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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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