Monday, 31 December 2007

Out with old, in with the new

By Patrick Comerford

The year opened with the news of the execution of Saddam Hussein, and ended with the tragedy of the murder of Benazir Bhutto (right). Both deaths are direct consequences of continuing western intervention in the Islamic states of western and central Asia, and the failure of this part of the world to understand the conflicts and tensions in the Islamic society.

While no-one can dispute that Saddam Hussein should have been removed from office, the manner in which this was achieved and his subsequent execution cannot be justified morally or politically. There is no doubting that Saddam was a brutal and cruel dictator, whose use and abuse of power brought about incalculable suffering and death. But since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, over 85,000 civilians have been murdered in Iraq – they are not in position to say now that their lives would have been safer if there had been no invasion of Iraq.

There was a general election in Ireland earlier this year, and it was the first time since 1973 that I was not working on a newsroom floor during a general election. During more than 30 years as a journalist, it was an occupational ritual to mark the end of a year by recalling the events of the previous 12 months through the tried-and-trusted formula of remembering those who died, reliving great sporting moments, counting the great events of state and church, re-telling your own travel stories and looking back on the new publications of the year gone by.

The great sporting events of 2007 are easy to recall. Who can forget the thrill of Ireland playing England – and winning – at Croke Park? What a moving day it was when God Save the Queen, Ireland’s Call and Amhrán na bhFiann were sung in Croke Park. But who wants to remember the poor Irish performance in France and the eventual humiliating defeat by Argentina? At least it wasn’t as humiliating as the desperate performance by the Irish soccer team.

There was the unexpected delight of Ireland becoming a world class cricket country with that defeat of Pakistan. And then there was the great showing by the Wexford camogie players and the inspirational performance by the Kilkenny hurlers after the tragedy and bereavement that hit James McGarry.

In Church affairs, there was the retirement of Archbishop Robin Eames and the election of Archbishop Alan Harper, and the well-deserved recognition of Archbishop Sean Brady when he was made a Cardinal. In my own way, I was surprised and honoured by the invitation to become a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

During the year, the Anglican Communion lost one of our greatest theologians with the death of John Macquarrie. The death also took place of Canon Chad Varah, who influenced every schoolboy of my generation through the Eagle, but who was also part of a living Anglican radical tradition.

One of the oldest Anglican mission agencies, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, re-launched itself in Ireland as USPG Ireland – Anglicans in World Mission. The Dublin University Far Eastern Mission (DUFEM) welcomed Archbishop Paul Kwong and the Revd Cindy Kwok from Hong Kong and Father Richard Lee from Taiwan to the Church of Ireland Theological College and to Trinity College Dublin, sent three students from Trinity College Dublin in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and sent a delegation to the centenary celebrations at Fuzhou Foreign Language School, which began life as Trinity College Fuzhou. Of course, DUFEM regrets Alan McCormack’s departure for London, and it has been a privilege for me to succeed him as Chair of DUFEM.

In politics, there was an election in the Republic and an amazing turnaround in political life in Northern Ireland. But the election in the Republic has still not changed the downward spiral in the provision of hospital and health services, or done anything to counter the development of a two-tier health service in this state. If we can’t find the resources to solve a crisis like this in our prosperity, how can we expect to cope with it in leaner times and adversity?

If any events reflect the self-centredness and inhumanity in some sectors of Irish society then they must have been the shoddy treatment of the Rostas family and 60 or so other Roma Gypsies when they were forcibly sent back to Romania after a swoop on their horrific living area in Ballymun in July, and the heartless deportation to Nigeria of six-year-old Great Agbonlahor and his mother Olivia. These two events alone make me realise the important contribution Discovery must continue to make to the life of the Church of Ireland and the timeliness of the publication of my own book, Embracing Difference, by Church of Ireland Publishing on behalf of the Church in Society Committee.

We read about the deportation of the Rostas family while we were on holiday in Italy … a holiday that was spent on the shores of Lake Garda but that included visits to Venice, Milan and the delightful town of Bergamo. We missed getting to Greece this year, but were very moved by the descriptions friends sent us of the devastation wrought by the forest fires throughout Greece. Later in the year as a family we also had a wonderful weekend in Bucharest in Romania. And there was much travel in England (working visits to London, Oxford and Birmingham, and three stays in glorious Lichfield), as well as discovering the charms of Llandaff in Wales.

And what a pleasure it was to be back in Wexford for the launch of The Wexford Man, a festschrift to Nicky Furlong edited by Bernard Browne, published by Geography Publications, and launched by Martin Mansergh. Fellow contributors include Billy Roche, with his trip down memory lane through Wexford’s streets, John Banville, Colm Tóibín, Louis Cullen, Tom Dunne, Daniel Gahan, Celestine Rafferty … and there’s Kevin Whelan’s delightful account of Wexford hurling.

The deaths of both Luciano Pavarotti and Marcel Marceau were a great loss. In Ireland, we have all been moved by the story surrounding the Susie Long, by the circumstances in which Katy French died, by the loss to politics – North and South – through the death of David Irvine, and by the tragic family disasters in Monageer and Omagh. But everyone in the literary world and in the arts also mourned the passing of Bendedict Kiely, Anthony Clare and John Moriarity.

And then, as the year was coming to an end, there was the unexpected death of Desmond Harman. It was a sad end to the year for the Church of Ireland: Des was a good friend who died too young, he had been inspirational in setting up the Bishops’ Appeal Fund for World Development, and he still had much to offer the church as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, as one of the secretaries of General Synod, and through his work in the Porvoo Contact Group.

Death and tragedy also marked the end of the year when it came to global events. Benazir Bhutto was a student at Oxford when Barbara and I were regular visitors there in the 1970s. Despite her fast-paced lifestyle, she shared her father’s radical outlook and values, and had taken a strong stand against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, we were friendly with Brenda and Said Yasin, and I still recall how disturbed he was by the arrest of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and his subsequent judicial murder, as Benazir described it, in 1979. Later that year, we visited Pakistan twice, staying first in Karachi, in Bhutto heartland, returning later to stay in Islamabad during Ramadan.

Benazir Bhutto took a brave decision to return to Pakistan in October. Her political performance hasn’t always been as graceful as she was, and her husband is certainly not beyond reproach. But her return to Pakistan was a necessary step in galvanising the movement for the restoration of democracy.

The Mushareef regime has been kept in power by the very same people who smugly justified the invasion of Iraq with the excuse of toppling Saddam Hussein – and that has led directly to the death of 85,000 civilians. Not surprisingly, the Mushareef regime has tried to shift the blame for her death, whether it was to al-Qaeda at one extreme, or – in a more absurd manner – to Benazir herself, because she was standing up in her car. But the regime must answer for this murder. How did the gunman and bomber slip through the tight cordon and metal-detector tests that had been in place around her because of her meeting with the President of Afghanistan? Were the police and military involved in the previous assassination attempt after her return to Pakistan in October?

The best answers to these questions can be only be provided when the election takes place in Pakistan. As her son quoted her, “Democracy is the best revenge.”

Have a Happy New Year.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Flight into Egypt

Luc-Olivier Merson’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879) reminds us of the stark reality of the hardship and deprivation suffered by a family on the run

Patrick Comerford

Isaiah 63: 7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2: 10-18; Matthew 2: 13-23.

In the name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

After Christmas, most people want some rest and quiet.

For some families, the loss of a loved one at Christmas time, a dear family member, has made celebrating Christmas a very difficult if not impossible task. But for the vast majority of people in this city, there has been too much shopping, too many parties, too many sales, too many visitors and too much to eat and drink. Lethargy has settled in among many families, and for them the New Year celebrations tomorrow night will come as a welcome relief from the tedium.

This is only the sixth day of Christmas. But by the time the 12 days of Christmas have passed, many will be tired of the seven swans a-swimming, the six geese a-laying … and only too happy to get back to work, and to begin looking at the summer holiday brochures.

However, our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that it was not like this for the Holy Family in the days after their first Christmas. That first Christmas was not one filled with tedium and boredom. They were not looking forward to the release of the holiday brochures for the Mediterranean sun. Instead, their first Christmas was the very opposite of our comfortable holiday season in Northern Europe.

Who among us would swap the tedium and boredom of the coming week for that time Mary and Joseph had with the Christ Child? Harried by Herod’s army, they barely escaped a maniacal plot for mass murder, and ended up in exile where their ancestors had once been slaves, seeking succour and refuge with the Jewish diaspora by the Nile and the Pyramids.

