Meeting a Non-Orthodox Society

Source: Jacob's Well
This article was originally presented by Metropolitan Anthony at "Our Orthodox Presence in Great Britain," a Conference of the Diocese of Sourozh held in Headington, England (1995) and published subsequently by The Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh, 1996.


Twelve Apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit went out into the world. They were accompanied or surrounded by a small group of disciples, in all seventy men and women. And they converted the world, not immediately, but they started a wave of understanding, of knowledge, of newness of life, that made the whole world different from what it had been for thousands of years before. There are now millions of Christians of different denominations and yet, because of us, Christians, Christianity seems to become increasingly irrelevant.

There is a vast society which lives, acts, thinks, creates in a world that has nothing seemingly to do with the Gospel. I said seemingly, because it is not totally true. The principles on which even godless societies are built very often have Christian roots. Christianity has brought into the world a notion that did not exist in antiquity: the absolute, final value of the person, of every single being. In the past there were masters and slaves; now there are human beings, men, women, children, unique – and each of us, even though we may not always know it, has an absolute value and significance in the eyes of God, and even through that in the eyes of society. And yet, somehow we have become irrelevant. I am not challenging you, I am not criticizing the Church, but I think there are a certain number of things which we should consider, reflect on and see where we stand with regard to them.

Missionaries and Pilgrims

The first generation of Christians, the Apostles, the disciples and those who were converted by them, were on a pilgrimage. It was not a sedentary society; the first Christians were people who moved from place to place bring to others the unutterable joy of a new life in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, those who settled in one place were not an introverted society, a society locked in upon itself, but a society of people who looked outward for the lost sheep of the kingdom of God. This is something which we have lost. All the Churches, in one way or another, have had missions. But what is striking is that far too often the missionaries went out into the world with a sense of offensive, insulting, arrogant superiority. They went into the world in order to give what they possessed without realising that they possessed nothing, that all they could do was to follow St. Paul when seeing the vastness, the incredible difficulty of his mission turned to God for strength and the Lord said to him: “my grace suffices unto thee; my strength deploys itself in thy weakness.” And the minute group of believers, of Christians, who went into the world following Christ’s command “go, and bring the Gospel to all nations” — they knew that they were frail, defenceless, and that they could not count on any strength except that of God. St. Paul said that he would glory in nothing but his weakness, so that everything that happened should be an act of God. This very often was not the attitude of Christian missionaries; the missionary movement in Christianity is not a movement of people who so live their neighbour with the love of God that they go out to the world ready to die that others may live, who go out into the world, with all the frailty that is theirs, knowing that they can do nothing, but God can do everything.

There is an episode in the life of St. Stephen of Perm, one of the early Russian missionaries. He discovered in the region of Perm pagan people with a language different from the language spoken by the Slavs, and therefore out of reach of the Gospel. He learned their language, and went out to the region of Perm, where he began to pray in their midst. The local shamans wanted to destroy him and they sent a group of armed men to kill him. They came back and the shaman said, “Is he dead?” “No”, they said, “we could not kill him; when we met him face to face, there was such love and openness in him that we knelt down and begged for his blessing.” That is mission.

