I have sometimes thought of writing on the topic of the Church, for I suspect that it is issues around ecclesiology that often form a stumbling block for many people. I have often encountered other Christians who are fascinated by Orthodoxy, want to learn from us and “use” our tradition, but who balk at the full implications of what Orthodox tradition really means. You cannot, to be quite frank about it, have Orthodoxy without the Church – and by this we mean the visible, historically mediated Church which is the Eucharistic community gathered around the bishop. Yet it is this Church that is often the stumbling block.

The Orthodox understanding of the Church is often either completely unknown to other Christians, or else it is seen as scandalously arrogant. There is a common – basically Protestant – assumption that “the Church” is an invisible entity made up of various “denominations” that makes it very difficult for Orthodox (or Roman Catholic) Christians to engage in discussions without appearing arrogant or exclusivist.

Linked to this is a widespread horror at our insistence that the reception of Holy Communion is limited to Orthodox Christians – and those who are suitably prepared for it, at that. Such practices fly in the face of contemporary demands for “inclusivity,” which has come to be seen as far more important than the theological integrity of the Church and its Liturgy.

There are issues around this that I keep wanting to explore more, but Father Stephen Freeman has expressed some of them far better than I could in his recent post The Politics of the Cup. Drawing on Hauerwas, he writes:

Many Christians fail to see the “politics” of their faith. They think one thing and do another (it is another aspect of the “two-storey universe”). Almost nothing is as eloquent an expression of the Church’s life than the “politics of the Cup.” What we do with the Eucharist and how that action displays the inner reality of our life is a deeply “political” expression (in the sense that Hauerwas uses the word).

The one common thread throughout the Protestant Reformation was its opposition to the Church of Rome. Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican Reforms were all embraced by various rising nation states, not so much for the appeal of the particularities of their teaching, but for their willingness to provide cover for the subjugation of the Church to the political demands of secular rulers.

Those demands are far less transparent in the modern period. The legitimacy of the state is today rooted in democratic theories. Those same theories are legitimized by the individualism of popular theology. Eucharistic hospitality is the sacramental expression of individualism. The Open Cup represents the individual’s relationship with Christ without regard for the Church. It is the unwitting sacrament of the anti-Church.

In the last few decades, the same individualism has taken on great immediacy within a consumerist economy. At the same time, we have seen the rise of arguments for a radically individualized reception of communion, one that no longer insists on Baptism. Only the secret intention of the recipient is required. The Eucharist becomes inert – reduced to the status of an object to be chosen or rejected according to the desire of the individual. It is a consumer’s communion with himself.

I have more thoughts on this, including on the violence implicit in inclusivist agendas – if everyone can receive communion, then it will not be long before everyone must do so – and on the underlying monism that influences such thinking, but I don’t know when I’ll get them together. But Father Stephen’s post helps to unmask what many people take for granted, and articulates the true vision of a genuine hospitality that is offered to all. Do go and read the whole post.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

The journey towards the heart, and to the transformation of our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit who renews the Image of God in us, is not something that we engage upon as isolated individuals. There is a saying that we fall alone, but that we are saved together. For Orthodox Christians, our understanding of Christian life is fundamentally ecclesial. We do not distinguish between what some call “the institutional Church” and some sort of disembodied religious experience. Rather, it is in and through the visible, historically mediated Body of Christ – with all her historical limitations and particularities – that we encounter Christ and work out our salvation. And this Church is most fully encountered in the Eucharistic celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided over by our bishop – or someone delegated by him – who is the bond of unity connecting us to the rest of the Church, both throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

It is in the Divine Liturgy that we most fully encounter both the Mystery of the Church and the nature of our salvation in Christ. For here we find the recapitulation of the entire history of salvation, enabling us to enter into it and become truly present to the saving works of Christ. But the Liturgy is about more than just history, however, for it also leads us into the future, enabling us to glimpse a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. By offering our lives together with the Holy Gifts that are offered on the altar, and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, we become true participants in His Mysteries. In the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor:

Just as wine mingles in all the members of the one who drinks it and is transformed in him and he in wine, so does the one who drinks the Blood of Christ quench his thirst with the divine Spirit who commingles with his soul and the soul with Him. For through the Eucharist, those who commune with dignity reach the ability to partake of the Holy Spirit, and in this manner souls can live continually.

