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For Russian readers, my article on Orthodoxy in Belgium has just been published (in Russian) in the Orthodox magazine Alpha & Omega.

I wrote it in 2012, the 150th anniversary year of Orthodoxy in Belgium – the delay is largely due to the late editor-in-chief Marina Zhurinskaya’s illness and death last October.

I penned it in reaction to the usual ‘praise-singing’ articles which accompanied the anniversary, pointing to the serious problems lying ahead of Orthodoxy in Belgium and the need for clear forward thinking. It probably applies, mutatis mutandis, to diaspora Russian Orthodoxy in other countries outside Belgium.

It is my own opinion and not any ‘official line’. It is a plea for vision and common-sense in a situation in which right now fog and fantasy prevail.



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Parts 1 and 2 again )

 

It is also about being Christian when one has mixed cultural roots. In an Orthodoxy which has tended, like Lutheranism, to define itself along national cultural lines, a cultural mongrel will inevitably be something of a misfit. As an Englishman in a Russian Church, with a strong European background, I can no longer fit into a simple ‘Russian only’ (or indeed ‘English only’) context. Ditto the Polish cleaning ladies who make up 30% of our parish. Ditto all the partners of mixed marriages. Ditto a large portion of the people whom we are supposed to witness to (in my carpentry class: Lorentino, half Belgian, half Italian, Joseph, Belgian with an Irish wife, etc. etc.).  Slowly I find myself sliding towards a ‘Mount Athos’ solution, of a Christian culture that goes beyond nationality (one token of which might be precisely to operate in English, which is rapidly becoming the ‘super-national language’ of Europe). This seems to me to align better with the Christian calling to be ‘gathered from among the nations’ (Psalm 105,49, Psalm 106,2, 1 Peter 2.9) than any ‘national’ Christian culture, whether Orthodox or Lutheran.

All this begs I know, the question: why be Orthodox at all? And it is a very valid question for any serious Orthodox Christian outside the traditional Orthodox territories, especially as it is possible, in my opinion, to live an essentially Orthodox spirituality as a communicant member of the Roman Catholic Church (of the Anglican and Lutheran churches I am less sure). I do not believe being Orthodox makes you automatically a superior Christian to members of other churches. Yes, Orthodoxy has a rich spiritual tradition, which, when lived properly – by the spirit and not by the letter – can be very good and is a valuable contribution to the wider Christian world. But like everything good, it has its downside. And in this I include the way diaspora Orthodox communities quickly becoming in-grown, with fighting for ecclesiastical status (starting with the right to belong to the altar party and swan around in black cassock) taking precedence over a concern for holiness.



"Swanning around in black cassocks"
A not quite Orthodox illustration, yes I know.

 

Certainly, our witness to Christ in Belgium requires us to work with the other Christian churches. And yes, there will be inevitable questions of legitimate and illegitimate crossing of boundaries. Let us not be frightened by this. Let us have the honesty to say publicly that an Orthodox Christian is not damned by taking Roman Catholic communion (for example at a Scout camp), nor should an Orthodox priest be squeamish at occasionally and discreetly giving communion to believing non-Orthodox (like the many husbands of Russian wives).

This is our role: to be relevant Christians in Belgium. Not to wander aimlessly in a non-man’s land, using language and cultural difference as an excuse for inactivity. Do this and we are, in the Gospel words, “salt that has lost its savour, and is good for nothing than to be thrown under foot.” I hope we at St Nicholas do not become this.

 

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As such we in our cathedral parish of St Nicholas find ourselves in a country and a city, which is increasingly a mixed bag. Of Brussels’ 1.25 million inhabitants, 25% are non-Belgian, over 30% of births are Muslim. Of the ‘white’ Belgians under 30 whom I know, I would guess that nearly half either have a non-Belgian parent or a non-Belgian partner. If you like, we are mongrels among mongrels. And it is in this mongrel world that we have to be and preach Christ.



(Mongrels, lovely animals, aren't they/we)

The first sign of this is obviously language. I am sorry, but there is no way round that fact that we have to go bilingual. In a sense we already are: every Sunday upstairs after the liturgy I speak at least three languages (Russian, French, English), sometimes five. No, I am not in favour of multilingual services, but we need to mix Russian with one other language, either French, or English, (a language understood by every educated Belgian under age 40 and by many more Russians than is French). To do this needs a bit of patience and give and take, but it can work: the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in London is a shining example of this.

This will not go down well with Moscow, either the Church authorities, or the political authorities, who tend to see our church as part of a Russian cultural mission. Tough. Our role is to be Christians in Belgium, not standard bearers for the Russian political establishment.

But language in fact, is not what it is really all about. It is about attitude. It is about the way we as Christians believe that society should work, both our own inner society within the Church, and, so far as we are able to have a say in fashioning it, in the wider society of which we are part, which as I have said above, whether we like it or not, is that of Belgium and the European Union. Simply, the Russian model, as we see and understand it both in the Russian Church and in the Russian political structure, is uninviting in Europe –  the Russian church through autocracy, the Russian political structure through kleptocracy and corruption. This is not to say that the European model is spotless – it has many weaknesses, but my contention is that it is more honest – and Christian - to work in it and to hopefully help improve it, than to sit outside and throw stones at it.