The Flight into Egypt was no bargain package holiday. Rather, it was an ordeal that inspired artists throughout the centuries. It has been painted by Fra Angelico, Giotto, Carpaccio, Durer, Claude Lorrain, Tintoretto, Barbieri, Tiepolo … the great Dutch and Italian masters, indeed most of the great Western artists.

Matthew’s unique account of this event had many resonances for his first readers: it is a powerful restructuring of the story of Joseph forced into exile in Egypt because of the evil plots hatched against him. And the exodus from Egypt in later, safer, days, would point anew towards redemption from slavery and sin and offer the hope of imminent salvation.

Later legends surrounding the Flight into Egypt include the family hiding in a cave and being protected by a spider’s web, the beasts of the desert bowing in homage to the Christ Child, an encounter with two thieves who would be crucified beside Jesus on Calvary, and palm trees bending in reverence as Mary and Joseph passed by with the Child Jesus.

But there is a painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by the French artist, Luc-Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879), that reminds us of the stark reality of the hardship and deprivation suffered by a family on the run.

A tired and weary Mary languishes between the front limbs of the sphinx, cradling the Child Jesus on her lap, both unable to sleep because of their plight and because of what they have witnessed; an exhausted Joseph is stretched out on the sands as he tries to doze off; and the donkey, that little donkey, worn out from the journey from Bethlehem, scavenges in the dark in the desert soil, seeking what few blades of grass he can find to eat.

Legend says that when they found shelter on the banks of Nile the Holy Family lived in an area known as Babylon in Egypt, where there was a long, continuous Jewish presence. Although those stories of flight and exile are unique to Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, they also appear in the Quran, and are part of the way Muslims come to own the story of Jesus within their own religious traditions.

On various visits to Egypt, I was aware that the stories of the flight into Egypt, the refuge, the welcome and the asylum offered to the Holy Family there, are stories shared and definitive for all Egyptians, including Muslims, the large Christian community, and the dwindling but ancient Jewish community.

Many shrines and churches are claimed as places where the family rested or dwelt, none more so than Abu Sergha or the Church of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus, one of the oldest Coptic Churches in Egypt, and the place where many Patriarchs of Alexandria or Coptic Popes were elected.

Every Egyptian today – Jew, Christian and Muslim – identifies with both the Holy Family and those who offered them asylum. But who would we here in Ireland identify with if you and I were hearing this story of mass murder and enforced exile for the first time?

Would I have been among the innkeepers who first refused them a welcome at my inn or hostel in Bethlehem?

Would I have been willing to work with the political apparatus around the Herod of my day, holding onto power and privilege, inspiring fear rather than respect and loyalty, no matter who had to be trampled on, no matter who suffered, no matter how the innocent would be counted among the victims?

Would I have had the courage of the wandering Magi, not only to seek truth, even if it is outside my own area of learning and knowledge, but also willing to take the risks involved in refusing to respect the immoral demands of those holding the reins of power when they are lawful but patently immoral?

When was I last like Joseph, realising that God’s promptings are not idle dreams but that they demand discipleship and action, even if this puts my personal security at risk?

When did I listen to the voice of today’s Rachels, the weeping mothers and widows, whether at a local level it was listening to the grief of someone who has lost a dear family member at Christmas time, or at a global level it was listening to those who are weeping in grief in Bosnia or Serbia, Pakistan, Burma or Rwanda?

Would I be among those Egyptians – of whatever religious or political background – who could offer asylum to refugees from political persecution?

If things have changed in Ireland as a direct consequence of the success of the “Celtic Tiger” in the last decade or two, then the story of Herod’s jealous plot, and of the Flight into Egypt have radical relevance to us today.

We cannot be open to the plight of the fleeing Holy Family unless we are open to the plight and needs of the families who have come to live among us in Ireland in recent years – whatever their political, social or ethnic backgrounds may be.

We cannot understand the plight of families who saw the hope of future generations sacrificed in the interest of political greed unless we too are willing to stand against political and personal greed today.

We cannot praise the disobedience of the Magi unless we are willing to say regularly that morality in politics must overrule the personal interests, gain and profit of those who hold office.

We cannot rejoice in the welcome the Egyptians gave to Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, unless we are also willing to rejoice in every initiative, every stage in the process of dialogue that brings Jews, Christians and Muslims together in our own country: We have 20,000 to 40,000 Muslims living in Ireland today, and they have more to offer our society – culturally, intellectually, socially and politically – than we have yet had the courage to acknowledge and accept.

We cannot pity the plight of that family in exile unless we can acknowledge the needs of the new families living among us today. How can a family waiting for adjudication on its refugee status survive with dignity on direct provision with less than €20 a week and no right to seek work?

A year before his death, the great missionary bishop in Zanzibar, Bishop Frank Weston, declared in 1923: “You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary – but … it is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.”[1]

To paraphrase Bishop Weston, if we cannot realise the presence of Christ among us in the refugee, the asylum seeker, the immigrant and the person of another faith, that Christ who identifies with those who suffer and are persecuted as brothers and sisters, [Hebrews 2: 10-18], how can we be aware of his presence among us in Word or Sacrament?

May you have a Happy New Year.

In the name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 30 December 2007.

[1] Frank Weston, “Our Present Duty,” Report of the Anglo-Catholic Congress (1923), pp 185-186.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Love came down on Christmas Day

A Christmas sermon

by Patrick Comerford

Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I suppose you’re all “carol-ed” out at this stage.

For me, they all began with the Advent Carol Service for the theological college at the beginning of the month in Zion Parish Church. But for many of there have also been the parish carol services, the school carol services, the cathedral carol services, and the carol service in Marlay Park on Saturday afternoon. There have been carols with Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy, Ryan Tubridy and every other broadcaster.

To add to them all, one evening last week we also went to the Carol Service in Orlagh, the Augustinian retreat house in the hills just above Ballycullen and Knocklyon.

It was a cold and crisp but bright and beautiful night. The stars filled the night sky as I peered out the chapel window.

And as I looked out over the city, those words of the Prophet Isaiah came to life, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” [Isaiah 9: 2]. It was as though the lights right across Dublin City and Dublin Bay were their own star-filled galaxies spreading across one more beautiful part of God’s whole creation, from the Dublin foothills, across the bay to Howth Head and perhaps even – if I let my imagination run away a little that starry, starry night – as far as the Mountains of Mourne in Co Down.

We are partners in God’s creation, and I felt that evening, that I was living somewhere very beautiful within God’s wondrous cosmos.

That beautiful vision from the hills across the star-filled sky and above the light-filled city filled me with a sense of the beauty of the Kingdom of God.

But then, for a moment, I wondered about another star-filled night. It was one of the carols that made me think of the shepherds who sat in the dark on the hills above David’s Royal City, Bethlehem. As they looked across the city lights that night, why were they terrified [Luke 2: 8-10] rather than being filled with wonder and awe? And then, once the angels had spoken, did they see the city and the world beneath them in all their beauty? Were they already waiting in hope – a hope that lets all of us know that we when we are welcome at the Christ-child’s crib in the stable in Bethlehem, and we are equally welcome before the throne of Christ in his kingdom? [Titus 2: 13.]

When we are called to knell before Christ the Child we are also called to knell before Christ the King.

On the first Christmas, the first visitors to the place where Jesus was born were shepherds and Magi. Not the Mayor of Bethlehem or King Herod from neighbouring Jerusalem … if the first visitors were going to be local people, they were going to be shepherds. They were local Jewish people, but they were on the margins of society, manual labourers, shift-workers, out on the edges of the city, poorly paid and kept in the dark. If the first visitors were going to be powerful kings or wise scholars, then they were not going to be the king in his palace in Jerusalem or worldly-wise Sadducean priests from the Temple, but once again people from the margins, magi from the east, where the Children of Israel had been exiled and had suffered a few generations earlier; people whose religious views and practices were suspect and superstitious.

Those first visitors represent the ignorant and the wise, the religiously naïve and the religious sophisticates. They are manual labourers and the bookish scholars, they are Jews and Gentiles, they are the poor and the rich. They continue to remind us today that Christ came to all and to everyone, to be a “great joy” for the whole world. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” [Titus 2: 11].

Christ’s coming brings with it is a promise of hope not just for you and for me, not even for those who share our beliefs and values, not even for the whole world, but for the whole of God’s created order.

As an item on Sky news reminded us last night, both Saint Mark’s Gospel and Saint John’s Gospel are without any Christmas story. In those two Gospels, there are no stars above Bethlehem, no shepherds on the hillside, no three wise men following a star. However, Saint John’s Gospel keeps our focus on what really is at the heart of the Christmas message. He tells us that God so loved – not me, not us, not the church, not even humanity, not even (as too many of our Bibles translate it) that God so loved the world … but God so loved the cosmos, that he sent his only son …

God’s love is bigger than us. God’s love is bigger than the Church. God’s love is bigger than our world. God’s love is sent in Christ this Christmas morning to fill the whole created order, the whole cosmos, with love.