For Orthodox Christians, there is a correlation between the public Liturgy of the Church and the inner Liturgy of the heart. We cannot separate the “outer” and the “inward’ and the prayer, transformation and intercession that occurs on the inner altar of the heart both mirrors and is a mirror of, the Liturgy of the Church which is offered for the whole world. To quote Father Boris Bobrinskoy once more:

personal sanctification restores the human being to the liturgical function and vocation to encompass the entire world, the totality of humankind, in a pacified and loving heart. Sanctification restores the liturgical and royal mediation of the human person in a world shot through with waves of hatred and death, obscured by the powers of darkness, a world that groans and waits for the liberation of the children of God (Rom 8:21). Inner transformation of the human heart necessarily restores the sacramental function of the Church, which is to unite all human life to the mystery of the dead and risen Christ and to become transparent to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. *

The Compassion of the Father109.

This is an article that I wrote a few years ago, before I became Orthodox. I didn’t get to publishing it, and once I had become Orthodox I hesitated to do so as it discusses issues that I was dealing with as a Catholic. However, I have shared it with a few people over the last few years, and some of their reactions have made me think that it may be worth making it available more broadly, hence my decision to post it here. However, I’m not posting it to initiate discussion or debate and so am closing the comments section on this post. While the issues that it raises were crucial for me at the time – and I still stand by everything that I argued – I am no longer Catholic and don’t really want to get involved in discussing these things now.

Eighteen years ago, on a rainy winter’s day, I attended Mass in a small village on the west coast of South Africa. The event is etched in my memory, for it is among the most “traditional” Catholic liturgies I ever attended. The elderly priest was regarded as something of a maverick by his religious confreres; he had been a leading progressive before the Second Vatican Council but had become resolutely opposed to many of the changes following the Council and was now left to do his own thing in this back-of-beyond fishing village. I presume that he must have used the Novus Ordo, for anything else would have been unthinkable at the time for a priest who, despite his oddities, remained in communion with his bishop and the See of Rome. But it was a liturgy unlike any I had experienced. While my memory is vague on details, the one thing that has remained with me is that not only did people kneel at an altar rail to receive communion on the tongue, but that an altar boy held a sort of plate under their chins in order catch any fragment of the Host that might fall.

If this liturgical detail has stuck in my mind, then that was partly because of my own reaction, and that of the friends who accompanied me. We were all theologically educated, post-conciliar Catholics. We cared deeply about the liturgy, had been formed by some of the best trends in liturgical renewal, and would certainly not have thought of ourselves as irreverent. Nor would we have welcomed the idea that we were snobbish – in fact I had just written a Master’s thesis that argued for the importance of rehabilitating popular religion. And yet what now strikes me about my own reaction is its extraordinary arrogance and insensitivity. For my reaction, like that of my friends, was to find the whole thing rather amusing, an example of the backwardness of this reactionary priest.


Jesus took the girl’s hand, healed her, and ordered that she should be given something to eat. This is evidence of life, so that not an apparition but the truth may be believed. Blessed is he whose hand Wisdom holds. I wish that righteousness held my acts and my hands. I want the Word of God to hold me, bring me into his closet, turn away the spirit of error, replace it with that of salvation, and order that I be given something to eat! The Word of God is the Bread of heaven. The Wisdom that filled the holy altar with the divine body and blood says, “Come, eat of my bread, and drink wine that I have mixed for you.”

Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Gospel of Luke 6.63-64, quoted in Arthur A. Just (ed). Luke (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)  146.

