Annual Conference of the Orthodox Theological Research Forum

Three British Orthodox Readers (James Anthony Kelly, Antony Paul Holland, & Daniel Malyon) from our Southampton Congregation are currently studying for their M.Th. in Orthodox Studies at the University of Winchester. As part of their course they were invited to attend the annual conference of the OTRF at Winchester. This report has submitted by Daniel Malyon:

Monday was a sunny morning, a rarity in South England these days. It was perfect weather to start a great event such as this year’s OTRF Conference. The event was held at Winchester University and organised by Dr. Andreas Andreopoulos, course leader of the Mth Orthodox Theology course at the University. The topic for the Conference was The Divine Liturgy, a key element in Orthodox life, and a perfect subject to bring together those in attendance in an atmosphere of Theological discussion under the umbrella of Orthodox Christian Unity.

Due to the delay of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who was to deliver the keynote address, Dr. Andreopoulos willingly stepped in and delivered a talk based on his research into the Mystagogy of St Maximos and his use of Iconographic imagery in his commentary  on the Divine Liturgy. This led to a lively discussion on St Maximos’ Commentary, covering such subjects as his omission of the Holy Anaphora in this work and whether this was due to the Mystagogy being written for the understanding of the Laity, but this was purely theoretical and still to be researched.

With this type of discussion at the outset, it was understood by all, that the level of discussion would be to a high academic standard and theological understanding and was a brilliant start to the conference.

The first day’s second speaker was Dr. Paula-Wendy Nicholson, speaking on “Economies of life and death.” This was a more philosophical discussion, describing temporality, Liturgy and the concept of ‘liturgical reform.” The main point raised was on the fact that we are living in a world based around the ‘economy of death’ in which people are in a rush and most forget to leave much time for such things as the Liturgy, regardless of the liturgy being a part of your spiritual life and not to be rushed. The discussion which this led to detailed the concept of people trying to modernise Orthodox life in order for it to fit with the fast pace of the modern world.

This discussion also showed  a number of groups, such as some younger Coptic  in the US, wishing to return to more traditional, longer liturgies. Again, this threw up diverse opinions. Some of the audience saw Liturgical Reform as being an ongoing feature of the Living Church whilst others saw modernisation as demeaning the traditions of the Orthodox Church.

After the discussion ceased, those in attendance were treated to a short trip to Winchester Cathedral and St Swithan’s burial site as they waited for Metropolitan Kallistos’ address later that evening.

As always, the Metropolitan was a fascinating speaker, covering the debates surrounding the Eucharistic Sacrifice in 12th Century Constantinople and the person of Nicholas of Methone. In a fashion which is expected from Metropolitan Kallistos we heard a detailed and well explained piece on the views that prevailed at the time. A favourite of the discussion was the view of the Liturgy being the chance to experience a small glimpse of Christ’s Liturgy in heaven, with us receiving but s small glimpse of this. Personally I expected nothing less from Metropolitan Kallistos who never fails to explain a complex concept in a way which we can all understand.

The Weather on the second day started with the return of British Weather, but this failed to dampen the spirits of those in attendance. The conference began with the distinguished Fr Ephraim Lash explaining the new translation of the Byzantine Liturgy made for the Archdiocese of Thyateira and the reasons for the changes made. Fr Ephraim, being the famed linguist he is, went through these in great detail and covered many of the previous inconsistencies between the English and original Greek. As with the day before, those in attendance were more than happy to share their views on such details as the removal of the word “Hallowed” in the Lord’s Prayer since it is inconsistent with other translations of the word in Greek.

This was followed by a less detailed yet equally interesting piece by Phillip Gorski of the University of Nottingham. He detailed his doctoral thesis on reverence of the Liturgy in Russian Literature. Though this was not a theological piece it was interesting to know how such writers as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (Amusingly labelled ‘the dreaded Tolstoyevski’ due to their dominance of any discussion of Russian Literature. He also went into detail on characters in Solzhenitsyn and the use of liturgical imagery in such grim settings as soviet gulags to emphasis the devotion of characters to their faith.

This provoked some emotion amongst the audience; since Soviet persecution is still in the mind of many from the Russian Church and martyrs are always close the heart of Orthodox Christians.

