Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Female Ordination and Orthodox (re-posted from 2011)

In Orthodoxy, following the traditions of the Early Church fathers is just as important as following Scriptural teachings, after all, if you want to get to the spirit of an idea, the earliest understanding of it is most likely to be the least corrupted. So in knowing that the Early Church was willing to ordain people of all races (Christs apostles were not all israelites, yet he Ordained them to lead the Church after his ascendence, and they, through the holy spirit's guidence, did the same after this.) we also know to accept all ethic backgrounds into the clergy as Christ himself, and his apostles did. This was not the case with women, as there are no records of women in the early Church being ordained. therefore following the traditions of the Early church means not ordaining women.

Where does the idea of a male only clergy come from? The idea originated from the bible, and to be precise; Christ himself. The concept of female ordination is an extremely modern one, and is not down to “the male dominated society of the time,” not a sexist idea, and not designed to keep women down.  It is simple down to common sense.
One commonly mentioned factor in this is what the clergy are. The clergy are, in the Orthodox tradition, the image of Christ to the congregation.  This is why the ordination of Clergy is such an important sacrament in tradition. Going by this we need to look at what the image of Christ entails: By accounts of all Old Testament prophecy and the very revelation as recorded in the Gospels, the Christ was male. This means that the image of Christ is also a male image. To many this may also bring up the Question of race, since in the west Christ is a white male. What does this say about the Ethnicity of the "Icon of Christ"?

To answer the question, fortunately the Orthodox Church has not had to deal with this issue due to the large spread of the Church at its founding (Turkey, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Syria, Rome and Greece all being preached to at the time) and there have for the last 1700 years at least been known and universally venerated icons depicting Christ as being from all these places. An Icon of the Theotokos (St. Mary) I have in my house depicts her as Egyptian and is placed next to a Greek Christ Icon. As well as this, an Icon in our Bournemouth Church has Christ as an Ethiopian, as it was written by an Ethiopian Icon writer.

The race of Christ, at least in the Orthodox Church, has never been an issue. This is quite simple as the bible states this, as well as his gender and many details about him in the Gospels and writings of Early Christians (and Greek historians). We know was an israelite (a semite in scientific terms. His apostles themselves were of, and made priests of many from places such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Antioch (Syria), and even St paul is described as being of Egyptian Heritage( Acts 21:38 "Art not thou that Egyptian?") So race is not something to be made a big deal of, as the tradition has not come down through a specific race as a medium.

Race has sometimes been an issue in Western Churches, I have seen too many Americans with "God Loves America" "God Hates Arabs" etc... on their shirts, cars and everywhere else they can fit them to ever disagree with that. But as a white, British Born member of the Orthodox Church of Egypt (The Coptic Church) I cannot see how this could ever touch Orthodoxy, being that I have "Brothers" and "sisters" in Ethiopia, Russia, Egypt, India and most of the Mediterranean since the first centuries of the Church's existance.

This, compared to the female ordination debate is again a simple matter of Tradition. As God chose in Christ a male body to preach to mankind in, then chose male apostles from amongst his male and female followers and then they, the founders of the Church, (the apostles) ordained priests from all over. According to Tradition and Scripture this was all led by the Holy Spirit, (which they were blessed by) yet they were never led to Ordain women as priests, even when preaching in nations where other faiths did (such as the greek islands), so this is what is traditionally the way.

A second reason why in Orthodoxy a female clergy is seen as an impossibility is the very nature of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church is by all accounts a Church which prides itself on the (As Bishop Kallistos Ware calls it) “unvarying practice of the Church over the past two millennia.” With this in mind, why would a Church which practices the Christianity of the Earliest Christians decide to adopt a modernist, somewhat secular outlook? We have seen the Catholics start this with Vatican II, and the protestant Churches have done this since their creation (The very name “protestant” gives off an image of someone pushing away). The fact remains that in Christianity, modernisation and secularisation are everywhere, but Orthodoxy refuses to be drawn in.

According to Fr Seraphim Rose, a Heiromonk and writer of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America, “Even Heresy has its own ‘spirituality,’ its own characteristic approach to the practical religious life.” In other words, even someone wrong may have answers; this does not mean they are right. In his book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future” he quotes the philosopher Ivan Kireyevsky, saying “An Orthodoxy Mind stands at the point where all roads cross. He carefully looks down each road and, from his unique vantage point, observes the conditions, dangers, uses, and ultimate destination of each road from a patristic viewpoint.” So in order to obtain a truly Orthodox mind one must take a road which will lead to God, and not to a peace with anything else. Not even comfort within the modern secular world is worth losing that peace with God for. We have seen monastics give up the comforts of the secular world for God, and as Christians are asked to do the same.

