Teva: First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time for this interview and for sharing your thoughts with the readers of the St. Nina Quarterly.
You grew up in an enclave made up primarily of Romanian immigrants in a small town in New England - a type of environment that is increasingly rare for many Orthodox Christians living in non-Orthodox countries. How did the experience of growing up in an ethnic "village" help to shape your life in the Church?
Fr. Nick: What it did was that it taught me a kind of organic faith. I didn't learn about the faith through books. It was a living experience - you saw it; there were a lot of teachers around - it was constantly talked about. It gave me a sense of Orthodoxy as more than simply rules, although in every traditional society we get taught all these "rules," but you could see that there were nuances to it. It was mostly the nuances that I took away.
T.: I can remember being surrounded by an extended family where everyone in the community took responsibility for you, especially the older women. Do you have any such experiences?
Fr. N.: That was a very interesting part of it. I grew up in a triple-decker house with not only my "nuclear" family but with two other families who were also Romanian. I played with their kids, and there was this idea that any older person had the right to reprimand you - unquestioned. They not only reprimanded but instructed - there was a lot of learning going on. Although your parents were your primary moral authority, they were not your only moral authority.
T.: Did that also extend to your experience in the Church?
Fr. N.: Absolutely. I think that the greatest crisis that the Orthodox Church in this country is facing is the breakdown of the "grandmother" network. Aside from the superstitions they brought, they taught a faith beyond the "rulebook." A lot of what may be missing for newer converts or even those who have grown up in the faith is that they are missing the nuances of the faith. One experience: I was a teenager, fasting, hard-minded, and as a result kind of crabby. One old lady said to me (even though she could not read and write): "All your fasting is for nothing for what comes out of your mouth!" I was taken aback. She continued, (citing the canons of the Church, although since she couldn't read she would never actually have read them) "You know, if you kill yourself from fasting, you are not allowed to be buried in the Church. This is suicide." A very sophisticated interpretation of the discipline of fasting and its benefits from a woman who in another context would be considered ignorant and illiterate. Of course, she wasn't ignorant. The faith is passed on this way by example - like from the readings of the Fathers of the Church - in a lived experience. When you are actually confronting problems of daily life, you are getting these little instructions that teach you the deeper meaning of what is going on.
T.: Certainly, they were imparting the wisdom of their experience.
You have been involved in pan-Orthodox work - serving on the Study and Planning Commission of SCOBA and, on a more local level, helping to establish the Holy Trinity Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Worcester, Massachusetts.
With more and more adult children, especially women of the "middler" generation, finding themselves in the role of caretaker for elderly parents, do you think the Church has a special responsibility to address the issues concerning the care of the elderly in our society?
Fr. N.: Definitely - care of everyone but especially the elderly. When we were pulling together the nursing home in Worcester we were building the next level of an institution that the Church should have in any culture. [See related article in our Fall 1998 issue.] The Orthodox Church was the institution that invented ideas like orphanages, old age homes, hospices, etc. In America we need to take this on, not only for ourselves but as a sign for the rest of society. I read somewhere that the highest title of the Byzantine emperor was philanthropos, which was a title given to God: the lover of humanity. The Byzantines judged the civility of other societies/cultures by how they treated the least fortunate. If they treated them well, then it was a civilized society. If they didn't, then they were uncivilized - they were barbarians.
T.: There is certainly something to be said about that for our own society.
The Orthodox Church has been involved in the ecumenical dialogue for many years, mainly through our participation in the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
Although our participation in both the NCC and WCC has provoked a certain amount of criticism from within the Church, our membership in these organizations has provided a forum for interaction not only with other denominations, but, perhaps most important, with Orthodox churches around the world. Additionally, the WCC has sponsored a number of conferences for women of the Eastern Christian Churches - at Agapia Monastery in Romania in 1976 and, more recently, in Damascus and Istanbul. [See coverage of these conferences in earlier issues of the Quarterly.]
