A Generous Orthodoxy
Dear Rick, Dear Peter,
One of the things we have to acknowledge is the reality of the historical situation within which we find ourselves.
Elsewhere we have discussed the 'nature, limits and boundaries of the Church', and have concluded that whilst we can say where the Church is not, we cannot always be sure where it is. So what is the narrative that links us to the past; from whence have we come?
Christianity is an Eastern religion; it did not originate in the west; it did not reach Russia until nearly a thousand years after the death of Christ; and it did not reach the Americas for nearly another half millennium. The Russian Orthodox inherited Byzantine Orthodoxy because they encountered no other form of the Faith; the real split in the undivided Church came in 451, with both sides anathematising each other. If we accept the reports of the commissions on unity, this split was based on a series of misunderstandings, and both sides share the same Orthodox faith.
That would leave the East and the Orient united, even if many will not admit it. But in the west the predominant form of Christianity was an Orthodoxy which rejected Byzantine mores, but which remains a global witness to the Faith in a way in which neither Eastern nor Oriental Orthodox are able to be. But western unity was shattered at the Reformation, and now we have so many Churches that no one can really count them.
Now, either Christianity is the most monumental failure, and only a small handful have retained the Faith, or it has been an enormous success, but tainted by our sinfulness, has succeeded despite that in bringing at least something of the Risen Lord to most of the globe. The nature of that 'something' is where Orthodoxy finds its boundaries.
The early Church did not believe that it did not mattered what you believed as long as you were 'nice'; it is quite clear that both St. Paul and St. John thought it mattered hugely what was taught to the faithful, and there is a strong case for saying that Orthodoxy was defined only in terms of the challenge from heterodoxy. If we do not believe that the Incarnate Word was fully human and fully divine then we do not see how the Incarnation has redeemed us; what was assumed has been healed. If we do not believe in the Trinity and in the equality of the Three Persons, we descend into heresy. Christology was so important in 451 because upon it depended our salvation, and so both sides, convinced the other was in error, anathematised the other. Byron once wrote that 'Christians have burned each other, quite persuaded, that all the Apostles would have done as they did.' One can see from whence he came - but that is not what the Apostles did; even St. Peter, headstrong as he was, accepted correction from St. Paul. Our human failure has been that we have not behaved as the Apostles.
As inheritors of this fractured and fractious situation we have a choice. We can behave as if our small corner was all the light there was and demand that others submit to that light; or we can seek to share the light with those who have part of it and seek its fullness. One of the most impressive things about the BOC and the Copts is that they instinctively seem to take the latter position. Few groups of Christians can have suffered as long, as persistently and as severely as the Copts. The Russians had seventy five years of severe persecution, with large numbers fleeing abroad; the Copts have suffered for a millennium and a half; first at the hands of their fellow Christians, then at the hands of Islam. Yet their desire is to share what they have preserved with such sacrifices with those of us who come to the vineyard at the end of the day.
This is done with no dilution of what is believed. The Copts have held to the one Faith once received; to it they have added nothing, and from it subtracted nothing. That does not mean it is a museum piece. I read a book recently which described Orthodox priests as museum keepers; if that were so then we should have a mummified Faith and not a living entity. The challenge at all times and in all places is how to live the Christian life in this world where we are always strangers.
One of the best ways is to accept that others believe, and to accept the reality of their beliefs - and to show by the way we conduct ourselves the reality of our belief. How often have I heard non-Christians make the criticism that if they judged us by what we do and not what we say, we are hypocrites; and if they judge us by what we say, we are priggish hypocrites at that!
If we are particularist, then we do not act on the Great Commission; if we treat others as the Pharisees did, then we are condemned by His lips. What, indeed, does the fullness of the Faith mean if it does not include the willingness to love our enemies? Is it a compilation of ancient texts, or do those texts express the faith we live today?
For me, one of the joys of Orthodoxy is discovering the richness of the treasures of the wisdom of nearly two thousand years of Christian experience. Of course I could have discovered that without being Orthodox - and indeed, I did so; but in discovering it I recognised where the best spiritual hospital for what ails me was to be found. All Churches are spiritual hospitals; but not all hospitals are equally good. For many years I was in one hospital; the one I am in now provides a treatment I have never had before.
Of course I want to share that with as many others as possible; but I recognise the healing they receive where they are.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)