Saturday, 16 January 2010

Impact of Eastern Orthodoxy on Western Christianity

A lecture given at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, January 2010

This is a vast topic. So there will be a long introduction, and then I am going to focus in on three specific areas: the Trinity, Worship and the liturgy, and the Jesus prayer.

Some introductory comments

1. I am speaking as someone rooted within the Western Christian tradition.

I was brought up and nurtured within the Anglican evangelical tradition. That is where my roots are. I am not an Orthodox (with a capital O) Christian, but I would claim to be orthodox!

Based on my experience of Orthodoxy – living in an Orthodox seminary in St Petersburg and subsequent visits to the city taking groups from the Diocese of London, involvement for short while with Anglican – Russian Orthodox liaison group before it collapsed after a particularly disastrous visit to Moscow, some study, retreats at Tolleshunt Knights

So I am going to focus on how Eastern Orthodoxy has impacted our Western way of thinking, and obviously our way of thinking about God. I do not consider myself an expert and much of what I will say will be personal.

2. What I say will be gross simplification. It is simply too easy to put things into boxes, and to say that Eastern Christianity thinks this, and Western Christianity thinks that.

People who write on this subject often do this:

Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) writes “It cannot be denied that Orthodoxy, not as the universal Church but as Eastern Christianity, wears an aspect which is less 'of this world' than that of the Christianity of the West. The West is more practical, the East more contemplative: Eastern Christianity considers as its first apostle the beloved disciple whom Christ from the cross gave as son to his Mother, the apostle of love. Western Christianity is especially filled with the spirit of the two princes of the apostles: Peter (Catholicism) and Paul (Protestantism). John wished to rest on the Master's breast, while Peter asked if two swords were enough and concerned himself with the organization of the Church. This explains the contemplative character of monastic life in the East. Here monasticism does not show the variety and shades evident in Catholic religious orders. Contemplation in the West is proper only to certain orders; in the East it is the characteristic trait of all monastic life” (A Bulgakov Anthology, ed. James Pain and Nicolas Zernov, SPCK, p131)

[He likens Western Christianity to Martha. Eastern to Mary]

It is of course much messier than that: we share so much in common – One Lord, one Spirit, the scriptures, 1000 years of church history - but by putting thinking into the two boxes, it does help us clarify differences – and it does help us to learn from each other.

3. We need to learn from each other

I am passionate about this. There is so much that we can learn from the East, and that they can learn from us.

The previous Pope, John Paul II, spoke of the need to breathe with both our Western and our Eastern lungs. He was in fact taking an analogy that Bulgakov used, when he spoke of how our loyalty to a particular tradition can be like breathing with one lung and thinking that we are breathing fully.

But we need both lungs.

And of course much of what I have learned from Orthodoxy I could have found within our own Western tradition. It is just that sometimes we receive things from outsiders which we do not receive from those closest to us [pride and identity].

1. The impact of Eastern Orthodoxy on Western thought

It is often said that Eastern, Orthodox thought, follows Greek ways of thinking: focussing on the nature of reality, the ultimate, being – whilst the Western world, rooted in the Greek world, but educated through the Roman world and in Latin – is much more pragmatic, and emphasises doing.

John Zizioulas, the author of Being as Communion, argues that the greatest impact of Eastern Orthodoxy (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Cappadocians, Maximus – and specifically their Trinitarian emphasis) on Western thought has been to show us the importance of the person, of who we are in relationship to others, rather than what we are.

Putting this simply, the West has exalted the individual. Everything comes back to the individual. Even Augustine, writing long before the Renaissance and Enlightenment, in his understanding of the Trinity draws an analogy with the individual: Memory, understanding, will.

“For I remember that I have memory and understanding, and will; and I understand that I understand, and will, and remember; and I will that I will, and remember, and understand; and I remember together my whole memory, and understanding, and will… And, therefore, while all are mutually comprehended by each, and as wholes, each as a whole is equal to each as a whole, and each as a whole at the same time to all as wholes; and these three are one, one life, one mind, one essence.” (De Trinitate, X, 11, 18)

And Descartes, the father of modern Western thought, brings everything back to the individual: ‘I think therefore I am’.

