01 September 2015

Are there meeting points with Muslims
and Hindus in dialogue with Orthodoxy?

Sunshine and flowers in Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

The summer conference in Sidney Sussex College moved from ecumenism to inter-religious dialogue this afternoon when Dr Dominic Rubin spoke about “Orthodox-Muslim interaction in Russia today: between ideology and theology,” and Dr Mangala Frost spoke on “Karma and the Cross: a dialogic study of suffering.”

Dr Rubin teaches at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and his expertise is in inter-religious relations in Russia and the former Soviet republics.

He asked whether Russia is the bridge between Europe and Asia, and whether Islam is the new communism, the new enemy, in the west.

He shared his experience of talking to large numbers Russian Muslims about their belief and their identity. Although he said this is not dialogue, it involves taking the first step towards dialogue.

Deep dialogue is not happening in Russia, but then he wondered whether it is taking place anywhere else.

He pointed out that power structures influence dialogue, and recalled that the preamble to the Russian religious law recognises four traditional religions in Russia, with Russian Orthodox Church first among equals, alongside Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. But Baptists and Roman Catholics, for example, are not mentioned.

The law makes it easier to get permission to build an Orthodox Church than to build a mosque.

The four religions were chosen to reflect philosophy of Eurasianism. This theory was developed in 1913-1931, and the founding figures included the Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky.

A significant influence on the doctrine of the Eurasianists is found in an essay by the Russian Orthodox theologian, Nikolai Berdyaev, “The Sources and Meaning of Russian Communism.” However, Florovsky later withdrew his support, accusing it of raising the right questions but posing the wrong answers.”

Eurasianism idealises Genghis Khan, the Mongols and the Tartars. The Orthodox and Muslims in Russia. Muslims and Orthodox have inherited this situation and have to talk to and negotiate with one another.

He described a recent visit to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. With a population of over 1.1 million, this is the eighth most populous city in Russia. The population consists mostly of ethnic Russians (48.6%) and ethnic Tatars (47.6%), and the Kazan Kremlin is a World Heritage Site.

The multi-ethnic city is famous for Muslims and Christians living side-by-side in peace, and an artists who is a Sufi Muslims brought him on an intimate tour of a Russian Orthodox monastery.

Yet people can say outrageous things about who is the rightful owner of the land and the city’s heritage.

Is this dialogue? Is it even diapraxis?

Surviving mediaeval glass in a window on the stairs to the Old Library in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Dr Frost (IOCS) spoke later this afternoon on “Karma and the Cross: a dialogic study of attitudes to suffering.”

She juxtaposed two different approaches to suffering, with a dual perspective as a former Hindu who understands karma, and as an Orthodox Christian who feels she has something to offer Hindus a fresh understanding of Christianity.

She hopes to improve mutual understanding, without necessarily finding agreement.

She identified three intertwining but distinct Hindu traditions.

For the Monist strand, suffering is unreal or an illusion (maya), and so too is evil. The suffering body has no part in one’s real identity.

The second, more popular strand, Karma, suffering is real and a punishment for past actions or actions in past lives.

The third perspective, Bhakti, sees suffering as real but synonymous with birth. In this tradition, devotional love is met by God’s grace which can cancel out karma. This tradition subverts the Karma theory.

The appeal of karma provides a description of human nature. Its appeal lies in its offer of consolation, in offering an instant palliative and an answer to the problems of evil, it offers a justice in which sin is punished and virtue is rewarded, a type of “poetic justice,” and leads to hope rather than fatalism.

In Orthodox theology, the Fall is the rupture of communion with God, sin is “missing the mark,” death is not a “punishment from an angry God,” but the inevitable consequence of ruptured communion, and the Resurrection is the conquest of death and is the key to coping with suffering.

In Orthodox theology, answers to all problems, especially those of evil and suffering, come from an unswerving focus on the joy of Christ’s Resurrection. The Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ are treated as an integral story of human salvation. In and through his Resurrection, Christ is seen as restoring once again what was lost – a full communion with and participation in the life of God.