As a member of the WCC's Unit I commission, do you see benefits for the Orthodox in continuing the dialogue?
Fr. N.: In general, dialogue has happened from the very beginning. The apostles were brought up on charges that they dialogued with the Sanhedrin. When Paul went to Athens, he looked for commonality with the Athenians. There was a constant attempt to dialogue with pagan Rome. They didn't set themselves up to be hostile or exclusive. I could site numerous examples. Throughout history, the Church has always tried to dialogue with those whom they felt were not adhering to the tenets of the faith.
In the current manifestation of the ecumenical dialogue, we Orthodox were there from the very beginning. We helped form the WCC. While the early optimism has been replaced by pessimism as to what can actually be accomplished, I would ask: What is the alternative to dialogue? - Hostility, polemics, isolation, war? [the religious dimension to the World War I and II] The rationale that is given for not engaging in dialogue is that somehow the faith is being sold out and compromised. I've been involved in this dialogue for almost twenty years - and I know people who have been engaged longer than that - and I don't see it. If you look over the historical record over the past hundred years, there is no instance of Orthodox selling the faith. My reason for participating, and the reason of the majority of the Orthodox theologians who are engaged in this dialogue is to heal the divisions and separations within the Church. This is something we are called to by God. The Lord came Himself to heal the divisions within human society. This is our call as Christians. We need to do this.
T.: Our involvement was certainly beneficial even to ourselves. When large parts of the Orthodox world were under Soviet domination, this was their opportunity not only to dialogue with other Christian denominations but with the other Orthodox churches as well.
Fr. N.: Right, one of the things our participation in the dialogue provided was the opportunity for the Orthodox churches that had been separated (physically) to meet on a regular basis and to enter into dialogue. I think a lot of the renewal within Orthodoxy can be traced to these sorts of meetings. Even more, our engagement in the healing of the division between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox can be traced to these ecumenical encounters. We came to see that the divisions that we had been living with could be overcome. Separation and division are funny things. You can either look for reasons to be divided or reasons to be united. Historically, the divisions of the past had many causes. Sometimes they were theological and sometimes not - political, caused by sin, economics, nationalism, etc. We need to take a hard look at that.
For the women's issue. . . I think one of the things that the engagement with the WCC has done has forced us to look at all of these issues in a new way.
A lot of the issues around women are socially based, so that the Church has certainly reinforced certain conceptions about the role of women, but a lot of those are rooted in particular cultures. If you read Byzantine history, though, Byzantine women were not conforming to the kind of image that is being touted today as the "archetypal role of women in the Church ordained by God." You had Byzantine empresses. You had lots of powerful women in powerful positions. The abbesses of monasteries were very powerful people and continue to be. Even the role of the wife of the priest within parish life is a very powerful sort of thing. I don't understand a lot of the times what people mean when they talk about the "traditional role for women in the Church." It seems to me rather ironic that they have imported "Western" ideas because they are simply conservative - they have done what a lot of people coming into Orthodoxy have done: they read Orthodoxy as a "traditional faith" and then begin to employ conservative, Western typologies to what is traditional, and in doing that impose all of these sorts of things on the Orthodox Church.
T.: It certainly seems like a lot of the questions about women's participation in the Church have come mainly from non-Orthodox denominations. Although these questions have come from outside the Church, do you believe the Church has responded adequately to some of these important issues?
Fr. N.: Not yet. I think that there is a great reluctance to let this one go because of the fear of a "slippery slope": There is a fear that if you allow more roles for women in the Church, then somehow immediately there will be women priests. Now, the priesthood is something that we have to look at as well. I don't think that we have come up with an adequate reason why there should or shouldn't be women priests. I don't think any of the arguments that have been forwarded work. The one thing I do know is that God created men and women as men and women for a purpose, and I think that is the starting point for any discussion. He didn't create them different and unequal - but different within one humanity. Humanity is not complete unless there are both men and women. You need to look at that and see what that says about how we are to construct our existence within the Church and outside.
