Based on a Sermon Preached in Christchurch in August
I take my words from Metropolitan Philip of New York, who, when
he received the Evangelical Orthodox into his Archdiocese in 1987, said
that Orthodoxy was the best-kept secret in America. What he said, indeed,
applies to the whole Christian West, although if he had said that
to Americans, he might have been misunderstood as referring to the American
West - what used to
be called the Wild West, which has gone into our mythology as the home of "cowboys and Indians".
The American West, however, especially in the 19th century, did
present a religious scene that, in
a lesser degree, was typical of the mentality of the whole Christian West. Sects multiplied in an
environment where any preacher might turn up on a Sunday at the local meeting-house, and believers
became accustomed to a sort of religious smorgasbord. Doctrine varied so widely that you might say that the only doctrine agreed on was that of pluralism: the idea that everyone had the right to make his own version of religious belief and call it Christianity. The only forbidden belief, in the religious wild west that our global society is fast becoming, is the belief in one true Faith and one true Church.
And yet, this belief in one true Faith and one true Church is exactly what the Evangelical Orthodox had uncovered when they sent their scholars to find out about the original Christian Church of the New Testament times and the following decades and centuries.
How had it happened that an idea, that seemed obvious to Christians
for the first millenium and
beyond, had become the lost secret?
The separation of the Eastern and Western Churches around 1054
is known to scholars and
historians, but is a very faint memory indeed in the mind of Western Christians generally. It has
seemed to me, ever since I first studied Church history, that this was not without meaning. After
the separation, the West set about forgetting the East and the Undivided Church, and developing
an isolationist mentality. The idea was put about that the Eastern Churches had seceded (this was
repeated by the Vatican news service just today) when history testified that it was Rome and not
the East that had changed the text of the Creed. It was not advisable, therefore, to look at history.
A new view of things was developed in the Middle Ages, according to which the East had seceded
because it would not accept the authority of the Pope, an authority that had suddenly become very
necessary in order to justify new doctrines.
The addition to the Creed by Rome, although it caused a division,
could be regarded as a detail.
The Creed had been partly corrupted, the unity of Faith and of Communion had been lost between
the West on the one hand, and the East and the original Church on the other, but it would be too
much to say that the Church of Rome had lost the plot. It still believed in one Faith and one Church
- even though it mistook its location. Just so the Nestorians, who separated after the 3rd Council,
and the Orientals, who separated after the 4th, believed that they were the True Church and that
the Greeks and Latins (the Imperial Church) were in error. For those who are impressed by numbers, it is worth remarking that in the 9th century the Nestorians throughout the East far outnumbered the Greeks and Latins, but now are down to a few hundred thousand; yet we can hardly suppose that truth has shifted back and forth in proportion to these "votes".
By the time of the 16th-century reformation, the memory of the
ancient Church was so far faded
that the Lutherans had gone a long way down their path before one of them, Melanchthon, thought to touch base with the Eastern Church. By this time, the new beliefs were irreversible, and, as far as
one true Faith and one visible Church were concerned, the reformation soon lost the plot completely, the reformers were divided into 3 during Luther's lifetime, and have gone on dividing ever since. Any attempt to achieve Church unity means, to the heirs of the reformation, the removal of division concerning interchangeability of sacraments, ministry, etc. - but never dares or even wants to restore a lost unity of Faith; indeed, it is commonly denied that a unity of Faith ever existed.
And so the lost secret, known to today's Orthodox Christians who have inherited it, or have found it, but almost entirely lost in the West, is this:
Jesus Christ came to save us from our errors and divisions and
all our sins; and He created a new
nation for us which He called His Church, of which He said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it, and that whoever heard the Apostles of His Church would be hearing Him. The history of that Church was not without sins committed by her members, but the unity of Communion and of doctrine was preserved, in spite of the falling away of schisms, in most of the Christian world throughout the first millenium, and in the Christian East until our day, in spite of persecutions both from unbelievers and from supposed Christians.
It is said that when S. Helen found the True Cross in Jerusalem, she had to dig in a rubbish heap, and had to distinguish it from the thieves' crosses by its power to heal. Finding Jesus Christ's own Church, which He founded, is a rather similar task. The trash of history has been thrown at and over the Church. Discernment is needed to distinguish the Church of Divine foundation from man-made churches.
This sermon began from the fact that representatives of Social Welfare appeared to be forbidding the giving of Holy Communion to a baby over whom they claimed authority. It is a matter for thankfulness that this now seems to have been a misunderstanding. However, it reminded us of the fact that, in the earliest ages of our Faith, almost everything about it was treated as a secret. The addresses given to the newly-baptized by ancient Fathers indicate that the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the details of Baptism, Confirmation/Chrismation and Holy Communion were imparted only after these sacraments had been received, and thus in the East they were called Mysteries (the Greek word for sacrament). This keeping secret of the Christian Mysteries was called the disciplinum arcani. The story is told in the Martyrology on August 15 of St. Tharsicius, an acolyte (altar boy), who was carrying Christ's Body to the sick when he was set upon by the heathen, who demanded to know what he was carrying. When he refused to give what is holy to the dogs, he was beaten to death; but the heathen could find no trace of his sacred burden.
