July, in my job, is a moment of weightlessness, a liminal space and time of anti-gravity, while the existing students have not yet entirely left us, some grades outstanding, and the new students are just statistics in a spreadsheet, waiting to be met as vibrant and anxious individuals. It is this time of year where colleagues are on leave, and threads of some work are left undone, and new threads of others sit waiting to be dealt with. In these moments, bursts of creativity have allowed two journal papers to be written for the special edition of a new journal called Novation, dedicated to the field of innovation, of which social innovation is a Venn diagram segment. Two years ago, at this time, I completed by PhD and passed my viva, last year I was awarded my PhD and this year I was made an Associate Professor. It is a time for reflection, and writing, of considering who I am and how I want to be. July is a special month.
Whilst I was browsing LinkedIn and noticed that the academic Systems Thinking Interest Group have influenced the UK civil service with a handbook on systems analysis, my thoughts turned to what tribe I belong to. I have been developing my skills in systems thinking since the early 2000s but am mostly associated with the emerging field of social innovation, within which I have been exploring the critical question of what the ‘social’ is in social innovation. I trained in the early 90s as a geographer at a time when social geography was also asking itself a similar question.
Doing geographies of society means to investigate how humans, as individuals, live, work and have their being together, in lumps of humanity. The spaces and places in which social relations are expressed form the backdrop, as well as structure, perform and, in turn, is structured by their relations. Space is made into place by social relations.
In writing my biography for the Associate Professor post, I had to cram 30 years of practice into three pages. This highlighted to me the multiple tribes of thought which I inhabit. My PhD is an investigation into social innovation in public safety, so there is a lot of sociology and criminology in it especially focused on how humans relate (often negatively) to the built and performed environments of neighbourhood. It draws on my experience and the literature on community development, as well as a therapeutic technique called Motivational Interviewing, two threads of work that are expressed in my religious community and pastoral volunteering as well as in my approach to teaching in higher education. I have been involved in environmental issues, most importantly interested in sustainable development, which is how societies and organisations of humans relate to their ecological environment. I also use Systems Thinking as a way of structuring my thinking about how humans gather together into communities and organisations, how they as thinking, feeling and emoting actors relate to, structures and are structured by inanimate objects, as the new materialists have it, as well as the transcendental aspects of their being, as expressed in critical realism.
Social innovation is, it seems to me, to be an investigation into how social relations are formed, reformed, and structured by agents acting within other social relations and the objects that form a part of that environment. Social innovators reconfigure social relations through reconfiguring resources and meanings associated with those objects. Whether these reconfigurations are positive or negative, or to whom they are most positive is a separate question. Social innovation reconfigures socially structured agency.
This thinking brings me back to thinking about my tribes. I am at the same time an expert in social innovation, using soft systems methodology, as well as involved in sustainable development, and community development. I am interested in the spaces and places in which those social relations are made and remade. Ultimately, am I a Professor of Social Geography?
Is that it?
hopes and fears
sweat and tears
Is that all there is?
Years of larning
years of toil
years of burning
the midnight oil
Hundreds of us read
thousands of books
mostly vacant looks
Some found it hard
others did not
a few retired
with what they’d got
The rest carried on
to the ultimate end
a degree to don
a certificate to send
Our teachers, they struggled
in their thankless task
through intellectual rubble
to reveal the farce
Because that is it
Just hopes and fears
just sweat and tears
that is all there is
Boris Johnson emerged from 10 Downing Street yesterday (28 April) looking like had been duffed up. Leaning heavily on his podium outside the black painted door of Number 10 he proceeded to tell congratulate us, the NHS and the economy for surviving the first round of an unexpected mugging by a thug. But of course, this wasn’t unexpected, the government watched for weeks while China, and then Italy dealt with their outbreaks of the virus, and scientific, and indeed political, advice on planning for pandemics had been developed in 2006, 2011 and 2014. But Boris’ language, and that of the cabinet who have been keeping his government staggering along for the last couple of weeks, reeling under the onslaught of this thuggish mugging, is that of a sudden and unexpected attack, a blindsided mugging.
This is the language of white male privilege. The language of a man who doesn’t need to plan, who wanders into unsafe parts of a strange tourist town, slightly tipsy on the local booze, overconfident and brimming with machismo. He isn’t afraid, he owns the streets, and doesn’t expect to be mugged. He is the most powerful and privileged person he encounters as he stumbles around the cobbled back alleys, until he meets a local.
I am a white privileged male, and it has taken me decades to even begin to become aware of my privilege. It is so natural to me, it is even less obvious to me than the air around me. Wherever I go, I meet people of equal power who look like me, speak like me and act like me. When I walk into a meeting, correction, when I drop into an online meeting, the person chairing that meeting is most likely to look like me, speak like me, or even be me. If I’m allowed out for a walk I can walk around the streets with little to no fear of assault, even hidden behind my new ‘surgical burka’ I represent no threat to other white men like me, but other men who are not like me, who have different colour skin and eyes to me, who can’t access a surgical mask and have to wear a black scarf, they frighten me. I’m not female, so all the public spaces are open to me without fear of physical, verbal or sexual violence. If I were to be mugged, I would be surprised.
In the district I live, a multi-cultural, high crime, high violence part of town, it’s not unusual for men of colour to be involved in crime, violent altercations with one another. There are prostitutes and drug-dealers, but I’m white and privileged so I don’t really get to know about what happens to them at 3am in the park. There are women whose lives are hidden behind curtains and behind the veil, by choice and by oppression. When these people get mugged, and it happens very frequently, they are not surprised.
The language of war, thuggery and mugging may make sense of white privileged males in Cabinet office. It may give them a sense of machismo purpose, but it’s self-defeating because they are still essentially taming a incredibly complex problem. Over-simplifying a problem may make it easy to communicate to the public, but also betrays a lack of understanding. So far, only Jim Dickinson of WonkHE writing about the responses of the University sector to Covid-19 has managed to understand that this pandemic is what Russel Ackoff, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber identified in the 1970s as a ‘wicked problem’. This isn’t an isolated, unexpected mugging by a solitary thug in a back alley of a white privileged male who should have known better, but a socio-political situation that is affecting the most vulnerable in society the worst. It requires the skills and experiences of not just epidemiologists and mathematical models, but whole communities of social innovators.
This parable works like all parables. It’s for you to read into it what you think the author is saying. Comments below should focus on what you think is being said. ‘Let those with ears, hear’.
