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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Dormition (15th August)

Although there is no historical record in Scripture concerning the death of our Lady, her repose is within the living memory of the Church and the revelation concerning these things imparted to us by God. On account of the lack of a primary witness in Scripture, however, the Dormition (Assumption) is not part of the public dogma of the Orthodox Church, (in the way it is with the Roman Catholic Church for example).

This does not mean that it is any less significant for us. Quite the contrary; the repose of the Theotokos is a great source of consolation and hope to us that we, with her, may enter the glory of the resurrection of her Son. The Dormition celebrates the great promise of the gospel that we may be glorified in Christ by living and dying well in the Faith and Life of the Church.

"Of the Church" is apposite here. Notice how the Church gathers around the bier of the Mother of God; St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem leads the assembled company with St. Peter presiding at the funeral rites. The saints of God and the angels join the company of praise and intercession. Christ Himself, carrying the soul of his Mother tenderly, (as tenderly as she once carried Him), is the glory and central focus of the icon in the mandorla of heaven.

The Mother of God is one of us, born into this world under sin and yet not sinning, (Orthodox do not believe in the Immaculate Conception of our Lady which has too much to do with distorted Augustinian understandings of the transmission of original sin). Her perfect obedience to the Word of God and her Son is the portal of her entry into the heavenly kingdom, the first of many to be glorified in Christ. Her ascension prefigures our own if we, by grace, achieve that purity of heart which is our transparency to God and His transparency to us whereby he deifies us. This purity is no mere moralism. It is a completely changed life which is capable of sharing in Christ's death-destroying life. Let us pray that we one day will be received by Christ even as here He receives His Blessed Mother, the Ever-Virgin Mary. Amen.


Coming back from a pilgrimage last weekend I took a parishioner to see a truly remarkable sight, a wayside shrine to Our Lady on the Derbyshire moors overlooking Errwood Hall above the Goyt Valley. The Grimshaws of Errwood Hall were a notable Victorian wealthy family who converted to Roman Catholicism and who endowed parishes in Buxton (St. Anne), Whaley Bridge, my hometown (Sacred Heart) and extraordinarily, Levenshulme, on the very road where our Orthodox Church now stands. St. Mary’s moved from Clare Road much later but there was a convent of poor Clares there at one time, hence the name.

I have known this shrine since my boyhood as I grew up in this area. It was only recently however that I became better acquainted with the history. It still moves me that such an eloquent witness to the Incarnation (so Orthodox in composition as well!) should stand on a busy tourist road leading down from the moor to the Goyt Valley below. It is immaculately maintained and always has fresh flowers in the niche. I can only surmise that some parishioners from St. Anne’s in Buxton keep it so; praise God.

Of course in Greece, Russia and Eastern Europe you see such shrines all the time although in Greece and in the Greek islands they usually have a much more sombre significance marking the places where drivers have plunged to their deaths from accident hotspots on dangerous roads. Nonetheless, the principle is the same. Mark the place. Make Christ, His Mother and the saints visible. Hallow the ground.

I was once at a meeting – I shouldn’t give too many details to maintain privacy – when a gentleman started complaining bitterly about the inappropriateness and “littering” nature of an improvised shrine on a local road erected by grieving relatives for the loss of a loved one in an accident. This astonished and saddened me. It wasn’t (isn’t I should say, it’s still maintained 2 years later) a religious shrine but the basic idea of keeping a light, flowers and a photograph in place is thoroughly Orthodox in ethos. It hallows the memory and connects not just the family but the community as a whole with a “presence in absence.” It is sacramental in character; it makes spiritual things visible in a society that is embarrassed by such a witness; an amnesiac culture that would rather efface all such reminders from its common mind.

It seems to me that we Orthodox (as well as any other Christians of like mind) should start to make the artefacts of our faith visible again. It might be the dynamic visibility of a public procession, the static witness of a permanent public shrine, the temporary imagery of our faith in the media. Of course, this will be resisted. Our increasingly hard bitten secular society would rather tear down such landmarks ... but time after time after time, we must rebuild them. Lest we forget.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Orthodoxy - the Glory and the Shame

By the grace of God I am an Orthodox Christian; moreover I am also by the grace of God a priest serving God and His People in this Church. It was not the church of my baptism, that being the Church of England whose priesthood I also served for 12 years before becoming Orthodox. Grateful as I am to God for my nurturing in the Christian faith within the Anglican Church, I am aware that the last 12 years of my growth in the Orthodox Church have exceeded all my expectations and established me more securely in this Church than any other. Indeed without intending to offend my fellow Christians in other churches I truly believe that this is the one holy catholic apostolic Church that we see in the New Testament and unfolded through Christ in the Old. I cannot even begin to imagine being anywhere else. I shall die in this Church.

