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Orthodox Mission in the 21st Century

According to a widespread view, the Orthodox Church is not a missionary church. Some Orthodox even claim that the Orthodox Church does not need any mission. ‘We are the holders of the Truth, and we testify to it by the very fact of our existence,’ said proudly one Orthodox clergyman with whom I was speaking on this subject. One wonders, though, whether this approach can be justified by the church history. If the apostles after Christ’s Resurrection sat behind closed doors in Jerusalem, testifying to the truth by the simple fact of their existence, any further spread of Christianity would have been extremely unlikely.

Metropolitan Hilarion

Metropolitan Hilarion

Any Christian church has to be missionary if it wants to be faithful to its call to be the Church. The Orthodox history knows many great missionaries, among whom there are men and women, bishops, monks and lay people. St Nina the Enlightener of Georgia (4th c.), St Vladimir the Bapriser of Russia and his grandmother Olga (10th c.), St Cyril and Methodius (10th c.), St Nicholas of Japan (19th c.) and many others are venerated as ‘equal to the apostles’.

Orthodoxy in Noth America, Japan and China is a fruit of missionary activity of the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy came to North America from Russia through Alaska (which, as Governor Sarah Palin has recently reminded us, is ‘sort of near the eastern border of Russia’). Among the first Russian missionaries was St Herman of Alaska, a simple monk from Valamo monastery, who came to Alaska in 1794 and spent more than 40 years there, until his death in 1837. He was venerated as a saint by local people already during his lifetime and was regarded as their intercessor before God.

The first episcopal see in America was established by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1840, but the ruling bishop of this diocese, St Innocent (Veniaminov), future Metropolitan of Moscow, lived in Novoarchangelsk. In 1872, five years after the sale of Alaska to America, the see of the Russian bishop was transferred to San Francisco. From 1898 to 1907 St Tikhon, future Patriarch of Russia, governed the diocese. During his time the see was transferred to New York. It was he who organized the all-American council of 1907, which renamed the diocese as the ‘Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in North America’. Thus began the future autocephalous American Orthodox Church.

During St Tikhon’s tenure in America a large number of Antiochian Christians arrived in the New World, for whom a Syrian-born assistant bishop, Raphael of Brooklyn, was ordained in 1903 at the request of St Tikhon. Thus began a new, unique ecclesiological model which foresaw that bishops of different nationalities could act within one Local Church and on the same canonical territory, with dioceses being created not on the basis of territory, but ethnicity. Such a model did not correspond to the ecclesiology of the Ancient Church, but it did correspond to the new reality which emerged as a result of immigration to Europe and America. If events had continued according to the plan outlined by St Tikhon, a Local Orthodox Church in America could have been created in the 1920s, headed by one metropolitan, under whom bishops of various nationalities would be in submission, with each caring for the flock of his own ethnic background, be it Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Antiochians, Romanians etc.

However, as a result of the mass immigration of Greeks from the former Ottoman Empire to Europe, America and Australia in the 1920s, metropolies of the Patriarchate of Constantinople were created on these continents. The Patriarchate of Constaninople declared its jurisdiction over the entire church ‘diaspora’, i.e. over all countries not within the borders of historical Orthodox Churches. According to this viewpoint, practically all of Western Europe, North and South America as well as Australia and Oceania, were encompassed by this definition of ‘diaspora’. In America, however, there already existed an Orthodox Church headed by a Russian metropolitan. Thus the creation there of a jurisdiction of Constantinople introduced divisions into American Orthodoxy, which was exacerbated after the establishment of jurisdictions of the Antiochian, Romanian and Serbian Patriarchates.

In 1970 the Russian Orthodox Church, inspired as before by the vision of St Tikhon, who dreamed of a single Orthodox Church on the American continent, granted autocephaly to that part of American Orthodoxy which was previously under its canonical authority. It was hoped that the Orthodox of other jurisdictions would eventually join this autocephalous Church, which received the name ‘Orthodox Church in America’. However, this has not yet happened, and in the Americas there are currently metropolies, archdioceses and dioceses of several Local Orthodox Churches alongside the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.

