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Orthodoxy with a British ethos? - John Charmley - 18-04-2010 05:23 PM

Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,

As we say on the website, the BOC is about offering people in these Islands (and elswhere I guess) Orthodoxy with the British ethos. One of my Catholic friends, who likes to keep me on my feet on such matters, asked me what that actually meant. I thought I might test out my, no doubt deeply inadequate, answer here so that I could get some better ones, and perhaps encourage a discussion.

The first thing I told him as the simplest thing, that the Liturgy is in English; as I pointed out, it took his Church rather longer to do this Smile

The second was that since we live in the 'West' we tend not to have that knee-jerk rejection of most things 'Western' which seems such a feature of some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. We do not try to be 'Greek' or 'Russian' or to import the anti-Western rhetoric one often hears from both sets of Orthodox.

The third thing was that our services were on a British model, which could sometimes create unintended difficulties. For example, being British, we tend to turn up before the start of a service and stay until the end; this is not something one finds most Copts doing. We don't follow the Coptic practice of having women on one side of the Church and men on the other. Our attitude towards women in the Church is governed by our culture, not that of the Middle East, Greece or Russia.

By then I'd said enough to set him off on his usual track of saying that if I were going to follow an ethos, why not follow one native to the British Isles? Which allowed me to offer my usual answer: 'Like Rome?'

Still, having exposed the inadequacy of my answers, I am looking forward to reinforcements and better ones.

In Christ,


- Antony-Paul - 18-04-2010 06:44 PM


Was not Britain Orthodox before it was Roman - I'm thinking of the Celtic Church. I'm new to BOC, and open to correction, but if I am right this might give you a little ammunition.

Furthermore, the 'English Church' (as distinct from the Roman of Augustine) is a relatively recent development from the sixteenth century, whereas we (from the Celtic Church) may perhaps claim much greater antiquity here.

Of course it also raises the question of when did this country really become British or English - a field day for the historians! Were we Celtic before we were British/English?

In any case, surely Christianity is not native to Britain. It was imported from the Holy Land by one route or another, so how does your friend feel about that I wonder? Presumably a religion with a native ethos would be something like druidism or other non-Christian form of worship.

I rather fancy that there is an element of mischief in such discussions, which tries to get an admission that one form of Christianity is better or more authentic than another, a pretty unhelpful and pointless argument.

- DanielM - 18-04-2010 08:50 PM

To me, British Orthodox means the idea of bringing Orthodox to the British People, not a British "version" of Orthodoxy.

When people think of the orthodox Church in Britain they think of the Greeks, The Russians, maybe the Copts or the Syriac and Serbian Curches. This naturally puts people off of attending, I myself attended a few services in a Russian Orthodox Church before discovering the BOC and found it too centred around the needs of Russians in the UK. Being part of an Orthodox Church centred around a British community just makes it feel more comfortable and welcoming than one centred to a migrant community from an Orthodox majority country.

British Orthodox in my view is a way of communicating the Orthodox Church to a British Audience. Such things as a fully English Service (apart from the Kyrie Eleisons :? ), a church community centred on the needs of the Native British community (I hate using that term!) and other things which seem focussed on a community not born into an Orthodox environment.

- Fr Gregory - 18-04-2010 08:54 PM

Ah, let us return to the ?original? British traditions of the Celts! This is an attractive and romantic idea and there have been various attempts to demonstrate what those ?original? traditions were.....all singularly unsuccessful.

There obviously was a pre-Roman Christian tradition in the British Isles. The problem is that there is very little evidence as to what how it manifested, let alone sufficient evidence to allow it to be reconstructed.

At an international conference on Early Christian Spirituality some years ago I gave a paper on this question (with Rowan Williams in the audience, which gave me some sense of nervousness!), and concluded that while it may be possible to ?reinvent? or ?recreate? British Celtic Christianity, it was not possible to ?resurrect? it simply because of lack of original material, even regarding liturgy. Contemporary attempts to do so (like the so-called Celtic Orthodox Church) are modern fabrications based on little original material and much modern imagination.

In a real sense, the comment that the earliest British Christianity that could really be ?revived? would be that of Rome is correct. It is, more or less, possible to revive the ancient British Roman tradition, certainly in terms of liturgy. This has been, to some extent, what some of the Orthodox Western Rites have attempted to do, using the earlier Roman Rite (and what they call the Liturgy of St Gregory).

So, John, your friends comment was probably correct. Using old Roman liturgical forms and, for example, vestments, would follow a more authentic and ancient British tradition than using an Orthodox liturgy (which, however ancient in itself, is very modern in terms of British) and Coptic vestments which first appeared in Britain probably in the latter half of the 20th century.

