Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Secularisation and the ‘curious case’ of the Orthodox Church

Sidney Sussex College seen from Green Street this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

We had an interesting insight into the impact of secularisation and modernity on the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe when Dragos Herescu spoke at the summer school in Sidney Sussex College this afternoon [Wednesday] on “Secularisation and the Curious Case of the Orthodox Church.”

Dragos, who was presenting some of the provisional results of his doctoral research at the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, offered us an image of the London Gherkin, also known as the Swiss Re Tower or 30 Saint Mary Axe, as a symbol of secularisation in modern Britain.

He asked whether it is possible to say secularisation is inherent in post-Reformation Christianity and a natural development of its rationality, its value of the individual, and the “Protestant work ethic.”

He described how secularism is a process of socio-religious change, manifested at three levels:

● societal,
● institutional; and
● individual.

Secularisation is not only a change occurring in society, but is a change of society, he said. Religion no longer looks after health care, education or those areas that create a sense of identity, and there has been a decline in community bonds.

In addition, a sense of morality once associated with relationships has been lost, so that people are valued today not by how moral they are seen as individuals but by how efficient they are.

Looking at the conditions for secularisation, he said that in their attitudes to religion, secularisation can have either a negative or vicious circle of evolution, or a positive circle of evolution, with various combinations of these examples so that it be an organic process.

At an intermediary level, the conditions for secularisation depend on more particular social factors, including urbanisation, mobility and social differentiation.

Looking at the relationship between religion and the process of secularisation, he discussed the difficulties in defining religion.

Orthodox countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus are now members of the EU, and Russia is becoming a multicultural society. So, he asked, why is there a peculiar case for the Orthodox Church?

In the West, the Orthodox Churches are working in a missionary context. In the former Eastern European countries, the Orthodox Churches have not adjusted to changed circumstances, and they have a different theological approach to the transcendent than that found in western theology. Yet the Orthodox Churches there have not experienced a change in the social profile, and church attendance and public practices are visible.

These observations raise interesting questions about whether the Orthodox Church is resistant to the process of secularisation or whether there are different forms of secularisation in those countries. But also, he asked, has the Church in the West fallen into the trap of chasing the power it once had?

He examined how relations between Church and State in Orthodox societies had been governed by the principle of Symphonia or Synallelia, that is, a “symphony” between the civil and the ecclesiastical functions in a Christian society, so that Church and State are to be complementary and to exhibit mutual respect..

The authority of the Church is the authority of the Cross, it is a vulnerable one. It is not the function of the Church to offer alternatives to the state, but to worship and to preach salvation.

The gardens of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Dragos is the graduate secretary at IOCS and a tutor on the distance learning programme. He holds an MA in Pastoral Theology from the IOCS, an MPhil in Theology from Cambridge, and is researching a PhD at Durham on secularisation in Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostalist Christianity.

Before coming to Cambridge, Dragos worked with the Metropolitanate of Moldova and Bucovina, in Iași, Romania, as an administrator and as project officer responsible for accessing funds from the European Union for social assistance and cultural projects. He is secretary of the Cambridge Romanian Society and he conducts the institute’s Byzantine chant choir.

We heard that choir again this evening at Vespers in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex. This evening, after dinner, we have been invited to a performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is being staged in Saint John’s College Garden as part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Hopefully, this is going to be a truly Midsummer delight.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Refreshment for both body and soul in mediaeval Michaelhouse

Trinity Street, Cambridge, with Michaelhouse café and Saint Michael’s Church on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I had coffee this afternoon with the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, the Pastoral Dean of Sidney Sussex College, in Michaelhouse, an interesting café located in Saint Michael’s Church in Trinity Street in the oldest part of Cambridge.

Michaelhouse is only a few steps from Sidney Sussex, around the corner at the end of Green Street. It stands opposite Gonville and Caius College and is close to Great Saint Mary’s Church, Trinity College and King’s College Chapel. The café is set within the 14th century church of Saint Michael’s, a parish and collegiate church.

But, while it is an award-winning café and restaurant, Michaelhouse remains a church – you could say it offers refreshment for both body and soul. Church services are held in the chancel several days a week, and the mediaeval Hervey de Stanton Chapel offers a peaceful space that is also a setting at times for concerts.

