Monthly Archives: August 2017

Zeal as a Spiritual Illness


Some people speak of ‘zealous Christians’, as though this were a good thing to be. However, I am always deeply troubled by that phrase, for the simple reason that zeal is by no means good. In fact, there are two sorts of zeal, one is based on pride, the other on humility. The sad fact is that the former, in my experience, is far more common than the latter. Zeal is often a spiritual illness unless it can be channelled by obedience to experience.

Bad Zeal = Contempt for Others: The Pride-Isolation-Discouragement-Lapse Cycle.

Pride comes before the fall – that is the spiritual law in all situations. And pride is at the root of bad zeal with its pharisaic comparisons with others. Pride says: ‘I am better than they are’; ‘I can do everything better than they can’; ‘as regards the others, who do not come to church all the time, who do not pray like me, who do not cross themselves often and do not keep the fasts as strictly as I do, all they are fit for is criticism from me’. Ironically, pride always boasts: ‘I am sinful and unworthy’. (We already know that you are sinful and unworthy, like the rest of us, it is part of being a human-being. Stop being a pharisee). Be intolerant of others and sectarian – and you are well on your way to your self-imposed exit from the Church. Be literal in everything, never be indulgent and show no pastoral ‘economy’ (dispensations for weaknesses).

Thanks to your mountain of self-admiring pride, you will soon find yourself in a state of self-isolation. You will flee others, but they will also flee you, for your priggish pride and grim-faced airs of superiority will turn them away. And you will have done that to yourself. Isolation is entirely your own fault. The result is discouragement, depression and despair for you, but not for the others. The final stage is when you give up, falling away from the Faith because you cannot go on like that any longer. This is because you have created a devilish brick wall against which you have been knocking your head for so long that the alternative to giving up has for you become insanity. The strange thing is that those whom you criticized so mercilessly and arrogantly as bad Christians at the beginning will still be there. But you will not.

Good Zeal = Love of God: The Humility-Sociability-Encouragement-Discernment Cycle.

Good zeal, that is, the love of God, grows out of humility, the willingness to learn little by little from each and all. For the word humility comes from ‘humus’, the word for ground, for only those who are grounded are realists and you can only build on solid ground – never in the demon-haunted air. In order to learn, you must first admit that you know nothing, that you have come to learn, not to teach and preach, that you have an enormous amount to learn and that it will take a long, long time, that gradualism is vital, that books will help you little here, that you have to learn from other human-beings who have the one thing that you cannot get from books – whoever you are – experience. If you start running without first learning to walk, you will inevitably fall over (see above). So learn to walk before you run.

If you have humility, you will have the willingness to learn. And for that you must be sociable, talking to others, so that you can learn from them, asking them questions, ready to listen to them, obeying them and serving them. If you are sociable, mixing with others, you will not know of isolation and so the discouragement that comes from isolation, for you will find encouragement from others in any simple human contact. That is why monks and nuns live in community, not in isolation. After all, you are new, the others were there long before you and, moreover, they are still there. If you want to be like them, copy them because they have discernment, which is the ability to see the psychology that lies behind what people say and do. It is the opposite of spiritual blindness. And it is the key to survival, your survival.


After over forty years, I can write the above. They can be summed up by the following story that happened six years ago. An ex-Anglican priest in a jurisdiction of converts boasted to me that he had ‘made’ 200 ‘converts’ in 15 years. My reaction was to ask him how many had lapsed. He replied shamefacedly, ‘Nearly all of them’. I do wish that man had become Orthodox before he had been ordained. He was ill.

Some Missionary Notes

After 33 years as an Orthodox clergyman in three different countries, I would like to make the following observations about missionary work. Before anything else, it must be said that missionary work is never done top-down. In other words, it is not a matter of people sitting in offices poring over maps and sticking pins in them. That would be a great mistake. We are not McDonalds. Missionary work begins at the grassroots with the people who are inspired by God. It is therefore down-up. Some 15-20 years ago I wrote an article on what is vital for missionary work. It was entitled something like ‘The Three Ps’. The Three Ps are People, Premises and Priest – in this and no other order. Let me explain.


The first P means that all new missions open because there are people who want them. People does not mean self-servers who want to ‘open a mission’ for their own vainglory. Nor does it mean people who have a consumerist mentality towards the Church: ‘We demand a priest who will do everything we want him to do’. People means Orthodox people who want to pray together in an Orthodox church building, worshipping, praying to and thanking God, receiving the sacraments, of whom at least one can read and sing. Their first task is to contact their bishops and ask for his blessing, then decide whom they wish to dedicate their future church to and next look for suitable premises, preparing for financial sacrifices.


The second P means Premises, suitable for Orthodox services. It does not matter too much what they look like on the outside, at least initially, but on the inside they must be capable of transformation so that they will look like and then feel like an Orthodox church. They must be public-access premises with planning permission, located where Orthodox live, in a town or city, not in the middle of nowhere, still less be part of a private house of property. Ideally, they should be neither too small, nor too big, though with room to expand. If they have a kitchen, meeting-room, toilets, parking and you can have processions around them on Great Friday, Easter Night and on the patronal feast, then they must be near ideal.