In spite of a certain ‘jurisdictional mess’, which is, regrettably, characteristic of the Orthodox Church not only on the American continent, but also in other parts of the world, including Western Europe, the Orthodox Church worldwide contiues to be involved in a variety of missionary activities. One of the most notable theologians of the twentieth century, Father Alexander Schmemann, wrote several decades ago:

To recover the missionary dimension of the Church is today’s greatest imperative. We have to recover a very basic truth: that the Church is essentially Mission, that the very roots of her life are in the commandment of Christ: ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations’ (Matt. 28:19). A Christian community that would lose this missionary zeal and purpose, that would become selfish and self-centered, that would limit itself to ‘satisfying the spiritual needs of its members’, that would identify itself completely with a nation, a society, a social or ethnic group – is on its way to spiritual decadence and death, because the essential spiritual need of a Christian is precisely that of sharing the life and the Truth with as many men as possible and ultimately with the whole world. Mission thus is the organic need and task of the Church in the world, the real meaning of Church’s presence in history between the first and the second advents of her Lord, or, in other terms, the meaning of Christian history. Obviously not all members of the Church can go and preach in the literal sense of the word. But all can have a concern for the missionary function of the Church, feel responsible for it, help and support it. In this respect each diocese, each parish and each member of the Church are involved in the missionary ministry.

In what follows I shall concentrate not so much on missionary activities as such, on various missionary tools, tactics and strategies which were, are and will be employed by the Orthodox Church. I shall rather attempt to outline certain features of Orthodox theology, liturgy and spirituality, which, I believe, have a strong missionary potential ingrained in them and which will give strength to the Orthodox Church in its mission in the 21st century.

The Orthodox Church as ‘The Church of the Fathers’

On the first Sunday of Lent, which is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy, during a special service a protodeacon exclaims: ‘This faith is Orthodox, this faith is apostolic, this faith is patristic, this faith enlightened the universe’. It is more or less obvious why Christian faith should be ‘apostolic’ and ‘Orthodox’. But why should it be ‘patristic’? Does this imply that Orthodoxy must be necessarily styled as in the ‘patriarchal days of old’? Or is it that, as Christians, we should always be turned towards the past instead of living in the present or working for the future? Should perhaps some ‘golden age’ in which the great Fathers of the Church lived, the 4th century for instance, be our ideal, a bearing to guide us? Or, finally, could this imply that the formation of our theological and ecclesial tradition saw its completion during the ‘patristic era,’ and that, subsequently, nothing new could unfold in Orthodox theology and church life in general?

If this were so – and there are many who think exactly in this way – it would mean that our principal task is to watch over what remains of the Byzantine and Russian legacy, and vigilantly guard Orthodoxy against the infectious trends of modern times. Some act in precisely this way: fearfully rejecting the challenges of modernity, they dedicate all their time to preserving what they perceive as the traditional teaching of the Orthodox Church, explaining that in the present time of ‘universal apostasy’ there is no place for any creative understanding of Tradition, since everything had been clarified by the Fathers centuries earlier. Such supporters of ‘protective Orthodoxy’ prefer, as a rule, to refer to the ‘teachings of the holy Fathers.’ Yet in reality many of them do not know patristic doctrine: they make use of isolated notions to justify their own theories and ideas without studying patristic theology in all its pluriformity and fullness.

Were we to concentrate our energies solely on preserving the accumulated wisdom of past Fathers, then things would be quite simple. If, however, our vocation is to invest the talent of the patristic legacy, we would find ourselves confronted by a tremendous task indeed, not only one that would include study of works of the Fathers, but also their interpretation in the light of contemporary experience. Similarly, it would require an interpretation of our own contemporary experience in the light of patristic teaching. This evaluation does not only mean studying the Fathers; the task before us is also to think and to live in a patristic way. We shall never be able to understand the Fathers if we do not share, at least to some degree, in their experience and endeavours.

This is a tremendous and inspiring task; it is also quite hazardous. Just as no financial investor is immune from bankruptcy, neither is a theologian who approaches the patristic legacy in a creative way preserved from error. The distance – in time, culture, and spirituality – between the Fathers and us is too great; it would seem to be impossible to surmount the obstacles that confound our attempts to penetrate the mind of the Fathers. Yet so long as we fail to overcome them, we shall never be able to fulfil the mission entrusted to us by the modern age. This mission consists in possessing the capacity not only to make our faith truly ‘patristic,’ but also to express it in a language accessible to 21st century men and women.

