Wednesday 7 May 2014

Orthodoxy and Evangelism

I am very aware that in this short presentation it is not possible to say everything about evangelism that could be said, or should be said. So forgive me if I consider just one aspect, and do not touch on some aspect that particularly interests you.
The Orthodox Churches have rather a poor reputation for evangelism. Indeed as I was growing up in an Evangelical Christian community we saw the peoples of countries such as the Soviet Union, Egypt and even Greece, as the objects of our own evangelism. We considered the national Churches in those places to be spiritually ‘dead’ – representative of the Church of Sardis in the Book of Revelation. Of whom the scriptures said,

Revelation 3:1  I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

Once we had an Evangelical visitor from one of the Eastern European countries and we were very interested and impressed by their witness. But it never even crossed our mind that we should also ask about the Orthodox Churches in that country, and how they were suffering. We hardly considered them to be Christian at all, though we would have also said with the scriptures,

Revelation 3:4  You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.”

As an Evangelical Christian I was certainly guilty of looking at the outward appearance of things only. I knew virtually nothing about the history and experience of Orthodox Christians under the Communist and Ottoman yokes, and rather assumed that if Christians were not living as I did, then there was something defective in their faith rather than mine.

It seems to me now that I should have been much more understanding of the context in which Orthodox Christians have found themselves over the last centuries, and perhaps have looked for other, less obvious measures of vitality than whether the Gospel was preached on the street corner or not.

Indeed had I understood more of the history of the Church over the last 2000 years it would have been easier for me to see that the Orthodox Churches had not abandoned the command to ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel’, but were responding to the situation in which they found themselves with a measure of humility and faith.

A brief overview of Church history should allow us to see that Orthodoxy and Evangelism are not separate categories, but that in fact Orthodoxy demands an Evangelistic spirit.

The early history of our own British Isles can be a helpful model. Of course early Christianity in the British Isles was not Orthodox, if we mean that it looked exactly like the Coptic Orthodox Church, or the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches. But it was undoubtedly part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church which encompassed East and West, Egypt and Ireland. The first bishops active in Ireland would have been consecrated just before the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Therefore their mission was of the same Church as that of Cyril of Alexandria. They are Orthodox in a theological and ecclesiological sense, not in an Eastern cultural sense.

Uncertain traditions suggest various figures were associated with the birth and development of Christianity among the British peoples. But we know for sure that there were Christians worshipping in Britain at the beginning of the third century. Irenaeus, writing about 180 AD, Tertullian in 200 AD and Origen in about 208 AD, all describe how the Christian faith had reached Britain and was firmly established there.

It seems highly likely that the faith was brought to Britain by ordinary Christians, part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Christian soldiers would have come for a tour of duty, Christian slaves would have been brought by their masters, or like St Patrick some centuries later, some would have been captured on the continent and sold into slavery. Some of the merchants plying their trade would have been Christians, as would some of the sailors in whose ships they travelled. In fact there were well established trade routes from the Eastern Mediterranean, Southern France and Spain which reached parts of the British Isles.

By the fourth century it seems that Britain was essentially a Christian country. There could have been as many as 50 bishops caring for relatively small communities of Christians around the country. Many of the earliest remains of Roman period Churches have been lost or have not been recognised by earlier generations of archaeologists. But there are examples of Roman British churches at Colchester and within the walls of the Roman Fort at Richborough in Kent. Indeed the latter has an example of a permanent font which is large enough for the baptism of an adult by immersion. This Church was probably quite ordinary, with ordinary Christians worshipping week by week, but they were doing evangelism because they needed to baptise adults, and they were doing so much evangelism that they needed a permanent baptistry.

Just a few miles from my home in Maidstone are the well preserved ruins of an extensive Roman villa in which one wing was converted into a private chapel, and then provided with external access so that people could use the chapel without coming through the villa itself. This is an important model for how the evangelisation of Britain first took place. And it is a useful reminder that in evangelism in an Orthodox context the role of ordinary people is extremely important. We don’t know the names of any of the Christians who worshipped in that Roman Villa, though we actually have a wall painting which more than likely shows some of them standing in prayer. We don’t know the names of any of the people, or the clergy and bishop, who worshipped at Colchester. But these people, and thousands more like them, evangelised Roman Britain in a quiet and humble way.