I say this because I want you, dear reader, to understand how much the Orthodox Church means to me. It is here that I have discovered the full depth and riches of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is my God-bearing family, and I a sinner find myself here amongst saints. It is a humbling thing to come home to God in Orthodoxy, knowing that if I can only repent, I also shall see the glory of the Lord.

Please also understand that I am a thinking, feeling, striving man, flesh and blood. I did not leave my critical faculties, my God given mind at the door upon entering holy Orthodoxy. I am no crypto-fundamentalist. I submitted to God as one who heals and strengthens me, who calls upon me to love him with all my heart, my mind, my soul, my strength. I cannot do that if I am an automaton, if submission simply means blind belief, unquestioning practice and a disabled conscience. God did not give me all my faculties for them to remain dormant. Serving Him means using them, transformed by His grace to their fullest extent.

By now you are probably feeling that there is a gathering storm here; that Father has lost the plot, that he is going to instruct Orthodoxy rather than be instructed by Orthodoxy, that he is reverting to type; an anguished crypto-Protestant Christian in reality, unable to accept the treasure that has been entrusted not only to him but also through him for and to the others in his care. Far from it! God forbid! If I speak against anything that the Church has handed down under inspiration of the Spirit, cease listening to me at that point. But, as you can probably gather by now; I am not an entirely happy man. How so?

Firstly and positively it must be said that I believe that Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy alone has kept the faith “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). It contains within it all that is necessary to set people free, to unite them with God and hallow all that is good and true. This is Orthodoxy – right belief, true glory. But there is another neglected “Ortho--,” OrthoPRAXY, meaning right or true action of practice. It is by our Orthopraxy that we fulfil and prove our Orthodoxy and it is here that I am troubled; first of course by myself.

Understand please that I am not here to “fix the Church.” If the Church is to be fixed it is I who must be fixed first. I am fixed by all the usual means ... it is the same for all Orthodox Christians: faith, repentance, denying oneself, following Christ, serving God in my sisters and brothers, acquiring the Holy Spirit. That’s not the problem. The problem I carry is that I cannot do my job properly as a priest of this Church because of certain dysfunctions, certain shortcomings in Orthopraxy in the Church at large. As I said, it is not my job to fix these. I am not the Holy Spirit nor am I a bishop charged with addressing such matters. I only ask that my concerns be heard so that I, together with my fellow ministers of the gospel both lay and ordained may become more faithful and effective stewards of the mysteries of God both in His Word and by His Sacraments, in living out the Gospel in the world.

What are these problems of Orthopraxy that hinder me in my work? The first has a fancy name. It is called phyletism. It first reared itself in 1872 when the Bulgarian patriarchate established a bishopfric in Constantinople (Istanbul) open only to Bulgarians. This was interpreting Orthodoxy simple as a national phenomenon, an adjunct of cultural identity rather than a subsistence in Christ in whom there is neither east nor west and certainly no earthly national sovereignty. Since then things have deteriorated fast. Because there has been no resolution of the issue as to who has the responsibility for the governance of Orthodox churches in the west, (although Constantinople claims that), all the Orthodox churches now more or less operate simultaneously on the same territory. The canonical requirement that there be just one bishop for one city or region has now been effectively abandoned.

The consequences of phyletism have been dire in the waste of resources, the rancour of competitive nationalisms and occasional out breaks of turf and culture wars. This means that as a pastor of an Orthodox community in a large northern city in England where there are only 5 functioning Orthodox parishes I have no fellowship with my fellow clergy and there is no collaborative work between these communities. “Well Father,” you might say, “What have YOU done to remedy that?” A lot actually, but eventually you stop knocking at the door when there is no answer or it is slammed shut in your face. It is not as if this is an isolated example, a little local difficulty. Estonia, Ukraine, London, (Sourozh – Amphipolis) ... it doesn’t take too long to chronicle recent examples of this dysfunctionality. It’s no use pretending that “things are not too bad really” and “let’s not wash our dirty linen in public.” I might be a little bit more restrained if steps were being actively taken to address these problems nationally and internationally; but I don’t see it and neither do most other observers. So, in this matter, I cannot do my job properly. Can somebody help?

