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Sunday, January 15, 2017

What will become of my children?

A challenge to all Orthodox Christians who are concerned about the young


What will become of my children? Every responsible parent asks this question at some point as their children grow older. We want our children to grow up safe and free, as healthy as possible in body, mind and spirit and to make the best use of their God-given gifts. If we are Orthodox Christians we also want our children to come to know Christ personally and in the Church. We know that the Church is the ark of salvation and that the spiritual safety of our children therefore depends on their remaining in the Church through all the stages of life from the cradle to the grave. What we may not know as Orthodox Christians is that here and there, but not everywhere, we are failing our children.

That seems quite shocking, and it is, but it is nonetheless true. A whole generation or more is being lost to the Church and the root of this problem can be traced way back to infancy in churchgoing families. Going back further than one generation reveals a longer term and growing problem, a problem of unchurched adults whose children will show little prospect of finding salvation because they see in their parents a lack of concern for their own. Some of these issues faced by the Orthodox Church are shared with other Christian churches and mainly concern the secularising forces of our post-Christian culture. In this article I do not intend to deal with these issues but rather with those special matters of concern in the Orthodox Church with reference to the younger children of churchgoing parents. When these children grow into their teens, and certainly when they leave home, they are being lost to the Church. Why is this so?

Growing up as a Christian in the British Isles and Ireland in the 21st century is a testing time for many young people. Until 2007 I taught Religious Education to 11 to 16-year-olds in both Church schools (Roman Catholic and Anglican) and State schools. In the Church schools, and even in predominantly Christian areas, the average number of young people with any contact with any church rarely exceeded 6 out of a class of 30.  Of those, perhaps only two or three would have any commitment to Christ and that commitment would be quite fragile. Among their school friends, attitudes to Christianity would vary from puzzlement through derision to outright hostility. A young Christian person's faith needed to be quite strong and reasonably well-informed.   Their character had also to be quite robust and independent to withstand the mocking of their friends.

If you are reading this and you are an Orthodox Christian parent having settled here in the British Isles and Ireland over the last 20 years or more, you may be quite shocked by my account. You may be aware of the hostility to Christianity, or at best the incomprehension of it among your adult non-religious friends but for your children, well-being and happiness at school will probably involve a desperate desire to keep their churchgoing secret from their friends. The long-term effect of this social pressure and the relentless attacks on Christianity in society eventually take their toll spiritually on young lives.

Imagine now that as Orthodox Christian parents you are insisting that your children catch your own faith in Church in a language other than English. Of course, many children of Orthodox Christian families recently settled here are bilingual and so you may think that there is no harm in using a language other than English in the services or in Christian teaching. Your children understand, as you do, so where's the harm? Well, I suppose there is no harm if you are only going to live here for a few years and that you then intend as a family to move back to your country of origin. However, many Orthodox Christian families do not find themselves in this position or indeed do not intend to leave this country. They anticipate that they will be living here for the long term or maybe their short-term goals of return are unrealistic. What then? What message does a refusal to use English in church give to young people, particularly as they enter their teenage years?

Difficult and painful though this might be to accept, the message you are giving to your children is that this Christian faith, this Orthodox Christian faith, is indelibly linked to the country in which you grew up.   This robs your children of the possibility of connecting to Christ through Orthodoxy directly in and through the indigenous culture and language of these Isles. Your children's Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, atheist and agnostic friends, with whom they socialise on a daily basis at school if nowhere else, will share similar backgrounds, situations and challenges. Religious sentiments, insofar as they are respected at all in this wider youth subculture, will be identified as what mum and dad do when they seek in their religious practice to revert to forms familiar from their own youth in the 'homeland'. As such this faith will seem increasingly very distant to them as their social environment and personal identity draws them away from their childhood experience in the Church. Into adulthood they are much less likely to go to Church on a regular basis and by the time they have children of their own a second generation will be well on its way to being lost. Of course, some will be picked up by Protestant and evangelical sects and I suppose that this is better than falling off the spiritual map entirely; but what do we really think we are doing when, as Orthodox Christians, we not only accept this situation but also consciously decide to do things that make it more likely to happen? Mistakenly, perhaps, we think that if only our children can be kept in a sort of Orthodox "bubble" where the language, culture and expression of faith is so far removed from that outside the walls of the church, then all will be well. It is precisely this attitude, however, that causes the problem in the first place and yet we do not see it!  Why do we not see it? I believe that there are two main reasons.