Are we saying that knowledge is eternal life? Are we saying that to know the one true and living God will suffice to give us complete security for the future without need of anything else? Then how is “faith apart from works dead”? When we speak of faith, we mean the true knowledge of God and nothing else, since knowledge comes by faith. The prophet Isaiah tells us this: “If you do not believe, neither shall you understand.” But he is not talking about a knowledge that consists in barren speculations, which is entirely worthless. For one of the holy disciples said, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.” What then shall we say to this? How is it that Christ speaks the truth when he says that eternal life is the knowledge of God the Father, the one true God, and with him of the Son? I think, indeed, we must answer that the saying of the Savior is completely true. For this knowledge is life, laboring as it were in birth of the whole meaning of the mystery and granting to us participation in the mystery of the Eucharist, whereby we are joined to the living and life-giving Word. And for this reason, I think, Paul says that the Gentiles are made fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of Christ, inasmuch as they partake in his blessed body and blood. And our members may in this sense be conceived of as being members of Christ. This knowledge, then, which also brings to us the Eucharist by the Spirit, is life. For it dwells in our hearts, reshaping those who receive it into sonship with him and molding them into incorruption and piety toward God through life, according to the Gospel. Our Lord Jesus Christ, then, knowing that the knowledge of the one true God brings to us and promotes our union with the blessings of which we have spoken, says that it is eternal life. It is the mother and nurse of eternal life, being in its power and nature pregnant with those things that cause life and lead to life.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 11.5 , in Joel C. Elowsky (ed). John 11-21 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) 231.

Orthodox as well as Catholic and Protestant scholastic theologies have been greatly distorted when they present eschatology as being concerned exclusively with the end of man and the world, in a perspective that is strictly linear and futuristic – either individual, or cosmic, or universal, but always “far away” and unreal. The gap between this futuristic eschatology of our textbooks, and frequently of our teaching, and the inaugurated or realized eschatology of the New Testament and of the ecclesial and liturgical life is enormous and dramatic. In our day, Fr. Alexander Schmemann has been able to reevaluate the eschatological dimension of worship and of the Eucharist. After him, John Zizioulas has endeavored, in turn, to emphasize the eschatological aspect of the eucharistic gathering of the Lord present in His Church.

To summarize in a few words the meaning of the New Testament and ecclesial eschaton (end), in order to apply it to the liturgical reality, I would translate it at the same time by the term “ultimate,” but also “end” (telos) and lastly, “fullness” (plêrôma). The conjunction, or convergence of these various meanings allows us to give the biblical eschaton its qualitative as well as its linear content. This qualitative sense of fullness and end characterizes the coming of the Savior, His entire work of redemption, and His life-giving presence in the Church. It is to this last aspect, the ecclesial and permanent mode of eschatology, that is, to the presence of the One who comes, that I would like to devote this chapter.

The Ascension of the Savior and the historical Pentecost (Acts 2) are two events that mark a boundary between the evangelical mode of the presence of Christ (manifested in the flesh, 1 Tim 3:16), and the ecclesial mode of this presence. If during the time of His life on earth, the Savior was the favourite, plenary locus of the presence of the Spirit, from then on the Spirit, who animates the ecclesial body of Christ, is, in turn, the locus, the proper space of the presence of Christ, of “the One who is, who was, and who is to come.” John Zizioulas recalled forcefully the “constituent” role of the Holy Spirit in the human life of Christ, on the one hand, and, on the other, in His sacramental and ecclesial presence.

…believers find themselves imprisoned in a space, a hermetically closed temporality, according to which the multiple existence of Christ concerns us, certainly, but as if from the outside, because Christ anticipates us, precedes us in history, overarches us in His heavenly glory and lets us wait for Him, without too much impatience, in a second coming that is ultimately very distant, even unreal. Such are the contours not only of our religious psychology, individual or collective, of our ecclesial societies – but such is also the hallmark of our cold, conceptual, scholastic theologies.

All this is, alas, in the “natural” order of things. It is difficult to speak abstractly of the ecclesial presence of Christ, to profess it apart from the fire of the Spirit, just as it is only in the blazing of the eucharistic Pentecost that “boldly and without condemnation we may dare to call upon God the Father, and to say, ‘Our Father.’”

Only in the liturgical action of the Eucharist does the One whose existence seemed far away and abstract, come near, in the liturgical action of the liturgy and in its inner and caritative correlations, that is, in the liturgy of the heart, and in the liturgy of mercy. Only then are the tight, spatial-temporal boundaries of the past, of the celestial and of the future, abolished in the presence of “the One who is, who was, and who is to come.”

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 169, 170-171.

