|Shap Journal 2004/2005
Shaping the Future
Changing traditions, unchanging Tradition:
Some thoughts on Orthodox Christianity
Angelika Baxter and Gillian Crow
What does it mean to live as an Orthodox Christian in contemporary society? What tensions exist between the Orthodox Tradition and the contemporary world, and how can these be negotiated and resolved? What issues have arisen recently, and what new ways forward have been found? Owing to the immense richness of diversity within the Orthodox Church, it would be difficult to arrive at ‘representative’ replies to these questions. Instead, this article will give some personal views, from the perspective of being Orthodox in Britain today.
The authors are both members of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh, which covers Great Britain and Ireland. Other Orthodox Christians may not share the authors’ priorities, or their perceptions of the issues discussed below. What all Orthodox hold in common, however, is the Tradition of Orthodoxy, held together, across both space and time, “by the double bond of unity in faith and communion in the sacraments” (Timothy Ware).
Because of this timeless aspect of Orthodox Tradition, it would be difficult to select specific areas of change in the context of contemporary life. We hope, however, that the following will give the reader a ‘feel’ for some of the ways in which Orthodox Christians may approach today’s world, and how social and cultural change can be accommodated within a Tradition that in itself remains unchanging.
The Orthodox Church sees itself as the Church of the apostles, the continuation of the universal Church, which began at Pentecost. After the Great Schism between the Churches of Rome and Byzantium in 1054 CE, Western Christianity evolved as a separate strand from that of the Orthodox Christian East. Some differences in teaching and Church organisation developed in consequence of this.
The Orthodox Church is made up of a number of autocephalous (self-governing) national churches, originally territory-based and now with a considerable worldwide diaspora, which share the same faith and services. As a result of various migrations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Orthodox congregations are now found not only in their countries of origin, but also, for example, in parts of Australia, the Americas and Western Europe. In Britain there are Greek/Greek Cypriot, Russian, Serbian and other Slav, as well as Arab, congregations, which are geographically outside their mother Churches. With just over 100 parishes, the Greek Archdiocese of Thyateira is currently the largest Orthodox community in the UK.
The Church, past and present, is bound together by Tradition, regarded by the Orthodox as the ongoing life of the Christian community as guided by the Holy Spirit. It thus includes Scripture, Liturgy, and the writings of the Holy Fathers, as well as Canon Law and the universal written and oral wisdom that goes to make up the Orthodox faith. ‘Tradition’ in this sense should be clearly distinguished from local customs and traditions that may express local and ethnic cultures within Orthodoxy. The Orthodox conception of Tradition is a dynamic one. Tradition, while inwardly changeless (for God does not change), is constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them. Adherence to Tradition thus becomes “not a dead acceptance of the past but a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present” (Timothy Ware). This informs all aspects of the life of the Church.
For Orthodox Christians, the life of faith aims towards deification or divinization - towards the gradual restoration, in each believer, of that original ‘image and likeness’ of God that was lost with the Fall of Adam and Eve. The vision of deification includes not only mankind. In Christ, God took flesh - something from the material order - and so has made possible the redemption of all creation, of the cosmos as a whole. This approach has implications for worship and prayer. It is also linked, for example, to the place of ikons in Orthodox teaching. We shall return to this point.
A characteristic feature of Orthodox worship is its emphasis on the beauty of the spiritual world, of which all perceptible beauty is a reflection. The worshippers aim to bring themselves, as well as the material world, into the redemptive power of that invisible beauty. Worship thus involves all five senses - for instance, through music and the presence of ikons, but also through the use of candles and incense.
Orthodox Christian theology ascribes a distinctive place to ikons (sacred images). Their presence is connected to Orthodox teaching on the Incarnation of Christ, which has made a representational religious art possible as God became man. Depicting Christ, his mother, angels, saints and feasts of the Church, ikons are venerated - but not worshipped - as a point of meeting between heaven and earth, as symbols that allow the invisible world to penetrate the visible. Sacraments also express this aspect - for example, the water used in baptism, and the bread and wine of communion.
The consistent format of Orthodox worship over recent centuries reflects the belief in a chain of ‘living continuity’ that transcends both time and space as it links together the visible and invisible worlds. Praying for the deification of the cosmos, Orthodox worship includes intercessions for the whole world, and the whole church, as well as the present congregation and each person within it. The departed are remembered alongside the living; biblical figures, saints and angels are among those commemorated in this way.
Sundays and holy days are marked by a celebration of the Divine Liturgy, which includes the Sacrament of Communion. The congregation stands in the nave of the church, which in many cases does not have pews, thus permitting freedom of movement. Standing upright is the normal position during services, as this most fully expresses the dignity of the person at prayer. Although the service follows a set format, worshippers tend not to act in uniformity. Individuals may cross or prostrate themselves at different times; they may also arrive at, or depart from, the service at various stages, in line with their personal needs and circumstances.
In line with the great significance given to the concept of deification, Easter is the most important feast of the Church year. It is preceded by a fasting period that begins seven weeks beforehand. For Orthodox, fasting expresses a belief in the unity of soul and body. Both must be trained, ‘disciplined’ in the sense of discipleship - an effort towards transformation of the whole person while remaining aware that all our efforts remain incomplete without God’s grace.
At Easter, the resurrection of Christ - his victory over darkness and death - tends to be celebrated by a midnight service. In most parishes this is followed immediately by a Divine Liturgy. It should be noted that, owing to differing formulae for calculating its date, Orthodox Easter does not usually coincide with Easter in the Western churches.
The Orthodox approach to worship links together Church and home. Some divine services, such as the blessing of a new house or flat, take place at home; the home is the place where the life of the Church is lived out in everyday situations. Furthermore, personal and family needs can be included in public worship, as Orthodoxy makes no great distinction between liturgy and private devotion. Each Orthodox home will have an ikon corner, which usually includes ikons of Christ, his mother, and any saints and angels of importance to the individual or family. Morning and evening prayers will be said standing before these ikons; in the same way, prayers are said in the home before and after any major life event.
Within the framework of Tradition, social and cultural change does of course occur. Our own diocese began to develop when Russian refugees arrived in Britain in the early twentieth century; numbers increased as Russian parishioners intermarried with English people. Parts of the Divine Liturgy now began to be celebrated in English as well as Church Slavonic (the traditional liturgical language of Russian congregations). This, in turn, attracted new parishioners who had no ethnic links with Russia. In this way, our diocese has become increasingly multilingual, multiracial and multicultural over the years. More recently, the arrival of new East European immigrants has brought yet more diversity, along with a need to cater for, and include, people who may be new to Britain, and new to such local customs as have developed within the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain.
Throughout these changes, our Tradition – for example, our services, prayers and ikons – do not change, as a way of expressing the Christian faith that “Christ is contemporary with any age”, in the words of one Orthodox writer. At the same time, our social, ethnic and cultural traditions remain in flux, as an increasing diversity of races, cultures and ethnicities contributes to the makeup of local Orthodox communities.
For adults generally:
Anthony Bloom (1972) Meditations on a Theme. A Spiritual Journey.’ Last reprint 2004, Continuum
Olivier Clement (2002) On Human Being. A Spiritual Anthropology UK edition, New City.
Timothy Ware (1963; latest reprint 2003) The Orthodox Church Penguin .
For teachers (primary and secondary):
Gillian Crow, Christianity - The Orthodox Tradition (available via Gillian@crow.co.uk)
For young adults:
Sylvia and Barry Sutcliffe (1995) Committed to Christianity RMEP