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

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