Christians are called to be human icons of the divine image we bear.

Where Christianity, especially Orthodox Christianity, differs from Hindu traditions is to take the discussion about suffering beyond virtue-oriented, conventional moralism to the volatile, metaphysical dimension where the human-divine encounter seems to fail utterly for the believer.

She quoted Saint Mark the Ascetic in the Philokalia:

“Every suffering tests our will, showing whether it is inclined to good or evil. That is why an unforeseen affliction is called a test, because it enables a man to test his hidden desires.”

She said Christian belief in “a suffering God” who entered history to redeem it poses the most serious challenge to believers in Karma. Such a belief has rippling effects on the identity of those who chose to follow him.

Christians believe that in suffering for us, with us, and overcoming the ultimate evil of death, Christ, the God-Man, has changed forever the meaning of suffering.

Matthew the Poor, a Coptic monk, reflecting on suffering as participation in God’s work of redemption, said: “Now, if we can undergo suffering on the level of his suffering, not just as a consequence of sin, but as participation in the suffering of love, self-sacrifice, and redemption.”

In conclusion, she offered a reappraisal: “Paul spoke of the Cross as ‘foolishness’ to the Greeks and a ‘stumbling block’ to the Jews. On the whole, Hindus view the Cross with respect due to a holy man, but do they fully understand or appreciate the challenge the Cross poses to a Karmic view of life? I hope they are persuaded to reconsider.”

But she added: “Equally, I hope that the Orthodox become aware of the temptation to shrink, or distort, the awe-inspiring cosmic mystery of the Cross into simplistic strategies of comfort that come dangerously close to Karma.”

Once again, the day concludes with Vespers in the Chapel and dinner.

Two contrasting Orthodox views on
the purpose of ecumenical dialogue

Sunshine in the gardens in Sidney Sussex Colege, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

This year’s summer conference in Sidney Sussex College is looking at ecumenism and dialogue, and we got down to some of the “nitty-gritty” problems in dialogue this morning when Dr Razvan Porumb and the Revd Dr Alexander Tefft spoke in very different and contrasting ways of the opportunities and limitations in ecumenism from different Orthodox perspectives.

Dr Porumb is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer and Development Officer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. He recently completed his PhD through the IOCS and the Cambridge Theological Federation on the topic of “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism. Towards Active Metanoia.”

This morning Razvan spoke on “Orthodoxy and ecumenism: towards active metanoia.”

He pointed out that for most Orthodox theologians, the Orthodox Church sees itself as the Church named in the Creed, and this influences all dialogue with other Christians. They regard others as deficient, and dialogue is about bringing other Christians to Orthodoxy.

Drawing on Florovsky, Bulgakov, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, he said most Orthodox theologians argue that schisms throughout history are created by chosen to leave the unity of the Orthodox Church, and talks on unity are about the return of schismatic groups to the one church, the Orthodox Church.

He said the Orthodox Church, claims an exceptional position, and has an exceptional role in the ecumenical task, with responsibility for reuniting the Church.

Orthodox theologians see the existence of others as never the result of a separation, but see others as having left the Church, and that the Orthodox Church has maintained unity.

In offering another working paradigm for an increasingly plural world, Razvan spoke of the Trinity as the supreme structure of unity, and he asked whether the unity of Orthodoxy is maintained for the benefit of the Orthodox Church alone, or for the benefit of all Christians and for all humanity.

He suggested a shift of perspective would come with more humble and penitent approach, and that we must struggle towards lost unity.

Quoting Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, he said “We know where the Church is, but cannot be sure where it is not, paraphrasing.”

He suggested a new paradigm would involve journeying together. He told the story of a saint who met a woman who had been sitting in her room and never moving out. He asked her why she stayed sitting in her house. “I am not sitting here,” she told him. “I am on a journey and I starting from here.”