Certainly by the time of the Anglo-Saxon incursion the country was essentially Christian, and participated in some of the continental Church Councils. The very fact that we have so few names from this period testifies to the fact that it was an ordinary evangelism conducted by local Christians over many years which brought about the Christianisation of our islands.

With the advent of real history, as it were, by the time of Bede, there are more substantial written records of the process of evangelisation in Britain. We know that Bishop Germanus visited Britain twice in the fourth century to help support the British Church. We know of Ninian, who had made the long journey from Strathclyde to Rome to gain a better understanding of the true Faith. And of course we cannot forget the important Augustinian mission at the end of the seventh century. Patrick had already become well known as the Apostle of Ireland, while Columba and his followers had a lasting impact on what is now Scotland and Northumbria. It would appear that these figures represent a second model of evangelism. One in which important missionary figures come to dominate the pages of history.

But it is not clear to me that these two models are exclusive. The mission of the great missionary saints depended on the evangelism of the unknown, ordinary Christians which had already taken place. Ninian spread the faith into the areas controlled by the heathen Picts, but his family were already Christians and had been nurtured by unknown priests and bishops since the faith had been brought to them.

Patrick also came from a Christian community, though we are unusually fortunate to know the names of his father, a Deacon Calpurnius, and his grand-father, a priest Potitus. Would he have become the Apostle of Ireland if he had not had a Christian background to nurture him in his years of slavery?

But of course just as the ministry of the great saints depended on years of quiet service in the Gospel of many unknown Christians, so the working out of the missions of the great missionaries also required the service of countless unknown and faithful Christians.

In Ireland the first bishops were sent when local groups of unknown Christians, who were doing evangelism themselves, asked Rome to send them some clergy to support them. We know the names of these bishops, though they became rather eclipsed by the development of the cult of Patrick over the following centuries. Of course these known bishops were missionaries and had a tremendous influence on Ireland, but it would be impossible to consider that 5 or 6 men could preach throughout the country, they also would have relied on priests and monks, deacons and other local clergy and people to actually live out the Gospel and root it into the communities in which they lived.

We can see this happening in the example of the conversion of Northumbria. Bishop Paulinus goes north with Ethelburga, a Kentish princess, who is to marry the pagan Edwin. He comes to faith and his people are convinced of the truth of the Christian Gospel. Indeed we read in Bede that Bishop Paulinus baptised for many days at the River Glen just below the royal palace of Yeavering.

I was there at Yeavering, just a few weeks ago and told my walking companion all about the conversion of the Northumbrians. But a little later Edwin was defeated and killed in battle, and Paulinus fled back to Kent with Ethelburga and her children. Who was left to continue the mission? It was the Deacon James. A cultured Italian man, left alone in the Northern wastes. Bede gives a moving description of him.

Paulinus had left behind him in his church at York, James, the deacon, a holy ecclesiastic, who continuing long after in that church, by teaching and baptizing, rescued much prey from the power of the old enemy of mankind; from whom the village, where he mostly resided, near Cataract, has its name to this day. He was extraordinarily skillful in singing, and when the province was afterwards restored to peace, and the number of the faithful increased, he began to teach many of the church to sing, according to the custom of the Romans, or of the Cantuarians. And being old and full of days, as the Scripture says, he went the way of his forefathers.

So there seems to be a clear lesson here. That in the Apostolic Churches the ministry of evangelism belongs both to great missionary bishops and abbots, such as Augustine and Columba; but also to ordinary clergy and people who find themselves living the Christian life among those who do not know Christ, just like Deacon James, or the unknown Christians of Colchester and Richborough.

