Monday, July 4, 2016

Report: Fellowship Conference 2015 – The Church in the Modern World

Report

Fellowship Conference 2015 – The Church in the Modern World

By Dimitris Salapatas

(Sobornost, 37:2, 2015, pp. 65-71

Also: https://www.academia.edu/26550522/Report_Fellowship_Conference_2015_The_Church_in_t
he_Modern_World)


The Fellowship’s Annual Conference took place at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, between 17 and 19 August 2015. The theme of this year’s conference was The Church in the Modern World, a very interesting topic, for all Christians. With speakers from the Anglican, Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. The conference began with the Fellowship AGM, followed by an interesting presentation of the Russian Diaspora, a photographic project of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, presented by Veronique Magnes, who is part of Ainos, the Athens branch of the Fellowship. This project is sponsored by the Fellowship and will be presented in Athens in the beginning of 2016.[1]



The first lecture of the conference was given by Fr Christopher Knight, an Orthodox priest at the Church of the Holy Transfiguration, Walsingham, who also works as the Executive Secretary of the International Society for Science and Religion, Fr Knight spoke on Orthodoxy and Modern Science: Friends or Foes? and argued this topic mainly from a Western Christian point of view, since a dialogue has existed in the West between science and theology since the 1960s. He also ventured some comments on the new atheism movement, believing that scientific attacks on theology are philosophically illiterate, but that is an ongoing dialogue. The talk also examined the conflict between modern science and Orthodoxy. It was interesting to identify a number of sociological and historical factors which have produced a rejection of science in Orthodox countries, such as the Marxist-Leninist Atheism in the Soviet bloc, the anti-progress reaction in Greece, and liberal theology in the West. Fr Christopher assessed the issue of ‘God of the Gaps’: can we claim that God acts only in events that science cannot explain? God is everywhere, in the natural and unnatural events. Also how can we explain miracles? Miracles are understood as the return to the natural state.

The second lecture of the first day was given by Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, Orthodox Bishop and patron of the Fellowship, who spoke on The Doctrine of the Human Person in the Contemporary Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue. The Metropolitan, who is currently the Orthodox co-president in the Official Dialogue between the Anglicans and the Orthodox, is well qualified to explain the current themes examined by the International Commission for the Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue. Metropolitan Kallistos explained that nearness and otherness is what characterises these relations. He gave an historical outline of relations since the 17th century, providing also a brief overview of the Fellowship’s history. The Fellowship’s strength, he said, is its unofficial character, explaining that ‘we do need personal friendship to strengthen the official relations.’ He moved on to examine the three agreed statements between the Anglicans and the Orthodox. However, the most significant part of this lecture was the examination of the current topic being studied by the Commission, i.e. the human person. They wish to move from ecclesiology to anthropology and will analyse a number of topics, such as: 1) human responsibility for the environment, generally the ecological crisis, 2) views concerning human sexuality, gender distinctions and marriage, same sex marriage etc. (Metropolitan Kallistos pointed out that this topic may not be at all easy to talk about); 3) our respective practices, such as birth control, abortion, embryology and 4) euthanasia and assisted killing. It is remarkable to notice that the differences on these issues, as explained by the speaker, exist not only between the two denominations, but within both Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. The talk ended with a comparison between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Official Dialogue and the Anglican-Orthodox Official Dialogue, remarking that the latter maintains a more friendly character, where a warm and honest relationship is maintained.

            The second day began with a talk by Fr Mark Woodruff, a Roman Catholic priest who is also vice chairman of the Society of St John Chrysostom (a society working and praying for the unity of the Churches of East and West), who gave a lecture on Beyond Secularism: Reflection on the Church and the Kingdom of God in Contemporary British Society. It is evident that atheist secularism has become dominant in the civil society; religion, consequently is understood as a phenomenon to be managed or a problem to be solved. Modern British politics have removed appeal to Christian notions from public life; such was the case even with Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both practising Christians. The Churches, therefore, have been disempowered. Fr Mark also referred to Pope Benedict’s state visit to Britain – though the Pope perceived Britain as a Christian society, nevertheless, he observed the marginalization of religion in Britain. David Cameron had stated that Britain is a cooperatively Christian state and that the Christian faith is part of the fabric. Nevertheless, the speaker maintained that we need freedom from society - the horizontal relationship - in order to achieve the vertical, between us and the Kingdom.