He said unity or catholicity is core to Christian identity, and the search for unity seeks not the sum of the parts but the fullness of the Church. He spoke of unity as a spiritual exercise and of ecumenism as dynamic, and they require spiritual exercise and action. This is a calling for all and not just a specialised few, and ecumenical participation is as much about prayer as it is about dialogue.

There is a risk involved, with the fear of the loss of identity and of betraying inheritance. But there is a need for patience, for impatience is the cause of much of the present impasse in ecumenism.

Drawing on the work of the Romanian theologian Dumitru St─âniloae (1903-1993), author of The Dogmatic Orthodox Theology (1978), he offered an image of human consubstantiality, a Trinitarian model for humanity, and a koinonia of diversities.

Razvan was introduced by his colleague, Father Dragos Herescu, who is Assistant Lecturer and Secretary of the Institute. He is currently working on a doctorate with Durham University, exploring the secularisation paradigm in the social and religious context of Eastern Orthodoxy, with particular focus on Romania.

Father Dragos also teaches at undergraduate level on the degree programmes offered through the IOCS and the Cambridge Theological Federation. He serves for Saint John the Evangelist Romanian Orthodox parish in Cambridge, and, as part of the Institute’s liturgical life, leads the small Byzantine choir.

Praying the chapel in Sidney Sussex College during this week's summer conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Later this morning, the Revd Dr Alexander Tefft (IOCS) spoke on “Integrism and the Limits of Dialogue.”

Father Alexander is chaplain at IOCS and a tutor for the distance learning courses. A graduate of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the US, he is also Parish Priest of the Orthodox Parish of Saint Botolph, meeting at Saint Botolph-Without-Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street, London. He has been Assistant to the Dean of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of the British Isles and Ireland and theological advisor to its ordination committee.

He argued that dialogue not always what it seems. Present ecumenical dialogue assumes pluralism is inevitable if not desirable, and both parties must be treated equally.

But he asserted: “If there can be no heresy, there can be no orthodoxy.”

He accepted that his position risks of being labelled sectarian or even fundamentalism. He said there is a fine line that divides heretics and schismatics, but a sect remains a sect and the Church remains the Church. Vestiges are vestiges and do not make a Church.

The Orthodox Church is the Church, and the Church, the Body of Christ, cannot be divided, he said. She is the only Church and the only Church, he said. Is it possible to be a Christian outside the Orthodox Church? Christians and the Church are not synonymous.

There can be no churches outside the Church, he said, and the sacraments and traditions are experienced only in the Orthodox Church.

A hassock in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Today [1 September] is the beginning of the New Year in the Orthodox Church. A pious tradition of the Orthodox Church says that Christ began preaching the good news of his mission on 1 September when he entered the synagogue, he was given the book of the Prophet Isaiah to read, and he opened it and found the place where it is written:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4: 18-21)

Orthodox tradition also holds that it was in September that the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. In Biblical and Mediterranean lands, the summer harvest was completed, the crops were stored, and this was a time when people began preparing for a new agricultural cycle; and so it was the appropriate time for new beginnings. In the services for the New Year, the Church beseeches God for fair weather, seasonable rains, and an abundance of the fruits of the earth.

I began this morning attending the early morning Eucharist at 8 a.m. in Saint Bene’t’s Church, close to Corpus Christi College and King’s College. The Revd Richard Ames-Lewis presided at the Eucharist, and the Gospel reading was that same passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel.

Sometimes we come together in ways that are unexpected and that may surprise us.

In the afternoon, Dr Dominic Rubin (Higher School of Economics, Moscow), addresses “Orthodox-Muslim interaction in Russia today: between ideology and theology,” and Dr Mangala Frost (IOCS) speaks on “Karma and the Cross: a dialogic study of suffering.”

Once again, the day concludes with Vespers in the Chapel at 5.30 p.m. and dinner at 6.30 p.m.