I agree that an attempt to explain, if perhaps not to define, what we mean by British Orthodoxy is important. Why, for example, are we not English-speaking Russian Orthodox? Or members of either the ROCOR or Antiochian Western Rites?

Fr Gregory

- John Charmley - 18-04-2010 09:47 PM

Dear Daniel, Dear Fr. Gregory,

Some nourishing food for thought.

I'm entirely in agreement about romanticism and the Celts. I yield to few in my admiration for the invention of tradition in the C19th; but that is what they did; it is about as authentic as modern paganism.

I have always rather enjoyed the attempts to pretend that Harold II was an Orthodox martyr who died defending England against the Papal Normans; such a shame it is a myth. The Anglo-Saxons, as Bede shows so splendidly, were all in favour of Rome when they were Christianised.

So whether we like it or not my friend is right, the only native tradition is Catholic. But it is pre-Tridentine, if that has any relevance (which it might).

But we are where we are, and in the BOC we have a rather splendid version (which, and Fr, Gregory knows so much more about this than most of us and can correct me if I err) of the St. James from, I think, a non-Juring source. We also have adaptations of Coptic Services and Coptic vestments, which are about as British as the pyramids.

But here Daniel's formulation about bringing Orthodoxy to the British ought to be helpful; but the fact that Orthodoxy is so tied up with ethnic practice makes me pause a little. I have been brow-beaten more than a few times by Russian and Greek Orthodox telling me that I have to acquire the fabled 'Orthodox mindset' which, when probed, seems rather similar to some mythic Russian or Greek mindset; the difference between this and brain-washing escapes me, at least in the form I have had it presented to me.

Fr. Gregory's final question can push us a little further. I'm not Russian O or ROCOR because I'm not Russian and find the knee-jerk anti-Westernism almost as tedious as I find the Russian parochialism (I can only just cope with my own parochial issue). Western Rite seems to want something on its own terms which never quite existed. The BOC offers what exists, and it does so in a way which is approachable.

Is it perfect? Like all things run by humans, it is as perfect as we are; but even if it is the least worst option, that makes it the worst one except for all the others.

In Christ,


- Fr Gregory - 19-04-2010 06:26 AM

There are numerous True, Genuine, Authentic, Legitimate Celtic Orthodox Churches!! Yes, it is a great pity that none of them is anything of the sort.

The Liturgy of St James is of great antiquity and, in itself, is less ?foreign? to Western sensibilities than other Orthodox forms, especially in the version adopted by the BOC which derives much from ?The Office for the Sacrifice of The Holy Eucharist, Being The Ancient Liturgy of The Church of Jerusalem....? of Thomas Rattray, Non-Juror Primus (1739-1743). A commentary and text of this version of St James is found in W. Jardine Grisbrooke ?Anglican Liturgies of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries?, SPCK, London 1958:136-149, 317-332.

I agree with the popular problem of the ?Orthodox mindset?. There is an Orthodox mindset, a different paradigm through which theology (and the world) is seen and which is distinctly different from that of Western theology and philosophy. However, the term is more commonly used to refer to the adoption of supposedly Orthodox cultural forms which have nothing to do with Orthodoxy in its essence. I still recall with a mixture of horror and amusement an Orthodox liturgy celebrated by an English convert Priest (long hair, bushy beard, heavy Slavonic accent!) who celebrated in Church Slavonic for a congregation entirely of English-speaking converts (many of the men having long hair, bushy beards, heavy Slavonic accents) using a phonetic text to which the congregation responded from phonetic texts, since none of them understood Church Slavonic. I think the word is ?theatre? rather than ?liturgy?.

The Western Rite model is one with serious inherent problems (which I have discussed in previous postings). However, if an early British Roman rite was offered in a context of real Orthodox theology, I think it would represent the closest reconstruction of the earliest Orthodoxy of the British Isles. I have never seen such a wonder (and the versions I have seen first-hand have been very far from it).

However, I look with some tentative admiration at St Mark?s (Antiochian Western Rite) Parish in Denver: have a look at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href=""></a><!-- m --> I do not know what Liturgy St Mark?s uses, but I suspect it is the so-called ?Liturgy of St Tikhon? (i.e. a supposedly Orthodoxified Book of Common Prayer) ? that would certainly put me off! However, it seems to be a thriving Western Orthodox parish within a traditional Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate.

Fr Gregory

- John Charmley - 19-04-2010 06:40 PM

I am glad, dear Fr. Gregory, that I was not quite as off target as I had feared. Kirk is surely right that 'ethos' is one of those nice elastic words which can mean whatever it needs to mean at any particular time.

Your point about the real 'mindset' being the different way of, if you like, doing theology, is surely at the heart of what Orthodoxy means in whatever context one encounters it. Having had a strong patristic background, Orthodoxy has always made sense of things which used to puzzle me like original sin and salvation.