And as I sat looking out over the hills and the city and up into the starry sky and that great cosmos, I was brought back down to earth when someone read a lesson that was a parody on a well-known New Testament passage on the centrality of Christian love and Christmas love.

This Christmas version of I Corinthians 13 was received by the Augustinian community at Orlagh by email, and the source is unknown. But it was a good reminder of how love must be at the heart of all we do in our families this Christmas:

If I decorate my house perfectly with holly and ivy, strands of twinkling lights and shiny silver balls,
but do not show love to my family,
I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cakes and mince pies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table for the Christmas dinner,
but do not show love to my family,
I’m just another cook.

If I work in the Simon shelter or soup kitchen, sing carols in the nursing home and give all I have to charity,
but do not show love to my family,
it profits me nothing.

If I trim the Christmas tree with silver angels and pretty little snowflakes, attend a myriad of office holiday parties, and sing carols with the choir,
but do not focus on Christ,I have missed the point.

Love stops the cooking to hug the child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband or wife. Love is kind,
even if it is harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has co-ordinated Christmas china, table runners and place mats.

Love doesn’t yell at the kinds to get out of the way,
but is thankful that they are there to be in the way.

Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return,
but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things;
Love never fails;
The X-Box and video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust;
But giving the gift of love will endure.

Happy Christmas, and lots of love to you and all yours.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached on Christmas Day, 25 December 2007, at the Parish Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Does Christmas Day really matter?

Patrick Comerford

Birthdays are important celebrations, not just for the person whose birthday it is, but for the whole family. Families are changed and shaped by new births: no family remains the same after a birth; new relationships are formed that can never be dissolved; I am always my father’s son, long after he died, by brother’s brother long after his death. They retain their places in our family, and we remember their birthdays each year.

Over the past few weeks, it must have been difficult for many, as they looked at the advertising for cheap slabs of beer and decidedly unhealthy food, and at the images of jolly, rotund men in white, to realise that at the heart of all our busy-ness over these weeks, we are preparing as Christians to throw our family birthday party for Jesus. But that’s what we’re preparing to do on Christmas Day.

Birthdays are important ... and not just for children.

We all know, as adults, how nice it is when someone unexpected and unexpectedly remembers our birthday. Even if I don’t want to be reminded about my age, it is nice to know that others are happy that I was born.

There are some people who say sadly they only see other members of the family at baptisms, birthdays, weddings and funerals. Sometimes, they’re the only times they go to Church too, to tell the truth. But these are the events that make families, and the events that often hold families together.

What mother ever forgets her own child’s birthday, no matter what tragedies, what family woes, have intervened over the years? What mother of father, who has seen their child die, even their own grown child, could ever forget that child’s birthday? What father, who has poured out all his love with his own child, wouldn’t be happy to celebrate the birthdays of other children who have also been made in his own image and likeness? So, Christmas Day is a birthday that we can all celebrate, knowing God is happy that we would want to celebrate it too.

I was amused at different times to realise the people I shared the same date of birth with: Sean MacBride, Stefan Grepelli, Jacqueline du Pré, Paul Newman … although I was not quite the same age, and never aspired to be a musician, an actor or so consummate a politician. But one of the people who has influenced me for many, many years, and who shared the same birthday as me – although he was forty years older than me – was the late Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, a former Dean of Saint Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg.

Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was born in Shanghai, the son of an expatriate Irish alcoholic cotton company executive. He had a very unhappy childhood and youth, was brought up with little contact with the church, and none with Anglicanism. And at one stage he ended up on the streets as a hobo. But he underwent his own religious conversion one Christmas Eve in Saint Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg.

The dean of the cathedral had locked the doors to keep drunken revellers out from Midnight Mass. But, because December is midsummer in South Africa, it was a hot night. And as the doors remained closed, the air became completely still.

Many years later, Gonville could still recall that Christmas night: “I knelt at the communion rail, and as I knelt there I felt a very strong cool breeze – and that was all. I do not think that at the time I had any idea what the word ‘breath’ or the word ‘wind’ means to the Christian, or even that the Greek word for the Holy Spirit means breath. I did not even think of Jesus breathing the spirit on his disciples. All I know is that this breath, or wind, which I felt, had a meaning and a content for me which I have never been able to communicate to anyone else, and still cannot describe.”

He was ordained in 1939, and pastoral experience in a mining town made him disgusted at the system of apartheid. He spent ten years as Dean of Salisbury, but returned to South Africa in 1965 as Dean of Saint Mary’s, the cathedral in Johannesburg built by an early S.P.G. missionary from Ireland, John Darragh.

As dean, Gonville opened his cathedral doors – those same doors that had been kept closed that Christmas night – to black protesters who were being chased up the cathedral steps by police who were beating them with rhino whips and police dogs snapping at their heels.

At Christmastime in 1970, Gonville publicly denounced the “South African way of life” as the “South African way of death.” In January 1971 the dean was arrested, and he spent his 59th birthday in jail, where he was brutally interrogated.

I was deeply influenced by the practical Christianity of the dean in the months that followed as he went on trial: I was a 19-year-old, I had just had my first adult experience of God’s love in my life, and I wanted to know what a commitment to Christianity would mean for my future, to make the connection between faith and discipleship.

That first Christmas experience of Christ giving a real Christmas present, the gifts of the Spirit, was still alive for the dean 40 years later.

And his bravery and courage in those months taught me very clearly about the need for faith to be related to action in the world. His fortitude in the face of adversity taught me not to be afraid of the cost of discipleship.

In his prison diary, the jailed dean wrote that every morning he “stood in front of a piece of wall between the two barred and grilled high windows, which was the nearest thing to a cross that I could find in the cell. I faced it as I would an altar and said what I could remember of the Mass. Later when I had my office book, I could read part of an Epistle or Gospel as well, but from the first morning I said the Creed, and prayed generally where the Prayer for the Church comes, and made a short confession; then I said the Sanctus by heart and made a spiritual communion. This is something I have never really experienced before, though I have read about it and advised people to do it. But I can say with complete certainty that the communion that I received then was as real as any communion that I have ever received sacramentally.”

The dean was convicted and sentenced to jail. Although he won his appeal, he was forced to leave South Africa: he paid for his convictions with a lifetime in exile.

But he taught me some very important lessons:

That first Christmas night, when he knelt to receive communion, Gonville felt Christ breathing the Spirit on him, just as he had given the Spirit to his Disciples.

When Christ comes into our lives, it isn’t always as comfortable as the Christmas-card images would like us to think the Christmas experience should be.

Christ comes into our lives at Christmas, and every day is Christmas for us when we really experience his incarnation in our lives.

And when Christ comes into our lives, he calls us to discipleship.

Some purists might try telling us that Christmas Day doesn’t matter, that it’s really Good Friday and Easter that matter in the Christian calendar. But Christmas Day does matter. Birthdays, weddings and funerals matter in all good families.

And, as we celebrate Christ’s birthday on Christmas Day, we can welcome the opportunity to be called afresh every day to discipleship, to having the cool breeze of God refreshing us and challenging us anew, so that even in the events of life that become our own prison experience, we can look forward not just to the redemption of Good Friday, but to the eternal joy of Easter.

Have a very happy Christmas this year.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Monday, 10 December 2007

The Nicene Creed: finding the Creed in Rublev’s icon

Saint Andrei Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity: an invitation to enter into the mysteries expressed in the Creed

Patrick Comerford

We were back in Romania recently for a family visit. There you find that every surface of the churches – including the walls and ceilings, sometimes the outside surfaces as well as inside surfaces – are covered with images from Scripture and the lives of the saints. But these images aren’t just to make the churches look pretty or to remind worshippers of stories from the past.

In the Creed, we are reminded of the communion of saints, that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and this given visible expression in the frescoes and icons in churches throughout the world. In the Pastoral Epistles, we are reminded that when we worship the saints are invisibly alongside us, “in every place lifting holy hands” (I Timothy 2: 8). When we look around and see these friends surrounding us, it is as if for a moment the veil is lifted, and we see what a great company of believers we are part of.

But there are some things that are not depicted in Orthodox churches. There is an important safeguard in the tradition of Christian sacred art that keeps us from descending into idolatry. The reason for this is that we ought not to make images of things that God has not shown us. In the Orthodox tradition, you can write an icon of Christ, because he was born and walked on this earth. But you seldom see an icon of the Trinity. Instead, the Trinity is often symbolised geometrically, by a triangle or triquetra.