The oeuvre of the Fathers is no mere museum exhibit, neither is the ‘patristic faith’ simply a legacy of the past. The opinion that the holy Fathers are the theologians of earlier times is widely held nowadays. The ‘past’ itself is defined in varying ways. According to some, the patristic age ends in the 8th century with St John Damascene’s Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, which epitomises several centuries of theological dispute. Others define its end in the 11th century with the final schism between the first and the second Rome, or mid-way through the 15th century, when the second Rome, Constantinople, fell, or in 1917, with the fall of the ‘third Rome,’ Moscow, as the last capital of an Orthodox empire. Consequently a return to ‘patristic roots’ is conceived as step back to the past, the restoration of 7th, 15th or 19th century spirituality.

This point of view must be rejected. In the opinion of Fr Georges Florovsky, ‘the Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth quickens her now no less effectively than in the ancient times.’ It is not possible, therefore, to limit the ‘patristic age’ to one or other historic era. A well-known contemporary theologian, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia states: ‘An Orthodox must not simply know and quote the Fathers, he must enter into the spirit of the Fathers and acquire a “patristic mind.” He must treat the Fathers not merely as relics from the past, but as living witnesses and contemporaries.’ Metropolitan Kallistos does not consider the patristic age to have ended in the 5th or 8th century; the patristic era of the Church continues to this day. ‘Indeed, it is dangerous to look on “the Fathers” as a closed cycle of writings belonging to a bygone age, for might not our own epoch produce a new Basil or Athanasius? To say that there can be no more Fathers is to suggest that the Holy Spirit has deserted the Church.’

Hence the confession of a ‘patristic faith’ not only implies the study of patristic writings and the attempt to bring the legacy of the Fathers to life, but also the belief that our era is no less ‘patristic’ than any other. The ‘Golden Age’ inaugurated by Christ, the apostles and the early Fathers endures in the works of the church Fathers of our days, to last for as long as the Church of Christ will stand on this earth. And it is the awareness of the continued presense of the Holy Spirit in the Church and afaithfulness to the ‘spirit of the Fathers’ which will give strength to the Orthodox mission in the 21st century.

Missionary Potential of Orthodox Liturgical Service

I shall now turn to the missionary potential of Orthodox liturgical service. Orthodox divine services are characterized by inner integrity and astounding beauty. From the priest’s exclamation at the very beginning of the service we are immersed in an atmosphere of uninterrupted prayer, in which psalms, litanies, hymns, prayers and the celebrating priest’s invocations follow one another in a continuous stream. The entire service is conducted as if in one breath, in one rhythm, like an ever unfolding mystery in which nothing distracts one from prayer. Byzantine liturgical texts filled with profound theological and mystical content alternate with the prayerful incantation of the psalms, whose every word resonates in the hearts of the faithful. Even the elements of ‘choreography’ characteristic of Orthodox services, such as solemn entries and exits, prostrations and censing, are not intended to distract the faithful from prayer but, on the contrary, to put them in a prayerful disposition and draw them into the theourgia in which, according to the teaching of the Fathers, not only the Church on earth, but also the heavenly Church, including the angels and the saints, participates.

Orthodox liturgical texts have, for Orthodox Christians, an incontestable doctrinal authority, whose theological irreproachability is second only to Scripture. Liturgical texts are a ‘school of theology’ by virtue of being not simply the works of outstanding theologians and poets, but also the fruits of the prayerful experience of those who have attained sanctity and theosis. The theological authority of liturgical texts is, in my opinion, higher than that of the works of the Fathers of the Church, for not everything in the works of the latter is of equal theological value and not everything has been accepted by the fullness of the Church. Liturgical texts, on the contrary, have been accepted by the whole Church as a ‘rule of faith’ (kanon pisteos), for they have been read and sung everywhere in Orthodox churches over many centuries. Throughout this time, any erroneous ideas foreign to Orthodoxy that might have crept in either through misunderstanding or oversight were eliminated by church Tradition itself, leaving only pure and authoritative doctrine clothed by the poetic forms of the Church’s hymns.

