Orthodox Christianity – an “FAQ” Fr Steven Platt of the Russian Orthodox parish of Annunciation in Oxford answers questions that often come up in discussions about Orthodoxy

Orthodox Christianity on a practical day-to-day level differs from even perhaps other kinds of Christianity in one essential way. In the Roman Catholic Church and to some extent in other Christian traditions the contemplative life is a life which people expect to be lived by the monks and the priests, the people who have dedicated the whole of their lives to God in an explicit way. Orthodoxy expects all of its people to live a contemplative life. For Orthodox the whole of life has to have an approach, which is centered on Christ.
admin | 02 December 2008

Source: An Orthodox Christian Journal for Doubting Thomases


Why is it so common for people to refer to orthodox Christianity (with a small ‘o’) and to Orthodoxy meaning two different things? Do people often get confused?

Yes. Small ‘o’ orthodoxy, when it refers to Christianity, refers to any Christianity, which is theologically orthodox, that is Christianity, which defends and proclaims traditionally orthodox non-heretical viewpoints.

In this context, orthodox Christianity with a small ‘o’ would not be restricted simply to one confession, the Orthodox church, but would refer to all Christians who proclaims the central doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the two natures of Christ, that is that Christ is both God and human being, and uphold the doctrines like the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection, the necessity of the Church, the sacraments and the Scriptures, this sort of things. So, in fact, it would be quite possible to be an evangelical, who is an orthodox Christian, or an angelical, a Roman Catholic, or whatever. There are Christians within all these confessions, who could safely be said to reflect an orthodox Christian viewpoint.

However, Orthodox Christianity, when ‘Orthodox’ has capital ‘O’ refers to what people in the West would call Eastern Orthodox Christianity, that is the tradition within Christianity held by the Orthodox churches, and that’s a totally different thing.

Do I get confused? No, not really, because I hope I am both an Orthodox and an orthodox with a small ‘o’. The origin of the term Orthodox describing Eastern Orthodox Christians comes from the time when the first divisions were being felt between Christians in the western part of the Church and in the East, both halves of the Christian Church, which sadly separated and fell into schism with one another, so that each considers itself to be One Holy Catholic and Apostolic. The western Church centered in Rome and Rome, being the seat of the papacy, describe themselves as being Catholic, because Catholic means ‘universal’ and the authority of the Pope, the bishop of Rome, is perceived to be universal, extending to the ends of the Earth… The Eastern Christians consider themselves to be ‘Orthodox’, that is proclaiming the truth, as ‘orthodox’ means ‘right faith’, ‘right belief’. It also means ‘right worship’, and in Russian it can have the connotations of ‘right glory’ as well, Православие. For the Christians in the East the term reflects the fact that they consider themselves to hold fast to the traditional teaching of the Church, without innovation or change, to that which has been decided and proclaimed by the whole undivided Church.

The Greek origin of the actual word orthodoxy has two roots, meaning ‘right’, ‘correct’ and ‘glory’. But δοξα can also relate to the words for teaching, from which we have dogma, and can be ‘right worship’ as well.

What are Orthodox Christians, and why do you hear so little of them?

This is a good question, because there is a paradox here: the Orthodox Church believes itself to be the fullness of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and yet in the West, until comparatively recently, very few people would have heard of the Orthodox Church. At best, the Orthodox Church is understood as a collection of people, whose priests wear black robes and funny hats.

But Orthodoxy is much more than this. Orthodox Christians are those Christians who belong to the Orthodox Church, which historically speaking has descended from the part of the Christian Church that lay in the Eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, and in those nations which were evangelized from there. So, the Orthodox Church is made up of a collection of local Orthodox Churches, found in countries like Greece, the modern Turkey, the Middle East, the Holy Land, Cyprus, and Slav countries: Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. Also, there are local Orthodox Churches in other parts of the world – thanks to missions to those countries, there is an Orthodox Church in Japan, in China, although much persecuted, and in America there are Orthodox Christians because during the time that Alaska belonged to the Russian Empire missionaries crossed over the Bering Strait and preached to the Aleuts in Alaska.

