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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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I missed BESPA intentionally today for the first time in three years. Why?

But first: what is BESPA? It is a monthly meeting of all English-speaking clergy in Brussels at the Irish Franciscan parish. With two Roman Catholics and one Orthodox (me), the centre of gravity is inevitably rather Protestant.

Some people I like immensely. Like the quiet Salvation Army Captain and his very upfront wife, whom I have finally convinced I do not need 'saving'. Or my South African missionary friend, with his thick Boer accent, who works with Muslims and has nearly paid with his life for it. Or the American army chaplain: a straightforward, decent guy, who has been in Afghanistan and Korea and who says it as it comes.

Yes, there are the inevitable women priests and deacons, and that ‘halleluia Jesus’ black African evangelist who blurs the borderline between zeal and sanity.

But that’s not the problem, and not why I stayed away. The problem comes in two forms:

- Those people, mostly American, who ‘have Belgium on their heart’ and believe God has sent them on a mission to save our benighted country. I frankly doubt that He has. After a quarter-century in the country, speaking both national languages fluently, I think I have half an idea of what the Belgian religious 'problem' is. It is deep-seated and messy, but it needs a home-grown Belgian/European and not their imported solution, which threatens an already fragile Christian culture.

- The other thing is that, when all's said and done, my comfort or discomfort with fellow clergymen rests largely on an instinctive feel for the depths and veracity of their Christian experience (often in inverse proportion to the amount they speak about it). I do have the feeling of a lot of clergymen tread water from about age 40 onwards and, once you are in the system, it is damned difficult to move forward and become really spiritual. When many of my brethren take the floor, I start asking myself: does Orthodoxy provide that much better a line on God? And sometimes I even begin thinking it does.

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There is little commonality in why we became Orthodox: it seemed right for each of us in our particular circumstances at a particular time in our religious lives – but with not enough consistency and not enough of us to suggest that a ‘move to Orthodoxy’ is a self-evident religious trend of our time.  

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Bang! Ouch!

My theologian priest friend rapped me over the knuckles.

In a draft article, I had used the word ‘Church’ to include the other Christian communities in Belgium. As an Orthodox, he said, I should use the word Church only for Orthodoxy, the only source of salvation.  

Whoops….  OK. I’ll change ‘Church’ to ‘different Christian communities’.

But I am uneasy, and I put it to him in the form of a question:

You are in Brussels or Antwerp or Ghent, in front of an audience of 100 people of reasonable intelligence, all third generation Belgian (i.e. not Kazakhs or Magreb Arabs with Belgian passports), who are seriously ready to commit to the Christian faith. Alongside you are a Roman Catholic priest and an EPUB (Eglise protestante unie de Belgique) pastor.  You each have five minutes to convince them to sign up to your community and not one of the other two.  What are the key arguments you are going to use to sell (Russian) Orthodoxy, as practised in Belgium, as the only one right form of Christianity, to them?

Any ideas?
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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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On the windy bridge between western Christianity and Orthodoxy where my bishop has placed me, one of my most difficult problems is turning out to revolve around four terms:

 Tradition, Culture, Civilization and Morality.

 I am not sure that western Christianity and Orthodoxy mean the same things here.

 Tradition is the West is pure Christian traditio, in the East it is an impenetrable amalgam of traditio and national tradition, with the exact dosage of the two left largely to the discretion of the individual priest.

 In the Orthodox mind, it seems that Culture and Civilization seem to go together, in the West, Culture, in the form of 'popular culture' can be pretty uncivilized.

 In particular for the west, Morality is inseparable from the other three, whereas I get the impression it rather goes its own separate way in Orthodoxy. You can be damned immoral but still be viewed as civilized and cultured…

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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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I have recently been reading a lot of material from the Russian Church in Russia, condemning western secular liberalism. In general, I agree, but allow me three questions:

 1) Is it possible to make the argument without this constant reference to homosexuality or women priests?  How would one have argued before 1960, when secular liberalism was solidly rooted, but homosexual acts were still illegal in most western countries and women priests existed only in Denmark.

 2) If I take the percentage of adult men having homosexual relations at least once a week in England or Germany, and compare it with the percentage of adult men getting seriously drunk at least once a week in Russia, which percentage is higher?

 3) If a young Christian man finds himself sexually attracted to other men, are there competent priests in the Russian church who can handle the situation properly. I will not accept the argument ‘This does not happen in our house’. It does.