The heart of Orthodox daily cicle of services is the Divine Liturgy. Some of my non-Orthodox friends complain that the Orthodox Liturgy is too long, saying ‘why do you have to stretch out the Eucharist when you can serve it in half an hour?’ My experience of the Liturgy is altogether different: two hours are never sufficient for me, since the time goes by so quickly and the dismissal comes too soon. It is always difficult to leave the altar and to descend from the heavens to earth, from the experience of the sublime to the cares of this world. There is a story about a priest in Saint-Petersburg at the end of the 19th century who had a small room above the church’s sanctuary. After serving Liturgy he would climb into this room by means of a ladder which he would then take with him. Only after two or three hours would he return to the church to talk with people. Although the majority of clergy in the 21st century cannot allow themselves this luxury, the reasons for this priest’s desire to prolong the sweetness of communion with God and the unearthly stillness and calm that enter the soul while serving the Liturgy, are wholly understandable.

The Liturgy is a ‘common act,’ and without doubt demands the presence and active participation of the laity. Orthodox practice knows of no private Liturgies which priests might serve by themselves, as is very widespread in the Catholic Church. The entire structure of the Liturgy also presupposes the presence of a congregation which, together with the priest, is also a celebrant of the Liturgy. This is a congregation not of spectators, but of participants, who join in communion of the Mysteries of Christ. Many have rightly remarked (including Fr Alexander Schmemann, with special emphasis) that the order of the Liturgy of the Faithful does not at all presuppose the presence of believers who do not take communion. Contemporary practice, where only those who have prepared themselves commune while the remainder content to stand passively in church, does not correspond to the experience of the ancient Church.

I wholly agree with those who support the revival of ancient church practice whereby lay people receive communion at every Liturgy. Moreover, the guidelines for preparing for Holy Communion should be the same for both clergy and laity. It seems unfair and contradictory to the meaning of the Liturgy that different rules are laid down for clergy and laity. At the Liturgy everyone – bishops, priests and laity – stands before God with the same dignity, or rather with the same unworthiness, for ‘nobody attached to fleshly desires and delights is worthy to come near or approach’ the communion of Christ’s Holy Mysteries.

The active participation of lay people in the Liturgy presupposes the possibility of their responding to the exclamations of the priest and hearing the so-called ‘secret’ prayers. In contemporary church practice these prayers, as a rule, are read by the priest silently, which creates an additional barrier between the priest and his flock. More importantly, this habit deprives the faithful since the main point of the Liturgy passes them by. I have heard many arguments in favour of the practice of silent prayers, but none has seemed convincing to me. The so-called ‘silent’ prayers were originally read aloud by the celebrating clergy. I think that in our time the faithful should have the opportunity to hear these prayers in their entirety, not only their concluding subordinate clauses (these signify that the prayers have been read but do not give the least notion of their content: ‘That being always guarded by Thy might…,’ ‘Singing the triumphant hymn…,’ ‘For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory…’). At least the prayer of the anaphora, which summarizes the essence of the Liturgy, should be read aloud.

The celebration of the Liturgy is a creative act in which the fullness of the Church is involved. The text of the Liturgy is always the same, but each Liturgy grants us the opportunity to experience the mystery in a new light, renewing our encounter with the living God.

If we can call the services of the Orthodox Church a school of theology, then the Divine Liturgy is this school par excellence. It teaches us about the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom because it itself is an icon of this Kingdom, the most complete, perfect reflection of the heavenly reality in our earthly conditions, a revelation of the transcendent through the immanent. In the Kingdom of God all symbols shall pass away, and only the heavenly reality will remain. There we will not commune of the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, but in a more perfect way we shall be united with Christ Himself, the Source of life and immortality. If the manner of our communion with God will change, its essence will remain the same – always a personal encounter with God, not of isolated people, but of people in communion with each other. In this sense it is correctly said that the Liturgy served on earth is but a part of the incessant Liturgy celebrated by people and angels in the Heavenly Kingdom.