This concept has a great influence on the Orthodox mindset, as we are not called to change for the world around us, but to stay strong in God alone.  This is why tradition is so important to the Orthodox Church, for as so many have swayed into heresy and changed to “go with the flow” the Orthodox Church has, without apology, stuck to its guns and refused to fall into the world and all its passions. This also goes for the concept of female Ordination. We see in the Gospels how Christ picked his disciples, the 12 Apostles. Christ, actively chose men as his closest followers, though he did have female followers. These 12 were given the power to trample underfoot the power of the enemy, and understood Christ’s message, spreading it across the world, no other was given the strength to do this. From this tradition we see that Christ could have chosen women to lead his church, but instead chose men, though we do see women the deaconate in the early church.  To the non Orthodox mind this may come as placing women in an inferior, servant position, yet to  Orthodox Church it I simply the way in which God chose to organise his church.

Again to the non-orthodox mind this idea of women as the servants of the Church and men as its head would seen a bit out of touch with “modern feminist thought” but many forget the great female saints and Martyrs such as St Faith, Saint Maria and St Bebaia or even the great desert mothers and famous nuns of the Orthodox tradition whose writings and love of God have been recorded throughout time as great wisdom. Even above these is Gods greatest Human Creation, the Mother of our lord, Saint Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Many Orthodox prayers are said in her name, she is prayed for in the hours, and revered above all.

In conclusion, the place of women in the Orthodox Church is not a matter of sexism; it is a simple matter of God over man, or tradition over change. There is no “anti women” agenda in the Church as so many seem to think, as Stanley Harakas stated in his The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers book “it is not accurate to label this tradition as “anti-woman” and to charge the Church’s teaching with anti-feminist. To say this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the purpose of the church and its primary interests.”  He goes on to explain how though many in the church have spoken out about such things as temptation and targeted women, other women have been praised for their chastity and wisdom, so to say the church is anti women because it is against certain types of behaviour from women is to call it anti-food because of fasting. These concepts are both preposterous and again miss the point. The same goes for  the idea of Sexism due to an all male clergy. If you associate following a tradition without female clergy with being ”anti female” you miss the point of that tradition.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Book Review: Theology of a Classless Society By Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios

Theology of a Classless Society
By Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios
ISBN: 0718824156
Price:  £89.95 (Amazon UK Marketplace)

I had been planning to buy and read this text for a number of years to have a further understanding of Mar Osthanasios’ political philosophy and his theological justification of it. Since in the summer I was visiting Kerala, I thought to take the opportunity to read this text since it is seen as one of his most famous works. As well as this, the text is often cited as an important English language work from the Indian Orthodox, especially with regards to concepts of social justice. With these in mind, I felt it important to read and understand.

The book is presented as an explanation of Mar Osthasios’ theory of the possibility of a classless society, demonstrated as Christian through use of theological examination with plenty of reference to the coequality of the trinity and Christ’s teachings on community. It is divided up based upon themes, from the outline of the theory, its application, to its theological justifications, with most of the book dedicated to the theological justification. Following on from this, Mar Osthasios gives a short question and answer section of the theory as well as a justification for his trinitarian terminology use which he states in the text as controversial.

Though I struggle with the premise of the book, a good strength of it is its resourcing. Mar Osthasios, having been educated under some of the most prominent Orthodox thinkers and secular philosophers of our time, puts a great deal of research into the sourcing and referencing of his work to support his theory. As well as this, the importance placed on the justification of his theory gives the book a sense of respect since regardless of your view on the theory you can sense the passion of the writer and it often draws you in. Though both of these are important points, I feel the greatest strength of this book is the writer’s awareness of the issues which people could raise with his theory. There is no sense of arrogance in the text, which is a rarity in political theology and many theological text. Mar Osthasios knows some people will scoff at the idea or at his theory’s application but wants you to know why he believes it. 

The major difficulty for me with this text lies in the theory itself and the way it is displayed. Though I admire the rigor and passion of Mar Osthasios in presenting his theory, I still feel that it is simply presented as a Christian Communism and is drawn too much on his admiration of communism as opposed to the theological and ecclesiological foundations it is claimed. An example of this comes in his ideas of application. He often compares his view to Liberation Theology and throughout the text he states his admiration for key thinkers of the movement without addressing its issues Theologically. He also states that he does not see communism as an answer since it is secular, however he then speaks in praise of Mao for being used by God as a tool to develop ideas of a classless society, comparing him to God’s use of Cyrus for the return of the Jews from exile without justifying the false equivalence here. 

