or not a cross on an altar in a building is offensive to non-Christians, the self-appointed decision by the College president to remove the cross, etc.

To be honest, I am not all that disturbed by the removal of the cross. In fact, I’d put it in the same category as public monuments listing the Ten Commandments which have been under similar scrutiny in recent years. The reality of the matter is that we are not a Christian nation.

As I wondered to the founder of, what true difference does it make whether or not the Cross adorns an empty chapel, when the following is true? Every single night, hundreds of students from the college stumble in drunken stupors back to their evening lodging, which often is not their own dorm room. Fornication is rampant. Since my day (1989-1993) the college has prided itself on its support for homosexuality.

From a Christian perspective, the history of the college and the chapel is, for all intents and purposes, immaterial today. St. John the Forerunner made it known that there is no sense in trying to claim and indeed no possibility of claiming any relation to salvation by citing the names of our ancestors. He cried out, “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

And there is certainly no sense in guarding an historically Christian chapel when the fundamental activities just outside its frequently empty halls bear no resemblance to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

It should not surprise Christians that the Cross is a scandal, at William and Mary or any place. It will always be “a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” as St. Paul described Christ crucified.

By God’s grace, the only way fruit will be born at the College is by repentance. The Cross will be seen as the sign of Christ’s redemptive, self-sacrificial, and atoning embrace, the “weapon of peace” as it is called in the Orthodox tradition, only when self-professing Christians fully devote themselves to chastity, humility, patience, and love. When our chief foci are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

There is, in fact, a very easy way for the Cross to be returned to the chapel: schedule the traditional hours of the Church in Wren Chapel daily. The method will also return the Cross to the lives of those related to the College, offering a two-fold metanoia.

Let groups of local students, faculty, staff, and alumni organize themselves into congregations of prayer. Offer the ancient daily services along with the biblical hours of prayer—the evening service (vespers), the service after supper (compline), midnight, the morning service (matins), 6 and 9 AM (1st and 3rd hours), and 12 and 3 PM (6th and 9th hours). This holy action would bring the cross out of the sacristy for a few hours every day and would change both the hearts and the minds of all those who take part in such ministrations.

And it would show the president as well as the world the true purpose of a Christian Chapel. Apart from such an effort, we will waste our days trying to prove the legitimacy of the Chapel on historical terms — an interesting question in our country’s oldest academic building, but of little use to our salvation in the present.

As a public university, William and Mary cannot require daily chapel services as it did in its early years. Yet there is no public crime in the gathering of two or three to pray at regular intervals around the clock in Wren Chapel, making an historic verity into a present reality.