Eating Marmite is a disgusting behaviour. Imagine a world where this beastly substance, brewed from something that for hundreds of years was considered gross industrial waste, is banned. But you like it. No matter what others do to change your mind, you still like the taste of its sweet black bitterness. Friends turn themselves away from you in disgust. Family members try to dissuade you from finding small amounts of it to put on your toast. Close friends try aversion therapy by making your eat large amounts of it. They tempt you away by force feeding you a diet of brussel sprouts. You eat brussel sprouts, but don’t enjoy them. You need to eat them with roast potatoes, but you really would rather leave them on the side of the plate.
And then you discover that other people also like marmite, no matter how shunned they are by the rest of polite society. Some never eat it, fearing the harsh judgement of the people around them. Some try a little occasionally, opening a pot of it to smell it, or hiding it in their lentil chilli. Some go off the rails and gorge themselves on it secretly, ridden with guilt and shame. Others revel in the controversy of eating handfuls in public, the shock of their behaviour being a greater delight than even the marmite.
Over time, however, the social disgust of marmite wanes. A social movement grows to tackle the discrimination and hatred that marmite lovers experience. It gets to the point that marmite is even available in the shops, albeit on top shelves and on request. But a new shift in social values means that brussels sprouts becomes the new disgusting taste. Suddenly, brussel sprouts are left rotting in the street as shops throw out their excess stock. You find yourself liking brussel sprouts too. You didn’t before, but somehow, over the years you like marmite a little less, and brussel sprouts more. You are the same person, but the flavours that you can stomach have changed. You don’t like to eat all brussel sprouts, though. Those excessively boiled until they have a bitter metallic aftertaste still make you want to be sick. But you find that new brussels, stripped of their leaves, the white core discarded, lightly fried with bacon is just delicious. A dab of marmite in it just sends you into paroxysms of delight. But roast parsnips are still the most disgusting and offensive thing ever invented.
There is an increasing, and welcome, focus on the wellbing of students at university although a lot of it is focused on mindfulness practice. This comes in the form of yoga classes, mindfulness colour books, pet therapy and classical religious prayer. A whole industry of wellbeing has been created. Mindfulness works, but only some of the time. Those who spent centuries developing and practicing meditation and contemplation, long before the mental wellbeing benefits were recognized, did not merely use mindfulness techniques on their own. They did not put aside the cares of the world and just be mindful and nothing else. Indeed, the guidance was to only meditate for a maximum of 1/3rd of your life, 1/3rd being spent working and the remaining 1/3rd asleep! So, what really makes these mindfulness techniques work? They don’t work on their own, that is the challenge. They only yield their wellbeing benefits when the whole of one’s day is ‘sorted’. Trying to ‘mindfulness’ your way out of a stressful situation only digs you deeper into the stress. Mindfulness colouring books are no better than sticking your head in the sand.
How does mindfulness work?
Mindfulness practice, meditation, prayer, whatever you wish to call it, is ‘rising above’ the confusion, chaos and stress of every minute of the day in order to get some perspective. You get to see the individual challenges of the day for what they are and develop a calm temperament towards them. But the coloring book, or 20mins of deep breathing, and other such moments of contemplation are only escapism is you are not also taking control of the rest of your life and making clear and positive choices about everything else. When you are positively acting on organizing the rest of your day, then the mindfulness practices become powerfully effective.
It’s lovely feeling like you can stick it to the man by having no diary, no plan for the day. After years of living in 35 minute chunks at school, broken up by the bell, the liberation of having no plan is uplifting. To a point. After a while, that freedom, that lack of structure becomes a problem known to those who devised mindfulness practice as ‘the demon of the noon-day’. Your mental health plummets badly because there is no structure. So, get a diary on your phone. Make appointments with your learning, and don’t let anything else replace that. If you have nothing in your diary, everyday activities and cares grow to fill that up. Lunch takes hours, shopping trips entire days. Don’t book in meetings with landlords or doctors when they tell you. Look at your diary, full of lectures and study sessions, and find a gap in your already full schedule. When your diary looks full, then pencil in your social life and mindfulness practice.
• Use a diary app on your phone, so it’s always in your hands.
• Have a motto; if its not in the diary, it doesn’t happen
• Treat all classes and lectures as if they are as important as a doctors appointment
Start a module at the end.
In the first couple of weeks of a module, get the deadlines in the diary. Work backwards from there. Have a close look at what the assignment is. Have you completed this type of assignment before? If you have, estimate how much time you need- to research, to understand, to discuss, to write. Get that time blocked out in your diary. If you haven’t attempted this type of assessment before, double the amount of calendar space that you set aside. You will be expected to work with other students, so quickly get time in your diary where you agree to meet each other. Don’t cancel that time; there is a huge amount of learning to be gained from each other, even if it is just listening over a cup of coffee.
• Start a module by finding out how it ends.
• Keep notes on everything you do in the first few weeks, you don’t yet know what is relevant or not
• Work backwards from the assignment deadline and plan out which days you will work on which assignment
Family & friends’ crises
The transition from home to an independent life at university, or even balancing family responsibilities with university study is stressful, but not the most challenging thing you will do in your life. Remember that thousands of other students are dealing with pretty much the same workload as you are. But family events and crises loom large in the mind of students. When there is nothing in your diary, and everything seems to be optional, a family crisis seems to be the most important thing in your life. It may be that you are only just becoming aware of the number of times a family has a crisis. Being able to continue your investment in your university studies and work around family events will be easier if you have already penciled in all the work you have to do. There is always a temptation, or even pressure from your family, to drop everything (because it’s not important) and rush home. With everything in your diary, and deadlines written in red, you will better able to make the decision for yourself whether that life event has to be dealt with immediately, or whether a bit of time and space will help everyone to see that event in its true perspective.
• If a family crisis occurs, give it some time before you react.
• Friends will always expect more of you than you can offer.
Regular and boring
Having no plan is exciting, exhilarating. But it’s also much more stressful than you imagine. Boring is good. Boring and regular activities help us to cope with the complexities of life. Doing things without having to think about them helps to free up our mind for more complex tasks. So knowing a piece of text off by heart (remember trying to learn your times tables?) means that we are better able to understand more difficult texts. Doing the same things at the same time everyday means that we are spending less of our precious mental energy on ordinary events, giving us more ‘headspace’ for the difficult stuff. Get up at the same time every day. Don’t think about getting up, just get up. Have a morning routine that you repeat every day, so you don’t have to think about what you have done, or what you have forgotten. Do the washing up, empty the bins, every day. Go to uni or to a place in your house set aside for study, every day, even if you don’t have classes. It’s boring, but it works. Schedule your mindfulness practice, whatever it is, every day. At the same times every day. Don’t skip them.