Of course, as most of the Empire became Christian, the secret became an open one. Nevertheless, the hymn at Communion still reminds us:
Receive me today, O Son of God, as partaker of thy mystical Supper. For I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess thee: remember me, O Lord, in thy kingdom.
Of the Christian mysteries, Paul Tillich rightly remarks that they remain mysteries even after they have been explained.
It is not surprising that people around us would be unaware
that in the Orthodox Church babies
still receive Chrismation and Holy Communion, as they did everywhere in the first millenium. This
was not the reason for which I joined the Orthodox Church; I did it because I became convinced that the whole true teaching of Christ had been preserved in her. Nevertheless, this giving of Holy Communion to infants has come to be very precious to me, and I do not think that anyone could watch it without being moved by its beauty. Its basis, of course, like that of infant baptism, is the command of Christ concerning infants in Luke 18, 15 ff.: Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.
Before Christianity became generally known, the main obstacle
to its reception was ignorance, and
this was rapidly overcome by the proclamation of the Gospel, or good news, which actually, at that
time, was news, not having been heard before. Hatred of the truth, of course, produced many
martyrdoms, as indeed it still does in many places; yet in our day we have an additional obstacle: prejudice. That is to say, the number of people who, like the heathen of old, do not know
about Christianity (and know that they do not know) is becoming less in proportion. The number of those who think they know better is growing.
Firstly, there are the Jews, the descendants of those who would
not accept Jesus as their Messiah. This rejection is built into their rich
ancestral culture and they would find it difficult to evaluate
The followers of Mohammed believe that he has improved on Christianity
and Judaism. They are not aware that Mohammed was poorly informed about
Christians and Jews, and his command to
convert them obscures their view.
But, finally, modern man think he knows all about religion and what to think about it. If he has not been prejudiced by a man-made version against the true Faith, he has been prejudiced by hearsay against all faith.
So is the mission of the Orthodox Church, which is the mission
of Jesus Christ, impossible in our
day? In the days of His flesh, Christ encountered prejudice, and it is recorded that in some places
He could do no miracles because of their lack of faith. Is this true of our own day?
We cannot know, unless we do what can be done. There is still ignorance to be met with information. There is disinformation to be answered by refutation. And there is hardness of heart and lack of faith to be met with prayer and fasting. If we think this last is the predominant obstacle, then the remedy is to hand. There is plenty of room for raising the standard of Christian practice of the Orthodox, both born and converted. Without naming the confessions involved, we can say that many who move to the Orthodox Church find they have to accept a lower standard of communal or liturgical prayer. Some even persuade themselves that imitating this slackness is a duty - a part of learning the Orthodox culture. This surely needs no comment.
For nearly 30 years I have asked myself how best the Orthodox
Faith is to be made known. I do not think I have found a convincing answer
apart from prayer: that is, offering oneself to God in
cooperation with His will, which, among other things, we are told, is that all men might be saved
and come to the knowledge of the truth. I have lived long enough to have observed a number of
methods of promotion of various types of religion, the most recent of which is the Internet.
I have only to say that such small progress as I have seen has come, not from these conscious promotions, but as it were by accident: people have come by chance into one of our Churches and almost immediately recognized that this was what they needed. Sometimes it has happened a little more purposefully, when they approached the Church as the result of their own reading or because of contact with Orthodox people. But not specially because of the conscious efforts of the Orthodox people, except in terms of their faithfulness in practising their faith.
This is in line with the experience of the early centuries, when,
although Christians were making
considerable efforts on the whole to hide their faith, or at least certain precious parts of it, it
spread extremely rapidly and became the acknowledged Faith of the Roman Empire in only
From this I can only deduce that the most important thing for
us to organize is simply the
availability of services in as many places as possible, so that the existing members of the
Church can practice their faith and so that there is something for others to join. In New Zealand it
would be fair to say that this has mostly been done on the cheap, on the smell of an oily rag, on
a shoestring... that is, with the slenderest of resources which have had to be stretched as thinly as possible. It would certainly be nice if the life of our Church could move itself a bit upmarket, but
surely not at the cost of curtailing the worship of God which is primary. It would also be nice if we
could announce that our congregations were "paying their way" (a strange expression for those
who are supposed to believe that they are indebted to God for everything) but any suggestion, such as I have occasionally heard, that services should be closed down or not begun if a certain level of
finance is not available, seems to me unthinkable.
The mission at Ashley, as some of you know, is under some pressure
because the local Anglican
parish, which retains ownership of the land under the Church and some things in it, is trying to
liquidate this asset for its own budgetary reasons and pressing the Ashley Church Trustees to buy it
with money that they do not know how they can find. All this has reminded me of the constant
financial pressure which prevailed when I was an Anglican and which has only become more acute
for most mainline Churches over the years. I do not know how this problem is to be solved for
them. For us, however, it would be terrible if we placed ourselves under that sort of stress, trying
to promote membership for the sake of conforming to some secular pattern of organization.
I am happy to say that a resolution of the matter at Ashley seems
near. It is worth noting that at present our Antiochian Church has reached
a sort of milestone in having the services of the Church available in the
four main centres. The discovery of a vocation to the priesthood in Wellington
would be another step forward. Perhaps we should agree to pray for it.
- Fr Jack.