I suspect I am supposed to like the Western Rite, but somehow I don't. It is all very well to say what was and was not the case in 1054, but that was nearly a thousand years ago, and although there are times reading some of the stuff advocating it when one feels that that amount of time must have passed since one began reading, the reality is that it would be as much of a revival as anything else.

I am still chuckling at the men with beards with thick Slavonic accents; these, I am told, can be acquired along with the ethos. Big Grin Happy though I often am in the theatre, one can perform happily there; worshipping there seems another matter.

In Christ,


- DanielM - 21-04-2010 11:04 PM

Going slightly off topic here, I was listening to a Podcast by an Antiochian Orthodox Priest in the US which has an interesting view of the whole Cultural and Ethnic diversity issue in Orthodoxy. It certainly got a few giggles out of me, and made me think.

Here is the link, listening to it could be useful for defining the whole "British" factor.
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- John Charmley - 22-04-2010 09:19 PM

Dear Daniel,

Thanks for this - it was rather fun, and more relevant than one might have first thought with regard to our discussion here.

Of course, the very word 'British' is not susceptible of close definition, and I wonder how many of us would identify with it if asked?

What it does signify, however, is a break from the usual prefixes, and to that extent it is immensely useful, and I, for one, am very grateful it exists.

In Christ,


- DanielM - 23-04-2010 09:02 AM

I think the definition of British, as you have just said, is a problem.

As that podcast said, for the Americans it is a matter of bring not Russian, Not Greek, Not Syrian etc... Rather than being American. I feel that with the "British Ethos" that is also a factor. Giving orthodoxy a British Ethos often becomes a matter of not giving it a different cultural one, which is one of the ways I found the BOC, because I wanted Orthodoxy without a Russian ethos.

- John Charmley - 23-04-2010 11:01 AM

Dear Daniel,

That seems about as good a definition as we shall get.

'Ethos' is a notoriously difficult thing to define, but in the context of the Orthodox Church an aophatic one is actually useful.

I have been to Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox services, and they are, in a sense, what it says on the tin; culturally they are 'foreign' to me. Those in search of another identity, or attracted to the exotic, may find this positively desirable and attractive; the rest of us won't. I shall never forget being told by one conver to Russian Orthodoxy that he had had to learn old church slavonic, so why was I not willing so to do. The answer was so obvious as to be hardly worth making, but I did, pointing out that if Sts. Cyril and Methodius had taken that line, it would have been koine Greek that he would have had to learn.

In Christ,


- Antony-Paul - 23-04-2010 12:24 PM

This notion of British ethos has brought to mind a thought to which I would like to hear reactions. I'm not trying to suggest a split or anything sinister here, simply tossing an idea into the arena. I'm new to Orthodoxy, so the only way I can find out such things is to ask the question.

So, for example, without wishing to offend my US brothers and sisters, I fancy there is actually quite a cultural difference between the US and GB. Was it not Churchill who described the relationship as two nations separated by a common language?

There are many English speaking nations, each with their own culture. If the use of English is seen as a defining criterion in the same way as is Russian or Greek, it seems to me that there is a risk of blurring the cultural differences which, quite properly, ought to exist between such nations by grouping us under the British banner. Is there in fact a case for such a grouping to regard itself as the 'English Speaking Orthodox Church'? Within this there is room for not only British, but American, Australian, etc. cultural distinctions. This in turn would allow each to develop its own ethos while retaining the unity of Orthodoxy for English speakers.

Or have I completely missed the point?

- John Charmley - 23-04-2010 04:35 PM

Dear Antony-Paul,

Ask away, that's what we're here for, and since none of us is infallible, we'll all keep struggling to help each other in our imperfect understandings Smile

You raise an interesting point. Having lived for a while in the Mid-west I can't say that I noticed any insuperable difficulties with the local culture. Having also lived for a while in Turkey, I noticed more than I can mention. So the notion of an 'English-speaking' Orthodoxy may have something to commend it.

But over to Fr. Gregory and Australian Orthodoxy Big Grin

In Christ,


- John Charmley - 24-04-2010 08:26 AM

Dear Antony-Paul,

Thank for for posting Fr. Simon's reflections; good to see that we weren't as off-track as I had feared we might be Smile

We are always going to be in difficulties if we have to define both British and Orthodoxy. When asked to define 'Tory Democracy', Lord Randolph Churchill replied: 'A democracy which votes Tory.' Impeccable, but also impenetrable.

Fr. Simon's historical excursus is most interesting. We need to be reminded that we can experiment and that if it does not work out, we can try something else.