The East, on the other hand, with its roots in Trinitarian theology, talks about persons, and defines a person in terms of their relationship to others. I am who I am in relationship with others.

Whereas our Western thought, with our pragmatic approach, wants to know ‘What is a person: what makes them tick, what is their biological and psychological make up, what do they do?’ – Eastern Orthodoxy wants to know the answer to the Who question? Who are they? Who are they in relationship with? To go back to Bulgakov’s quote, what is important is the question, ‘On whose breast do you lay your head?’

2. The theological impact of Eastern Orthodoxy on Western Christianity

Historically there has not been that much contact between East and West, since 1054 and the even more disastrous sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. There have been two worlds living next to each other, and a few people have made the journey across.

It has only been in the last century, with the Russian émigrés coming to the West that we have begun to become familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy. And today we have small but flourishing Orthodox communities in many cities and towns.

Recently some have looked at the Orthodox church as a possible home to move to from the Anglican church - although I have to say that even though Orthodoxy has an ecclesiology that is closer to an Anglican understanding than to a Roman understanding, the cultural gap is often too great to jump.

And ecumenically things have not been great. The high point was in the first decades after the Second World War (probably with the 1976 Moscow agreed statement). There was even talk of mutual recognition of orders. Since then, the way the Anglican Church has gone about deciding about the ordination of women, and subsequent issues relating to homosexuality, have meant that relationships have cooled down significantly.

But dialogue continues, and there has been some agreement about our understanding of episcopacy, conciliarity and the Trinity. It is significant that Common Worship now includes an authorised creed without the filioque.

And two of our recent Archbishops have been very influenced by Orthodoxy: Ramsey and Williams

At a popular level Orthodoxy has had some impact: although I have to say that it is rather a pick and mix attitude to orthodox prayers, icons and music [not really architecture – although maybe some of our great domes come from the East].

More profound level:
• our understanding of the Trinity;
• the theology of Icons and the Orthodox approach to matter;
• Ecclesiology and the idea of conciliarity – challenge to our individualism;
• the place of Mary and saints in Orthodox theology;
• The lives of many of the Eastern saints themselves – Starets Silouan, Seraphim of Sarov, St Ksenia of Petersburg;
• Eastern monasticism; the sayings of the Desert Fathers;
• Teachings on prayer (Philokalia; the late Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom] of Sourozh),
• Apophatic theology,
• the divine darkness – and the connection between mysticism, prayer and theology;
• vision of theosis and transfiguration;
• place of Easter and the resurrection.

And I would like to focus on three areas


The Western church has tended to separate God from the three persons. In our theology the unity of God is separate from the three persons. There is a God who is behind the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We have tended to turn the Trinity into a mathematical problem. And we have got into a mess. [Clip from Nuns on the Run (with apologies for language)]

For us in the West, the being of God, the nature of God, comes before the persons in God and the relationships in God.

And many of our Western dogmatic theologies begin with a chapter on the nature of God, on his power and eternity and unity and love and holiness and mercy – whereas when I look at say Vladimir Lossky’s The mystical theology of the Eastern Church I discover that the first chapter is about the Divine darkness; and Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Way is about God as mystery. In other words, they begin their theology by emphasising the fact that the what-ness, the essence, of God is unknown and un-knowable, but that we can still know God mystically, personally, we can still ‘lay our head on his breast’, we can still worship him.

It is interesting that the creed that we use in our communion service (and I quote from Common Worship) says, ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty’. The creed that is used by the Orthodox in the liturgy says, ‘I believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’.

The difference is a comma between God and Father.

And in Eastern Orthodoxy there is no doubt that the God in whom we believe is the Father – and that the Son and the Holy Spirit come from, and are included in that term the Father. In other words there is no God behind the Father.

It was Gregory of Nyssa who argued that the idea of relationship is part of the very being of God. You cannot call God Father without realizing that the reason he is Father is because there is a Son. You cannot separate the Son and the Holy Spirit from who the Father is. He writes, ‘All that the Father is, we see revealed in the Son; all that is the Son’s is the Father’s also; for the whole Son dwells in the Father, and he has the whole Father dwelling in himself .. one cannot think of the Son apart from the Father, nor divide the Spirit from the Son’.