The first reason has more apparent religious respectability to it as an argument, but actually it is heretical. This is the idea that Britain, lacking a decent Orthodox Christian culture, (which certainly cannot be contested), is actually a danger zone from which our children must, at all costs, be protected. The argument goes that the only way of protecting them is to keep them in the Orthodox Bubble with its self-contained language and culture from the homeland.  In some jurisdictions, even communities with predominantly indigenous converts are pressured by hierarchs to create their own ersatz Orthodox bubble and this has the extraordinary effect of some UK born citizens adopting an alternative pretend persona as pseudo-Greeks, Russians, Romanians, Arabs etc. However, this reason for creating an Orthodox bubble is heretical not only because it is a betrayal of the equality of all nations as God's creation but it is also a betrayal of hope that the gospel is indeed for all nations and all cultures. As Orthodox Christians we are obliged - it is not a choice, it is a command of the gospel itself - we are obliged to communicate and live out the gospel in the society, culture and indigenous language in which we live. To imply that this is not possible is to reduce the Church to being a museum or protectorate of certain privileged cultures and languages deemed to be safely Orthodox in contrast and opposition to others deemed to be incapable of becoming Orthodox Christian. If that were true, St Paul would have never taken the gospel to the Gentiles and the Church would have remained a Jewish sect, initially confined to the Middle East and then dispersed as the Jews have been throughout the centuries to this day. When speaking of my own jurisdiction (Antioch), if anyone in this Church subscribed to such horrendous views then this would constitute a gross betrayal of the foundation of the Antiochian Church in apostolic times when this Church became the first base 'par excellence' of that mission to the Gentiles commanded by God himself.

The second reason for the inability of some Orthodox to understand their own complicity in losing generations of young people to the heterodox or secularity concerns something pastoral and psychological.  This often exists alongside the first reason as a disguised primary motivation and it concerns a bereavement. Now this might strike you as somewhat strange, since we normally associate grief with the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship or the loss of a job. There is however another grief, a cultural one and an aspect of one's personal identity and nationality. This grief occurs often in the first generation of immigrant families and because the clergy who minister to these families often share the same sense of dislocation and bereavement in the loss of a homeland, the grieving process becomes stuck and people find it very difficult to adapt and to feel at home in their new country of residence. In these circumstances, the Church can provide a little relief from this distress when, for a time every week, the community can suppose (inside the Orthodox Bubble) that it is still in the homeland with its accustomed culture, language and customs.  This dysfunctional response can be reinforced by the more negative aspects of multiculturalism which suppose that the best way to ensure diversity is to encourage the maintenance of lots of little bubbles of culture and language, religious and non-religious, whereas in fact, diversity only works well when those languages and culture are shared and fed into national life. However, as far as the life of the Church is concerned, this unresolved bereavement, this dislocation of cultural identity, explains the fierce resistance exhibited by some Orthodox communities, to any process of indigenisation within Church life.  The most disastrous aspect of this is the refusal to use the English language in worship and teaching which is the only guarantee that our young people will be sufficiently equipped through understanding the faith in order to practice it and witness to Christ through it.

At this point in the article is it important to refer back to my earlier comments about why it is that Orthodox teens so easily fall away from Church. It is not, of course, the case that an overnight switch to the use of English in our services will somehow 'magic' these teens and young adults back into the Church and prevent the long-term decline that we are now seeing. However, it might just help to prevent a third generation going the same way if we take prompt action now. We may not see the benefit for at least 10 years but within that same period and without this prompt action the losses to our membership among the young will only continue to accelerate.

