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Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Human Icon

The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian BeliefsThe Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs by Christine Mangala Frost

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Dr Frost has capably achieved a gargantuan task in shining a light on the spirituality of Orthodox Christianity for a Hindu audience and likewise illuminating the richness and depth of Hinduism for her own Orthodox Christian community. This has been achieved precisely because she has a foot in both worlds with insights that transcend the possible disjunctions of language, concepts and practice that exist on the surface between the two faiths. Raised as a Hindu but becoming an Orthodox Christian in later life, she speaks from within both religious traditions with an authenticity that is personally tested and encyclopaedic in scope.
In this book, Dr Frost has not simply described the major themes of each religion, comparatively and in parallel. That would have presented a relatively straight forward task. She has gone further and much deeper by identifying possible points of contact, even overlap and congruence, between corresponding themes and insights from both faiths. This has been achieved while at the same time identifying with clear sightedness possible irreducible differences that need to be acknowledged in inter-faith dialogue.
Her realism in addressing these elements of both convergence and divergence is never compromised by any personal intrusive commitments, yet her own blessings in both faiths clearly shine through. She is a critical observer who strives to be fair to both religions both on their own grounds and in dialogue. A reader of this book will be enlightened and encouraged by the possibilities that lie ahead for mutual enhancement and understanding between Orthodox Christians and Hindus alike.



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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Rolling Back the Darkness



It is with a sad and heavy heart that I must comment on those terrible events that unfolded last night in the great city of Manchester, when the terrorists struck again on our soil.  