Michaelhouse recalls the name of one of the earliest Cambridge colleges, which flourished from 13234until 1546, when it was merged with King’s Hall to form Trinity College. Michaelhouse was the second residential college in Cambridge, following Peterhouse (1284) – although King’s Hall was established in 1317, it did not acquire premises until it was re-founded by King Edward III in 1336.

The Hervey de Stanton Chapel in Saint Michael’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Michaelhouse was founded by Hervey de Stanton, Edward II’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chief Justice of England, who had acquired the advowson (or right of presentation) to the parish of Saint Michael along with property on the High Street.

In May 1324, Edward II granted a royal charter to the new college for scholars in Holy Orders. Three months later, Bishop John Hotham of Ely granted his own charter. De Stanton suggested to the bishop that the master and fellows, who were all priests, could provide daily worship for the parish as they were using the church as their chapel. And so, the first Master of Michaelhouse, Walter de Buxton, was also Vicar of Saint Michael’s.

Around this time, the church was being rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style, and when de Stanton died on All Souls’ Day 1325, he was buried in the unfinished chancel.

The college continued to acquire more properties, including property between Saint Michael’s Lane (today’s Trinity Lane) and the river, an area now occupied by the south-west corner of the Great Court of Trinity College, New Court, Scholars’ Lawn and the Wren Library, property around Garret Hostel Lane leading down to the river, and a navigable stream.

Nothing much remains of the original Michaelhouse buildings, apart from Saint Michael’s Church. The chancel is three bays long, a bay larger than the nave; both chancel and nave have sizeable side aisles.

The nave was used for parish worship, regular preaching, university debates and lectures. Until a chapel was completed at Gonville Hall in 1396, both Michaelhouse and Gonville shared in the use of the two aisles, with Gonville using the north aisle and Michaelhouse the south.

As a college, Michaelhouse was a study house for clergy with a conservative theological ethos. John Fisher, who was Master of Michaelhouse 1497-1501, was Chancellor of Cambridge University, and was instrumental in the foundation of Saint John’s College and Christ’s College. As Bishop of Rochester, Fisher maintained a conservative stance on the royal supremacy and the reformation measures introduced in the reign of Henry VIII, and he was executed in 1535.

By the time of the dissolution of the monastic houses, Michaelhouse had an income greater than that of Westminster Abbey. Michaelhouse clergy served Saint Michael’s Parish until the college was dissolved by act of Parliament in 1546. It was merged with its neighbour, King’s Hall, to form Trinity College, which is the largest and wealthiest college in Cambridge to this day.

The coat of arms of Trinity College on the north wall of Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Until the completion of Trinity College Chapel in 1565, Trinity used Saint Michael’s as its chapel. As the new chapel was being built, 36 scholars’ stalls from the former chapel of King’s Hall, some with carved misericords, were moved to Saint Michael’s, where they remain to this day.

Trinity College continued to hold the patronage of the living of Saint Michael’s and from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Trinity College fellows were the chaplains of Saint Michael’s.

The interior of Saint Michael’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After a fire in 1849, the church was rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott and his son, George Gilbert Scott junior. Their work included a new stone porch, a new East Window, and a three-tiered new reredos. The artists who worked with Scott included FR Leach, who worked with GF Bodley on the ceiling and frescoes of All Saints’ Church, the ceiling of Jesus College Chapel, and the dining hall ceiling at Queens’ College. Leach painted the chancel ceiling and arches in Saint Michael’s to designs by Scott as a thank-offering, without accepting any payment. Parts of the north aisle had been painted previously to designs by Holman Hunt.

In time, the parish was too small to be sustainable, and it was finally united with Great Saint Mary’s Church, the university Church, in 1908.

By the early 1990s, the church buildings were increasingly in need of significant repair, and an ambitious fundraising and building project began. The Michaelhouse Centre opened in 2002, and is a registered charity. The café is run by Bill Sewell, a restaurateur and food writer who has two other cafés in churches – Café Below in London and Café@All Saints in Hereford. He is an alumnus of Trinity College and was a consultant on the 1990s refurbishment of Saint Michael’s.