Perhaps I am making this up or stretching a point? I don’t think so because we find the same lesson in the Scriptures. Of course the great missionary is St Paul himself, but he seems to rely everywhere on ordinary Christians to further the foundations which he lays. The little letter to Philemon is a good example. Paul writes saying,

Philemon 1:1-6  Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer,  2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:  3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  4 I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers,  5 hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints,  6 that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

If Paul is the missionary then Philemon, Apphia and Archippus are ordinary local Christians who Paul relies on, and depends on to do the daily work of evangelism and Church growth. They are ‘sharing their faith’ and they are ‘fellow labourers’, and they are building a Church in their own home. Paul has planted but Philemon, Apphia and Archippus are tending and harvesting.

In the letter to the Romans he mentions his fellow-workers, Priscilla and Aquila, and says that they ‘risked their necks for my life’, and they also have built up a Church in their home. And there are many other people he mentions at the end of his epistles, all of whom are both ordinary in having left no record other than these brief mentions, but are also extra-ordinary in having been fellow-workers with Paul in the ministry of evangelism.

If we think for a moment of the modern Orthodox Churches. It seems to me that until very recently it was the will of God that evangelism should be conducted quietly. According to the model of that humble evangelism conducted by the Christian people without fuss and without attracting great headlines. Just as the first evangelism of Britain was conducted by unknown Christians. Likewise in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East there is a greater ministry of evangelism than might be expected. But it is a quiet evangelism, an underground, personal evangelism, not the evangelism of public meetings and street corners.

It could not be otherwise in the Soviet Union under Stalin, or in the Middle East under the Ottomans. And if the evangelistic impulse grew weaker after decades and centuries of constant oppression then who are we to blame or criticise. As various Orthodox homelands become more liberal it is wonderful to see evangelistic ministries develop again.

But we have no such excuses. Rather we have tremendous opportunities and responsibilities.

I have tried to show that evangelism has never been either one model or the other. The great missionary and the quite witness. But it has always been both, though with different emphases at different times. I have not considered the Scriptures which teach us that we should be seeking to share the blessings we have received, since I am sure that it is not a lack of conviction about our Faith which limits our witness.

Rather I wonder if we have not always thought that to do evangelism required us to be a great missionary, and most of us, myself included, do not feel ourselves to be great missionaries. We should be encouraged because history is replete with examples of ordinary people doing evangelism in an ordinary way and seeing wonderful results.

The first Christians to worship in the lands around this place in Roman times would have almost certainly been ordinary people. A priest or a bishop with a vision, a small community gathered together and seeking to live out the Christian life and win their friends and family, their neighbours and their colleagues. And in Anglo-Saxon times, did St Felix bring the faith back to this area? I don’t know, but I am convinced that after he had passed through it was an ordinary priest, an ordinary monk, ordinary local people living out the Christian life and seeking to share it with those around them who actually preserved the faith, through various challenges even to the present day.

This is what Orthodox evangelism looks like. Great saints planting seeds and building foundations, but ordinary Christians raising the walls and gathering the living stones which become the temple of the Lord.

Orthodoxy has the appearance of being hierarchical, and there is always the danger of a too great deference towards the clergy actually preventing the faithful from fulfilling their own ministries. But it is not so in the British Orthodox Church. Indeed our bishop is a facilitator, and an encourager, a planter of seeds that others will water. So it is proper for us to ask ourselves what WE can and should be doing to share our faith in quiet and humble ways. How can WE share what we have learned of Orthodoxy with others, both Christians and non-Christians? Orthodoxy does not allow us to pass the buck to others, since our forefathers in the faith were ordinary Christians just as we are.

If we feel rather out of our depth then remember Deacon James, an Italian choirmaster left alone in Yorkshire! Yet he made a difference. And we can make a difference as well. The question is where will WE make a difference? In our homes and among our family? What will we do? At work, in our neighbourhoods? What will we do? At school and college? What will we do? In the wider regions in which God has placed us, and even internationally now that the Internet shrinks the whole world into a mouse click. What will we do? God has used ordinary people in Britain before, to share the fulness of the Orthodox, the Apostolic and Catholic Gospel. He can use people like us in our own days.

May He do so again. Giving us wisdom to know how to live and speak and work to share the Good News, to His Glory and for the salvation of souls.

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