This time they targeted defenceless and innocent young people, some with friends and some in family groups, attending a pop concert in the Manchester Arena in the centre of the city. As I speak to you on the day after, there are currently 22 fatalities and 59 people injured, many of them critically. One of the children killed was merely eight years old. Our prayers go out to the grieving families of those who have lost loved ones and also to those who are suffering from grievous wounds in various hospitals around the city. 
IS/Daesh has claimed responsibility for this despicable and cowardly action but that cult of death often tries to promote itself on the back of such attacks for propaganda purposes, so we must resist jumping to conclusions before the evidence is assembled and assessed. Nonetheless, the authorities have confirmed this was indeed a terrorist attack, an improvised explosive device being detonated by a suicide bomber in the foyer of the Arena; timed to inflict maximum casualties at the end of the concert when thousands of young people would be leaving. The police know the identity of this mass murderer but are not releasing it for the time being. This is in part due to the ongoing local and national investigation which looks likely to reveal co-conspirators and terrorist cells. The attack took place just 8 miles from the church that I serve in the suburbs. This morning, just 3 miles away from St Aidan’s, the police raided two houses and there was a controlled explosion at one of them. No further details are available as of this time, but this story is unfolding so rapidly, so by the time you hear this I am sure that much more will be known.
As an Orthodox Christian priest, and together with my parish community in this great city of Manchester, I am trying to think and pray through an appropriate and balanced Christian response to such a tragedy, including how we should handle such terrorist threats and realities into the future. First and in this regard, all of us here in Manchester have already been inspired by the flawless response of the emergency services and the spirit of Manchester people who have rallied round to support those directly affected by this terrorist outrage. The solidarity of the people of Manchester, and indeed of other communities similarly affected in Britain and elsewhere, is an outstanding inspiration and example to all those peoples of any religion and background who are threatened by this evil culture of death, right across the world.
Second, as individual Orthodox Christians, the Gospel of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ calls us to embrace the cross and forgive those who would do us harm. Loving our enemies doesn’t just mean dealing with obnoxious people in daily life it means praying for, and indeed loving those who would do us actual harm. There can be no room for hate or revenge when confronting such an evil as this. Only the love of a God who justly judges and graciously saves can turn the most hardened and bitter heart toward peace, human dignity and compassion.  He usually expects though to do this through our witness, so this then is our responsibility as Christians. However, this is not the whole story.
Third, we need to make a clear distinction between personal morality and social responsibility, while seeing both as being subject to God’s sovereign will and purpose. Individual Christians, according to the Gospel, may choose martyrdom in extreme situations rather than retaliate or seek revenge. They may choose to forgive their persecutors and pray for them. However, none of us can forgive on behalf of those who have suffered at the hands of others. Only those directly affected by such atrocities, and indeed by sins generally, have both the right and the capacity to forgive their own particular enemies. As a nation, our social responsibility is to uphold the law and play our part in the democratic process through which, of course, such laws are enacted, which is why, I believe, voting in elections, notwithstanding its flaws is better than suffering a dictatorship allowed elbow room through cynicism, despair or apathy. The first duty of the State itself, however, but not of course the only one, is to protect its citizens and to ensure the defence of the realm. Passive martyrdom and forgiveness is a choice exercised by individual persons but it can never simply be translated directly into social policy and law; particularly when endangerment of life is current and critical, as it is now.
As I said, the duty of the State is to protect us all and especially the vulnerable and the weak, and to this end we need excellent and ethical intelligence services and a robust and effective police force and military. Such forces of law and order can only function optimally when they are supported by all citizens themselves. The failure to support the forces of law and order in such atrocities is a danger as reprehensible as the actual attacks themselves. The first duty of all citizens, therefore, must be to support the police and the security services in their work. With sufficient safeguards as to personal liberty, if this also involves the deepening of the surveillance trawl through electronic media, then this is something, I believe, that we should support, while at the same time denying to the authorities the opportunity to use these “all-seeing eyes” to interfere with our valued freedoms. It would be a tragedy if terrorism won by encouraging us to adopt measures that undermine the very freedoms that we are defending in opposing it.
However, the battle we are waging here against terrorism is not simply and only to be fought with intelligence and smart policing. That will be like cutting off the heads of weeds while leaving deep-seated roots untouched. There is an ideological, and indeed propaganda, war going on here for the hearts and minds of those who are especially most vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists, both homegrown and otherwise.
How then is such a war to be waged? A number of weapons are at our disposal. Always useful is a good and intelligent use of the disciplines of psychology and criminology, both in dealing with those who are recruited into terrorism (caught alive) and in the messages we promote and adopt in our society through mass media and the pulpit, not only to inform public opinion and form the Christian mind, but also to act as a counter insurgency tactic against the terrorists themselves; a counter insurgency of the heart and the mind.
Here is where religion generally has much to offer, precisely because it is religion that is being perverted and corrupted here. I say “religion” rather than simply Christianity because it is a task that can and should be embraced by peoples of all faiths, those, that is, whose basic tenets are goodness, righteousness and truth. A cult of death such as IS / Daesh may only finally be beaten through active forces of goodness in education and a re-orientation toward the light, especially at the hands of knowledgeable and skilled believers generally and co-religionists especially. Governments need to invest as much time, effort, personnel and money in these methods as in the more traditional aspects of police enforcement, intelligence gathering and military intervention. States in the West which have been accustomed to a secularism which has progressively banished religion from the public square need to develop both a more open mind and an active commitment towards cooperating with faith communities and skilled individuals in this process of rolling back the darkness of hatred and death.
None of these reflections are irrelevant to the practical situation and plight in which we now find ourselves with grieving relatives and bloodied bodies in the city of Manchester and elsewhere. Orthodox Christians need to play their part together with other men and women of goodwill who are prepared to rise up and collaborate in a generous and positive manner, fighting with the weapons of the Spirit, not only for the values and freedoms that are so cherished by us all, but also for the entrenchment of those values in the minds and hearts of those vulnerable persons for whom Daesh/IS and the devil continue to contend. This is a spiritual as well as physical battle that we shall have to face with faith, hope and love - perhaps of the next two or three generations. May the Lord be our very present help, strength and guide as we all do our part to uphold his Kingdom here on earth as in heaven.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Does Orthodoxy Matter?

Orthodoxy means "true glory" or "true faith."  We Orthodox think very highly of the word.  Or do we?  When it comes down to it, does Orthodoxy actually matter all that much to us (as it should)?  Orthodox Christians in the west find themselves living among many different Christianities and it can sometimes be tempting to think that notwithstanding some of the more obvious differences, (icons, the Theotokos, fasting, worship, for example), all these Christian traditions share much the same faith as us.  If you are of this opinion, then I am sorry to have to disappoint you, but it just isn't true at all.  How so?

I am going to consider this issue by looking at a case study which reveals the damage that heresy can do in our personal lives, our relationships and even to the society and world that we live in.  It is a fictional story, but quite typical.

John and Mary go to an Evangelical Anglican Church.  John is Orthodox (Greek tradition).  Mary is Anglican.  This is her second marriage, being a young widow with one teenage son (Ian, 15) still living at home. She now has two children with John, daughters, aged 5 and 7.  John would prefer to go to his local Greek Church but his wife is a committed Anglican, and their children, although baptised in the Orthodox Church (with the exception of Ian), prefer the "lively worship songs", as they put it, which are included in the church's family service.  Ian is very involved in the local youth group and is thinking eventually of becoming an Anglican minister.  Does Orthodoxy then matter to John?  Well, yes, but only in a remote nostalgic sort of way.  It is some years now since he has attended Divine Liturgy, the last time was at Pascha in 2008.  His stepson, Ian, will have nothing to do with what he considers to be the "stuffy incomprehensible worship" at his stepdad's church which he has visited once, just after his stepfather's marriage.