There is one point in Scripture, however, when God is revealed in three persons simultaneously, and sometimes that event is depicted as a representation of the Trinity. At the baptism of Jesus, we see Jesus, and we see the Holy Spirit as a dove, but we only hear the voice of God. The one time when the Trinity is revealed simultaneously is in Genesis 18: 1-16 in the story of the Visitation of Abraham: “The Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him” (Genesis 18: 1-2).

The story in Genesis does not encourage us to fix too closely on distinctions between the three visitors. “They” speak to Abraham, but later it is “the Lord” who is speaking. “The men” depart, but “Abraham still stood before the Lord.” The three visitors or angels who appear to Abraham and Sarah are a visitation from the Lord – God has appeared to them in the form of three persons.

Andrei Rublev and his icon

One of the most famous representations of this story is in Andrei Rublev’s icon often known as “The Old Testament Trinity.” I have copies of this icon over my desk in my study at home and in my study at the Church of Ireland Theological College. It must be the best-known and most-admired icon among Western Christians. It was written in 1411 by Andrei Rublev (Андрéй Рублёв) (ca 1360/1370-ca 1430), a Russian monk who is considered the greatest mediaeval Russian writer of icons and frescoes. He first comes to attention in 1405, when he was writing icons and frescoes for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin, Moscow, alongside Theophanes the Greek, from Constantinople. But the only work authenticated as entirely his is the icon of the Old Testament Trinity (ca 1410), now in the Tretyakov Gallery on Moscow.

Rublev worked with lightness, clarity, an ethereal touch that few could match, and a great sense of freshness, combining the highest asceticism with the classic harmony of Byzantine manners. The characters in his icons and frescoes are always peaceful and calm. After some time his work came to be perceived as the ideal in Orthodox iconography. In 1988, he was declared a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, which celebrates his memory on 4 July.

When his abbot, Saint Sergius of Radonezh, died, Rublev wrote this icon to hang over his tomb.Sometimes, in icons presenting the Old Testament Trinity, Abraham and Sarah are seen in the background, holding plates of food. In those cases, the icon is known as “The Hospitality of Abraham.” But in Rublev’s icon, the three figures sit alone.

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is a profound symbol of Trinitarian love, and draws the beholder into the communio personarum of the Trinity. It is often used in discussions of the mystery of the Trinity, and in his preface to The Trinity and the Kingdom, Jurgen Moltmann acknowledges Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity as his inspiration for writing this book.

The three faces are identical and help us to understand the nature of the Trinity. Theologians would warn us against distinguishing the three into separate bodies as this suggests division, rather than the unity of the Trinity. It would be safer, perhaps, to understand that all three together somehow represent the Trinity. But the three figures are enclosed in an artist’s circle, illustrating the co-inherence of the Trinity. Each figure wear a blue garment – the colour of the heavens – but each wears something that speaks of their own identity.

Setting the scene

The scene in Rubelv's icon comes from Genesis 18: 1-15. Three mysterious strangers visit Abraham, and he hastily orders his servants to prepare a meal for them, and he treats the three with great reverence. The guests are described simply as three men, but when Abraham addresses them, they respond in unison (the author of Genesis writes “they said”).

Curiously, at times only one of the men addresses Abraham, and when he does he is named as the Lord. The Lord appeared to Abraham, but when he looks out of his tent to see who is there, he sees three men. The author makes no mention of Abraham being frightened by this apparition, or questioning the unity of the three in speech, and the obvious priority of the one. The text says that the Lord appeared, but it does not clearly state that Abraham knew that it was God himself who was visiting him. Whether he knew his visitors to be God or merely his messengers, Abraham offers them his finest hospitality.

For many, this scene is a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Trinitarian God that will come with Christ’s Incarnation. Abraham’s three visitors are viewed as being God-Yahweh, God’s Word, and God’s Spirit: in other words, the Holy Trinity. Such a reading of this scene can only be made through the lens of the Incarnation, and Christ’s revelation of the Father and Holy Spirit, both in what he said, and what he did – the manifestation of the Trinity at Christ’s baptism, and in his Transfiguration. Similarly, Rublev could only portray this scene iconographically because of the Incarnation of Christ, who is the perfect icon of the Father.

Reading the Creeds in the icon

If this icon is a presentation of Trinitarian truths, it serves too as an exploration of further theological truths, for in Rublev’s icon we can find a summary of the teachings of the Nicene Creed.

Within the Orthodox Church, the Nicene Creed is sometimes divided into 12 sections for catechesis. And each of those 12 sections of the Creed is heklpful as we pray with Rublev's icon and enter into the mysrery of the Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen.

All three figures portrayed in the icon have a few things in common. Each holds a rod, a half shepherd’s crook and half sceptre, symbolising the equality among the three. Each wears a cloak of blue, the colour symbolic of divinity in iconographic language. And each face is exactly the same, perhaps another sign of the oneness in the distinction of the three.

Nevertheless, the figures are seated in their doxological order: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The first figure is at rest within itself. This figure wears a blue garment that is almost hidden by a shimmering, ethereal robe. “You robe yourself in light as in a garment” (Psalm 104: 2). This represents the Father, the One who is Creator, who cannot be seen by his human creatures. Both hands clasp the staff. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to the Father.

The Father’s divinity (the blue tunic) is cloaked in a colour that is light and almost transparent, yet opaque as well, symbolising the ineffable, hidden nature of the Creator and Lord of all. In one hand he holds the rod, and with the other he blesses, as if to show that he is pleased with the Son’s acceptance of his mission. His gaze is turned toward the other two, but his head is not inclined – rather, Son and Spirit incline their heads toward him, acknowledging the one who is their origin and source.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

The central figure is Christ, the Word and Son of God, whos is at the centre of all creation, and through whom all things are made. Theis second figure also wears the blue of divinity. Both Father and Spirit wear blue, but is the other colour in which the second figure is robed earth brown or royal purple? Reddish purple is a symbol of royal priesthood. Christ is royalty – the King – and he is Priest, the one who condescends to his creation and becomes part of it. Christ is the High Priest, the one in whose place stands every earthly priest who celebrates the Liturgy.

If then it is purple, it is deep purple-red. This is the purple of royalty, rather than the lavender or so-called “royal purple” we think of today. Purple fabric was very expensive. Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles may have been a very rich woman as a trader in purple goods (Acts 16: 14). In ancient times, the only source of purple dye was a tiny gland at the back of the head of the murex snail. Only the wealthiest could afford it, and so purple was associated exclusively with royalty. Over his purple tunic the Son wears a blue mantle, indicating divinity.

On the other hand, if the second figure is robed in brown rather than purple, the colour of the garment speaks of the earth and of his humanity. The gold stripe speaks of kingship, for this is the Christ. But it is worn like a deacon’s stole, for this is the Servant King.

With his two fingers, formed to spell the Greek letters Chi-Rho, an abbreviation of the word Christ, the Son blesses the cup at the centre of the table. The cup he blesses, as one of the visitors, is the calf Abraham ordered to be slaughtered and prepared. In the symbolic language of the icon, however, the cup contains the sacrificial Lamb, a foreshadowing of His sacrifice on the cross. His blessing shows his acceptance of this sacrifice, as does the inclination of his head and its gaze toward the figure to his left – the Father.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man (truly human).

What do we mean by saying he "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit"? The Spirit lays his hand on the table as if to signify that he will be with the Son throughout his mission. It is for us and our salvation that he came down from heaven. Indeed, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Incarnation takes place. The Father blesses the Son for his acceptance of this saving work that will invite his creation – all of humankind – to participate in the communion of the Trinity. Their love is not self-enclosed, but reaches beyond the Trinity, and this is the model for the love of all human persons.

The Christ figure rests two fingers on the table – laying onto it his divine and his human nature. He points to a cup filled with wine. He is the incarnate Lord, and he is present to us today as we share in the common cup of the Eucharist.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.

Behind the second figure is a tree. This could be the oak tree at Mamre under which the three angelic visitors rested. The hospitality of Abraham and Sarah was rewarded in the gift of a son. This is an important lesson in the value of hospitality.

But the tree also represents the Cross on which Christ died. This is the tree of death which becomes the tree of eternal life – it was lost to humanity by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but was restored to us by the obedience of Jesus. The Cross is the place where death and life confront each other, where death gives way to resurrection and eternal life.

