Q: Very recently you returned to Mt Athos for the first time in many years. What changes have you noticed since you last went?
A: I went to Athos twice in 1979 and spent time there. Now again I have been there. There have been enormous changes.
I think it was better before because it was poor then and there were virtually no roads, no vehicles, no electricity, no telephones and of course no internet. Today there is all this. There are roads everywhere, new road-building is very noisy and disturbs both the holy silence and unspoilt nature, and there must be hundreds of vehicles on the mountain now. All of this has been done with EU money. Each monastery, much refurnished and repainted, now has a shop and, ominously, a museum (always a sign of the end, because it shows that it is dead, not living). It is clear that the Greek government, whose flag flies everywhere on the mountain, even on monasteries (you will not find a single Russian flag at St Panteleimon’s) is preparing to open the mountain up to mass tourism some time in the future. Greek nationalism and money are killing the mountain. Instead of being a multinational Orthodox centre, it is slowly becoming a department of the atheistic Greek State.
Q: Is it likely that one day there will be new monasteries on Mt Athos for, say, English, French, German, Italian etc monks?
A: As long as Greek nationalism rules on Mt Athos, that is unthinkable. Out of some 2,000 monks today, 1800 are Greek. It is forbidden by the nationalists to have more than 20 monasteries, which is why the Romanians, say, only have a skete, though with more monks than a couple of the smaller Greek monasteries, why the Georgians lost Iviron to the Greeks and the Russians lost the huge so-called sketes of the Prophet Elijah and St Andrew to the Greeks. Then, there is also the fact that anyone who becomes a monk on Mt Athos must become a Greek citizen! For the moment Mt Athos is a fragment, albeit with some holy people, of the Second Rome, it still has to enter post-1453 reality.
Although I have met, seen or heard of two English monks, two French monks, two Finnish monks and two black African monks on Mt Athos, two is hardly enough to open a monastery. In any case, what we first need to do is to have authentic monasteries in Western countries, using the native language. So far this exists only in France and the USA. The number of vocations is tiny at present.
Q: Should people not leave the Patriarchate of Constantinople because their Patriarch acts heretically?
A: I think it is far more likely that the very elderly Patriarch Bartholomew will die. So he will be leaving, not his three million-strong flock.
Q: Recently the Greek Archbishop of America, Elpidiforos, stated to Roman Catholics that the unity of Orthodox and Roman Catholics is not a question of if, but when. What do you answer?
A: He was talking only about himself.
Q: Is the Russian Church the centre of the Orthodox world?
A: Like it or not, Russia is the centre of Orthodox Civilisation, even secular historians like Toynbee and Huntington recognised it. How blindly nationalistic do you have to be not to see this? On the other hand, the Russian Church must behave responsibly. It has often failed to do, treating Non-Russians as second-class citizens. Leadership simply because you are nearly ten times bigger than any other Local Church is not automatic, you have to earn leadership and deserve it. As I said – like it or not. The Russian Church still has to overcome suicidal Soviet tendencies and become the Third Rome again. The dead hand of the Soviet Union with its bureaucracy and centralisation is still too close. Christ is the only centre of the Orthodox world.
Q: Is it true that the Russian Orthodox Church is heretical because it blesses icons and even crosses with holy water?
A: This is an old chestnut that comes up every decade, usually written by a literalist convert or a polemical Greek, together with the accusation that the Russian Church is heretical because we bless icons and crosses!
Of course, it is not heretical. But of course it is not strictly necessary to bless icons and crosses, we do it out of piety. We do all sorts of things that are not strictly necessary – for example drinking a little wine after communion in the Russian Church, blessing kolyva at memorials, especially in the Greek Church, and kneeling on Sundays, especially in the Romanian Church. Such an accusation of heresy because of piety is all on the same level as the ‘no kneeling on Sundays’ convert pride syndrome. We are not supposed to do it, but we do it for piety’s sake. Let the semi-intellectuals, aggressive fault-finders and proud self-justifiers fall silent, also for piety’s sake!
Q: What is needed for unity in the Diaspora?
A: Trust in one bishop by members of every jurisdiction. At present the bishops of most jurisdictions are not even trusted by their own members, let alone by members of other jurisdictions. Trust will bring the leadership and authority essential for unity. A bishop who is subject to some nationalistic group, financial interest or political party earns no trust. Ultimately trust means holiness.
Q: What are the origins of the Greek priest’s chimney pot hat, the Greek monk’s headware and the Russian skufia?
A: The Balkan chimney pot hat for priests is simply the old Turkish top hat but black, the low cylindrical hat worn by Balkan monks is simply the Turkish fez but black, and the Russian skoufia is simply to keep you warm in the Russian winter.
Q: Where does the Roman Catholic anti-woman spirit come from?
A: It comes right from the beginning, in the second half of the 11th century, when the German Popes forbade married priests. Married men are not anti-woman; bachelors often are. This same innovation introduced institutional clericalism and also, incidentally, led to the disappearance of monks who were not priests and also of deacons; everyone had to be a priest – ‘a mini-pope’.