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I am right now reading in Swedish a small book entitled Frälsarkransen, which translates into English as lifebuoy. It is by an older bishop of the Church of Sweden, Martin Lönnebro, who has devised a set of prayer/meditation beads, a bit on the line of a rosary/prayer rope, though in the hand more like Moslem worry beads, and explains how to use them.

What am I doing anywhere near the Church of Sweden? some will ask. The CoS, with gay marriage and a coupled lesbian bishop (of Stockholm), is not exactly flavour of the month in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet there is something in the book, written extremely simply, which attracts me. I can best describe the approach as giving people space and time to find their own way to God, with a strong emphasis on silence, and with reference to the European mystic tradition. It is an approach in which, if I have understood it right, morality and ethics come out of this silence and the relationship with the Trinity which it leads into. This silence is something I miss in the Orthodox tradition, which quickly becomes a barrage of words, with no space for silence (if there is a gap of more than 3 seconds in a 2-hour Orthodox liturgy, someone has made a mistake) and where morality is imposed and policed heavy-handedly. The Swedish approach restores a balance... 

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I’ve just spent a couple of hours reading an essay by the U.S. author and poet Wendell Berry entitled “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community” in a collection of essays with the same title. It is my first encounter with Berry, for which I thank Jeff aka Bardcat.

Berry has a sharp and independent mind and chronicles and comments, it seems to me pretty astutely, the breakdown of community and its effects on morality, especially sexual. He gives his reader the pleasure of reading nicely turned, fresh-baked moral aphorisms, spiced with a yearning back to a small-town yesteryear where everything was that much more structured and safe.  The opposition, the baddies, are the big government-business machine, which allows Berry – and you reader, if you follow him - to find his identity in opposition to it, rather like 16th century German and Dutch Protestants used the Roman Church to create individual and group identity through opposition to it.  Or indeed the Pilgrim Fathers the established Church of England.

But, I wonder whether identity by opposition, or indeed in Berry’s case, making a living off criticism of others, is not ultimately a mug’s game.  The question I want to ask Berry, if he is a real moralist, is not whether the surrounding system is moral – we know that it is not – but rather how, very practically, do I define and preserve the highest degree of morality and freedom, for myself, my family and possibly some group which I might want to call community, within the space appointed to me?

And perhaps we need at some time to stare in the face that the outward space for freedom and morality is very limited, accept the fact, rather than moan at it, and start looking for it inwardly.  Perhaps one feature of the US spiritual mind is the idea that there is always outward space to escape to somehow. But I am not sure this makes for spiritual depth.  Some of the greatest European and Russian spiritual writing has come from precisely the lack of space to move, whether voluntary in a cloister (Teresa of Avila), or imposed (Bonhoeffer) , or both (John of the Cross). 

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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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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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Once a month there is a meeting of all the English-speaking pastors in Brussels. I suspect they invited me to join not so much as a pastor (as a sub-deacon I do precious little pastoral work) but more in order to complete the multi-confessional spectrum. This stretches from deep Protestant at one end through Lutheranism, Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism to me at the other end.  It’s about 50% American, 40% English and Irish, and 10% other.

They are a nice enough bunch of people, all genuinely committed to the Christian gospel. We meet at the big English-speaking parish in a fashionable suburb on Brussels, which is run by two Irish Franciscan fathers. I do not go in wearing a big sign saying ‘Mr Orthodox’ over my chest, but do discreetly intervene with an Orthodox slant when appropriate. The differences with the Protestants on morality which Moscow makes a big fuss on (Protestants are pro-gay, pro-abortion...) are not an issue. Women priests, though, are unavoidable…

Today’s meeting was a bit flat. The leader, an American Protestant, did a small bible study on Abraham, which could have been improved with a rudimentary knowledge of ascetic theology.

My American Episcopalian (= Anglican) priest friend, a former Navy chaplain, has left, to be temporarily replaced by a woman priest. The women priests that come our way are a pretty intelligent bunch, and leaving aside the (for us) problems of their presiding the Eucharist, probably quite good pastors. They tend to be more intelligent than pretty, most of them of the pear shape common among Russian clergy.

Father Vincent, the RC priest, had had to leave in an emergency to bury a nephew who had died young in the United States. When this was announced, the leader immediately started to pray for Fr Vincent and the family. The prayer finished with a resounding Amen, and the leader moving on to something else. There I jumped in a bit sharply: “And did you tell us the name of the young man who died?" (Protestants do not pray for the dead). “Er, er, no…”. The secretary hastily scrambled on her computer to dig out a name. No comment…

The one chap I really like, who comes rarely because he travels a lot, is a South African missionary (the white Afrikaaner church sends out a lot of missionaries, also to northern Belgium and Holland because the language is very similar) who works among Muslims. He was probably the only one of us there who has really risked his life for the faith. He was in Moscow for the first time recently and told me of the Protestant mission work with the Tadjiks there. He says foreign Protestants are in an advantage in Moscow because Moscow Tadjiks will not listen to the Gospel from Russians... Any reactions from the Russian side?.....


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October 2015

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