As I try and think my way forward, within a local Orthodox diaspora situation (ROC in Belgium) which is going nowhere in particular, I find myself increasingly making a clear distinction between two aspects of Orthodoxy. The first aspect is the core essentials or kerygma of Orthodoxy. For me these lie in the emphasis on deification and the associated ascetic path, with a constant reference to monasticism somewhere in the background, and a sense of a deep prayer that is highly salvific, not only for the one praying, but for his surroundings.
The second aspect is the external trappings (music, vestments, architecture, priest-people relationships, patterns of interaction between the different levels of the hierarchy) which reflect the particular social cultures in which Orthodoxy has grown and has influenced and been influenced by.
Increasingly I conclude that the Orthodox kerygma can travel fairly easily and cross-culturally, but that the cultural trappings travel badly.
So badly in fact that I am having to seriously ask myself whether Orthodoxy is currently ‘saleable’ in Western Europe, at least in its Russian form. It is one thing to convert to the Orthodox kerygma, quite another to convert to Russian culture, especially in its post-1990 form, with patterns of authority, expectations of deference and a display of 'power' which are at odds with general western Christian standards. With respect I would point out that what successes there have been (Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh, Archbishop Vassili Krivocheine or Elder Sophrony Sakharov) were mainly pre-1917 Russian in style with a heavy dose of Mount Athos, and also had a holiness that could lift above cultural differences . Post-1990 Russian Orthodoxy, often appearing more brash than holy has, on the contrary, seemingly have made relatively little headway in my part of the world..
This ultimately raises the question: does one have to convert to Orthodoxy – and quit one’s whole social-cultural background – in order to buy into this Orthodox kerygma? I am increasingly believing one does not. I know people in the Roman Catholic Church whose prayer feels close enough to Orthodoxy as to make no difference, and for whom I would see no point of moving out into an Orthodox ghetto. I can sense how the Orthodox kerygma could be introduced into the Church of England, or possibly even the Church of Sweden, providing one can steer clear of any women bishops. In the case of the CofE, it would feel very close to the best of Anglo-Catholicism, of the non-exaggerated kind where, I will admit, part of my own heart still lies. Certainly an ‘Orthodoxized’ Roman Catholic or Anglican, who is well introduced into local structures, can pull a lot more weight than he can by moving out into the little Orthodox ghettos, which with one or two rare exceptions (Ennismore Gardens in London, Bussy in France, possibly the Orthodox seminaries in Paris), count for zero in the wider Christian life of their host countries.
What I am noticing is that -, without saying so explicitly, many of the spiritually more mature Orthodox I know in and around the Russian Church, both Russian and local convert, are taking their lead less and less from the main Russian centres and more and more from Athos, or from Athos 'proxies' like the Monastery of St John the Baptist (Maldon).
Is this giving us a message we need to be heeding more closely?