Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius 2014 Conference

The 2014 Fellowship Conference (11-14 August) was dedicated to Marriage, Monasticism and the Single Life. It was the fourth time, within the modern period, that the Fellowship held its annual conference in High Leigh Conference Centre, where it held its conference on and off since its birth in late 1927. Following is a summary of the conference.

The first talk was given by Archpriest Stephen Platt, who is also the Secretary of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius. His talk was on Marriage, monasticism and the single life: equal paths? Fr Stephen began by talking about children in the Church, since he just came back from an Orthodox youth camp. He was renewed, especially when he took into consideration the fact that children during confession are simple and refreshing. They understand their sin and wish to repent, and then live on. Continuing, the speaker explained that virginity in the world is very dangerous and unjustified; it is a spiritual danger to other people. The three paths have existed in Christianity since early on. Are they equal paths? For whom? For where? We have to raise questions.
Marriage finds its definition as the union of one man and one woman. Now, in modern society, there are challenges and redefinitions of this fact. The image of marriage is a human person, the heart and crown of God’s creation – Adam and Eve, i.e. man and woman walking together with God. According to St Gregory of Nyssa, the only sacrament is marriage, in the Pre-fall world. The speaker then pointed out the fact that Jesus Christ, a rabbi (according to the New Testament world) was an unusual rabbi, due to the fact that he was not married. In the East, during the first centuries, there was no wedding service. The norm would be that a civil marriage took place, and then the couple would receive Holy Communion with the crowns, given by the civil pagan authorities. The crowns within the Church symbolise kingship and martyrdom. Within a perfect marriage the following connections are made: physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional. 
 Monastic Life. According to Fr. Stephen, it is of its essence an innovation. It is a martyrdom of the ascetic life. It is not an escape, but a deepening battle of spiritual trials. Community is an important term for marriage, monasticism and the single life. Lack of community is why things go wrong. There is a need for community. It is not good for man to be alone. In the Bible we read, ‘Let us create…’ Here we have the Trinitarian likeness; it is communal, based on relation; it requires the other. Communion and community with the other mean interdependence. Within the monastic life, communion is important; there exists martyrdom, community and obedience. The latter means to listen; there is no negative meaning. True obedience requires mutuality. Obedience is mutual listening, mutual burden raising. 
A person within the single life has no support neither by marriage neither by a monastic brotherhood. Many don’t choose the single life within the church. This can be due to a bad marriage, death, the right person doesn’t come along etc. Some embrace it as a vocation. This requires obedience to the law of Christ (the Gospel) and the community (the family) of the Church. The Church is the Ark of Salvation, but also a family. The paradox of Salvation is that it is two-part: a. there is a unique and distinct relationship with Christ and b. we are never saved alone. Outside the Church there is no salvation. We are saved in communion with each other.
The next speaker of the conference was Canon Brian Macdonald – Milne, an Anglican priest who had been to the Western Pacific islands for missionary work. His talk was inspired by his past experiences, entitled Anglican religious orders in the Western Pacific and the single life.

The second day began with an Anglican Eucharist and a Bible Meditation. The first lecture of the day was given by Hieromonk Seraphim Aldea on Building an Orthodox monastic community in twenty-first century Britain. The new endeavour Fr Seraphim is in charge of is the Orthodox Monastery of All Celtic Saints. Kilninian is the monastery chapel and is dedicated to Saints Cuthbert and Ninian. A designated Historical Monument, the present church was built in 1755 on the site of a much older, medieval chapel. A document from 1551 mentions Kilninian as the property of St Columba’s Monastery on the neighbouring Isle of Iona, which means that the original site was a monastic dwelling, and that it could be as early as the seventh century.
The monastery is located in a rugged but spectacular area of the Isle of Mull, in a remote sport on the Atlantic shore of the island. The region was officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for its extraordinary landscape and its historic significance. The Hebrides are a group of small islands in the Atlantic, off the West Coast of Scotland. There islands are the home of many of the Celtic Saints, and the heart of the ancient Celtic Church. Celtic Christianity is the original Christian tradition of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern England. The Celts were known as ‘the last free ones’, as they were never conquered by the Roman Empire. By consequence, the Celts never fell under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and preserved their union of faith with the Orthodox Church.
The monastery is dedicated to All Celtic Saints, celebrated on the Second Sunday after Pentecost. At present, the monastery owns the Church of Saints Ninian and Cuthbert, and a five-acre area surrounding it. A fundraising is taking place, in order to start building the monastic cells. For more information on the monastery and how to contribute towards this endeavour please visit the monastery’s site: www.mullmonastery.com