This article, therefore, is a no holds barred, blunt warning and call to action to those Orthodox Christian communities who think that keeping things as they are in the Orthodox Bubble is in any way a viable option for the Church into the future. It is not. Failure to act now, before it is too late, will leave our children outside the Church as they grow up and condemn Orthodoxy in the West to a slow and lingering death. Any Orthodox happy to stay in their comfort zones on this basis are complicit through their inaction and unwillingness to adapt with a betrayal of the very gospel itself and as such they will be judged.  When therefore we ask: "what will become of our children?" let us be sure that we respond with positive strategies aimed at keeping them in the Church so that through their witness and ours this nation may be won again for Christ.  Since the Ascension of our Lord this call to teach, baptise and make disciples among all nations has been and always will remain our joyful duty until Christ comes again.  If we don't start by discharging our duty to our own children, what chance is there that we will come anywhere close to fulfilling the Great Commission?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Orthodox Great and Holy Week Services: The Need for Reform


Every year I am asked by some faithful Orthodox why it is that we change the "traditional" times of some of our Great and Holy Week services.  Actually, the reason is that what happens elsewhere is not traditional at all and suffers from some grave defects. Why then do we have the service times as we do in Great and Holy Week?  In our parish in Manchester we do something quite extraordinary.  We celebrate Vesperal services in the evening!


(1)  We serve the Holy Thursday Vesperal Liturgy of the Last Supper (as its title suggests!) on Holy Thursday EVENING, not in the morning.

(2)  We serve the Holy Saturday Vesperal Liturgy (as its title suggests!) on Holy Saturday EVENING, not in the morning. 

The only other change is the placing of the 12 Gospel Matins of Holy Friday on Friday morning rather than on the Thursday evening.

The original Greek word is "Orthros" meaning "dawn" or "daybreak."  In monasteries this ends the Night Vigil and is served to conclude with the rising of the sun.  In parishes, since few people would attend at 4am-5am in the morning, it is either served in the evening after Vespers (Slav tradition) or in the morning before the Liturgy (Greek tradition).  Each option in the parishes is either earlier or later than it should be out of practical and pastoral necessity. 

In Great and Holy Week it is perfectly acceptable to serve the various Matins Services either in the late evening of the day before or in the early morning of the correct day.  Usually the evening before is the pattern adopted in most places.  This then is the usual schedule for Matins:

Holy Monday Bridegroom Matins is served on Sunday evening.
Holy Tuesday Bridegroom Matins is served on Monday evening
Holy Wednesday Bridegroom Matins is served on Tuesday evening.
Holy Thursday Matins of Divine Healing and the Blessing of the Oils is served on Wednesday evening.
Holy Friday Matins of the 12 Passion Gospels is served on Thursday evening.
Holy Saturday (Lamentation) Matins is served on Friday evening.

The one Matins service we do change at St. Aidan's is the timing of the Holy Friday Matins of the 12 Passion Gospels which is served here on Holy Friday morning.... which, as I have shown, is entirely acceptable since Matins can be served either in the evening or in the morning.  But why, you may say, do we change that?  The explanation for this lies in the need to adjust the Vesperal Liturgies - to which I referred at the beginning of this explanation. 

We therefore now consider the two vesperal services.

Clearly if the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Thursday is to be served on Thursday EVENING the 12 Gospel Matins of Holy Friday has to be moved to its alternative position on Holy Friday morning.  But why do we serve the Vesperal Liturgies in the evening not the morning?

Well the first and most important reason is that they were written as VESPERAL Liturgies, that is, evening Liturgies based on Vespers.  Nowhere else in the Church's year has it been considered correct to move Vespers to the morning! Everyone can get to Church in the evening after all and prayers that refer to the sun going down and the night are clearly not designed to be used in broad daylight!

The second reason for not serving these Liturgies in the morning is historical.

The Last Supper (Holy Thursday's Liturgy) was celebrated by Christ with His disciples in the evening.  The Eucharist is NOT simply a repetition of the Last Supper so we usually have Liturgies in the morning to celebrate the resurrection of Christ … after that is the rising of the sun with its attendant symbolism.   However the Institution of the Last Supper in Holy Week is different.  The context is the evening..... which is why the Church assigns a Vesperal Liturgy with its associated prayers of the evening.