(to be continued).

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An educated Russian friend of my wife and I visited us recently from Moscow. We are both deeply involved in the Russian Church, I in the diaspora, she in Russia, and discussion inevitably turned to church news. We spoke of situations where church bodies are clumsily managed by authoritarian and incompetent people.

What struck me was the difference in our reactions: mine was to be horrified, ‘one more nail in the coffin’, one more reason to withdraw from the Russian Church sooner or later. Hers was a sense of inevitability and a willingness to continue and to give of herself sacrificially in the situation, regardless.

For me our different reaction points to a fundamentally different approach: Russians expect any organization of any size, including the Church, to be corrupt and/or incompetent, to be led by second-class people, co-opted into an inner circle of power by those already enjoying it, in return for loyalty to this circle. This is unacceptable to us English. Competence and a clean style are essential for public life (even if not always achieved), along with at least a degree of real choice in who leads us and speaks on our behalf. And this includes the Church. Indeed to English ears, very use of the word ‘power’ in a Church setting sounds wrong and anti-Gospel, whereas in the Russian Church, the episcopacy – an unelected, self-perpetuating body, drawn from a very small pool (celibate monastics) and very difficult indeed to call to order when it misbehaves or underperforms ­­­– is still viewed largely in terms of power, both inside the Church and outside. Russians survive this situation with a sort of inner barrier, by creating an inner area, sometimes shared with a few close friends, but many times going no further than the boundaries of their inner souls, where they are honest and clear-sighted. For many, outside these boundaries, it is legitimate to lie and cheat and do dirty deals. For them, honesty and integrity, as we English understand it, is reserved for a much smaller and more intimate group. Englishmen, thrown into the Russian situation, are lost: we have been taught that integrity and honesty are essential social virtues in every situation, and lack this second inner line of defence. A Russian churchman will pick up on and accept a situation when a senior cleric is overtly lying – in particular painting a situation as much better than it really is – because the situation seems to demand it, while to an Englishman such lying is abhorrent. My classic example of this is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s angry remark to Metropolitan Nikodim Rotov during an official visit of Patriarch Alexis I to England during the Brezhnev era: “I can understand, Metropolitan, that you may have to be sparing with the truth, but I refuse to accept downright lying”, following which the Metropolitan was severely downgraded in the seating arrangements at the official banquet. All my deepest English instincts side with the Archbishop.

I am cautious to say that either system is right or wrong. The Russian system has certainly produced good saints. But it has a number of consequences.

At the church level I see two: the first is the conclusion, that however attractive its spirituality, however saintly its saints, the Russian Church in its official form is unable to “sell’ Orthodoxy in the United Kingdom and in much of Western Europe. Orthodox spirituality is salable, but not with “Moscow” as the medium. I am struck here by the way Western Christians have gained an often quality understanding of Orthodoxy with near-zero contact with its official representatives.

In both Russia and the Russian diaspora, I think I see a second phenomenon, which I call the ‘Galilee effect’. Let me explain: Christ did most of his teaching up in Galilee: a little over 100 kilometres, or 3 or 4 days on foot, from Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the power was, and whenever Jesus came there, there was confrontation and trouble. Today, I think I am seeing a ‘flight from Jerusalem’ among competent church people at various levels. For clergy the name of the game becomes to keep the bishop at the greatest distance possible, either physically - happy the priest who has made himself irreplaceable in a medium-sized city (decent schools and amenities) at least four hours’ drive from his bishop – or emotionally with expensive gifts or lavish (and expensive) feasts every time he visits. For lay people it can mean withdrawing from the parish structure and concentrating one’s spiritual fellowship with like-minded Christian friends (especially over the internet, and in the diaspora, largely outside Orthodoxy) and using the official structures only when necessary (essentially for the Eucharist). I am not sure that anyone is really served by this situation, not least bishops (to be ordained bishop in one’s 30s and spend the rest of one’s life being sucked up to will poison all but the strongest). How this will pan out in the next 10 to 20 years I do not know. Patterns of organizational power and real spiritual power may find themselves running in increasingly different – and novel – directions. Quite a bit will depend on whether the “Putin-imperial” style to which the Church appears to have trimmed its sails, will continue indefinitely. I doubt it, but am placing no bets.

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Yes, I can get exasperated at the management of our diocese, bitter at the way that some of my colleagues sacrificially work their butts off for very little – or no - money,  while others come and go as they please or build up power positions, and Moscow does not seem to care a tinker’s cuss.

But something tells me that this may be symptomatic of something much deeper: of a fundamental incoherence in the position of the Orthodox Church outside its ‘home’ territories.

Remember the story of Macdonalds and the Idaho potatoes?



 

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