• Write a list of all the daily tasks that you put off doing. Choose 5 to implement and put a poster up in your room with those tasks on
• Don’t debate with yourself about whether to complete them more or not. If it’s on the poster, do it.
The less exercise you get the more your body seizes up, becomes lethargic and painful. Those who developed mindfulness practices in past centuries always includes some form of physical movement into their routine. This didn’t just sit around staring at a candle for days on end. They designed hard physical labour or exercise into their day. Do something each day that involves being out of breath for 15 minutes. It doesn’t matter how unfit you are. If you are unfit, you won’t need to work very hard to be out of breath. If you are fit, then you will work harder at being out of breath. Just 15mins of breathlessness, whether that’s busting moves in a night club, walking briskly around campus or running for the bus. Get out of breath so that your blood is pumping around your body warming up all your muscles. That activity will help your studies, but also your mindfulness practice.
• Choose 5 different activities that will get you out of breath for 15mins each day; the sillier the better!
• Cycle through them, a different activity each day.
• Choose to walk instead of getting a bus. Climb the stairs rather than get in a lift.
Eat and fast, don’t eat fast.
Yeah, we all eat, but students are not a ‘carbon based life form’, they are a ‘carb-based life form’. It’s cheap and easy to eat pasta. Pizza is quick. Bottled water is more convenient than tap. Making your diet more varied and inclusive of fruit and veg is well known. But those who developed mindfulness practices also knew about when to starve the body, and for how long. We have a tendency to graze nowadays because food is always nearby. We also eat when the sugars in our body wear off, and we think we are hungry. Choose a couple of days each week where you will eat as little and as simply as you possibly can. Make it a regular part of your diary. On those days, when you do eat; eat slowly and carefully. Think about the food, and where it has come from. When you turn on the tap, think about how marvelous it is that water is so clean and readily available.
• Change your eating habits for two days a week.
• Eat as little as you can, but don’t starve yourself
• Eat simply, no processed food, drink only water.
Putting this together.
Mindfulness practice has to be the foundation of your mental health, not added on top of a chaotic and stressful time. When you have a diary, with all the important things noted down, you don’t need to try and remember them- all you have to do is remember to consult your diary. Doing basic things regularly, even if you don’t want to do them, puts those daily events in their true perspective. Family and friends will always demand more of your attention than you can give them. Put crises and traumatic events into perspective by not responding instantly and every time. A little time of waiting and thinking before you respond will help you help your family and friends better. Care for yourself by making your body do things like exercise and eat mindfully.
When you have these sorted, pick up that mindfulness colouring book. and know that everything is in its rightful place. Then the mindfulness practice will have the benefits on your mental health that you expect. Your colouring-in might be better as well!
• When the basic structure of your daily life is settled, then mindfulness practice becomes more effective
• Try and make yourself physically tired, not just mentally tired
• If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail
The BBC short series Broken has dominated the thoughts of British Christians over the last month. It is very rare for such an accurate depiction of Christianity to be shown on prime time TV, and even rare to be invited to peek into the interior life of a priest questioning his ministry, rather than his faith. I’m preparing to be chaplain to a Christian conference over the weekend, in which we will be looking at the idea of ‘sorrow to joy’, and a group of people known as the ‘Fathers of the Church’. The programme, by screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, of Brookside fame, has caused me to reflect on the sorrow and joy of ‘being a father’ to a community.
Sean Bean’s character, the Catholic priest Michael, is a father to his community. He rarely uses the term ‘Father Michael’, and many of the characters treat him as he should be, as a real human being rather than a saint. His character is richly drawn and well informed, focussing on his struggle to be a whole human being, on caring for all the people in his neighbourhood whether they like him or not. His struggle with faith is not a struggle with God, or a belief in God, but a struggle with himself. He doubts. He doubts himself, he doubts that he cares. He struggles with an upbringing quite common to a Catholic in his 50s, the memories of his childhood coming to mind at the most important and profound parts of the mass, distracting him and distressing him. He fears being found out. He isn’t experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’, instead he truly is unworthy of his exalted position as a priest.
He truly is unworthy, and yet he is deemed worthy because he doesn’t understand his own holiness. That is a paradox that is so often lost in public discussions of religion. Religious people are expected to be perfect, to know what is good and bad, and to stick to it. And yet they fail, again and again, they fail. Fr Michael doesn’t do bad things, but he fails everyone, with his own doubt and inability to say and do the right things. Several times I found myself shouting at the screen ‘you should have said this’, or ‘act man, stand up for yourself’, before sinking back and realising that I too would have said and some similar things. Indeed, as a priest, and academic, I have found myself in this position many times, and failed to meet expectations.
But being a ‘Father’ to a community isn’t about meeting expectations or being perfect. Being a ‘Father’, and this isn’t a gendered role really, is to be like Michael in this programme- to care, to struggle with one’s own failings, and yet to be on the fringes of the lives whom he cares for. Fr Michael isn’t a parent, he cannot make his parishioners do what he wants them to. He can’t bring them up the way he wants. Indeed, he can barely influence their decisions at all. But he is there, separate but profoundly there for them. He fails them, he fails himself, and yet he is a wonderful priest and father, offering up his brokenness to the true God and Father.
The Fathers of the Church are a group of leaders of a global family of the Orthodox Christian Church. Their influence on the church is most often understood as dogmatic. They made decisions of doctrine through meetings known as the ‘Ecumenical Councils’, from the Greek term ‘ecumene’, which means ‘household’. They ensured that we today are able to say that a Christian is a person who must assent to the idea that Jesus of Nazareth is human and God, not just a prophet or a nice rabbi who heals people. But, we most often think of the Fathers of the Church in terms of their doctrine, their theology, rather than their fatherhood. They are not known as ‘teachers’ or ‘lawyers’ of the church, but Fathers. Before anything, before we are willing to listen to them. Before we are able to assent to their doctrines, they must be fathers to us. They must have been fathers to their communities. In reality, they must have been Father Michael’s to the communities that they served. They must have taken the wrong steps, they must have failed to speak or act at the right time, hundreds of times. They must have doubted their worthiness as pastors. If they hadn’t, they would not have earned the love and respect of their parishes and dioceses. Their words, once published, would have echoed through those communities with the emptiness of arrogance, and been ignored.