On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;

The niche in the front of the altar represents the empty tomb of Christ.

he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

The Son and Spirit incline their heads toward the Father, who is the Source. Yet they do not dissolve into each other, or into him. Each is a subject – a hypostasis – and yet they are one. The icon shows the divine taxis of the Father as arche or source; the Spirit as the one who prepares the way for the Son’s mission and, at the same time, is intimately tied to him; and the Son, deferring in everything to the will of the Father, accepting the sacrifice he must make, and accomplishing all through the Holy Spirit. And so the Ascended Christ, the Son, is now seated at the right hand of the Father.

The second figure is the Risen Christ, in all his ascended glory, who is now seated to the right of the Father – from from our perspective, from where we stand to view the icon and to enter into the mystery of the Trinity. In most representations of the Trinity in Orthodox theology, icon writers often relied on the symbolism of a triangle. In Rublev’s theology of the Trinity, the Father is the first point of the triangle, the arche, the source – both the Son and the Spirit originate in or proceed from him.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
strong>and his kingdom will have no end.

The tree behind the second figure, the Christ figure, is also the tree of life in Revelation, which bears 12 kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year, and the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations. This is the Christ who will return again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and to usher in his Kingdom, which will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father
[and the Son]
who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

The figure seated to the right of the icon represents the Holy Spirit. He wears a cloak of green over the blue of his divinity, symbolising life and regeneration. The action of the Holy Spirit transfigures and transforms, and it is through him that we are invited to experience new life, especially through the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), Eucharist, and Marriage.

The Spirit’s head is inclined toward the middle figure and draws our eyes there as well. As he does in the life of Christ in the New Testament, the Spirit is pointing us toward the Word, revealing to the beholder of the icon who he is.

The Christ figure in turn inclines towards the figure on the left – and we are drawn to gaze there too. A blue robe speaks of divinity, while a green robe represents new life – the new Life in the Spirit.

The green mantle of the Spirit, scintillating with light, is another of Rublev’s achievements. Green belongs to the Spirit because the Spirit is the source of life. On the Feast of Pentecost, Orthodox churches are decorated with greenery, boughs and branches, and many people will come to church dressed in green or wearing some green clothing.

To refer just briefly to the controversy over the Western insertion of the filioque clause into the Creed, it is worth noting that the Spirit inclines towards the central figure, drawing our gaze to the Christ figure. And the Son and the Spirit both bow their heads to the Father.

But all three show equality in other ways. Each carries a slim red staff, an emblem of authority. The Son and the Holy Spirit both gaze towards the Father, inclining their heads. There is an expression of deference, which is reflected in the version of the Nicene Creed that Rublev would have recited daily: the Son is begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father.

The Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit begins: “O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life …” In the Creed, the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life. This sense of the Spirit as the source of life, everywhere present, filling all things, contributes to one of the distinctive insights and approaches of Orthodox theology, which is intimately bound up with daily life. There is no such thing as theology which is purely intellectual. If theology fails to change me, if it fails to flood me with light, then it is ineffective.

The Spirit touches the table – earthing the divine life of God. It is the Holy Spirit who has spoken through the prophets. Notice the mountain behind the third figure. Mountains are places where people often encountered God, places where heaven and earth seem to touch. Moses met God on mountains. Elijah, as he sought refuge in the crag on the mountain, could not find God in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire, but in the gentle breeze that carried the voice of God deep into his being. Jesus was transfigured while in prayer on a mountain.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Rublev’s icon is the icon of the Church, more than any other icon. “The Church is the body of Christ, the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and the abode of the Holy Trinity. It is not primarily a sociological phenomenon, but a gift of God the Holy Trinity. That is why we speak in the Church about the mystery of the graced human person living in time the eternal mystery of the Trinity.” – [The Church of the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed Statement of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue, 2006, I/22, p. 18.]

The three figures sit around a stone table that early Christians would have recognised as an altar. The niche in the front represents a tomb – not only the empty tomb of Christ, but also the Christian custom from the time of the catacombs of placing the bones of departed believers beneath their altars.

All three figures make a similar gesture towards the chalice with their right hands – note that the Father and the Son are holding their fingers in the form of a blessing. On the table is a gold chalice containing red wine mixed with bread. This is how the Eastern Orthodox prepare the Eucharist, by combining leavened bread and wine in the same chalice and receiving from a spoon.

The Son, the central figure, accepts the cup of sacrifice. In the celebration of the Holy Mysteries or sacraments in the Orthodox Church, the Eucharistic bread (prosphora) is leavened, symbolising the risen Lord who is alive, just as the yeast in the leavening is “alive.” Bread and wine – Body and Blood – are distributed together from a chalice with a golden spoon, and a small amount of warm water is added to the chalice, symbolising the warmth of the “living Blood” of Christ being received. As he pours the water into the chalice, the priest says, “The warmth of the Holy Spirit.”

It is worth paying attention to the way in which Rublev has handled perspective in his icon. The top of the table, and the tops of the pedestals the Father and Spirit rest their feet upon, tilt dramatically towards us, as if we are looking down on the scene from above.

At the level of the figures’ faces, however, we seem to be looking at the three directly from about shoulder height. The perspective has been intentionally distorted it in order to give us a sensation that the scene is bursting out toward us, with the chalice in the centre pressing itself our way.In conventional works of art, we expect things to get smaller as they go into the distance, like your childhood drawings of railway tracks that converge in the far distance. Icons often play with reversing or distorting perspective, in order to increase the viewer’s sense of being off-balance and in an unfamiliar, powerful world, or even to feel that the whole scene is rushing towards me, converging on me and challenging me to get the bigger picture.

The viewer is the vanishing point; if God did not sustain us, we would vanish. The beholder is drawn into the circle that embraces the Trinity by the gesture of the Spirit towards the small rectangle at the base of the table. This is where we are included in the divine circle. This rectangular space speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Every human person is made in God’s image, and as such is made in the image of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person who is baptised actually enters into the life of the Trinity in a unique way, and takes his or her first steps on the path toward divinisation – a path only to be realised in its fullness in the eschaton.

“At your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to you, calling you his ‘Beloved Son,’ and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who appeared and enlightened the world, glory be to you!” – Troparion for the Feast of Theophany

The icon of the Trinity is a theophany, and the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan is a theophany, when the Father presents Christ as his beloved Son, and this revelation is made known through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

Behind the first figure is a house – the dwelling place of God. “In my Father’s house are many mansions – I go to prepare a place for you ...” The house represents the church, the communion of saints, and the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Each figure has a halo, which should not be understood as a flat disk behind the head, but as a globe of light encircling the head, like the sphere around a candle flame. In each figure, we have a vision of the future, the coming of the kingdom and the life of the world to come.

There is a timeless yet eternal way in which each figure is written by Rublev. All three look alike. The Son is not depicted in the familiar likeness of Jesus. This visitation to Abraham took place many centuries before the Incarnation. And so Rublev drew on the indication in Genesis that the three resembled angels. They are depicted in the way angels usually appear in iconography: as young men with long, curly hair pulled back, no beards, and delicate gold wings. It is a moment in the past, a moment in the present and a moment in the future, when we shall all be restored to being in the image and likeness of God our Creator.

God creates all people, men and women. He creates out of love, for a specific purpose, making our destiny eternal life with him. This destiny is called divinisation, and it means that we are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.

What exactly this divinisation consists in we do not know, for it is a mystery known only by God. Our participation in the life of the Trinity will not make us sharers in this mystery in the same way each of the Persons in the Godhead shares in it. But God has, in a very real way, entered into the mystery of our humanity, so that we may enter into the mystery that is his communio personarum. Saint Athanasius said: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” By this he did not mean that we will become divine ourselves, but that through his incarnation in Jesus Christ, God has invited us into his life.

“The deification…of the creature will be realised in its fullness only in the age to come, after the resurrection of the dead,” Vladimir Lossky has written. [Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Press, 2002), p. 196.] “This deifying union has, nevertheless, to be fulfilled ever more and more even in this present life, through the transformation of our corruptible and depraved nature and by its adaptation to eternal life. If God has given us in the Church all the objective conditions, all the means that we need for the attainment of this end, we, on our side, must produce the necessary subjective conditions: for it is in this synergy, in this co-operation of man with God, that the union is fulfilled. This subjective aspect of our union with God constitutes the way of union which is the Christian life.”

Conclusing thoughts:

Our understanding of the Creed is often limited and restricted by our perceptions of the Creed as a dogmatic and doctrinal statement on the part of the Church. But in the liturgy we use the Creed as a Canticle, in a similar way to the way in which we sing the Gloria. The Creed is a Canticle as well as a doctrinal statement. It sets out how we praise God and enter into the mystery of the Trinity.

