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Orthodox & Roman Catholic Reunion redux

3 June 2017

Every so often some or other Roman Catholic publication carries an article about reunion with the Orthodox, and notes that the differences between us are very small, and lamenting that the Orthodox don’t seem to be very enthusiastic about it.

Here’s another in the genre — Orthodox not interested in reunion with Rome | National Catholic Reporter:

When it comes to theology, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches are very close. We accept the same Nicene Creed, we recognize each other’s priestly and episcopal ordinations, as well as the sacraments of baptism, confession and Eucharist. Catholic and Orthodox teaching on morals are also quite compatible, with both being more conservative than their Protestant colleagues.

The touchy issue has always been the role of the papacy, but Pope John Paul II invited a worldwide dialogue on this topic, showing that the Vatican is open to a less intrusive role for the pope in the Eastern churches than in the West. There were even attempts to resurrect the title of patriarch of the West for the bishop of Rome, in order to distinguish his robust role in the Western church from his role in the East.

Rome is very much interested in improved relations with the Orthodox. It is deferential to Orthodox feelings.

But if it were truly deferential to Orthodox feelings, it would take them more seriously, and not condescendingly brush them off and minimise them. That’s not deference, that’s arrogance.

Like most RC publications and sources, this one tends to downplay differences, and reduce them to “the Papacy”. If one is to take the possibility of reunion seriously, then there must be honesty in facing the differences, and saying how they are to be dealt with. And in this, the RCs are far more evasive than the Orthodox.

We don’t, for example, accept the same “Nicene Creed”.

Surely the editors and writers of a Catholic publication ought to know that, and not pretend that it is not so.

Yes, “The Papacy” is a problem, and the RC pontifical ecclesiology differs from the Orthodox episcopal ecclesiology. But have they thought through the implications of reunion?

To give just one example — if there is reunion, will all RC bishops and clergy in Africa place themselves under the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa instead of under the Pope of Rome? If not, why not? And if not, how real would the “reunion” be?

I suspect that they might object to that, and might feel that it was a bit like the tail wagging the dog, even if you did lop off the bits of Africa that traditionally were under Rome (the Maghreb). And even if you did that, it would still be like the tail wagging the dog in what remained. And the Orthodox might not be so happy at being the tail, and might think it better to be a dog, albeit a smaller dog, than to be a bigger dog’s tail.

Pope Theodoros II. Pope Francis I, Pope Tawhedros II, Patriarch Bartholomew

Or to use another metaphor, the toothpaste has been out of the tube for well-nigh a thousand years, and by now has been trampled all over the floor and into the carpets. Getting it back now will be a lot more difficult than when it was freshly squeezed.

The biggest obstacle to reunion is the attitude of the writers of articles like this one, who think it is “deference” to refuse to take Orthodox objections seriously and try to sweep them all under the carpet of “The Papacy”. I wrote about this seven years ago, and I don’t think much has changed since then.

If there is to be any serious talk of reunion then the differences must be faced, and talked through, and sorted out first, and pretending that the differences don’t exist, as this article does, does not augur well for even thinking about such discussions.

You can’t begin to discuss differences when one party doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know that such differences even exist.

We can be friendly with Roman Catholics, and talk with them about all sorts of things. We can work with them for peace and justice in the world. But we can’t talk about reunion, not yet. They aren’t ready for it.


100 must-read books about Christianity

30 May 2017

Someone posted this list of 100 must-read books about Christianity. I had a look at the list, and most of the titles I had never heard of, much less read. I had only heard of about 8-9 of them, and had read about 4 or 5. So what makes them “must-read”?

100 Must-Read Books About Christianity:

According to Pew Research, Christianity is the world’s largest religious group, so it’s worth knowing something about it, whether you’re a Christian or not. And if you’re interested in learning more about the Christian faith, there’s no lack of books out there. It’s hard to know where to start! I’m here to help with enough recommendations to keep you reading for a long time.

So I thought there really needs to be a better list

As an Orthodox Christian, I also thought that it was a bit inadequate that there were only two books by Orthodox Christians on the list. Not that such a list should be composed entirely of Orthodox books, but there should be more than were included on that list.

So if I were compiling a list of such books for someone who knew little or nothing about Christianity, what would I include?

My starting point would be The Lion Handbook of the History of Christianity as the best introduction for someone who wanted to get the big picture, an idea of how Christianity has developed and spread and changed over the centuries.

After that it should be possible for the reader to decide which strands to follow next.

The original list was divided into various categories, and I haven’t done that, and I suppose most of my recommendations would fall into the categories of theology and history.