And, finally, there are Orthodox Christians throughout parts of the Western world. These are people who have either arrived there, or descended from people who arrived there, as a result of emigration following a revolution or war, or, and this is increasingly the case, people who have converted to the Orthodox Church from somewhere or nowhere else. In the West, people hear very little of the Orthodox Church because the Orthodox Church, in the western countries in particular, still accounts for a very small minority of the population; here in Britain it is less than one percent of the population. So, it is very much a minority. Recent events have meant that more people from Russia and the Eastern Europe, and more people from Greece and Cyprus, have come in to Britain, and this has increased the number of people, who would regard themselves as being Orthodox.

What is the place of Orthodoxy among other Christian Churches?

The Orthodox Church, as I said a moment ago, regards itself as the fullness of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Creed, which all Christians who come from a traditional basis proclaim, says “I believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”. The Church should be One, that is undivided, Holy, that means sacred and coming from God, Catholic – universal, extending to the whole world – and Apostolic, in other words, the Church has to descend directly from the Apostles. Christ, during His time on Earth, commissioned Apostles, his disciples and others, to preach the Gospel to the whole world, and from the early stages it became important for the Church to see itself as a direct continuity from the apostolic mission of the first disciples. If we look at the bishops of the Church, we can trace their lineage back to the Apostles directly, this is known as apostolic succession, because the Apostles ordained bishops, who in turn consecrated their own successors, and this is the apostolic line of succession.

The Orthodox Church regards itself as the fullness of the Christian Church, and this raises the question of what it thinks of other Christian Churches. Here you would find different responses from different Orthodox thinkers. Some would think it impossible for grace to operate outside the confines of the Orthodox Church at all. Others take a more moderate line and say that within Orthodoxy the fullness of grace resides, or subsists, but in other Christian Churches there is to a greater or a lesser extent a measure of grace imparted. There is a difference in ecclesiology, a difference in thinking about the Church amongst the different Christian confessions.

The Roman Catholic Church holds a very similar point of view to the Orthodox. In other words, both regard themselves as being the fullness of the Church, and those outside as being less a part of the Church. Other Christian traditions, for instance the Anglican Communion, regard themselves as being a part of the universal Church, which is divided and in need of unity.

For the Orthodox, the fact that Christians are divided is a great scandal, as much as it is to anybody else, but also for the Orthodox to consider the Church to be divided in itself doesn’t make sense. Those, who are not part of the Church, are not so because they have at some time or another fallen away from the fullness of the Church. So, Christian unity can only be achieved through those, who have fallen away, to become reunited to the fullness of the Church. I don’t want this to sound pompous or bombastic because Orthodox, whilst possessing the fullness of the faith, often don’t proclaim it very well. And very often other Christians do much more with what they have than many Orthodox do with the riches of what they have.

Do you have to be Russian or Greek to be Orthodox?

Another good question, because particularly in Britain, when one is described as being Orthodox, the assumption very often is that the person speaking is an orthodox Jew, and unless one qualifies it by saying “I am a Russian Orthodox” or “Greek Orthodox” people often don’t know what you are talking about. Of course, you don’t need to be Russian or Greek to be Orthodox any more than you need to be Roman to be a Catholic, but these words attached to ‘Orthodox’ imply the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and spiritual origin of the particular tradition of Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, or for that matter the Serbian, Romanian or whatever other Orthodox Church, are all, each, local Orthodox Churches belonging to the one worldwide Orthodox Church. They are distinct in their national, cultural and linguistic tradition, but they all share the same faith, share the same sacraments and teaching, and they are all united in this. So, in fact one can talk of being Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox and being Russian or Greek Orthodox at the same time. But, technically speaking, one cannot be a Russian Orthodox and a Greek Orthodox at the same time. I am an Englishman, but I am a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sometimes for me it seems a little strange to describe myself as Russian Orthodox because people then ask me the question: well, are you Russian then? The answer is no, but my spiritual tradition and heritage are that of the Russian Orthodox tradition.

Why belong to any church at all? Why is it not enough to follow the Bible and the Commandments? Christ gave two Commandments: to love Him and our neighbours, why need anything else?

Well, we must ask ourselves the question: what did the early Christians do? Because the early Christians did not possess a Bible. The Bible as we know it now didn’t come into existence until after several centuries of the existence of the Church did already pass. The Scriptures, in a rather amorphous form, of course existed, but there was no agreement as to a canon of those books, which made up the Bible. Some people sometimes tend to think that the Bible fell out of Heaven as a bound volume one day, and this is not the case.

