The last two years have been a fractious time. It is as if E.M. Forster’s famous dictum, “Only connect” (from Howard’s End), had been stood on its head, to be replaced by division, separation, walls, and barriers. In the United Kingdom, a slim minority chose in a referendum to withdraw from the EU, propelling the country towards a future that is not yet certain but will probably leave the country poorer and more isolated (assuming, that is, that withdrawal actually takes place!). In the USA, a president was elected who promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, ban immigrants from certain Muslim countries, and round up undocumented immigrants for deportation. Both the UK referendum campaign and the US election pandered to two strong, primordial emotions: fear and resentment, directed primarily towards immigrants. The Leave campaign exploited voters’ ignorance of the EU, and their campaign was clinched by the lie that 350 million pounds a week paid to the EU could be diverted to the National Health Service if Britain left the EU.
Fascist and anti-Muslim parties have been quietly rising to prominence in certain European countries. Meanwhile, after several years where dictatorships and military governments have been yielding ground to democracy and liberalism, it looks as though this trend has gone into reverse. In several countries, human rights and privacy are under attack, with authoritarianism on the increase. For years Putin has been silencing dissent and forging a state where the rule of law is selectively applied if not largely absent, where wealth disparities have assumed grotesque proportions, where corruption is widespread and journalists who denounce it are murdered. Eastern Europe is also looking increasingly fragile: Russia makes inroads into Ukraine, while Poland and Hungary have taken an authoritarian turn. Further east, Egypt is a virtual dictatorship, while in Israeli-occupied Palestine the wall and checkpoints show no signs of going away.
These unsettling developments are, among other things, a symptom of severe fracture and widespread confusion in many countries. Of the countries mentioned, the USA is perhaps the one where “culture wars” have become the most strident, reflecting deep and bitter divisions. The nation is divided by increasing income disparities and by an ever-increasing gap in mentality and educational attainment. Geography also plays a role, with the coastal regions famously more liberal and progressive than the “fly-over” states.
The Trump vote was strong in small towns, rural areas and formerly prosperous towns that have become rust belts, where people who felt they had lost out to globalization, “political correctness”, inclusivity, feminism, and multiculturalism seized the opportunity to protest. The Trump vote was extensively supported by white supremacists, racists, advocates of gun ownership, anti-LGBT, defenders of “traditional” or “family” values, “Christian” fundamentalists and/or Creationists, those who are mistrustful of education, anti-abortionists and death penalty advocates. By contrast the Clinton vote was supported by social liberals who are more at ease with immigration, multiculturalism, and diversity.
In the UK, a similar regional and cultural divide brought about the vote to leave the EU. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, England and Wales voted predominantly to leave. The anti-EU vote, like the pro-Trump vote, came largely from rust belts. As in the USA, educational attainment correlated closely with voter preference, with the less educated tending to oppose remaining in the EU. (See Jon Stone’s article here.) In the UK, the bitter divisions caused by the EU referendum resulted in the murder of an MP, Joe Cox, a rise in hate crimes, and death threats directed against Gina Miller after she sought a legal ruling that the decision to trigger Article 50 (giving two years’ notice to leave the EU) had to be voted in Parliament. The rise in anti-immigrant sentiment is shared—indeed, encouraged by—the government itself: the Home Office has been sending immigrants from the EU letters telling them to “prepare to leave” the UK.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the intolerance and resentment have been matched by nostalgia, a hankering for a mythical golden age. Make America Great Again is echoed by Put the Great back into Britain and We Want Our Country Back. In both cases there is a desire to return to a fictional past in which bureaucracy supposedly did not exist, goods and services were traded locally, sovereignty was not shared with distant countries or peoples, and the people were racially and culturally more homogeneous. In the case of both the USA and the UK, exceptionalism and a false belief in the nation’s supposed “destiny” have led to identity confusion, bellicose foreign policy, huge wealth disparities, and other ills. We must pray that the tormented psyche of these two countries can find healing, and that the suffering this will entail will prove bearable.