Rublev’s icon of the Trinity invites us to enter into a mystical understanding of the Trinity, the Nicene Creed and the central, Credal truths of Christianity.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This paper draws on notes prepared for lectures on the Creeds during the NSM course at the Church of Ireland Theological College in 2007. The text of the Nicene Creed drawn on here is that found in the Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland.

© Patrick Comerford, 2007.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Anglican-Orthodox dialogue: an open door or a distant object?

Patrick Comerford


The latest census returns show that the fourth largest Christian community in the Republic of Ireland is the Orthodox Christians, who doubled in size between 2002 and 2004 to 20,800. They are the religious community with highest proportion of non-Irish members (86 per cent). Their members are mainly from Eastern Europe, although Orthodox Christians in Ireland are diverse in background, and are served by Antiochene, Coptic, Greek, Romanian, Syrian and Russian Orthodox parishes, with plans for a Georgian and perhaps a Ukrainian parish. Together, they form the third largest Christian denomination in the Republic, coming numerically behind the Church of Ireland (115,600) but ahead of both the Presbyterians (20,600) and the Methodists (10,000).[1]

Already, Orthodox parishes in Dublin are enjoying hospitality from the Church of Ireland in Harold’s Cross (Russian Orthodox) and Leeson Park (Romanian Orthodox). The Church of Ireland can expect increasing ecumenical encounters with the Orthodox in local councils of churches, working groups, ecumenical conferences and at local ecumenical events. At a wider level, increasing contact with the Orthodox world was inevitable. The Orthodox voice has been increasingly vocal in debates on the future of Europe. Cyprus and Greece were joined earlier this year by Bulgaria and Romania as EU member states with Orthodox majorities, and there are potential applications for EU membership from FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), Serbia, Ukraine and neighbouring states.

In addition, more people are experiencing the life and culture of the Orthodox Churches through holidays in places such as Greece, Cyprus and even Russia. Orthodoxy plays an important role in the life of many Middle Eastern countries, and Christians to a disproportionate degree in the conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and other countries in the region.

Over the decades, there have been warm friendships between the Anglican and Orthodox churches. In recent months, there has been a visible return to the formal process of dialogue, with the publication of a new Anglican-Orthodox agreed statement on the Church and ministry, The Church of the Triune God. [2] However, there have been setbacks to Anglican-Orthodox dialogue in recent decades too, and some observers are worried whether Anglicans are in danger of being sidelined by the Orthodox Churches as relations between the Vatican and the Orthodox Churches appear to be becoming a priority for both traditions.

In a recent feature in the Church Times marking 40 years of Anglican-Orthodox co-operation,[3] the Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Canon Gregory Cameron, said that an “ecumenical spring is already here” – despite talk these days of an “ecumenical winter,” and the view among many ecumenists that we are no closer to union than ever before. Cameron said Anglican dialogue with the Orthodox Churches has reached a new level, and said that following the publication of the agreed statement, The Church of the Triune God, a new phase of Anglican-Orthodox dialogue is planned.

Cameron went on to say: “It is becoming hard to see what holds the two traditions apart, beyond the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate … A more honest evaluation might also point to the sheer cultural alienation bred by 1,000 years of separate development.”

On the other hand, Cameron said, Anglican relationships with the Oriental Orthodox, which began well, with a rapid movement towards a draft agreed statement on Christology, are now stalled following developments in the Anglican Communion about sexuality. Indeed, Cameron concedes that sacramental communion with the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches “is probably further away than when the [Chicago-Lambeth] Quadrilateral was written …”

Anglican-Orthodox relations in the past

Thomas Cranmer’s writings, his library and the parliamentary debate on the 1549 Book of Common Prayer show that Cranmer was aware of Orthodox liturgy, including the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and the place of the epicleses in the Eastern liturgies, and in compiling the Prayer Book, Cranmer borrowed freely from early patristic sources, including Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Basil the Great and Saint Macarius.

Modern Anglican-Orthodox relations can be traced to the early 17th century when the Protestant-sympathising Patriarch Cyril Lukaris or Kyrillos Loukaris from Crete was Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria (1602-1621) and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (1621-1637). He was also particularly well disposed towards the Anglican Church, and had lengthy correspondence with the Archbishops of Canterbury, George Abbott. In response to an approach from Lukaris, Abbott and James I set up a programme to maintain Greek scholars at English universities. As a result, Metrophane Kritopoulos, later Patriarch of Alexandria (1636-1639), was sent to England to study at Balliol. Another student, Nathaniel Konopios from Crete, is said to have been the first person to drink coffee in Oxford.[4]

In 1677, the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, encouraged the visiting Archbishop of Samos, Joseph Grigorenes, to establish a Greek church in Soho, London. The project was soon abandoned and the church building was handed over to French Huguenot refugees, although its memory survives in the name of Greek Street. The Greek College was established at Oxford in 1699 by Benjamin Woodroffe, Principal of Gloucester Hall, to educate young Greeks nominated by the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Although the Greek College only lasted until 1705, it was a visionary scheme, and attracted a visit to England by Archbishop Neophytos of Philippolis (Plovdiv), who was welcomed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Tenison, and was made a Doctor of Divinity at Oxford.[5]

In 1712, Patriarch Samuel of Alexandria sent Archbishop Arsenius of Thebas to London with a delegation to seek help for the Patriarchate from Queen Anne. The mission was received cordially by the Bishop of London, and the presence of the Greek Orthodox clergy in London created a mild stir among English clergy and laity. Archbishop Arsenius said many English people approached him and asked to be received into the Orthodox Church. He converted a private house into a Greek chapel, where he celebrated the Orthodox Liturgy every Sunday, attended by some English clergy and laity. The visit also prompted an approach from the Anglican Nonjurors in England and Scotland, who proposed a scheme for Church unity, under which communion would be established between the Nonjurors and the Eastern Orthodox. The talks lasted from 1712 to 1725, but failed either because of the death of Tsar Peter the Great, who acted as an intermediary, or because of the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake.[6]

The Nonjurors’ negotiations involved Patriarch Chrysanthus of Jerusalem and Archbishop Arsenius of Thebas. According to HW Langford, however, Archbishop Arsenius saw his role not as a negotiator of reunion but in easing the submission of the Nonjurors and possibly other Anglicans to Orthodoxy.

Three Nonjuring bishops from Scotland and England, Archibald Campbell, Jeremy Collier and Nathaniel Spinckes, sent a draft concordat to Peter the Great who forwarded it to the Eastern Patriarchs. The Nonjurors described themselves as the “Catholic remnant of the British Churches,” claimed descent from Jerusalem prior to the mission from Rome, and claimed the “most ancient English liturgy” was near the Eastern liturgy. They proposed Jerusalem should be regarded as “the true mother church and principle of ecclesiastical unity whence all the other churches have derived," they accepted the “three other patriarchates,” stressing the equality of Constantinople, emphasised their acceptance of the 12 articles of the Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople, and dealt with the filioque by saying the procession of the Holy Spirit is understood as “from the Father by the Son.” Communion in both kinds was strongly asserted, Roman practice condemned, and a church would be set up in London under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Alexandria. However, the Nonjurors were ill at ease with what they saw as Orthodox teachings on transubstantiation, the Virgin Mary, and the invocation of saints.

Not all Nonjurors were happy with the proposals, and one Nonjuror, Thomas Brett, described the Greeks as being “more corrupt and more bigoted than the Romanists.” On the other hand, the approach came at a time when the Eastern Orthodox Churches were gravely suspicious of Protestant-sounding ideas. This suspicion was a reaction to the teachings a century earlier of Patriarch Cyril Lukaris, who was accused of trying to force the Greek Orthodox Church into a more favourable attitude to Calvinism. His Eastern Confession of the Orthodox Faith had provoked the extreme “Latin” formulations of the Councils of Constantinople (1638), Jassy (1642) and Bethlehem (1672), which condemned his teaching.

The Orthodox reply was drafted by Patriarch Chrysanthus of Jerusalem and approved at a synod in Constantinople chaired by Patriarch Jeremias of Constantinople and attended by the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Jerusalem and several metropolitans and clergy. The reply, although dated April 1718, did not reach England until 1722. By then, the Nonjurors were divided by their own schism, and the tone of the reply came as a shock to the Nonjurors. The proposals about the primacy of Jerusalem and the order of the patriarchates were rejected. The Nonjurors were told they could submit to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, indicating the Patriarchs wanted complete submission by the Nonjurors to the Patriarch of Jerusalem that rather than seeking reunion or inter-communion.