The Bible, the Scriptures are important, they are central to the tradition, but they, and all the other aspects of the tradition, are the property of the Church, not the other way round. Church came first, and the Scriptures don’t mean anything unless they are interpreted within the tradition of the Church. This is, for an Orthodox, one of the great paradoxes of the Evangelical Christianity. Within the protestant tradition authority comes solely from the Scriptures, and yet if you were to ask the question of a protestant Evangelical, how may the Scriptures be interpreted, the answer will very often come “well, this is a matter of the individual conscience”. In other words, there is no authority there – because the Scriptures may mean anything to anybody in terms of how they are interpreted. So, Scripture divorced from the tradition of the Church doesn’t make sense.

Why belong to any church at all? In the Old Testament, God gave the Ten Commandments on the Mount Sinai, but He didn’t just give them to Moses as an individual person. He gave them to the people of Israel, the community. And the people of Israel here is a foreshadowing of the Church, that is the people of God. And in the New Testament we regard the people of God to be the whole Christian Church, the λαος, from which we get the words laity, the people of God. So, the Commandments, the Scriptures, all have a communal aspect. We are not saved as individuals; we are saved together with the rest of the Church.

And here again we have two approaches to God, because as Christians we believe that each and every one of us has a distinct personal relationship with God, but at the same time we as Christians are members of the Body of the Church, we each have a part to play in the Church, each one of us is of unique significance and importance to God, but as part of His mystical Body. So the Church is important, it is clearly something that Christ envisages in the Gospel. He commissions His Apostles to go out and preach the Gospel, He prays to God the Father that His followers may all be one, as He and the Father are one. So, Christ doesn’t envisage His message simply go out to individual people, but envisages them all being gathered together into one Body that is the Church. So, it’s not enough to follow the Bible and the Commandments, because it is impossible to do this by oneself outside of the context of the Church.

Christ gave two Commandments, to love Him and our neighbours, why do we need anything else? In loving our neighbours, and in loving Christ, in loving God, we see foreshadowed a need to relate to other people. Christians believe in God as a Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so the heart of the Christian belief is a concept of God that isn’t isolated, isn’t withdrawn simply from the whole of creation, but is a community of person in direct communion with one another, so human beings need to reflect on this.

Can one be Orthodox and Buddhist at the same time? This question might, I think, interest people interested in what we call Eastern religions, as many Buddhists (this will also apply to Hinduism) would hold that Buddhist practices and Christianity are perfectly compatible.

Orthodoxy and Buddhism are two radically different belief systems. Christianity has at its heart a belief in a personal God, involved in creation, loving His creation, and it is a belief in a creation that will, although it is fallen, be restored to communion with God. Buddhism, on the other hand, as far as I can see, as I am not at all an expert on Buddhism, as the ultimate goal of its belief system an entering into a state of nothingness, Nirvana.

I suppose the question is then how does one interpret Nirvana and also the degree of exclusivity that one is looking at. Orthodoxy is by nature exclusive, Orthodox Christianity makes exclusive claims to its position, it doesn’t regard all faith systems as equal, doesn’t say that it’s just as valid to be a Christian as it is to be a Jew, a Muslim, or, for that matter, a Buddhist etc.

Having said which, an Orthodox can see, learn from and admire many different things both in individual Buddhist personalities and Buddhist Scriptures, and it is clear that there are points of contact all the way along. Sometimes one is looking at the same sort of ideas expressed in different language and this is not a problem. What is more a problem is that sometimes the language looks very similar and the ideas expressed are actually radically different. So one needs to be very careful.

In all cases, I think it is very important that Orthodox Christians, and Christians in general for that matter, learn more and know more of other world faiths, because it’s not possible to argue one’s position in relation to another world faith from a position of ignorance; one needs to learn, to understand, and to relate to the other and to see that what does lie at the heart of both Christianity. Buddhism and other world faiths is what seems to me to be the intrinsic human quality of a longing for God, a longing for the divine, longing for the other, and that our physical nature is simply not all that is there. Now, the approach to what lies elsewhere is quite different at times, but this is something that we can start from.

What does it mean to be Orthodox on the day-to-day basis?