In lifting our gaze from the political arena and turning towards our Orthodox Church, we might be forgiven for thinking that the former is a distorted image of the latter, a sort of warning of how bad things might become if we do not mend our ways. For it is my belief that Orthodoxy is just as beset by cultural wars as the nations I have discussed, and that this represents a danger and a temptation. Moreover, I would contend that the culture wars of Orthodoxy are functionally related to the culture wars described above.
Orthodoxy is also undergoing a fractious period, even by its own abysmal standards. After decades of discussion, the Ecumenical Patriarch finally invited every bishop within the ecumenical family of Orthodox churches to Crete to attend the “Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church” in June 2016. However, many autocephalous Churches decided to stay away, thereby weakening the witness and the impact that the Council could otherwise have had.
It would be inexact to describe the Orthodox Church as an unwieldy structure incapable of reaching unified decisions, as in reality it is a plurality of self-governing ecclesiastical structures. Indeed, when it comes to nationalities, ethnicities, culture, and educational attainment the Orthodox communion is about as diverse as it gets. This is its richness and strength, if only we could see it. But because we are sinners and blind, this diversity can all too often become a source of rivalry, strife, misunderstanding, power struggles, grandstanding, political intrigue, and dark maneuvering. We see this fractiousness playing out on several levels: between jurisdictions, within dioceses, within parishes. We do not know how to govern ourselves, because we all too often fail to implement the Gospel teachings in the way we run our church(es). We need a theology of church governance.
Many of our disputes are interjurisdictional. This is because wars and revolutions have triggered mass migrations of Orthodox, bringing about a situation where many countries have Orthodox jurisdictions co-existing on the same soil, something the Holy Canons do not allow. It will take time, effort, and a great deal of imagination to correct this situation; in the meantime, we may not be surprised if turf wars break out from time to time. Recently London and Paris have proved flashpoints, with conflicts that are unedifying but from which lessons can be learnt.
Another source of confusion and conflict is that all too often we are incapable of doubt in areas where doubt can be a virtue. By this I mean that we fail to agree on how we distinguish our core values and beliefs from what is contingent or open to choice and discussion. For some, Tradition is not negotiable, being a store of value to be preserved against all vicissitudes and temptations towards relativism; nothing can be changed, subtracted or added; precedence is all-important. Others, including myself, take a different view: they see Tradition as a process, something that, by its very nature, is transmitted and transmissible and which can therefore unfold in time and space so as to take on unprecedented forms. It is this differing model of Tradition—dynamic rather than static—that lies at the heart of the differences of opinion concerning such issues as the female priesthood, the calendar, or the choice of language or music in the services. For some, certain things are inadmissible because they have never been admitted; for others, the possibility of changing certain things can be explored without violating Tradition.
Without wishing to give an exhaustive list of the weaknesses and challenges facing the Orthodox Church, I must mention the rivalry between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople, which has had and continues to have devastating consequences in Great Britain and France, and the ethnophyletism that underlies this. The latter problem is more widespread and more institutionalized than we care to admit: which of us is wholly free of Hellenicism or russétisme—the notion that to find God we need to assume the cultural heritage of, respectively, the Byzantine or Russian Church traditions. Celticism anyone? Compared with Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Georgia, or Bulgaria, Russia is a Johnny-Come-Lately when it comes to Christianity!
Another disturbing element is the way that the Moscow Patriarchate has become captive to the interests and machinations of the Russian state. Speaking of the Church or of the Christian belief in a derogatory manner, is now a criminal offence in Russia, and many of us are sick of seeing the Patriarch and the Russian president basking in each other’s glory in endless photo ops. The Patriarch’s remark that Putin is a miracle sent by God has raised several eyebrows among European Orthodox and made them wonder if the Moscow Patriarchate can play any constructive role at all outside Russia and the Slavic countries. As if this were not enough, some prominent Russian clergy led by a bishop close to Putin have suggested that the murder of the Russian imperial family by the Bolsheviks in 2018 was a “ritual murder,” an allegation which has caused an outcry and which appears to be based solely on the fact that Yakov Yurovsky, who lead the group which carried out the murder, was of Jewish origins.