A few words need to be added about the liturgical ceremony of the Orthodox Church, especially the peculiarities of hierarchical service. People sometimes say that Byzantine liturgical ceremony is outdated and needs to be simplified. Some consider the bishop’s rites to be too ‘pompous’ and distractive, and say that the hierarchical ordo creates a ‘barrier’ between the praying faithful and the living God.

I do not agree with these statements. The hierarchical services, worked out in great detail, are intended not to distract the faithful from prayer but, on the contrary, to draw them into the theourgic mystery of the heavenly Eucharist. All aspects of the divine services are symbolic and iconic: not only the iconostasis and church singing, but also the very orders of the services and their so-called ceremony. When subdeacons, deacons, and priests leave the sanctuary one after another holding candles, the bishop’s staff and other liturgical items, the bishop reads the prayer ‘O Master, Lord our God, who hast established in the heavens the ranks and hosts of angels and archangels to serve Thy glory, do Thou make our entry an entry with the holy angels who serve and glorify with us Thy goodness.’ This entire solemn procession is an icon, a symbolic depiction of the majestic, intense, and reverent procession of angels accompanying the King of glory in Heaven. The same can be said of the Great Entrance, during which ‘The King of kings and the Lord of lords comes to be slain and give Himself as food for the faithful, preceded by the angelic hosts with all authority and power, the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim.’ It is these ‘angelic hosts’ that are symbolized by the subdeacons, deacons and priests entering the altar to offer the bloodless sacrifice.

One of the most noticeable qualities of the divine services is their beauty and splendour. This beauty is also reflected in the external arrangement of the church. There is a well-known story from the ancient ‘Chronicle of the Years’ (Povest’ vremennykh let) that tells of how ambassadors of Prince Vladimir, sent by him to various countries to select the correct faith for Rus,’ returned, struck by the service which they attended in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople: ‘We did not know if we were on heaven or earth, for there is no such splendour and beauty on earth, and we are at a loss how to express what we saw. We only know that God is with these people and that their services were better than those of all other countries.’ Who knows what the destiny of Russia may have resembled if Prince Vladimir’s ambassadors did not visit Hagia Sophia and were not inspired by the grandeur of the church and the beauty of Orthodox services?

There is a deep symbolism and edifying quality in the very structure of the Orthodox churches. They are built either in the form of a cross or a rectangle (basilica), the latter symbolizing the Church as a ship, as Noah’s ark, in which the New Israel travels to the Heavenly Kingdom. Byzantine and Russian churches are decorated with frescoes which depict various events from Sacred History. Series of frescoes or mosaics stretch out along the inside of the church, explaining to the faithful the main themes of salvation history and serving as a ‘Bible in pictures.’

Ancient churches had no iconostasis; only a low barrier that divided the sanctuary from the rest of the church so that the former remained ‘transparent.’ The iconostasis appeared gradually: at first it was one-tiered, then later, multi-tiered, the latter becoming especially widespread in Russia. Today the iconostasis is often seen as a wall between the sanctuary and the rest of the church, between the clergy and the faithful. In fact, however, it is a window into another world, for the hosts of saints gaze down at the faithful from the icons. The aim of the iconostasis is not to create an obstacle, but rather to bring the faithful into the mystical life of the ‘Triumphant Church,’ whose saints and angels serve God in incessant rejoicing.

The missionary potential of the Orthodox liturgy as a ‘school of theology’ is somewhat undermined in those places where a non-understandable liturgical language is used. In particular, in modern Russia, Church-Slavonic language is used, which is not easily understood by ordinary believers. This issue was raised as early as the beginning of the twentieth century: at that time the difficulty in understanding Church Slavonic was already acutely felt. St Tikhon, the Archbishop of North America, wrote in 1906: ‘A new Slavonic translation of the service books is important for the Russian Church (the current one is outdated and in many places incorrect), and it could forestall the demands of certain persons to celebrate in vernacular Russian.’ Another hierarch, Bishop Seraphim of Polotsk, wrote as follows about the need to improve the Slavonic translation of the services:

In their polemics with Catholicism, Orthodox theologians always mention their services and their great edifying value as one of the advantages of the Orthodox Church. In practice, however, the services are far from fulfilling the purpose for which they were composed by their grace-filled Orthodox authors. The main reason for this lies in their incomprehensibility for the majority of believers. For this reason the liturgical language must first and foremost be improved, so as to make it clearer and more understandable.