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My official task in the ROC in Belgium is to represent Orthodoxy to the non-Orthodox here in Belgium.

Unofficially, it is becoming to defend the local RC and Protestant churches from attack from Orthodox, quick to draw sweeping conclusions with very little knowledge of the local territory.

Like a friend who linked the retreat of German Protestantism to moral laxity (gay marriages, female clergy, and the rest...).

 I quote my reply:

 “I hesitate in seeing a direct relationship between women priests, gay marriages and abortion and reduced Protestant church attendance. (…)

I suspect that the problem lies not in a loss of a sense of morality among Protestants (moral debate among Protestants on issues like euthanasia and homosexuality can be excruciatingly intense). Rather it is that Protestantism has been largely based on morality, and very little else, (...) with very little sense of beauty or mystery, except if you are keen on organ music.

Once I decide that as an adult (cf. Bonhoeffer’s ‘man come of age’) that I can make my own moral judgements, outside of the church, and without the need of its pastors, there is really very little reason to go to church.  

Nor am I really sure that the Catholic ‘Fussvolk’ (Catholicism in Germany is holding its ground) is really that anti-gay, anti-woman priest, anti- all abortions. I rather suspect that many do not really follow the official Church line in their hearts, but have learned to keep their mouths shut - at least so long as they are not directly affected.”

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Vatican II


I have been wading through a pile of material a Russian friend gave me on the Lefèbvrist movement round the Society of Pius X.

I do not share the conviction of the Pius X movement that Vatican II or the new rite of the Roman mass are the sole source of all ills in the Roman Catholic church in Europe today. I certainly do not like the very authoritarian world which Lefèbvre hankered after, which seems to deprive me of much of my fundamental liberty as an adult (I hope!) child of God. And I fear that that the heavy emphasis of the Pius X group on discipline and dogmatics, and its fear of conscience and personal experience, continue the rift between mind and heart which weakened Catholic spiritual life for three centuries.  

That being said, it is clear from a lot of things that I am hearing that there is a considerable sympathy in the Russian Orthodox church with the Pius X movement, and in particular the more traditional liturgical style.

Let me throw up four ideas and see where they land:

1) That if Rome could come to some sort of understanding with the greater part of the Pius X movement, this would enormously smooth the path for closer relations between the MP and Rome (if not inter-communion, at least an 'alliance' of the type that Metr. Hilarion is angling for). In other words, a Rome-Pius X and a Rome-Moscow reconciliation may be inter-linked.

 2) If I read things correctly, the real hate of the Lefèbvrist group is the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), which has also drawn serious criticism from the Orthodox world. Is it just sheer nonsense to suggest that it is time for a revised document, ideally on a joint RC-Orthodox basis? If I understand things correctly, the Vatican II documents are seen in the RC Church as authoritative, but not infallible.

3) That the idea of a Pan-Orthodox council is really totally out of date. What is really needed now is a pan-Christian (i.e. R.C. + Orthodox) council, with clear support from Rome, Constantinople, Moscow and Bucharest.

4) That the Moscow Patriarchate should perhaps publicly state (if it has not already), that the pre-Vatican II mass is liturgically valid (if I understand correctly, it already existed, in something very close to its Council of Trent form, in around the 6th century).

As I said, these are just ideas I am throwing up. So don’t prepare yet to burn me at the stake, or whatever other nasty equivalent was used for heretics in Russia….

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Last night, too tired to do much else, I wondered a bit aimlessly through Friendland. Live Journal on one side of my screen and Google Translator Russian-English  on the other.

Two films caught my eye (I tried to find them again just now, but couldn’t). The first was the Patriarch's sermon for the Feast of the Donskaya Icon of the Mother of God, the second a film on priest-murders in Russian, starting with Fr Alexander Men and ending with Fr Daniel Sisoes.

  - I like the Patriarch’s sermons: he speaks well in a relatively uncomplex Russian which I understand nearly completely. With the Kazakh audience, he seemed in his stride. Perhaps if he had not been a priest, he would now be an army general...  Two words stood out: mudjeskvo (virility) and dukovnaya sila (spiritual strength).  They are not words you hear much around here, either in a Catholic or an Orthodox setting. Religion has gone rather unisex in my part of the world, and the idea of specifically ‘male’ virtues pretty much out of the window. Too much ‘strength’ is not welcome either. Not just in the church, but increasingly in business life. A pity, and a very real danger.  