Representing Christianity in the arts is a difficult thing to do, and Jimmy McGovern did a rare job. Mostly God gets to be misrepresented as something it has never been in Christianity. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said at a conference recently ‘Mostly God gets depicted as a strange ‘thing’ in this universe’. Need I mention the funny but wholly inaccurate America Gods, in which multiple Jesuses appear with the goddess Eostre and bicker over whose Easter is most popular or Preacher, in which God goes missing on earth, somewhere in a jazz club in New Orleans’ French Quarter? It’s easy then to dismiss God as an improbable all-powerful demi-god that just doesn’t match up to logic or empirical science. God rarely gets communicated as beyond space/time, or as humility.
Father Michael, in Broken, reminds us that the public discourse about religion has to be about brokenness, not perfect morality. He reminds us that it should be about humility, not arrogance that we religious people have all the right answers but none of the right actions. Only when we are truly aware of our brokenness, will we be able to turn sorrow into joy.
Fr Timothy Curtis, 14th July 2017
. A weekend of high drama is over and I have a headache. I have spent the morning reading through the 50 pages of the agreed texts of the Great and Holy Council of Crete, 2016, or the ‘rump council’ as the naysayers and separatists are calling it already. Whilst the UK is reeling from the effects of the EU referendum, academics are mulling over the implications of a ‘post-factual’ society. My writing is primarily about the intersection of religion and society. It’s what I teach. It’s what I’m paid for, as I volunteer as a priest. I have sought to reflect in the act, as the Council progressed over last week, capturing snippets of news and gossip remotely, and this is an attempt to reflect after the fact. There is much more to investigate. The documents in their final version will have to be compared to their earlier drafts, to find out what was lost or changed. There will be, one hopes, minutes of all the sessions of the Council. There have been calls for the audio or video of the sessions to be released. If they are, there will be much to receive and contemplate.
There has, of course, been a vocal group on social media who had dismissed the idea of the Council before it had already convened either as an ‘Orthodox Vatican 2’ or just not Pan-Orthodox enough. By ‘Vatican 2’ there are clearly projecting their anti-Catholic anxieties and outright rejection of any form of dialogue with non-Orthodox Christians. Their demand with respect to Orthodox representation- that all bishops should be invited and all should negotiate all of the texts, and vote on all of the amendments by a process of unanimity and veto was clearly an attempt to turn the church into the worst sort of democracy. In the end, getting over 300 bishops (about the same amount as previous Councils, both Ecumenical and not) meeting together to agree a common view on complex issues in less than a week, has been quite remarkable. The catastrophes that were expected did not happen. We did not get forced into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Fasting was not abolished. There was no agreement to make the Ecumenical Patriarchate more powerful than the Pope. Indeed, the documents and amendments were unsurprising, moderate and modest. In fact, conciliarity was the most important new point to arise from the whole Council.
I wrote last week that there is no agreed procedure by which a Council of the Church is agreed to be ‘Ecumenical’, both pertaining to the whole world, and binding on all Christians. This caused much confusion because there were claims and counter claims preceding the Council (which was only ever called a ‘Great and Holy Council’) about whether it was going to be an Ecumenical one, i.e. universally binding or whether it was going to declare any other ‘Great and Holy Councils’ to be Ecumenical in standing. The Council did neither. Whilst it declared the Councils after the 8th Ecumenical Council to be of ‘universal authority’, the Encyclical of the Council did not declare them to be ‘Ecumenical’. But in the same paragraph of the Encyclical, the gathered bishops did declare the Church to be a Church of Councils.
This is vitally important. I wrote on Friday about the sinfulness of excessive ‘autocephaly’; self-governance. I argued (controversially) that the instinct to self-governance (autocephaly in Orthodox Church terms) and to ‘taking back control’ in the UK is the same instinct that led Adam to choose to eat the apple in Paradise. I argued that the instinct to be in control, which we all share in, resulted in the Orthodox Churches become more estranged from each other over the last 300 years. This instinct has led to a sense of self-sufficiency rather than interdependence. The independent Churches of the Orthodox communion have been separated by historical circumstances like the rise of communism in Russia, but there is a danger that the separation becomes itself an article of faith, that the churches should be separate and can make self-sufficient decisions.
The message of the Council was clear that excessive autocephaly is not acceptable. It stated “The principle of autocephaly cannot be allowed to operate at the expense of the principle of the catholicity and the unity of the Church”. By this it means that conciliarity, the processes whereby issues and questions that are relevant to all 14 Churches can be discussed and decided upon by the whole Church, rather than by one on its own. The texts of the rest of this Council deal with some, and only some, of those issues that are universally important. Advances in science and technology, individualisation and globalisation, freedom without responsibility, the wholesale degradation of the environment through excessive and profligate consumerism, new forms of systematic exploitation and social injustice are big social changes that have occurred since the most recent of the Councils of ‘universal authority’. They are issues that cannot be adequately tackled by one church on its own, so therefore interdependency needs to be recognised and the Churches need to act as a whole, as the single Church of Christ. This witness, in the words of the Encyclical, “ is essentially political insofar as it expresses concern for man and his spiritual freedom”. There needs to be “a new constructive synergy with the secular state and its rule of law”, preserving “the specific (i.e. separate) identity of both Church and state” in order to assure social justice.
These external issues, as well as the nature of our relationship with other Christians, as well as internal but global questions such as Orthodox governance in new territories (diaspora and autonomy), family and marriage and fasting were all discussed and agreed. Notwithstanding the detail of those texts, the next battle will be over the status of the Council itself. It won’t be an Ecumenical Council, in the formal sense, until such times as a Council like this can come to a consensus on what constitutes an Ecumenical Council and what distinguishes it from a ‘Council of universal authority’. But who is going to be bound, or more softly influenced, by the Council?
The texts of the Council could be quietly dropped, or ignored outright. Some bishops may wish to distance themselves from the details of what they have signed- there is some slippage in meaning between the different translations, which can only have been arrived at in a hurry in five days of meetings. Naysaying commentators were suggesting that the presence of the US military providing security means that some of the bishops were being made to sign the documents against their will, or might have been strong-armed in some way by the other bishops.. They are bemoaning the fact that none of them turned out to be the heroic St Mark of Ephesus who famously was the sole voice in the Council of Florence Ferrara that almost resulted in the reunification of Orthodox and Catholic. They were expecting there to have been another St Nicholas of Myra, who apocryphally slapped Arius in disgust at his theology. Those who are not familiar with these churchmen, they are often invoked as an Orthodox version of Godwin’s law.