On the other hand, in a contrast, let me remind you of a Western missionary who went to India and wrote to his superior in Spain, “send us priests, it doesn’t matter how bad they are; anything will do for these savages.” He had seen nothing of the depth, of the richness, of the beauty that was there. Any priest would do! That is something that we do not find in the Gospel. What some missionaries brought was not the Gospel, not the joy of a new life, not a meeting with living God. But what is remarkable, even unique in the preaching of the early missionaries, the Apostles, is what St. John says: “we speak of what our eyes have seen, our hands have touched, our ears have heard.” They speak of their experience. One may say, “they had been with Christ, they could speak of what they saw in Him”, but this is not the whole truth, becaus thousands of people met Christ on the roads of the Holy Land, but very few saw Him. Their eyes were blind. They saw an outer form, they heard strange, puzzling, challenging words, but not words that touched their inner core and made them into new beings. When Christ spoke of giving bread as His body, those around Him left Him and he turned to His disciples and said, “Do you want to leave me also?” and Peter said to Him, “Where should we go? Thou hast the word of eternal life.” And if you read the Gospel you will see that there is not one passage in the Gospel, in which the Lord describes eternal life. He indicates, here and there, by a word, this is the life of eternity, but He does not give the kind of imagery which we find in mystical literature. What the words of Peter mean is that whenever you speak, your words must hit at the very core of our being, like two stones struck together and bringing out a spark. When the core of our being is so affected, eternal life which is dormant in us blossoms out, flares up. This is what the Apostles did, what the early Christians did, because their experience had been a personal experience of meeting the living God face to face. I do not mean meeting Christ in the flesh, I mean that in their experience they knew God through Christ and through the illumined Apostles. When Paul spoke of God he was transfigured and there is an ancient manuscript, which says that when St. Paul was in repose, as it were simply himself, he was as ugly as a devil, but when he spoke of God, he shone with light like an angel of Heaven.

Fear Not

When the Apostles moved from place to place they did not simply change location; they went from place to place with the newness of life which they could impart to others. What about us? Do we impart anything to the people whom we meet, who are around us? What happens to us, to the Christian community, is that with the recognition of Christianity by Constantine and its later spread, the Christian community became secure and sedentary. And these two things are evils. Secure means that we do not realise how dangerous are the paths we tread, as one of the epistles tells us. We do not realise that we are not simply embarked in a ship that will carry us across the ocean of life into eternity. Every step is a challenge. Every step is a danger. Every step is a risk. At every moment evil is before us and God is with us. And we forget too often that the power of God is beyond all the power of evil. Hermas, one of the Seventy, says in one of his epistles, “remember, never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God.” So, this is an element which the Apostles could bring because in the pagan society in which they lived people were terrified of evil, of evil powers, of Satan. And the Apostles came and said, “fear not; Christ has conquered. The devil is defeated. If you are with Him, you are invincible.” That is not something we often hear today.

Martyrdom and Security

Today, people cling together and do not look outwards, they are afraid of living to the full, of going into the unknown, of meeting face to face those who will reject them, or endanger them. Bishop Basil [one of the other speakers at the Conference] has spoken of the baptism of blood. Yet, how far we are from it, and how often and easily we speak of it. The French preacher Bossuet says, “How comforting it is to hear that practically in every Church, priests preach on martyrdom. When martyrdom is here one does not speak of it, one endures it. If there is so much talk of martyrdom, it means that we feel secure. Alas.” We feel we are secure. But we are also sedentary in another way. We are encrusted in one place. We have formed Christian communities that are not outward looking. We have services and so many people feel that it is the services that are the centre; people come to a service on a Sunday and exclaim, “if only it was possible not to leave the precincts of this church, because outside there is an alien world’, and we forget that Christ said to us, “go, like sheep among the wolves, go into the world to make disciples of all nations.” This is as it were, the fruition of the Liturgy. If in the Liturgy we have entered into communion with the Holy Spirit and with Christ, then our function is to go out and to bring the glory, the joy, and the love of it to others. A mentality has developed us that we must be secure within the walls of the Church, within the limits of a Christian community. Going out is dangerous, that is exactly what we should be doing and we have forgotten it.