Ten years later ....

Neither John nor Mary now regularly attend the Anglican Church.  John still hasn't been back to the Orthodox Church since Pascha 2008 and Mary doesn't like the new Vicar who is a woman.  Mary is quite a conservative evangelical believer who maintains that a woman should not be in a place of authority within the Church over men.  (This is the evangelical doctrine of the"headship of the male.")  Her two daughters, now 15 and 17 still attend on their own and are very active in the youth group.  Ian, who shares his mother's conservative outlook, has also left the church, disagreeing with what he believes to be the Anglican Church's tolerance of homosexual partnerships.  He has started attending a very conservative Baptist church that teaches pure Calvinism, in particular, the doctrines known as TULIP (from the first letter of each doctrine), namely:-

Total Depravity - As a result of Adam’s fall, all humanity, is dead in sins and therefore damned.  Humanity's nature is corrupt and utterly incapable of godliness.

Unconditional Election - Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate a response to God; therefore, from eternity God elected certain people to salvation and others to damnation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response because man is unable to respond to God, nor does he want to.

Limited Atonement - Because God determined that certain people should be saved as a result of His unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect alone. All whom God has elected, and for whom Christ died, will be saved but the rest will be damned to hell for all eternity; again as determined by God's sovereign will.

Irresistible Grace - Those whom God elected He draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.  Man cannot choose to love God by his own choice and freedom.

Perseverance of the Saints - The precise people God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith to the end. None whom God has elected will ever be lost; they are eternally secure even though they may sin grievously after election.

Although Ian is a pious and committed believer these doctrines trouble him.  He begins to doubt that he is one of the elect, chosen by God for salvation.  His sinful life (he occasionally resorts to prostitutes) troubles him greatly but his church tells him that he is unable to make any right choice and save himself.  Ian enters a very dark period of depression, made much worse by the impact of these heresies on his mental health.  His fragile relationship with his atheist girlfriend disintegrates.  He seeks medical help for a latent depression which has now become the full blown clinical variety.

Five years further on, the two daughters are now at the same university, one just about to graduate but they have been unable to find an evangelical church they like nearby, so they have stopped attending church on the grounds that they believe in Christ and are saved, so what's the point?  Back home John and Mary now lead thoroughly secular lives.  John sometimes thinks wistfully of his childhood back in Cyprus when he used to attend church with his Nana but this seems to him a very distant idealised time now.  He hopes, nonetheless, that his wife or children will respect his wish for an Orthodox funeral if he dies first.

So, did Orthodoxy matter to John?  Well yes, particularly earlier on, but for most of his adult life only in a nominal sort of way.  He had certainly not been catechised in his youth and his grasp of the faith, therefore, had always been somewhat tenuous.  Did Anglican evangelicalism then strike him as being similar to Orthodoxy?  Well yes, mostly.  He only saw differences in the worship style which often set his teeth on edge.  Let's face it.  He attended the evangelical Anglican Church for the sake of his wife and family.  When they stopped going, so did he.  There is only one God after all and this was just a different way of being a Christian, it seemed to him.  He did lament his stepson's involvement in the Calvinist church because he could see how its refusal of human freedom and choice, its dark doctrines of divine election to salvation or damnation, did not feel right to him, but he couldn't really say why.

Did Mary his wife ever consider Orthodoxy when the lady Vicar arrived?  Well, no, why should she?  Her husband rarely spoke of his childhood faith and she concluded that it could not have meant much to him in that case, so why should she consider it?  John and Mary now spend a conventional Sunday together as most couples do in their street, getting up late, going to the gym occasionally, shopping at B&Q, taking a drive into the countryside; just the usual and normal things everyone does nowadays.  Both still consider themselves as Christians, but obviously not of the fanatical sort whom they blame, quite rightly, for destroying Ian's piece of mind.  As for the two girls, well they eventually graduated and now have families of their own.  Churchgoing, however, has become completely alien to all their families with the rest.

So, does Orthodox Christianity matter to you?
Does it matter enough for you to find out about it in more depth?
Does it matter enough for you to practice it as faithfully as you can, notwithstanding the distractions of modern life?
Does it matter enough for you to stay loyal to this faith no matter what challenges are presented to it by both family life and society as a whole?