Therein lies the functional relationship between the two culture wars that I have been describing: the insistence on the part of the Russian state on respect for authority, the unabashed glorification of a monolithic state that crushes the individual, the insistence on martial and manly virtues and on militant nationalism find their echo in a Russian Church that has an exalted and special position protected by the Russian state. Both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state are suspicious of social liberalism and multiculturalism (see the Patriarch’s interview here), which they see as characteristics of the EU. The campaign to leave the EU was supported by many Russian oligarchs living in the UK (see Financial Times‘ “Russians Rally to the Brexit Flag,” 5/24/16, behind a paywall), and too many Orthodox in the UK and Western Europe have been taken in by the lies of Brexit campaigners.
(I have been surprised by how many of my Orthodox friends are sympathetic to the UK’s policy of leaving the EU. Anti-EU sentiment, mingled with anti-Western sentiment, can be sampled here, here, and here. Misrepresentation of the EU as the anti-Christ is not confined to the Orthodox Church but characterizes also some fundamentalist Protestant groups. Many websites purport to see the “hand of God” working in both the US presidential election and the UK referendum. In reality they need look no further than the pages of the Daily Mail or the Sun….)
Many Orthodox, apparently forgetting that active Christian believers are a minority in Russia, think that the imminent collapse of the EU is a consequence of Europe’s godlessness and would like it if, after this collapse, the European countries were to embrace a Putin-style conservatism based on traditional (pro-marriage, anti-gay) values.
To this we must add the sad observation that certain elements within the Orthodox Church in the United States have aligned themselves with the heresy of white supremacy. In a recent open letter to the bishops of the US, the editors of Orthodoxy in Dialogue write:
Some of our priests openly display Confederate symbols on their Facebook timelines. At least one individual studying for the priesthood in one of our Orthodox seminaries in the US posts white supremacist materials and messages under an alias on Facebook.
The choice facing the Orthodox Church parallels, to a large extent, that which various nations are struggling with. For nations the choice is whether to work with one another, to exchange, trade freely, and collaborate with one another; or to retrench, turn inward, and seek to protect themselves from terror, multiculturalism, foreign contamination, and other supposed ills by erecting walls, barriers, custom and immigration controls and tariffs, a process which goes hand in hand with scapegoating, spreading or accepting slander, paranoia, and authoritarianism.
We Orthodox must likewise decide what kind of a church we want: one that aims to retain its traditions and purity whatever the cost, a church of exclusion and interdiction, in which precautionary considerations outweigh any notion of the benefits that change might bring; or a church that, while conserving Holy Tradition that is at its the core, is open to dialogue, is not afraid to “sit down with the prostitutes and the publicans,” and has the courage and discernment to embrace change—not change for change’s sake, but growth, development, and dialogue with the world as it is at any given moment. Paul sought to be “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:19-23); it is perhaps a sign of our moral confusion that this worthy, idealistic aim has assumed pejorative associations, at least in the English language.
Fear and ethnic or nationalist retrenchment (often acting in concert) lie at the root of most of what is wrong with the Orthodox Church today. All of us who profess to be disciples of Christ and express this through our adherence to Orthodoxy cannot be too diligent in our struggle against these twin vices, which threaten to corrode our Church and have already done much to weaken its mission. Let us be eternally vigilant!
James Chater holds a DPhil from Oxford University. He is a musicologist and composer of Orthodox liturgical music, and also freelances as a journalist, writes occasional social and political commentary, and blogs about his wide range of interests at jameschater.com. He resides in France.