TOWARDS AN ENGLISH ORTHODOX CULTURE
Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
It is only natural that Orthodox Christianity, the Religion of the Incarnation, should express itself using the culture of the world in which it lives. This is clear, for example, inasmuch as the Orthodox Church expresses itself in the language of whatever culture it finds itself in. The alternative would be that the Religion of the Incarnation turn itself into an unnatural ghetto, a disincarnate ideology cut off from the world around it. Thus it would become the vestige-house or container for an alien culture and language, becoming a cultural relic, a memorial or museum, visited not for the spiritual purpose of worshipping God, but out of curiosity.
Of course this does not mean that the Church should be essentially affected by the world, that is, by the cultural ambiance around it, so that it ceases to be Orthodox, and instead becomes a mere ritual. For instance, when the Orthodox Church came into the Jewish, Greek and Latin worlds of the first centuries, although the Church absorbed certain elements and customs of those local cultures, it was not absorbed by them, rather it transfigured them, as is the calling of the Church. The Church is both transcendent and immanent. True, individuals at first attracted to the Church did finish by lapsing from the Church, having been absorbed by the cultural reflexes of the world. But the Church Herself, 'in the world but not of the world', was not absorbed by the world and its culture, only people fell away from the Church because they were more attached to their cultural world than to the Church. Church History gives us many examples of this.
ATTACHMENT TO THE WORLD AND DETACHMENT FROM THE CHURCH
For instance, one of the first debates among the first Orthodox Christians was the extent to which the Jewish ritualism of the Old Testament was to be continued, whether the followers of Christ should continue to practise circumcision like the Jews. The solution was found in these words: 'Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God', as the Apostle Paul put it (I Cor 7, 19). The people of the Church realized through the Holy Spirit that circumcision was no longer essential. Other individuals however, fell away from the mind of the Church, the Holy Spirit, and formed their own Judaising sects. They subjected the Church to their own worldly Jewish culture and thus, preferring the latter to the former, fell away from the Church. Their Faith was not strong enough for them to detach themselves sufficiently from the world in its specific Judaistic cultural form.
In a similar way, a little later, some Greek intellectuals and others wished to transform the teachings of Christ into Hellenistic gnosticism, a philosophy. They were attached not to Jewish Old Testament ritualism, but to the personality cults surrounding individual Hellenistic intellectuals who had an ethnic, or as we would say nowadays, nationalistic, importance. The Church had to battle against the ambient intellectual culture of Greek philosophies like Platonism for centuries. As an example of this attachment to personalities, or personality cults as we would now say, certain said already in the time of the Apostle Paul: 'I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ' (I Cor 1,12). Another later well-known case of this is Origen and his followers who fell into heresy by attaching more importance to Hellenistic culture than to the Church. Later, this is also what was behind Arianism and many other anti-Christian ideologies. This is what lay behind Nestorianism and Monophysitism and the breaking away from the Church of ethnic groups such as the Copts and the Ethiopians.
Later, and even more tragically, the same thing occurred in the West, where under the influence of the imperialistic culture of pagan Rome and power-hungry barbarian sponsors, the whole Roman Patriarchate fell to the temptation of ethnic arrogance and so fell away from the Church, claiming absolute power, instead of absolute humility. Attachment to the culture of pagan Rome, preference for that culture over the spirit of the Church, was its downfall. Nevertheless, the Church survived.
Later still, other small groups also fell away from the Church. For example in Russia in the seventeenth century, the Old Believers with their chauvinistic bigotry, or the Renovationists of the 1920's with their secular liturgical politics. Even today there are individuals and groups on the fringes of the Orthodox Churches in all countries, whose attachment to ethnicity leads them away from the Church. These individuals and groups include both bishops and schismatic groups. For example, there are philetistic bishops who impose a national identity on emigrants who are no longer attached to their distant homelands, whose languages they do not speak, and who want to manage their own affairs. Then there are groups involved with politics either of the extreme left or else of the extreme right. Finally, there are also groups like the Vatican-sponsored 'Macedonian Orthodox Church' who have substituted their national flag for Christ.