And here's the challenging question ...

In the absence of an Orthodox church nearby would you be prepared to pray at home rather than pray with the heterodox?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What will become of my children?

A challenge to all Orthodox Christians who are concerned about the young


What will become of my children? Every responsible parent asks this question at some point as their children grow older. We want our children to grow up safe and free, as healthy as possible in body, mind and spirit and to make the best use of their God-given gifts. If we are Orthodox Christians we also want our children to come to know Christ personally and in the Church. We know that the Church is the ark of salvation and that the spiritual safety of our children therefore depends on their remaining in the Church through all the stages of life from the cradle to the grave. What we may not know as Orthodox Christians is that here and there, but not everywhere, we are failing our children.

That seems quite shocking, and it is, but it is nonetheless true. A whole generation or more is being lost to the Church and the root of this problem can be traced way back to infancy in churchgoing families. Going back further than one generation reveals a longer term and growing problem, a problem of unchurched adults whose children will show little prospect of finding salvation because they see in their parents a lack of concern for their own. Some of these issues faced by the Orthodox Church are shared with other Christian churches and mainly concern the secularising forces of our post-Christian culture. In this article I do not intend to deal with these issues but rather with those special matters of concern in the Orthodox Church with reference to the younger children of churchgoing parents. When these children grow into their teens, and certainly when they leave home, they are being lost to the Church. Why is this so?

Growing up as a Christian in the British Isles and Ireland in the 21st century is a testing time for many young people. Until 2007 I taught Religious Education to 11 to 16-year-olds in both Church schools (Roman Catholic and Anglican) and State schools. In the Church schools, and even in predominantly Christian areas, the average number of young people with any contact with any church rarely exceeded 6 out of a class of 30.  Of those, perhaps only two or three would have any commitment to Christ and that commitment would be quite fragile. Among their school friends, attitudes to Christianity would vary from puzzlement through derision to outright hostility. A young Christian person's faith needed to be quite strong and reasonably well-informed.   Their character had also to be quite robust and independent to withstand the mocking of their friends.

If you are reading this and you are an Orthodox Christian parent having settled here in the British Isles and Ireland over the last 20 years or more, you may be quite shocked by my account. You may be aware of the hostility to Christianity, or at best the incomprehension of it among your adult non-religious friends but for your children, well-being and happiness at school will probably involve a desperate desire to keep their churchgoing secret from their friends. The long-term effect of this social pressure and the relentless attacks on Christianity in society eventually take their toll spiritually on young lives.

Imagine now that as Orthodox Christian parents you are insisting that your children catch your own faith in Church in a language other than English. Of course, many children of Orthodox Christian families recently settled here are bilingual and so you may think that there is no harm in using a language other than English in the services or in Christian teaching. Your children understand, as you do, so where's the harm? Well, I suppose there is no harm if you are only going to live here for a few years and that you then intend as a family to move back to your country of origin. However, many Orthodox Christian families do not find themselves in this position or indeed do not intend to leave this country. They anticipate that they will be living here for the long term or maybe their short-term goals of return are unrealistic. What then? What message does a refusal to use English in church give to young people, particularly as they enter their teenage years?

Difficult and painful though this might be to accept, the message you are giving to your children is that this Christian faith, this Orthodox Christian faith, is indelibly linked to the country in which you grew up.   This robs your children of the possibility of connecting to Christ through Orthodoxy directly in and through the indigenous culture and language of these Isles. Your children's Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, atheist and agnostic friends, with whom they socialise on a daily basis at school if nowhere else, will share similar backgrounds, situations and challenges. Religious sentiments, insofar as they are respected at all in this wider youth subculture, will be identified as what mum and dad do when they seek in their religious practice to revert to forms familiar from their own youth in the 'homeland'. As such this faith will seem increasingly very distant to them as their social environment and personal identity draws them away from their childhood experience in the Church. Into adulthood they are much less likely to go to Church on a regular basis and by the time they have children of their own a second generation will be well on its way to being lost. Of course, some will be picked up by Protestant and evangelical sects and I suppose that this is better than falling off the spiritual map entirely; but what do we really think we are doing when, as Orthodox Christians, we not only accept this situation but also consciously decide to do things that make it more likely to happen? Mistakenly, perhaps, we think that if only our children can be kept in a sort of Orthodox "bubble" where the language, culture and expression of faith is so far removed from that outside the walls of the church, then all will be well. It is precisely this attitude, however, that causes the problem in the first place and yet we do not see it!  Why do we not see it? I believe that there are two main reasons.

