Today, we are seeing the remnants of (even heretical) Christian belief evaporate all over the western world. We see the great western churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant all in steep decline everywhere, with no end in sight.
More to the point, we see Orthodox churches going nowhere. Yes new churches are opened occasionally, but what are they? Are they some sort of national remembrance-club in a foreign land? Or are they filled with genuine Christian Believers?
In any case, what should we be doing? Do numbers count? Should we be going after numbers? The coffers will be better filled if we get numbers, and thereby the institution that we call The Church will be better served won’t it?
If the Orthodox Church is a great and powerful institution, that will secure our place in the world won’t it? Souls will be saved won’t they? Or will we, like the independent mega-churches simply descend into materialism, so that no matter the beauty of our church services, we are just a materialistic institution, like business corporations, intent on organisational survival?
I fear the latter may be precisely what we are in danger of becoming. Perhaps all unknowingly, as bishops are pressured, to mind the business and property, with little real time for reflection and praying.
What then can we do about it?
Lets try looking back, initially to the first two hundred years of The Church. How did it act – and what was it?
Right at the beginning, the Church comprised the Jewish followers of Christ in and around the Roman province of Syria-Palestine, centred upon Jerusalem. Persecution caused it to disperse to Antioch and other cities. The community at Tyre which had been started by Jesus Christ Himself continued without a break and still exists today.
The Apostles appointed leaders in the various centres of Believers – overseers in the Greek word episkopoi – from which we get the word bishops. Apparently this word was in use exceedingly early because Saint Dorotheus of Tyre records that Aristobulus, one of the seventy Apostles sent out by the Lord (Luke 10:1–24.) was sent from Tyre as bishop of Britain in AD37. In other words he was sent as a sole leader of a new Church. So the concept of a Church Overseer (bishop) was there in the Church at Jerusalem at that very early stage.
We know that the Church spread throughout Greece to Rome, south to north Africa, and had jumped west to Britain in the very early years after the Resurrection.
We know that the Apostles appointed bishops in each city that they had evangelised and we know that those bishops appointed presbyters as they needed assistance and deacons.
But still – there was no Holy Scripture other than the Septuagint that Jesus had used. All they had was various papers and oral accounts of what Jesus had done and taught. They had The Way that Jesus had taught, they could Baptise and they could celebrate the Eucharist. That much we know because we have it recorded in Scripture and other contemporary documents.
The primary duty of Christians was to live The Way and worship God. The Way is set out for us in the New Testament and it is still the Way for Orthodox Christians to live.
So why did Christianity spread so far and so fast?
Obviously for some people the Christian’s attitudes towards one another would have been attractive, especially in a world where a fair amount of sexual and other abuse was routinely carried out. Their peaceableness would stand out in a world where war and brutality was common even as a public spectacle.
That alone (plus of course preaching in Synagogues) got the Church going. For several hundred years The Church was a fairly loose federation of dioceses which all recognised each other and held the same doctrines. Apart from the letters of the Apostles, there were other documents circulating like the Didache and the Shepherd which taught Christianity. After the Apostles, there were the letters of Saint Polycarp and Saint Clement all of which we still have. Christians didn’t need to be a large corporate institution. The amiable federation of dioceses worked rather effectively. Maintaining the Apostolic tradition wasn’t hard for the first hundred years – for most of which Saint John was still alive.
The Early Church was certainly not afraid of evangelising the non-Christians. It was close-knit enough for most of the Christians in any given town to know each other – there was only one church – very often a converted synagogue or a large private house. Christians tried hard to worship God, respect their fellow man and obey the lawful government.
Their Faith however was both strong and communally held. It was a faith not of this world, but in those days it was to them a very rationally held belief because they had Apostles who had lived with and known Jesus and been there at the major events that they were teaching about. And after the last Apostle, there were still the bishops they had appointed who had learned directly from the Apostles. It is also worth remembering that at the end of 250 years there would have been up to five hundred thousand people whose father, mother, grandfather, uncle or aunt had met or heard Jesus.
After this, we come to the acceptance of Christianity by the Empire, a momentous event that had immense consequences.
The Roman Empire now had its real centre moving to Constantinople, and Constantinople was the centre of the Byzantine Roman Empire.
The centre of Byzantium was Constantinople. A great city of over 800,000 people setting the tone of the empire. What exactly was Constantinople?
Christianity was the official religion of the empire. For a millennium the great city was the capital of Christian civilisation. This was the city of the Great Church, of the emperor, and of the brilliant administration. In short it was the City of God, the Christian Jerusalem. Confidence in eternity and the divine protection of Constantinople and its emperor, and in eternal victory of the faithful was the community attitude.