Regardless of the correctness of the examples of St Nicholas and St Mark in those situations, these poor saints are invoked by all separatists and schismatics when the Church, either in this Council or even in the Council decisions of their own churches, cry foul and demand that their solitary analysis the only true and correct analysis. They are often more strident in their criticism of the purported actions of other Church’s Patriarchs especially if it smacks of the ‘pan-heresy’ of uncontrolled, over-enthusiastic and syncretistic ecumenism. This Council has marked out the boundaries of future ecumenical dialogue, and rejected such ecumenism, but those who wish not to be bound or influenced by anything apart from their own ego will find every iota to pick over in order to undermine the whole.
The number of bishops attending was equivalent to the Ecumenical Councils of old, but they did not contain representatives of 4 of the 14 churches, but total representation of all the Patriarchates has not been a requirement in previous Councils, and nor has the participation of every possible bishop in the world. The problem was illustrated by the question of a Russian war correspondent (yes, I kid you not, a war correspondent) who asked the press conference whether the Council could be influential if it did not have the Russian Church represented. The answer came back “Let me ask you a question. You come from a democratic country (a long, suggestive pause). During the elections in Russia, do you expect your voice to count, if you fail to vote?”
The fact that some bishops were not there to have their voice heard or to vote does not mean that the decisions are invalid, any more than a 72% turnout in the EU referendum renders that invalid. Like it or not, neither side can count the 28% of the population who didn’t vote as their own. 52% of those who actually voted decided to support the Leave campaign. The majority should be judged on the basis of how narrow it was, not on the basis of those who didn’t vote.
The Great and Holy Council has proposed further meetings in which the other churches could return to the texts of this Council. It would be good to see these partial texts refined and expanded in scope. Their weaknesses are in what issues are not covered, or are dealt with in inadequate detail ,rather than in what they actually say. Ultimately, however, it won’t be Councils or Bishops who decide. It will be those ordinary people in parishes around the world who will read the documents and begin to live according to their precepts. It won’t be the facts of the documents that matter, but whether these documents create a harmonious symphony with the traditions and prayers of the people of God.
[this article needs to be read beyond the title. It’s not what you think, but the title made you think]
[since I wrote this note, the Great and Holy Council has confirmed my thinking and condemnation of excessive separatism exercised in the name of ‘autocephaly’ with these words “The principle of autocephaly cannot be allowed to operate at the expense of the principle of the catholicity and the unity of the Church.”]
I am supposed to be writing about the vitally important Church Council in Crete this week, but something else has happened, the UK has voted to leave the EU. I have called it a sin, and I’ll explain why. For all of you who are not Christian, bear with me, because it is still relevant. Those of you who are wanting word about the Council in Crete, I will get to that too.
For Christians, the first sin is when Adam eats an apple in the garden of Eden. For someone who is not a Christian, this is nonsense, it’s a myth. Well, as a myth it still works. Contrary to popular belief, the first sin of humanity, represented by Adam in this story from the Old Testament, is not eating an apple. That would be silly. The first sin happens before that apple is eaten, before Adam commits any act, or behaves in any particular way. The first sin occurs when Adam resolves to ‘take back control’. He rejects the loving-kindness of God, which he takes for granted, and grasps self-control, autonomy and self-determination. His sin is first to be selfish, to think that he knows best and that he doesn’t have to live with the consequences of his split from God.
The same selfishness pervades the whole Brexit debate. Across all the political parties and those who are not politically affiliated I have seen over the last couple of months a debate, not about the structures of the EU, but a debate about selfishness, about taking control. This has resulted in the UK taking control of its own destiny, of becoming autonomous and self-determining. The UK has voted to leave a framework within which sovereign nation states pooled their sovereignty and gave up some of their autonomy in order to express our common humanity. Now we have given permission for everyone to ‘take back control’. Every playground bully is no free to tell a foreign kid to shove off because we have taken back control. Every greed and rapacious employer can safely dump any restrictions on working conditions because we in the UK can now determine our destiny- all laws are now up for grabs. We can even establish what we think are UK human rights. Not universal human rights, but human rights that apply to us here in the UK only. We can now free-load on the common environmental protections that reduce pollution across all our borders.
These are individual issues, and can and will be debated, but the underlying ethos will now be ‘we can decide’. The sociologist Michel Foucault theorised in the 1970s that the elites disciplined the individual to keep control of the people, and now we have seen the reaction to that, as we all (not just the brexiteers) take back control of our bodies. Instead of the elites, we as isolated individuals try to take control of our bodies, through discipline and punishment, we pierce, and mark, augment and reassign our bodies to fit our own sense of self. We seek to construct our own identity whilst at the same time trying to understand what it is to be male or female, what it is to be human, when all we know is how to be ourselves. The selfishness of adam descends into solipsism.
The brexiteers are no more sinful or selfish than the rest of us, it’s just that they have expressed their selfishness in a particular and very obvious way, but our need, our uncontrollable desire, to self-determine is now universally celebrated. We would rather be in control of our country, in control of our bodies, in control of our own identities than cede some of that control to another human being, or to God. We are so suspicious of the stranger that we have become strange to ourselves.
The debate about control and selfishness also erupted in the press and media regarding the Great and Holy Council in Crete that is happening this week. There have been discussions amongst the bishops gathered there about the Mission of the Church in Today’s World (which I commented on here) and the challenges of Orthodox Christians being scattered all over the world by war and persecution and creating a problem of the disaspora (I commented on this yesterday, but Brexit has jammed up Huffington Post’s publishing schedule, so you will have to read a draft here). Whilst the bishops went on to discuss internal issues like how much fasting we should indulge in the lead up to Christmas, the attention of the commentators shifted from the problem of the diaspora to the question of autonomy and self-governance. The discussions peaked with a debate on what actually constitutes an ‘Ecumenical Council’.
The discussion is summed up by this one comment :“In reality, almost every major and divisive document at the Council revolves around the subject of ecclesiology: how do Orthodox Christians in traditionally non-Orthodox countries canonically organize themselves?... Every topic on the agenda relates to our understanding of what the Church is and how it is meant to function, on some level.” In this statement, the commentator is really grasping at the essence of all the papers at the Holy Council, and of the debates going on in the Council chamber and across the world, and it all still boils down to self-governance, autonomy and selfishness.
Self-governance is an important principle in Orthodox Church circles. It is more accurately known as ‘autocephaly’- literally speaking ‘one-headed’ or ‘of one mind’. All the 14 churches of the world are essentially independent and self-governing. They have a head bishop, but they also have a synod or council of bishops who, between them, decide on important matters like whether Orthodox Christians can marry Roman Catholics, or whether we should eat oysters on a Friday in December. Just as importantly, they get to decide whether people who are not Orthodox Christians are even Christian or not.
