Friday 9 May 2014

What is Orthodoxy

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fathers and brethren. Having spent a time in prayer, seeking the blessing of God, perhaps we could begin our day together.

May I welcome you all on behalf of the British Orthodox Church and the British Orthodox Fellowship. We are truly blessed to be able to gather together for an Orthodox Study Day in this ancient church of St Andrew, which has been so lovingly restored to life after decades of dereliction by our hosts, Mark and Faith Wright.

It is always a pleasure to spend time in this peaceful place, and I am sure that we will all benefit from a day of prayer, quiet reflection and discussion of the various presentations which we will hear in due course.

Undoubtedly we have gathered here today for a variety of reasons and with different expectations. Some of us have come because the topics we hope to cover sound interesting. Others because they are interested in the Orthodox way of living the Christian life. Yet others because some contact with an Orthodox Church has provoked a desire to share that life more fully. Many of us are here because we are members of the British Orthodox Church and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to meet friends and brethren. I am sure that all of us are here because we hope to receive some spiritual blessing today from our Heavenly Father. He desires that we experience a unity in our fellowship as we gather together in the name of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and in the grace of His Holy and Life-Giving Spirit.

This Study Day has been organised by the British Orthodox Church, which is a constituent of the ancient Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate is one of the Churches in the Oriental Orthodox communion of Orthodox Churches, and represents the Egyptian Christian community established by the preaching of St Mark, and guided by the teachings of such ecclesiastical luminaries as the archbishops St Athanasius and St Cyril; and the monastic pioneers such as St Antony and St Pachomius. Abba Seraphim will, I am sure, speak about the relationship of the British Orthodox Church with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in his own address.

But by way of introduction we can say that the British Orthodox Church has a history of over 140 years in the British Isles, having its origins in the Syrian Orthodox Church. Though it has been a small community, facing different challenges over the years, and known by different names, and though it has spent many of those 140 years in isolation from the Orthodox communion out of which it was born, nevertheless the witness to a British Orthodox Faith which could be considered both authentically Orthodox and genuinely British has remained a constant.

In the last 14 years the British Orthodox Church has been a part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, and our bishop has been a senior member of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. This has changed the canonical status of the British Orthodox Church, and being now rooted in one of the canonical Oriental Orthodox Churches provides both new opportunities and new challenges. But the essential mission of the British Orthodox Church, to help British people discover the authentic Orthodox Faith in their own British culture remains at the heart of all that we seek to be and to do.

Indeed at the union of the British and Coptic Orthodox Churches in 1994, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the present and saintly archbishop of Alexandria, made it clear that the British Orthodox Church should not seek to become a pale copy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, filled with British folk trying to pretend they were Egyptians. Rather he urged that the British Orthodox Church should indeed find the means, in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, to be both British and Orthodox while rooted in the Coptic Orthodox spiritual and theological tradition.

This is who we are. Fairly ordinary British people who have discovered something life-giving and life-changing in the Orthodox Faith, and in particular in the expression of that faith which we have found among the Oriental Orthodox communion. And many British people, indeed English speaking folk from a variety of countries, who perhaps could never imagine themselves becoming Orthodox, are finding that their relationship with the British Orthodox Church is helping them to become a little more Orthodox in their own spiritual lives, as they integrate aspects of the British Orthodox faith and practice into their own understanding and experience of the Christian life.

The British Orthodox Church has recently established the British Orthodox Fellowship, of which most of us here are members, to help support exactly those groups of people. As an Orthodox Church in the British Isles, we were finding that a growing number of people were contacting us, seeking information about our Orthodox Faith, and wishing to experience it as far as their circumstances and interest allowed. Many people lived some distance from one of our British Orthodox communities, or indeed far from any Orthodox community. I think that those of us who were trying to support these enquirers had a strong sense of responsibility towards them all and and wanted to help all those who made contact with us, as far as our resources allowed. Indeed I know that we have often felt frustrated because we could not do more.

The development of the British Orthodox Fellowship was a positive response to this sense of wanting to help everyone, but not always being able to. But it is also rooted in the sense that we are seeking to learn for ourselves how God would have us be both Orthodox and British, and we have wanted to be able to share that experience with any who have that same aspiration, or are simply interested in the idea of being British and Orthodox.

What do we mean by being Orthodox?

I once read about an Orthodox priest in Britain, Father Stephen Maxfield I believe, who regularly attended the Christian Resources Exhibition. This is a national exhibition of Christian ministries and businesses, and he had a small stall where in the past he promoted his publishing ministry. He had printed some liturgical texts when I met him there in the late eighties. I was a student at Moorlands  Bible College, and a coachload of us had come up from Christchurch near Bournemouth to the Epsom racecourse where the exhibition was taking place. It was just at the time when I had started to discover Orthodoxy myself, and so I was very pleased indeed to be able to buy an English translation of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, and some other magazines.