T.: Setting aside the question of the priesthood, which seems to be such a charged issue, the 1988 Women's Consultation of Rhodes [a major international Orthodox conference on women's participation in the Church] called for women's participation in the "minor" orders of the Church - altar servers, blessed readers, subdeacons, etc. That has been ten years ago now. . .
Fr. N.: Yes, and nothing has happened. This is actually a larger problem with the Church - not simply on women's issues but on many issues. We have a crisis in our ecclesiology. The same thing with women's issues. There are these things that are not theological controversies - not the nature of Christ or issues like that. These are mainly practical issues, and we just can't seem to come to a decision. There is no mechanism to do that. Nevertheless, all of these meetings have their effect. The effect that they have is that they begin to change the terms of the discussion, while practice changes slowly, which is kind of the Orthodox way. Practice changes as a result of other forces, and people look back and say, "OK, now we need to bless this." That is probably the best way to do it. You see what actually works. There is a kind of practical aspect to it.
T.: In this issue we have included your article on the use of language in the Church. Many of the faithful, particularly a number of women, feel that the language and imagery of the Church's worship can seem rather foreign to them. In some cases it is literally in a foreign language, in others it may be the use of poor translations or archaic English that is either difficult to understand or may make them feel invisible. (For example, praying for "all men," "fathers and brothers" but not mentioning all women, mothers and sisters.) How can the Church address the issues of language and imagery in our services as means for authentic worship?
Fr. N.: I think by just doing good translations. I think it is that simple. If you look at the original text, everything is there. We don't have to invent anything. If one does the translation well then all the elements are there - all the imagery, everything. . . . The original text is ambiguous in terms of gender. For instance the Romanian word parenti. Parenti means parents; not just fathers, necessarily; it means everybody who came before you. [Through the prayers of our holy fathers (and mothers). . . [See related article on page 9.]] The difficulty is within English. For whatever reason, English developed a kind of particular gender-specific kind of language without declensions that is not characteristic of the Greek original. . . . Don't transport yourself to Elizabethan England and try to be an Elizabethan. I don't know how you translate into a "living" language that is not being used anymore. The texts should be translated into our current idiom using the talents of philosophers, poets, scholars, hymnographers, etc. . . .
The other thing is to begin to look at the whole range of services. We have focused on a couple of services, but there really is a multitude of services out there for a multitude of different needs. We need to look at what they are. Then it is appropriate to begin to construct new services. My liturgics professor said to me that the worst thing that ever happened to liturgical reform was the printing press. You begin to see a rigidity of liturgical forms with the advent of the printing press. Services begin to be standardized. Adaptation to a given locale begins to cease. Maybe with the advent of desktop publishing we can go back to that. But mostly what you need to do is just translate well. If we did that then 75 percent of the problems would be solved in terms of relevance, language, inclusivity, etc.
T.: What do you see as some of the pressing issues or concerns for women in the Church today?
F. N.: I think that in America (I can't speak to other cultures), given the high involvement of women in society and the highly differentiated roles within the Church, the crisis for women is going to be to find a place within the Church that is at once fulfilling and important, and one that doesn't create a backlash, given the distortion of the professionalization of the clergy and its all male character. It would probably help if there were more shared responsibility within the parish. I can see this within my own parish. Yes, I am the priest of the parish (the presiding head), but the parish council is made up of a relatively equal number of men and women. I've had women as parish council presidents. We discuss everything as a parish council - spiritual matters, financial matters, a whole range of issues. Everyone is involved in the administration of the parish. . . . People should be able to participate freely in the life of the Church.
T.: Once again, I would like to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. In closing, what are your hopes for the Quarterly as we continue our journey?
F. N.: Hopes. . . I hope it continues. There needs to be this voice. There needs to be more vehicles out there that approaches these issues in a balanced way. So, that is my hope - that it continues.