Looking back at my previous recollection on this topic in light of a comparative theology essay I am working on, I tripped over the reverse almost of what I am to write about. The document titled “Witnessing to People of Eastern Orthodox Background” was produced way back in 2001 as a manual for Baptist Missionaries who came into contact with people of Orthodox Faith. I will leave it to this paragraph from the preface to explain it’s purpose:
“Rarely in the history of missions has such a large area opened to the gospel as did Eastern Europe following the fall of Communism in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Although clearly God was at work behind the “wall” prior to the fall, once the wall fell, there was an unparalleled openness and freedom for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Thousands came from the West to participate in evangelizing people who for so many years had been told by Communist governments that there was no God. Many who came were surprised to find that despite the years of Communism, many people in Eastern Europe claim to have a Christian heritage via the Eastern Orthodox Church. What are the beliefs of the Orthodox Church and how should these beliefs affect our attempts to witness? The manual I have written is an attempt to address this question.”
There are more than a handful of items in the above that have me grumbling under my breath, but the now Patriarch Kyrill in 1995 publicly raised his concern (as a Metropolitan) that after surviving a godless atheist regime Russia was now being bombarded by sects and branches of protestantism engaged in proselytism. But I digress . . .
After discussing where many of these Orthodox folk hide out in the world, the paper moves on to discuss the spiritual condition of the Orthodox people which is what I will focus on with some reference to other items in document. While I will not go through a full discourse on the entire item, it would behove many Orthodox Christians to read this item in light of their faith and understand the misconceptions that are out there.
It is stated that “the spiritual condition of peoples in so-called Orthodox countries is in actuality quite poor” referring to a study published in 1995. Considering communism only “fell” in 1991 and the propagation of years of forced atheism on the people of Eastern Europe I find it not unusual for this to be the outcome of a study. It is this spiritual state and later comments on levels of personal faith in Christ that I feel are most relevant to us Orthodox in the Diaspora.
While I have no empirical evidence my experience, over the past 10 or so years, points to more of what I will term “nominal Christians” attending more often in the Orthodox Church, than my experience in many protestant denominations. Even if one just takes a subjective visual attendance at Easter and Christmas between the two in my experience – the multiplication factor of those coming to the Orthodox Church is far greater. One of my first lightbulb moments was the emphasis put on Easter (Pascha) compared to my protestant experiences which were limited to a couple of extra services and a little more targeted teaching about the time of year.
Now, don’t get me wrong I am not laying the foundation for a heretical theology where coming to Church for Easter and Christmas gets you a ticket through the so-called “pearly gates”, rather that due to many factors cultural or otherwise I have experienced more attendance by irregular church-goers in the Orthodox Church than in my protestant lifetime. There are often many obstacles for the “cradle” Orthodox to overcome; from services in another language to poorly catechised relatives not able to put into words the context behind the Orthodox life. This provides the challenge of how to “re-catcechise” it’s faithful and teach the true faith rather than abandon the Faith once and for all delivered to the Saints.
Fortunately in our diocese there is slowly more and more happening in this regard. We now have yearly conferences for various levels of youth to teach and answer there questions. We have a handful of parishes that are completely in English including the Holy Annunciation Parish in Brisbane that is heavily focused on teaching the Faith to all who wish to “Come and see”. I still believe we have a long way to go and that our most critical challenge for missions lie within our walls; converting those occasional attendees to Christians on the narrow path to Salvation.
The text also points out the difference between Holy Tradition and scripture, but taking the expected Sola Scriptura stance. Many more eloquent than I have written well on this, but suffice to say that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ didn’t write a book, He founded a Church, and that Church through it’s Holy Tradition and conciliar approach decided what was to be Scripture over hundreds of years of consideration.
One of my other old favourites came up also, the “Corporate vs Private” prayer and the thinking that “the church building is the only place God’s Spirit works”.
“There is the potential barrier posed by the Orthodox concept of the Holy Spirit, which taken to an extreme seems to limit the Spirit to working only in the corporate context of the church. The idea of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of the individuals who comprise the church, a concept so important among evangelicals, is foreign to the Orthodox mind.”
Human beings can say some special things even in the light of obvious exception but I have never heard this extreme ideal before. The Church has always been defined as the gathering of the faithful, the buildings supporting this gathering and the services and sacraments that make up their worship. Early in my journey I came home meeting with friends after a vigil service and was questioned by them in depth about what I had experienced. Apart from not understanding why I would spend two and a half hours at church on a Saturday night, the focus was then moved on to why there was no sermon at a church service. Out of those two and a half hours almost one and a half was pure scripture (psalms chanted, old testament readings and a Gospel) with most of the rest being hymns or prayers founded in Scripture.
Those denying the personal aspect of Orthodox faith have no doubt never seen the prayer rule requested of the faithful to direct their hearts to worship and humility rather than, as Father Thomas Hopko puts it on occasion, “We stop explaining to God what he already knows and telling him what he ought to do about it, which is what lots of people’s prayer, too many people’s prayer is”.
Now time to step off the soapbox for a bit I am very glad to have come across this paper. A critique of ones beliefs from time to time is helpful to nudge you into clarifying your understanding, not that the current secular materialistic society doesn’t smack us around enough every day. While some of the information suffers I think in the translation and other information is, well, wrong, I think it good to have Protestants looking at church history which is outlined in the start of the document. If they look back far enough they will find the Orthodox Church.
Again, we must all focus on our continual conversion. Everyday we need to recommit ourselves to Christ, immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, give ourselves to Christ in our services, and participate in the holy mysteries of the church given to us by our Saviour for our salvation.