I can’t think of 100 books, but here are some I think should be included, which were not on the other list:

Anderson, Allan. 2014. An Introduction to Pentecostalism. 
               Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
               ISBN: 978-1-107-66094-6

Bowden, John. 2007. A Chronology of World Christianity. London: 
               ISBN: 978-0-8264-9633-1

Dalrymple, William. 1997. From the Holy Mountain: a journey in
               the shadow of Byzantium. London: Flamingo.
               ISBN: 0-00-654774-5
                   A travel writer follows in the footsteps of St
                   John Moschos, who described his own journey
                   through the Christian Near and Middle East in
                   AD 578, over 14 centuries earlier, shortly
                   before much of it was conquered by the Muslim
                   Arabs. For most of those 14 centuries, the
                   Christian communities have survived, if
                   somewhat precariously. Now, in the 20th
                   century, they are in danger of disappearing
                   altogether, as they face the greatest threat
                   to their survival in 20 centuries.

Hopko, Thomas. 1981. The Orthodox Faith: Volume 1 - Doctrine. New
               York: Department of Christian Education.
               ISBN: 0-86642-036-3

Hopko, Thomas. 1984. The Orthodox Faith: Volume 4 - Spirituality.
               New York: Department of Christian Education.

Hopko, Thomas. 1997. The Orthodox Faith: Volume 2 - Worship. New
               York: Department of Christian Education.
               ISBN: 0-86642-012-6

Hopko, Thomas. 1998. The Orthodox Faith: Volume 3 - Bible and
               church history. New York: Department of Christian

Huddleston, Trevor. 1971. Naught for your comfort. London: 
                   The death of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston in
                   April 1998 was the prompt for re-reading his
                   book after 40 years. Huddleston was a
                   missionary priest of the Community of the
                   Resurrection who ministered in Sophiatown, a
                   black township near the centre of
                   Johannesburg, whose inhabitants were forcibly
                   removed in the name of apartheid.

Hughes, Philip. 1976 [1924] A history of the church to the eve of
               the Reformation. London: Seed & Ward.
               ISBN: 0-7220-7663-0
                   History of the church from a Roman Catholic
                   point of view 

Jones, Alexander (ed) 1974. The Jerusalem Bible. London: Darton,
               Longman & Todd.

Schmemann, Alexander. 1973. For the life of the world: sacraments
               and orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's
               Seminary Press.
               ISBN: 0-913836-08-7
               Dewey: 264.019 SCHM
                   Orthodox sacramental and mission theology.

Schmemann, Alexander. 1977. The historical road of Eastern
               Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary
               ISBN: 0-913836-47-8
               Dewey: 281.9
                   Theological reflection on the history of the
                   Orthodox Church.

Ware, Timothy. 1986. The Orthodox Church. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
               ISBN: 0-14-020592-6
                   A general introduction to Orthodox Church
                   history and teaching and the current state of
                   the Orthodox churches.

If you can suggest any others that you think ought to be on such a list, please add them in the comments.

Requiem for Evensong

29 May 2017

Most Sundays on our way from church we listen to the radio (SAFm) in the car, and we usually catch the last part of that annoying opinionated man on Facts of Faith, and the first half of the broadcast Sunday service. Sometimes it was from our “home” parish of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johasnnesburg, but the last time they tried it to record it there there was too much interference from the transmitters at the Brixton broadcasting tower.

If we miss the announcement, we try to guess which church it is, but usually they all sound the same, with twanging guitars drowning out the words of rather sentimental “worship” songs, followed by a sermon.

But last Sunday was something completely different — Anglican Evensong from St George’s Church, Parktown, I think. At the beginning they announced that it was from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It sounded a bit odd to have Evensong in the morning, And even odder to have it from the 1662 Prayer Book. I’ve been to St George’s a few times, though many years ago, and they used the somewhat revised South African Prayerbook, then.

All that is by way of introduction to this article, which I think is a classic, a must read for anyone interested in church history — A Church that Was by Peter Hitchens | Articles | First Things:

English Protestantism, with its secret enjoyment of the chilly, the grim, and the frugal, was killed in fifteen years by supermarkets and TV commercials, fake Italian restaurants, cheap holidays in Spain. The Church’s loveliest and most accessible service, Evensong, was killed off in many parishes because, in the days before VCRs, worshippers preferred to watch a dramatization of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga on TV.

If that rings any bells with you, go on and read the rest of the article. I think it’s not just true of England, but in some ways of South Africa too. Missiologists often speak of inculturation, the way in which Christianity becomes indigenous to a culture. What this article explains, however, is more like disinculturation.

