Western Orthodoxy

By: | Post date: April 18, 2009 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Culture

It struck me, as a Greek-Australian kid reading Shakespeare, that English used to be a more Mediterranean language than it is now. Which is to say, the society reflected in the language of Shakespeare had more in common with the traditional Greek culture I caught the very tail end of, than did the Australia I now found myself in. In large part, that was a matter of both having been traditional cultures, less individualistic, more land-bound, and more tribal. Both were caught up in marital loyalty, so both made ample reference to cuckolding. Both cared about appropriate politeness addressing—although the Tu/Vous system in both was breaking down (and the Greek Tu/Vous with singular/plural was an urban veneer on top of the native expressions, like μωρέ vs. του λόγου σου.)

And both were still religious societies. More to the point, Greece has a pre-Lutheran culture; and although Mary Queen of Scots was already executed, and Shakespeare’s father had to hide Catholic literature in his attic, English was still a Catholic language. “Marry” was still an oath to the Virgin Mary, the Puritans had not yet gotten rid of “God’s Wounds”.

English is now not a Catholic language—which is a very well-thought out thing to say, since English is now the language of still quite Catholic Ireland (and Irishdom). But a lot of the institutions that had made cosy homes for themselves in Middle English are now awkward to express; and the secularisation of Anglo culture makes them even more awkward. English knows of compadres via Spanish, so there is a hook for the Greek cognate (via Venetian) κουμπάρος to hook up to. But Middle English godsib is long gone, surviving only in the telling fossil word gossip. The feast of Υπαπαντή (which my village church was dedicated to) does correspond to Candlemas; but outside of old Scottish lawyers, who’s heard of Candlemas? And as much because of secularisation as Protestantism, I never quite got the English days of Holy Week. Good Friday, uh, Maundy Thursday, um, Good Saturday?

So translating Greek Orthodox references is easier with Early Modern English than contemporary English. (That’s why I made a point of speaking of rood screens previous post.) Of course, if you wind the clock back on English, you don’t get Mediaeval English Orthodoxy: you get Mediaeval English Catholicism, which is not the same thing. But if you do some Creative Anachronism, you can come up with an alternative universe in which Galicia or Britain stayed in communion with Constantinople.

And I thank John Cowan in comments for pointing out to me the existence of Western Orthodoxy, which I had never come across—and which attempts exactly that. As John was astute to point out, Western Orthodoxy reconstructs an Orthodox Galicia or Britain, which allowed it to marry Eastern dogma to Western tradition: that’s why the Western Orthodox care about St Dunstan. The point of Orthodoxy, after all, is tradition. But it is an invented tradition (actually, several invented traditions, hence the six different reconstructed liturgies); which is why John compared it to the Christianities of the fictional world of Ill Bethisad, in which Britain stayed Celtic. (You achieve enlightenment when you realise that all traditions are invented, and all are manipulated in their practitioners’ interest.)

And that in turn is why the Eastern Orthodox are so suspicious of the experiment. The point of Orthodoxy, after all, is *their* tradition. I was somewhat shocked to see the arguments against Western Orthodoxy in Wikipedia made by the Eastern Orthodox, me being culturally Western and all (“But they’re doctrinally identical!”) But I’m not that surprised, and John was more right than I’d realised in his etymological argument—the Orthodox haven’t been as tolerant of ritual difference as the Catholic hierarchy, at least, has been:

If your church calls itself with a name beginning with “O”, you expect them to want everyone to believe and do the same things. If their name for themselves starts with “C”, you expect them to want to include as many varieties of practice as they can, short of compromising on real dogma. Sapir-Whorf strikes again.

One Comment

  • John Cowan says:

    A few notes:

    According to Wikipedia, the current Greek T/V system allows either party to ask “Can we speak in the singular?” and (crucially) the other party is not allowed to say “No”, so just asking, as well as failing to ask and doing it anyhow, can be a subtle kind of insult. Classic.

    Also, some of that “Catholic language” is misleading. Apparently the popularity of “Mother of God” as an English (as opposed to, say, Irish) oath expressing awe or disbelief refers specifically to this incident.

    And Rosta used the word Candlemas (and also hypapante) when discussing Groundhog Day (he had seen the movie but didn’t know what day it was, not being Americanized enough), and he’s glico enough, though sralo selmamta.

    All anglophone Christians seem to agree on Good Friday and on calling Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday simply Holy, tracking the Latin names. Maundy Thursday, though, is specifically Anglican; to the Romans it’s just Holy Thursday.

    Lastly, in Ill Bethisad the rulers of Kemr didn’t even adopt the title of King (ill Terruin) until after 1453; before that they still considered themselves a principality of the Roman Empire, at least nominally, despite being in communion with Rome rather than Constantinople.

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