Michaelhouse is now a key cultural and spiritual location in Cambridge, a unique community resource in the heart of this city, a place of beauty and tranquillity.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Suffering behind closed doors and reflections on morality

The Classical Gate, originally erected in Hall Court to replace the original main gate of Sidney Sussex College, was moved during Wyatville’s alterations in 1832 to the north-east corner of the gardens, where it remains an eye-catching feature (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

we heard about the suffering and survival of the Orthodox Church in Russia during the Soviet era, and its rebirth, renewal and rapid growth in recent decades, this morning [Wednesday, 27 July], at the 12th summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and we reflected on the moral dilemmas raised by one of the greatest Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Alexander Ogorodnikov from Moscow was strongly critical of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and political leaders in Russia today. He was speaking in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on: “The Russian Orthodox Church in the face of the modern secular challenge.”

Alexander was born into a strong party family, but his grandmother secretly arranged for his baptism as a child. He was arrested in 1976, and held in confinement on the grounds that his religious conviction was a mental disorder that began and persisted after he received his education. He was arrested again in 1978, while he was working on a film, The Jesus People, and in September 1980 he was found guilty of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”

He was singled out because his religious convictions openly challenged Soviet “science” on the eradication of religious belief. He was sentenced to six years in a labour camp and five years in internal exile. He was held in Perm 36 near the Siberian border.

Alexander spoke this morning of his harrowing experiences of being jailed and being held in solitary isolation, and how he was sustained at night in his prayers and by the surrounding love of God. He was the subject of an international campaign for his release in the 1980s, and was finally released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

He compared the confession and repentance of the former Church leaders in Bulgaria and Romania with the loss of opportunities by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, and accused Russian Orthodox leaders of betraying the people.

Although he knows Patriarch Kirill and has worked closely with him, Alexander has faced strong opposition from bishops throughout Russia. He said that despite its suffering, the Russian Church had developed a poor theology and had little understanding of the contribution and suffering of martyrs since the 1920s.

He spoke critically of the work of American Protestant evangelical missionaries in Russia, but said their work had met with little success.

This survivor of the Gulag prisons is a former chair of the Russian Orthodox Argentov Seminar, a peace activist and a key figure in several Russian humanitarian organisations.

Alexander Ogorodnikov was introduced by Irina Kirillova, a retired lecturer in Russian Studies and a Fellow Emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge. Later in the morning, she spoke on the theme: “‘If there is no God, then all is permitted!’ (F.M. Dostoevsky).”

Irina Kirillova, MBE, is a retired University Lecturer in Russian Studies, a Fellow Emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge, and a trustee of Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre in London. Her publications include The Image of Christ in Dostoevsky’s writing (Moscow, 2010).

Referring to Alexander Ogorodnikov’s reflections earlier in the morning, she recalled an “appalling speech” in Canterbury by a Russian metropolitan. When she challenged him, he smiled and told her he was pleased by her reaction to his speech – this meant he could open more churches in Siberia. And so, she said: “We have to be careful how we judge.”

She spoke in the context of the mass murder in Norway last weekend, and in her opening remarks also referred to Philip Blond, the author of Red Tory, who was referred to by the Revd John Hughes in his lecture yesterday, and to the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sachs, and his book God, Science and the Search for Meaning.

She quoted Dostoevsky, who – shortly after being released from prison in 1854 – wrote to Natalya Fonvizinia: “If someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth.”

Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ had a profound, lifelong influence on Dostoevsky

She looked at the influence of Hans Holbein’s painting, ’The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521), which had a lifelong influence on Dostoevsky, who was totally overwhelmed on first seeing it in Basel in 1867 – so much so that his wife had to drag him away, fearing its grip on her husband might induce an epileptic fit. She wrote that he could never forget the sensation he experienced gazing at the painting, which continued to haunt him. Two years later, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot (1869), in which he refers to the painting many times. He thought it posed a terrible threat to faith in Christ, and Prince Myshkin, having viewed the painting in the home of Rogozhin, declares that it has the power to make the viewer lose his faith.

Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is one of the most complex and most complexly misunderstood authors in modern literature – Henry Miller could read Dostoevsky as a great social revolutionary, while others have seen him as a die-hard conservative; William Hamilton tried to enlist Dostoevsky as a forerunner of “Death of God” theology; Georges Florovsky saw Dostoevsky as an exemplar of Russian Orthodoxy; while Malcolm Jones linked him to “post-atheism” in contemporary Russia and judged him to exemplify the workings of “minimal religion.”

And this variety of interpretations of Dostoevsky was reflected in the discussion that followed.

Is it Dostoevsky who thinks that if we cease to believe in our immortality and in God, then all is permitted? Or is it Ivan Karamazov, as filtered through his murderous half-brother Smerdyakov, as a feeble excuse for having killed his own father?

Is it Dostoevsky, or the Devil, or Ivan Karamazov imagining the Devil, who says that he would rather give up everything and become a merchant’s wife lighting votive candles?


The quotation in the title of her paper, “If there is no God, then all is permitted!” is an encapsulation of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan has concluded, or pretends to conclude, that there is no God, no immortality. As what he claims is a logical consequence, "everything is lawful." However, Ivan never speaks the sentence in question, and neither does any other character in the novel. The phrase, “everything is lawful,” is used frequently by other characters as an idea that they got from Ivan. And once, Ivan says: “If there is no immortality, there is no virtue.”

Dostoevsky has also strongly influenced the thinking of Archbishop Rowan Williams, and it would have been interesting to her views of his book, Dostoevsky: language, faith and fiction (2008), in which the Archbishop of Canterbury explores the intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of Dostoevsky.

In that book, Dr Williams focuses on the four major novels of Dostoevsky’s maturity – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamozov – and argues that understanding Dostoevsky’s style and goals as a writer of fiction is inseparable from understanding his religious commitments.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

A visit to Lambeth Palace for an exhibition and supper

The South Front of Lambeth Palace ... Lambeth Palace has been the London home of the Archbishops of Canterbury since the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I interrupted my attendance at the Cambridge summer school of the IOCS yesterday afternoon [Tuesday] and caught a train down to London. I was at Lambeth Palace last night for a reception and a private viewing of an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. The exhibition, Out Of The Original Sacred Tongues: The Bible and Translation, has been running from 25 May, but concludes on Friday [29 July], and has been an opportunity to see some of the library’s historic collections

Lambeth Palace stands on the south banks of the River Thames, opposite Parliament and the Palace of Westminster. Since the 13th century, this has been the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Today, it is home for the archbishop and his family when they are in London, and it is also the central office for his national and international ministry, with several dozen staff working here.

In summer, the grounds of Lambeth Palace are often used for garden parties for organisations and charities supported by Archbishop Rowan Williams and Mrs Jane Williams, and the Great Hall is also used for various receptions and events, especially at summer time.

A copy of the King James Version of the Bible, dating from 1611, at the exhibition in Lambeth Palace

The exhibition in the Great Hall is being hosted by Lambeth Palace Library and sets in historical context the translation of the texts of the Bible into everyday language. At the centre of the exhibition is the 1611 edition of the King James Version, set in the context of the scholarship which created it.

Other highlights of the exhibition include:

• a 10th century Greek Gospel from Palestine;
• mediaeval and English Bible translations, with documents relating to their suppression;
• John Wycliffe’s 14th century translation from Latin;
• landmark editions that drew on the new textual scholarship of the Renaissance and Reformation;
• the first edition of the New Testament in Greek by Erasmus (1516);
• the first edition of Luther’s German Bible (1536);
• early printed vernacular translations in a variety of languages, including the first complete Bible in Icelandic, the Gudbrandar Bible (1584);

• translations intended for missions, such as Gospel editions in Chinese (1807), Cree (1912), Maori (1841) and Mohawk (1787);
• documents showing the drive towards modern English translations for the 20th century, such as the New English Bible, which sold out on the first morning of publication.