With reference to the Holy Saturday Liturgy the reason is historical also.  Originally this Vesperal Liturgy was the actual Liturgy of Pascha.  This is difficult to believe I know, but it is true.  The clue is in the 15 Old Testament readings which were designed to be read throughout the night BEFORE THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES! 

Sometime in the Middle Ages, perhaps because some people were too lazy or indifferent to come to Church late on Saturday and into the early hours of Sunday, this Liturgy was moved onto the morning of the same day, (the same happened to the Holy Thursday Liturgy).  This really was a nonsense since it destroyed the integrity and completeness of the Paschal Vigil.  Of course the Church did not abandon the Vigil, but the removal of the Vespers part meant that it started with the Acts of the Apostles reading before the Midnight Vigil which precedes both Paschal Matins and the Paschal Liturgy.  So, here you can see that two Liturgies were unnecessarily and confusingly created out of the original one.

Well, we could just accept what happened and leave this orphaned Vesperal Liturgy hanging there out of place in the morning OR we could at least restore it to the early evening, especially since in parish practice the 15 readings have often been shortened to 3.  This is what we do at St. Aidan's.  It has the merit of being a conservative change in the timing and not the content of the service.  This, however, can only be a transitional temporary change on the way to restoring the integrity of the original single complete Paschal Vigil.  That would require the removal of the Eucharistic content of the present Vesperal Liturgy thereby allowing Vespers to rejoin the EXISTING Paschal Vigil.  The Old Testament readings would then immediately precede the reading of the Acts of the Apostles before the Night Office and Matins followed on.  This is the true liturgical reform that we actually need from our bishops and it is long, long overdue.  In the meantime we do what we can at St. Aidan's to respect the original integrity of the Paschal celebration.

For more information about the historical development of the services of Great and Holy Week and Pascha please consult this by the late great Orthodox liturgical scholar, Fr. Gregory Woolfenden, especially his final paragraph entitled: "An Afterthought" which contains this amusing reference:

"I do not think that it might be heresy to suggest that Matins be served in the morning and Vespers in the evening."  Quite so!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why the Arabs themselves must resist Islamic Fundamentalism


Well, we are now on the brink of a third Gulf War with no end in sight. Political and military commentators will be working overtime and acres of print will be written contesting the question: “will Western intervention work or not?”  Important though this is for the West and global security there are other issues here of primary importance which are rarely discussed.

The West will no doubt face acts of terrorism on an ongoing basis but these will not destroy our culture and civilisation. However, unchecked ISIS will destroy Arab civilisation. Arab peoples and other ethnicities in the Middle East now need to ask some deep and searching questions of themselves. Do they want to preserve and defend the legacy of medieval Islamic culture in the arts and sciences through the turbulence of this era and into the third millennium or are they going to surrender passively, or indeed actively to religious barbarism?

The high point of Islam in global terms was not the bloody expansion of the Arab tribes into the Eastern Roman Empire in the seventh century but rather what the descendants of those tribes achieved in more peaceful times in subsequent centuries. If once again Arab, and specifically Islamic Arab culture, is to become a blessing rather than a curse for humankind then its leaders and peoples have some hard choices to make, which initially will lead to severe internal conflicts.

These choices are severely practical in nature. They involve Muslims fighting against Muslims, sadly, not only and necessarily in tanks and bombers and with guns and grenades, but also at some point with councils and dialogue, with open hands and peaceful hearts, a more costly jihad   In this cultural “war” between resurgent Islamic fundamentalism and the more cultured, peaceful expressions of Islam, (which the world would rightly welcome), the West needs to gain new friends and new partners.

At the moment we have a more immediate problem, “who is fighting whom?” We hear much of the new coalition of the willing but decent, peaceful Arab Islamic peoples need now to stand up and be counted. The West cannot allow a situation to develop whereby it fights their war against barbarism, not only for them but also instead of them. Yes, this will draw the snipers crosshairs onto the House of Saud and the Gulf States themselves, but this will happen soon enough anyway.