The midday discussion was by Adrian Agachi. He was researching the use of community singing in the Romanian Orthodox Church. Using both scriptural and patristic evidence, Adrian highlighted the historical use of congregational response and singing, something which has died out in the Byzantine Tradition with the use of choirs and prevalence of performance over community faith. Adrian’s address was one which hit home a lot with some from the Coptic Tradition, since this tradition of community singing has never died out in the Coptic Church. This was also discussed by Dr Elena Narinskaya, who spoke out about the use of paid operatic choirs in some Russian Churches.

After a lunch which was filled with interesting discussion, we were treated to a lecture on typology. This was delivered by Fr Columba Flegg and covered the much discussed area of symbolism in the Divine Liturgy and the general Church building. This was a topic which many have tackled through the centuries and it was good to hear it brought up in this conference on the subject of the Divine Liturgy.

The day ended with a piece by Dr Mary Cunningham, famed for her work Christian Spirituality and the role of Mary in the Orthodox Tradition. She tackled the subject of Homilies and their place in the Liturgy. She cited such figures as Saint John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus, both famed for their homilies, to show what was described as ‘the almost sacramental role’ of homilies in the Early Church. She then explained the use of feast-like imagery which was used to describe sermons in the Early Church and the importance of the placement of the sermon during the Liturgy of the Catechumens.

This ended the day on a vibrant discussion of the subject as people headed for a group meal in a local restaurant. The discussions and debates on the role of the Sermon and correct delivery of it were to continue into the evening and on to the next day.

The morning of the final day began, as with the others, on a high. Fr Andrew Louth discussed the concept of space and time in the Divine Liturgy, tackling a subject much like the debates covered by Metropolitan Kallistos on the Monday. He started with an outline of the Medieval Byzantine view of space and time in order to give a basic understanding of the context covered. This led on to a comparison with modern quantum physics. After the audience has their head around this, Fr Andrew  put the explanation in the context of the Liturgy, linking the philosophical and Liturgical concepts covered perfectly with the concept of the Sacramental life being a type of ‘cosmic movement through the realm of time and space.’ This covered the Theological concept of Baptism being an event which is a death and rebirth in Christ. The talk was one of the more confusing at times but showed a realm of Theology which is not covered as often as it deserves.

This was followed by brilliant talk on Iconography in the Orthodox Tradition. As with typology this is covered often, yet the subject is not often explained in a way which gives it the justice it deserves. Dr Narinskaya, a Russian Iconographer and lecturer on the topic of Iconology, spoke on the importance and role of the Icon in the Liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. She stressed the great prominence of the ‘Victory of Orthodoxy’ in the Byzantine tradition after the Iconoclastic period. She also spoke of the difference between the Worship of God and veneration of Icons, since it is a commonly misunderstood relationship outside of Orthodoxy.

Of all the parts of this talk, Dr Narinskaya’s explanation of why Icons are not Idolatry was the most fascinating. She detailed the difference between Mankind’s knowledge of God before and after the Incarnation of Christ, comparing the faceless God of the Old Testament and the Godhead made man in the new. The explained this when she said how ‘Christ is God’s divine reality combined with the material world’ and that Icons follow the same formula of divine reality in the form of matter. This was one of the best descriptions of Icons that I have personally even heard and really put forward the significance of the sacred art of Iconography in Orthodox tradition.

As final speakers, we had Fr Dionysus and Fr Patrick Ramsey explain their PhD studies on John’s Gospel and the Eucharist as an iconic experience. Both were research outlines for their forthcoming works and were received with praise from those in attendance as well as helpful suggestions as to writings and concepts to look into. This atmosphere of shared research and the ability to bounce ideas off  each other is one rarely seen in conferences such as these and made the experience far more comfortable than some others in which people only encounter criticism and competition.

In conclusion the OTRF conference this year was a resounding success. There was much academic content covering both obscure and common factors facing Orthodox Christians in the world as well as the more specific subjects which are always interesting to learn about. The only thing which was a regret for me was the Byzantine Orthodox emphasis of the Forum, resulting from a lack of input from Oriental Orthodox speakers. As a member of this community it was a pity not to hear from any academics from this part of the Orthodox Family since there is such an array of views and history to be shared which is often overshadowed by Byzantine thinkers in the academic world.

I will certainly be attending next year in Nottingham though hope to see more from the Oriental Churches, since there were no speakers from these regardless of the willingness of Coptic audience members to share their views and community life with those at the conference.