Orthodox Archbishop shares perspective on worship

by Annika Bjornson | Staff Writer

Whitworth recently welcomed Archbishop Benjamin, who oversees the Diocese to the West within the Orthodox Church in America, to campus for an event that coincides with the “People of the Book” exhibit in the library. About 85 attendees showed up in Weyerhaeuser 111 on Monday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. to hear the speaker, who drew a wide variety of students, faculty and local Orthodox Christians.  

The archbishop, who has a master’s in divinity with a specialization in liturgical music, was invited by Whitworth’s library, history department and business school to speak at, “the last of four talks that will take place during the fall semester focusing on the liturgical traditions of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions,” according to Whitworth’s Oct 10 press release about the event.

Tim Wilkinson, dean of the school of business and a pastor at St. Luke Orthodox Christian Church, introduced the speaker.

“Clergy in the diocese of the west very much appreciate him, particularly for his informal and personal style which is infused with humor,” Wilkinson said.

Indeed a humorous speaker, the archbishop started off the night with the remark that, looking around the room, I can tell there’s nothing else happening in town tonight.” He stated that his goals were to introduce the Orthodox Church and the tradition of liturgy as a central part of Christian worship.

The Orthodox Church considers itself to be a family of eastern churches from the ancient Roman empire, established by the apostles and brought to the U.S. through a Russian mission established in Alaska. Though very similar to Catholicism, the Orthodox Church lacks a centralized authority like the Pope in Rome. Their structure of worship is based on a liturgical template that has been pre-planned for centuries and consists of 24 service books for any given year.

Archbishop Benjamin focused on how these liturgical traditions shape the texts of the Orthodox Church.

“What’s most important: the Bible or the tradition?,” said Archbishop Benjamin. “I would say that is a false construction […] Who says that the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are gospels and Thomas isn’t? It’s the church […] so, the gospel books are enthroned, much like the Torah in the synagogue.”

History professor Dr. Tony Clark, who is an Eastern Rite Catholic, was part of the group that invited this speaker.

“My take on that talk was how good it was to hear someone connecting Christian worship to the worship of the Jews before Christ, to study this continuity,” said Clark. “I was also very interested in how the various questions centered on different issues. You had the one question that was about scripture by an evangelical Christian, another question about the missionary enterprise by an evangelical Christian, and then a question about councils from someone who was either Orthodox or Catholic. So what was interesting to me was that people were bringing interests to the lecture that were based upon their denominational difference.”

Sophomore Jenna Breedlove noted the big emphasis on tradition and how routine plays an important role in the faith of Orthodox Christian worship.

“The church I go to now is almost different every service,” Breedlove said. “There is no routine really, and while I’ve been enjoying that, after this lecture I would really like to go to a more formal service.”

Archbishop Benjamin joked, “How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a lightbulb?,” to which he answered, “Change?”

The “People of the Book: Christian Worship in Codex and Print” exhibit in the library has been up since Aug. 1, had its opening ceremony on Sep. 19, and will run until Jan. 31, 2020. Curated by Gary Paul Zagelow and Dr. Anthony Clark, it “seeks to underscore the rich tapestry of the textual and artistic legacy that has marked two millennia of praise in honor of God,” according to its description.

Library director Amanda Clark, whose Ph.D. in communication in library information services focused on artists’ books, serves as the host of the exhibit. One of her favorite interactions with the exhibit was when English professor Leonard Oakland took a group of students to lead a tour through it.

“Exhibits are a great piece of what libraries do that a lot of other people may not think about immediately, but […] these kinds of things are just part of the heartbeat of what a library is, having exhibits that celebrate the book, and knowledge, and wisdom, is a center of what we do,” said Clark.

Her husband, Tony Clark, hopes that people will take advantage of the exhibit while it is here.

“I hope people go to the exhibit and look at the texts because we live in a digital era, and when you think about how Christians have worshipped for 2,000 years, Christians have had books and suddenly have PowerPoints,” Tony Clark said. “What does it mean to be people of the book when we are people of the PowerPoint?”

The exhibit will remain open until Jan. 31 for Tony Clark’s Jan term course, A History of Christian Worship.