THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
A Talk given to Parishioners from St Mary's Church, Ufford, on 6 May 2003
We are greatly pleased to welcome you this evening to your local Orthodox church, St Felix and St Edmund Orthodox church.
The Orthodox Church worldwide numbers some 200 million Christians. Although this is some three times bigger than the Anglican Communion as a whole, the Orthodox Church still remains very much unknown in this country.
This is probably because the Orthodox Church is multicultural and may indeed seem 'foreign' to people here. For example, unlike Anglicans, the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are not English and not English by culture. Also, the Orthodox Church is much more ancient than the Church of England, which as such as you know was only founded some 450 years ago, though of course its roots go back well beyond that. Indeed, the Orthodox Church is much more ancient than Roman Catholicism, which as such does not go back beyond the Middle Ages. For the Orthodox Church all this is very recent, for we look back for our roots not to the Second Millennium, but to the First Millennium.
WHAT IS THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?
Many people ask about the differences between the Orthodox Church and more recent forms of Christianity. At first sight, it may seem that the Orthodox Church is somewhere between Catholicism and the Protestantism.
In saying this, I am reminded of an elderly and very strict Romanian bishop nearly thirty years ago attending an ecumenical gathering. In order to seem friendly to Lutherans, he blurted out: 'We Orthodox are in absolute agreement with you Protestants against the monstrous pretensions of the Pope of Rome'. Well, of course, I think that bishop did achieve his aim of getting some sympathy from the Lutherans, but, on the other hand, he did not get much sympathy from the Catholic side, and then of course, he had left unsaid everything where we do not have the same view as the Protestant world!
To highlight my point, only a few weeks after this incident, I heard the late Greek Archbishop in London, Athenagoras, rather undiplomatically telling Methodists that in order to have a dialogue with the Orthodox Church, they first needed to return to their roots - by becoming Catholics. This must have seemed to them like an Orthodox bishop proselytising for the Vatican!
These apparently contradictory views put forward by Orthodox bishops in the 1970's - and similar views can be heard today - are not at all contradictory from an Orthodox viewpoint.
Thus anyone entering an Orthodox church, like you, may at first sight think that this resembles a Catholic church - not the rather bare ones we have in England, but the ones on the Continent. On the walls we have images of Christ, of the Mother of God, of saints and angels, we use candles and lamps, you can smell incense, we have deacons, priests, bishops, and monasteries for monks and nuns, we fast, and actually, fast seriously.
On the other hand, when you dig a little deeper, you discover other aspects of the Orthodox Church. Thus, no bishop is the Head of the Church. The Head of the Orthodox Church is Christ himself. Although bishops have an important role in administration and liturgy, bishops can be replaced. Councils of bishops can meet, but what they decide must first be received as a revelation of the Holy Spirit by the Body of Christ, the people, before it can be accepted. Orthodox clergy are married, they have families. Indeed, parish churches are like families or communities. Every day we are tied together in communities by our common readings of the Scriptures which devout people read in conjunction with the common Orthodox daily prayers. These readings were fixed by the Church some fifteen hundred years ago. We are reading the same Scriptures as other Orthodox, not only in different countries, but also in different centuries. The living and the departed are joined together by common bonds.
But there again, despite the similarities between the Orthodox Church and other Christians, which are due to their inheritance, there are many things in the Orthodox Church, which are unknown to other forms of Christianity. Most importantly, for example, our understanding of God the Holy Trinity and God the Holy Spirit is different. The Orthodox teaching is that which was set out by the Orthodox Church in the fourth century. We have never altered it. In the same way, our calendar is also that of the fourth century, we have a different calendar from both Pope John Paul II and Ian Paisley - who share the same calendar. If only Ian Paisley knew!
In the same way, our understanding of the Gospels, our veneration of the Mother of God, our use of images or icons, our understanding of the importance of faith and works, even the layout of the church building itself, the absence of musical instruments, statues, Stations of the Cross, pews, pulpits, the presence of bearded but married clergy, all of this goes back to the very first centuries of the Church. All of this gives the Orthodox Church a different understanding and perspective of Christianity. Let us look at some of this in more detail by looking at the concrete example of this in our local Orthodox church.
As you have seen our Orthodox church is not purpose-built, but a converted building. Until 1992 this was a Church of England building, when it fell into disuse and was used for all sorts of non-Church activities. It was only in the Year 2000 that it came into use as an Orthodox church. Although we have done a lot here, we are still working on its conversion. First of all the outside of our church which you saw as you came in, apart from the crosses, still resembles a brick hall. Here we have projects to build a bell-tower and then render the outside white, giving the exterior an Orthodox appearance. This will transform this building.
Most of the conversion work we have done here is on the inside, but there are still jobs to do. For instance, at present we still do not have frescoes, but many individual icons. We should be receiving our first fresco later this year for the back of the chancel. Also in Orthodox churches the altar area or chancel is slightly higher than the rest of the church or nave. Here we do not really have the possibility of doing this. Finally, our choir sings from the back; in many purpose-built Orthodox churches, it sings either from the front, or else from a choir-loft at the back. Structurally, we cannot install a choir-loft, so our choir simply sings from the back.
Nevertheless, despite these unfinished tasks, the inside of our church very much resembles any Orthodox church. As you can see, the chancel is separated from the nave by an icon screen with three doors in it. For us, the nave symbolizes earth, and the chancel heaven. Thus the central or holy doors represent the gates of heaven and the side-doors represent the possibility of going between heaven and earth, as do the angels at every moment.
The icon-screen is adorned with the icons of the Saviour, the Mother of God who gave birth to Him as a man, and then our patron-saints. Our patrons are our very local Suffolk worthies, especially St Felix of Felixstowe, St Edmund of Bury, and also St Audrey who grew up near Ufford and St Botolph of Iken. Next to them are large icons of four other saints whom we particularly venerate. Among them is St Elizabeth, the martyred granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and also St John who was our Orthodox Archbishop here in London in the 1950's and who was known to some of our older parishioners. He is greatly loved as a contemporary saint of God, having been canonized by the Orthodox Church only eight years ago. Thus, in these saints, we unite the local with the universal.
We believe that the saints come to be present in their images or icons, just as Christ is present in us all who are made in the image and likeness of God, as the Scriptures tell us. Just as Christ is present in the sacraments, just as the Holy Spirit is everywhere present wherever we ask Him to be present. Icons are not simply pictures, they are intimate presences. The saints are present with us here through their images.
In Orthodox churches we are surrounded by icons on all sides. On the back wall here, you have icons of saints of the Old Testament. On the wall to the left, you have many of the Greek and Arab saints, icons of the Mother of God, the Apostles, the early martyrs and the Church Fathers. On the right-hand wall, you have saints from the Isles, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English, then you have icons of Russian saints and many others from other countries, Orthodox saints from Palestine, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Romania, Serbia, Alaska, Japan, China and so on. Here on the right-hand side we have one particular icon of the Mother of God, our Felixstowe Mother of God, whose story I can tell you later. And here too we have relics, remains of many saints, St Helen, St Augustine, St Cuthbert, St Bede and many others.
These icons, relics and crosses are not decorative, they are real presences and we venerate them by kissing them, just as we kiss the Book of Gospels, of Christ's words, just as you might kiss a photograph of someone you love. We are surrounded here by the saints, they are our family, we belong to them, as they belong to us. It does not matter if they lived a long time ago, like St Noah and St Moses, or recently, like St Elizabeth and St John. It does not matter if they lived here in Felixstowe, like St Felix, or in another country, like St Olaf of Norway: we are all one big family.
WHO COMES HERE?
The Orthodox church opened here in Felixstowe in 1997, filling a gap in the spread of Orthodoxy in East Anglia. We started off in a rented upper room in the town centre, but then in 2000 we moved here. Our community is very international with six different nationalities, although the majority of our parishioners were actually born or brought up in England. We are the nearest Orthodox church for most people in Suffolk. Our nearest sister-parishes are as far away as Norwich, Cambridge and Colchester. In these English Orthodox parishes the services in English, both because a majority of the people who come here are English or else because English is the common language.
Even in East Anglia, it is true that you can also find a few Orthodox parishes for immigrant groups. For example in Yarmouth, Cambridge and Norwich you will find special parishes for Greek-Cypriots who are cared for by their own immigrant Cypriot bishops in London. We have exactly the same Orthodox Faith as the immigrant parishes, but they cater for their own people in their own language with their local customs. For example in Greek churches, they have a special style of singing, which to our ears sounds very Oriental. It is rather like in Catholic churches, where you can find special parishes and deaneries or even dioceses for immigrant Poles or Italians, and masses are said in Polish or Italian. But the Faith is the same, whether we are Greek Orthodox, Ugandan Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Arab Orthodox, Japanese Orthodox, Finnish Orthodox or English Orthodox. Just as Catholics are all Catholic, whatever their nationality, so we are all Orthodox, whatever our nationality.
As we have already said, we have no musical instruments in Orthodox churches. We have a choir which is open to all. Anybody who wishes to sing can sing with the choir. A lot of older people will know many of our hymns by heart and sing or read with the choir.
Neither do we have seating. Most of the chairs that are you sitting on are not normally to be found inside the church. We only put out a few chairs for the infirm or for children. In the presence of Christ and His saints, we stand.
Orthodox services go back to Apostolic times and the services in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Apostles were Jews. Some Jewish visitors who come to Orthodox services out of curiosity sometimes remark on certain likenesses between our services and those in synagogues, also between rabbis and Orthodox clergy. After all, we are all Orthodox!
Our main service, the communion service, is called the Liturgy. It has altered little since the first centuries. We have the same teachings as the first Church teachings. We have inherited all our teachings on the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God become man, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Birth, the Mother of God, the Communion of the saints, from the Church Councils and Church Fathers of the very first centuries. The Orthodox Church is unchanging and unchangeable. It would be unthinkable to change. Nobody who is Orthodox would question any of these teachings. To deny them would simply mean that you are no longer Orthodox, that is, not a member of the Orthodox Church.
These words remind me of the old joke about the light-bulb. Question: 'How many Orthodox bishops does it take to change a light-bulb?' Answer: 'Why change a light-bulb?' Well, of course, if light-bulbs don't work, we do change them. But on the other hand, if they do work, why change them? In other words, if the Church leads to holiness, then it is doing its job, and there is no need to change, for the Church is fulfilling its role, creating saints.
The only changes we have are changes in continuity. For example, this is a new church, these are new icons, some of the saints venerated here are twentieth-century saints, some of our services have been written only recently. However, everything new is in conformity with the Orthodox way and style which was established in the First Millennium. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The central point of the Year of the Orthodox Church is the Resurrection of Christ, Easter. This is far more important to us than Christmas. Christmas is the beginning, but Easter is the end, the fulfilment of Christ's Coming, and on it depend both Ascension and Pentecost. We had our Easter here a few days ago and for forty days after Easter, we hang here the letters, in flowers, 'C' and 'R'. They signify 'Christ is Risen'. They are the essence of our faith, for Christ has defeated death. Often I hear Non-Orthodox talking about the importance of the Cross. Orthodox talk rather about the importance of the Resurrection, the Cross was only the stage necessary to reach the Resurrection. Otherwise we would have the impression that everything stopped on Good Friday. An Orthodox Easter card does not have the mournful image of the Cross on it, but rather the image of Christ Risen in glory. As the Apostle Paul said: 'And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and you faith is also vain' (I Cor. 15,14)
To summarize what has been said this evening, I would like to come back to a word which I mentioned earlier: community. When I hear that word in an Orthodox context, I often think of Fr George. He was a Russian priest in London who passed away many years ago. One day he was travelling on a train and met a very ardent but very young, man, who asked him what his name was. When he answered 'Fr George', the young man replied: 'I cannot possibly call you 'Father', because it is against the Gospel'. So Fr George simply answered: 'Well, in that case, you can call me 'Daddy'.
That may seem a superficial anecdote, but in fact, it contains much truth. In the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, the word used to address the parish priest is precisely 'Daddy', and the priest's wife is called 'Mummy'. This does sum up the whole feeling in the Orthodox Church. We are a family. Here we are together with our ancestors, our families, our friends, and among them, the saints, who are also our intimate friends. In some cases they are even related to us. They are our family and we ask the saints to pray for us in our needs, just as we ask our friends to pray for us. It is the same thing. It is the same family.
If you look in our book-room, you will find there among the photographs of saints and future saints, the photographs of two of our parishioners who were buried here last year. They are there because we remember them, because they are with us and we are with them. In the Church we live together and we are saved together, we are an extended family, if you like, a community. We live together because our Orthodox Christian Faith is a way of life, not an idea or a philosophy. Our way of life is patterned by the daily Gospel and Epistle readings, by the saints of the Church calendar, from all ages, and from all climes, by the seasons of the Church services and the customs attached to them.
I would like to close with an extract from a poem, written by our local Suffolk poet, John Muriel, entitled 'Suffolk 1958':
So, I have
I have come
Yes, I have
Thank you for listening. I will try to answer any questions that you may have.