Orthodox Christianity on a practical day-to-day level differs from even perhaps other kinds of Christianity in one essential way. In the Roman Catholic Church and to some extent in other Christian traditions the contemplative life is a life which people expect to be lived by the monks and the priests, the people who have dedicated the whole of their lives to God in an explicit way. Orthodoxy expects all of its people to live a contemplative life. For Orthodox the whole of life has to have an approach, which is centered on Christ.

And this is reflected in the way that we live our life. Just as I mentioned a little earlier (this part of the interview was published on the website separately as an article called “Why do we need icons?”) about the sanctification of our bodies through the Incarnation of God, the sanctification of matter expressed in the sacraments, so the way that we live our life is important. There is a tendency in the contemporary society to compartmentalise things, to categorise things, to put them into boxes, and this can extend sometimes into the way people lead their life of faith. People come to church on Sundays, or whenever they come to church, and then they go back into their ordinary life and lead it just as they were doing before.

This comes across when people, talking about spiritual matters, or their own, so to speak, progress in spiritual matters, refer to their ‘spiritual life’. For Orthodox there is no such a things as a spiritual life because all life is spiritual, one cannot distinguish between one’s spiritual life and one’s normal everyday life.

And this is reflected in the way that we lead our life, in our relationships with other people, in our prayer and in things like fasting as well. For Orthodox Christians the approach to God is an affair of the whole person, the body as well as the mind and the soul. So our approach comes not only in what we think but also in what we do. Fasting is very important. By fasting I mean that for a certain period (for example, the period of forty days or so leading up to Easter) we abstain from certain kinds of food, from any food that comes from animals, so we eat no meat, no dairy products, we also have very little in the way of alcohol or oil to cook our food in, and this is not because any of these things are bad – no, they are all good and all part of God’s creation, but our fasting is a way to remove from ourselves all the things that aren’t absolutely essential so that we can spend more of our time focused on God, so that we can purify our bodies and cleanse our minds at the same time.

Of course, fasting by itself doesn’t do much good; it has to be accompanied by prayer and an inner change. This inner change is called in Greek μετανια or μετανοια, it means repentance and for Orthodox the way that we live our lives has to be characterised by a move towards a path of repentance, of changing our lives, of moving back towards God. Our normal human condition is to lead lives that are self-centred, if we want to lead Christian lives, we have to change this and turn back and lead a life that is Christ-centred.

And this is an approach to life quite different from the rest of the society, so Christianity in general, and Orthodox Christianity in particular, is always going to believe in a kind of life, which would be largely incomprehensible to most people in the contemporary society. So what it means to be Orthodox on the day-to-day basis is, I think St Paul says, to be in this world, but not of this world. We as Orthodox are not in a position to shut ourselves into a kind of ghetto, tempting though it may be, very tempting, to surround oneself with people thinking and doing all the same things, and it gives one a sense of security and a sense of community.

But Christ tells us to go and make disciples of all the nations, so to lead our lives as Orthodox on the day-to-day basis means constantly to be engaged in an act of mission, of making Christ known to those in the whole world. That does not mean by going and setting up stalls and giving out leaflets and pamphlets on the street corners about how Orthodox Christianity is the best, although this may be one approach that one could use. But it means by living lives, which are so clear, so radiant, that people come to know Christ through us and through our example.

I already talked (see the separate article called “Why do we need icons?”) about icons and their significance; their significance is realised in us, so that we become like icons of Christ that people can see through us, see through to the Divinity Himself. One of the hymns, which are sung at the funeral service in the Orthodox Church has the words: “I am an image of Thine ineffable glory, even though I bear the scars of sins.” Each and every one of us human beings is made in God’s image, and that image is distorted since we are fallen creatures. But even though it’s distorted, even though we are like icons covered with soot, or scratched, or flaking, it is disfigured, we can potentially become the means through which people can come to see Christ. So being Orthodox on a day-to-day basis means being constantly engaged both in a contemplative life of prayer, of physical discipline, of works of mercy towards people, but also to be engaged in the role of missionaries, as evangelists, as apostles sent to preach the Good News to the whole of the world.

What does my Orthodoxy mean for my family life, my work etc.?

Here I think we can find an answer in the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist. The Eucharist, when in the Divine Liturgy Christ makes Himself available to us through the use of bread and wine, and we believe that, when consecrated, these become His Body and Blood, Christ makes Himself available to us in the gifts of the Eucharist, but not to keep Him to ourselves greedily and jealously, but to take Him out into the world. So, the Liturgy, the Eucharist, becomes fulfilled in the way that we live our life in the world.