There were a few comments a while ago that raised the topic of Thomas Merton’s relationship with Orthodoxy, and TheraP mentioned a review that he had written on Father Alexander Schmemann’s work. I had read the review in Monastic Studies (no. 4, Advent 1966: 105-115) earlier this year, and since reading Father Schmemann’s The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, had been wanting to return to it. TheraP drew my attention to the fact that it had also been included in the volume Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart & the Eastern Church (The Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series), and this weekend I have been visiting friends who have this book. The whole book looks fascinating and there are several other essays that I have dipped into and would like to read properly, both by Merton and by people like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Canon A.M. Allchin, Rowan Williams and Jim Forest. But I re-read his review of Father Schmemann’s Sacraments and Orthodoxy and of Ultimate Questions. Here are a few extracts:

Sacraments and Orthodoxy, a powerful, articulate and indeed creative essay in sacramental theology which rival Schillebeeckx and in some ways excels him. Less concerned than Schillebeeckx with some of the technical limitations of Catholic sacramental thought, Schmemann can allow himself to go the very root of the subject without having to apologize for his forthrightness or for his lack of interest in trivialities.

Let the reader be warned. If he is now predisposed to take a comfortable, perhaps exciting mysterious, excursion into the realm of a very “mystical” and highly “spiritual” religion, the gold-encrusted cult thick with the smoke of incense and populated with a legion of gleaming icons in the sacred gloom, a “liturgy which to be properly performed requires not less than twenty-seven heavy liturgical books,” he may find himself disturbed by Fr. Schmemann’s presentation. Certainly, Sacraments and Orthodoxy will repudiate nothing of the deep theological and contemplative sense of Orthodox faith and worship. But the author is intent on dispelling any illusions about the place of “religion” in the world of today. In fact, one would not suspect from the title of this book, it is one of the strongest and clearest statements of position upon this topic of the Church and the world. (474) ….


Father Alexander Schmemann continues this seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomby noting, in the words I quoted previously, that the loftier the word, the more ambiguous it is and the more discernment is needed. Words are in need not simply of definition, but of salvation, and this salvation can only come from God. Theology involves referring words to the reality of God, so that they become manifestation and gift.

The flaw of contemporary theology (including, alas, Orthodox theology) and its obvious impotence lies in the fact that it so often ceases to refer words to reality. It becomes “words about words,” definitions of a definition. Either it endeavours, as in the contemporary West, to translate Christianity into the “language of today,” in which case – because this is not only a “fallen” language but truly a language of renunciation of Christianity – theology is left with nothing to say and itself becomes apostasy; or, as we often see among the Orthodox, it attempts to thrust on “contemporary man” its own abstract and in many respects “archaic” language, which, to the degree that it refers neither to any reality nor to any experience for this “contemporary” man, remains alien and incomprehensible, and on which learned theologians, with the aid of all these definitions and interpretations, conduct experiments in artificial resuscitation.

But in Christianity, faith, as experience of an encounter and a gift received in this encounter, precedes words, for only from this experience do they find not simply their meaning but their power. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34). And thus words that are not referred to this experience or that are turned away from it inevitably become only words – ambiguous, easily changed and evil. (149)


This morning I was planning to go to Liturgy in Utrecht. I’d been to the church there once before, knew how to find it and the time of the service and so, in retrospect rather foolishly, didn’t think to look up their website before I left. And that resulted in me standing outside a locked and deserted church, where, for whatever reason, there was obviously no Liturgy. Having come all the way, it seemed rather a waste to just go home again and so I decided to try the Protestants. I was partly motivated by wanting to see inside the historic Dom Church, and partly because I have been conscious in recent months of how ignorant I am of Dutch Protestantism and had been thinking that it would good to attend a Protestant service sometime.

