Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Tenth Orthodox Theological Research Forum, “Orthodoxy and Ethnicity”

The Tenth Orthodox Theological Research Forum (OTRF) was held in Oxford, St. Edmund College, between 11 – 13 September.  The theme of the Conference was on “Orthodoxy and Ethnicity”. The OTRF is a pan-Orthodox forum in which work by Orthodox Christian scholars in the various fields of theological studies is presented and discussed within the context of the ongoing tradition and contemporary theological education.

OTRF holds an annual two or three day conference, open to students in higher education, scholars and clergy, which provides an informal and relaxed opportunity for talks and discussion. Liturgical services (morning and evening) form an integral part of the conference meetings. So far ten conferences have been held, at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, the University of Durham, the University of Wales at Lampeter, the University of Winchester and the University of Oxford. For more information visit    

The conference began with a talk by his Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos of DIokleia, ‘“Neither Jew nor Greek”: Catholicity and Ethnicity’. He explained that there are ethnic gifts within the one Church. The Church transcends all divisions. However, the modern practice is that the Orthodox Church is separated into territorial and not into ethnic Churches. Despite the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has condemned phyletism (1872), it is understood that even Constantinople has fallen into its trap, since it is more Greek than Ecumenical. Nevertheless, God permits the diversity of nations, which has an eschatological value. We need to distinguish, however, that the term nation (ethnos) had a different meaning in the Bible and a different one in our epoch. On the other hand we see that during Pentecost the Apostles spoke many languages and we also have the example of Cyril and Methodios, who spread Orthodoxy to the Slavs in Slavonic; hence we have different ethnoi with their own cultures and language, distinguishing them from the others. The Metropolitan concluded by stating that, since we are baptised, we belong to a single holy nation, whilst of course being part of our secular nation.

Father Deacon Andreas Andreopoulos spoke about the ‘Liturgical Experience as the Basis for Church Identity’. We need to have a quest for Christian identity, through the Liturgy, looking of course into our ecclesiology. However, the next topic, according to Bishop Kallistos, should be ‘anthropology’. Christianity was not only found by Hebrew teaching but also it was shadowed by Hellenic philosophy and tragedy. A key question, nevertheless, is whether mystagogical theology can identify a Christian identity? In the United Kingdom we see that there is nothing wrong to being Western. On the contrary, in about 50 years we might have a more concrete idea of what it means to be English Orthodox. There is nothing wrong with using Western models.

Lambros Psomas spoke about ‘Nation-States and Diaspora: Revisiting the Issue of Overlapping Orthodox Jurisdictions in Western Europe’. He stated that the term Diaspora is the wrong one to use, since we have the reality and the increase of converts from the Western World. Theologically we cannot have a Diaspora because we do not have a geographical Jerusalem (as the Jews have). He also claimed that the Orthodox Church in England cares about what belongs to Caesar and not God, due to the existence of the Greek, Russian and so on Schools. Nationalism is a very strong sentiment. He also claimed that despite the fact that Orthodoxy condemned phyletism, it was unable to prevent it. He ended by stating that Nationalism and Orthodoxy are inseparable, whilst the modern national churches, the autocephalous churches, are politically created.

Krastu Banev began the second day with a passionate and lovely speech on ‘War and Peace in the Thought of Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993)’. His aim was to bring into sharper focus the problematic of war and peace in the theology of Fr. Sophrony. He demonstrated the fact that his works provide a uniquely consistent theological response to the ‘exceedingly sorrowful sight’ of 20th century military conflicts. He sees that sin is the cause of division. The problem of war is related to ethnicity, however he identifies that we humans cannot live without our historical routes, just as a tree cannot live without its roots.

Fr. Andrew Louth followed speaking about ‘Mother Thekla and the Acculturation of Orthodoxy in an English Context”. He illustrated her work through three of her books, showing Mother Thekla’s interest in both Orthodoxy and English Literature and how she combined the two. Elena Ene  D.-Vasilescu spoke about ‘Permanence and Change in the Life of Ethnic Orthodox Churches in Western Europe’.

Christine Nellist made an analysis, talking about ‘An Exploration of Theory and Practice in the Church: Perceptions by Cypriot Society’. She asked many questions including ‘do you feel that the Orthodox Church in Cyprus cares about animal protection and welfare?’ She came to certain conclusions, giving mainly negative answers. However, all animals are the creation of God and they must be treated as such. They must live in suitable conditions and they must be treated with compassion. The misuse of animals is a sin.