The third and final P is priest. This is the least important issue because if you have people and premises, a priest will appear. However, it is vital that the priest speaks the language of his parishioners – in all senses. This means not only that he speaks and understands at least some of the most common language of his parishioners – which may not be English – but that he understands them and sympathizes with them. It is ideal when a priest is one of the group of people who has made his way through all the stages of priesthood – reader – subdeacon – deacon – priest – and therefore knows what he is talking about and understands.

On the Foundation of New Local Churches

Local Churches

There has been much talk since the 1960s about founding new Local Orthodox Churches, especially in North America and Western Europe. This was the result of the forced dissolution of the Russian Empire, with the foundation of new Local Churches in Poland and the Czech Lands and Slovakia, the autonomy given to the Churches of China and Japan and the needs of the Russian-speaking emigration. This was especially visible in North America, where the Communist-era ‘Moscow Patriarchate’ gave a much disputed autocephaly to an originally Uniat Carpatho-Russian group, called the OCA (Orthodox Church in America).

There have also been the Balkan foundations of the Church of Albania for Albanian Greeks, the much disputed foundation of the Church of Bulgaria which upset Greek nationalism, and the foundation of the Church of Romania, all under the influence of nineteenth-century Western nationalism. What today are the realistic prospects for the creation of new Local Churches by the Church of Russia? (No other Local Church has even contemplated such a move and indeed the tiny Church of Constantinople has categorically ruled it out, on the contrary imperialistically wishing to force others into its nationalistic jurisdiction).

It must be said that most of this talk has been premature, speculative hot air. For example, the Church of Russia was founded 600 years after the first missionaries arrived there. Such processes take time. Thus, the first stage in the foundation of a new Local Church is the foundation of a Diocese in a specific, well-defined territory, which may with time become an Archdiocese and then a Metropolia. A Metropolia means that the territory has a number of bishops under a Metropolitan bishop. Only with time may a Metropolia receive canonical autonomy and only then autocephaly, so becoming a new Local Church.

North America and Western Europe

We would do well at this point to define what a specific territory for a Local Church is. Just as imperialism, Greek, Russian or other, is to be rejected, so too is tribal or language nationalism. The model for Church life is the Holy Trinity, unity in diversity. Thus, a specific territory does not at all have to correspond to national borders. For example, if there were to be a Local Church in North America, it should surely not be a US or a Canadian Church; its territory should include at least both nations, if not Mexico too. Similarly in Western Europe, separate French, German, Italian, Spanish etc Orthodox Churches are to be avoided.

The only exception in Western Europe might be that one day there could be two separate Local Churches, one for Continental Western Europe and one for the Isles (the British Isles and Ireland), with their different history. We stress ‘might be’. Even in the latter case, no grounded Orthodox has ever considered a ‘British Orthodox Church’ (Britain is a purely political concept), still less an ‘English Orthodox Church’. The fact is that all the countries of the British Isles and Ireland are interwoven in a long history. Thus, the conversion of the Isles to Christianity was an Anglo-Celtic operation, with Italians, Greeks and others guiding it.

Currently, the Russian Church is keen to set up a Metropolia in Western Europe, where it already has several bishops, a new cathedral and seminary in Paris, several new churches in France, Italy and Spain, and well over two hundred parishes scattered throughout Western European countries, from Iceland to Portugal and Hungary to Norway. Already, after complex negotiations, in 2003 the Russian Orthodox Church had offered the Rue Daru group, centred in Paris and, then as now, still under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the opportunity to become a Metropolia as the basis for a future Local Church.

However, before its members could even discuss the offer (which most would probably have rejected) and raise the matter with its masters in Constantinople, its last Russian Archbishop, Sergiy, died and the project died with him. In retrospect, Moscow knows that the offer was unrealistic, since the group had rejected the disciplines of the Russian Orthodox Tradition three generations before. Since then, in 2006, it received into itself dissident groups, once under Moscow, which also rejected the disciplines of the Russian Tradition (its traditional theology, spirituality, liturgical practices, the Orthodox calendar, vestments etc).

The Monastic Foundation

Let us now look at the basic building block of any future Metropolia (let alone Local Church), the Diocese. A Diocese ready to become an Archdiocese should have at least fifty parishes, each with hundreds of parishioners with their own buildings (not tiny groups of recent converts in hothouse front rooms and back gardens), and a viable monastic life, with at least one real monastery and one real convent (‘real’ meaning not with a few, but with numbers of trained monks and nuns). Let us recall the old Russian saying: ‘The Orthodox family is the primary school, the parish is the secondary school and the monastery is the university’.

Monastic life is also vital in order to produce candidates for the episcopate. For example, the tiny and unstable Rue Daru group based in Paris has had eight bishops in its ninety years of existence. The first two were monks, who were waiting to return to the Russian Church as soon as She was free (indeed the first one did, but was not followed by the liberals who were in control). Of the six who succeeded them, two were widowed Russian priests, one was a celibate academic, one was a former Catholic monk and the last two had to be imported from outside because there were no more candidates for the episcopate from inside.

In other words, if you do not have monastic life, you will eventually end up without bishops. The same has happened in ACROD, a small ex-Uniat Carpatho-Russian group in North America, which has recently had to import a Greek bishop. Church history clearly tells us that new Metropolias or new Local Churches always start with monasticism, whether it is St Nina in Georgia, Sts Cyril and Methodius in the Slav Lands, St Sava in Serbia, St Herman in Alaska or St Nicholas in Japan. In other words, they do not start with liberals, intellectuals and philosophers, but with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, men and women of faith.