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Is the Church Ready to Meddle in Politics?

22/06/2016 11:26 | Updated 22 June 2016

Most people in the UK will have no idea about the events in Crete this week. The UK press is so full of debates and opinions about the EU and the referendum to remain or leave, or stories of rioting football fans that the high politics of international church relations gains barely a blip of notice. The second largest Christian community in the world is convening one of its most important meetings in over 300years and the UK is blissfully unaware. This is partly because one of the very problems of that this 'second-largest community', the Orthodox Christian Church, is facing in its meetings this week in Crete, is that it rarely speaks with one voice, and not often in a coherent and understandable manner.

I am a member of that community, I am a parish priest in the UK, but also involved in a number of international forums that discuss the issues facing the Orthodox Christian communities around the world. I am also an academic whose teaching involves the interface between faith, community and society. The meeting in Crete, called a 'Great and Holy Council', is going on right now and is being covered in the social media, despite a tightly controlled press office. I am not there, and I could do with a bit of the hot Cretan sunshine, and so have to work out what is going on through opinions and leaks voiced in Greek, Russian, English and French across the global media. I cannot speak with authority, but the British press have never really let the facts get in the way of a good story, and this is a good story.

The first document to be approved at this 'great and holy Council' is important to me. It begins to map out a way in which I might speak about the relationship between this Christian community whose history is over 2,000 years old and events and social changes that are going on right now. It's too early to know which of these social changes, mass migration, global refugees, sexual and gender identity politics, human rights, the rise of fascism are going to still important in 300 years' time, but parishioners and students want to know, now, how to think, speak and act on these ethical and social challenges.
But the road to that conversation with a parishioner or a student is a long and rocky one. The last of these great meetings of the Orthodox Church occurred before the rise of the philosophical and social movement of modernism that sets the context for our lives today, and the church since then has been shackled by military invasions of its spiritual heartlands in the middle east, by militant state atheism in the Soviet Union and forces of capitalism and globalisation in places like Greece. These social forces have kept the fiercely independent churches from collaborating and developing a single voice to understand the massive social changes that have occurred in that period. Let's face it, in that time, the motorcar has been invented, digital technology has taken over everyone's lives, the wealth of a small minority of the population has grown exponentially and new countries have emerged, and old countries have disappeared.

To speak sensibly, sensitively but in truth about any one of these massive social changes is almost impossible, and to help an individual parishioner or to teach an individual student of community and social work how to navigate the ethical challenges she faces every day is even harder, and yet the Orthodox Christian church is proposing to speak to these issues authoritatively, in just over 4,000 words is insanely ambitious. It is also trying to do this in the context of a viciously contested process of decision-making.

Bringing together a family of 14 very different Churches, whose people have very different perspectives and life experiences, especially if they are not used to meeting and working together is an unenviable task, which is why it has taken over 50 years to get them to actually meet. The agenda for the meeting was agreed in the 1930s, but the briefing notes for the agenda (the 'preconciliar documents') weren't finalised until a few months ago. Even the procedure for the meeting was argued over, who gets to sit where and how to interpret the term 'consensus decisions' were all fought over, and are still being debated. Most of the documents were agreed by all of the 14 Churches involved, but a few documents remained unresolved. And then, within days of the meeting, different churches dropped out. One Church had fallen out with another Church over parishes in a part of Quatar, others didn't think that their views were going to be upheld by the consensus decision-making process and so didn't want to attend, and another decided that because some of the others were not attending, that there was no point them going. It's a bit like students trying to organise a pizza party.

OK, so I'm being flippant, but the absentee Churches will be important for the document that I am about to discuss. The 'Mission of the Church in Today's World' document was approved, we are told by a leaky press contingent in Crete, by the heads of 10 of the 14 Orthodox Churches, unanimously on the 20th of June 2016. Some amendments had been proposed and some approved and others rejected by the gathered leaders of the churches. I am sure that by the time this article is published the situation will have changed.

The document itself, written in Greek, translated officially into Russian and with a working copy in English, was approved by all of the delegates to the pre-Council meetings. Signatures of all 14 Patriarchs (heads of the churches) appear on the document, on every page. Even though only 10 churches have turned up for the actual Council meeting in Crete, the document has the stamp of formal approval from everyone, although commentaries have appeared in the press picking important holes in some of the ideas and expressions in the document. An example is the phrase 'there is neither male nor female' taken from a text in the bible known as Galatians 3:28. The paragraph in the bible is about the fact that all Christians are one before God- that our race, our sex, our gender or our civil status doesn't matter. But those who are deeply worried that the Orthodox Christian church is about to throw out thousands of years of experience and prayer about what it is to be human think that this means that this will result in a rejection of the binary man/woman approach to gender. Another document being presented to the Council is primarily focused on marriage and gender identity; and this document about the mission of the church in the world isn't about gender politics, but the fact this phrase is included in this text without clear qualification means the downfall of Christianity to some. One fragment of text is being torn from its context, twisted around to mean something different and thrown back at the community of faith.

The context of the document, reflecting a lot of the long term thinking and writing of Bishop John Zizoulas, a very high profile theologian who spent more than 15 years teaching in Scotland is the dignity and freedom of every human being and a commitment to promoting peace and justice to ensure that every human can flourish without discrimination. Globalisation, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the ecological degradation caused by consumerism and the loss of the sense of God in homes and communities around the world because of that secularising commitment to constant and unlimited economic growth prevent the human being from flourishing freely in the knowledge and experience of God who has created all things. For many Europeans, and certainly for sociologists like myself, this is unremarkable stuff but for Americans mired in the politics of gender-neutral toilets and public shower rooms and same-sex marriages, the dignity of the human being entails an acceptance of all of the gender identity politics of the last couple of decades. Topics such as unlimited economic growth or global climate change are either hugely contested in the USA or totally ignored in Russia.

The Christians in the Middle East don't have time to worry about consumerism or same-sex toilets when they are being bombed out of their houses or subjected to atrocities. Speaking to a globalised Christian community requires being able to accept all of the Christians where they are, in the political and social environment within which they live, and the social and ethical considerations of a Christian in Turkey is very different from one in the UK, or the middle of the USA. But beginning to develop a sense of those universal principles that unite all the Orthodox Christians in a globalised world is vitally important.

There is a long way to go. Apparently simple phrases like 'the human person' are to some, and I quote, "taken from the Communist Manifesto or the book "rules for Radicals" of crypto-Marxist Alinsky". For some, discrimination and inhuman treatment of women by ignorant and ill-informed Muslim and Christian men is an everyday occurrence, for others a 'Muslim invasion' or a communist take-over is a remote but theoretical possibility. Bridging the gap between the two, between the different experiences is going to take a lot more work than a few hundred words in a text. The politics of this text however is that begins to set the context within which, in the final words of the document, Orthodox Christians can begin to reaffirm in this world today, not the worlds of ancient history, "the sacrificial love of the Crucified Lord, the only way to a world of peace, justice, freedom, and love among peoples and between nations".

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