Monasticism and the Giving of One’s Life

It began very early in the Church, the moment we became Christians many things changed. The men and women who had been prepared to live to die for Christ were of another stature than the many who joined the Church because the Emperor had joined it. And having entered the Church, they wanted to be secure, but secure under what? Under God? No. Very often under the authority of the imperial power. And at this moment certain things happened: it was the beginning of monasticism. Men of a daring spirit left the cities and the comfort of a state Christianity to go into the wilderness to fight evil in themselves and the evil that was spreading around. Fr. George Florovsky insists on the fact that these people were not running away from a still pagan society; they were not running away from persecution. They were running away from a Christianity that had “lost its salt.” They were going away because the Christian community had become tasteless; it was no longer the heroic body it had been in the beginning. That is the beginning of monasticism, and has been the impetus for it throughout the ages. Even now this should be the attitude of anyone embracing the monastic life. We refuse to accept the anaemic, weak, irresponsible attitude of the sedentary community. We want to be alone with God, and together with God to go into all the situations that need His presence and the giving of our lives. When I speak of giving our lives I do not mean dying; at times, to live a long time in circumstances that are tragic or painful may be more important than to die at once. A Russian bishop, a hero of the years of Soviet persecution of the Church, often said that at times the duty of the believing Christian is to survive. Ever since Cain murdered Abel all the Cains of the world have been trying to murder all the Abels of the world, but the Abels of the world have a function to fulfill and we have learned to survive as long as necessary for this function to be fulfilled without compromise, but allowing God to chose the moment when we will be killed. And Abel was killed.

Fools for Christ

At other moments the fools for Christ’s sake appeared. They too rejected the secure sedentary approach. If you look at the history of the Byzantine Empire, or of Russia, you will discover that the fools for Christ’s sake appeared in numbers at a moment when the state, the empire began to assert its right to build a secure society. At that moment fools for Christ’s sake appeared who were an offence to everything that is security. They behaved like fools, while we all treasure our intellect. We want to be safe, to have our intellect working because the intellect cannot be destroyed, otherwise than together with our physical body. But they refused to behave in a socially acceptable manner because the state and the Church within the state proclaimed a certain behavior, a certain way of being and that was no longer acceptable.

Later, we find in Russia and in other countries pilgrims; people who wandered from one holy place to another, or spent long periods of time in the vastness of Russia to be uncompromisingly alone with God and to visit places where they could find a spark of the divine. These people rejected the security of a sedentary life, because it was a place of ultimate insecurity, because their only security, their only safety was God. And God is totally unsafe and insecure for us when we want to be supported, held, protected. They went into an adventure of ultimate and total risk.

Possessing and Being Possessed

You may ask, what can we do? We cannot become all pilgrims, or fools for Christ’s sake, however “foolish” we may be. It is not a question of what we possess. It is a question of our attitude to our possessions. Possession is a way of being possessed and you may be possessed even by a very small thing. And that is how all of us live to a greater or lesser extent. In the Gospel we find a passage of immense importance, the story of the king calling his closest friends to the bridal feast of his son. One refuses because he has bought five pairs of oxen, another one refuses because he has just got married himself. What does this amount to? It means that not only have I bought land, but I think I possess it. I am like a tree which cannot move from the place of rootedness. I have five pairs of oxen, that is, I have something to do in life, and, therefore, it is more important than anything, than friendship, than love, than generosity, than sacrifice. I must do my work. I have married someone, my heart is full, I have no space in my heart for anyone else’s joy. And who are the invited? The king sends his servants to bring in the beggars, the lost people who are called to come into the king’s presence and they come with a feeling of fear and trembling; “we, in our rags, we, who live a life of thieving and begging and low morality, how can we enter into the presence of our king?” At the door they are met by the angels of God who say to the, “come, we will change your clothes, we will bathe your bodies, we will comb your hair and you will then come worthily into the presence of the king.” Only one refuses, saying: “I was invited to eat, not to bathe, not to be pampered; I want my food.” And that one is expelled. This is very often our attitude. We have bought a plot of land, we have oxen, we have attachment, we cannot give our lives to anything that is beyond us and our enslavement. That does not mean that we cannot be free. The question is are you attached or not? There is a difference between love and attachment. You may be the slave of a relationship, but you may be free within it.


