Friday 13 June 2014
The West needs Orthodox Mission - Part 1
There is still a residual and widespread sympathy in Britain for the moral structures of Christianity even if there is a growing and deepening ignorance of the basic elements of the Christian message. At the census in 2011 there were 59% of the population who wished to describe themselves as Christian, despite the effect of mass immigration and aggressive secularisation. The recent visit of Pope Benedict, and the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton allowed a very public expression of the foundational nature of Christianity in the British Isles, such that even the carping criticism of high profile secularists and atheists sounded entirely out of place.
Nevertheless we should not deceive ourselves. Only 15% of the population are regular churchgoers, and only a further 10% are occasional churchgoers. There is a large proportion of the population which wishes to consider itself Christian but does not go to Church, some 29% of the population, while another 33% have not faith at all. Of these populations only perhaps 350,000 consider themselves members of any Orthodox Church. The great majority of these Orthodox are themselves members of communities serving their own ethnic groups, often concentrating on retaining and transmitting their particular culture.
If we are honest with ourselves we will discover that only a few thousands of these 350,000 Orthodox in the UK have an interest in reaching and serving the people of the British Isles in mission. This is not to lay any blame upon those seeking to serve recent migrants to this country, many of whom do not speak English, but it does represent a realistic view of the resources which are being directed towards Orthodox mission among British people in the UK among any and all Orthodox jurisdictions.
In my own experience as an enquirer I was directed by serious canonical Orthodox to become an Anglican, and was told that this was the Orthodox Church for British people. Others were completely confused as to how I could become Orthodox since I was not of Greek ethnicity. I know that this was not a isolated experience since I have heard first-hand that other British enquirers, seeking to join other jurisdictions, were also told that it was not really possible for a British person to become Orthodox.
How then will it be possible for the great majority of British people to hear the Orthodox Gospel if there are in fact so few Orthodox in any of the various ethnic jurisdictions committed to mission, and if the vast majority of those Orthodox are entirely engaged in ministry among their own ethnicities and in their own language and culture?
Throughout the history of the Church it has always been the case that communities and ethnicities have become Orthodox when mission has been conducted among them in their own language and culture. What is required in the UK, as in every European country, in North and South America and in Australasia, is that committed and dedicated Orthodox Christians be engaged in evangelism and church planting in whichever languages and cultures are indigenous to the places in which they engage in mission.
The ambition should never be to extend the reach of an immigrant culture and language into another society, as British missionaries often tried to transplant suburban British culture into the middle of the jungle.Within the Orthodox ecclesiology the aim must always be to establish a local Orthodox Church that is the Orthodox Church of that place, using the language and culture of that place as the vehicle for the Gospel and for the experience of the life of the Holy Spirit in salvation.
We see this throughout history. At the feast of Pentecost the confusion of Babel was healed and the universality of the Gospel was proclaimed when all those present heard the praises of God in their own languages. When St Mark engaged in mission in the Egypt of the first century he established a Church that used the Egyptian languages and culture. When missionaries from Egypt and Syria reached Ethiopia they also established a Church which used the local language and culture. When missionaries reached Armenia they established a Church which used the Armenian language and even created a unique Armenian alphabet so that the Armenian people could have the Scriptures in their own language.
The history of the Orthodox Church is filled with examples of the use of the vernacular, of the language of each place. Saints Kyril and Methodios translated the Liturgy into Slavonic. Saint Nicholas of Japan spent many years mastering the Japanese language so that he would be able to translate the Liturgy into Japanese. And Saint Innocent of Alaska translated the Gospels into the local Aleut language. Non-vernacular worship represents a departure from historic Orthodoxy. Thus, it is an innovation inconsistent with Holy Tradition. Of course this innovation has arisen from circumstance rather than deliberate choice and is understandable and even reasonable outside the missionary context. But the Orthodox Tradition and ecclesiology requires us to present the Gospel in the local language of each place and to develop a Church community which is entirely at home in every place, using the local language and culture.
What does this mean for Britain and the West? It surely means that it is not enough that there are Orthodox communities present here among us, living and worshipping in the languages and cultures of the various home countries. This is not enough to fulfill the Great Commission to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Nor does it seem to me to be enough that some local Western people will attach themselves sincerely and with commitment to the various Orthodox communities worshipping in their own languages and culture. This also does not fulfill the Great Commission.
What is required is that there be those Orthodox men and women who are called and committed to preach the Orthodox Gospel in English, and Spanish, and French and German and every other local Western language so that those local populations can also hear the praises of God in their own language and can be formed into a properly Orthodox local community of British Orthodox, and French Orthodox, and German Orthodox and American Orthodox - just as the Gospel was also freely preached in Greece, and Russia, and Egypt and every place where a local and ancient Orthodox Church has already been established, worshipping in the language and culture of those places.
This is certainly the mission of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. We can and must do nothing else than preach the Orthodox Gospel in the English language to British people so that they might be united with Christ and be formed into a local expression of the Orthodox Church worshipping in English within an English culture.
I will write in a future post about how this mission among British people is being conducted and what principles might be applied in all places in the West where Orthodox mission is so greatly needed.