This ignorance is more specifically an ignorance of the Dutch Reformed Churches than of Protestantism generally. I once studied with Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants, to say nothing of having once been an Anglican. But because of various linguistic, geographical and political factors in my South African upbringing, I never had much contact with the Dutch Reformed Churches. And, given their role in propagating and upholding apartheid, I never had any motivation to seek contact with them, despite the real admiration I had for the prophetic leaders they produced such as Beyers Naude and Nico Smit. The only N.G. Kerk service that I can remember attending, although there may have been others, was in my final year of high school on the day of the vow, which was then a quasi-religious public holiday that commemorated the victory of the Boer armies over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. I had just completed a history research project on religious influence on Afrikaner nationalism and was curious to see what an N.G. day of the vow service was like. Whether because this was the Natal south coast rather than the heartland of the old Transvaal republics, or whether because by this stage (1983) the bonds of ideology were beginning to weaken, the service did not contain anything particularly remarkable. But it did reinforce my image of the N.G. Kerk – of a staid service, dominees (ministers) who wore white ties, the centrality of the pulpit in the church, and a communion service only once every three months.

Now I did know that contemporary Dutch protestants would be considerably different from the image I had of the N.G. Kerk. (And I’m also somewhat aware that the N.G. Kerk itself is in search of its own identity). But going into the Dom Church this morning I had no idea what to expect and felt about as clueless as western Christians who encounter an Orthodox Liturgy for the first time. I was late and entered during the homily and slipped into a seat in what I thought was a sort of annex near the pulpit. But I was really totally disorientated, for the pulpit, which I had assumed to be the central focus of the church, turned out to be at the back of the church. The seating was based on the elliptical model of two monastic choirs between the two poles of ambo and altar. The ambo, with a candle burning next to it, was just in front of the pulpit, and like it was facing East towards the altar. Moreover, the dominee was not wearing a white tie, but was clad in a black cassock and a green stole and, at a glance, could easily have been mistaken for an Orthodox priest. And after the homily, the action shifted towards the front of the church, to the altar, and the basic structure of the Eucharist that followed was fundamentally the same as an Anglican or Catholic Liturgy.

It was clearly a carefully prepared liturgy, people were welcoming, and there was a reverent spirit, far more so than one would find in some Catholic parishes. During the liturgy of the Eucharist everyone stood in a large circle, or rather oval, which they stayed in until after receiving communion which was passed around. When I heard that this was what one did I planned to leave before they went into the circle, as my experience elsewhere has been that it is often difficult not to receive communion in situations like that. But the circle started at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer and I was rather curious to see how it would proceed. And it was actually loose enough to make it easy to step back and not receive communion and nobody had a problem with that. The anaphora was probably not quite adequate according to Orthodox or Catholic standards, but I have known Catholics to use worse ones. In fact, if I were to be critical of their liturgy, it would not be because it is Protestant, but rather because of a certain vagueness of language that too-easily facilitates a transition from revealed religion to human religiosity – but that is a topic that is by no means confined to Protestants and which I intend writing on soon.

And so it was quite a disorientating experience. I have no idea how typical it is of Dutch Protestants, or what Calvin would think of it. And I found myself wondering whether this is part of the fruit of the ecumenical movement – that processes like BEM have actually led to Protestants discovering deeper sacramental roots and engaging in serious change. And then I can understand a little of their hurt that Catholics and Orthodox will still not recognise their sacraments. But it also made me realise that the issues dividing Christians are not as simple as they once were, and that the new divisions are often much more subtle and more difficult to name.

Father Alexander Schmemann continues the seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom,by focusing on the shifts that occurred in the shift in understand of the concept of unity. While the creed was introduced into the eucharistic liturgy at a relatively late stage (the beginning of the sixth century), its purpose was to set the limits of the eucharistic community in order to guard the faith from heresy.

…the inclusion of the symbol of faith in the order of the liturgy, which became universal relatively quickly, was nothing more than the confirmation of the originally obvious, organic and inalienable link between the unity of faith and the Church and her self-fulfilment in the eucharist. And this link constituted the heartbeat of the experience and life of the early Church. (141)

Father Schmemann argues that this link between the unity of faith and the Church, which is what precludes communion with those outside the Church, while still assented to, has become more a formality than something that lives in the consciousness of believers, for scholastic theology has separated this discipline from its living roots which is the primordial experience of the Eucharist as the sacrament of unity. In contemporary understanding the Eucharist has become an individualised “means of personal sanctification” to meet the “spiritual needs” of the believer, and this is sanctioned by and reflects the theological fragmentation that – influenced by the West – has isolated


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