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Bose did not work this year and we both left rather unhappy.

For those not in the know, Bose is a Roman Catholic monastery in northern Italy, in the foothills of the western Alps, founded thirty years ago by its present abbot, Enzo Bianchi, and a key place of Roman-Catholic – Orthodox dialogue. Every year in early September they do a four-day conference on Orthodox spirituality, with a different theme.

Every year they invite representatives from every Orthodox Church, and anyone else is free to come. This was my fourth visit.

The ‘every Orthodox church’ was part of the problem. To (be seen to) visit Bose has become one of the things to do for every Orthodox (and ‘near’-Orthodox) church. Apart from having to politely listen to and clap greetings from every Patriarch and his brother, all saying essentially the same thing, it means that, at least for the first couple of days, the place is flooded with bishops. If they were outgoing it would not be a problem, but since they are mostly bad linguists and huddle together among themselves and with their retinues, and for a humble deacon like me the implicit rule is ‘don’t speak until you are spoken to’, one feels something of a second-class citizen.

This links into something else, which is becoming increasingly clear and I am beginning to find words for. In my mind, the main differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, are not directly theological (with a sharp mind you can break down just about every theological barrier  - filioque, papal infallibility, the Immaculate conception that have been put up in the last 150 years) or even to do directly with spirituality (no, Orthodoxy does not have the monopoly of theosis  that it sometimes pretends), but has everything to do with the general ethos. It is the difference between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’. Orthodoxy is still very ‘top-down’ – modelling the way societies have worked and still work in their home countries. Catholicism has, since Vatican II, become much more ‘bottom-up’, with an active and educated laity which has forced the episcopacy to listen to it. In Orthodoxy, by and large (less so perhaps in Greece and the USA, but definitely in Russia) the episcopacy think they can totally set the tone. This could prove a very major barrier in any real cooperation.

More generally, ecumenism is a funny game. Basically, for the main body of normal believers, the large part of them in the majority church of their particular part of the world, ecumenism is all a bit distant, and really not the ‘scandal of division’ certain people make it out to be. And in mixed situations – like my wife’s icon painting academy in Brussels – seriously committed Christians get on perfectly well despite the supposed division. The only ones who don’t are those for whom confessionality is tied up to identity and who would be out of a job or pastime, and travel to various nice places around the globe, as and when formal unity arrives.

I for one want to move on from this: yes, we in the various churches may not be officially ‘married’, but we are happily ‘living together’, with perhaps more informal inter-communion (especially Orthodox visiting Western Europe) than the authorities would want to know about. For me, inter-religious dialogue – especially with the Moslem world – is becoming the real challenge where I live. Ecumenism is simply passé.

I’m not saying Bose is all bad. We made some very good contacts which made the time and cost of travel worthwhile. Probably we will go again, but only from day 3, when the bishops have largely gone back home.

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At today’s BESPA meeting I struggled with differing varieties of English. (BESPA is the Belgian English-speaking Pastors’ Association - a meeting of English-speaking Christian pastors of all denominations). Start with two varieties of black African English: Malawi from the guest speaker and excited Nigerian from Peter, our very excitable Pentecostalist pastor. Add to this the thickest Irish accent I know from Fr Patrick, a native Gaelic-speaking priest from the Franciscans (our hosts), a lovely man, but I’d understand him more easily if he spoke French!, the delightful Afrikaans accent from Wim, a missionary to Moslems (including Tadjiks in Moscow), and educated American from the new Episcopalian priest(ess).

But it was a good meeting, on prayer and mission. And we shared hard, with a rare level of honesty and openness among mature Christians. I remember Wim came in heavy with his ‘Don’t prayer for anything if you’re not ready to be part of the answer.’ John, another pastor said ‘Don’t go out on mission work till you cry to God both for your own sins and for your target group’. 

But what struck me equally much was the joy to be swimming way out beyond denominational differences. It mattered very little that we are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox or whatever. We were most of us mature Christians, men and women who have had to fight hard and take risks for our faith. We all face the double duty of pastoring expatriate flocks outside their national and cultural contexts and asking ourselves what is our relationship and responsibility to the wider Belgian population, large parts of which seem as obdurate as steel against the Christian gospel (or at least in the version we want to give it to them….).  In this context I am no longer ‘Mr Orthodox’, supposed to put across a ‘party line’, as I too often am, but simply a committed Christian with others, able to contribute with a certain level of Christian experience and, I hope, maturity, to a critical debate.

On the same line: this was the morning after the announcement of the new pope. There was a joy and enthusiasm went right across the confessional spectrum. It was the sense that the Christian church worldwide – and not just the Roman Catholics– has a leader and a good one.

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I drove out today to the annual conference of the National Catholic Commission for Ecumenism out in Ciney, south of Namur, as the ROC representative.

 The conference venue was the huge Belgian centre of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the world-wide RC teaching order. Like so many RC orders in Belgium it has shrunk rapidly, the victim of secularization and contraception (until the 1970s, most vocations came from large families of five or more children). Today it serves as a conference and retreat centre, and a retirement home for the last surviving Belgian brothers. The church, dating from between the wars, is not bad inside, in particular with a good Stations of the Cross.

 The main conference was by an Orthodox professor, very much of the Paris school. Intelligent, well-structured and with some good ideas, especially on modern culture, though oblivious, it seemed to me, of the problems faced by Orthodox hierarchies whose Fussvolk are desperately afraid of being ‘sold out to Rome’ and losing the sense of identity that comes with confessional difference. The responses, by Anglican, Roman Catholic and Protestant representatives, all of university graduate/ postgraduate level, were of equally high standard.

 Such a conference may be an everyday occurrence in Moscow, but here in Belgium, it is a rare and pleasant occurrence.  Indeed, as I remarked to my Anglican compatriot, this is not really about ecumenism at all. What this really is – and why we are here – is one of the few occasions in the year in which the Christian intellectual élite can get together and be intellectual in top gear. Indeed our confessional differences are not so much a problem to be thrashed out as an excuse to get together, and to breathe a bit of fresh air outside our own parish and confessional boundaries. Among ourselves we reached unity a generation ago....


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A friend, a religious near here, a former and gifted icon painting student of my wife, sent me a short note yesterday asking me to join in prayer for the 60th anniversary of Taizé yesterday. 

She quoted me a line from their weekday Missal: “the reconciliation of Christians is urgently needed today, it cannot be constantly put off till later, until the end of time. Over the years the ecumenical vocation has brought about incomparable exchanges. They are the first fruits of a reconciliation. But when the ecumenical vocation does not take concrete form in a communion, it leads nowhere."

I blow hot and cold on ecumenism. I hate the word – ecumenism has always struck me more as polite hobby than urgency. If you have to work together with people of other churches, which I am doing all the time, you just roll up your sleeves and get on with it. Yes there are perhaps a dozen times a year where I find myself at another confession's Eucharist, and yes it would be nice if I could take communion with the others, and I don’t, probably more out of discipline (and not causing a scandal) than conviction. But it’s not critical for my spiritual life. And I’m not really how sure how much it is for anyone faced with a commit/don’t commit decision, other than as an excuse not to commit.

Yes, Taizé, I’m sure you do good things. Put please could you do something about that red and brown 'San Damiano' painted cross of yours. It may have historical and sentimental value, but it is artistically hideous.


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October 2015

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