And this has a dramatic impact on our family life, our life of work and so on. It means that we have to live out our Eucharistic experience with our family, our friends, with those that we love and those that we find more difficult to love, in our work. It means that the whole of life is sanctified. For Orthodox Christians God’s presence among us means that our faith, work, personhood, all of these things are sanctified.

We might describe certain world faiths as being pantheistic, in other words each thing has its own deity. Some animist faiths would see each river, each stone, each tree, each mountain as possessing its own deity. Orthodox Christianity isn’t pantheistic, but it is panentheistic: in other words, for us God is in everything. In one of our most well-known prayers we pray to the Holy Spirit: “the Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, come and abide in us.” So, if we really believe that God being present everywhere and filling all things, we have to live a life which reflects that, to see our life as the continuation of the sanctification that we receive sacramentally in the Eucharist.

How can I be Orthodox if I can’t go to church? And if I can only go very rarely, when should I?

Yes, here there is a difference between not being able to go to church and not wanting to go to church. Very often one hears the question: “why is it necessary for me to go to church? I can pray at home.” And here I would refer the person to the answer that I gave earlier about the nature of the Church. Our relationship with God isn’t simply an individualistic thing; it’s a communal things, a corporal thing as well.

But sometimes we might be in a position where we are not able to go to church for one reason or another: our family obligations, our health, our work schedule might make it difficult for us. And in a sense that’s not the most important thing. It’s quite possible to belong to the Church, to be a member of the Body of Christ without always being in church. Although, one needs to be careful about this. It is quite interesting that, according to the canon law of the Orthodox Church, if somebody doesn’t come to church at least every three weeks, they become excommunicated. In other words, they excommunicate themselves through withdrawing themselves from the membership in the Body of Christ.

In contemporary Roman Catholicism, of course, it’s obligatory for Catholics to come to church on Sundays and on Holy Days of Obligation. So, there, for Catholics, belonging to the Church is expressed in the presence in the midst of the worshipping community at the Eucharist.

At the same time, we might consider someone like St Mary of Egypt, the great ascetic, saint, who, after having lived a very sinful life, she being a prostitute from the age of 12 years, had a conversion experience during a visit to Jerusalem, which lead her to live the rest of her life in total and utter seclusion in the Egyptian desert. St Mary of Egypt went to church, as far as we can see, once in her life, when she had this conversion experience, and after that, and after many years of ascetic struggles in the desert, she received Communion once in her life. And I think that we can learn a lot from her example, because her life was totally focused on Christ, it was totally within the context of life in the Church, and yet it was utterly removed from everybody else, because for her the focus was on prayer and repentance. Her Eucharistic unity with the rest of the Church was focused on this one Communion made once in her life.

And so, this relates to the question “if I can only go very rarely, when should I?” This, in turn, relates to the question about receiving Communion. There is a tendency within the Orthodox Church today towards a much more frequent reception of Communion than it has been traditional for at least several centuries. And one must welcome this, because receiving Communion only very rarely is not an accurate reflection of Christ’s intention at the Last Supper, when He says to His Apostles: “unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you have no life in you”. At the same time, these days one frequently sees people come to Communion just because it’s part of the service. And one would wish to see people come to Communion with perhaps more great attention to their preparation, along the lines of St Mary of Egypt for example.

So, in answer to the question “If I can only go to church very rarely, when should I?” perhaps the answer should be “when it is a culmination of the whole of my life in the present moment, and when I can prepare…” If I can only come very rarely to church, then it should be to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church, through Confession, Communion, and one should be prepared for this. One should never come to church as a spectator. Church services aren’t a dramatic performance to be watched like an opera or a ballet, they are an activity of the whole worshipping community of the church. It is not allowed in the Orthodox tradition for a priest to say the prayers of the Liturgy by himself; there has to be at least one another person there. And this canon law reflects the fact that the liturgical worship of the Church is the act of the whole community.

So, when I come to church, when I stand in church, even if I don’t say anything, even if I don’t join the choir in singing the hymns of the Liturgy, my participation is vital, I am as much a part of what is going on as the priest at the altar. The priest is not there to do the work for me. I’m there to be part of the Body of Christ, a member performing whatever function Christ has given to me.

