Beauty and splendour

In Andrew Louth's first article of four he introduces the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Orthodoxy was born towards the end of the first Christian millennium.

According to the chronicle, Vladimir (or Volodimer) Prince of Kiev - whose conversion inaugurated Russian Orthodoxy - sent envoys to his neighbouring nations which embraced some form of monotheism such as Judaism, Islam, Western and Eastern Christianity. What convinced these nations of the superiority of the Eastern Orthodoxy of Constantinople was their worship: ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth... We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer that the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.’

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches—Greeks, Slavs, Romanians, mostly. Tthese Churches owe their faith to the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern part of the Christian Roman Empire. Today they are all national churches with their own hierarchies who worship in their own languages each sharing the same faith which is defined by the seven ‘worldwide’ (or Œcumenical) Synods convoked between the fourth and the eight centuries. The Churches also share the same pattern of liturgical worship; they are as it were, different dialects of a commonly shared language.

It was the beauty of Byzantine worship that struck the envoys and came to mark Russian Orthodoxy. Particularly the splendour of our worship and the solemnity with which Russians perform their liturgical actions, for example making the sign of the cross, bows and prostrations.

When Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin thought that ‘beauty will save the world’, he expressed an authentically Orthodox insight, one that is a fundamental conviction about the nature of God. God is not thought of, first of all, as a final metaphysical principle, nor as an ultimate moral sanction but rather as the ‘God, before whom we stand in awe’ (as one of our prayers puts it). He is the One whom we worship and to whom we pray, because he is the source of all brought into being in love, and cares for everything he has created.

The church buildings in which we worship are not just utilitarian structures, but places of beauty. They are symbolic structures that represent the created order, the cosmos. From the dome of the church, Christ the Pantokrator the ruler of all, gazes down in mercy and love.

In our human prayer we embrace the whole cosmos, because we have been created by God in his image. We have been created as miniature versions of the cosmos (‘microcosms’), on the frontier between spiritual and material realms.

Our role, placed as we are in God’s cosmos, is to fulfil the role of priest of nature (the shepherd of being) and interpret the mysteries of the divine meaning of the cosmos. The amazing discoveries of modern science can only be welcomed by such an interpretation of humans in relation to the cosmos.

But the world, as we know it, is also marred by ugliness. Its beauty is torn by cruelty. Prince Myshkin spoke of beauty saving the world from ugliness, distortion and brokenness. He talked about saving it from a mystery of iniquity that we hardly understand, but which we see reflected all too clearly in our human failings, those of greed, pride, lust for power and all the ways in which we fall short of being human.

This beauty that will save the world is the beauty of God, perceived by the human, in the human and in the human face of Christ which looks down in compassion from the domes of our churches.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
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In Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour has picked an unlikely winner

The party leader is making gains internally at least. 

Kezia Dugdale did not become the leader of Scottish Labour in the most auspicious of circumstances. She succeeded Jim Murphy, who lasted just six months in the job before losing his Westminster seat in the 2015 general election. She herself has survived one year, but not without rumours of a coup.

And so far, she has had little reward. Labour lost 14 seats in the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, and not just to the auld enemy, the SNP, but a seemingly decrepit one, the Tories. She backed the losing candidate in the recent Labour leadership contest, Owen Smith. 

Yet Dugdale has firm fans within Scottish Labour, who believe she could be the one to transform the party into a vote-winning force once more. Why?

First, by the dismal standards of Scottish Labour, Dugdale is something of a winner. Through the national executive committee, she has secured the internal party changes demanded by every leader since 2011. Scottish Labour is now responsible for choosing its own Westminster candidates, and creating its own policy. 

And then there’s the NEC seat itself. The decision-making body is the main check on the Labour leadership’s power, and Dugdale secured an extra seat for Scottish Labour. Next, she appointed herself to it. As a counterweight to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, Dugdale now has influence within the party that extends far outside Holyrood. The Dundee-based Courier’s take on her NEC victories was: “Kezia Dugdale completes 7-0 Labour conference victory over Jeremy Corbyn.”

As this suggests, Dugdale’s main challengers in Scotland are likely to come from the Corbyn camp. Alex Rowley, her deputy leader, backed Corbyn. But Labour activists, at least, are battle weary after two referendums, a general election and a Scottish parliament election within the space of two years. One well-connected source told me: “I think it's possible we haven't hit rock bottom in Scotland yet, so the scale of the challenge is enormous.” 

Polls are also harder to ignore in a country where there is just one Labour MP, Ian Murray, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in June. A YouGov exit poll of the leadership election found Smith beating Corbyn in Scotland by 18 points (in every other part of Britain, members opted for Corbyn). Observers of Scottish politics note that the most impressive party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, were given time and space to grow. 

In policy terms, Dugdale does not stray too far from Corbyn. She is anti-austerity, and has tried to portray both the SNP and the Tories as enemies of public service. She has attacked the same parties for using the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum to create division in turn. In her speech to conference, she declared: “Don’t let Ruth Davidson ever tell you again that the Union is safe in Tory hands.”

So long as Labour looks divided, a promise of unity will always fall flat. But if the party does manage to come together in the autumn, Dugdale will have the power to reshape it north of the border, and consolidate her grip on Scottish Labour.