On Being Western Orthodox

Over this past summer, I took part in the Youth Festival of the Orthodox Fellowship of St John the Baptist – essentially an Eastern Orthodox conference for young people (generously defined) with guest speakers and group activities – which was conducted entirely online, as we were still under the conditions of lockdown. The email I received some time later, asking for feedback, led to the organisation of thoughts that you are reading now. I have chosen to share my thoughts here rather than sending feedback to the organisers because the problems seem to be with a deeply ingrained culture rather than anything that could be fixed by a small number of well-intentioned people who arrange an annual conference.

The topic of this year’s festival was “Faith, not Superstition”, which I thought was very encouraging. Those of us who are open about confessing our faith in our daily lives will know of the frequent dismissal of faith in God as “fairy tales” and “superstition”, and will be accustomed to the expressions of surprise from people who struggle to understand how we can have faith in God when they know us to be intelligent people. The presupposition that people of faith must be unintelligent or superstitious is one that dies hard, ironically, even when those who subscribe to it are confronted with evidence to the contrary time and time again. In these islands, where the Faith once shone brightly in the lives of the countless saints who worked out their salvation in Christ here, we now live in a post-Christian culture and find ourselves very much in a missionary situation.

So when I saw that the festival would seemingly be addressing this issue and confronting the challenges that this generation of the Church faces today, I was delighted, and even encouraged people from our parish to take part. We’re fairly isolated geographically within our jurisdiction, whose conferences are all in French, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for our people to meet other Orthodox Christians.

An evil eye charm, also known as a nazar amulet

It turned out I had entirely misunderstood the topic of the festival. Far from being the helpful guide to presenting ourselves as people of genuine, lively faith and countering the image of us as superstitious, the talks were primarily concerned with folk superstitions that had developed in local towns and villages in “the old country”, and which persist among some émigré communities in the UK today, so that poorly catechised people often don’t see where the Orthodox Faith ends and local village folk customs begin. We had conversations about such oddities as the “evil eye”, strange things people do with bread and feet, and a rather surreal and prolonged exchange about what people may and may not do while bleeding, among other things. It was interesting, for what it was, but it was a very insular exercise, of direct interest mainly to those who come from cultures that have been Orthodox for generations, of passing interest to those of us who have embraced the Orthodox Faith but do not come from such cultures, and entirely unintelligible to anybody from the outside. How to approach mission and evangelism in a world that deems us misguided at best and crazy at worst was far from the agenda.

After one of the talks, I submitted a question expressing the concern that the talks had all been about this sort of thing, and asking the speaker to share some thoughts on how to handle the dismissal of our faith as superstition from a missionary point of view. He responded by focusing again on superstitions from the “old country” and didn’t address my question, (although, to be fair, he did start the talk by explaining that he was unwell and that this affected his concentration).

After another talk, I submitted a question about the Western Rite, and asked whether the negative treatment of Western Orthodox people over the last century or more to the detriment of the mission of the Church could be based on the same sort of ignorance and lack of catechesis as some of these superstitions. The speaker responded, essentially doing a bit of polite fence-sitting and saying a few fluffy things about the Western Rite, before ultimately concluding that it reminds many Orthodox people too much of uniatism, and that this is the reason for the antipathy. In a way that was not at all unfamiliar, poor understanding among those already in the fold was used as a reason to justify not reaching out to people outside of it, and it seemed we were all supposed to be happy to settle for this.

While this was going on, one of the organisers sent me a message privately about the Western Rite, explaining that “many people” feel it is unable to thrive as it “isn’t organic”, and pointing out that even the Western Orthodox communities founded by St John Maximovitch had since “gone into schism”. Perhaps he did not realise that he was addressing a clergyman of those communities who was well aware that conveniently omitted from this narrative was the treatment that our communities had received at the hands of the Eastern Orthodox (and in some cases, Oriental Orthodox) hierarchies for decades, and that the reason they ceased to recognise us and still do not all recognise us today is because of our perseverance in continuing to exist as Western Orthodox communities in the face of their historic missionary stagnation and anti-Western sentiment bordering on phyletism. Yet we are the ones who are said to have “gone into schism”. In the world of interpersonal relationships this is referred to as victim-blaming, in employment law it is called constructive dismissal, but it seems at least among some Eastern Orthodox, it is quite acceptable within the household of God.

The overall attitude could be referred to succinctly as insularity and indifference. I was speaking to people who had come from families and cultures where Greekness, Romanianness, Serbianness, &c, were not foreign, but were simply their everyday family life, and Orthodoxy in its eastern form was so natural to them that it was incomprehensible that anybody could perceive it as anything else. Or else I was faced with British people who had found a way to be Orthodox in the midst of this and who felt that doing so is a worthwhile sacrifice that any true seeker should be willing to make to find a place in the Ark of Salvation. The response to the idea of removing these hurdles, or that they were hurdles at all, was overwhelming indifference, and I was left feeling somewhat frustrated and defeated.