Now I had some very small concept of what Orthodoxy meant, but to almost all those who visited the Christian Resources Exhibition with me, and nearly all of us were very evangelical, Father Stephen Maxfield was rather a mystery. I hope that it was not one of my colleagues from Moorlands who asked him if was an Orthodox Jew, but certainly he reported in Orthodox Outlook, I believe, that some visitors there could only connect the word Orthodox to Judaism.

Of course it is understandable that an evangelical might have more knowledge of the various groups within Judaism than within Christianity. Even after several years of study at Moorlands I cannot say that I was provided with a very adequate grasp of Church History, and so there was no slot for us to fit Orthodox Christianity into. I think that our average understanding was limited to a sense that after the Apostles everything had gone downhill until probably Martin Luther, or perhaps, since I was Brethren, until John Nelson Darby.

Had we turned to the dictionary we would have discovered a variety of definitions, all of which would have provided us with a little more understanding. An historical definition would have taught us that Orthodoxy could refer to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communities. A more general definition would have said something like...
pertaining to, or conforming to beliefs, attitudes, or modes of conduct that are generally approved.

These two definitions cover, more or less, the different uses of the word Orthodox in our own times. On the one hand it can be used to refer to particular religious communities – whether Eastern or Oriental Christian, and on the other hand it can refer to any position or practice which is considered normative or generally approved.

So we have orthodox medicine, or orthodox teaching practices, and probably orthodox socialism and even orthodox Stalinism.

These latter uses all derive essentially from the original Christian use of the word. In Greek it may be taken as meaning ‘right belief or opinion’, and from the sense of ‘repute’ it also has the meaning of ‘right glory’.

So Orthodoxy means essentially – right belief – and is used by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communities to imply that their teaching and spiritual practice is the ‘right belief and opinion’ in comparison to all others. It also has the sense of defining the place where this right belief is preserved. It is understood that it is within the Orthodox Churches that this right belief is safe guarded, and taught and passed on to future generations.

Some Orthodox groups take a rather narrow view and seem to want to suggest that it is only within their own community that ANY right belief can be found. But the very existence of the British Orthodox Church and Fellowship seem to me to show that this exclusive view is not the only one which is possible. In the first place the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate have shown themselves to have a generous Orthodoxy in welcoming the different culture of the British Orthodox Church into their midst, and being able to comprehend a variety of cultural practices within a union of faith and doctrine. While the British Orthodox Church has also shown itself to be open-hearted in developing the British Orthodox Fellowship as a means for any enquirers to share our life as far as they wish and as far as they choose.

In my nearly 14 years of being formally Orthodox, as a member of the British Orthodox Church, I do not believe I have ever found that exclusive spirit among the priests and people who have made me welcome, and especially in our bishop, Metropolitan Seraphim. This is rather surprising, and I know that others have also been pleasantly surprised, because small groups often feel the need to defend themselves by closing in on themselves, and turning their back on others.

It is of course a matter of fact that some small Orthodox groups do just this. When the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia recently entered into a very welcome union and were reconciled after the exigencies of history had driven them apart, there were and are some priests and bishops who will not and cannot accept such a reunion. They consider themselves the True Russian Church. But there are smaller groups who have broken from these folk, and they consider themselves the last remnant of Russian Orthodoxy. Indeed I occasionally receive emails from a Russian layman in America who seems to belong to a group of about fifty people who believe themselves to be the last and only true remnant of the Russian Church.

We should thank God that even while the British Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches are very clear in what they believe and teach – because if we are not clear then we have nothing to share – nevertheless this clarity and theological conservatism is coupled with an openness to others and a genuine desire to share what we understand as a blessing, so that we might ‘freely give as you have received’.

I think that it is clear that the British Orthodox Church welcomes that which we understand as Orthodox in all those places and people where we find it. We believe that we have been given a great treasure in the spiritual and theological tradition of our Church, but we do not believe that this is exclusively our own gift.

In the first place we see that to a very great extent the Eastern Orthodox Churches, though separated from our Oriental Orthodox communion for centuries, have also preserved the substance of the same Tradition. But we also see that to a significant extent this same Tradition has been preserved in the Roman Catholic communion. And if there is criticism of some aspects of modern Anglicanism it is because it is also recognised that Anglicanism also has a place for many teachings and spiritual practices which we would recognise as Orthodox.