Father Stephen Platt gave a very interesting talk on ‘Ethnicity in Parish Life’. He pointed out that we belong to the ethnos of God. We have the divine calling to the ethnicity of Christ. He explained how the parish should be, i.e. an administrative part of a diocese, which has its own church. It is a territorial unit, based on location, not nationalism. Access to the Bishop is important, hence we should have small diocese. A parish should form an οικογένεια (family), pointing out the fact that it is a Eucharistic community. Fr. Stephen explains that where there is a problem, there is also an opportunity. The liturgical language used should reflect the community and not where it is located. A paradigm from history is the Gothic Church in Constantinople. He explained how a parish works, emphasising the importance of having a Liturgy after the Liturgy, whereby the parish has a chance to know itself. There exists a vital extension of the Eucharistic offering during coffee or a meal. He then pointed out that we should not be afraid of ethnic and cultural tags. The Orthodox Church in the U.K. has yet to find its identity.

Tamara Douglas spoke about ‘Church and Nationalism in Georgia and Russia in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Context’. Fr. Patrick John Ramsey gave us a “fashion show”, as explained by Metropolitan Kallistos, talking about ‘Liturgical Vestments and Clergy Dress: Thoughts on Appropriate Forms and Variety in Western Europe and America’.  Fr. Dionysios James Higgs gave a talk on ‘Ethnicity, Giants and the Fall’.     

The third day began with a talk given by Dimitris Salapatas on ‘Nationalism vs. Ecumenism – With Special Reference to the Orthodox Church’.   The Orthodox Church has been criticised by the other Churches who are in the Ecumenical Movement for its nationalistic identity, being seen as one negative factor by the Anglican Communion which would need to alter if union was to be realised between the two. For non-Orthodox, Orthodoxy does not seem united as it wants to believe, it appears divided along ethnic-jurisdictional lines even where the ethnic groups are all found in a common land speaking a common language ( for example here in the United Kingdom). This is a very important topic, especially within the context of the current Ecumenical Movement and the numerous Official Dialogues currently taking place. However, it is interesting to identify that this is not only an Orthodox issue; we can also see this in some Churches within the Anglican Communion, which are in many respects very English, such as the Church of England. Nevertheless, Ecumenism believes in the Unity of the Church and not in division. Nationalism has affected the Ecumenical Movement, pointing out the power politics that exist within the Orthodox World. We first need to solve these issues, before attempting a unity with the non-Orthodox. This change could come by the increasing prevalence and expansion of the Orthodox Church in the Diaspora, which could alter the balance between the Patriarchal Sees in the East. Is this topic an important one? It is if you are a believer of the Ecumenical Movement. However, if you are not then this theme can easily be dismissed. On the other hand, it is significant to point out the fact that most Churches are part of it; hence they all have a hope in a future union. Whether this is realised or not is another story.

Father Nikodemos Anagnostopoulos gave an interesting talk on ‘The Identity and the Role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’. He explained how there is no national or ethnic adjective in front of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s title, showing thus his ecumenicity. Turkey continues to this day to dispute the title Ecumenical, preferring the title “Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Fanar”, being a Church only for the local community in modern Istanbul. Fr. Nikodemos pointed the importance of the opening of the Theological School of Halki, which is necessary for the future of the Patriarchate.

The last talk was given by Brandon Gallaher. His talk was on ‘A Secularism of the Royal Doors: Towards an Orthodox Christian Vision of the Secular, Secularism and Secularization’. He pointed out that our society is moving into a religionless time; however, religion has not disappeared. Currently, the greatest growth has been seen by the Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches. Religion, as professed by the media, is a public matter. Nevertheless, secularism is a complex reality; nonetheless nationalism is a form of secularism. Ethnicity is a great gift; the problem is seen when it is distorted and hence we have nationalism. To be a Christian is to be secular in Christ, in the world. The world is relative to Christ, whether it knows it or not. Brandon Gallaher’s talk was a very interesting one, as Fr. Andrew Louth claimed, it was one of the best talks he had heard in years.

During the Plenary Discussion the Conference came to numerous conclusions. It is a fact that the Orthodox Church in the Diaspora, in the West, in this country (U.K.) needs to be inclusive and not exclusive with various traditions. Fear and insecurity is the reason why new, young theologians are against ecumenism. Fire is a good servant, but a bad master. In the same way ethnicity is a good servant, but a bad master, which nevertheless enriches our practice. We are maturing. We are reaching, through our failures, the stage where we can see ourselves critically.  

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