An edition of liturgical texts with a new Church Slavonic wording was made and printed in a small quantity shortly before the 1917-1918 Local Council, but it never enjoyed wide circulation among the Orthodox. Discussions on the issue of liturgical language at the Council remained unfinished. The ensuing course of events is well known: attempts were made by the ‘renovationists’ to ‘russify’ the services, and the church-goers refused to accept the changes. Similar endeavours continue to be thwarted by the believers, who defend Church Slavonic as a stronghold of Orthodoxy.

Yet all this does not remove the unavoidable issue of the relative incomprehensibility of Church Slavonic. Alongside all that is justifiably being said about the need to preserve Church Slavonic, it is also evident that church services are meant to be understood; otherwise they lose their edifying force. The liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church contain a wealth of theology and moral teaching that must be accessible to people. It is clear that at the time of their composition, the Byzantine liturgical texts in use to this day were intelligible – if not to all, then at least to educated people.

The point here is not simply one of translating the services into Russian. The matter in hand concerns a much more global task which faces the Russian Orthodox Church, and first and foremost its theologians. His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and all Russia has clearly formulated this task:

Church Slavonic is not understood by all: for this reason many liturgists of our Church long ago raised the issue of translating the full cycle of liturgical texts into Russian. However, attempts to translate the services into the contemporary vernacular have shown that more is at stake than the replacement of one vocabulary with another, or of one type of grammatical form with another. The liturgical texts used in the Orthodox Church are a legacy from Byzantine antiquity; even when translated into Russian their comprehension requires special training... The issue of the incomprehensibility of church services is therefore not exhausted by questions of language alone, although these certainly must be raised and resolved as well. We face a more comprehensive and truly missionary task: to teach people to understand the meaning of the church services.

Hence it is evident that the Church must develop a strategy for its educational, catechetical and missionary work, making the treasures of Orthodox worship fully accessible to all. Without a strategy, the implementation of the ‘comprehensive missionary task’ mentioned by the Patriarch of Moscow will lack any feasibility. I believe, it is precisely the development of such missionary stratery whish is among the most essential tasks of the Orthodox Church worldwide in the 21st century.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue

One could say much more about the missionary potential of the Orthodox Church, in particular, about the Orthodox icon as a missionary tool, as well as about the church music. In the remainder of my lecture, however, I would like to concentrate on something entirely different. I would like to say a few words about who are and will be the main opponents of the Orthodox mission in the 21st century, and who are likely to become the Orthodox Church’s closest partners in its missionary activity.

I believe that the m21st century will continue to be marked by the two ongoing conflicts, or battles, which will inevitably affect the mission and witness of the Orthodox Church. The first battle is that between Christianity and ‘militant secularism’. In modern secular society Christian values are being more and more marginalized and God is being driven to the outskirts of human existence. In many countries of the West it is now almost taken for granted that religion can operate only at the private level: you are free to believe in God or not, but this should in no way be manifested in your social life. Churches and religious communities are tolerated so long as they do not trespass their own borders, so long as they refrain from publicly expressing opinions that differ from those consonant with ‘political correctness’. Should they begin to express such opinions, they are readily accused of intolerance. The secular press is largely negative towards Christianity. Youth culture is predominantly anti-religious and largely anti-Christian. Moral standards accepted by modern society are markedly different from those that were until recently accepted by most Christian communities.

The second ongoing battle, which is likely to continue in the 21st century, is that between the two markedly different versions of Christianity. There is now a deep-seated discrepancy between Christian communities, such as the Orthodox, that attempt to preserve the sacred Tradition of the ancient, undivided Church, and those, like many Reform communities, that have revised and continue to revise Tradition in conformity with secular standards. This divergence is as evident at the level of religious teaching, including doctrine and ecclesiology, as it is at the level of church practice, such as worship and morality.