The last display case in the exhibition is devoted to the New English Bible, which was published in March 1961 on the 350th anniversary of the King James Version. The translators faced huge criticism for the use of modern words such as “pregnant” and “homosexual,” and were accused of reducing the Lord’s Prayer to a shopping list. One of the translators was Bishop John Robinson, already under fire for speaking for the defence in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial.

We were welcomed to the exhibition in the Great Hall by the he Librarian at Lambeth Palace, Giles Mandelbrote, who believes two themes have emerged in depicting how Bibles had developed from manuscript to print over the centuries. The first is the quest for truth and certainty by church authorities employing analytical skills in an attempt to ascertain original meanings; the second is the production of Bibles without input from the church or the state.

The library in the Great Hall at Lambeth Palace was founded in 1610 (Photograph: Lambeth Palace)

Lambeth Palace Library is the principal library and record office for the history of the Church of England. It was founded in 1610, and the official papers of the Archbishops of Canterbury are among the most significant collections here, documenting political and social issues as well as church history in England and throughout the Anglican Communion. The papers include correspondence, diaries, sermons and newspaper cuttings.

The library’s overall focus is on church history, but its rich collections are important for a variety of topics, including architecture, colonial history, local history and genealogy. The library holds over 4,600 manuscripts and vast archives dating from the ninth century to the present, including 600 mediaeval manuscripts.

There are almost 200,000 printed books in the library, including 30,000 items printed before 1700, and many more unique books. Much of the library is housed in the Great Hall, which has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries. It was here that Erasmus and Holbein were welcomed by Archbishop William Warham and here too that Henry VIII was entertained by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

The Guard Room, seen from the South Courtyard at Lambeth Palace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After the private viewing of the exhibition, we were joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a buffet supper up in the Guard Room. This room is thought to date from the 14th century. It was the Great Chamber in Mediaeval and Tudor times, one of the most important rooms in the Palace in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Initially, the Guard Room was the archbishops’ principle audience room and was used by them for meetings and ceremonies. It is said that on 12 April 1534 Sir Thomas More was summoned in the Guard Room by Thomas Cromwell to swear an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII as head of the Church in England. By refusing to deny the authority of the Pope, Thomas More was led away from Lambeth Palace to the Tower of London, where he was executed in 1535.

The Guard Room in Lambeth Palace ... the venue for supper last night (Photograph Lambeth Palace)

The paintings on the walls in the Guard Room are of Archbishops of Canterbury from 1602 to 1783 – from the reign of Elizabeth I to the reign of George III, illustrating an interesting change in fashion for episcopal garb over the centuries.

The magnificent arch-braced roof of the Guard Room is a contemporary of that in Westminster Hall – across the river in the Palace of Westminster – and predates the walls by some 400 years. When William Blore rebuilt Lambeth Palace in 1830, he retained the roof, supporting it while rebuilding the walls.

Lambeth Palace seen from Westminster Palace ... the first Lambeth Conference was held in Lambeth Palace in 1867 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The first Lambeth Conference was held in Lambeh Palace in 1867, when 75 bishops were called by Archbishop Charles Longley for a meeting.

Nowadays, the Lambeth Conferences meet in Canterbury, but the Guard Room continues to be used for meetings, receptions and dinners, and this is where we were entertained to a buffet supper last night after viewing the exhibition.

The party included bishops and clergy from many provinces of the Anglican Communion, staff from Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion Office, including many who had been at the Primates' Meeting in Dublin earlier this year, friends from USPG -- Anglicans in World Mission, the Revd Dr Alan McCormack, formerly of Trinity College Dublin, and staff from other mission agencies, including CMS and Crosslinks.

Morton’s Tower at Lambeth Palace ... said to be modelled on the entrance to Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As I left by Morton’s Tower, I was reminded that this red-brick gatehouse, with its porter’s lodge, is said to be based on the entrance to Saint John’s College in Cambridge, where Cardinal John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who gives his name to the tower, was a fellow and where his memory is still preserved in the stained glass windows in the Great Hall.

I walked across Lambeth Bridge, and on to Victoria Station, for a connection to King’s Cross and a train back to Cambridge. A night-cap in the Jolly Scholar in King Street, at the back of Sidney Sussex College, felt very appropriate before returning to my rooms.