The problem with this is that the Theological aspect seems to be simply a coating for the theory rather than its foundation, as demonstrated in his tracts on Jesus’ life and its links to a classless society, which would have given a perfect opportunity to evaluate the communist links in a more theological level but instead leaves them uncontrasted apart from the general “but that is secular” comment. As well as this, the Theological examples used are often vague and even risking heresy, which Mar Osthasios even admits when addressing his almost tritheistic view of trinity. To me this makes the book suffer greatly, since it slowly seems to reveal itself as less of a ‘Theology of a Classless Society’ and more of a ‘View of a Classless Society with a dash of Theology.’
Overall I would say that the text is a good one for looking at how Christian thinkers have attempted to address the issue of clearly unfair social practices and problems they have faced, however I cannot recommend it as a viable foundation to a theory of political theology since it fails to address a number of issues both theologically and politically which I feel undermine the theory and make it appear a simple communist text with a light coating of theology, one which has been seen in the past and has not seen itself aligned with the Ecclesiological or Theological standings of the Orthodox Church.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Book Review: On the Tree of the Cross: Georges Florovsky and the Patristic Doctrine of Atonement

On the Tree of the Cross: Georges Florovsky and the Patristic Doctrine of Atonement
Edited by Matthew Baker, Seraphim Danckaert and Nicholas Marinides
ISBN: 1942699093
Price: £23.02 (Amazon UK)

As an admirer of the works of Fr Georges Florovsky and the study of patristics in general, I have been eager to pick up a copy of this text for a while, a recent trip abroad gave me the opportunity to both buy and read this text through, and it was well worth the wait. It contains several great essays by prolific modern thinkers in Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism, spanning the centuries of the Early Church and Florovsky’s analysis of their thought.

As an essay collection, the book is split into different sections by different authors based on papers presented at a patristic symposium in honour of Florovsky held at  Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton University in 2011. These papers each cover a specific thinker’s view on the topic of atonement, along with links between the specific text or line of thought covered and how this view was understood in the work of Florovsky. A large of the text is dedicated to the specific debate between the western substitute view of atonement and the Orthodox ontological view, however this guiding line is demonstrated throughout to be somewhat polemical and not true of patristic thought. The book ends with a collection of Florovsky’s essays, some previously unpublished, on the subject.

As mentioned at the start, I am an admirer of Florovsky’s work and so seeing many current thinkers cover and discuss his work in the text was an enjoyable treat and a reminder of the splendid work being done by Orthodox thinkers in continuing Florovsky’s own patristic studies and the incorporation of the Neo-Patristic synthesis into modern theological questions. I especially enjoyed the sections by John Behr and Khaled Anatolios on Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius, knowing how both are seminal thinkers on these saints it was good to have their views on the matter of salvation analysed at this level. The book also demonstrates the great strives made in patristic study. Overall, the text is a great piece of work, compiling the work of some of the best modern Orthodox thinkers on a difficult and often misjudged area of study, using their patristic knowledge to contextualise the question of Atonement and tackle the various approaches made.

With regards to drawbacks of this book, the only major one which comes to mind is that it often raises more questions than it answers. This is not a flaw in the writing but a general problem which I find with books based on conferences of collections of papers. An example of this comes from its principle point of discussion on the Ontological vs Substitutory view of Christ’s Crucifixion. Due to the essays being from various writers and from various perspectives it gives different answers to the same questions, leaving many readers with no definitive Orthodox view on these matters.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the thoughts of the fathers on the matters of redemption and atonement or with an interest in the ideas and legacy of Georges Florovsky. The book is a great overview of the topic, utilising some of the major Orthodox thinkers and academic writers of this generation to tackle the question with both academic vigour and appreciation of the theological depth of the topic.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Book Review: Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion By Jonathan Clements

Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion
By Jonathan Clements
ISBN: 1472137418
Price: £13.48 (Amazon UK)

Japanese history has always been a topic I have had an interest in, though there are many aspects of this history which I have not had the opportunity to delve into. The events of the Shimabara Rebellion is one of these areas and so I jumped at the opportunity to pick up this text on the topic by the historian Jonathan Clements. The book is an overview of the events leading to and during the Shimabara Rebellion, tackling it from a multi-layered event in Japanese history as opposed to the traditional view of it as being a simple religious revolt by the Christians of the prefecture.