The belief system of the whole people was rational because the Church at the beginning of Byzantium was only two hundred years from the death of the last living Apostle who had personally known Jesus Christ and that Apostle (Saint John) had lived at Ephesus, just a hundred or so miles from Constantinople, well inside their empire. The history of Christianity was short and immediate, the Bible had not yet been put together. There were no questions as to Christianity’s historical reality and the truth of its premises, there had been no pseudo-enlightenment, this Faith was based on facts.
As Christianity faced up to the world and all the problems it caused them, they held great Councils of bishops, priests, laity and they expected as of right that these Councils would be led by the Holy Spirit. The Councils sought God’s way of dealing with the problems. Most of those Councils were held in the Empire not all that far from Constantinople and in Constantinople.
Constantinople possessed the world’s greatest church building – Hagia Sophia – Holy Wisdom cathedral and its associated compound and buildings which was served by six hundred men including eighty priests and was built in AD 537. There was only one Christian Church in the whole world, it was the Orthodox Catholic Church that Christ Himself had founded. The Apostles had all functioned within the boundaries of the empire, some just a few miles from Constantinople. This was the place where the Emperor, the Patriarch and all the people came to worship before God. Hagia Sophia was the Temple at Jerusalem writ into the Christian Church and everything else a mere synagogue.
Here was the high point of mankind communicating with God, the pinnacle of humanity, the Emperor and Patriarch, Bishops and Priests moving in solemn ministration before the Throne of God on earth in Hagia Sophia. Here too were the ‘akimitoi’ or “those who never sleep”, the monks of Studion whose continuous prayer, day and night through the generations, kept the universe in permanent contact with its Creator in an endless cycle of hearing His words and returning glory. Only in Byzantium, nowhere else on earth, not even in Jerusalem, had this been done, and it is still done today on Mount Athos, the only direct remnant of Byzantium with us, where the twenty monasteries still pray ceaselessly for the world. There were other monasteries in Constantinople, and all over the Empire. Some had started earlier, and a few still exist, but Stoudion was different, it was the beating heart of the Empire, praying continuously for the whole world, and keeping the Empire in continuous formal conversation with God. This was necessary to the well-being of the Empire. This was the secret of the Empire’s success.
This Christian Empire lasted for an entire thousand years in one united Church with a continuously praying centre and only ceased at the point of invading swords.
This same Church existed in the British Isles as one united Church (connected to that in Byzantium) with a praying centre of real monasteries – and it too lasted for an entire thousand years (and only ceased at the point of invading swords).
The same Church existed in Russia for a thousand years and is now growing rapidly with what quality only time will tell.
But these were unified societies with only one Church. We in the west have a bewildering variety of groups calling themselves Christian. The Orthodox Church is in a minority with few claims on the population. It must attract in an entirely missionary way amongst the unchurched majority of the population. This means that the Orthodox Church in say the United Kingdom and Europe must look to the methods by which it approaches this task. It must at all costs avoid the American corporate-business models that so-called Christian bodies there are promulgating.
In the United Kingdom and Europe the Church must first of all adopt the local language and divest itself of its alien ethnicity. Until it does that it will achieve nothing.
It must adapt its architecture and worship more to the local culture. This does not mean altering/shortening the services, it does mean using familiar vernacular forms exclusively. It means that the internal appearance may begin to reflect local tastes.
Ultimately can we say only that what will grow the Church is exactly what grew it in the first few centuries: Christians living seriously Christian lives – in all aspects of their lives – with fully functioning, obviously Christian families, with proper Christian or home schooling. Such that they are indeed attractive to those who see them. Yes, parishes should engage in care for the poor, homeless and sick, but it should be at parish level and no higher.
It is at the family and parish level that all missionary activity should be carried out. If the diocese by itself wants to put a missionary church into some disadvantaged area or country then it should do it as a diocese and no higher level – it should be personal. Perhaps every diocese should be encouraged to sponsor a mission in some place where the Orthodox Church has not hitherto existed, in order that Saint John of ShangHai’s prediction will come true: that the end will not come until the Orthodox Church has preached to all the world.
We must make the Church truly local again and de-institutionalise it. We should look to the idea of very small dioceses, where the bishop is not forced to be a politician in order to become a bishop, or a corporate manager in order to manage the diocese. There should be no great cachet to the office of bishop and small dioceses where the bishop can personally know every priest and his family, as well as a lot of the laity, where he has the freedom to be guide and spiritual father to all those in his care.
This is the case in Greece where in a country the size of Scotland, there are eighty dioceses and there it works, the country bishops could in many cases literally walk around their dioceses.
I think that the de-institutionalising, the small dioceses, the outreach at parish and family level is the only way forward that will work. I am sure that may objections will be raised, but these have to be overcome if we seriously want the Church to preach the Gospel to all