In my opinion, the recent liberalization of teaching and practice in many Protestant churches has greatly alienated them from both the Orthodox and the Catholics. It has also undermined the common Christian witness to the secularized world. The voice of Christendom is nowadays deeply disunited: we preach contradictory moral standards; our doctrinal positions are divergent; and our social perspectives vary a great deal. One wonders whether we can still speak at all of ‘Christianity’ or whether it would be more accurate to refer to ‘Christianities,’ that is to say, markedly diverse versions of the Christian faith.

Many Christian communities, particularly in Western Europe and North America, are experiencing a catastrophic shortage of vocations. But what is the reason for this? One, surely, is the mounting militant secularism that steals millions of the faithful, especially the youth. Another, however, is the doctrinal and moral liberalism within some Christian communities. It not only undermines their credibility in the eyes of the secular world but also makes Christianity uninteresting and irrelevant, for it neither challenges secular society nor has anything significantly different to offer to young people educated in a worldly culture.

Under these circumstances one of the most important missionary tasks of the Orthodox Church becomes to testify to the Tradition of the ancient undivided Church before all those Christian communities who for various reasons departed from this Tradition. The Jubilee Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthordox Church, which was convoked in 2000, stated:

The Orthodox Church is the guardian of the Tradition and the grace-filled gifts of the Early Church. Her primary task, therefore, in her relations with non-Orthodox confessions is to bear continuous and persistent witness which will lead to the truth expressed in this Tradition becoming understandable and acceptable… The goal of Orthodox witness is placed upon every member of the Church. Orthodox Christians must clearly see that the faith they preserve and confess has a catholic, universal character. The Church is not only called to teach its own children, but to bear witness of the truth to those who have left her.

In this missionary effort, I believe, the Orthodox Church needs allies, and its closest ally and partner is most likely to be the Catholic Church. There are well-known differences between Catholics and Orthodox on a certain number of doctrinal and ecclesiological points, notable on the understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome. All these differences, however, appear to be rather minor in comparison to the fundamental elements of faith which are identical in both traditions. Both Churches have apostolic succession of hierarchy and de facto have mutual recognition of sacraments (while continuing not to have full Eucharistic communion). No less important is the solidarity between the Catholics and the Orthodox on major points of moral teaching, including questions of family ethics, human sexuality, bioethics etc.

It is against this background that I have repeatedly suggested that a Catholic-Orthodox Alliance should be formed. This alliance may enable Catholics and Orthodox to fight together for the preservation of traditional values and to combat against secularism, liberalism and relativism. Such alliance may help Orthodox and catholics to speak with one voice in addressing secular society, may provide for them an ample space where they will discuss modern issues and come to common positions. The two traditions can speak with one voice, and there can be a united Catholic-Orthodox response to the challenges of modern times.

The rationale behind my proposal is the following: our Churches are on their way to unity, but one has to be realistic and understand that it will probably take decades, if not centuries, before this unity is realized. In the meantime we desperately need to address the world with a united voice. Without being one Church, can we act as one Church, can we present ourselves to the outside world as a unified structure, as an alliance? I am convinced that we can, and that by doing so we may become much stronger.

Such an alliance, whatever it shape may be, may well include those representatives of Protestant and Anglican communities who associate themselves with a traditional rather than liberal ‘wing’ of Christianity and who share the essential points of traditional Christian morality. I also believe that the Oriental Orthodox Churches should from the very beginning be a part of the alliance on behalf of the Orthodox family. There is no Eucharistic communion between the Eastern and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but their spirituality and ethos, as well as their social and moral teachings are quite identical. Moreover, in an ecumenical context the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches have already proved to be able to act as one Orthodox family.

The modern battle between traditional Christianity on the one hand and secularism, liberalism and relativism on the other is primarily centred round the question of values. It is not a theological argument, because it is not the existence of God that is debated: it is the existence of an absolute moral norm, on which human life should be founded, that is put into question. The contest has an anthropological character, and it is the present and future of humanity that is at stake. By defending life, marriage and procreation, by struggling against legalization of contraception, abortion and euthanasia, against recognition of homosexual unions as equal to marital ones, against libertinage in all forms, the traditional Christians are engaged in a battle for survival of the Christian civilization and of those peoples who until recently identified themselves with Christianity.