The text uses a chronological approach to the topic and starts with the introduction of Christianity to Southern Japan through the trade routes with westernised ports in China. It then traces the development of the Japanese Jesuit missions and communities and the difficulties in transmitting the faith. This analysis of the distinctively native form of Christianity and the way in which the Catholic faith was somewhat mutated by local elements entering the language and practices of the local uncatechised peasant communities adds an interesting dimension to the text, reminiscent of Endo’s “Silence” and his description of Japan as a swamp in which the Christian faith cannot grow.

The book then describes the political events leading to the persecution of Christians in japan and the subsequent development of small hidden communities in the islands of the South. Clements’ description of the descent through the use of specific characters of the era assist in creating a narrative and image for the reader. The rest of the book is dedicated to a carefully structured, play by play, image of the Shimabara Rebellion itself which gives the reader a well detailed account of the conflict with reference to contemporary witnesses and documents to show how both sides reacted to specific stimuli and events in the course of the eventual siege of Hara Castle.

The almost novel like narrative and use of contemporary witness accounts makes this book an easy and gripping read, showing Clements’ love of the topic and the people involved. When reading, it does not come off as simply a history book but invites the reader to engage with the characters in a way which is only deepened when the account is supported by quotations from the letters, reports and journals of the historical players themselves. In using this style of writing, Clements has created a historical run down which feels closer to a novel than a non-fiction piece and done so in a way which does not infringe on the academic integrity of the piece as evidenced in the primary sources littered throughout the book.

My only real gripe with the cook is the conclusion. The Shimabara rebellion, on which the book focuses, is given a build up of close to 75 pages outlining the rise and fall of the Jesuit order as a major player in Japanese politics at the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Following the conflict, only 19 pages are dedicated to its aftermath. Since Clements emphasises that the rebellion is not simply a religious one he seems to ignore any analysis of the impact of the sudden drop in population on the area or the importance of the conflict as a final fight for many aging Samurai. As well as this, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of the impact of this on wider religious freedom in Japan in the times between the rebellion and the Meiji Restoration. These two areas seem neglected here, especially when compared to the detail in which Clements covers them in the run up.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone interested in either the history of Christianity in the far east or in Japanese history generally. Clements has demonstrated that a history book can be both engaging and academic, and made it look easy. The book is one which is hard to put down and always has the reader wanting to see what happens next in this play by play walk through what was a fascinating and complex time in Japanese history.

Book Review: Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt By Febe Armanios

Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt
By Febe Armanios
ISBN: 0190247223
Price: £17.27
Febe Armanios’ book is one that I had been looking forward to reading for (literally) years. Whilst writing my Mth Thesis on the development of the Coptic Papal Election system one of the great difficulties was a lack of academic writing on the Coptic community during the Ottoman Era, and this text fills in the gap nicely, using sources from both Ottoman and Coptic records to give a broader understanding of the historical period and the community relations therein.

Armanios’ writing takes a thematic approach to the topic, looking at specific themes and historical instances during the Ottoman Era in Egypt in order to gain an insight into the place of the Coptic Church in society as well as the allowances and practices of the community in the Ottoman yoke. The text starts with a look at the sources available to us to do this, and raising the issue of lack of available sources to academics. It goes on to look at martyrdom stories and their impact on the community, pilgrimage and the development of rights and finally to cover the use of sermons to define Coptic identity during conflicts with missionaries from the Catholic and Protestant communities.

The structure of the text and its great insight into a very loosely explored period in Coptic history allows this book to demonstrate some great and original research into themes which have not been looked at. As well as this, Armanios’ approach to the topic and the readability through which she expresses her research allows the reader to access a vast historical landscape in an easy manner. This readability and originality makes Armanios’ book a great read and certainly one to be recommended to anyone with an interest in Coptic history or general Ottoman studies.

As for any weaknesses, the main one is one which Armanios herself addresses in the book. In the introduction she states that due to prejudices with regards to the period and a general lack of scholarship as to Coptic communal history the text can only give a broad overview of the period without delving into any of the subjects in further detail. Therefore to any specialist reader looking into a certain aspect of Coptic history or Ottoman history in Egypt it can seem too loose in areas, though this is not the fault of the writer but simply a symptom of a lack of academic resources available.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As mentioned, it is readable and original in its scholarship which allows it to be a text with a lot to offer the reader. I would recommend it to anyone looking to fill in this much misjudged gap in Coptic Historical studies and anyone with an interest in the development of modern Coptic society generally.