I thought it was an old chapel, so I
was surprised to hear the full story

No 7a Jesus Lane is a fine classical building in Cambridge, and looks like a former Victorian chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

My rooms in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, are at the very end of Cloister Close, so I am looking out across the Gardens and onto Jesus Lane this week. Jesus Lane is one of the ancient streets of Cambridge, providing access in the past to the nunnery of Saint Radegund, on which Jesus College was founded, and crossing the King’s Ditch.

As well as Jesus College, Jesus Lane is home to Little Trinity, one of the finest domestic buildings in Cambridge, and to a number of religious buildings, including Westcott House, the Anglican theological college; All Saints’ Church next door which was designed by GF Bodley, with interior decoration by William Morris, and one of the best Victorian churches in this part of England; the Quaker meeting house on the corner with Park Street; and, until recently, Wesley House, where the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies was once housed and which is now a building site.

No 7a Jesus Lane … seen from my rooms at the end of Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From my rooms, I look straight down at No 7a Jesus Lane, a perfect, elegant, white classical building, with steps at the portico fronted with six Ionic columns below a pediment. Today, this Grade II listed building is Pizza Express. In the English countryside, it could be the gate lodge for an important country residence, built in imitation of a Greek temple. But this is the heart of Cambridge, and I had often imagined it had been a Methodist or Baptist chapel in Victorian days.

I stepped inside last night to find that this is not only a pizzeria but also the home of the University Pitt Club, popularly referred to as the Pitt Club, or merely as “Club.” The motto is Benigno numine, “By the favour of the heavens” (Horace).

But it is a very favoured and exclusive club, open only to certain male undergraduates at Cambridge. In the past, most members had attended certain public schools, and while this is no longer needed to become a member, it certainly helps, and membership is for life.

Members in the past have included King Edward VII and King George V, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the Olympic gold-medallist David Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter (earlier called Lord Burghley, on whom the character Lord Lindsay in Chariots of Fire is based), the economist John Maynard Keynes, the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, the journalist David Frost, and the actor Eddie Redmayne.

William Pitt the Younger … part of a display inside the porch of the neoclassical building on Jesus Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Pitt Club was founded in Michaelmas Term 1835, and was named in honour of William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), who at 24 became Britain’s youngest-ever Prime Minister in 1783.

At the age of 14, Pitt entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1773 and studied political philosophy, classics, mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry and history. At Cambridge, Pitt was tutored by George Pretyman, who became a close personal friend. Pitt later appointed Pretyman Bishop of Lincoln, and then Bishop of Winchester, and drew upon his advice throughout his political career.

At Cambridge, Pitt became friends with the young William Wilberforce, who became a lifelong friend and political ally in Parliament. Pitt tended to socialise only with fellow students and others already known to him, rarely venturing outside his own “safe space” within the university. In 1776, he took advantage of a little-used privilege available only to the sons of noblemen, and chose to graduate without having to pass examinations.

He was MP for the constituency of Cambridge University from 1784 to 1806. As Prime Minister, Pitt pushed through the Acts of Union in 1800 to counter the fear of Irish support for France, although he failed to secure Catholic Emancipation as part of the Union. Pitt created the “new Toryism” that revived the Conservative Party and enabled it to stay in power for the next quarter-century.

The Pitt Club was founded in 1835 as a political club, “to do honour to the name and memory of Mr William Pitt, to uphold in general the political principles for which he stood, and in particular to assist the local party organisations of the town of Cambridge to return worthy, that is to say, Tory, representatives to Parliament and to the Borough Council.”

From the start, however, there was a social element and Club’s political events were combined with “the pleasures of social intercourse at dinner, when party fervour among friends, dining in party uniform … and speeches to successive toasts.”

During its first few years, Club was a peripatetic organisation, meeting variously in the rooms of members and in other venues, and over the course of the first few decades, the political element of the agenda waned while the social element waxed.