Gregory of Nazianzus writes, ‘No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One When I think of any One of the Three, I think of Him as the whole, and my eyes are filled .. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light’.

That is why in Orthodoxy there are many more prayers addressed to the Trinity. For us in the West, we rarely pray to ‘the Trinity’ (apart from the blessing on Trinity Sunday!).

Morning prayer:
‘O Most Holy Trinity, have mercy on us.
O Lord, cleanse us from our sins.
O Master, pardon our iniquities.
O Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities
For your Name’s sake’

One of the climactic points of the liturgy (the Great Entrance) goes as follows: ‘Let us, the Cherubim mystically representing, and unto the Life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy chant intoning, all cares terrestrial now lay aside. That we may raise on high the King of all, like conqueror on shield and spears, by the Angelic Hosts invisibly up-borne. Alleluia’

But when the Trinity is addressed in the East, they hear, ‘Father, in whom is the Son and the Holy Spirit, and from whom came the Son and the Spirit’ or ‘Son of the Father in whom is the Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of the Father and the Son’.

The Orthodox understanding of the Trinity is best shown in the icon of the Trinity: three persons of the same age, with the same face, each wearing the royal blue and holding a royal sceptre, in a circle of communion. Behind the angel representing the Father is a house; behind the angel representing the Son is a tree (the tree of life; the cross); behind the angel representing the Spirit is the wilderness (the place of meeting with God). There is a movement of submission to the Father, and a movement of blessing from the Father. And the reverse perspective means that the person standing in front of this icon is invited into communion into the Trinity.

The Trinity is not a problem to be solved, an idea to be understood, but it is The Reality beyond, behind and above all reality, to which we pray

Eastern Orthodoxy reminds us that we are a Trinitarian church. It warns us against separating the persons of the Trinity. At an inter-faith level that might appear very attractive, but it is not orthodox.

Much modern theology tries to talk of faith in God, apart from faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Or we separate Jesus from God the Father and the Holy Spirit. We speak of him as someone who was lived 2000 years ago, an example, an inspiration. Alternatively we retreat into a private Jesus and me spirituality. In both cases we separate him from the Father and the Spirit. We forget that he is the Son of God (something that is totally alien to Orthodoxy: icons, Christ Pantocrater above you in church, standing in church for prayer – all remind us of the divinity of Christ)

And spirituality comes to mean contemplating a candle, meditation using a sound or single word, yoga, tai-chi, extra-sensory perception, faith healing, the para-normal. It is about values and being green and out-of-the-body experiences. I exaggerate, but in all of this there is the danger that we separate the Spirit from the Father and the Son.

The Spirit will always lead us back to communion with/prayer to the Father through the Son.

And so Synesius of Cyrene (373-414) wrote a prayer
(quoted by Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, p.42)
Hail, Father, source of the Son,
Son, the Father’s image;
Father, the ground where the Son stands,
Son the Father’s seal;
Father, the power of the Son,
Son, the Father’s beauty;
All-pure Spirit, bond between
The Father and the Son.
Send, O Christ, the Spirit, send
the Father to my soul;
Steep my dry heart in this dew,
The best of all thy gifts.

It is about relationship. Relationship within God, which reaches out and draws us into communion with God, and which includes us together in the Son.


This flows out of the emphasis on Trinity and relationship.

If relationship with the Trinity is at the heart of everything, is what everything is all about, then our worship and prayer is central.

Orthodoxy means ‘right worship’ or ‘right glory’ – and at the very centre of the life of the Eastern Orthodox church is the liturgy – the worship of the church.

There are two understandings of liturgy. There is liturgy and there is THE liturgy

1. Liturgy, for us, means a formal service. The liturgy is the order of service that you have in front of you, and in which you are told what to say. There are countless liturgies today. Some people like it; others find them very unhelpful.

2. The Orthodox understanding of THE liturgy is different. There is only one liturgy. It is THE liturgy: the set service of the church. The music may be different (Greek music is very different to Russian), and in some places some prayers may be added on at the end, but the liturgy is the set service.