A more exclusive view of Orthodoxy would state baldly that it is not possible to be Orthodox at all unless a person is baptised into an Orthodox Church and made formally a member of an Orthodox community. I know this because some Orthodox groups have said this to me, and made it clear that my membership of the Coptic Orthodox Church was of no more value to me than if I were a Methodist or a Baptist – that was their own example. But the British Orthodox Church, though clear that being Orthodox in an Orthodox Church is the best place to experience and benefit from the Orthodox Tradition in its fulness, is also able to recognise that people in all Christian backgrounds can become more Orthodox in their spiritual pilgrimage, as they sincerely and humbly incorporate aspects of the Orthodox Tradition.

The concept of pilgrimage is one which many people value as they discover and experience Orthodoxy. It is a useful concept because it has the sense of making a spiritual journey towards an end which is not immediately reached. There is the sense of travelling with others while also making ones own journey. All of these ideas seem to fit well with our growth into Orthodoxy, as far as we choose or are able to experience it.

We cannot and do not take an exclusive attitude towards any folk who come to us, seeking to learn about Orthodoxy, simply because those of us who are members of the British Orthodox, or of other Orthodox Churches, know that our own spiritual pilgrimages began before we were formally Orthodox.

In my own life I can point to the first time I properly met an Orthodox Christian. I was interested in Orthodoxy and had written to the Greek Archdiocese in London, and to the Russian Orthodox Church at Ennismore Gardens. Both sent kind but not very helpful replies. But I had also written to the British Orthodox Church, though at that time, before its union with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, it was known as the Orthodox Church of the British Isles.

A reply invited me to meet their bishop, whom I now know as Metropolitan Seraphim, at an Anglican retreat centre not too far from my home in Maidstone. My father, who came from the same evangelical background as myself, had also been reading about Orthodoxy, and we went together. At the retreat centre we also met the Administrator, who is now my parish priest, Father Michael Robson. I cannot remember everything that we said that evening as we walked around the grounds and shared a meal. But I do remember that my father and I were impressed by the sense that Abba Seraphim had not put us under any pressure, and indeed had counselled that we take our time in thinking and learning about Orthodoxy.

More than that, Abba Seraphim offered to celebrate the liturgy for us and provide us with some instruction, as far as we felt that we wanted to receive it. Thus began a practice over several years of attending a liturgy, served by Abba Seraphim, and by Father Michael, Father Sergius and others, and then having some informal instruction afterwards while we shared a cup of coffee.

Throughout those years I never once felt any sense of being under an obligation or that it was expected I would become Orthodox within Abba Seraphim’s community, or any other. All that I experienced was a genuine open-heartedness, and a generosity which has continued to mark the British Orthodox Church in its dealings with others. I sense that Abba Seraphim and other clergy and Orthodox Christians wanted to help me as much as they could, but they did not wish to make me feel that I had to respond in a certain way.

But my journey, my pilgrimage towards Orthodoxy, which means for me, my journey into a fulness of the Christian faith, did not begin with that meeting at a retreat centre. Just as it did not end some 14 years ago when I was received into the British Orthodox Church.

My journey began, in one sense, but a true sense, when I was a very small child indeed and was brought up with a living faith in Christ which was witnessed to me daily by my parents. We were evangelicals and we worshipped with the Brethren in an Assembly in our home town. I saw my parents live Christian lives, and share together in various children’s ministries, and then work with the teenagers in the Church. I was fortunate to spend much of my time with my father who gave me increasing opportunities to serve Christ in a variety of ministries. I had a great desire to serve God though my ignorance of His Church was almost complete. We knew nothing of the Fathers, of spirituality, of liturgics, or of any comprehensive systems of theology. It was fairly common to hear people say that we needed ‘more love and less theology’. Well since we had no theology to speak of it was just as well that we had love.

And there was certainly love within the reasonably large group of young people I spent most of my time with. Some of us went on Beach Missions and came back and organised children’s activities in our own Assembly. We tried to be involved in whatever forms of service became available to us. We spent weekends away in study. And eventually I gained a place at a Bible College and committed myself to three years of training for some sort of evangelical ministry.

It never worked out as I had planned or expected. And I will not rehearse the story of my life in any great detail. But this was part of my pilgrimage. Even while I knew nothing of Orthodoxy in any formal sense, or informal for that matter, I loved God and wanted to serve Him with my life – and this is Orthodoxy. This is ‘right belief’. My understanding and experience was built on a degree of error and misunderstanding, but in my heart and for all my life, I have loved God and wanted to serve Him and this is an Orthodox desire.

This is why the British Orthodox Church and the British Orthodox Fellowship welcome all those who express a desire to learn about Orthodoxy. If there is a love of Christ in your heart then we already have much in common and we can recognise that same Orthodox impulse, planted by the Holy Spirit, in each other.