In the last 300 years, this group of self-governed Churches have enjoyed, and in some cases exploited, the political situations in which they found themselves to increase that level of self-determination. The rise of nationalism meant that new self-governing churches stopped being identified by the city in which the lead bishop was located (the Patriarchate of Moscow, for example) to being identified with a whole country like the Church of Cyprus or the Church of Poland. Political strife, war, the rise of nationalism and imperialism like the Ottoman Empire and the Soviet Union meant that contact between the Churches was limited. Taking advantage of that, the self- governing churches became used to determining their own affairs and considering their own situation to be unique. In some cases, they developed a sense in which their version of Orthodox Christianity is the only true and correct Christianity. When it came to the scattering of ‘their people’ across the world as a result of these forces of war and empire, they took it upon themselves to make their own decisions about how to respond.
When, in the middle of this, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Constantinople-New Rome called for a collective response, it took 50 years to devise and agree on an agenda, and finally meet this week to begin to formulate a common response to new problems. Why? Because autocephaly was taken too far. The constituent member churches of the Orthodox Church made autocephaly, the ability to govern themselves, the most important aspect of their ecclesiology. They were so concerned to distinguish themselves from the centrally governed Roman Catholic church that they neglected any real sense of conciliarity amongst themselves. Formal means of remaining in communion with the other churches were strongly maintained throughout- the churches prayed for each other, they sent each other oil of chrism as visible signs of their unity, they even celebrated the divine liturgy together as an external sign of their unity. But they didn’t get to know each other as brothers. They didn’t come together as a family in Christ.
This is beginning to change, and the heads of the Churches gathered in Crete have indicated that the most important parts of this meeting has not been the agenda, or the papers up for discussion, but for the chance to get to know each other, together. Whilst autocephaly means not being controlled by a higher bishop, like a pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch, we must be clear that autocephaly contains within it the problem of selfishness, the very sin of adam.
The Orthodox Churches must be willing to cede some of their sovereignty, to resist ‘taking back control’, to limit their freedom in order to be obedient to the gospel, especially the quote that I started the week with and repeated again to my parishioners today; that “there 'is no jew or gentile, no slave or free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ' Galatians 3:28”.
The Churches must come together to decide on what makes their decisions truly authoritative to all Orthodox Christians. There is no agenda item to decide on how decisions are made in the church. The nature of the Council is hotly contested, and this extends back into time into debates about which of the Councils in history are really ‘Ecumenical’. Some are arguing that because there is no longer a Roman emperor, no new council can ever be ecumenical, because typically emperors convened such Councils. So deciding factor on whether a Council is binding on the whole church depends on whether a civil authority like the Emperor convoked the council, not whether the council spoke the truth. Others argue that Councils are ecumenical because their decisions are important to the whole church (rather than local issues) and because they have been received as authoritative by all the churches. Some argue that there will only ever be seven ecumenical councils, convened by an Emperor. Others argue that there are more councils (like the 4th and 5th Councils of Constantinople in 879–880 and 1341–1351, the Synod of Iasi, Romania in 1642 and the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672). Some argue that any Council that does not discuss ‘dogma’, i.e. vital questions of who God and Jesus are, cannot be ecumenical. Others would consider that the first, Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, that decided that the good news of Jesus Christ could be preached to non-Jews is not an ecumenical council.
This complicated picture means that the process by which we act as a church, in which we decide which issues are vitally important and affect the whole world, which ones only affect the know Roman imperial world (one way of defining the word ecumenical) or which ones affect the whole household of God (another way of defining the word ecumenical). Without that, the separate Orthodox Churches are just that, separate. They are subject to the sin of selfishness; they can be tempted to ‘take back control’. They retain the power to decide how to decide. We don’t need centralised power to resolve this problem, we need conciliarity. We need for the churches to cede some of their power to the Council of the Patriarchs. This may begin to happen.
In the UK, however, we have withdrawn from conciliarity. We have withdrawn from the Council of European States. We are in the process of walking away from the difficult business of living with our neighbours and are preparing instead to treat them as ‘jews and gentiles’ as separate peoples. We are repeating again the sin of adam in demanding self-control. We are repeating the first sin of selfishness.
Chilaism. Yes, I bet you haven’t heard that in church in a month of Sundays. Chiliaism has nothing to do with a popular American meat based meal, but is in fact a theory held in early Christianity that there would be a 1,000 year reign of Jesus Christ before the end of the world. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty here of what a ‘1,000 year reign’ might involve, but the upshot is that this theory was rejected in a Church Council in AD325 but the Church Council that is going on at the moment in Crete seems to have raised that problem again, or so some would want you to think.
The accusation of chialism was put by an internet blogger yesterday in one of a dozen or more forums that I have been monitoring. The gist of the argument is that the document that was discussed and approved on the first day of the Council, the ‘Mission of the Church in Today’s World’ (which I commented on here) is essentially chiliastic because of its social mission. Bear with me here, because it took me a while to figure out the link too. Chialism is primarily an idea that there will be a thousand years before the end of time where all evil has been conquered and good Christians will live in peace and harmony before the second coming of Jesus Christ. This notion seems to have been conflated with what theologians call the ‘social gospel’, in other words, the efforts of Christians to promote social justice, improve the social conditions of all humans, to tackle hatred and division, to improve and safeguard God’s creation.
This is the basic topic of the ‘Mission of the Church in Today’s World’ document- that all humans have personal dignity before God and that no-one should be judged or discriminated against with respect to their status or because of their gender, race etc. The blogger who accuses this document of chiliasm is presuming one of two things; that the promotion of social justice is somehow an attempt to create a ‘kingdom of God’ before the end times, and (even worse in his eyes) an attempt to create such a regime of kindness and generosity, of compassion and love, without God.
Chiliasm is associated in the minds of some with dirty words like ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, that the social gospel is being propagated by godless communists under the guise of Christianity. Now, there may be some like that, but there are plenty of Christians who have no sense of ‘building’ a society without God, or thinking that such a society is even possible outside a deep communion with Jesus Christ. Chiliasm does not automatically equate to any discussion of social justice.