It reminded me of 1973, when I was invited by the Revd Arnold Hirst to be assistant priest at St Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in Durban North. I agreed, and on my first Sunday in the parish there were 200 people at Evensong. Well, not actually Evensong; back then it was something called Office II, but it was in the evening, and people came. Arnold Hirst was a bit scornful about two neighbouring parishes, Greenwood Park and Umhlanga. The former had dropped Evensong, and the latter, a new parish, hadn’t started it.

In 1975 the SABC began television broadcasts, and at the beginning of 1976 the full service was due to start. The Rector suggested that we drop Evensong (which by then was Evening Prayer from Liturgy 1975), because, he said, no one will come. He had a point. The average attendance on Sunday evenings was down to about 40, and full TV broadcasts hadn’t even started yet. We suspected that part of the reason was that he himself wanted to watch TV.

Evensong was stopped for a while, and then restarted, but by then only about 20-25 people were coming.

Then we became Orthodox, and we had Vespers, on Saturday evenings rather than Sundays, because the liturgical day begins at sunset the evening before. But many Orthodox parishes don’t have Vespers either. Some have Vespers and Matins combined, one following the other, in the Vigil service. Orthodox Vespers differs quite a lot from Anglican Evensong. It is always sung, and there is always incense, and there is never a sermon. I find it is a good thing to invite non-Orthodox friends to, to introduce them to Orthodox worship.

But this post is not about Orthodox Vespers, but about Anglican Evensong, and it seemed a bit strange to me that I should read this article the day after Anglican Evensong reappeared like a ghost from the past on the radio yesterday morning.

A few years ago in England there was Flash Evensong. People would call on cell phones and invite people to form a flash mob for evensong, or they would announce it on Twitter @FlashEvensong. But now it seems that even that has died. The last post there was in 2012.



Pro-life activists ostracised by anti-abortion and anti-war groups

27 May 2017

People talk about society being “polarised”, but it’s much worse than that. “Polarised” suggests that there are only two poles, but when pro-life activists are rejected by both anti-abortion and anti-war groups, then it’s not polarisation but fragmentation.

Consider these two posts (and apologies for citing Patheos, but that’s where I found them). In the first, pro-life activists are rejected by the anti-war movement because they are opposed to abortion: Can you be pro-life and anti-war? In Pittsburgh, apparently not.:

On Tuesday, a “Consistent Life Ethic” group was booted from sponsorship of the Pittsburgh March Against War after Facebook complaints against their pro-life stance.

Rehumanize International, previously Life Matters Journal, is a group that opposes all violence against human beings, including abortion, war, euthanasia, torture, capital punishment and human sex trafficking.

They were invited to co-sponsor the Pittsburgh March Against War, set to take place this summer, and were then removed from sponsorship after a vote of the other co-sponsors, following several complaints on the event’s Facebook page.

And here, pro-life activists are rejected by the anti-abortion movement because they are anti-war: Abortion: the Most Important Moral Issue Ever….Except for When it’s Not:

New Pro Life activists and writers have received accusatory messages demanding to know whether we are a “Podesta plant” or perhaps receiving Soros money to infiltrate the pro-life movement with insidious messages of social justice.

The message is clear: abortion is the worst evil. Stopping it is the top priority. The absolute necessity that we choose life for the unborn renders all other issues null and void, for now.

It seems that if you want to get on in this world, you have to want to kill somebody.

As a song from long ago put it, It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack (sung by Four Jacks and a Jill). People talk a lot about the importance of inclusion and the virtue of inclusiveness, but all we see is more and more exclusion. You can’t take part in an anti-war march, because you’re anti-abortion. You can’t take part in an anti-abortion march, because you’re anti-war.

People who are pro-life are not welcome in the US Democratic Party. This is something new, except, perhaps, for Communist parties, where everyone is expected to toe the party line in everything (this is what is called being “politically correct”). But for the most part, few people agree with every policy of the political parties that they support and vote for. Sometimes they even disagree with most of the policies, but vote for a party because they dislike another party’s policies even more. They choose the lesser of two evils. Demanding absolute toe-the-line political correctness seems to be aimed at promoting more polarisation, or more fragmentation.

But then, you see, these pro-life activists are extremists, and you know how bad extremists are. They want an end to all violence against human beings. And at the opposite extreme you have suicide bombers who not only kill other people but themselves as well.

The world does not like extremists. Whether they are extremely violent or extremely nonviolent, they are ostracised. The world wants moderates, people who are moderately violent or moderately nonviolent. You can march and say that you don’t want to kill some people, as long as you will also say that there are some whom you are willing to kill.