Thus we can see that throughout Church History the Faith of some groups has been so weak and they have as a result been so influenced by ambient cultures that they have lasped from the Church. However, we have to see this in perspective. Over the centuries, most have remained faithful to the Church. Although there were moments in Church History when the faithful were outnumbered on paper by Arians, these moments did not generally last for very long. It is only in the last two centuries that the groups who have fallen away have become more numerous than the faithful. For example, when the Roman Patriarchate fell away from the Church in the eleventh century, it numbered only a few million people, whereas the peoples who remained faithful to the Church were more numerous at that time by far. Today, however, the opposite is true, with the population explosion and hundreds of millions of nominal Roman Catholics in the Third World.
THE CONTEMPORARY CHURCH AND WESTERN CULTURE
The tendency for Orthodox to be influenced excessively by the local cultural ambiance can be seen especially clearly in the Diaspora. For example, there is a tendency for many Greek Orthodox in the USA to become effectively 'Eastern-rite Protestants', introducing organs and pews into their Churches, their clergy shaven and dog-collared. In the same way, in Roman Catholic countries like France one can clearly see the trend towards 'Eastern-rite Catholicism' (i.e. Uniatization) in the Russian Diaspora, with intercommunion and the adoption of Catholic language and customs. In England also, one can also see the tendency to the formation among ex-Anglicans of an 'Eastern-rite Anglicanism'.
The question which we wish to raise here is to what extent this is permissible. We have said above on the basis of historical precedents that the Church absorbs local culture, but that it is not absorbed by it. Its task is rather to transfigure local culture, which means neither being absorbed by it, nor remaining outside it in a disincarnate, isolated ghetto. For example, the relationship between the Church and local, English culture is perhaps best pictured as a Venn diagram, of two intersecting circles, one circle being the Church, the other local culture. Thus the Church circle represents the Orthodox Church as a whole, most of which is not English. The culture circle represents English culture, most of which is not Orthodox. The overlap represents that which is both Orthodox and English.
But what belongs within that overlap and what does not? What parts of English culture can be received into the Church? What is the English culture which can be adapted to the spirit of the Church? What is inherently not Orthodox in English culture? Presumably we know what goes into the first circle, we know what Orthodoxy is. Our interest is therefore in defining something of the second circle, that which may go and may not go into the overlap. Taking an apophatic approach, below we mention elements which certainly lie that overlap, outside Orthodoxy, although they have entered into English culture since the Western Schism of the eleventh century.
ATTACHMENT TO WESTERN RATIONALISM AND DETACHMENT FROM SACRAMENTAL CONSCIOUSNESS
One of the most striking things about modern English culture in general is its desacralisation, the result of rationalism. This means that most contemporary English culture is marked by a flatness, a lack of spiritual depth, of texture and quality. This means that much of it is only three-dimensional, it lacks the fourth dimension of mystical understanding, the sense of the sacred, its lack of sacramental consciousness. It is rationalism, the cult of the fallen mind, which contains much that is inherently unOrthodox, for rationalism is by definition anti-mystical, anti-sacramental. The Church, on the other hand, is by definition mystical and sacramental, not anti-rational, but supra-rational, beyond and above the cult of reason.
This attachment to this cult of reason can be seen in the slowness of English people to adopt many practices of the Orthodox Church. For instance, I have heard English people coming to our Church and saying: 'But you have too many icons!' I can only presume that this strange and alien mentality comes from the Protestant lack of veneration and lack of love of the saints. This is why English Orthodox priests serve so few intercessory services (molebny) to the saints. We are not asked to do so. We can also see this in the few memorial services (panikhidy) that converts seem to require, which must be related to the lack of consciousness of the presence of the departed, ultimately a lack of Faith.