And for the Orthodox the liturgy of the church is absolutely central. [Our experience with Diakonia in the seminary]

In 1919, The Communist authorities in Russia made a big mistake. They stamped down on everything that the church did: they proscribed evangelism, catechism within the home, Sunday school, social work. They nobbled priests – either by imprisoning or executing them (Fr Kyrill) or by totally compromising the hierarchy, and they closed church schools and they closed churches. The one thing that they did not proscribe – when they left a church open – was the service of the church, the liturgy.

They thought: It is in an archaic language; it is only being celebrated by old people and it is irrelevant to everyday life. It will die out.

But what happened was very different. 40 years later it had not died out, and they looked at the church and saw that it was still there and still full of old people – different old people. So they had another go. They reinforced the teaching of atheism in schools, they locked up and executed more priests and lay people; they closed a few more churches; but they still allowed the church to celebrate the liturgy.

They thought: It is in an archaic language; it is only being celebrated by old people and it is irrelevant to everyday life. It will die out.

30 years later, when Communism died out, they looked at the church and saw that it had not died out. It was still full of old people. And because it was still there – when it was given freedom, the church was able to flourish. And they first thing they did was to build churches so that they could celebrate the liturgy.

[Contrast with the churches that we saw in Scandinavia – doing wonderful social work, with large staff teams – but empty on Sunday. The heart had been taken out of them]

And when people meet together to worship God, to declare his praise and his story and his rule over creation,
and his coming kingdom, and to receive from him – even if there are only two or three of them, or if they are old, or even if few of them fully understand the language – there is a power.

And if I may get personal for a few moments, as a result of my connection with Orthodoxy

1. I have a growing conviction that worship is at the centre of all that we are and do.

Worship: the conscious turning to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, giving him praise, receiving from him. It is the first thing that we are called to do. Not evangelism, not social action, not education, not pastoral care, not music. Those things all flow out of worship (it was out of the ‘liturgy’ (Acts 13:2) that Paul and Silas were set aside for evangelistic work).

We need to rediscover this, particularly as we face our own pressures.

But worship and prayer is our breathing. It is our purpose and our joy. It is why we live and for what we exist: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, chosen that you might declare the praises of him who brought you out of darkness into his glorious light’. (1 Peter 2:10)

And today with declining resources, the church needs to choose where it is going to put those resources.

2. I am also convinced that the prayers of the Church matter.

My big discovery in Russia was the Church.

In our society we focus on the individual and ‘my’ personal relationship with God.

On one occasion in the seminary, some workers from Co-Mission were introduced to the Orthodox seminarians. Each of them introduced themselves and spoke of their personal relationship with God. But the question the Orthodox would put to them was not to question their personal relationship, but to question whether the God they professed to trust was in fact the God of the church, or whether it was some made up personal fantasy God.

And that is a real challenge to our increasingly individualistic society where I do what suits me now. In the virtual world I can shape the universe to suit me. We try to do that in the real world, although it is not quite so compliant. And we do it in church: we go to the church where the service suits me; we create services to suit us, to suit our time and our peculiarities. We are in danger of trying to create God in our image.

The fact that for the Orthodox there is one service, one liturgy, which has been passed down from generation to generation challenges us to remember that we are members of one body of people in Christ, that existed long before us.

I am reminded of that by the iconostasis.

The prayers that we pray have been prayed by the men and women who have gone before us, but who are also part of us – because we are part of the body of Christ with them.

And the liturgy shapes how we understand our connection with the past. It shapes the standard for the church, and it shapes our thinking. The liturgy gives us a pattern for praying and a pattern for thinking that is bigger than me and than us. Someone said to me, ‘If you have a problem praying one of the prayers of the church, then it is not the prayer that has to change, but you’.

And yes, as members of the church we need to be relevant to today, but we also must hold onto the fact that we are not the centre of the universe or the Church.

And at a personal level, I came across a number of prayers that have become very special for me.

Heavenly King
O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who is in all places and dwells in all the things, the treasury of blessing and the giver of life. Come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save, O gracious One, our souls. Amen

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

The great Canon of St Andrew the Great (read on Wednesday before Easter)
Lenten Triodian Page 378

Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life,
do not give to me the spirit of laziness, faintheartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.
But give to me Your servant the spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.
O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother or sister,
for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.