 - The second film, centred pretty much on the three murders at Optina Poustin at Easter 1993, I did not like it at all and would not show to a western audience. The atmosphere was very much that of a siege mentality, a sense of being under attack from every side. Not that I deny for one moment the existence of  'your enemy, who as a roaring lion, prowls around, seeking whom he may devour'. But there was something tense, nervous, unfulfilled about the whole film. It was very much the atmosphere of apocalypse and Armageddon. Not easy for me to rhyme with a concept of ‘perfect man, (..) the fulness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.13). This is a strand of Russian spirituality which I find hard to handle....

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Let me come into the Bunge debate. I'll be honest: I have not read Bunge, and I have no immediate intention to (see below)  Two priest friends of mine here say he’s OK as a general introduction. My wife, an expert on the subject, says he is best avoided on iconology. I’ll take their word for it.

 Why the fuss? Why is his change of church headlined on the Mospat site? Dare I suggest that it is because the Orthodox Church is desperately, desperately short of faces in Western Europe. The sort of people you can build a story around, whom you can make an interesting half-hour documentary about, who feel ‘spiritual’, who speak well, and who to westerners like me are 'one of us', acceptable in our own culture. There is a huge, gaping void here in Western Europe, in particular since the death of Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh, who to my generation in England in the 1970s and 1980s was ‘Mr Orthodox' in person. I note that Bunge was accompanied at his first Orthodox Eucharist by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, almost the only other 'face' which exists.

 Why not read Bunge? Because I am hesitant of authors who write about other authors, in particular lots of other authors. It is too easy to walk in other men’s shoes, wear other men’s clothes. Orthodoxy is spread direct one-to-one, not via intermediaries. Simeon the New Theologian was set seriously on the road by Simon the Pious, as a person, not by what Simon told him about St Basil, St Maximus the Confessor or whoever. The only interest in Bunge for me is Bunge himself – either in person or a good (auto)-biography.

One more Bunge-related comment: elsewhere in Friendland there was a whole conversation two days back about 'serious' and 'exalted' Roman Catholic mystics (it started when someone quoted Bunge). 'Exalted' has become a dirty word here, particularly in its French version ‘exalté’, referring to someone who is not religiously (better: religiously-sexually) stable. Where does it come from? Popular accounts of Teresa of Avila? The ‘Devils of Loudun’ film? In reading Teresa of Avila I have the feeling of a very ‘feet on the ground’ woman, very cautious indeed about what was happening to her. Yes, I have met along the way one of two pious men and women whom I would place in the 'exalté' category, but I would certainly not class them as real mystics.

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My official task in the Russian Orthodox Church in Belgium is as a representative of the Church to non-Orthodox confessions, meaning mainly, but not always, Roman Catholics.

Paradoxically, in a Russian context, I find myself constantly defending Catholicism from constant misrepresentations, in particular about infallibility.

I repeat here a couple of paragraphs out of a longer article I wrote a few months ago entitled 'Comparative theology - the need for a paradigm shift'. 

"The first caveat is to bear in mind in relations with the Roman Catholic church is that while its dogmatic pronouncements are as a rule clearly stated and irrevocable, there is considerable stretch as to both their interpretation and their degree of reception at any one particular time. The doctrine of Papal Infallibility, in as far as it has ever really been received by the people, is interpreted quite differently today, with much a much greater emphasis on the corporate consciousness of the Church, than when the doctrine was first pronounced in 1870. Once we make allowances for this 'stretch’, we find that the basics on which Orthodox and RC spirituality are built, are in fact quite at bit closer than we might have thought. Further examples:


filioque ­­- whatever the 'wrongness' in principle of adding a couple of words to the creed, there is a general understanding of why the words were added, and generally this difference is no longer seen as a major stumbling block. I surmise that, if this was the last stumbling point on the way to visible unity, the Catholics would be ready to drop the filioque.

- Immaculate Conception - while the 'biology’ of how Mary's 'immaculacy' differs, her purity, her role in salvation and her intercessory power are generally accepted in both the Orthodox and RC churches.

- idem for the bodily resurrection of the Mother of God. While the mechanics vary (in Roman Catholic theology she does not die, in Orthodox theology she does), the net result is the same: she has ascended as a firstfruits of humanity and with a special position next to Christ in heaven (both Orthodox and RC theology and iconography attributes the places ‘at my right or my left’ (Matt. 20.23) to Mary and John the Baptist).