            A very interesting lecture was given by Dr Harvey Kwiyani, who is the Executive Director of Missio Africanus, Director of the Missional Innovations Institute, which is a cross-cultural missional leadership training institute based in Birmingham and co-founder and co-director of the Ajayi Crowther Centre for African Mission. Dr Kwiyani spoke on Africa and the Mission of the Church. He examined Africa’s place in contemporary Christianity, questioning why Africa matters, especially when talking about mission. Dr Kwiyani distinguished five phases of the history of mission in Africa: the early Church (NT); the first 500 years; the fifteenth century; the nineteenth century; and the twentieth century. He wished to emphasize that Africa was involved in the birth of the Church; many people from Acts came from Africa. Many significant Christian figures came from and lived in Africa, such as Tertullian, Cyprian Bishop of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo. Many Churches exist in Africa, for example, the Copts in Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, with the presence of Islam in Africa, the church on the continent has returned to a missionary status. During the 19th century mission societies were sent to Africa, changing the continent - a move seen as colonialism. The 20th and 21st centuries Africa re-joining the missionary movement. An important table of numbers was presented to us during this talk depicting the rise of world Christianity in all parts of the world. Despite future projections which could be considered too optimistic, it is evident that world Christianity will alter, increasing drastically in some places whilst decreasing in other. These projections show that 25 to 30 per cent of world Christianity, which exists today in Africa, will increase to 40 per cent; meanwhile, the 588 million Christians in Europe will decrease to 530 million. An intriguing point was made by the speaker, when he explained that Africans are the most mobile people; African Christians are to be found all over the world. Their objective is to preach the Kingdom of God and not to stay within their national boundaries. Therefore, we currently observe a reversed missionary situation, whereby Africans undertake missionary work in the West, Britain being an example of this new reality.

            The last lecture of the second day was given by Fr Timothy Curtis, an Orthodox priest at the Parish of St Anne (Northampton) and Senior Lecturer at the University of Northampton. Fr Curtis’ talk entitled Fifteen years on: is the Social Concept really a basis for a social action? was based on the document ‘The Basis of the Social Concept,’[2] produced by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is an example of Orthodox social teaching. There is little evidence of Western Orthodox writers in this document. Additionally, there is no direct evidence of Roman Catholic and Anglican social teaching. Nevertheless, it does attempt to deal with the contemporary world; it’s quite complex, showing its immaturity. Fr Timothy sought to explain how this document might have relevance to the situation in Britain today; Orthodox social action is limited to each parish or diocese. The Orthodox, in a country like Britain, are split in their own jurisdictional divides; therefore, they do not appear as a single entity. The speaker critiqued the document, observing its weaknesses and how it does not expand, on a social basis, the issues to which it refers to. Does it tackle UK issues, such as racism, women etc.? The answer is negative. Nonetheless, the lecture ended with a wish that the document will be revisited.

            Following this talk, the members of the conference had an excursion to Oxford, where we visited Christ Church Cathedral, including the Shrine of St Frideswide, who is the Patron Saint of the city and University of Oxford. During our visit and guided tour, we were able to sing the apolytikion of St Frideswide and pray at her shrine. Later we visited the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation, Canterbury Road, where a memorial service for departed members and friends of the Fellowship was held by Fr Ian Graham. Following this, we visited the House of St Gregory and St Macrina, where the Fellowship is currently housed. This was a great experience for the conference members, since many of them had never been to the current headquarters of the society. There Metropolitan Kallistos and Rebecca White spoke about the history of the House and the life of the Fellowship in Oxford, showing the pastoral, historical and theological significance of the society’s presence in Oxford. We then moved on to St Nicholas’ Orthodox Church, Ferry Road, were Fr Stephen Platt and Fr Timothy Curtis celebrated Orthodox Great Vespers for the Transfiguration. Fr Stephen, who is the parish priest at St Nicholas’ and Secretary of the Fellowship, gave a brief sermon on the Transfiguration. The conference members then returned to Ripon College, where a panel discussion took place.