Following this talk, the members of the conference were split into discussion groups, where various issues were discussed and analysed, giving the Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic views on monasticism, marriage and the single life. Then an excursion took place. All the members travelled to the Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist, in Essex, where a tour of the monastery took place, followed by a talk, given by Sister Magdalen. She spoke about Monastic Life, as the Orthodox understand it. The Sister claimed that one of God’s interventions into our life is monasticism. The minority, within Christianity, has this calling. There shouldn’t be a sacrifice for those following the monastic life. Monasticism is voluntary; it is the combination of choosing and calling. It is not a sacrifice (with the negative meaning of the term). The monastic tonsure echoes baptism (where we have the cutting of the hair) and not the wedding service.
Fr Sophrony believed that obedience is what differentiates a monastic life from the rest of the Christian community. Chastity is not the differing factor. Within Orthodox monastic life there are no orders. Every monastery is unique, due to its people. Christian life is a matter of love. The monastery is a school of love, which is not limited by anything psychological. It is not limited to any forms of love. Spiritual love can embrace the world:
a.       day to day, practical love and
b.      to ensure prayer for the whole world.
 The community is where the Holy Trinity can be manifested. A monastic community is not a parish. However, it’s not extra-ecclesial; it is part of the Diocese. Monastic life does help remind people of another Christian way of life. The Divine Liturgy is what ‘feeds’ the monks, together with prayer. Monastic life is the fruit of Christian life.
Then Sister Magdalen spoke about mutual obedience. The most humble are the ones who obey. The oldest ones are more humble. Obedience is a form of love. Obedience is a weapon against pride. Obedience is a difficulty for the educated and intelligent novices. Obedience is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. It’s an enrichment of self, not a denial of self. But it has to be voluntary; if it is involuntary then it can become poisonous. St Silouan used to state that, praying for the world is the reason for monasticism. The pastoral side can complement the monastic life but not be the centre of it.
Upon returning to High Leigh, the members of the conference engaged in a panel discussion, followed by a Panikhida, i.e. an Orthodox memorial service for the departed members and friends of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. The third day of the conference began with an Orthodox Liturgy, followed by a lecture given by Jenny Bond, from Churches Together in England, on Single people in the Church?

The key lecture of the day was given by Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, who has been a member of the Fellowship for many decades. His paper was on Marriage and divorce – an Orthodox perspective. Bishop Kallistos began his talk by explaining that Nicolas Zernov, one of the founding members of the Fellowship, had spoken about this topic in a previous Fellowship conference.
He continued quoting Fr George Florovksy, who claimed that Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is a worshipping community. Then Metropolitan Kallistos looked at the Orthodox Marriage Service, where we have the Right of Betrothal and the Right of Crowning. Within a marriage service there are six events: rings, crowns, scripture readings, common cup, procession and the removal of crowns.  What doesn’t happen in an Orthodox Marriage are:
-          ‘Do death do I part…’ Marriage is not until death, it is for eternity. Militza Zernov (Nicolas Zernov’s wife) after her husband’s death used to say ‘I am not his widow, I am his wife.’
-          There is no signing of registry in an Orthodox Wedding. There are no questions asked. The couple actually say nothing at all.
-          Emphasis is given on the blessing given by God. (Same in East and West).
The Orthodox attitude to divorce goes back to Roman Law. However, they changed the legislation law, so both man and woman have equal rights for divorce. The subordination of woman to man is stated within the service, but it isn’t emphasised (during the Epistle Reading). But, the husband shows gentleness, love, generosity as Christ does. There is equality, complementarity, mutuality between the couple.
In the Book of Common Payer (17th century) there are three aims:
1.       Protection of children
2.       Mutual love
3.       Remedy against lust.
In the Orthodox Tradition we have:
1.       Protection of Children
2.       Mutual Love
The primary aim, therefore, is mutual sanctification; to come closer to Christ; to prepare for the coming of God. Mutual love is key. St. John Chrysostom claimed that marriage is the Sacrament of Love. Bearing of children is also emphasised. There is no one main purpose of marriage. There exists mutual love on a spiritual and physical level. What if God does not give children? Then the marriage still exists.
The ring indicates:
1.       Fidelity, faithfulness to a promise.
2.       Symbolises eternity.
3.       Signatory ring, with one owns emblem. If you trust someone with a signatory ring then you allow them power and trust.
1.       St John Chrysostom claimed that they are a sign of victory; victory of love over lust; a victorious transfiguration.
2.       Crowns of Kingship. They are a reminder of our royal dignity.
3.       They are a sign of Martyrdom. Each partner lays down their life for the other. ‘Perfect love is crucified love’ (Evdokimoff).   
Difficulties signify that the marriage needs depth and reality. Divorce comes when the couple refuses this.
The water symbolises daily life. In contrast, wine symbolises gladness, newness and creativity. The transformation of water into wine symbolises the transportation from the daily to the creative, from daily life to a life of meaning. The drinking of the common cup symbolises the total sharing between the couple. At one time they would have received Holy Communion. However, now we celebrate the wedding service outside of the Divine Liturgy.
During the procession three hymns are chanted. These hymns have three key topics: joy, martyrdom and Trinitarian love. After we observe the removal of crowns, which shows the eternity of marriage; marriage is a vocation, not a state; it is a journey, a process. Marriage vocation is dynamic not static. Marriage, therefore, is the beginning.
Divorce was the other subject analysed during this paper. Three marriages are allowed in the Orthodox Church. It is not enough to receive a civil divorce; a church divorce is required as well. In the Orthodox Tradition, there is a special service for a person married for a second time. The Orthodox base the issue of divorce on Mathew’s Gospel: 19, 9. It gives authority for divorce, but not for remarriage. Reasons for divorce are: adultery or no consummation after the marriage service or one spouse disappears. Spiritual and physical death of the marriage leads to the eventual release of the marriage. Unfortunately, marriage is under threat from contemporary society.

After the talk, the Fellowship Council met, followed by the annual AGM of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, which was followed by an Anglican Evening Prayer. The fourth and final day began with an Anglican Eucharist. The last lecture of the conference was given by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou, who spoke on Celibacy as a vocation. Instead of giving a small abstract here, we are giving the link to Fr. Vassilios’ paper, which can be found on his blog, in the following address: http://vassilios-papavassiliou.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/celibacy-as-vocation.html

The conference ended with a plenary session, where an overview of the conference was discussed by all the members of the conference. Also the next conference was discussed, where it is to be held and what the topic will be. This information will be made public next year, when the Secretary of the Fellowship, Fr Stephen Platt, will finalise all the details. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this, I would have loved to be there