The first reason has more apparent religious respectability to it as an argument, but actually it is heretical. This is the idea that Britain, lacking a decent Orthodox Christian culture, (which certainly cannot be contested), is actually a danger zone from which our children must, at all costs, be protected. The argument goes that the only way of protecting them is to keep them in the Orthodox Bubble with its self-contained language and culture from the homeland.  In some jurisdictions, even communities with predominantly indigenous converts are pressured by hierarchs to create their own ersatz Orthodox bubble and this has the extraordinary effect of some UK born citizens adopting an alternative pretend persona as pseudo-Greeks, Russians, Romanians, Arabs etc. However, this reason for creating an Orthodox bubble is heretical not only because it is a betrayal of the equality of all nations as God's creation but it is also a betrayal of hope that the gospel is indeed for all nations and all cultures. As Orthodox Christians we are obliged - it is not a choice, it is a command of the gospel itself - we are obliged to communicate and live out the gospel in the society, culture and indigenous language in which we live. To imply that this is not possible is to reduce the Church to being a museum or protectorate of certain privileged cultures and languages deemed to be safely Orthodox in contrast and opposition to others deemed to be incapable of becoming Orthodox Christian. If that were true, St Paul would have never taken the gospel to the Gentiles and the Church would have remained a Jewish sect, initially confined to the Middle East and then dispersed as the Jews have been throughout the centuries to this day. When speaking of my own jurisdiction (Antioch), if anyone in this Church subscribed to such horrendous views then this would constitute a gross betrayal of the foundation of the Antiochian Church in apostolic times when this Church became the first base 'par excellence' of that mission to the Gentiles commanded by God himself.

The second reason for the inability of some Orthodox to understand their own complicity in losing generations of young people to the heterodox or secularity concerns something pastoral and psychological.  This often exists alongside the first reason as a disguised primary motivation and it concerns a bereavement. Now this might strike you as somewhat strange, since we normally associate grief with the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship or the loss of a job. There is however another grief, a cultural one and an aspect of one's personal identity and nationality. This grief occurs often in the first generation of immigrant families and because the clergy who minister to these families often share the same sense of dislocation and bereavement in the loss of a homeland, the grieving process becomes stuck and people find it very difficult to adapt and to feel at home in their new country of residence. In these circumstances, the Church can provide a little relief from this distress when, for a time every week, the community can suppose (inside the Orthodox Bubble) that it is still in the homeland with its accustomed culture, language and customs.  This dysfunctional response can be reinforced by the more negative aspects of multiculturalism which suppose that the best way to ensure diversity is to encourage the maintenance of lots of little bubbles of culture and language, religious and non-religious, whereas in fact, diversity only works well when those languages and culture are shared and fed into national life. However, as far as the life of the Church is concerned, this unresolved bereavement, this dislocation of cultural identity, explains the fierce resistance exhibited by some Orthodox communities, to any process of indigenisation within Church life.  The most disastrous aspect of this is the refusal to use the English language in worship and teaching which is the only guarantee that our young people will be sufficiently equipped through understanding the faith in order to practice it and witness to Christ through it.

At this point in the article is it important to refer back to my earlier comments about why it is that Orthodox teens so easily fall away from Church. It is not, of course, the case that an overnight switch to the use of English in our services will somehow 'magic' these teens and young adults back into the Church and prevent the long-term decline that we are now seeing. However, it might just help to prevent a third generation going the same way if we take prompt action now. We may not see the benefit for at least 10 years but within that same period and without this prompt action the losses to our membership among the young will only continue to accelerate.

This article, therefore, is a no holds barred, blunt warning and call to action to those Orthodox Christian communities who think that keeping things as they are in the Orthodox Bubble is in any way a viable option for the Church into the future. It is not. Failure to act now, before it is too late, will leave our children outside the Church as they grow up and condemn Orthodoxy in the West to a slow and lingering death. Any Orthodox happy to stay in their comfort zones on this basis are complicit through their inaction and unwillingness to adapt with a betrayal of the very gospel itself and as such they will be judged.  When therefore we ask: "what will become of our children?" let us be sure that we respond with positive strategies aimed at keeping them in the Church so that through their witness and ours this nation may be won again for Christ.  Since the Ascension of our Lord this call to teach, baptise and make disciples among all nations has been and always will remain our joyful duty until Christ comes again.  If we don't start by discharging our duty to our own children, what chance is there that we will come anywhere close to fulfilling the Great Commission?

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