Yet this conference is hardly an isolated example. People searching for an Orthodox church sometimes find my telephone number and call me, openly expressing surprise and sometimes disappointment when they learn that I do not speak Russian, I am told plainly that the pattern of fasting that we follow is “not Orthodox”, and both Orthodox people and enthusiastic friends of Orthodoxy feel that they must adopt foreign words to refer to things that have existing and perfectly serviceable names in the English language.

These assumptions tell us something about the condition and perception of Orthodox life in this country. There is an underlying identification of the Orthodox Faith and the life of the Church that espouses it as something foreign – something exotic. For many people this is a barrier that they find almost impenetrable, and it means that they will probably never find their way into the sacramental life of Christ’s Church. Granted, for other people, this impenetrable otherness is what makes Orthodoxy appear so attractive. Indeed, most of my formation and sacramental life was the Byzantine rite because that is what was available to me – I loved it and I love it still – but an initial attraction to Byzantine externals can only sustain interest for so long unless it grows into something of more substance – into a genuine love for the Faith that can nourish the soul – otherwise it withers and dies like the seed that fell on stony ground.

None of this is to say that there is no place on the Orthodox landscape of Britain for parish communities that cater to émigré communities, who do not always receive a warm welcome in this country. These types of parishes are often seen as a way of keeping their community together, and preserving the faith, language, and culture that they had brought with them from “the old country”, whichever country that might be. However, this must never supersede the Church’s primary purpose, which is to bring people to salvation in Jesus Christ.

All of which forms the basis for the reason that we at St Melangell’s and in the Orthodox Church of the Gauls more widely refer to ourselves as Western Orthodox and not Western Rite Orthodox. While the Western Rite is indeed very important to our growth into the life of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and in our outreach to western people to draw them into the Orthodox fold, we cannot simply dress this same culture of navel gazing and indifference in chasubles and Gregorian chant and expect miracles to happen.

Our entire Orthodox life in Christ is expressed in our western spirituality, culture, and heritage. Yes, this includes primarily the rite by which we pray to God and receive the sacraments, but it does not – it must not – stop there. It also includes the way we evangelise; the way we organise ourselves and administer our daily affairs as a church, as families, and as indviduals; the honouring of our western saints and veneration of their holy relics and the holy sites associated with them; the celebration of our own history and lore, wherever the boundary between the two lies and however blurry it might be at times; the way we relate to each other and to others, not as a majority church with state support and political influence, but as humble and poor followers of Christ, of no import on the political stage but a great spiritual force; the way we move in harmony with the changing of the seasons, the planting of crops and the reaping of the harvest; the making and eating of soul cakes, simnel cakes, and mince pies; the way we embrace and hallow customs and observances that are ingrained in our western culture and have links to the Orthodox seeds planted here in ancient times, which never completely died, and which can germinate still.

The cultivation of these seeds in our land, planted by the right hand of God, is what it is to be Western Orthodox, and we can only pray that, by the mercy of God and at the intercession of the saints of these islands, we may be made worthy to tend this crop, that it may grow and flourish.

O England! home of homes, ancient, wooden-steepled land,
Many in thy woods and fields, sweet-scented by God’s hand;
Distant hamlets and broad ploughlands, oaken and straw-thatched,
Little lanes that wind and twist, in beauty all unmatched.

There stand four-square thy Saxon churches with homely bell,
And the lovely rambling gardens, fair soft-green, all’s well;
Sweet with lavender, wild rose and birdsong from above,
Bee-hives in the apple-orchards, old inns and home-love.

Fresh rains in April, the wheat that ripens in July,
Thou, beloved homeland, wast blessed from on high;
Made fragrant, all-holy; a mystic light shines in thee
Since crossed of yore by Christ and his saints, from sea to sea.

From Durham stone to Kent’s white coasts,
From Malvern hills to Suffolk hosts,
From Walsingham to Glastonbury,
From York’s fair walls to Canterbury,
From North to London and South Downs,
You who in the saints are not towns,
But hallowed life drawn from our goal,
The looking-glass of England’s soul.

O England of the English saints!

Your voices in our prayers we have heard,
your names oft we know,
You, holy martyrs and confessors,
godly kings and noble queens,
Hallowed bishops and mild monks, holy abbesses, meek cowherds,
Heroed princes, humble nuns, you, lowly hermits, righteous priests,
O all you many faithful souls of the hidden heart of England,
Unknown and unloved of the world,
You who fill that fair land of England that is in heaven,
You, our forefathers and mothers,
Call us back—into the Church of God.

O holy company who weep for a once holy land,
You who confess the noble and the true,
The fine and the firm, faith of Christ,
You who scattered from your shrines,
Haunt this green land,
Wherever dwells your spirit,
Give unto us again those words of life,
Utter unto us the old truths,
And bring us back, like the Prodigal, to the Father’s house.

Bring us back, like the Thief, who repenting said,
‘Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into thy Kingdom.’
O hallowed company who hallowed our land,
Now, as we seem altogether to be failing,
Bring us back to that Bright Kingdom of our churchly past,
And by the power of Christ, hallow us once more.
For all that is hallowed is eternal,
And your blessedness is from everlasting to everlasting,
And shall ever stand with Christ our God.

“An Ode to the English Saints”, by Archpriest Andrew Phillips

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