Prepared by Father Yves, March 2007
Our identity is both our strength and our downfall. Without parents and educators, without a language and a culture, without human fellowship, we cannot exist. Without references, without boundaries, without interaction with those who are different, we are inactive and sterile.
No one is without identity, whether positive (Black, Evangelical, British), or negative (agnostic, non-Muslim, anti-American). Identity, if not carefully kept under control, leads to aggression and contempt for others.
These brief notes show some main references and boundaries that situate the Orthodox Church. They are not meant to encourage contempt for others, triumphalism, or a refusal to listen to and respect those whose beliefs differ from ours.
Who we are: Past and Present
The Orthodox Christians are the members of the Apostolic Church, i.e. the Church that has not known any major departures from the faith and practice of the original Church established by Christ when he sent his Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Christ’s victorious resurrection has never become hidden behind an exclusive concentration on Good Friday.
As in the Acts of the Apostles, the invocation of the Name of Jesus is central to our life.
As in the Johannine writings, the Sacraments give out Light and Life, and recent Saints, especially John of Kronstadt after whom our Bath Parish is called, have continued that tradition of ‘Life in Christ’ where sacramental grace is a conscious experience.
Just as Saint Paul considered every local Church as an embodiment of the fullness of the Catholic Church (e.g. ‘God’s Church at Corinth,’ ‘’the Church of the Thessalonians,’ ‘God’s people at Ephesus’: none of them is just a fraction of the Church, a fraction of God’s people), so the local Church, provided it keeps the Orthodox Faith and remains in communion with the other local embodiments of the Orthodox Church, each possess the fullness of Catholicity.
The prophetic and charismatic gifts, so evident in the New Testament, have remained a reality in the lives of countless Saints right to the present day.
While using freely the vocabulary of contemporary philosophers, the Church Fathers never subjugated the Christian Faith to any philosophical system, whether Platonist, Aristotelian or Stoic; the Orthodox Faith is not an intellectual system, but the Good News of the Incarnate God’s manifestation of divine love through his victory over sin and death. Always reticent to give the impression that the Faith can entirely be contained in abstract notions, the Orthodox Church has merely responded to various crises, by issuing through the Seven Ecumenical Councils, declarations of Faith which are meant to protect God’s people from catastrophic departures from the Gospel, rather than attempts at putting the whole Faith into words.
In the eleventh century, deep transformations occur in the Latin Church (Rome formally accepts a change in the wording of the Nicene Creed; the Pope transforms his primacy of honour into a will to acquire juridical authority over the whole Church) result not at once, but gradually over a couple of centuries, in a schism which lasts to this day. The break is consummated in 1204 when the Crusaders burn down Constantinople, desecrate its churches, and sit a prostitute on the Patriarch’s throne.
The next catastrophe, in the fifteenth century, is the conquest of Constantinople and all the Balkans by the Turks. The Russian Church remains the only free part of the Orthodox Church, and her missionaries spread the Faith eastwards, reaching the Far East in the eighteenth century. In the same eighteenth century, the Tsars try to secularise the country: they suppress the Patriarchate, introduce the Enlightenment and post-Renaissance art, and impose severe restrictions on the monasteries.
The late eighteenth century sees the beginning of a great monastic revival which started on Mount Athos with the publication of the Philokalia – Orthodoxy’s reply to the Enlightenment – and rapidly reached Russia thanks to Saint Paissy Vielichkovsky. The unique personality of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, whose teaching on the acquisition of the Holy Spirit spread far and wide; the monastery of Optina produced a succession of Elders who influenced the whole country; Then in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a married priest, Saint John of Kronstadt, brought countless people to repentance and a living faith, preparing the country for the bloodbath of the Soviet oppression which produced more martyrs than the all the early centuries before Constantine.
Today the Russian Church is rising like a phoenix from its ashes; the Albanian Church has had a vigorous rebirth under the leadership of Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos; the Romanian Church was never broken by the Communist persecution; the Greek Church is increasingly involved in setting up local Churches in sub-Saharan Africa; the Orthodox Church is increasingly present throughout the Western world; but throughout the Middle East the very existence of the ancient Orthodox Churches is threatened, mainly by Muslim fundamentalism, but also by the Israeli repressive policy towards the Palestinians.