(…) I do wonder if there isn’t in fact a tendency in both Protestant and Orthodox theology to define oneself at least in part by 'what one is not'.  The very word Protestant speaks of drawing theological distinctions ("we protest against certain doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome"). The Orthodox Church has picked up this practice: it has taken on the identity of purists who have not allowed themselves to be led astray by papal doctrines. And if suddenly these doctrines were to be invalidated (and de facto they are pretty much invalidated by having very little real influence on the spiritual life of Roman Catholic Christians), I rather fear that Orthodox would desperately search round for others in order to retain a difference by which to define an identity."

The full text, if you have the courage, is in my Journal on 20 July.

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I’ll be short. I need to get away and think and write seriously, for 'Byzantium' and others, about what it is in the western experience – other than spiritual blindness or having wickedly rejected Orthodoxy in 1054 ­– that puts in its spiritual context this modern church architecture that Russians cannot get their heads round.

 My question is:

When we talk of ‘tradition’ (predanya) in the Russian sense, would it be right to say that it includes a large element of territorial/racial identity (in the sense of narod)? There is something in the your liturgy, in your whole way of going about things religious, which makes you feel at once Orthodox and Russian, there is a sort of double continuity….

I am beginning to suspect that part of the ‘problem’ of Catholicism is to have left very little space for this territorial/racial identity element. There is little or no ‘narodni' component left. Where it existed historically, it was put down. The Gallican church in France was crushed. Attempts by the German bishops to keep a separate German Catholic identity foundered in the late 18th century on lack of support from the political powers. The roots of the Old Catholics go back beyond Vatican I to when Rome imposed its own senior bishop on Dutch Catholics against local wishes in the 18th century. Anglo-Catholicism in the UK can be interpreted as people wanting Roman spirituality, but please in a form that feels part of a continuing English tradition.

There’s the same problem when carrying across Orthodoxy into a western context. But that’s another posting.

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I am often asked: why are you Orthodox? The best answer I can give is that nearly twenty years ago, when I had hit one of my once-every-ten-years really bad patches, my guardian angel went desperation to the good Lord and said: what do I do with him? It hasn’t worked with the Anglicans, nor with the Roman Catholics. The good Lord sighed deeply - like any father does when a difficult son is in trouble and he still loves him despite it all - and said “Throw him to the Russians”. 

 So far it has worked. A Russian wife has been a large part of it. Do I pray to the good Lord to give him a pay rise? Or perhaps a church decoration?


Aug. 16th, 2010 09:03 pm
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I am reading Professor Owen Chadwick’s ‘Securalization of the European Mind’, first published in 1975. He makes a good job of tackling the interplay of ideas, politics and general movements of religion and sentiment. He chronicles particularly well that layer of late 19th century churchgoing that hovers somewhere between belief and respectability.

Chadwick was master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, when I was an undergraduate there in 1967-71. He is still alive, at 94 the last surviving fellow (= member of the permanent teaching staff) of my time. Last night I watched a couple of You Tube interviews with him two years back.  


Owen Chadwick at 92

Very much a man of the establishment. He is a priest – he returned to Christianity as a moral answer to the rise of Hitlerism – but this always seemed slightly incidental. He was a historian, not a theologian, even if religious movements loomed large in his specialties. I never quite got the measure of his faith: certainly a deep moral sense was one of his major bridges to the divine. His sermons in chapel I remember only for their shortness.  

 He was a man of the establishment, not terribly consciously so I think. From an upper middle class background he slipped into the establishment, stayed in it, and ended up chronicling it.


Selwyn College – where I was an undergraduate

I never felt at ease with Chadwick’s Cambridge. I was about half a social class too low and not a good enough sportsman to be at home in it. Nor have I ever been quite at ease morally with people being able to spend their lives in academia, with a secure social position, income and the attendant outlook on life, funded basically by other people's money, either the taxpayers’ or that of tenants paying rent on property owned by a college since the 15th century. 

I did not find the Cambridge teaching staff a humanly particularly inspiring bunch. Which is part of the reason – and this is probably my biggest regret looking back – why I failed to find there the challenge to an integrated, adult Christianity that I needed. The choice of menu in my day was evangelical (the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, miserably Protestant), Anglo-Catholic (reeking of homosexuality), Roman Catholic (either Irish or recusant) or college chapel (establishment). Orthodoxy was just not on the horizon.  