We are, we say, restoring Orthodoxy to these Islands; that, in the apophatic definitions offered in the last two posts means at least one thing we can pin down. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches in these islands are doing what it says on the tin, so to speak, offering those who wish to worship in Greek or Russian the opportunity so to do. The Antiochene Deanery is offering an English language version for those who want that. But we are not simply offering an ethnic Orthodoxy in English. Here the insights shown by Abbas Seraphim and HH Shenouda III need highlighting: the latter saw, as did the former, that what was needed was something Orthodox which was also authentically British.

Because one cannot easily define 'British' does not mean one cannot know it when one sees it; indeed one might even venture the view that such a remark is typically British. We tend not to have the mania to define and categorise that some of our European neighbours have always had. Satre thought that only in Britain could anyone think that 'academic' was a term of abuse (as in 'that's academic') or regard 'intelligensia' as an ugly word for an ugly phenomenon.

But it is pricisely this mind-set which makes Orthodoxy such a natural option for the British. I have a hige respect for the Catholic Church, but there is just something about its need for fine-grained legalism and precise definitions which is not really native to the British Isles.

Can't see why one needs to define Orthodoxy or British? Then you're on your way to the BOC Big Grin

In Christ,


- Fr Gregory - 25-04-2010 04:40 AM

John wonders what an Australian Orthodoxy would be do I! It being Anzac Day (effectively our annual celebration of national identity and more significant in that than Australia Day) I thought I should reflect on the topic.

Traditionally, Orthodoxy adapted to the language and the culture of the peoples it evangelized. Thus, when missionaries carried the Faith to Russia they did not require the Russians to become, or appear to be, Greek, or to use the Greek language. In modern times, the reverse has, sadly, been the case. We can speak of ?English-speaking Orthodoxy? (as in, for example, the Orthodox Church of America) but that refers solely to language and not to culture. From what I know of it, I would describe the Orthodox Church of America as English-speaking Russian Orthodoxy. I can?t see anything specifically or distinctively American about it.

So ? what about an Australian Orthodoxy? I can?t describe what it would look like but I can suggest some principles. It would, of course, be English-speaking, but Australian-English-speaking. It would (sadly, from my point of view) not use Jacobean English (as in the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer), nor would it use the Latinized English of the traditional Roman Rite. Both of these styles of English are foreign to the vast majority of Australians, whether of old Australian ancestry or recent migrants. I am not, obviously, suggesting liturgical language that addresses God as ?mate?, but rather language with a simple dignity and devoid of pomposity.

It would be ritually minimalist ? that is, no great pomp and circumstance in its services, and simpler vestments than common in Orthodoxy. Australians are traditionally less formal than their brothers and sisters in Britain or the USA or Europe. People who ?dress to impress? (whether clergy or mayors) are usually viewed with amusement rather than respect.

It would use appropriate simple Western music chosen to allow maximum congregational participation.

It would avoid rigid clericalism and promote the active participation of lay women and men in its life and worship. Australians have a long tradition of suspicion of (or, more accurately, a distaste for) claims to titles and pretentions to symbolic authority, and a strong sense of both egalitarianism and the need for individuals to earn respect and recognition. My father, once an Army officer, used to summarise this as: ?You salute the uniform, but you respect the man.? If the uniform is too exotic, you may salute it, but you?ll laugh about the pomposity behind the wearer?s back.

It would a simple Western aesthetic style, minimal gilt and glitter and decoration, minimal ?fuss? and clutter. This does not, of course, mean that icons would not be used, but they would be icons in the more ancient and simpler style (rather than the more elaborate styles of Greece and Russia).

It would be clean and efficient in its worship! Services (and any other meetings) would begin and conclude on time, would be well organized and structured. Although relaxed in their private lives, most Australians are intolerant of shambolic public meetings. It would take account of other demands on the time of its members ? and of the fact that most Australians place a high value on family time and recreation, especially on Sundays.

It would offer, but not impose, participation in community life. Australia has a long tradition of what is often called ?rugged individualism?. Most people like to be able to choose to participate in community activities, or not to do so.

It would be clearly Australian. Most Australians have no interest in, and probably some hostility to, the idea of being a colony, whether politically or ecclesiastically. Or indeed of being the recipients of a ?foreign? mission ? which is one of the reasons groups with titles like ?The Australian Orthodox Mission? will struggle to spread the Faith.

A particularly insightful Roman Catholic work addressing such questions is Johanne Hofinger (ed) Liturgy and the Missions. The Nijmegen Papers New York, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1960 (now, alas long out of print and rare). This includes inspiring and challenging papers on how the Church (in that case, the Roman Catholic Church) can or should adapt its forms in different cultures.

It would be interesting to have some responses as to how such an Australian Orthodoxy might differ from, for example, British or American or French Orthodoxy.

Fr Gregory