Easter Canon
Christ is risen from the dead! Death has destroyed death, and to those who were in the grave, Life has been given.

And although I come from a tradition that was suspicious of using other people’s prayers, I have come to really appreciate the prayers of the saints: I find it so difficult to pray. My passions get too mixed up; I become more confused about my motives or for praying for what I am praying. I am someone who finds intercessory prayer on my own difficult: I pray for someone and then the thoughts and emotions come rushing in. I can be overwhelmed. I do not know how to pray. So the liturgy and the prayers of the church become more and more important.

Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You.
You alone know what are my true needs.
You love me more than I myself know how to love.
Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me.
I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation.
I can only wait on You.
Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy.
Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up.
I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways.
I offer myself as a sacrifice to You.
I have no other desire than to seek to fulfil Your will.
Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen


“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”

Our introduction, via Tolleshunt Knights. The hesitation: ‘Are we not saved’ already? Didn’t know my bible references to salvation as a process (Acts 2:47; 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15)

Also introduction to The Way of a Pilgrim – the story of a man who is convicted on reading the command to ‘pray continually’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Learns to pray the Jesus Prayer

What is Jesus prayer? Nothing magic about the words. At its heart is nothing less and nothing more than the invocation of Jesus’ name.

Matthew 9:27 (two blind men) ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David’
Matthew 15:22 “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession”
Matthew 20:30 Two blind men: ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us’
Luke 18:13 ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’

There are four ways of praying this prayer

1. For a specific thing:
the blind man seeking sight. The prayer is prayed as a mean to an end
the woman who wants Jesus to heal her daughter (note how she asks mercy on her and then prays for her daughter. Why? Because she loves her daughter)

2. As a meditation:
Lord – surrender
Jesus – find it very hard to focus on this word: Luther spoke of the cross. Imagine that I am blind man calling out to Jesus. But it is the Jesus who I read about in the gospels, who died and rose from the dead
Christ – ties in with Old Testament, the promised one, the ruler of God’s world
Son of God – ties in with Trinity; shows us divinity; shows us to whom we are praying, what we are called to become. He is able to save us.
Have mercy on me – of course that can be for anything: for help in trouble, for someone in need, for a Godly sorrow, for wisdom to know what to pray, for true repentance, for a deeper love
(there is a danger that all of this is incredibly individualistic – but actually the person who has become like Christ is set free to love – they weep when others weep and they rejoice when others rejoice. Your burden becomes their burden)
A sinner – but this is the main reason we cry of mercy – because with the tax collector I am a broken, inadequate, weak, mortal sinner. I am unable to love. I am under the wrath of God.

‘They asked the Abbot Macarus, saying, ‘How ought we to pray?’ and the old man said, “There is no need of much speaking in prayer, but often stretch out thy hands and say, ‘Lord, as Thou wilt and as Thou knowest, have mercy upon me.’ But if there is war in thy soul, add, ‘help me’. And because He knoweth what we have need of, He showeth us His mercy.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p157]

3. As the bedrock of all prayer:
When we pray this prayer we can go no deeper: although we might use technique (breathing, prayer beads), it is about the abandonment of self and technique
This is the prayer that underlies all prayer
(Spike Milligan: 'Thank God the ground broke my fall’).
It is about resting on Jesus: you can drop no further.

4. As a way of going deeper into God
The prayer as a way of life, so that the prayer, the calling on Jesus, becomes closer to me than my breathing.

It is about going beyond words

Abandonment of thought – not because thought is wrong – but because God is beyond all human thought, and my salvation does not depend on right thought but on Jesus.
Abandonment of technique of prayer – because my salvation, in every sense of the word, does not depend on my prayer, but on Jesus
Self-forgetfulness in throwing ourselves on Jesus.
It is about entering the divine darkness, the stripping away of everything that we depend on, so that we might be transfigured, filled with the light of God.

There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]

And in this way, the Jesus prayer – prayed with the whole of the person in the one to whom we are calling to – does not become a means to an end – but it becomes the end in itself.

Why? Because salvation – in its fullest sense – begins with and ends with faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God. It is about becoming like the Son of God through communion in him, with the Father.

It is about laying our head on his breast.

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