I don’t remember how old I was, but some of my earliest memories are of being held in my grandmother’s arms in a Greek Orthodox church in London. I remember the shiny gold paint reflecting off the impressive icons, the many candles, the smell of incense, the chanting and the arcane language I could not comprehend, the ornately garbed bearded priest feeding me with a spoon and the taste of the Communion wine. My lasting impression was that this place, this worship, was joyfully disconnected from the world outside. Though the language was Greek, it was not the Greek my grandmother or parents spoke. In short, even though I would not even have been there were I not of a Greek Cypriot family, this Liturgy for me had nothing to do with nationality. It was certainly no reflection of the country that my family had left many years before. Even as an infant, though I had no words to articulate my impressions, this place was heavenly. This is the impression I had also as a young adult, and, though I have bad days when my heart and mind are not where they should be in worship, on the whole this impression remains with me to this day whenever I celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
But for some of my fellow Orthodox Greeks, the Greek Orthodox Church is all about nationality. People’s private sentiments can often slip my attention unnoticed, and they do not often trouble me until there is a conflict about the Church’s role and mission in the world to “make disciples of all nations”, or when it comes to ministering to young Greeks from the U.K. who are made to feel like outsiders due to things like language and age difference. But what does really trouble me is when the Liturgy’s invitation for all to “lay aside every care of this life” that they may enter into the presence of Christ and His Kingdom, is overshadowed by celebrations of Greek national holidays. When someone comes into a church and sees Greek and Cypriot flags and hears the Greek national anthem, there is clearly something very worldly indeed about the church. Far from being joyfully disconnected from the world, being the heavenly Kingdom on earth (not only symbolically, but really), it becomes a reflection of an earthly nation, an expression of ethnic pride, a tool for a national agenda.
Nothing can be more contrary to the meaning and purpose of Orthodox worship than using it for something very much of this world. Furthermore, it seems that the main criterion for being a member of and participant in the life of the Church is not baptism, but national heritage, not faith but ethnicity. One can happily go to church, even work for the Church in the field of administration or education, without being a believer! At the Divine Liturgy, before the Entrance of the Holy Gifts, the Deacon proclaims, “As many as are believers…” The Church is about the Gospel, the Faith of our Fathers, the Holy Nation and Royal Priesthood of Christ. In short, it is not for nominal Orthodox whose baptism remains nothing more than an accident; it is for those who believe and who practice their faith. While it is not surprising that State Churches such as Greece and Cyprus have for a long time been hijacked by national agendas and the interests of the State, here in the United Kingdom, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (which is not and has never been a State Church), there is no excuse for this sort of hypocritical nonsense. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, whether we choose to respond or not, the Orthodox Church in these lands is a missionary church.
Every time we say the Creed, we claim to believe in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. ‘Apostle’ means one who is sent. The Orthodox Church, being apostolic, is sent into the world. And if we are sent into the world, then we are not of the world. As St John Chrysostom writes: “If you are a Christian, then no earthly city is yours…We are enrolled in heaven. Our citizenship is there!”
May we begin to take our role as ambassadors of God’s Kingdom a lot more seriously!