an interview with Fr. Meletios Webber
[Photo: Fr. Meletios witnessing the confession of a young member of the parish of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.]
Archimandrite Meletios Webber was born in London and received his Masters degree in theology from Oxford University in England and the Thessalonica School of Theology in Greece. He also holds a doctorate in psychotherapy from the University of Montana. He is the author of Steps of Transformation and Bread and Water, Wine and Oil: an Orthodox Christian Experience of God. He has served as parish priest in England, Greece, and the United States, and for a year was a guest priest at St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam. He has recently been elected abbot of the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai in California. He is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
This is an extract from a longer interview done by a Russian correspondent for the Russian Orthodox web journal, Pravoslavie.ru.
o you have any comment on the decision by the European Union to deny the Christian origin of European culture? And, in contrast, on the recent attempt in the United States Congress to affirm and value this origin, and the essential role Christianity has played in the development of Western civilization? What is the portent of this statement for the European Community?
One of the most important factors in the modern world is that, perhaps for the first time, the Church has become free to criticize any political leader. I think that the Gospel is, and always will be, at odds with the social systems we have developed. And it is the Church’s task to call government to account whenever governments are behaving in ways that are at odds with the Gospel.
It is interesting that America, in which the notion of the separation of Church and state really originated, or partially originated, is now wanting to affirm some Christian roots; whereas, in Europe, where Christianity is so much part of the life blood that it hardly needs to be talked about, such a statement is deemed unnecessary.
The high points in the life of the Church, spiritually speaking, have usually been the times when the Church has been heavily persecuted, and the low points, spiritually speaking, have been times when the Church has been allied with political power. Not always, but sometimes. So, I think it is largely irrelevant as to whether political powers seek to have their roots in Christianity or in other religions, if they use that religion to justify whatever it is they are doing. So, the freer the Church is to comment on political life in the light of the Gospel, the better the situation is, everything else notwithstanding.
The experience of the Byzantine Empire, which remains somewhere in the consciousness of Christian society, has as its symbol the double-headed eagle signifying the harmonious functions of two heads in one body – the Church as the conscience of the government, and the government as the protector of the Church. Does this have any meaning for Europeans today?
Of course, the Byzantine ideal depends upon Christian emperors. That is a great deal more than emperors who happen to be Christian. In the good examples which Byzantium gives us, we see people who are of great spiritual depth, and under those circumstances it is possible for such a thing to exist.
I don’t see that the way modern democracy works is likely to bring people who are more than nominally Christian into positions of leadership. People who are too demonstratively Christian are going to be wiped out in the primaries. That is the nature of the modern political machine. People with strong views about anything are likely to be wiped out. The people you are left with are those who are good at balancing, pleasing all sides.
The Church is not like that. The Church should not be like that. The Church has a mission which hasn’t changed from the day that Jesus was physically amongst us on earth. It is the call to repentance, the call to bring people back to God. Very few states can be seen to have been successful in doing that same thing.
You are speaking of states in the Western world, or states in general?
In general. I know that Byzantium is a beautiful idea for many, many people. Holy Russia is a beautiful idea for many other people. Yet both the Russian political system and the Byzantine political system fell short of the Gospel in many ways, at least during certain periods of history, and sometimes markedly so. Neither one was of the mold of modern democracy.
Unless things change dramatically in the future, I don’t see that the sort of government that existed in Russia, and in Byzantium, is going to be a possibility at all. So I would see the future being where the Church and the state might be amicable, but the Church always needs to reserve the right to criticize. And many governments don’t particularly care for that part of the Church’s mission.
Do you think that this might be the underlying cause for this statement by the European Union?
To be honest, the people who seem to be making the rules in Europe at the moment baffle me entirely. I have no idea why they say anything. Or even who they are.
But you do not see this as setting the stage for more strictures on Church activities?
No, absolutely not.
They have fallen away from the Church, so they assume that all of Europe has fallen away from the Church?
Pretty much. In some ways, that is good for the Church. Wherever, for example, Catholicism has been hand-in-hand with a particular government in a particular country, you haven’t always seen Catholicism at its finest.
Being hand-in-hand with the government did not bring out its finest?
Precisely. On the contrary.
It brings out its worst?
Well, the Spanish Inquisition leaps to one’s mind, but there are other examples.
So, do you think that this decision could also have sprung from the Western European historical consciousness of abuses springing from a unity between Church and state?
The Christian background of Western Europe is so vast, and so omnipresent, that nobody could actually eradicate it. It is an historical fact, there to stay. That is the basis of what’s going on. Given the arrival of Islam into Spain and parts of Eastern Europe, it has always been one variety of Christianity or another which has dominated this area for 1200 years, in some places even longer.
And the new wave of Moslem immigration – are you feeling any pressure from this in Amsterdam?
I am almost certain that there is a solution waiting to be found to what appears to be a problem. Most Moslem people here in Holland are very happy to lead their own lives, doing what they usually do peacefully with what are usually post-Christian neighbors. There will always be layers of fanaticism in every society, but on the whole, the Moslem presence in Holland is something that most people can live with.
However, when people turn to religion to provide themselves with what one might want to call “ego identity,” simply because that identity is not present anywhere else, it transforms the religion into something which is rather distasteful, and also makes their own psychological make-up somewhat suspect.
This isn’t the best way of finding an identity. That is the problem. If people only find some sort of living identity in their religious affiliation, then we’ve got a lot of work to do. Because in the end, religions aren’t made to coexist.
Religions, by definition, tend to be at odds, and this has always been historically true for Christianity as well as Islam. There has always been a tendency for one to want to wipe out the other. They don’t live side by side naturally. Quite how we can get them to live side by side with some sort of friendliness, I am not quite sure, but that is the work that needs to be done.
Finally, do you have any words for our readers? Some wishes for the people of Russia, and her relationship to Europe?
I suppose my view is that the Communists who took over Russian society at the time of the revolution were – and I think this is true – genuinely trying to improve society. But I also believe that the way they went about it, particularly becoming adversarial towards Orthodoxy, meant that their labors were in vain. Russia is Orthodox to the marrow.
I see it in the people who come to Church, who have no real academic or book knowledge of what Orthodoxy is all about, but who have a deep, deep reverence for Orthodoxy, and the life of Christ that Orthodoxy exhibits.
Russia without Orthodoxy is, and has been, impoverished. It might be splendid in some ways, but there is something desperately lacking. And I am fairly certain that in God’s time the roots will be connected with the leaves. Then, what is in the depths of Russian history – what you might want to call the depths of the Russian soul (but perhaps that’s a little more dangerous) – will begin to manifest itself once again in positive ways, through growth, outreach, and commitment to the words of Jesus. That future is very bright indeed.
Links for the complete interview:
Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50