And of course it must be said that if one is not able to come to church very often, there is another church, that is the church of the home. And this is very important, something that is forgotten by some people. For us as Orthodox, our homes are like a little reflection of the church. Each home should have an icon corner, where it is possible to pray, either by oneself if one lives alone, or together as a family or as a community. When a new home is blessed, the priest blesses it by sprinkling it with Holy Water, but also by anointing the walls of the home with blessed oil. And in some ways it reminds us of the blessing of the church, which is anointed with chrism, the holy oil consecrated by the heads of each local Orthodox Church. In other words, it reminds us of Baptism and Chrismation. So, the home, again, is a sacred space, a place, where it is especially possible to encounter God. One can encounter God anywhere, but home is very important and one’s life of prayer can go on at home as an extension of one’s life of prayer in church. So, our own life of prayer at home should have a liturgical dimension to it. Prayers which follow set forms are important in this respect, although of course we can, and should, pray in our own words, but prayer which follows the pattern of prayer in church is important in providing an explicit link with the worshipping life of the Church.

What if I live in a non-Orthodox family?

This can be difficult, and I, for example, grew up in a non-Orthodox family myself. I became Orthodox when I was sixteen years old, I have wanted to become Orthodox since the time, when I was about eleven or twelve years old, and my parents were unhappy for this to be the case, so they made me wait. And living as an Orthodox in a non-Orthodox family (in my case my family were believers, Catholics, and are Catholics) is quite difficult.

Certain things, which pertain to our discipline of life, are difficult for a non-Orthodox to understand, and complicated. I was constantly causing difficulties by my dietary requirements when I was fasting and had to modify my own fasting in order not to become too much of a nuisance or a burden to my family. The fact that I had icons in my room, admittedly I had rather a lot of them, frightened some of my brother’s friends when they came to our house and one of them even refused to sleep in my room because all these faces were staring at him.

And one’s life of prayer can be difficult, because the people in one’s own family are people that perhaps one loves the most and at the same time are people that one irritates the most, who can’t understand where one is coming from. I remember my mother was constantly telling me rather sarcastically: “it’s alright, you are simply on a higher plane than we are, you don’t need to explain yourself.” She didn’t mean it of course… I think that one thing that can be very helpful for an Orthodox living in a non-Orthodox family is to find support elsewhere, to find Orthodox friends to meet, share one’s burdens with, talk with, and who one can pray with together, and who can pray for one, and who one can pray for. This is very important. Another thing that is very important is to have good spiritual guidance. And here I would say that the role of the spiritual father is very important and the spiritual father ought to be somebody with enough experience or at least sympathy and understanding with the situation of the person he is leading.

What if I’m married to a non-Orthodox or an atheist?

Here again is a very difficult situation. And here there is a difference between situations where one of the couple is an Orthodox and the other is a Christian of a different type, and situations where one person is Orthodox and the other has no faith whatsoever. Because in marriages where there are two different Christian traditions are represented at least the basic principles are there and are the same and at least the marriage is entered into with both partners realising that there are not just two people in the marriage but three, God being the third.

In a marriage where one person is a believer and the other doesn’t believe anything at all one cannot accept that this is going to be the guiding principle. So, the Orthodox person who marries an unbeliever, from the outset, takes on the great burden of the other person’s lack of faith and take on the burden, in a sense, of having to do the believing for that person. And this might sound strange, but if the Orthodox person is prepared to take this on, and has the strength to do so, this can result in great spiritual growth on the part of the partner, who was not a believer.

Of course, this is a difficult area, and it should be said that, as far as the Church is concerned, there is no possibility of marriage in church between a believer and a non-believer. Marriage is a sacrament, so both partners who are getting married have to be baptized. Different Orthodox churches will have different positions regarding marriage between an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox Christian. In some places, it’s not permitted for an Orthodox Christian to marry a non-Orthodox. In other places, particularly in America and Western Europe, where there are many Christian traditions represented, such a marriage is permitted.

The question of marriage between a believer and a non-believer also raises an issue of faith. Why is it that some believe and other people don’t believe? Many of us believe because our parents believed and have transmitted their faith to us, so we were brought up in a family environment, where faith was central. In my case, for instance, the faith of my parents isn’t exactly the same as the faith that I have. More and more, it’s the case that one can’t assume that families believe anything, so one should ask the question, why is it that someone is brought up and doesn’t believe: it’s not their fault if they’ve never been taught.