This liturgical minimalism suggests that Protestantism is present with its anti-sacramentalism. It is indeed the sacraments that are one of the fundamental differences between rationalism and the Orthodox mind. Where there are sacraments, there is a belief in the possibility to transfigure the world around us, this is in fact a mystical belief, the sense of the sacred. Where there are no sacraments, there is only the slavery and entrapment of the human reason, for the lack of a sacramental consciousness is in fact the lack of faith in the transcendent God and in His ability to transfigure the material world. The lack of a sacramental consciousness means that some converts either do not approach sacraments, especially communion, with due fear, or else do not approach certain sacraments, especially confession, with due frequency.
Again, there is the fact that some English Orthodox converts still have not got into the habit of lighting candles in church in front of the icons of the saints. We can see the same thing in the lack of veneration by Western people of the holy relics. In the same way, the veneration of the Mother of God is still only weakly developed among English Orthodox. Again, what about the lack of veneration for the Angels and especially our Guardian Angels? And finally, what about the rare use of the sign of the Cross. How often do English Orthodox make the sign of the Cross during and outside services. Orthodox make it hundreds of times; ex-Protestants and ex-Catholics (and therefore ex-Anglicans) make it relatively rarely. For Orthodox the sign of the cross is in fact a sacrament, for it makes God present amongst us.
The anti-sacramental and anti-mystical post-Orthodox English mentality resurfaces in the insistance of some poorly-integrated converts on hearing the secret prayers and the Eucharistic Canon read allowed. Since the sixth century we have not done this in the Orthodox Church. The spirit of rationalism and intellectualism, however, demands it. In reality, the Faith is not something to be read about in books, it is something that is to be lived. Rationalism will not help us understand the mystery of the Eucharist, however loudly the secret prayers and the Eucharistic Canon are shouted out. Rationalism and its bookishness conceals the sense of the sacred, the mystery. Some such rationalists even insist on not having an icon-screen in churches! Of course, it is one thing when a new church is starting and there are no funds, but if an icon-screen is not erected within a few months, one may well wonder about the Orthodoxy of some of the people concerned, who sometimes falsely view the Church in terms of laity versus clergy and demand 'democracy' instead of the Holy Spirit. This ratonalistic approach only reveals their worldly understanding of the Church.
THE WORSHIP OF ETERNITY AND THE IDOLATRY OF TIME
The example of English punctuality (perhaps not as strong as it used to be) means that English people generally arrive on time for Church and services generally start on time. There is nothing inherently bad about this, but on the other hand it gives rise to the annoying habit of English people asking: 'But what time does the service end?' This is either because they are lacking in zeal, or else because they have planned their lives in such a way that there is no freedom left in them. In other words, they are prisoners of time.
That is not Orthodox simply because a dependence on time means that one is a slave to the world. The Church is after all the realm not of Time, but of Eternity, Timelessness. So what if a service lasts a long time? We are worshipping God. If the service starts late because there are important confessions, then let confessions take precedence. If the service is slow because the priest has a vision of Angels during the Cherubic Hymn, let the service be slow. Perhaps this cult of time also explains why there are so few English Orthodox churches serving Vigil-Services. These are too long for those who worship their wristwatches, they require liturgical minimalism. The cult of the wristwatch and accuracy and punctuality is not to be encouraged. Yes, it is good not to be casual and slipshod, but we are masters of time, not its slaves. God created Time for us, not us for Time. The subjection of self to the tyranny of punctuality is actually subjection to the created world, not to God.
This same mentality resurfaces in the calendar question. Some English people so much believe in the importance of astronomical accuracy that they cannot bear to live on the unworldly and unastronomical Orthodox calendar. But to prefer astronomical time to the time of the Church is part of this same cult of Time, the worship of Creation. We worship the Maker of the Sun and Moon, not the Sun and Moon themselves. That is why in the first century the Orthodox Church did not even see fit to record the year and date of Christ's Birth as a man, or the year and date of His Crucifixion and Resurrection. This is why in the fourth century the Church Fathers chose an unastronomical calendar. If we believe that our reckoning of time is more important than the vagueness of the Apostles, then it is we who are not Apostolic, not the Apostles. The demand for the adoption of the 'correct' Catholic calendar is in fact idolatry, the idolatry of time, the idolatry of creation.
