Christian leaders and secular governments around the world have condemned, with good reason, the recent decision of a Turkish court to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Indeed, this ruling is just the latest step in a century-long effort by the Turkish government to erase both the history and presence of Christianity in Turkey. And while President Erdogan’s advocacy for this change is little more than crude pandering to conservative Islamists in the wake of growing criticism, the ruling forces a series of hard questions for the advocates of persecuted Christian minorities in the region who use the framework of “religious freedom.”
For starters, there is the question of whether or not the forced transformation of Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum in 1935 was, objectively speaking, the just outcome of an aspiring democratic society. It is no secret that Kemal Ataturk, the engineer of the modern Turkish state, pursued this change as part of a wide-ranging plan to break from the historic authority of Islam in Ottoman society and to advance his vision for a future Turkey that would be radically secular.
When Archbishop Iakovos stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, he was maligned by many Greek Americans who took offense that their Archbishop would “fraternize with Civil Rights agitators.” Fifty-five years later, opinion has shifted dramatically. Iakovos’ march alongside MLK is widely regarded as one of the iconic moments of Orthodox Christianity in the United States, if not globally. Today, we either ignore or apologize for that generation of Orthodox who did not understand the moral necessity of the Civil Rights movement.
We now find ourselves at a similar moment. Will our grandchildren have to apologize for us because we stood on the wrong side of history, or will we accept the spirit of the Black Lives Matter critique because it is morally and theologically convicting?
It is striking just how many verses of the central hymn of the most widely attended service in the Orthodox Church assert that Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection provide salvation to everyone—yes, everyone. If hymnography reflects the prayer and thinking of the community, what might this contribute to the millennia-long debate about Universal salvation?
Technically, the Good Friday service that contains the Lamentation is a Saturday morning (Matins) service that was moved to Friday evening for practical reasons. The Lamentation, as appears in the Triodion service book, consists of 185 short independent hymns, the Praises, which are interspersed with verses from Psalm 118 (119), the longest of the Psalms. The Lamentation is divided into three sections, or Stases. Usually, only a part of the 185 hymns are performed in parishes, chosen by the chanters at will. While the Lamentation likely reflects much older theological ideas, it is noteworthy that the service, like all of the Holy Week services, was developed after the fall of Byzantium.
In a seminal essay in 1990, the eminent scholar of early Christianity, Elizabeth Clark, demonstrated that Christianity grew rapidly, in large part, because women served as the community’s earliest financial benefactors—they were “Patrons not Priests.” According to Clark, female patronage was not only a matter of Christian piety, it was also a consequence of broader social and cultural changes for women in the Greco-Roman world. At precisely the same time that Roman society was restricting women from serving as patrons for civic events, a small but determined group of female aristocrats turned their patronage toward Christianity. And the rest, so to speak, is history.
I would like to suggest that there is a parallel sociological phenomenon in the Orthodox Church in the United States today. While women are still unable to become priests, they are increasingly becoming scholars of Christianity. And this is having a profound, positive impact on the Church. Continue reading →