This process has gone deeper into the Church, because our liturgical forms have also been penetrated by the effect of our relationship with the state. Our Orthodox Liturgy is deeply influenced by the court ceremonial of Byzantium. In the early Church there was a variety of forms. In Byzantium it had to become worthy of the Emperor and of his court. And so, it was structured in such a way that it could coincide with the forms familiar to the imperial court. The result was the magnificent Liturgy that we possess. But it is a mistake to imagine that this is the only form, because in the early centuries there were a number of liturgies that belonged to the same undivided Christian Church. There was the Liturgy of Rome, of St. Gregory Dialogos, there was the Liturgy of St. Ambrose of Milan, there was the Liturgy of Lyons, there was the Arabic Liturgy, there was the St. Germain Liturgy in Paris and a number of others. They were all basically identical because each of them had the same identical core. But they were different in form, in expression and they corresponded to a freedom which very often we have lost, a freedom which corresponded both to the culture of a place and the social context. We must learn to pray within the Liturgy, to receive from all our services all the richness it can give, but not to be slaves of it.

Tradition as Living Memory

I would not like to say a word about the meaning of tradition. Whenever someone dares to suggest the slightest change in the ways of the Church he is accused of breaking with tradition. And here it is important for us to treasure tradition, but also to understand it rightly and not to become prisoners and slaves of false tradition. Tradition is something that is handed down to us from the very beginning, from one generation to the other. But what is handed down to us is the substance and the meaning and not the form. A Russian bishop in the early years of the emigration wrote that it was not permissible to celebrate in a western language because most heresies were born in the West, forgetting that there were enough heretics in Byzantium and elsewhere! If tradition is understood in that sense you become its prisoner. Tradition is the living memory of the Church. We all have a memory but more often than not, too often, we forget our past. The Church does not. The Church has an eternal, unshakeable memory. But memory does not mean that nothing new can enter into our experience. But this memory does not force us backward at every step. It is an experience that has gradually grown into new and further experience rooted in God and inspired by the Holy Spirit. What the Church does is to look at every step of its development and its life for what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ.” To listen to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is always young, always new, always modern. It does not tell us to live as we lived in the twelfth century. In a discussion with a group of Russian bishops on the ordination of women, the senior bishop articulated the following conclusion: “I have no answer on this matter, but it has not happened in the past and therefore it should never happen in the future.” Whether it should happen or not is another matter. But that is not a reason. Tradition is the living memory of almost two thousand years of Christianity, living and kept alive by the action and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and made solid, unshakeable by the word and the person of Christ. Traditionalism is what a Roman Catholic theologian in America has described as the dead memory which is kept by the living. [Editor’s note: here Metropolitan Anthony is probably referring to quote attributed to the Lutheran scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan.] Memories of thing which do not exit anymore in reality but which are kept, totally useless, but nonetheless treasured. This is heresy. This denies the fact that the Church is alive. St. Hermas speaks in his first visitor of meeting a woman of extreme beauty with the face of a virgin and with white hair. He says to her, “Who are you?” and she answers, “I am the Church.” “How is it that you are so young? You have existed for so long.” She replies, “I have the youth of eternity.” “But why then have you got white hair?” And the answer came: “Because I have the hair of wisdom.” And this is what the Church should be — the Church not a vague, amorphous concept. You, I, we. That is the Church. And we should have the youth of the newly born into eternity and possess the wisdom of the centuries before us and even more the wisdom of God that stretches into eternity.