One of the most common questions I am asked is about 'rite', never about 'spirit'. This attachment to externals in the English context is particularly Anglican, and particularly High Anglican. I have often been asked, for example, about the Western rite. The fact is that, like the vast majority of English people, I have little idea what the Western rite is. How should I? I have never practised any Faith except Orthodoxy. Whatever the Western rite was, it is largely unknown to me, as I am a priest, not a liturgical archaeologist. And I am not very interested in it for the reason that I am in the here and now. But more generally the interest in rites is ritualism - an attachment to externals. The Church is not to be found in external rites, but in spirit, in internals.
In the same way the external attachment to the abstract knowledge of the Bible, only a part of the Tradition and Wisdom of the Church, which comes from the English majority-Protestant cultural background, is foreign to Orthodoxy. The literalism of Protestant societies, the taking of people at their word and literal interpretations, cuts Protestantism off from the extra dimension of Orthodox symbolism and allegory. It is in fact a form of mental, emotional and spiritual impoverishment. It can leads to narrow-mindedness. Look at the inside of an Orthodox church with its frescos and icons, its colour and life, and look at the empty white walls of a Protestant chapel, and you see what I mean. This impoverishment should not be brought into the Orthodox Church by ill-prepared converts.
Similarly I have met converts from Protestantism who instead of quoting chapter and verse, now quote Orthodox canons, using them as a stick with which to condemn others but justify themselves in their overweening pride. But they quote them with the same lack of discernment and human understanding as once they quoted the Scriptures. As someone said, such people may be 'Orthodox', but they are certainly not Christian.
This attitude resembles the activities of the Pharisees who were forever studying the letter of the Law, but who never understood it, for they failed to understand the spirit of the Law, and God is a Spirit. They are in the words of the Apostle: 'Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth' (2 Tim. 3,7). The study of the letter, literalism, is yet another form of the selfsame attachment to externals, externalism, superficiality. These people who think they are Orthodox by quoting the canons are in fact just the opposite, because they do not understand the canons.
This superficiality can be seen in the type of constipated pietism which is sometimes brought into the Church from the world. An unreal, disincarnate, intellectual hypocrisy demands a form of piety to reflect itself. The polite but back-biting pretence of piety is one of the most unpleasant aspects of the English character as it has been modelled by centuries outside the Orthodox Faith. It is revealed in the word 'charity', which too often has veered from its original meaning of warm-hearted love and has come to denote cold and dishonest hypocrisy, as in the expression 'as cold as charity'. This pietism is yet another form of the same attachment to externals.
CONCLUSION: THE CHURCH AND THE TRANSFIGURATION OF CULTURE
Only when Orthodox Christianity is internalized, becoming an inner reflex, part of us in letter and in spirit, in word and in deed, is it capable of transfiguring the world and the culture of the world around us, in our case of English culture. Because only this state of mind and life means that the Church within us has become more important to us than the world and its culture. The spiritual primacy of the Church over the world leads automatically and naturally to the reshaping of human culture, the world, by the Church. Without this, the Church is sidelined into a hobby and the Church is then deformed into a personal or group interest. Inevitably, at this point, people fall away from the Church, forming their own little sects and schisms.
The attachment to the cultures of this world in preference to attachment to the Church is not a transfiguration of human culture but the human disfigurement of the Church. Only in the light of this fact can we understand Church History and the story of the many groups who have down the ages fallen away from the Church. The Church which is, 'in the world but not of the world', is called to transfigure the world and human culture, not to be disfigured by it. And as part of the world and human culture, we too are called to be transfigured by the Church until the Church enters into our English flesh and blood, the very marrow of our bones. Then and only then can we consider ourselves to be English Orthodox.