US Supreme Court removes ‘buffer zone’ keeping pro-life protesters at distance from abortion clinics | The Independent:

In 2009, Dr George Tiller, who performed abortions, was shot in a church in Wichita, Kansas, and in 1994, a gunman killed two receptionists and wounded five employees and volunteers at two clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts.

It’s OK to believe that people have a right to life, as long as you recognise that some people don’t have a right to life. Moderates have one great advantage over extremists — they can have their cake and eat it.


A blue afternoon (book review)

20 May 2017

Blue AfternoonBlue Afternoon by William Boyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read with some odd flaws, and I learnt quite a lot that I didn’t know before.

Kay Fischer, a Los Angeles architect, is accosted by a man who claims to be her father. When things go wrong in her architecture practice she allows herself to be persuaded to travel with him to Europe in search of a lost love. He was originally from the Philippines, and so much of the story takes place there.

I suppose one thing that appealed to me about it is that it was a family history mystery, with elements of a whodunit police-procedural mystery as well, and partly a love story, and partly a historical novel including the history of surgery, powered flight, police procedures and the Philippino-American War.

I knew a little of the first two (surgery and powered flight) but nothing of the Philippino-American War or the Spanish-American War which preceded it. For years and years I have heard how the British were inventors of concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer War, but in this book I discovered that the Americans used them too in the contemporary Philippino-American War, and that the American atrocities in the Philippines matched those of the Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen in the Second World War. In that sense it was quite an educational read as well.

There were also some niggling errors, perhaps because I’m still a language pedant. I would expect an American architect from Los Angeles to use American English terms, but she uses terms that sound unlikely: she speaks of luggage, not baggage; sweets, not candy; trams, not streetcars, and on one occasion uses lift rather than elevator. And the pioneering aircraft, dubbed by its builder an “aeromobile” for want of a better term is called a “plane” a couple of sentences later, which sounds rather incongruous.

But all-in-all it’s a very good read.

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Unburdening the Captors

19 May 2017

Yesterday the South African Council of Churches (SACC) held a press conference to release the report of its “Unburdening Panel”.

Unburdening, Uncapturing: SACC and SACP take leadership while ANC dithers | Daily Maverick:

,,,for the first time since the height of apartheid, the church is intervening to take on “a government that has lost its moral legitimacy”. The SACP, meanwhile, is convening “progressive forces” in the country for a national imbizo that could set the agenda for the big political conferences coming up…

The heads of all the churches that are members of the SACC have agreed to issue a pastoral letter across all congregations about the report on the Unburdening Panel. This will guide preaching, discussions and prayer in churches across South Africa. It is an unprecedented move in post-apartheid South Africa and it is happening now because the church leaders believe that government has lost its “moral barometer”.

This could be a “game changer”, as journalists like to say.

The last time I saw such a game-changer instigated by Christians in Southern Africa was in 1971, when the leaders of the Lutheran Churches in Namibia issued a pastoral letter to be read in all their churches saying that they agreed with the World Court that South Africa’s rule over Namibia was illegitimate and illegal. The South African government were gobsmacked.

For years the South African government had been saying to other denominations, like Anglicans, Methodists and Roman Catholics, “Why can’t you be like the Lutherans? They aren’t political, they just get on with preaching the gospel.” That it came from such an unexpected quarter and also that the Lutheran churches together were the biggest in South West Africa (as the South African government liked to call Namibia in those days) caused them to sit up and take notice. The Prime Minister of South Africa, Balthazar Johannes Vorster, travelled to Namibia for a special meeting with Lutheran leaders, and tried to cow them with the bombast he usually used with recalcitrant church leaders, and it didn’t work. They stood up to him and answered him right back.

And it made a difference.

The World Court decision, and the Lutheran endorsement of it, suddenly made black people walk tall in the streets of Windhoek. The National Party idol, like Nebuchadnezzar’s, did not need to be worshipped any more. In fact it had feet of clay. Even later back-tracking by Bishop Leonhardt Auala of the Evangelical Lutheran OvamboKavango Church could not stop the momentum for change.

We didn’t have TV back in those days, but the SACC conference yesterday was broadcast live on eNCA, and you can see it here.

Ten years ago there was a movement for Moral Regeneration in South Africa. It was government sponsored and government initiated and the man who was put in charge of it was Jacob Zuma, who about that time was described by a High Court as having a “generally corrupt” relationship with a businessman who was jailed for fraud, but released around the time that Jacob Zuma became president.

There were attempts made to get civil society to buy into this Moral Regeneration thing, based on ubuntu, but the most they seemed to achieve were to produce a list of shared moral values that were so vague as to be meaningless, and again, after Jacob Zuma became president, we heard no more of moral regeneration. I’ve said more about moral regeneration and ubuntu here and here.