Leadership and Service

A few words on the structure of the Church. The structure of the Church has resulted from copying the structures of the imperial state, which is strictly hierarchical. But according to Fr. Sophrony, the state is a pyramid standing on its base, whereas the Church is a pyramid standing on its point. And this point is not a man, not a hierarch, not a council of bishops. That point is the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can be the head, the supreme point of the Church, and then, layer after layer of the people who exercise Christ’s own diakonia, carry on their shoulders all the weight of the pyramid. If we speak of hierarchy, we must remember Christ’s words,”I am in your midst like the servant” and those of us who wish to be in Christ must learn to be servants and nothing else. But historically a hierarchy of power has developed: a hierarchy that can command not because what is said is convincing, but because what is said can be enforced. If in the Church we are simply a hierarchy of power because we have different titles and ranks, that is a negation of the very substance and life of the Church. We know how often saints “of no account” were guides for people who were far above them hierarchically or socially. In the Church power must be replaced by service, by diakonia, and as long as we continue to believe in the power of the hierarchy and not in the diakonia of the hierarchy, we are not a Church according to the Gospel.

That means that we have to reconsider completely the situation of the laity, the clergy and episcopate. First of all, deacons appeared some time after Christ’s Ascension. They were not ordained by Christ. They were appointed by the disciples, by the Apostles, for a specific function. They do not belong to the original Gospel which we read. Then came the presbyters who took over from the Apostles, then came a seniority of grace and of function. So, it is not out of the Gospel that the hierarchy of the Church sprang. The Church knew only one thing. To be the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the continuation throughout history of the Incarnation and of the voice of the Spirit teaching us to proclaim what Christ has taught us. It is the people of god, as we find in the Epistle, “a royal priesthood”, who must make sacred everything they touch, who can sanctify all things by sanctifying themselves first, and then bring into sanctity everything they touch and do, until God can become “all in all.” St. Basil reminds us that “anyone can rule, but only a king can give his life for his subjects”, and each of us in that respect is endowed with the kingship of Christ, that is with His command to die for our neighbour and for the salvation of the world. So, this is the laity, the total body of Christ and within it there are ministries, but within it. It is very important to remember that we are all lay people and bishops are laymen with episcopal grace. We claim to be members of the Body of Christ, and if we are members of it in a singular way, is to the extent to which we give our lives to others.

Freedom, Obedience, and Faith

A final few words on freedom and faith. We do not know very often what freedom means because we have been taught far too often about the virtue of obedience. Obedience is understood too often in the Church as enslavement, as being submissive, as being ready to be commanded and to obey. But that is not freedom. True obedience is very different. bedience comes from listening and hearing and obedience on very level is a school of hearing, not a school of doing what one is told. It is a way of learning from someone who has more experience, something that will allow us to outgrow our own experience and by learning to renounce our own self-will, our own prejudices, our own narrow-mindedness, to expand to the measure of the one who teaches us; we must learn gradually to become capable of listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit within us. And when we read the Gospel, we must hear not only its words and commandments, but the voice of truth reaching us and transforming and transfiguring us. Freedom then ceases to be the opposite of obedience. The word freedom comes from a Sanskrit word priyia, which in its verbal form means to love and to be loved, and as a noun, means “my beloved.” Freedom is a relationship of mutual love; of the gift of self to another, in readiness to listen with all our mind, all our heart, all our being, and to love with all our mind, all our heart and all our being. And if that is true, then it must reach out into life, in a way of living, because far too often we imagine that we are Christina or Orthodox because we proclaim a certain number of truths which were defined by the councils or by ‘superior authority’ (in very inverted commas). In reality we must learn to receive all that we are given from the past, receive it with newness of heart and mind, with a faith that expresses itself in every way. Faith is defined as the certainty of things unseen, but faith is also faithfulness and faith is also a way of living.

The Right to Say We are Orthodox

And so, if we live up to the Gospel with all our courage, with all our energy (and when we have no energy and no courage we turn to God and say, “Lord fill my weakness with your strength; replace my cowardice with your courage; replace my sloth with your indomitable energy”), then and only then have we the right to say that we are Orthodox. And I will conclude with the words of Pastor Visser Hooft, the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches, who said: “one can be a heretic even while proclaiming every article of the Creed if we give the lie to one or all of them by the way in which we live. One can be a heretic by denying the truth, by not living according to the truth.”

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