A Vision of the Orthodox Church in the Twenty-First Century and the Attainment of Christian Unity
‘And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached
in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end
‘God allowed the Russian Revolution to take place so that the Russian Church
might be cleansed and purified and so that the whole Orthodox Faith might
be spread over the whole world. The Church is One but each nation has
its own calling within that Oneness’.
These Apostolic words of a contemporary Saint, spoken to Bishop Germain of St Denis of the French Orthodox Church which St John founded, sum up Twentieth Century Orthodox history: its globalisation as a result of persecution.(1) They also sum up the attitude of authentic Orthodoxy to misfortunes - to accept them as providential opportunities to repent and do good.
St John was one of the rare figures in the contemporary Church who was able to leave behind him the bickering factionalism of those attached in worldly wise to petty nationalist politics, because he was utterly attached to the universal Orthodox Christian Tradition. Standing almost alone as a missionary among Orthodox bishops, he understood that the spiritually sensitive among Western and other peoples would only become Orthodox on one condition: that the Orthodox Faith first be detached from foreign cultural trappings and associations. Christ after all had not come into the world demanding knowledge of a foreign language and culture. He had demanded faithfulness and detachment from the world, not faithlessness and attachment to the world.
As we enter the Year 2001 and the Twenty-First Century and the Third Millennium, we may well ask ourselves why visible Church unity has not yet been attained. We ask ourselves why in Orthodox, as opposed to ecumenical, theological language, all people of goodwill are not yet Orthodox Christians. The reasons for this, we believe, may yet be providentially transformed by three key changes affecting the Orthodox Church. None of these changes has been planned, in one sense none is even particularly desirable, but none of them can be resisted to any great degree.
Orthodox Christianity Becomes a World Faith The administrative centre of Orthodoxy has moved several times in world history: from Jerusalem to Antioch, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Constantinople, to Moscow. Today it no longer has any administrative centre, but we can imagine that within a hundred years, it could be in Africa, or India, or China - somewhere or nowhere. In any case Orthodoxy today is becoming as multi-cultural as it was in the first centuries. In the future it will no longer stand identification with the cultural imperialism and hegemony of Greek or Russian or American or any other. It is a global Faith and even the most blindly bigoted is now realising this.
The Post-Constantinian Era The Russian Revolution of nearly a hundred years ago meant the beginning of the eventual decoupling and detachment of the Orthodox Christian Faith from States. True, this has been resisted by erastian episcopates, who have consistently continued to identify the Christian Faith with national states and practices as un-Christian as the Stalinist Soviet Union or the Greek Masonic Government with its ‘business calendar’. In so doing these episcopates bear a twofold sin, for by compromising the Faith, they have also provoked sectarian reaction and split their Churches, expelling the most pious.
It is this situation which is behind the present divide within all the local Orthodox Churches - that between those who accept worldly compromises in Church life for secular gain and those who do not. Thus there are those like the Russian Metropolitan Sergius who trample down the bodies of the martyred, crying out that the joys of the world’s first militant atheist power are the joys of its decimated Church. There are those like the former Russian Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad and many another bishop or priest who give communion to all and sundry Non-Orthodox and pray together with Non-Christians for the sake of temporal benefits, selling their birthright for a mess of pottage. And there are those Orthodox bishops of all nationalities who in obedience to secular authorities take pleasure in closing churches, forbidding the use of the vernacular in services, slandering, intimidating, exiling and crushing zealous priests and deacons and laypeople and their families for fear that these are not quenching the Spirit as efficiently as they themselves quench the Spirit.
Nevertheless, the days of these ageing bureaucrats, who ‘enlarge the borders of their garments’, ‘love the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues’ and love ‘to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi’, are numbered. Now they tremble all in their crumbling bishop’s palaces and worry for their elderly limousines and dwindling reserves.
Disestablishment is inevitable. With it will eventually come the end of political interference in internal Church affairs. No State will bother to interfere in Churches which have no power or money. This is also the end of ethnic ghettoes - when a majority of your compatriots are atheists, why bother to meet at Church, you can form your own Russian club or Greek School and meet on Sunday mornings elsewhere(2). And this will leave the Church free for Orthodox Christians to worship Christ in freedom and in a spirit of catholicity. Yes, their worship will lack the numbers and the nationalist crowds, the ritual and the ceremony, the theatrical pomp and circumstance, the embellishments and Italianate singing, the carved furnishings and the ornaments, the rich vestments and the gilt - but what is wrong with gilt-free Orthodoxy? This Orthodoxy will be sincere and conscious, an Orthodoxy of monastic and parish renewal. It will be the return in fullness to the authentic Christian Faith, the Orthodoxy of the first centuries. It is only this which will bring visible unity between Orthodox themselves. For none of the present artificial divisions of jurisdiction and nationality is based on unity with the Spirit, but on unity with the world. It is about worldly attachments and political interference. But more than this, the return to authentic Orthodoxy will also bring the ‘union of all’ within the Church which we have so long prayed for at every litany of peace.
3. The Call to Non-Orthodox Christendom
The globalisation and disestablishment of the Orthodox Faith is the recovery of its catholicity, its universal sense and message. Even now this is leading Non-Orthodox of good will to detach themselves from the inherited Western power-systems of the 16th Century (the Protestants) and those of the 11th Century (the Roman Catholics). They have realised that disunity among those who call themselves Christians is the result of sin, the lack of spirituality. Therefore they are now looking for authenticity, for the Early Christian heritage of the First Millennium and thus look to the heirs of the Early Church, the Orthodox. This process has already begun - but it will go much further in the coming years. Such Non-Orthodox Christians are not and will not be satisfied with Eastern European or Middle Eastern political and cultural ideologies. Their interest is in living spirituality, the seeking out not of the self-appointed ‘spiritual fathers’ and ‘elders’, the ‘charismatic’ psychics and fraudsters of which worldly Orthodoxy has its fair share, but the seeking out of those who have authentic experience and knowledge of the Spirit. It is our belief that such Non-Orthodox recognise and will continue to recognise authentic Christianity in unfilioqued Orthodox Christianity, stripped of its State embellishments paid for with the cash of compromise. The appeal of Orthodox Christianity is and will be in its living faithfulness to the original Christian Spirit and its Faith and in nothing more than this. Then there will be One Church and One Flock around the One Christ: ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism’.
Of course, all of this may only come to be after further persecution. The gathered flock of Orthodox Christians will as a result be small in number. ‘Fear not, little flock’. And such an outcome also assumes that the world itself will continue long enough for all this to come to pass. And of that there is no guarantee, for no man knows ‘in what watch the thief will come’ and ‘as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be’.
Fr Andrew Phillips
St John’s Day 19 June / 2 July 2000(1) The same holy man had spoken similar words as long ago as 1938 at the Russian Church Council in Belgrade: ‘In chastising the Russian people ... the Lord has made of them preachers of Orthodoxy all over the world. The Russian diaspora has made Orthodoxy known to the ends of the Earth ... Russians in exile have been granted the mission to shine forth the light of Orthodoxy all over the world’.
(2)This, like the rest of the details in this essay, is not an invention, for it happens in towns locally.
(c) Orthodox England - Published within the English Deanery of the Church Outside Russia: with the blessing of the Very Reverend Mark, Archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland.