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Yesterday I got out into the Belgian countryside, the first time for several months, retracing a walk I had done done last Christmas, to the small town of Chièvres, 70 km south-east of Brussels.




Ath-Blaton canal: bridge with lock behind

For most of the way there and back I walked down the Ath-Blaton canal. Just before World War I, it carried nearly a million tons of coal a year from the mines in SW Belgium, but is now used only, and very occasionally, by pleasure boats. Canals are good places to walk down, generally pretty quiet, a little cooler in hot weather – it was hot, you could smell the tar on the roads. Everywhere was very green, an unusually hard winter and with plenty of rain since means that everything has grown luxuriantly.

 

Chièvres was cleary an important place in the Middle Ages, with two medieval chapels in addition the 16th century late Gothic Church. There is also a chapel to our Lady of the Fountain, on the site of a miraculous spring. The building was destroyed at the French Revolution and rebuilt, as an inscription tells us, ‘by the piety of the faithful, stimulated by the zeal of Abbé Lambert…’ I rather wish they had not. It is a pretty hideous place, with the worse pietà I have seen to date and some disastrous 1950s stained glass, not dissimilar to that which disfigures the main church, which is otherwise a delightful building with a lovely sense of space.


 

St Martin's church at Chièvres


From there I went on to the Marian basilica at Tongre-Sainte-Marie, a rather nice 18th century building built to hold a miraculous statue of the virgin which appeared in the 12th century. The inside is late, refurnished in the mid-19th century. The carving is not as good as pre-French revolution work, and the woodwork bears signs of mechanical sawing and moulding, but it is decent, and has a sense of unity about it. The church felt prayed in.

  
 
 The basilica at Tongre-Notre-Dame

If you have a sense of history and architecture, walking in Belgium, especially the south, is an open history book. Until the French Revolution much of the land was owned by half a dozen big abbeys, nearly all of which have disappeared, or by wealthy farmers, whose large farms, built around a courtyard and barricadable against vagrants and thieves, have remained. With the industrial revolution came railways and brickworks and lots of construction until the interbellum depression – some of it quite showy in a rather peasant sort of way. The Church also built heavily in this period, especially schools, mainly staffed by nuns.


600

A typical late 19th century church school. Almost certainly run by a women's community.

The 60s brought expanding suburbs with their rows of small detached houses, often in hideous red brick and with cheap stained glass windows, followed by bungalows with large bay windows affording a view onto large mock Chinese vases and the heavy oak furniture that was popular in the 1970s. The first oil shock and a free-falling Wallonian economy fortunately put a stop to them. Residential building on a larger scale restarted about 10 years ago, much of it of good aesthetic standards.

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Title: "Russian Orthodoxy has also been Belgian for a century and a half"

The Russian Orthodox Church’s 150th anniversary in Belgium was featured today in one of Belgium’s two serious French-speaking newspapers, in an article by Christian Laporte, the country’s one serious reporter on religious topics. The article, is well-written, prominently placed and, pleasantly, contains no mistakes of fact. I have already been sent to the newsagent to buy additional copies. The Archbishop will, I know, be happy.

Should I too be happy? Yes and no. My concern is the register of the article: historical, i.e. backward rather than forward-looking, with no pretence of analysis. It is basically light, entertaining reading. While there is nothing wrong in this genre per se, too much of it can surreptitiously downgrade us to a tourist curiosity, with mainly entertainment value (like the matrioushka in the article's heading). Not, in any case, a potentially serious component of the Christian scene in this country.

Christian yes, Russian Orthodox yes, matrioushka no.



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The abbey at Male

It rained and it rained and it rained. Rarely hard, but incessantly. I had decided on a day's walk in the country, so had dropped off MmeKordukova with the good camera in Bruges, Belgium's number one tourist city, then driven out of the city and parked the car at the Abbey of Male at the edge of the suburbs. Attractive building, but a bit awesome for a women’s convent. More like a castle. I slipped inside into the chapel, and out again very quickly – all in that soul-destroying ‘stripped bare concrete’ style of the two post-Vatican II decades.

The six kilometres to Damme, my destination, became eight because a farmer had put up a ‘Privaat domein’ notice across the shortest route. So I skirted a very long way round. This took me past a large church by Jean de Béthune, the leading neo-Gothic architect, way too large for the tiny village of Vijvekapelle in which it is situated, flanked on the one side by the neo-Gothic buildings of a girl’s school (originally run of course by nuns) and on the other side by the neo-Gothic buildings of a boy’s school (originally run of course by brothers). Needless to say the nuns and brothers are long gone, and the church itself has only two masses a month. But both the church and the school buildings kept in good repair, as a matter of civic pride.                                                                                                                                                   


    
  Damme church outside                                                                                                      Damme church inside

Eventually I arrived at Damme. This used to be the port for Bruges, with a bustling wealthy community, which built a large brick church to match those of Bruges itself. Then the port silted up and Damme, like Bruges itself, entered several centuries of slumber. Much of the town disappeared. The church became too big and was partly demolished. What is left is rather attractive both inside and out. Several artefacts inside, beautifully preserved and cared for, show why Belgium used to be justly famous for the quality of its church fittings, even if it feels more like a free museum than a place of prayer. Mass is said there just once a month.

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Yesterday afternoon I had had enough (for friends, see yesterday’s posting). My wife saw the signs and suggested that I go walking. I have a small collection of favourite places in Belgium for such situations. One is Postel, a restored Norbertine abbey up by the Dutch border.


 Curiously, in Belgium, nearly all monasteries are places to go away for a Sunday afternoon with the family, walk a kilometre or so with the kids and the dog, then have an ice-cream, a beer or a pomme-frites. I doubt whether one person in five actually goes into the church, but there is something about such places, often in attractive country settings, that draws people.


     

The hour’s drive was enough already to clear my mind, and half an hour in the church and the adjoining herb garden did the rest. I then slipped off to my ‘secret lake’ in a nature reserve just too far away for your Sunday strollers.  After that I could face the world, and a busy week again….  

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A Roman Catholic priest friend of ours joined us for supper last night. He spoke of a frequent phenomenon he encounters in Belgium: of Catholics who maintain a deep spiritual life (prayer, bible…) but with relatively little interface with the organized church, with which they feel uncomfortable and unable to connect. Is this a specifically Roman Catholic phenomenon….?

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I knew from 50 metres away that I would not like the church. I was with MmeKourdukova on one of our Sunday afternoon exploratory drives, and we were in the Brussels suburb of Tervueren.

The church looked too well cared-for by Belgian standards, and too well integrated into the urban architecture. I smelt money and civic pride – Tervueren become wealthy after the war, and the 14th century church is the only respectable building it has.  The Vredesboom (Peace Tree) in front also suggested that this was a place of 'feel good' rather than hard Christianity.

 

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It was a dreadful meeting at the big religious bookstore at the end of the tramline. A solid phalanx of the Brussels bourgeoisie, average age close to 70, mostly retired on good pensions, listening to a popular writer on the position of the Roman Catholic church. There were some good ideas for the future, some of which the Orthodox Church could usefully hear. But it was shallow, much about organization, little spiritual depth, no sense of real spiritual battle.

Very Belgian. Belgium is essentially a country created by the bourgeoisie for the bourgeoisie. This meeting showed the bourgeoisie wanting to do with the Church what they did with the monarchy: cut it down to their size and fit it to their horizon.

I am pretty tolerant with Roman Catholicism – it is after all the traditional Christian confession in Belgium – but this evening it was definitely not at its best (more accurately: this was not the most appealing of the many sub-groups of which Roman Catholicism is made up). I left very fast after the meeting.

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There were about a hundred of us last night, in the Jesuit church just across the road from the main European Commission building in Brussels, listening to a lecture on St Catherine of Siena, by the Master of Novices of the French Province of the Dominican order.  For me, such lectures are also good places to maintain informal contacts with leading members of the other Christian confessions in Brussels.  Which is my job in the ROC here.

I was impressed and, at least from the hour-long lecture, would have said nihil obstat to her being revered in the Orthodox Church.

Where I did feel uncomfortable, though, was in the short Vespers of St Catherine afterwards. My toes repeatedly curled up in my shoes at the music by André Gouze, considered the leading light of RC modern music. Maybe it was the voice of the main singer and conductor – this rather high, dominant and pushy voice that female singers frequently adopt nowadays, especially it seems in music related to medieval women mystics. Fortunately I was not in clerical dress, as I am not good at hiding my reactions.

Two things, though, I did like in the service: first was the use of the censer (an RC censer is larger and heavier than an Orthodox one, with longer chains and, except in big processions where you have lots of space to swing it, is used with two hands). There is a particular way of slowly censing the altar – or during the liturgy, the gifts immediately after the consecration – which the Catholics do and which I find very effective, and I see no reason why Orthodox should not imitate. The other was the space of about 5 minutes left for prayers by the people. These were brief, relevant and reverent.

This also told me something about the audience. In the Roman Church in Belgium there is quite a network of people who lead an intense and unseen prayer life. Often they are oblates of one of the religious orders, sometimes consecrated virgins, many are older people on pensions. There were quite a lot of them there last night. Which is important and is reason for hope, despite the outward difficulties of the RC Church in this country.

  
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Yesterday’s annual Easter Monday liturgy of all the clergy of the Brussels diocese around Archbishop Simon was a relaxed and really quite pleasant affair. We kept a full archiepiscopal liturgy on the road without mishap, and some imported seminarians from Moscow made it sound very ‘cathedral’.

We were about thirty in the sanctuary, nearly the full Belgian clergy complement of 20, plus guests and acolytes. We are probably a much more varied group than you would get in a similar setting in Russia. Those of us who have been ordained here (all the deacons and half of the priests) have often long stories as to how we or our families ended up in Brussels. ‘Conducting’ the liturgy was the senior proto-deacon, Fr Alexander, whose 60th birthday we celebrated afterwards. He was the last of the deacons to be trained by Bishop Basil Krivocheine, and has trained all the new generation, including myself. Competent, unassuming and patient – very patient at times, particularly with those to whom liturgy comes less naturally.

Also in the sanctuary, in stikarion, was our Polish priest’s mentally handicapped son, a short clipped beard telling me he was now adult. Like much of our large Polish contingent his father is a builder by trade, and while I would not put him on a seminary examining board, watching him confess people during the liturgy it was clear he provides that sympathetic and compassionate listening that is so important in exile communities. It was absolutely right that his son be with us. Sadder was the state of Father X, who looks like he’s on the way out and I’m not sure he’ll be around next year.

Belgium is not the highest visibility ROC diocese in Western Europe. But yesterday’s liturgy is suggesting that we might be developing a certain common spiritual style. It’s a curious mixture of personal discipline and tolerance, and a merciful lack of personal ecclesiastical ambition. Good liturgy is important to us. It’s still Russian yes, but softer and less brash than what I know from Moscow or St Petersburg. Perhaps because most of us have ‘been through the mill’ in one way or another, enough to keep us relatively humble. Interestingly, many of us are regular visitors to Athos. This may just be pointing to something…

Flanders

Mar. 28th, 2011 09:14 pm
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      I had I had had enough. Of translation and of Church work. I needed some fresh air. So early on Saturday morning I drove forty miles north west from Brussels. This is pure Flanders, flat as a pancake. I know Flanders well and speak the language – the outcome of an affair that went badly wrong thirty years ago. Like much of Flanders, this is mixed farming and agricultural country. You feel that people have worked and still work hard.  Like in the house to the right: originally the family lived to the right, the animals were kept to the left - the double garage behind is a recent addition.

They are very house-proud here, and spend an awful lot of time building. But what they actually do of interest in the houses, apart from eat, watch television and have sex, I have never really discovered. They are pious, after a way: they keep their churches (often the only historical building in the village) in good repair. And their graveyards, like their front gardens, are immaculate….

                                                           

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This notice caught my eye in the Beguinage church in Mechelen (30 km north of Brussels) the other week.

It describes the indulgences attached to certain prayers said at certain times in front of a Mission Cross. Mission Crosses used to be set up to record a mission preached in a parish, normally by a preaching order like the Redemptorist or Passionist fathers. The Redemptorists, whose mission in 1882 this notice records, had a reputation as hell-fire preachers, and drew large crowds in the days before radio, television and the cinema. Most of the crosses themselves were temporary affairs, and have long disappeared.

As a good Protestant boy fifty years ago, I was taught that indulgences were a bad Catholic invention, which Luther rightly condemned, leading to the Reformation.  

And while I may, as an Orthodox today, find purgatory and indulgences to be rather mechanical ways of putting across the need for serious purification in order to come into God's presence, and while they went out of fashion with Vatican II, one nevertheless senses an honest piety:

“Indulgence of three hundred days whenever piously and with a penitent heart, one prays five times Our Father, five times Hail Maries and five times Glory be, in honour of Christ's five wounds, in front of the Mission Cross”, or again:

"To enjoy a full indulgence one must first go to confession, take communion and visit the Mission Cross in a church or public chapel and pray there for the intentions of His Holiness (the Pope).”

Can one really argue with that?


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The fact that church buildings become unused and are sold off is inevitable, though sad. I have seen a dozen sold to private developers in my twenty-five years in Belgium. Most of them belonged to religious orders which have since died out – for the reasons see my last Sunday's posting 'Memories of pre-contraception Belgium'.  

We spent a couple of hours today in Mechelen (also known as Malines or Mechlen), thirty kilometres north of Brussels, a delightful old town which is home to the principal Roman Catholic bishop of Belgium.

There, too, under the imposing shadow of the archiepiscopal cathedral of St Rombout, used to be a whole cluster of monasteries and seminar buildings, many of which have since become redundant.

Re-uses are varied, but one which made me angry was the conversion of a former Franciscan church into a hotel. It’s not the conversion per se that I object to, but the fact that key features of the old church, like mosaics over the entrance, the stained glass, or the high altar which remains behind a glass screen at the end of the atrium, are actively used a decorative elements and advertised as part of the attractions of the hotel. See: http://www.martins-hotels.com/en/hotel/martins-patershof.

This should not have happened. Why, I don’t know. But in any case, that is one bar I shall not be drinking at ...

But not all was bad, by a long way. There was the lovely beguinage church, which I will say some more about later.

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More from last Sunday’s visit to Leuven.

 

This lovely old medieval church near the centre of Leuven has been mothballed since 1968 – in other words, closed to the public and given just enough attention – keeping the roofs intact against rain and the doors against tramps ­– so as to be reusable at same unspecified time in the future.

 

Later I found this touching plaque near the main hospital, "in thankful memory of the Hospital Sisters, who between 1184 and 1999 took responsibility for the sick and travellers", that is until they shut for lack of vocations.

Why the closed church, the death of the nursing community? The reasons are many and complex. But one of the biggest and simplest is, very prosaically, contraception.

Without it, the norm in a Catholic family was between four and six kids. And in a reasonable pious household, you could expect at least one, if not two, to go into the Church as a celibate priest or nun, often abroad, in Belgium’s African colonies or to South America. Add to this infant mortality and the odd war, it kept the population kept pretty constant without condoms or the pill. 

I’m not saying the level of piety or education was that high. In particular among the women’s communities it could be pretty basic, the more so because, with a shortage of men after World War I, for a woman to enter a convent was often the only socially acceptable alternative to being 'left on the shelf'. And for working class boys, too, seminary was often the only way to get a decent education.

And if you have six kids, and not much else to do on a Sunday morning, it does not take many families to fill a church building.

Much was wrong with this Western European Catholicism - the dying days of which I remember as a teenager in the 1960s -, but there remains a regret for certain things that were good in it: especially a sense of decency, intact families, and an understanding that there were other things more important in life than wealth or pleasure.

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Yesterday afternoon I drove out to Grimbergen, in the northern, Flemish-speaking suburbs of Brussels. Say Grimbergen to your average Belgium, and he will immediately think of the heavy beer of that name. Given that most Belgian beers are named after monasteries (that can be the subject of another posting), you will not be suprised to learn that it also has a large abbey, founded in the 12th century by the Norbertines (generally known outside Belgium as Premonstratensians), canons who continue to live a mixed contemplative-pastoral life under the Augustinian Rule.


The abbey church is one of several superb pieces of late 17th century architecture in the country (others are another Norbertine abbey at Averbode and the parish church at Ninove), even if it was never finished to its full size, lacking 22 metres of nave and the customary monumental west façade.

 

Like many churches of the period between about 1650 and the French Revolution, its decoration raises huge questions as to the spirituality of the time. As elsewhere during this period, the Virgin predominates, in various forms: ascending to heaven, with swords piercing her heart, displaying the infant Jesus in large wall-paintings, or as an image of the church, with the chalice in one hand and the cross in another. Christ is relegated to a transept chapel, albeit on a superb, and quite sensuous, crucifix, flanked by a good painting of the erection of the cross. It is Christ in agony, with no note of resurrection.

 

Trying, like an archaeologist, to read back from these outer signs just what was the Catholic civilization of the time in Belgium (Spanish until 1713, Austrian until the French Revolution), I suspect that it splits into two main levels: an educated upper layer moving fast in the direction of deism and rationalism, and a popular level, running towards an uneducated and popular piety. Whether there was any real deep spirituality of at least reasonable theological purity, and an ongoing tradition of deep prayer, it is difficult to know. I sort of doubt it.

               

What is becoming increasingly clear to me is that Belgium lacks any real, deep and socially inclusive religious identity, in the same way as there is a Russian, Swedish, English, French or Spanish one. Since the fall of the Flemish-Burgundain dynasty in 1377, the southern Lowlands (what since 1830 has been Belgium) were first Spanish, then Austrian colonies. The only real movement with any impetus in this part of the world was Protestantism, which led to the split-off of what is now the Netherlands in the late 17th century, joined by a good portion of the Antwerp bourgeoisie who emigrated north.

Indeed, it is extraordinary difficult to produce a good Christian narrative about Belgium. The local Orthodox have tried to plug the gap with a hundred or so pre-1054 saints, but the result is forced and artificial: this is not tradition in the sense of being the latest link in a continuing story.

Indeed, no one to my knowledge has come up in the last fifty years with a good history of the Belgian church. I am not surprised. Writing the history of the Belgian brewing industry would be a much easier (and more profitable) assignment...




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25 kilometres south-west of Brussels

I didn’t want to continue that conversation yesterday on ЖЖ. It was sunny and still hot. It was my last chance to go walking in the country before leaving for Russia next Friday. But my wife asked me to, so OK... The conversation was about vocation. I was not in the mood, but did my best

I still went off into the country. Driving out of Brussels, all of a sudden I was struck between the eyes by what is possibly the best explanation yet of why the good Lord had let me be thrown out of a monastery 25 years before.

I entered a French Benedictine monastery in my early 30s, believing I had a vocation to the monastic life, with the priesthood thrown in.  All went fine for the first year, then it all unravelled and I was asked a year later by the novice master (a man I felt I could not trust at a deep, spiritual level),  to leave. As he was expected to become the next abbot, it was no use protesting. (He left two years later, just after I got married, after getting too close to the abbess of the women's monastery next door).

Leaving the monastery was worse than a divorce (which I have also been through). The bitterness took a long time to get out of my system. The 'why Lord?' question remained for years...

 

12-century ‘sedes sapientiae’ at Ittre

What suddenly struck me yesterday was that, very simply, if I had stayed at that particular monastery I would not have been be tested enough. I would be better tested ‘in the world’. In the words of the Epistle to St Peter in the 1960 New English Bible (theologically wayward at times but brilliant as a translation): ‘This is cause for great joy, even though now you smart for a little while, if need be, under trials of many kinds. Even gold passes through the assayer's fire, and more precious than perishable gold is faith which has stood the test’.

I hope that this is not prelest, but simply the assayer’s fire in that monastery (and IMHO in most Benedictine monasteries of the time) was not hot enough.

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This month’s issue of Pastoralia, the glossy subscription magazine of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, begins with a long article by the new Archbishop, André-Joseph Léonard, on the correct celebration of the liturgy. In it he politely, but firmly, insists:

- that the Bible readings in church services may never be replaced by other readings

- that the Nicean Creed and the Apostles’ Creeds are the only correct creeds, and home-grown versions are to be avoided. I quote “The Church prayed and meditated and fought against heretics for four centuries, to arrive at the profession of faith shared by all Christian communities. It is important not to waste this treasure in favour of compositions without a future”.

- that the intercessory prayers at funeral or marriage services (similar to Orthodox ectenias, but with freedom of wording, and very often spoken by lay people)  “should remain a prayer addressed to God and not turn into a farewell message to the departed or a good wishes telegram to the newly-weds..."

- that, health permitting, one should stand (or in places kneel) during large parts of the liturgy.

 His instructions point to a certain laxity that had crept in. While well-intentioned in the hope of bringing the Church closer to people, it undermined the idea that the Christian life is a disciplined one, and that, in the faith, as in anything serious in life, you have to make an effort.

 Mgr Léonard has wide support in the Orthodox Church here, to which he is known to be more favourable than his predecessor. While we may not all agree with certain aspects of Catholic doctrine, like clerical celibacy, that he insists on, we are glad that our sister church has a strong hand at the helm.  

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It was unseasonably warm this Sunday afternoon. It would have been a sin to stay indoors, even for Live Journal dialogues. So I drove out into the country north-east of the old university city of Leuven and then went walking. My route took me past some of Belgium’s only vineyards. The grapes were small but tasty.


 I looked into the local village church at Houwaart. Inevitably it was locked. I started talking to an old woman outside the church in Dutch (the language of northern Belgium). She couldn’t place my accent and asked me whether I was from Holland. No, I said, I'm from England. And she pointed me to some English war graves.

 The English war graves of both the first and second world wars are of identical pattern, in England, in France, in Belgium. And they are all very well looked after.  When you see a group of three or four gravestones together in a Belgium graveyard, you can be almost sure that it is an airplane that came down, probably on a bombing raid to Germany.


 I always get a lump in my throat when I see war graves. I don’t know why: I have lived outside England all my adult life and tend to steer clear of English circles here. I guess it something instinctive, deep inside. Perhaps also I am now part of the older generation, that is of the generation which keeps the memories of any people. What is frightening is just how young these men were. The pilot of one of the two planes which came down at Houwaart was just 19 (my own sons are 20 and 18). At 19 I could not yet drive a car, let alone fly an airplane. But it is right that we keep the memory and the graves tidy. Requiescant in pace.

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I went last night to hear a popular (lay) speaker on the situation of the Roman Catholic Church today. The venue was the new Dominican parish in Leuven-la-Neuve, the country’s largest French-speaking university, of Christian (rather than free-thinking) tradition.

 Average age around 60. Socially very homogenous: largely university or free professions, almost entirely white. The Dominican leading it was dressed in civil clothing, no one else recognizable as a priest.

 This is a group where you feel a ‘silent tradition’, a shared set of references, a way of speaking. Very Belgian. This tradition recognizes itself as Christian, even I am not sure that the Christian faith is the primary momentum.  Like any bourgeoisie, they are people who are confident of their place in society, who know who they are and where they are going and defensive against anyone who challenges this. Which is perhaps why they are pretty critical of the Church hierarchy, which you feel for them to be very much 'out there'.  The more authoritarian parts of the Catholic Church, like Opus Dei, would have been very unwelcome yesterday evening.

Somehow I found the discourse curiously shallow and immature for people of their age, like fifty-year olds whose sex life has not got beyond that of their twenties. Many of them sensed it and are looking for something else. I almost wanted to say: stop your amateurish bible studies and prayer groups and plunge into a much deeper spirituality: do the Ignatian exercises, go on a serious pilgrimage, or learn the Jesus prayer.

 Despite this gap they do not know how to fill, Orthodoxy is not a reference here. Why? In part at least because connecting with, and feeding into, this group, this ‘silent tradition’, is very difficult for us Orthodox here in Belgium. We lack the language, the educational level, the social background, the ability to sense how traditions like this one operate. In many cases we simply cannot behave socially. We are not what the Germans call 'salonfähig', people you would invite to your salon.

Yes, they did mention one Orthodox to me: a Belgian priest who has wandered in and out of the various little groups on the fringe of Orthodoxy, and now runs a church in the 'western Orthodox' tradition. I am not enthusiastic about his church, but he has one enormous advantage on the rest of us who try as Orthodox to connect into the local Belgian scene: he is from their tradition, from a ‘better’ bourgeois family (including a bit of spare inherited family money with which to buy a church building). He is salonfähig.  

 

The only other way in is to attract by a quality of holiness (like what Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh did in England). None of us unfortunately are anywhere near this.

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The presence of a large Muslim population has hit the headlines with the open-air pray-in in Moscow last weekend.  

If I can throw in some ideas from our European, and particularly Belgian experience.  For information, right now Brussels has a 15-20% Muslim population, and more than 30% at primary school level. The big migration was in the 60s and 70s, mainly from French-speaking North Africa.

 I would want to make a clear distinction between a) the role of the government and b) the role of the church and the individual adult Christian.

 The government’s role is to provide the basics of order. Very much on the basis of the very sinful state where we find ourselves. In Moscow itt has two groups, one of Muslims who are (if I have got it right), largely male, largely young, relatively uneducated and uncultured. The second group is Russian, male and female, all ages, all educational levels. The two have to remain in sufficient harmony that both sides feel reasonably safe in each others' presence. That if you find yourself as a white Russian in a metro car with ten Muslims, you feel safe, and vice versa. And I think not much more.

 On the Christian side, yes, as some have said, there is the welcome to the stranger. I would, however, point to what seems to me to be a fundamental ambiguity in the approach of the Russian church hierarchy: on the one hand courting the Muslims en bloc as 'upholders of traditional order and morality', on the other hand there is the simple fact that we still believe that Islam is an inferior faith and that a Muslim will profit from becoming Christian. Look with the love of Christ in the faces, one by one, of the Muslim men on their carpets outdoors last weekend in Moscow, and what do you say? Do you leave them on their carpets? Was the late Fr Daniel Sisoes a martyr or a political embarrassment? Or do we quietly leave evangelization of Muslims to the Protestants (whose house church method may indeed be more suited).

Could someone answer me one question: are these young men in Moscow alone or with their families? This is the key question. Our practical experience in Belgium is that once Muslims bring their families into the host country, the situation changes rapidly, especially as their birth rate is about twice ours. The maths is simple. 10 Muslims, 90 Russians in this generation, Muslim 4 children per family, Russian 1.5. In two generations time, the ratio is 40 Muslims to 51 Russians.  At this stage the real hard question hits: what civilization do you teach them in school? As Nicolas Bardos, the former professor of gepolitics at the university of Louvain-la-Neuve told me recently: population is just about the most decisive political argument there is.

 As a Christian, I think we have to keep these two approaches in tension. The curse of Christianity in my adopted country (Belgium) is not having the guts to look the first one in the eyes and to accept the fact that politics is dealing with sinful man. If you don't accept that politics is dealing with sinful man, politics gets left to sinful men.

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In response to yesterday's post, a friend asked "does this mean that for 25 years everyone knew about this illness?"

 I think the answer is at three levels:

 Level one: When exactly the former Archbishop knew exactly the story about Vangheluwe is very difficult to know. The factor of 'don't want to know' may have played a large role here. It fits with what poeople closer to him have told we about Danneels. I have had it suggested to me that the story broke precisely because of the change of archbishop – that the victim thought that he would finally get himself heard.

 Level two: About pederasty in the R.C. Church, everyone knew that it was going on, if you like, everyone had a few bits of a big jigsaw. But this is probably the first time someone has put the jigsaw together.  Three comments here:

 - First that most of the cases which have come to light are 30 or more years old. It may just be that a 50-year old is more prepared to speak than a 30-year old. My own suspicion, and frankly it is a suspicion only, is that sexual misbehaviour has gone in waves: that in the 1960s it was pederasty, in the 1980s it was priests having mistresses (the present new archbishop made himself very unpopular as a new bishop 20 years ago by cleaning this out of his diocese). In the 2000s the scandal is probably the sexual mores of the black clergy from the former colonies who have come in the depleting numbers of native priests...

 - Importantly, the Vangheluwe scandal is untypical: this is a boy with his uncle: it is as much ‘family rape’ as the traditional priest-altarboy pattern.

 - It would be unfair to say that all pederasty in Belgium at the time happened in the Church. All the psychologists are telling us that the majority of abuse of minors of both sexes is in the family.

 Level three: Understanding the wider malaise. This is quite complex – I have spent two years trying to work it out. The malaise of the Church and the social and political malaise in Belgium are hopelessly intertwined. In the Flemish north of the country (where 90% of the cases the commission saw were reported) and which was solidly Catholic till the 1970s, there is an underlying ‘light Fascism’, which was acceptable in the Church till Hitler came and invaded the country (and would be perfectly tolerated in the Orthodox Church in Russia). Since then it has been pushed underground and is not accepted in polite circles. I suspect that this has created a big void and that space has to be made for it.

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