In 1841, it acquired rooms over the shop of Richard Hutt, a bookseller, at 29 Trinity Street, and it stayed there until 1843. From 1843 until 1866, the Pitt Club’s rooms were over Metcalfe’s furniture shop at 74 Bridge Street, on the corner of All Saints’ Passage.

Since 1866, Club’s premises have been at 7a Jesus Lane. The building was originally designed for the Roman Bath Company in 1863 as Victorian Roman baths by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877). He was a younger brother of Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880), who was the architect of Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

The baths on Jesus Lane were a short-lived venture, however. They opened in late February 1863 and had closed by the following December. At the liquidation sale after the closure, the building was sold at auction in 1865, and the buyer was none other than the architect Wyatt, who paid £2,700 for his own building. He rented out half of the building to the Pitt Club, and the other half to Orme’s Billiards Rooms.

By 1868, at the latest, the Pitt Club had ceased “from all political activity and … elected members to its social advantages without any regards whatever to considerations of political party.”

In 1907, Club bought the entire building, and after a fire that year the interior was extensively renovated. But during World War I, Club’s existence became increasingly tenuous as more Cambridge undergraduates joined the forces. It temporarily closed in October 1917 but reopened in early 1919. By 1920, Club had “become nearly normal again,” and “the only real trouble,” according to the minutes, was “the horrible scarcity of whisky.”

Pitt’s plaque on the pediment … “with a nose visibly tip-tilted in disgust” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Further renovations were carried out in 1925, and the dining room was panelled in 1927. The large plaque of Pitt’s head that adorns the pediment over the entrance was presented in 1933 by General Sir Neill Malcolm. Before that, the plaque had been on the wall of a house in Putney where Pitt died but that was demolished in 1932.

The premises were commandeered during World War II and made available to the public. One observer, ASF Gow, remarked at the time that the Pitt Club’s “eponymous hero looks down from the pediment, with a nose visibly tip-tilted in disgust, upon an enormous notice displaying the legend ‘British Restaurant’.”

The members were forced to seek alternative accommodation and eventually settled for temporary rooms above the post office in Trinity Street, which they named the Interim Club.

After World War II, the building was designated a Grade II listed building in 1950. As Club went through mounting financial difficulties in the 1990s, it sold a 25-year leasehold on the ground floor of its building to the Pizza Express chain in October 1997. Since then, Club has occupied the first floor of the building, with the entire ground floor used by Pizza Express. The rent subsidises membership and parties, which probably number two or three a year.

In October 2011, the Pitt Club set up the Pitt Club Scholarship. Graduate students applying to read for an MPhil in Politics or International Relations will be eligible to apply for the scholarship which will provide up to £15,000 per annum to cover fees, maintenance, travel costs or other funding to help with research. The Pitt Club Scholarship is open to any student, regardless of nationality, age, gender or race.

The current president of the Pitt Club is the History of Art Professor David Watkin. The other trustees are Tim Steel, Jeremy Norman and Lord Edward Spencer Churchill.

This men-only Club is often described as Cambridge’s equivalent to the Bullingdon Club in Oxford. Past members insist that this is an outrageous reputation is undeserved. “Girls would get invited to our parties but that doesn’t mean anything actually happened,” one recent Cambridge graduate and Pitt member said. “It was all incompetent, chinless wonders; the people who wanted to be part of a club but weren’t any good at sport.”

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph last year, he laughed off rumours about initiation ceremonies that involve burning cash in a silver goblet.

The Cambridge graduate and former public schoolboy told the Telegraph that while some Pitt boys would flash their cash – putting their card behind the bar of a club for an evening – most, like him, were living off their student loan and paid only around £40 for a yearly membership that gives them access to Club’s premises above Pizza Express on Jesus Lane.

In fact, the Pitt Club’s Oxford equivalent is probably The Grid – officially known as the Gridiron and founded in 1884 – which is also based in a room above a Pizza Express, and in both cases members are entitled to discounted food from the restaurant downstairs.