We need to see in the West that these countries are indeed pulling their weight in the military war and in the cultural war. If not, we should pull out while there is still time. What is at stake here is the survival of Arab civilisation and culture and in the end only Arabs can both address and defend that for themselves.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Guilty Little Secret

I grew up at a time when anything to do with Russia was inherently suspect and dangerous.  Anyone who read the "Morning Star" (a Marxist newspaper) was suspected of treachery.  Covert surveillance of the hard left in Britain was (and probably still is) commonplace.   If you were Labour then you read the Mirror; Tory? the Times or the Telegraph for you; Liberal? the Guardian of course.  This was a time when there were just 3 TV channels ... BBC 1, BBC2 and ITV.  Then there were "D" notices ... the State denying publication under the Official Secrets Act (a sort of Wikileaks before Wikileaks).  Public opinion was sustained by very limited media input and options.  All that changed with Cable TV and the Internet.

There were of course losses as well as gains.  The reliability of news on line was and is questionable.  In some ways opportunities for propaganda distortion and just plain dotty fancifulness have grown exponentially. However, the real game changers have been choice and access.  Today mostly everyone (except perhaps in China and Iran) can read whatever they want to read by way of news content and comment.

Shall I share with you my guilty secret?  It amuses me that today I tend to trust RT (Russia Today) more than I trust SKY and even the BBC.  Of course there is spin on RT just as much as there is spin anywhere else.  It's just that their take on the news is a healthy corrective to what would otherwise be a very unbalanced monochrome western perspective on home and world events.

Interestingly, when I talk to my friends I discover that they also watch RT.  It hugely amuses me that what the Politburo in Moscow could never achieve through Pravda after the War is now much more easily achieved (influence in the west that is) through the application of a little modern technology.  No wonder totaliltarian regimes everywhere try and control and even throttle information exchange on the internet.  The satellite dish has become the great democratic leveller.  The people really are in charge now.  It's just the politicians that need to catch up.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A lesson from history ....

The Peace of Westphalia ended the 30 Years War, a sectarian religious conflict that ravaged Europe in the mid seventeenth century. It  established a principle of international law persisting to this day that Mr. Hague would do well to revisit.  A sovereign state may not suffer military intervention from another state on account of internal domestic conflicts.  It was the lack of such a tempering principle that spread sectarian violence throughout Europe at the time.  
So, no matter how horrific the events inside Syria, proxy wars on behalf of combatants always spill over into regional conflicts (don't feed the terrorists) and can even lead to wider international conflicts.  Remember that we declared war on Germany only when it invaded Poland.  However, I am NOT saying that we shouldn't have done so if Nazism had confined itself to internal German affairs rather than try to build the Third Empire.  Systematic mass killing and genocide must always be resisted BUT (and we should take lessons from Iraq and WMD) only with due authority (one of the priniciples of a "just war.")  
Once again the US and the UK are beginning to act alone.  Short of a UN declaration, the Syrian government is the legitimate authority in Syria.  If there is a credible alternative to the present regime, colluding with armed insurrection and risking military hardware falling into the hands of jihadists is not the way to provide it.  
Yes, it's horrible to see so much suffering in Syria but the choice is whether we want to see yet more suffering by external as well as internal escalation.  The west needs to work with Russia in bringing the combatants to the peace table.  If Russia is arming the government rather than the militias, however unpalatable that might be to some, it has international law on its side.  This is not about sentiment but rather a hard nosed assessment of what will lead to a cessation of the violence and, thereafter, contribute to the long and hard business of healing wounds and building peace.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sleep Walking toward the Abyss

A fire is raging. What do you do? Well, you get some petrol (gasoline) and you simply chuck it onto the flames.  Absurd isn't it?  And yet that is what many non-Syrian nations with their own agendas have been doing for the last 3 years.  America is simply late to the infernal party.