The critics even try to suggest that words such as ‘discrimination’ have no place in a Christian document like the ‘Mission of the Church in Today’s World’. If this is the case, then pagan words like ‘homoousios’ have no place either, and therefore we cannot speak accurately about the divine human nature of Christ. Furthermore, ‘discrimination’, even if it is derived from so-called ‘socialist’ thinking, is a well understood and specific term, and does not mean that we can no longer, as Christians, discriminate or make judgements, that ‘anything goes’. What the rejection of discrimination means that that Christians should not make decisions about another person on the basis of features that are not relevant to the decision or judgement in hand. It is not legitimate to prevent a person from exercising a Christian ministry because of their sex, where the sex of that person is not relevant or a legitimate consideration. A person may not be judged as a second class Christian because they were not born of Greek or Russian families. A person may not consider themselves to be inherently Orthodox Christian because of their nationality (this is also known as the heresy of ethno-phyletism).
This brings me to the second document discussed by the Council in Crete this week, that of the ‘Church in the diaspora’. Again, this is a desperately complicated business, but ultimately a facile debate that betrays our egos and sinful weaknesses more than it proclaims the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Since the end of the soviet union, and with the onset of globalisation- an era of history where ordinary people (not just church elites) are moving in vast numbers around the world, and who are in instant communication around the world, and whose identity is no longer limited to a dozen or so miles around the village in which they were born, more and more Christians have moved outside the old territories of the Orthodox Churches, from the Greek speaking part of the Mediterranean, from the Balkans, from the Middle East under persecution, from Russia and the former Soviet Union territories. These Orthodox Christians in new lands (like the Americas) or in old Christian territories (like western Europe) have not been allowed to set up their own self-governing church structures, but instead are still connected back to ‘the old countries’. For some this is a good thing, because Christianity is a living community and we in the west should not be artificially cut off from the traditional structures and norms of those societies but on the other hand it does play into geopolitics of continuing to control the people who have left their homelands. On one hand, this arrangement whereby a parish founded by Russians outside Russia is still governed by a senior church leader back in Russia is at the same time a connection to the source of one’s Christianity, and a cultural enclave to remain and remember being Russian in a strange land, and also an extension of a greater (and for some imperialist) Russia. The same goes for Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, even Serbs, Poles and Bulgarians over here because of the open movement of people as part of the European Union. You see, even the UK Referendum on the EU being voted on today (23rd June) is still relevant!
The Council in Crete comprises the representatives of 10 of the 14 independent churches from around the whole world. Some of these churches are closely associated with a particular national or cultural ‘ethne’ (Greek for people). The Church of Alexandria is a complex example- populated almost entirely by parishes from across Africa but, until recently, almost entirely staffed by Greek priests and bishops. The Moscow Patriarchate, on the other hand, is almost entirely Russian, oh and Ukrainian, because this church first started in Kiev in what is now Ukraine. It also claims China, Japan, and other post-Soviet states excluding Armenia and Georgia. On top of that, it also claims authority over any Orthodox Christian of Russian, Ukrainian, Japanese descent in places like Bentham in Gloucester and Las Vegas. This approach to church governance also applies very strongly to Romanian Orthodox Christians living in Boston, UK or Chicago, Illinois. Whilst this is wonderfully post-nationalist, and represents a global Christian community, what tends to happen is that Russians stick with Russians, and Romanians shun Greeks in these new lands, known in church circles as ‘diaspora’. We also end up having several bishops looking after their own people, all living in the same city. You get eight different bishops in Paris, all looking after their own ethnic groups. This ethnic division leads to suspicion, ethno-phyletism, racism and discrimination, and leads to some groups claiming that the Council will be abolishing the traditions of fasting for Lent, with no evidence whatsoever of this being the case. Indeed, the representatives at the Council yesterday confirmed that local differences would be considered legitimate, but that fasting is not going to be banned.
This is problem of the diaspora and lots of bishops in one city considered to be a breach of church norms and traditions. More importantly for me, it means that we do not speak as one church. We are not represented in the NHS or prison service as a single Christian body, but are related to according to national divisions, and dismissed because we considered too small to be of interest. Our mission in the world today is limited, stifled, because we talk over and around each other in different languages, replicating the tower of Babel.
Everyone in the Church agrees that this is a problem, but nobody is willing to step forward first to solve the problem. Bishops don’t want to stop being a bishop in preference of another from a different country. Nationalists and patriots don’t want to sever links with the old countries. Bishops in the old countries don’t want to lose the income from donations of their faithful overseas, especially the Churches of Constantinople-New Rome and Antioch, who have very few faithful left in their original countries, Turkey and Syria . An interim arrangement was put in place in 2009 where the different bishops in each area or city would actually begin to meet with each other regularly. This has resulted in closer relationships and exchanges of experience. It is refreshing for church leaders to meet and agree that the tiny differences in practices between the different ethnic groups are perfectly legitimate and part of the rich diversity in unity that makes up a 2,000year old global community. The Council in Crete hasn’t yet added to the existing interim arrangement of just meeting and being nice to each other, it has been quite timid in reinforcing the current temporary arrangement, but which one of them is going to be ready to vote himself out of a job? The document has been discussed, but not finalised. In the words of Rev John Chryssavigis, the spokesperson of the Council, the Council delegates are in “agreement about the establishment of canonical normality in Churches of the diaspora, but there is no unanimity among them about exactly how this should be achieved”.
Coming back to ‘chiliaism’, whilst we must be careful to ensure that social justice is not pursued for its own sake (we can leave that to the rest of society) but it must be a part of our lives as individual Christians. In the words of one of the greatest Church leaders of all time, Saint Basil the Great, “What, after all, is this hard, heavy, burdensome word which the Teacher has put forward? “Sell what you have, and give to the poor”. This clear instruction sounds like socialism, but is Christianity. Those who protest against paying taxes (state mandated theft, I hear them cry) tend not to take the words of Jesus Christ as God-mandated social justice. The message of the document ‘The Mission of the Church in Today’s World’ is not about establishing new sins where they don’t exist, but it is about recognising where our old sins have new impacts, where our selfishness and greed impacts on the environment and in global climate change, where we take advantage of modern slavery with our 99p t-shirts, where we judge people according to the colour of their skin rather because of their intentions.
New problems, new contexts, new worlds , but the same old sins. Jesus Christ is the same, now and to the end of time, His Kingdom shall have no end, but we are too busy trying to build our own religions and utopias to notice.
The Mission of the Orthodox Christian Church in the world: a great and holy proclamation or a humble starting point?
Most people in the UK will have no idea about the events in Crete this week. The UK press is so full of debates and opinions about the EU and the referendum to remain or leave, or stories of rioting football fans that the high politics of international church relations gains barely a blip of notice. The second largest Christian community in the world is convening one of its most important meetings in over 300years and the UK is blissfully unaware. This is partly because one of the very problems of that this ‘second-largest community’, the Orthodox Christian Church, is facing in its meetings this week in Crete, is that it rarely speaks with one voice, and not often in a coherent and understandable manner.