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Standing in the very naked St Klara Kirche in Nürnberg (Germany) last Monday, I was asking myself as an Orthodox: if I were a priest (out of the question as I am a divorcee) and was asked to celebrate the eucharist in a form of my choosing (again very hypothetical), in this building and for a majority native population (i.e. not the largely refugee populations of most Orthodox parishes in the west), what would it look like? Answer:

- liturgy:

- a traditional western rite (possibly reworded to de-emphasize the sacrificial aspect), or St John Chrysostom with some judicious cutting between the Gospel and the 'Lift up your hearts'

- all prayers, other than the priest’s prayer of confession, said out aloud

- communion of the faithful immediately after the priest

- priest’s position: west facing

- vestments: simple, of modern western cut, in good material

- utensils: plain but of good quality

- music: Gregorian or derivative, eventually znamini (if it works with the language)

- language: as much Latin (the traditional Church language of this part of the world) as I can get away with. But every word said, in Latin or the vernacular, to be understood and believed by the speaker, and intended to be understood by the congregation

- sermon: prepared beforehand, maximum 7 minutes

- other decoration: four or five large, good icons, eventually with an early western medieval feel to them

- movements: well defined and controlled (in particular any processions). Rehearsed where necessary

 While this is all totally hypothetical, and would feel culturally strange to a Russian or Romanian Orthodox visitor, I do not think there is anything inherently non-Orthodox in it. It would not be to everyone's taste, and would not suit every building either. But dare I suggest that this is perhaps what Orthodoxy is going to have to look like, and the quality it is going to have to aim for, in the west if it is ever to get beyond its ghetto status?

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Putting St Thomas Becket, St Julian of Norwich, and Julian of Norwich's cat on our new icon has caused quite a bit of a stir, mostly on my wife’s site (mmekourdukova), where you can see both her reactions (in Russian) and mine (in English).

As I said there, behind our skirmishes on post-1054 saints and types of tonsures lie other, much more serious questions of how we as Orthodox define our positions and roles in countries with non-Orthodox Christian traditions. My own belief is that we have not got it right yet. I’ll be back on this subject later.

Tomorrow, if I have strength and courage after the liturgy, I’m going off walking in the country. Our Belgian countryside is delightful in summer in its own special, rather discreet way.

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Throughout its existence, the Russian intelligentsia has found itself in loosely networked dissent against an authority seen to be (and which was) sophisticated only in its brutality From the mid-80s onwards, led by figures like Fr Alexander Men and the group in Moscow which became St Tikhon's Orthodox University, part of the intelligentsia found its way into the Orthodox Church. But twenty years on the Christian intelligentsia remains edgy, often deeply believing and extraordinarily well-read in theology and church art and history, but unwilling to commit fully into mainstream church life.  It is viscerally anti-power, and the Orthodox Church has quickly been perceived as a power structure which, notwithstanding deep faith, is little different to any other in Russian history. Not all bishops and priests ordained in a hurry as the Church restaffed in the nineties have been models of Christian honesty, humility or simple living, and everyone outside the church nomenklatura has their stock of episcopal horror stories. The fundamentalist right has set itself up as the self-appointed vigilantes of the Orthodox blogosphere, whose onslaught of rude and crude comments caused a leading Russian Orthodox Live Journal blogger to retire from the fray last week with what looks like a nervous breakdown. Everyone in the Russian Church – even your non-Russian correspondent ­– knows instinctively just how far they can safety go (a bit further if you know how to write to be read between the lines or are covered by someone in the hierarchy). 

My English sense of fair play tells me that it is unjust to place the entire blame on the central Church hierarchy, many of whom are men of considerable spiritual and intellectual vigour and pastoral concern. Indeed I at times ask myself – as have others in the western press – just how much they are masters in their own house, given the blurred frontiers between secular and spiritual power, including a deep-rooted nationalist and anti-western populism, in which Church and State are hopelessly fused. Coming back to the intelligentsia, the Roman Catholic church has perhaps been wiser: it has parked its intelligentsia in organizations like the Jesuits, Dominicans and Opus Dei, which are answerable directly to Rome and not the local bishop, as are the monastic orders. A possible new development in the Russian Church is that many competent clergy are staying away from the church power centres of Moscow and St Petersburg, a position that internet, skype and the blogosphere are making increasingly tolerable.

(Please feel free to comment in Russian also).


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October 2015

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