The broad church
Eastern meets Western faith
The Bishop of Lichfield’s pastoral letter for October 2018
‘East Meets West’ was the theme of our memorable and inspiring encounter with fellow Christians from the dioceses of West Malaysia and Kuching in July this year. That was an event involving only Anglicans, but two experiences in August have made Julia and myself think further about another dimension of the meeting of East and West in Christ. One was the baptism of our granddaughter in a Russian village church close to the Estonian border (our daughter-in-law is Russian). On 2nd August – the Feast of Elijah the Tishbite, according to the Russian Orthodox calendar – four-month old Rosaline was thoroughly drenched in water, anointed with huge quantities of oil, led around the church to repeated chants of ‘Alleluia’, then held up high by the priest and whooshed along in front of the screen of icons of the saints – an action filled with joyful wonder, and particularly fitting for the day, which is also National Paratroopers’ Day in Russia.
Meanwhile, back in Lichfield, it was our privilege this summer to host in our house three Palestinian icon painters from Bethlehem. They were working on a magnificent icon for the Cathedral, which was dedicated on 14th September, the Feast of the Holy Cross. Depicting the figure of ‘Jesus Crucified, Risen and Lord of All’, this now hangs at the east end of the nave, above the place of the altar. I was particularly interested to learn about the arrangements for securing it in the ceiling, as I was the first person to stand under it as I presided at the Eucharist; I need have had no fears!
The worship, art and spirituality of the Orthodox churches of the East can seem to some Western Christians strange and puzzling; to others, they are appealing and intriguing. Both reactions are a sign of how distant from one another we have become over the years. For almost a millennium now, since the Great Schism of 1054, the churches of East and West have been separated from one another, and during the centuries they have in many ways continued to grow still further apart. Yet we share a common root, and the people of our own country received the gospel of Christ from men and women for whom the split between East and West was not final: Chad our first bishop is revered by Eastern Orthodox Christians as a saint of the undivided church.
In our own time, there is an increasing recognition that East and West have much to learn from one another. For me as a Western Christian, there is much enrichment in the deep and unaffected note of resurrection joy that runs through Orthodox liturgy, in the simple and transcendent beauty of the holy icons, in the profound traditions of spiritual wisdom passed on by holy men and women. The late Pope John Paul II spoke of the Church’s ‘need to learn to breathe again with both its lungs – its Eastern one and its Western one’. For us in this country, that is a particularly important message to remember at a time when suspicion and hostility between East and West seems to be on the rise.
Next May, I am hoping to lead a pilgrimage group from the diocese to Moscow, to spend a few days exploring some of the rich heritage and living reality of Russian Orthodox faith. More details of that are available on our website and in our regular diocesan Bulletin*. I hope that several of you will be able to join me on that trip; but for the many of you for whom that will not be practicable, please do find time soon to come to our Cathedral to look on the wonderful new icon of Christ crucified, risen and Lord of all. As you contemplate that image, created by artists from Bethlehem, the birthplace of our common faith, pray for the reunion of the Lord’s divided church, that breathing together as two lungs of the one body of Christ we may all be renewed by the life-giving Spirit.
*Anyone can sign up for the fortnightly Bulletin online at lichfield.anglican.org/signup-the_bulletin.