I am a member of that community, I am a parish priest, but also involved in a number of international forums that discuss the issues facing the Orthodox Christian communities around the world. I am also an academic whose teaching involves the interface between faith, community and society. The meeting in Crete, called a ‘Great and Holy Council’, is going on right now and is being covered in the social media, despite a tightly controlled press office. I am not there, and I could do with a bit of the hot Cretan sunshine, and so have to work out what is going on through opinions and leaks voiced in Greek, Russian, English and French across the global media. I cannot speak with authority, but the British press have never really let the facts get in the way of a good story, and this is a good story. The first document to be approved at this ‘great and holy Council’ is important to me. It begins to map out a way in which I might speak about the relationship between this Christian community whose history is over 2,000 years old and events and social changes that are going on right now.
It’s too early to know which of these social changes, mass migration, global refugees, sexual and gender identity politics, human rights, the rise of fascism are going to still important in 300 years’ time, but parishioners and students want to know, now, how to think, speak and act on these ethical and social challenges. But the road to that conversation with a parishioner or a student is a long and rocky one. The last of these great meetings of the Orthodox Church occurred before the rise of the philosophical and social movement of modernism that sets the context for our lives today, and the church since then has been shackled by military invasions of its spiritual heartlands in the middle east, by militant state atheism in the Soviet Union and forces of capitalism and globalisation in places like Greece. These social forces have kept the fiercely independent churches from collaborating and developing a single voice to understand the massive social changes that have occurred in that period. Let’s face it, in that time, the motorcar has been invented, digital technology has taken over everyone’s lives, the wealth of a small minority of the population has grown exponentially and new countries have emerged, and old countries have disappeared. To speak sensibly, sensitively but in truth about any one of these massive social changes is almost impossible, and to help an individual parishioner or to teach an individual student of community and social work how to navigate the ethical challenges she faces everyday is even harder, and yet the Orthodox Christian church is proposing to speak to these issues authoritatively, in just over 4,000 words is insanely ambitious. It is also trying to do this in the context of a viciously contested process of decision-making.
Bringing together a family of 14 very different Churches, whose people have very different perspectives and life experiences, especially if they are not used to meeting and working together is an unenviable task, which is why it has taken over 50 years to get them to actually meet. The agenda for the meeting was agreed in the 1930s, but the briefing notes for the agenda (the ‘preconciliar documents’) weren’t finalised until a few months ago. Even the procedure for the meeting was argued over, who gets to sit where and how to interpret the term ‘consensus decisions’ were all fought over, and are still being debated. Most of the documents were agreed by all of the 14 Churches involved, but a few documents remained unresolved. And then, within days of the meeting, different churches dropped out. One Church had fallen out with another Church over parishes in a part of Quatar, others didn’t think that their views were going to be upheld by the consensus decision-making process and so didn’t want to attend, and another decided that because some of the others were not attending, that there was no point them going. It’s a bit like students trying to organise a pizza party.
OK, so I’m being flippant, but the absentee Churches will be important for the document that I am about to discuss. The ‘Mission of the Church in Today’s World’ document was approved, we are told by a leaky press contingent in Crete, by the heads of 10 of the 14 Orthodox Churches, unanimously on the 20th of June 2016. Some amendments had been proposed and some approved and others rejected by the gathered leaders of the churches. I am sure that by the time this article is published the situation will have changed.
The document itself, written in Greek, translated officially into Russian and with a working copy in English, was approved by all of the delegates to the pre-Council meetings. Signatures of all 14 Patriarchs (heads of the churches) appear on the document, on every page. Even though only 10 churches have turned up for the actual Council meeting in Crete, the document has the stamp of formal approval from everyone, although commentaries have appeared in the press picking important holes in some of the ideas and expressions in the document. An example is the phrase ‘there is neither male nor female’ taken from a text in the bible known as Galatians 3:28. The paragraph in the bible is about the fact that all Christians are one before God- that our race, our sex, our gender or our civil status doesn’t matter. But those who are deeply worried that the Orthodox Christian church is about to throw out thousands of years of experience and prayer about what it is to be human think that this means that this will result in a rejection of the binary man/woman approach to gender.
Another document being presented to the Council is primarily focused on marriage and gender identity; and this document about the mission of the church in the world isn’t about gender politics, but the fact this phrase is included in this text without clear qualification means the downfall of Christianity to some. One fragment of text is being torn from its context, twisted around to mean something different and thrown back at the community of faith. The context of the document, reflecting a lot of the long term thinking and writing of Bishop John Zizoulas, a very high profile theologian who spent more than 15 years teaching in Scotland is the dignity and freedom of every human being and a commitment to promoting peace and justice to ensure that every human can flourish without discrimination. Globalisation, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the ecological degradation caused by consumerism and the loss of the sense of God in homes and communities around the world because of that secularising commitment to constant and unlimited economic growth prevent the human being from flourishing freely in the knowledge and experience of God who has created all things.
For many Europeans, and certainly for sociologists like myself, this is unremarkable stuff but for Americans mired in the politics of gender-neutral toilets and public shower rooms and same-sex marriages, the dignity of the human being entails an acceptance of all of the gender identity politics of the last couple of decades. Topics such as unlimited economic growth or global climate change are either hugely contested in the USA or totally ignored in Russia. The Christians in the Middle East don’t have time to worry about consumerism or same-sex toilets when they are being bombed out of their houses or subjected to atrocities. Speaking to a globalised Christian community requires being able to accept all of the Christians where they are, in the political and social environment within which they live, and the social and ethical considerations of a Christian in Turkey is very different from one in the UK, or the middle of the USA. But beginning to develop a sense of those universal principles that unite all the Orthodox Christians in a globalised world is vitally important.
There is a long way to go. Apparently simple phrases like ‘the human person’ are to some, and I quote, “taken from the Communist Manifesto or the book "rules for Radicals" of crypto-Marxist Alinsky”. For some, discrimination and inhuman treatment of women by ignorant and ill-informed Muslim and Christian men is an everyday occurrence, for others a ‘muslim invasion’ or a communist take-over is a remote but theoretical possibility. Bridging the gap between the two, between the different experiences is going to take a lot more work than a few hundred words in a text. The text however, begins to set the context within which, in the final words of the document, Orthodox Christians can begin to reaffirm in this world today, not the worlds of ancient history, “the sacrificial love of the Crucified Lord, the only way to a world of peace, justice, freedom, and love among peoples and between nations”.