            Fr Kevin O’Donnell, a Roman Catholic priest at Our Lady of Lourdes, Rottingdean and St Patricks, Woodingdean, gave the first lecture of the third day, entitled A Response to the New Atheists. He explained how atheists are great communicators, reacting to extremism and terrorism. They have a superficial understanding of theology, understanding God as merely another ‘thing’ in the universe. Additionally, Fr Kevin wished to point out that atheists follow a philosophy, not science, having assumptions which they do not verify. Atheists resent the sense of privilege that believers have. The speaker also distributed a copy of his Deeply Real - A Reply to the New Atheist ‘Script’[3], which is a very interesting read, understanding the position the new atheists maintain and the answers a Christian can give to a number of their questions and misconceptions. His talk also examined many of the points, published in this work.

            The last lecture of the 2015 conference was given by Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and patron of the Fellowship, who spoke on What is the Future for Christians in the Middle East?  Bishop Angaelos began by explaining that the Church has always been relevant. As marginalized as people will have us think we are, we ought to be provocative and confrontational; we need to promote thought; we are the Body of Jesus Christ. We, as a Church, continue to have a purpose: we are evangelists, proclaimers of good news. We have the role and mission of preaching the Gospel; however, this is very difficult and often impossible in, for example, Egypt and the Middle East. There are challenges in the Middle East; similarly there are trials here in the West. In the West we observe difficulties, but they are not persecutions, as is the case in the Middle East and Africa. When Christians spread the word they do it with love and in a humble manner, in order to bring people close to Christ. Christians in the Middle East exist because they are continuing to hold the message of Jesus, which is strong in its defiance and its humility; the Christians are, therefore, sons of God by remaining peacemakers. Bishop Angaelos continued his lecture by explaining the current situation of the Coptic Church in Egypt and the general Christian situation in the Middle East and talked about the political and ecclesiastical devastation of areas such as Mosul, explaining that we can all see the resurrection which comes after the crucifixion. The cross the Christians carry, in the Middle East, on a daily basis, they carry willingly and valiantly. This was evident with the beheading of the Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS. The speaker wished to identify our role and responsibility during this current situation, claiming that we should speak for them, highlight their struggle. Our role is to walk in the footsteps of our Lord, for all. That is why we take pride in the Human Rights Charter. With regard to the Christians in the Middle East: if they wish to stay, we need to safeguard them; however, if they want to leave we need to give them safe passage. Let us not forget that we are talking about indigenous people. Interestingly enough, Bishop Angaelos wished to point out that there is no such thing as Christians of East and West; there are not two Bodies of Christ, but one. The Church is fragmented, yes; its unity is a work in progress - the Fellowship plays an essential role towards the realization of this objective. The current persecution of Christians could bring us all together. The conference ended with a closing plenary session, where the next Fellowship conference was discussed. More information on this will be published on sobornost.org

            During the two and a half days Fellowship Conference, we all had the opportunity to pray together, having an Anglican Evening Prayer, an Orthodox Divine Liturgy and an Anglican Eucharist; all of these were celebrated at the wonderful and award winning building, for its unique architectural style, Edward King Chapel. Thus, the participants of this conference were able to follow the Fellowship tradition of having the Eucharist and prayer at the centre of the conference. Additionally a bookstore was present at the conference, allowing the members to purchase new and interesting books on Orthodoxy, the relations between the Churches, books on Fathers and many more.


[1] A similar presentation of this project was given at the ‘Oxford Patristic and Byzantine Study Week 2015,’ organised by Ainos Cultural Society, the University of Winchester, the Orthodox Theological Research Forum (OTRF), the Fellowship of St Alban St Sergius and the House of St Gregory and St Macrina:  https://otrf123.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/2015-otrf-conference-oxford-patristic-byzantine-study-week/, accessed 16/09/2015, 14.45. 
[2] Russian Orthodox Church, https://mospat.ru/en/documents/social-concepts/, accessed 17/09/2015, 15.09.
[3] This work can be also found here: http://www.ololandstp.org/Deeply%20Real%20Lite%20(3).pdf, accessed 18/09/2015, 19.54. 

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