The rediscovery of traditional Christian values is essential in the epoch which is marked by a deep demographic crisis, which in the course of the 21st century is likely to turn into an unprecedented catcstrophe for many countries of the so-called ‘Western civilization’. More and more people are coming to the understanding that the roots of the current demographic crisis are spiritual rathern than economic. It is loss of the traditional understanding of marriage and family, based on religious values, that led to a radical transformation of etical norms related to human sexuality in the second half of the 20th century. This conviction is shared today not only by religious leaders, but also by many social activists and politicians – first and foremost by those with conservative convictions. In his book with the characteristic title The Death of the West, American politician Patrick Buchanan calls the homo occidentalis an ‘endangered species.’ He writes:

As a growing population has long been a mark of healthy nations and rising civilizations, falling populations have been a sign of nations and civilizations in decline. If that holds true, Western civilization, power and wealth aside, is in critical condition… As late as 1960, European people, including Americans, Australians and Canadians, numbered 750 million, one-fourth of the 3 billion people alive… In 1960, people of European ancestry were one-fourth of the world's population; in 2000, they were one-sixth; in 2050, they will be one-tenth. These are the statistics of a vanishing race… If the present fertility rates hold, Europe’s population will decline to 207 million by the end of the twenty-first century, less than 30 percent of today’s. The cradle of Western civilization will have become its grave.

‘Irony of ironies,’ exclaims Buchanan. ‘Today, an aging, dying Christian West is pressing the Third World and the Islamic world to accept contraception, abortion, and sterilization as the West has done. But why should they enter a suicide pact with us when they stand to inherit the earth when we are gone?’

In his book Buchanan shows that the collapse of the institution of marriage and marital fertility, the triumph of promiscuity, the sharply rising number of divorces, the legalization of abortion, the widespread use of contraception and the liberalization of sexual ethics are all very closely linked with the West’s rejection of traditional moral norms formulated by the religious world-view. The ‘cultural revolution’ of the second half of the twentieth century, which undermined the foundations of traditional morality, directed the Western mind away from Christian values – self-sacrifice, altruism and faithfulness – and toward militant secular individualism, which has brought Western civilization to the brink of destruction. Buchanan concludes: ‘Only a social counterrevolution or a religious awakening can turn the West around before a falling birthrate closes off the last exit ramp and brings down the curtain on Western Man’s long-running play.’

The Orthodox Church can play a significant role in this religious awakening, which is perhaps the only thing that can save Western civilization from an irrecoverable collapse. On the threshold of the 21st century the Orthodox Church once again showed its capability to attract and inspire millions of people. A religious revival of unprecedented scale is going on in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and other countries of the former Soviet bloc. This renaissance, experienced by all religious confessions, is particularly noticeable in the Russian Orthodox Church: within twenty years, the number of its parishes grew from 6 to 30 thousand, the number of monasteries from 18 to 750, the number of theological schools from 3 to 100, and the number of priests more than quadrupled. Quantitative growth went hand in hand with qualitative changes. The Church, which for decades had only been able to serve the ‘religious needs’ of its members, turned to those outside and engaged in a wide range of missionary, educational and charitable activities.

Similar processes are underway in the Romanian, Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches, which also suffered under communist regimes, as well as in some other Local Orthodox Churches. Great missionaries carry out their aposlotic work, such as Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, who was able to practically re-create an Orthodox Church that had been reduced to zero by militant atheists. The Orthodox Church does not suffer from a ‘crisis of vocations’, about which so many Christian Churches are constantly complaining. On the contrary, Orthodox theological seminaries, academies and faculties are full of young men and women eager to serve the Church, monasteries and convents are filled with monks and nuns.

As one of the few Christian Churches which are growing rather than declining, the Orthodox Church is a living proof of continuing relevance of that sort of Christianity which is based on traditional doctrinal and moral values. It also disproves a widespread opinion that we are living in a ‘post-Christian’ epoch. I strongly believe that a worldwide revival of Christianity is ahead, and that the Orthodox Church will play a significant role in it.

Read the entire article on the Metropolitan Hilarion website (new window will open).

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk is head of the Russian Orthodox Church Department for External Church Relations. Read more of Met. Hilarion's writing on the Metropolitan Hilarion website.

Published: October 8, 2010

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