Late last year, just before the Victorian State Election, I attended an evening at Parliament House, organized by the Australian Christian Lobby, whose aim was to ascertain the position of the two major parties on various issues of concern to diverse Christian denominations in Melbourne. One after the other, clerics and other representatives of these denominations rose to ask pertinent and perspicacious questions about complex matters ranging from Equal Opportunity Legislation, to Drug and Alcohol Abuse Policy, Medical Ethics, Asylum Seekers and Computer Game Ratings and Internet Censorship. These questions were of a sophisticated nature, displaying not only a masterly appreciation of the delicate nuances of policy and legislation that can give rise to a plethora of interpretations and presumably, applications on both a political and juridical level, but also, a deep understanding of the evolution of our modern multi-faceted and pluralistic Victorian society.
The church representatives present, seemed to wish not so much to propound and preach doctrine, as to probe and to clarify, to distinguish and to elucidate, and to enter into a genuine dialogue with their political leaders. I was particularly heartened by the presence of representatives of Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, even if this was de facto, as junior partners.A church, embodying by its very nature, a set of convictions about the supernatural and existence itself, has in secular pluralistic societies, an invaluable role to play; its doctrines forming one of many commentaries and critiques on the nature and direction of that society.
The Orthodox Church, with an ancient unbroken presence in the lands that first adopted Christianity from the outset of that religion’s inception, obviously has, considering its venerable and unfathomably protean tradition in such spheres of life as spirituality, welfare, philosophy and ethics, much to contribute, offer and share with the discourse of modern complex communities, especially since it has been both a minority and state religion of empires as globalist and sophisticated as those of the Romans and the Ottomans, which offer interesting parallels to our own reality today.
It is to Australia’s loss that up until recently in its century-long history in this country, the Orthodox Church has not been able to engage in discourse with its host culture, to the full breadth and extent that its vast tradition permits. Instead, owing to the fact that the vast majority of its congregation and practitioners had little fluent English, it was effectively relegated to the status of a ‘ghetto church,’ by the mainstream: that is, a church that did not and could not engage with the broader community. Instead, it concerned itself largely with ministering to its members’ religious, but also cultural needs, given that the conditions of the long Ottoman occupation have historically rendered the Church the repository of ethnic consciousness – a significant social development. Our priests, struggling to find their feet in a new land while assisting their flock to also do the same were not in a position to offer any insights to a mainstream that for decades considered them its inferiors. Consequently, our Church has until recently, not been in a position to produce the ethicists and thinkers that, for example, the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations have, nor has it been able to have anyone sit up and take notice at its unique world-view.
The isolation of the Orthodox Church as an ethnic ghetto institution in Australia is anomalous, flying in the face of its universal message. Thankfully, such isolation has decreased over time, largely as a result of the foundation of St Andrew’s Theological College in Sydney, enabling Australian-born members of the congregation to study Orthodox theology in their country of birth and to subsequently become priests, as well as a result of the arrival here of dynamic clerics, possessed of a brilliant academic background and fluency in the English language, such as our own Archbishop Stylianos and the charismatic Bishop Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Such prelates, apart from forming compendious repositories of the knowledge necessary to propagate and perpetuate the Faith in Australia, are also, because of their highly developed interpersonal skills, uniquely placed to engage with the mainstream and wrest from its political leaders, the requisite recognition of our Church as a significant stakeholder in Australian society.
To speak of continued isolation a century after the establishment of the Church in Australia is thus a testament to the prevailing social conditions that determine the level of integration of our community within the mainstream. However, considering that the second and third generation members of our community are overwhelmingly English speaking and are active in all facets or Australian life, the isolation of their belief system from mainstream Australia is no longer tenable.Recently, it was announced that Father Jacob, an archimandrite serving at the Oakleigh parish, will be elevated to the rank of titular bishop of Miletoupolis, a see once held by Archbishop Stylianos. Through his elevation, Father Jacob makes history, as he is the first ever Australian-born cleric to become an Orthodox bishop in Australia. Furthermore, given that he is a graduate of St Andrews Theological College, it is correct to say that he is a product of a uniquely Australian Orthodox environment. This is an achievement our entire community can feel proud of, though it is an achievement not without its more daunting aspects.
For it is to our Australian-born, fluently English speaking bishop that will fall a triple and particularly intricate task;
a) serving the ecclesiastical needs of ageing Greek speaking parishioners and their priests, who currently form the majority of active church-goers; – and balancing these with-
b) passing on the Orthodox traditions and doctrines to the latter, English speaking generations. This is a task fraught with difficulty, not only due to the fact that these generations are largely disengaged from Greek communal activity, whether cultural or religious and lack facility in the Greek language but also because unlike their forebears, who came from and recreated in their adopted country a culture that revolved, at least ideologically, around the church, tradition and nationalism, they live in a secular post-modern age, that challenges claims to objectivity and deconstructs every and all claimant to the ultimate truth and are thus, emancipated from the shackles of traditional social compliance, not as inclined to subscribe to the Church’s tenets;
c) ensuring that the Church engages with the mainstream in ways that ensure that it provides a meaningful and respected contribution to the discourse of Australian society. This includes broadening the base of the important and largely unsung welfare and social work that the Church has undertaken. It also means placing the Church at the helm of furthering study of our unique patristic and theological tradition – truly an unlimited resource. In attempting such undertakings, the bishop would have to tread a tenuous tightrope between retaining the historic Greek origins of the Church, without this precluding its development as an inclusive Australian Church, in which peoples of diverse background have a role to play. As a corollary, he will be compelled also to placate and direct both partisans whose conception of the Church is either more exclusive or inclusive.
Achieving all this and keeping the peace within our fractious community will be no mean feat indeed. Indeed, it is vital that in seeking to engage the disengaged, and granting the Church heightened relevance in a period of rapid social unravelling, an environment of harmony, support, mutual assistance and dare one say it, love, its actively maintained. Considering that as a community and a congregation we are at the crossroads of acculturation, how we engage with each other and plan for the future will determine the survival of the entities we have created and nurtured with so much effort. The state of that future, will most likely, be our new bishop’s legacy.
Ultimately, what reassures us in the face of the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead for the Orthodox Church in Australia is the solid foundation upon which it has been constructed. This is a Church that in its two thousand year old history has survived continuous persecution, schism and conflict. All these vicissitudes have taught it how to remain relevant and steadfast. Its hierarchs have acted as beacons and guardians of our people and faith and it is to this tradition of quiet perseverance and bold resistance that our new Australian-born bishop weds himself. In his task, he deserves the assistance of us all.
DEAN KALIMNIOUkalymnios@hotmail.comFirst published in NKEE on Saturday 22 January 2011