The Orthodox Christian faith is simply the gospel and the gospel life in worship and witness. This faith and life is for all. Those who gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost to hear the Apostles preach ... “the Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” did not assemble to divide the Church up amongst themselves, they did so (to continue the quotation):- to “hear them (the Apostles) speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” Notice that - “in our own tongues.” In short they were diverse peoples in language and culture but united in the Word; they heard and were understood. The drive to mission therefore starts and returns to this point time after time. It is the Holy Spirit that makes this possible. This is what our own (Antiochian) Patriarch Ignatius once said about this Spirit-filled mission of the Church when he was Metropolitan Archbishop of Latakia:-

“Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organisation,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evocation,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit ...
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.”

Now I cannot do my job as a mission priest as effectively as I might because many Orthodox still think in terms of cultural reinforcement rather than gospel mission. This means that credibility for evangelism is continually undermined by such attitudes. Too often many Orthodox resort to the mantra “we don’t proselytise” when what that actually means is “we don’t want to present the gospel outside our own community to ANYONE unless they become exactly like us or at least tolerate a foreign language.” So instead of the Pentecostal principle of Church mission other deadly inward looking principles are substituted such as:- “Keep the community together, teach them (the British that is) Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, whatever which of course reinforces the idea that Orthodoxy is ‘just for us.’” You see how this ties into phyletism? It perpetuates this heresy by refusing Orthodoxy to new cultures and keeping by it as an artefact of nationality and an overseas culture. It’s hardly surprising that your average interested British person concludes that Orthodoxy is lovely but not for me ... because in this expression, it isn’t. Of course I CAN still do my job within a loose association of like-minded communities across most of the jurisdictions but this is a car firing on 1 or 2 cylinders, not 4. It is a vehicle that is not going very far and that, neither smoothly nor fast.

Finally I cannot do my job effectively we have lost the facility of speaking to the indigenous, that is, western culture. This is frequently written off as irredeemably Protestant or intractably Catholic. Such despair (for that is what it is) is used to justify lack of engagement within these cultures, losing in the process all possibilities of transforming them. Such churches then wonder why they are losing their young people but this only prompts further retrenchment as it seems to offer yet further proof that integration is dangerous and, therefore, impermissible.

This impacts on my ministry because the ethnically enclosed Orthodox communities that could offer so much from the wealth of their experience and history simply refuse to help. We need, for example, services written for the British Orthodox saints of the first millennium. We need theological assessments of contemporary issues raised in the west concerning human sexuality, the role of science, bioethics, community development and other social aspects of our culture. Even where there is such engagement, usually amongst predominantly convert communities in the US, the results are not always Orthodox in breadth and scope. Too often such contributions are compromised by the reactive neo-fundamentalist positions of those who see themselves as in flight of all things liberal and who have mistakenly supposed that Orthodoxy is the last and only refuge from these positions that they have rejected in their former churches. So in Orthodoxy, apparently, one can hate gays, believe in a 6 day creation, spit at the very mention of women deacons and pursue with legalistic fervour the minutiae of calendars and fasting, despising those who are not “true Orthodox” who have sold out to “the opposition.” Frankly, you might as well be Amish ... except that Amish are much nicer people. I will be able to do my job properly when our theologians who truly teach from the Scriptures and the Fathers enter the arena of theological debate, in English and for a western audience. Then we shall be able to present Orthodoxy as it actually is rather than the hateful distortion it has become in some quarters.

So, do you still love Orthodoxy Father? You bet! It’s just those who despoil Orthodoxy and refuse God’s call that I find difficult. I need them to support me in “speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” not undermine me in so doing. Of course I could respond to this situation by ignoring them. There’s one big problem about that. They are my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. I could no more ignore them than ignore myself or God. So, we have to work this one out together. But the first step is honesty and this is the genesis of this article. What happens next depends ...

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