By Steve Waring
Hilarion (Alfeyev), Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and a possible contender to lead the Russian Orthodox Church, visited Nashotah House Theological Seminary Oct. 25 and 26 as part of an academic convocation on “J.S. Bach as Religious Phenomenon.” Metropolitan Hilarion received an honorary doctorate in music and lectured on Bach.
Born in 1966, his rise through the ranks of church leadership has been rapid and full of influential appointments, including as a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow and chairman of the Department of External Church Relations. Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow raised Archbishop Hilarion to the rank of metropolitan in 2009.
Hilarion holds two doctorates and is a prolific author, particularly on the early writings of the Church, but received his initial degree in music, studying the violin. A scholarly admirer of Bach, he is the author of a number of musical compositions and poems.
The first that most worshipers saw of Metropolitan Hilarion was during the procession. His facial expression was inscrutable, seemingly frozen as a Russian winter. His address, which he read, was similarly devoid of emotion but not of subtlety or substance.
Metropolitan Hilarion noted that Bach lived during the beginning of the Baroque historical period, when humanism flourished and artistic work advancing themes of transcendence and a holy God grew less popular. But Bach did not compromise his artistic and religious convictions to suit the changing time.
“Bach stood on the bridge of two opposing views of art: humanist and godly,” Hilarion said. Bach was not afraid of borrowing from other composers, but his themes were nonconformist. While the Baroque Period left less and less room for God, “Bach moved in the opposite direction, toward God.”
Metropolitan Hilarion said he regarded music “as a way to preach Christ and bring his good news to others. Music is a unique language which can convey not only deep emotions, but also complex spiritual truths. Music can break through psychological and language barriers.”
Some of Bach’s greatest music exemplifies this, Metropolitan Hilarion said: “He believed his music to be a single voice within the great choir of the universal Church, the one which transcends doctrinal boundaries.”
Metropolitan Hilarion remained expressionless after his address. But then the Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins, chairman of Nashotah’s board of trustees, announced that the seminary and the Diocese of Fond du Lac had decided to return a cope given to Fond du Lac by Bishop Tikhon during the consecration service for Reginald Heber Weller as bishop coadjutor in November 1900.
As the Rt. Rev. Russell Jacobus, Bishop of Fond du Lac, presented the gift, the Russian Metropolitan’s expression quickly transformed into that of a beaming young boy on Christmas morning. He stroked the cope reverently.
Following the Fond du Lac consecration in 1900, a number of the bishops who participated in the consecration service posed for a widely circulated photograph first published in The Living Church. The photo attracted some derision because wearing a cope was not customary liturgical attire for Episcopal bishops at the time.
Bishop Tikhon was elected Bishop of Moscow in June 1917 and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in August 1917. The Soviet Revolution began in October of that year. Patriarch Tikhon publicly criticized the execution of the Czar’s family in 1918 and the pervasive government expropriation of church lands. He was accused of being a saboteur and imprisoned in 1922. In a trial by a portion of the church that accepted Soviet rule he was deposed as patriarch and priest in 1923. The panel at the trial decreed him to be nothing more than “a simple citizen.”
Throughout the Soviet Era, both the Episcopal Church and the Church of England maintained dialogue with and support for the Russian Orthodox Church and both spoke out numerous times against Soviet interference in church affairs.
Tikhon died in 1925 and was canonized as a saint, first by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1981, and in 1989 by the Moscow Patriarchate, which reflected better relations between the Soviet government and the church. Fewer than two dozen Tikhon reliquaries survived purges during the Communist years, so the gift of the cope was especially significant. In return Metropolitan Hilarion gave Nashotah House a hand-stitched, gold-embroidered icon of Jesus Christ. He asked that the school “pray to it and for the Russian Church.”
Despite the honorarium and goodwill exchange of gifts, Hilarion left little doubt that official dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the Russian Orthodox Church remains suspended. The night before the convocation, Metropolitan Hilarion met with representatives from the Anglican Church in North America.
“On behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church, I would like to underscore that we remain fully committed to dialogue with the Anglican Church and will do all that depends on us to make this dialogue continue,” Hilarion said in that meeting. “We feel, however, that many of our Anglican brothers and sisters betray our common witness by departing from traditional Christian values and replacing them by modern secular standards in ‘the spirit of the time,’ Zeitgeist.”
Steve Waring is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.
Sidebar: Back to the 1662 Text
Even people who have never read the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are familiar with its phrases and perhaps some of its prayers. It is “one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language,” historian Diarmaid MacCulloch says in an essay by James Wood in the Oct. 22 issue of The New Yorker.
Although most Anglican churches use approved alternative prayer books, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer remains the official version of the Church of England and a singular Anglican standard.
The 1662 BCP stands as “the rock from which most all other prayer books in the Anglican Communion were hewn,” explains the Rev. Andrew Mead, because it “contains elements which, like so many phrases in the Authorized King James Version of the Bible, are permanent gems within English-speaking Christianity.” Mead, rector of St. Thomas Church Fifth Ave. in New York City, was the guest preacher Oct. 24 for the final event of Nashotah House Theological Seminary’s year-long observance of the prayer book’s 350th anniversary.
Fr. Mead proposed that 1662’s service of Evening Prayer may be the best way to attract spiritual seekers to Anglican worship.
“At St. Thomas Church in Manhattan we have a choral foundation, a residential choir school and an acclaimed Choir of Men and Boys who sing five choral services each week,” he said. “These services draw between 100 and 200 people on average — that is between 400 and 500 … each week in addition to Sunday morning. Those who attend are friends from other churches, workers at the end of the day, tourists, seekers, lookers and wanderers.”
Part of the continuing popularity of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is the ease with which the prose, especially the canticles, can be set to music. As proof of the prayer book’s enduring appeal, Fr. Mead mentioned that new music continues to be set to Cranmer’s liturgy.
Ironically, while Thomas Cranmer set out to write in the language of the ordinary people, its seeming foreignness today helps attract growing numbers of youth, especially in college towns.
“Anglicanism clearly has developed and will develop other forms beyond” the 1662 prayer book, Fr. Mead said. “Yet that old book, written in the ear of Shakespeare, retains a voice that abides in English religion and literature. Its phrases still feed and warm the soul; they are, in a word, memorable. And because they are memorable, they attract.
“We have found, as have the English cathedrals, that appropriate use of the old BCP has a way of attracting young people and helping with church growth. Listen to what the grandchildren say when they discover the wonders hidden in the attic in their grandparents’ house. They rediscover old things and see them as new, refreshing and delightful. The Good News of Jesus Christ should be just that.”