In addition, the Orthodox declared that the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer was gravely defective, if not heretical .They suggested that if the Liturgies of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Basil were good enough for the national or Orthodox Churches in the East, they ought to be good enough for the English. In their harshest judgment on the Non-Jurors, the Orthodox said: “Being born and bred in the principles of the Luthero-Calvinists and possessed with their prejudices, they tenaciously adhere to them like ivy to a tree, and are hardly drawn off.”

Meanwhile, Archbishop Wake, who had spent many years in the East as a chaplain in Smyrna, was informed of the talks. He sent a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople through Thomas Payne, the British Embassy chaplain in Constantinople, condemning the Nonjurors as un-canonical and schismatic, denying the Church of England had any involvement in their approach, and emphasising that he regarded the existing relations between Anglicans and the Eastern Church as most intimate. He described the faith of the two Churches as identical on all points of greater moment, and intimated that it was distance alone that hindered anything more than communion in spirit and intention.

Wake had effectively derailed the scheme and the Orthodox party soon lost interest. However, Nonjuring interest in the Orthodox Church went further than proposals for unity, and the Scottish Episcopalian Primus, Thomas Rattray, based his "Office for the Sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist" on the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy of Saint James.

Since then, there have been at least four Anglican episcopal consecrations in which bishops of the Patriarchate of Constantinople have assisted. In 1870, Archbishop Lycurgus of Syra and Tinos assisted the Bishop of London, John Jackson, at the consecration of Henry Mackenzie as Bishop of Nottingham. The Eastern Churches Association was founded in the 1870s under the influence of a group of Anglicans, including WE Gladstone, to foster good relations between the Orthodox Churches and the Church of England. However, the opportunities for Anglican-Orthodox contact were limited: in the early 20th century there were only five Orthodox Churches in Britain – four Greek churches in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff, and a Russian Embassy Chapel in London, which was closed in 1917 – and few people in either Ireland or England considered themselves to be members of the Orthodox Church.

Roman Catholic-Orthodox relations

Since the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, ties have improved visibly between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. When Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Constantinople visited Rome in 2005, the Pope confirmed that papal primacy could safeguard legitimate differences. Time and again, Benedict XVI has reiterated that the restoration of full unity is his priority. Benedict XVI paid a return visit to Constantinople in November 2006, invited Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, who is not known for his openness to ecumenism and dialogue, to Rome, and is said to be planning a meeting soon with Patriarch Alexei of Moscow.[7]

When Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, co-chairman of the International Commission for Theological Dialogue, visited the Vatican in June 2006, Benedict XVI said he looked forward to celebrating the Eucharist with Orthodox Christians as a sign of full communion. Since then, the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches has resumed its meetings after a six-year break.

The head of the Russian Synod’s theological commission, Metropolitan Filaret, recently told an Italian newspaper that East and West both belong to the one holy, Catholic and apostolic church. The Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to the European Union, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev – who visited the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin in May 2007 – has called for a fuller Roman Catholic-Orthodox alliance to respond to European issues, and believes Orthodox leaders are expecting a breakthrough in ties under Benedict XVI, since he can be relied on to oppose the secularism, liberalism, and relativism prevailing in modern Europe. He believes a Roman Catholic-Orthodox alliance could act as an authoritative partner in dialogue with the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe, and could represent traditional Christianity in dialogue with Judaism, Islam, and other world religions.

The renewed dialogue between the Vatican and the Orthodox world is a process that has serious implications for Anglicans. John Luxmoore, a freelance writer who covers religious news from Oxford and Warsaw, believes that at a central level “it is possible that we are witnessing a redrawing of the ecumenical map.” He believes the tempo of ideas and initiatives being shared by Rome and the Russian Orthodox could leave Anglicans in danger of being passed by.[8]

Recent Anglican-Orthodox relations

New opportunities for Anglican-Orthodox dialogue began to appear in the 1920s. A series of conferences at St Albans had broken ground in a number of areas, promoted informal contact, fostered friendships, and provided limited opportunities for common worship, There was no intercommunion, but the liturgy was offered each day at the same altar, providing a symbolic focus for the hope of future full unity.

In 1922, the Synod of the Church of Constantinople accepted the validity of Anglican orders. Patriarch Meletios Metaksakis communicated the decision to other Orthodox Patriarchs and to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his subsequent encyclical on Anglican orders, the Ecumenical Patriarch accepted the ordination of Matthew Parker as Archbishop of Canterbury and subsequent Anglican episcopal ordinations” fully included “those orthodox and indispensable, visible and sensible elements of valid episcopal ordination – viz., the laying on of hands, the epiclesis of the All-Holy Spirit and also the purpose to transmit the charisma of the episcopal ministry.” The encyclical said Orthodox theologians who had scientifically examined the question “have almost unanimously come to the same conclusions and have declared themselves as accepting the validity of Anglican Orders.” It went on to say that “the practice in the Church affords no indication that the Orthodox Church has ever officially treated the validity of Anglican Orders as in doubt, in such a way as would point to the re-ordination of the Anglican clergy as required in the case of the union of the two Churches.”[9]

Patriarch Damianos of Jerusalem wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, in 1923, addressing him as “the First Hierarch of all the Anglican Churches,” and the “First Hierarch of All England, our most beloved and dear brother in our Lord Jesus.” Patriarch Damianos said several meetings of the Synod of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem had accepted Anglican orders “as having the same validity which the orders of the Roman Church have, because there exist all the elements which are considered necessary from an Orthodox point of view for the recognition of the grace of the holy orders from apostolic succession.” Patriarch Damianos said the resolution “constitutes a progress in the pleasing-to-God work of the union of all Churches.”[10]

The Archbishop of Sinai also expressed his Church’s acceptance of the decisions by Constantinople and Jerusalem. Soon after, Archbishop Cyril of Cyprus and the Synod of the Church of Cyprus agreed that “the apostolic succession in the Anglican Church by the sacrament of order was not broken at the consecration of the first archbishop of this church, Matthew Parker.” They said “there is no obstacle to the recognition by the Orthodox Church of the validity of Anglican Ordinations in the same way that the validity of the ordinations of the Roman, Old Catholic, and Armenian Church are recognised by her. Since clerics coming from these Churches into the bosom of the Orthodox Church are received without re-ordination, we express our judgment that this should also hold in the case of Anglicans … “[11]

In 1925, the Synod of the Church of Romania said that “from the historical point of view no obstacle exists to the recognition of the apostolic succession of Anglican orders.” It said that from the dogmatic point of view the validity of Anglican orders depends upon the Anglican Church recognising Holy Orders to be a mystery (sacrament). After an Orthodox delegation led by Patriarch Meletios, formerly of Constantinople and now in Alexandria, attended the Lambeth Conference of 1930, the Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria joined in the Orthodox recognition of Anglican orders. The decision was announced in a letter on Christmas Day from Patriarch Meletios to Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Patriarch said the declarations endorsed at the Lambeth Conference amounted to “complete and satisfying assurance” on apostolic succession, the real presence in the Eucharist, and the mystery (i.e., sacrament) of ordination. The Church of Alexandria also pronounced that if priests ordained by Anglican bishops acceded to Orthodoxy they should not be re-ordained, “as persons baptised by Anglicans are not re-baptised."[12]

A delegation of four Anglican bishops and six theologians was sent to Bucharest by Lang in 1935, and the Anglican delegates accepted “without reservation” the doctrine of the Orthodox Church on the Sacrament of Holy Orders. On 20 March 1936, Patriarch Miron Cristea of Bucharest and the Sacred Synod of the Orthodox Church of Romania recognised the validity of the Anglican orders, but added that the resolution would become “definitive as soon as the final authority of the Anglican Church ratifies all the statements of its delegation concerning the Mystery of Holy Orders in regard to the points of importance comprised in the doctrine of the Orthodox Church.”[13]

These developments were followed closely by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Gregg, who had been elected president of the Irish branch of the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association in 1929. Gregg noted in 1937 that the Anglican Church “had never been separated from these ancient bodies of the Catholic Church, with a tradition unbroken back to the very earliest days.”[14]

These dramatic moves appeared to be bringing Anglicans and Orthodox towards an inevitable union. There has been a strong Anglican commitment to the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius since it was founded in 1928 by members of the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian Churches. It exists to pray and work for Christian unity, and provides opportunities for Orthodox Christians and Christians of Western traditions to meet and get to know one another, and so to deepen their understanding of each other's spirituality, theology and worship. However, the momentum was lost during World War II. Despite contacts at many levels, the official process of dialogue was not revived formally until 1973

