All Saints of Great Britain and Ireland
The Orthodox West - a Story of Decline and Hope
by Fr. Gregory Hallam
On a recent trip to Wales, I was, on occasion overcome
with a profound sadness. Where was God now in this fair land of green
clad hills and ancient springs? I suppose I meant, where was God in the
culture? - for He was everywhere to be seen in the landscape. In human
terms though there was a curious vacancy, a sense of a time long
forgotten, or as Peter Berger once said “a rumour of angels” - now
barely heard. There were of course churches and chapels a-plenty to be
seen, but they seemed to be caught in a time warp and others were
ruinous and effectively abandoned.
The churches in rural mid-Wales are pretty, compact, well maintained on the whole. They seem nonetheless to suffer from a certain cultural disconnection, except that is when hosting concerts for the tourists in tourist areas! Does God still matter though to the Welsh? The chapels have fared even worse. Village after village after village embarrasses itself with the crumbling facades of the long gone 19th century Welsh revival. It is as if the dragon had roared but the fiery embers were always destined to grow old, cold and forgotten. But why? Why could not the fire of Christ ignite Welsh culture beyond the immediate generation of those original (largely) Methodist apostles? Why is Wales now seemingly so neglectful of the faith of David, Non, Seiriol, Illtyd, Dyfrig, Gildas, Dwynwen, Melangell, Gwenfrewy, Winefride, Beuno, Asaph and countless others?
The same questions could and should be raised for England, Scotland and perhaps to a lesser extent Ireland, north and south. Why have the landmarks of sanctity in the lives of the Christian heroes of these lands been erased from the public mind, confined to the private realm of the dwindling faithful and the secular archives of the historian? Why has Christianity become disconnected from the culture and replaced by a secular mind more entertained by New Age fripperies and the gods of hedonism and individualism? As the Anglo-Catholic priest Fr. Eric Mascall once penned as a title to a book:- “Whatever happened to the Christian mind?”
The trouble is that the Orthodox know the answer but few seem to understand the question. We say, of course, that Britain has both forgotten the treasure (our Orthodox faith) and where she has buried it (in the distortions of Rome and Geneva). The incomprehension of the post-Orthodox Christian in the face of this answer is understandable for too many years have passed since the burying and the earthworks have now all but gone. The preachers of the Welsh Revival and all the other revivals of British Non-Conformity faced the problem of Christianity’s decline during the Industrial Revolution but they did not do their homework; they failed to look for the buried treasure but instead mistook fool’s gold for the real thing. They can’t be blamed for this. They were children of their time in revolt from a contaminated spiritual source, but sometimes in their confusion mistaking elements of its corruption for purity, its artifice for authenticity. The writing was on the wall no sooner than the wall had been built.
There are some Orthodox who say that British (or if you like, English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish) Orthodox Christianity is dead and buried and incapable of being revived. These claim that only through a fresh infusion of Orthodoxy with a very clear “country of origin” sticker affixed will the real thing be recognised once more. I beg to disagree ... and most profoundly! It is no solution at all to point a lost soul to a foreign country just because he has got lost in his own. We need to need to repaint the signs; not have them repositioned in a new direction.
St. Arsenios of Paros, a Greek saint of the 19th
century knew this full well. He said presciently ...
“When the Church in the British Isles begins to venerate her own Saints then the Church will grow.” St. Arsenios of Paros (+1877)
This is the remedy for the amnesia of the British. Let them see their own saints again ... not just in the churches (that they may never frequent) but in the countryside, in the cities, in the towns. We need to reconnect Christ and Culture in the Orthodox way. We need to roll back of the desert of secularism by touching the heart, by restoring the memory, by energising the will. We need to get out there and make Christ visible again.