And one has to understand also that faith is a gift from God, and God doesn’t give the same gifts to all people. Faith is a gift which also comes according to different measures. Some people have a very great, very deep, and very profound faith. Other people might have a faith, which is more lacking, more superficial… It is my own personal opinion that it is not wise to make somebody become Orthodox superficially so that they can marry an Orthodox person. Of course, in an ideal world, I would not recommend marriage between somebody who believes and somebody who doesn’t believe. But we don’t live in an ideal world and sometimes the feeling that comes when two people fall is love is greater than anything else, and one should be guided by each individual case separately.

I can perhaps illustrate this best by giving two examples, both of which involve marriages between Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox Christians of greater or lesser degrees of personal faith. In one case it was a Greek man marrying an English girl. The Greek man’s family couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he was marrying a non-Orthodox protestant girl. So, she was basically made Orthodox in order to marry him by being chrismated, and was simply explained that “well, it’s part of our tradition, you have a bit of oil put on you and then you’re Orthodox, and there you are.” Nothing was explained about what it meant to belong to the Church, or no instruction was given whatever. And the faith never went very deeply, of course, into this person’s life, and the marriage in the end had too little to keep it going and after some years the couple divorced. This is one example.

There is another example, one of a couple that I know, where the wife was Orthodox, and had been brought up as Orthodox in France, was, and is, a person of quite deep faith, and her husband had been brought up as an Anglican with a good and quite deep Christian Anglican faith. She did not want to impose her Orthodoxy on her husband, and he saw no need to become Orthodox because he was quite satisfied with his Anglican faith. They married and had several children, and over the years, through living together, the Anglican husband came to see the way his wife lived as an Orthodox, and it made such a deep impression on him, and in particular the way she prayed with the children, that one day he simply said “I think it’s about time I became Orthodox too, because this would make the most sense, and because this is just an approach to God, which I don’t have and which I want.” So, this woman became Christ-like, to an extent, in her marriage, so that her husband had seen something in her approach to God that he didn’t have in his already deep religious faith. So, living together in marriages is at once a situation which provides difficulties and a situation which provides opportunities for the Orthodox who is married to a non-Orthodox, or even an atheist.

If I am baptized in a different Church and want to be Orthodox, does it mean I have to be re-baptized?

Different people will tell you different things. There have been various answers to this question through the centuries and in different places and various practices occur today. In some places, non-Orthodox Christians who want to become Orthodox are baptized again. They are baptized because within the Orthodox tradition baptism has to be performed by triple immersion, in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And sometimes, when there is a doubt as to whether the initial baptism was performed properly, the baptism is performed again. It’s not called a conditional baptism, but it conforms in some ways to conditional baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, where if there is some doubt as to whether the person was baptized, the person is baptized again.

We have to remember that for all Christians baptism is a sacrament that can only be given once. So really, it is not a question of re-baptism, it is only a question as to whether the original baptism was valid. One would find that on Mount Athos and in some parts of Russia and Serbia receiving non-Orthodox Christians into the Orthodox Church by baptism is widespread. On the other hand, it is more usual to receive people in the Orthodox Church, who have previously been members of other Christian denominations, by Chrismation, which corresponds more or less to confirmation in the Western Church. The baptism, which has been conferred on them in the former tradition must have been Trinitarian, that is performed in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Chrismation is seen to be making up for anything that was lacking in the original baptism, and validating it. This is in fact the pattern of reception into the Orthodox Church, which is used most commonly here in Britain when somebody joins the Orthodox Church from another Christian confession.

In fact, reception of an adult into the Orthodox Church involves three different stages: first if all, it involves Confession and renunciation of one’s former life; it involves Baptism, if Baptism is bestowed, or Chrismation, and finally, it is made whole through the sacrament of the Holy Communion, which unites the newly received person with the rest of the Church. Occasionally, people are received into the Orthodox Church simply by Confession and Communion. It is a practice, which occurred in Russia during parts of the 20th century, particularly amongst those people, who have previously been Catholic, either Latin or Greek Catholics. But to do so is to make a statement of one’s understanding of the ecclesiology of the other Church, which many don’t feel prepared to make. So, the usual form of receiving a non-Orthodox Christian into the Orthodox Church is by Confession, Chrismation and Communion.

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