This Unburdening Panel set up by the SACC seems to be a step in the direction of a real moral regeneration, rather than the phony government-initiated one. It was pointed out that it is pastoral, not inquisitorial. To judge from the questions asked by the media, it seems that it is difficult for the media to understand this. As someone once put it, the media just don’t “get” religion.

They kept asking questions to try to get the church leaders to say that Jacob Zuma was corrupt.

But such questions are, quite literally, satanic.

The word “satan” means “accuser” or “prosecutor”, and the journalists’ questions were aimed at getting church leaders not merely to accuse Zuma, but to judge him and find him guilty. And that is a satanic temptation, the temptation to judge and condemn. Jesus said “Judge not that ye be not judged.”

SACC Unburdening Panel

The SACC leaders resisted the temptation. The most that they would say was that the jury is still out, and they might have added that they are not the jury. The purpose was not to investigate, much less to prosecute. The purpose was pastoral, to help those who were troubled in their conscience to unburden themselves.

But while Christian leaders should not be accusers of their brethren (Rev 12:10) they should give pastoral care to those who are troubled in conscience, and point out what kinds of behaviour are sinful and need repentance, and in the course of this unburdening a lot of corrupt behaviour has been revealed. Church leaders should not be pointing fingers to say who is wrong, but they can and should say what is wrong. It is the behaviour rather than persons, that is to be judged. And they have found plenty of evidence of bad behaviour in the highest circles of government.

For this to have any effect, for the promised pastoral letters to be sent out and actually read in churches, there needs to be a lot of awareness of what is happening, and so I’ll do what I usually try to avoid doing — ask people who read this to “like” and share it on Facebook, to tweet and retweet on Twitter and other social media (you’ll find buttons for doing this at the bottom of this post), and to do the same with other articles you find on the subject, and if you have a blog, write about it and link to other articles, including this one, if you like.

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The Chapel of the Thorn

11 May 2017

The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic PoemThe Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem by Charles Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An early play by Charles Williams, long thought to have been lost, and edited and prepared for publication by Sørina Higgins, who has also written a comprehensive introduction. There is also a preface by Grevel Lundop who has written a biography of Charles Williams, Charles Williams:the Third Inkling.

I began reading it two years ago, and began with the introductory material, which I think was a mistake. The book was mislaid in a reorganisation of our bookshelves, and so when I rediscovered it I began again, but this time reading the play itself, and saving the commentary for afterwards. And I’m glad I did, because the play speaks for itself, and it is perhaps better to read it without too many preconceptions.

It is set in an unnamed country, which has recently been evangelised by Christian missionaries, but pagan ideas have not been forgotten. The action of the play takes place at a crossroads, in front of a chapel which has a relic of a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. Beyond the chapel is a cliff, and below the cliff can be heard the waves breaking.

The crossroads is also symbolic of the four social groups or forces represented in the play. One road leads to a new monastery, whose abbot and prior want the relic for the monastery. Another leads to a seaside village, whose parish church the chapel is. They earn their living by fishing and farming, and find life hard. The villagers are also aware that the chapel is the burial place of their semi-divine folk hero, Druhild. Two roads lead to the capital, the secular city, the seat of secular power. One road is rough and winding and follows the coast, the other is smooth and direct.

The priest of the chapel wants to keep the relic there, but the abbot of the monastery enlists the secular power of the king to help him seize it. The villagers are in two minds, and at one point are inclined to support Joachim, the local priest. The drama plays out between characters representing these four forces..

The play was written about 1912, and only published a century later, I don’t know if it has been performed since it was published, but it would be quite easy to perform, or could even be done as a simple play reading.

The explanatory material (which takes up more space than the play itself) is useful. Sørina Higgins compares it with Charles William’s other work, and gives information on his personal background, which is useful in helping to understand the play, though I don’t always agree with her conclusions. I’ve noted some of these disagreements in a comment below. I haven’t included it here in the main body of the post because it may contain spoilers.

Because of its setting, in a place where Christian missionaries were still active, and people were between Christianity and paganism, I found it useful as a missiologist, and if I were teaching missiology to live students (most of my previous teaching was by distance education) I might incorporate a reading of it in my course, as it raises many missiological issues, and could provoke useful discussions.

I might ad that more than 50 years ago our church youth group wanted to have a play reading, and I asked a monk if he could recommend a play, and he recommended The House of the Octopus, one of Charles Williams’s later plays. I suspect that if The Chapel of the Thorn had not been “lost” at that time, he might have recommended that instead.


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