Desperate to see the "rebels" prevail with the Syrian government now pushing back into the "rebel" held north there are some in Washington and London who think that Assad can be eased out by threats and pea shooters. Maybe it's just for show; who knows.  What I do know is that "rebels" linked to Al Quaeda were apprehended at the end of May by Turkey in possession of a 2 Kg cannister of the sarin nerve agent that the west is now saying has been deployed by Syrian government forces, (WMD anyone?).  The Al Nusra linked faction was apparently planning to export its terror campaign into southern Turkey. Oh yes, and then there was that park in Istanbul.

Shouldn't we be more alert to what is going on here?  Terrorists always try and use violence to radicalise and divide otherwise peaceful movements so that the poison of their terror can spread by fear and loathing.  It matters little what the antagonists believe or what the colour of their politics or religion happens to be ... just exploit it.  Terrorism is always both parasitic and manipulative.  That's what they always want ... war; war on the streets, war between the nations ... war so they might prevail.

The Syrian conflict, aided and abetted by these demonic forces now has all the essential ingredients of an international conflict, seeded by a self righteous proxy war between the "not-so-great" world powers.  We may yet see a Third World War breaking out from this orchestrated nesting of evil.  The First World War started from an arguably much less contentious situation.  And what does the west do?  Divide the world up into goodies (the "rebels") and the baddies (the Syrian government). In this the hawks can always rely on the impressionable consciences of the liberal left.  Some American politicians are now actually talking about a "fair fight."  How on earth is this at all helpful in reducing tension, brokering peace and bringing the amenable to the table?  Arming one side against the other is just going to exacerbate and spread the conflict.  Israel is getting nervous, as is Turkey and Lebanon is already being dragged into the dark vortex of sectarian violence.

What we need now is less propaganda, less pulling at heart strings to justify violent intervention and more hard nosed, even handed diplomacy, eschewing self interest, intimidation and threats.  But who now has clean hands?  Everyone (just about) whiffs of petrol and most are standing far, far too close to the fire.  It does not look good.  It does not look good at all but there may as yet be enough time to stop this one spinning out of control.

Wake up!  Stop sleep walking toward the abyss!  Shut up ... stop performing to the media and your electorate and work hard, damned hard, for peace.  You know whom I'm talking to!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What to do about Syria

Western politicians mean well ... they are just naive.
Western politicians are duplicitous.  They manipulate events to their own advantage.

I have heard both comments from Christians in and from the Middle East.  The recent expiry of the arms embargo in the European Union means that the UK Government will soon be arming the anti-Government forces ... but WHICH anti-Government forces?  How will our Government ensure that its arms do not fall into the hands of jihadists?  Is there such a thing as a "good rebel" .... committed to freedom, democracy and a truly pluralistic Syria after Assad?

I personally believe that any military intervention by the west in Syria is at best unwise and potentially, disastrous.  This is rapidly becoming a proxy war between Arab States in the Middle East and their oil hungry western backers and a Russian-Iranian axis concerned to protect its own interests in the region.  It may may be a civil war at the moment but it has all the ingredients and precedents from history to become a regional then international conflict, even, God forbid, a Third World War.

Bashar in Damascus is not going to back down and his control of the south and readiness to retake the north is building momentum.  Iran is not going to walk away from the Middle East and Hezbollah will continue to mobilise with fellow Shiites and derivative sects against Sunni insurgencies in traditionally Shiite controlled areas from Baghdad to Beirut.  Western involvement in this mess is only going to make things worse ... and certainly for religious minorities such as Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

It is very easy of course to get people emoting on 24/7 western news channels about the truly terrible suffering in Syria and then use that as a mandate for military intervention. But, the "cure" must not be worse than the disease.  The so called rebels will never take Damascus and with the regime digging in and pushing back north to recoup their losses the straight choice is between the Balkanisation of Syria and attempting to foster its evolution towards an inclusive political settlement.

Only those with "clean hands" will be able to play a role in the second option, (the first is too terrible to contemplate).  Today the UK stands at the crossroads.  Will it genuinely become even handed and work with a coalition of the willing in Syria or will it tragically take sides - even more starkly than it has already done - and arguably make both the local and international situation much worse?

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