My own first experience of a more formal Orthodoxy came through my exposure to the shared spiritual Tradition of the Church while I was at Moorlands. The library had some Patristics, and quite a few decent Roman Catholic books on prayer, as well as Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book – the Orthodox Church. I also spent some time at Anglican retreat houses run by the Society of St Francis and met the fairly well known spiritual author – Brother Ramon – several times. I began to attend a very Anglo-Catholic Anglican parish and considered myself a Conservative Evangelical Charismatic Catholic. What I was actually discovering, in a rather fragmented way, was more and more of Orthodoxy. Even while the only Orthodox person I had ever met, and then in only an inconsequential manner, was Father Stephen Maxfield at the Christian Resources Exhibition.

This was all part of my pilgrimage, and I cannot repudiate any of it, and Abba Seraphim has always wisely taught us to value that which God has used to bring us to where we are today. If I had not been Brethren I would not have applied for a place at Moorlands Bible College. If I had not been a student there I would not have read some important books which changed the direction of my life, and I would not have been lent a copy of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in English, the beauty of which brought an hardened Evangelical to whom I played it to tears. And I would have not have contacted Abba Seraphim when I came home from college and might not be here now.

Yet I know that I have not completed my pilgrimage, and day by day I am learning new things and discovering how little I know and have already experienced. I sometimes feel as though I am following Alfred Wainwright over the Lakeland Fells, and every time I think I am coming to a summit I discover that the true peak is beyond me. But rather than be discouraged I see the marvellous vista that has opened up and eagerly follow the guide up another ascent.

How can we be anything other than generous and open-hearted when we meet other faithful Christians following the same path and with the same goal set before them. Certainly our Tradition and our experience teaches us that the path we are following is the safest even if sometimes it seems less well trodden and more narrow. But we are glad to share the path with some who walk more slowly, others who stop a while to gather their strength, yet others who wander off our path after a while, but perhaps have the same end in view and may join us again in due course, and some others who walk with us for many miles.

The path does not belong to us, even though we dare not leave it. And the joy is ours when we find ourselves walking in the company of fellow pilgrims.

We have come together here at Mickfield, and we are fellow travellers and pilgrims. We are at different stages in our lives and pilgrimages, yet we are united, I am sure, by a common desire to be found following after Christ, who is The Way. The British Orthodox Fellowship has no other end than to help people follow Christ in their own pilgrimage. If we make many friends for Orthodoxy, if we help many people become more Orthodox in their Christian lives, then that will be a good thing, and better than making only a few narrow converts who repudiate all that God had done in their lives.

To be more Orthodox is essentially to be more Christian. And this understanding, which steps above and beyond the idea that the word Orthodox merely defines a Christian denomination, helps us understand that Orthodoxy must be universal. If only people of an Egyptian, or Russian, or Greek background can become Orthodox then it is not synonymous with Christianity. Such a view is held by many Orthodox who have come to equate being Orthodox with being part of their cultural community.

But the Scriptures and the Church Fathers are clear that Christianity, and therefore Orthodoxy, are for all people in all places. Many of the early Fathers used the fact that people even in Britain were part of the universal Church to show that the spread of the Gospel must have been of divine origin. Therefore we should not be surprised that British people want to become Orthodox, or become more Orthodox, if Orthodoxy really has preserved something substantial and essential of the fulness of the Christian Faith.

But equally if Orthodoxy is for British people then why must they receive it in a Russian culture, or a Greek culture, or even a Coptic one? We know that the missionaries to the Slavs used their own language. We know that neither the Greeks nor the Copts were obliged to learn Aramaic. It seems reasonable to ask why British people should not be able to become Orthodox in our own culture.

And this thought brings us back to the beginning of our introduction. The British Orthodox Church has the mission of bringing Orthodoxy to British people in our own culture because this has always been the way in which the Church has grown. At Pentecost the people heard the wonders of God being proclaimed in their own tongues, and at this coming Pentecost the multitude of voices in every tongue will ring out again, and that multitude includes those of us who speak English.

We have a place in Orthodoxy. But those also who love Christ and are faithful already have a share of Orthodoxy, if Orthodoxy is the fulness of Christianity. And the British Orthodox Church seeks to serve all those who seek to experience more of that fulness. The rest of this study day will allow us to continue to consider the Orthodox Faith and how we can experience it and what it means to live a life rooted in such ‘right-belief’.

But for now it is enough to say that we welcome all those who are fellow pilgrims with us. Those who are finding Orthodoxy a source of blessing, as those of us who are members of the Orthodox Church find it a blessing. And we pray that each of us will find some one thing to take away today which helps us to experience Orthodoxy, that which we believe is the fulness of the Christian Faith, just that little bit more completely.

To the glory of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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