Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) on discourse in the Church
Excerpts from an interview with Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh with Russkaia Mysl August 1, 2000
Published by Sourozh, August, 2000
I have a very clear or rather gloomy feeling that as we enter the third millennium we are entering some obscure and complex and, in a certain sense, unwelcome period. As for devotion to the Church, our faith must certainly retain its integrity, but we must not be afraid of thinking and expressing ourselves openly. Everything will eventually settle into order, but if we keep just endlessly reiterating what has been said long ago, more and more people will drift away from their faith (I mean not so much Russia as the world as a whole), not because everything that was stated before is erroneous, but because the approach and language being used are all wrong. Today’s people and the time they live in are different; today we think differently. I believe one must become rooted in God and not be afraid of thinking and feeling freely. ‘Freely’ does not imply ‘free thinking’ or contempt for the past and for the Tradition. However, God does not need slaves. ‘I no longer call you servants, I call you my friends…’ I think it is extremely important that we think and share our reflections with Him. There is so much we could share with Him in this new world we live in. It is so good and so important to think openly without time-serving. Intellectuals with great receptivity must come to the fore by their thinking and writing.
The Church, or rather clergymen and some of the conscious churchgoers, are afraid to do something wrong. After all these years when people could not think or speak openly with each other and thereby outgrow, as it were, the nineteenth century, there is much fear, which leads people to be content with mere repetition of what has been adopted by the Church long before and what is known as Church language and Church doctrine. This has to change sooner or later.
It seems to me that today the Church is in a period when on the one hand it is trying to remain particularly traditional; and on the other — first, people are not ready for this, and secondly, some of them are beginning to think, while not being supported or encouraged in this. (All this is generally speaking and without any individuals in mind). Are we not losing momentum and the chance to turn eventually from being a church organisation into being the Church?
I myself have reached the point where I am unable to increase my erudition or theological knowledge and I would rather speak about that which has come to maturity in my soul. While the form in which I speak may well be unacceptable to some, in essence, however, I believe it is not unacceptable. I hope that I do not deviate from the spirit of the Church or that of the Fathers. I do use, though, a different language and address different people. I think some Church fathers were accused of exactly the same thing; let alone Cyril of Alexandria, many were said to introduce ‘novelties’ and ‘inventions’. The same words were not used, but the approach was the same. In my opinion the Church today is going through a protracted crisis…
When the communist era as such was over I wrote in a letter either to the Patriarch or to someone else not to expect rapid changes in people’s mindset. What happens today is exactly the same as happened when the Jews fled Egypt. They found themselves free and this freedom proved to be not what they wanted. Everyone kept asking ‘Why did we have to leave? Where are those bowls full of meat and other food? There is nothing but sand around us.’ This is one thing, but there is more to it. They should have reached the Promised Land within a few days, within a week at the most. Yet they wandered about for forty years. Why? Because God had determined that they would have to roam around until the entire generation brought up in slavery died out and that nurtured at large and in savage conditions where nothing but belief in God mattered would come to the fore. Along the way they found themselves on Mt Sinai where they received the Ten Commandments, but the whole generation of slaves still had to fade away.
I think it is the same for the Church today. Undoubtedly, after all these years when the only means of its existence was utmost faithfulness to the form, thinking and posing questions turns out to be a frightening experience. Remarkably, asking questions was the only work that preoccupied the Church fathers of old times. Even if some answers came from them, so did the questions. And the answers did not just appear from nowhere in response to non-existent questions. Mind you, the questions they asked were addressed to people surrounded by paganism, i.e. by an absolutely alien experience and outlook. And this must be taken into account. Nobody lives in a Christian country today. Certainly there are still people devoted and faithful to the spirit of Gospel, but we can no longer suggest there is a difference between Christian and non-Christian countries; just as it is wrong to talk about Russian Orthodoxy.
For example, here in London a certain group (not very large) reproaches me with ‘betraying Russian Orthodoxy’, accusing me of ‘building up a Church that is not Russian’… Mind you, I have been saying from the very beginning that we shall be trying to build a Church as similar as possible to the original ancient Church, where people with nothing in common were united by Christ and their faith. Masters and slaves, and people of different ethnic origins and tongues stood next to each other. This is exactly what I have been striving for — to make it possible for everyone coming here to say: ‘Indeed, we have one thing in common, God …’ And I believe this solves the problem, because when we advocate just Russian, or Greek,or some other particular form of Orthodoxy, we start to lose people. And it’s not about us as parishes, losing churchgoers. I recall a conversation over forty years ago with the bishop James of Apameia, a very good person and a very good priest. He said they were losing about 150 young parishioners every year because they couldn’t understand Greek. When I asked him why they did not refer them to us, the bishop replied: ‘No, we would rather they vanish from sight than go to a “foreign” Church…’ This is what I have been fighting against and shall fight against in future, because it is nothing but believers that we need, people who have encountered God. I am not talking about things in some grandiose sense, because not everyone can be like St Paul. I am rather talking here about those who, even if to a very small degree, can say that they know Him. And he, and she, and they know something similar, and we can stand next to each other, even if we come from different traditions. Tradition is something that cannot be instantly remade.
I would love to be able to give my Russian talks for one more year, just to return to some basics. I appreciate that certain points that might arise in those basics may not be met with approval … Fr. George Florovsky once said to me, ‘there has been no Church father whose writings are free of heresy altogether, apart from Gregory the Theologian, of course, who was so careful as not to have said anything unnecessary or untrue.’ One can always find something unorthodox in each father’s works. So it’s possible to find something wrong with anybody. If this is the case, then make a note of what you believe to be erroneous, and ponder over it, and have your say about it. And one does not necessarily have to be hyper-critical. Why not simply say: ‘Well, I think this and that, based on what I have just heard’, and let us see then how your ideas correct or supplement those of your opponent. I believe it is extremely important that we start thinking and sharing our ideas, even at the risk of falling into error. Someone will always correct us, that’s all.
I remember my embarrassment fifty years ago when Nicholas Zernov said to me: “The whole tragedy began with the Ecumenical Councils when they started putting into shape what still required some flexibility.’ He was quite right — at least I think so now. At that time, however, I was shocked. This does not mean that Ecumenical Councils were wrong. Their formulations merely reflected the point they had reached. Since then theologians have also reached something… For example, while there were times when Fr Sergei Bulgakov was considered a heretic, today many people regard him differently. Both approaches are wrong. His writings contain certain points that are unacceptable, but some are. . .
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Translated by Timothy Okroev
Editor’s Note: On 18 June 2000 the Paris-based weekly Russkaia Mysl published excerpts from an interview given by Metropolitan Anthony in London ten days earlier. The choice of material, from a long conversation, is that of the editor of the Paris paper.