The revival of dialogue

In October 1947, delegates of the Orthodox Church and the Irish branch of the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, held a conference in the Divinity Hostel, Dublin, chaired by Canon WE Vandeleur, and a second conference was held in Drogheda in 1950. Gregg, by then Archbishop of Armagh, took a close interest in these conferences, and so it was not surprising that in 1951 he was involved in the first formal move to put post-war Anglican-Orthodox relations back on a firm footing. Accompanied by the bishops of Derby and Gibraltar, Gregg led an Anglican delegation to Greece commemorating the Apostle Paul’s mission to Greece 19 centuries earlier. He visited Athens, Thessaloniki, Rhodes and Crete, and then went on to visit the Orthodox Church in Yugoslavia, where he was the guest of the Patriarch of Belgrade. Later Gregg observed: “I feel Orthodoxy desires to be on really friendly terms with Anglicanism, but anything more than that us as far off as ever.” He found Orthodoxy intransigent and unwilling to make concessions, yet he continued to take an active interest in the proceedings of the Irish branch of the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association.[15]

The present process of Anglican-Orthodox dialogue began in 1973, when the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Discussions first met in Oxford. The first phase of the dialogue concluded with the Moscow Agreed Statement in 1976, and the Dublin Agreed Statement (1984) concluded the second phase. Both statements recorded a measure of agreement on a range of specific topics, while acknowledging continuing divergence on others. The Dublin Agreed Statement reflected the emphasis on prayer and spirituality. There were important agreements on the mystery of the Church, on faith in the Trinity, on prayer and holiness, and on worship and tradition. The controversial filioque clause was examined further, and ways of reconciling age-old differences in approach were suggested. The commission also asked for clarification of statements about universal primacy made in the ARCIC Final Report.

The next phase of Anglican-Orthodox dialogue began in 1989, when the commission was re-constituted as the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue under the chairmanship of Metropolitan John of Pergamon and Bishop Henry Hill (succeeded in 1990 by Bishop Mark Dyer). Orthodox members of the commission have included a former Anglican, Father Michael Harper of the Patriarchate of Antioch, who joined the Orthodox Church in 1995.[16]

The commission was asked to consider the doctrine of the Church in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity, and to examine the doctrine of the ordained ministry of the Church. From 1989, the members met on an annual or biannual basis, completing their statements on “Trinity and the Church,” “Christ, the Spirit and the Church,” “Christ, Humanity and the Church” in 1998. In Salisbury (1999) and Volos, Greece (2001), they focussed on the ordained ministry and approved an interim agreed statement on “Episcope, Episcopos and the Church.”

In 2002 at Abergavenny they agreed on an interim statement, “Priesthood, Christ and the Church.” In Addis Ababa in 2003, they began studies on the ministries of women and men in the Church, heresy and schism, and reception. In Canterbury in 2004, they received the first draft of an agreed statement on lay ministries and on the ministries of women and men, including ordination to the diaconate, presbyterate and episcopate. The work on these was completed at Kykkos Monastery in Cyprus (2005,), and the commission meet again in 2006 to finalise the text of the complete cycle of statements.

As the commission continued its dialogue, a number of problems arose for those committed to Anglican-Orthodox dialogue. In 1998, the Russian Orthodox Church downgraded its participation in the World Council of Churches amid complaints about liberal attitudes among Anglicans and Protestants. Five years later, after the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, the Russian Orthodox Church disbanded a co-ordinating committee with the Episcopal Church in the US. However, the Orthodox Churches also suffer their own deep internal divisions. In Britain, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Bishop Basil Osborne of Sergievo, a former member of Anglican-Orthodox International Commission, was dismissed in May 2006 after applying to transfer from the Patriarchate of Moscow to Constantinople.[17]

A new step on the same path

The publication in February 2007 of the long-awaited agreed statement from the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue, The Church of the Triune God, concludes the third phase of the Anglican-Orthodox international theological dialogue. The Cyprus Agreed Statement is timely and pertinent to many of the current debates within Anglicanism, and will be debated at the Lambeth Conference in 2008. It also indicates that the door to visible unity between Anglicans and the Orthodox is still open.

The report was presented at Lambeth Palace to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Patriarch Bartholomeos said the Orthodox and Anglicans had travelled an extremely long road together. There had been difficult occasions, but the object remained fixed: the visible unity of the Church. “We affirm our readiness, despite existing unfortunate hindrances, to continue on the same path.”[18]

Nevertheless, Orthodox leaders point out that new “hindrances” have left the prospect of Orthodox-Anglican unity less obvious than it had been. The co-chairman of the international commission, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, said that by ordaining women as priests, Anglicans had been unduly influenced by social change. Neither side on the commission was convinced by the other’s reasons on women’s ordination, he said. “The Orthodox are not convinced that the reasons for the ordination of women given from the Anglican side are really so serious and so important as to lead to this change which is, as we all know, an innovation in the tradition.” Metropolitan John said that, although once it had seemed that the two Churches might well achieve visible unity, that prospect was now not obvious. “Anthropological” differences in their approaches to the sacraments and to priestly ordination “must be handled with the utmost care so they don’t become irreversible objects to our communion”, he said.[19]

The Anglican co-chairman, the Right Revd Mark Dyer, retired Bishop of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – who later visited the Church of Ireland Theological College in Dublin and the Church of Ireland General Synod in Kilkenny – said he had never worked with people “so Christ-like gentle to one another and so Christ-like direct in speaking the truth.”

The Cyprus Agreed Statement says there is a very high level of agreement between the Anglican and Orthodox Churches, so much so that in the final sections it asks why the Churches are still divided. It concludes that the issues that are keeping us apart are not so much matters of faith as practical ones that affect the ordinary life of the churches gathered around the Eucharist. It says the consecration of women bishops has raised matters of practice that affect the reception of each other’s churches in an immediate way.

“We find ourselves in an abnormal situation. We are a disrupted Christian people seeking to restore our unity,” the report concludes in a section on heresy and schism. “Our divisions do not destroy, but they damage the basic unity we have in Christ, and our disunity impedes our mission to the world as well as our relationships with each other.” The statement says that Anglicans and Orthodox agree that because God’s one nature exists, not in the abstract, but only in three persons, so the universal Church exists only as a communion of local churches. The report asks whether the diversity that exists between the Churches is a reason for sustaining the division between them. It points out that there has been no formal condemnation for heresy by either Church, and they have shown that they have not departed from the apostolic faith. There is a common recognition of the creeds, and they are able to proclaim the scriptures. The present continuing division is “an abnormal situation.” The ultimate goal is to receive each other “in ministry and church structures as well as in faith.”

Footnotes and references

[1] The Irish Times, 30 March 2007, p. 6.

[2] The Church of the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed Statement of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue (London: Anglican Communion Office, 2007, £5.95; ISBN 6-00000006-1).

[3] Gregory Cameron, “Ecumenical spring is already here,” The Church Times, 13 May 2007.

[4] Geoffrey Rowell, “Anglicanism and Orthodoxy: 300 years after the Greek College in Oxford,” The Church Times, 8 September 2006.

[5] Rowell, loc cit.

[6] HW Langford, ‘The Non-Jurors and the Eastern Orthodox,’ a paper read to the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius Conference, Durham 26 June 1965,

[7] Jonathan Luxmoore, ‘Warmer words, but little substance,’ The Church Times, 19 January 2007; Patsy McGarry, “Hopes rise of thaw in church relations,” The Irish Times, 20 April 2007.

[8] Jonathan Luxmoore, “An ecumenical thaw – for some,” The Church Times, 4 August 2006.

[9] Encyclical on Anglican Orders, from the Oecumenical Patriarch to the Presidents of the Particular Eastern Orthodox Churches, 1922, patriarc.html

[10] The Christian East, vol. 4 (1923), pp 121-122.

[11] The Christian East, vol. 4 (1923), pp 122-123.

[12] The Christian East, vol 12 (1931), pp 1-6.

[13] The Christian East, vol. 16 (1936), pp 16-19.

[14] G. Seaver, John Allen Fitzgerald Gregg, Archbishop (London: Faith Press, 1963), pp 290-291.

[15] Seaver, pp 281-295.

[16] See Michael Harper, The True Light: an Evangelical’s Journey to Orthodoxy (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997).

[17] The Church Times, 19 May 2006, 26 May 2006.

[18] Bill Bowder, “Reunion with East not beyond hope,” The Church Times, 2 February 2007.

[19] Bowder, loc cit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. He has travelled extensively though the Orthodox world, visiting monasteries in Greece (including Mount Athos), Romania, Egypt and Mount Sinai. This paper first appeared in Search: a Church of Ireland Journal, Vol 30, No 2, 2007.