Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

The Armenian Church in Myanmar: A Follow-Up

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Photo from the BBC

A follow-up to last month’s post on the Armenian Orthodox church in Myanmar: This summer, the BBC did a lovely story about a 150-year old Armenian parish church in the city of Yangon, St. John the Baptist (above). Hardly any parishioners remained, the BBC said, maybe 10 people on a good Sunday. Most of the congregation were not Armenians, either, the Armenians having left Myanmar, with the British, decades before.

A small group of holdouts had continued to maintain the church, however, led by a priest, Father John Felix. Father John was not Armenian Orthodox, the story indicated, but Anglican. Nonetheless, the Armenian Church had, in an ecumenical gesture, invited him to use St. John the Baptist for the small number of faithful who remained, even though he had a very limited knowledge of the Orthodox liturgy. (Most of the parishioners had a very limited knowledge, too). Apparently he was starting to attract a following from among Christian believers of many communions.

The BBC got its information straight from Father John. It turns out, however, that he’s not really “Father” John at all. The Anglican archbishop says that John Felix was never ordained a priest, only a deacon, and that, for unspecified reasons, the Anglican Church no longer allows him to conduct religious services. How he ensconced himself at St. John the Baptist is a mystery. He apparently inserted himself a few years ago, after the last “full” member of the congregation passed away. The Armenian Church hierarchy seems not to have known about it. To be fair, they have many more pressing issues with which to contend.

This summer’s story drew a lot of attention. As I say, once the Anglicans found out about John Felix, they spread the word he wasn’t one of theirs. The story got noticed in Armenia as well. Last week, the Catholicos, or Patriarch, of the Armenian Church, Karekin II, visited Yangon to reconsecrate the altar and conduct a proper liturgy; a large crowd attended. The Catholicos also announced that henceforth an Orthodox priest from Calcutta would fly in on weekends to conduct liturgies at the church. As for John Felix, he’s indicated he intends to remain at the church and has refused to turn over the keys. The BBC says legal action seems likely.

The BBC has posted a video interview with John Felix. He seems like a nice enough man, and gamely tries to chant the Kyrie Eleison (in Armenian, Der Voghormia) to show his bona fides. But, if the BBC is to be believed, he’s been deceiving everyone for years. He has actually purported to conduct weddings and baptisms for unsuspecting parishioners. Is he well-meaning but misguided, or an out-and-out scoundrel? It’s impossible to tell. What a very strange story.

Humphreys, “Law, Power, and Imperial Ideology in the Iconoclast Era”

This December, Oxford University Press will release “Law, Power and Imperial Ideology in the Iconoclast Era: c. 680-850” by M.T.G. Humphreys (St. John’s College, Cambridge).  The publisher’s description follows:

Law was central to the ancient Roman’s conception of themselves and their empire. Yet what happened to Roman law and the position it occupied ideologically during the turbulent years of the Iconoclast era, c.680-850, is seldom explored and little understood. The numerous legal texts of this period, long ignored or misused by scholars, shed new light on this murky but crucial era, when the Byzantine world emerged from the Roman Empire.

Law, Power, and Imperial Ideology in the Iconoclast Era uses Roman law and canon law to chart the various responses to these changing times, especially the rise of Islam, from Justinian II’s Christocentric monarchy to the Old Testament-inspired Isaurian dynasty. The Isaurian emperors sought to impose their control and morally purge the empire through the just application of law, sponsoring the creation of a series of concise, utilitarian texts that punished crime, upheld marriage, and protected property. This volume explores how such legal reforms were part of a reformulation of ideology and state structures that underpinned the transformation from the late antique Roman Empire to medieval Byzantium.

BBC Essay on the Armenian Church in Myanmar

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Photo from the BBC

From the BBC’s News Magazine, here’s a lovely essay, “The Last Armenians of Myanmar,” about a small Armenian parish church, St. John the Baptist, in the capital city of Yangon. The Armenian community built the church in 1862, when the country was still known as Burma, and the city as Rangoon.The Armenians had come to Rangoon in the 18th century from Iran, by way of British India, following the trade routes.They established close ties to the Burmese monarchy, which donated the land for the church in the center of the city.

As its title suggests, the essay has a wistful, elegiac tone. Hardly any Armenians remain in Myanmar today– most departed for Australia after World War II – and the parish gets only a handful of worshipers on Sundays. But the situation is not altogether grim. Faithful parishioners continue to maintain the church lovingly– photos of the interior make it look Victorian and vaguely Episcopalian – and the liturgy is said every Sunday by Fr. John Felix, a South Indian convert from Anglicanism. The choir continues to sing the hymns in classical Armenian.

There is hope that two things will work to preserve the building. First, as Myanmar opens to the world, international tourism is increasing. As one of the the city’s principal historic landmarks, the church should benefit. Second, the church has become the focal point for the small Orthodox community in Yangon, not just Armenians:

Already diplomats, business visitors and tourists from a range of Orthodox countries and churches – Russian, Greek, Serbian – occasionally swell the numbers at St John the Baptist, the only Orthodox church in Myanmar’s biggest city.

A new worshiper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organizer who has lived in Yangon for the last few months.

“My faith is very important to me. Wherever I am in the world, I seek out an Orthodox church. But I was about to give up on Yangon. I thought it was the only city I’d ever lived in which had no Orthodox place of worship,” she complains.

She chanced across the Armenian church when driving past, and believes that with a little promotion, this historic building – and the tradition to which it bears testimony – could have a more secure future.

There’s a lesson here. Many of these Orthodox Churches have been out of communion for thousands of years. Formally, they are not supposed to worship together. But at the ends of the earth, and surrounded by people for whom these sectarian differences mean nothing, Christians somehow manage to cooperate. A hopeful example of practical ecumenism that Christians everywhere should keep in mind.

“Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia: A Source Book on Lived Religion” (Coleman ed.)

This month, Indiana University Press is releasing “Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia: A Source Book on Lived Religion” edited by Heather J. Coleman (University of Alberta). The publisher’s description follows:

From sermons and clerical reports to personal stories of faith, this book of translated primary documents reveals the lived experience of Orthodox Christianity in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia. These documents allow us to hear the voices of educated and uneducated writers, of clergy and laity, nobles and merchants, workers and peasants, men and women, Russians and Ukrainians. Orthodoxy emerges here as a multidimensional and dynamic faith. Beyond enhancing our understanding of Orthodox Christianity as practiced in Imperial Russia, this thoughtfully edited volume offers broad insights into the relationship between religious narrative and social experience and reveals religion’s central place in the formation of world views and narrative traditions.

Mihai, “Orthodox Canon Law Reference Book”

In May, Holy Cross Orthodox Press released Orthodox Canon Law Reference Book, by Vasile Mihai. The publisher’s description follows:

In one manageable volume, Orthodox Canon Law Reference Book makes the canons of the Orthodox Church, which were written and complied over centuries, searchable and accessible to current inquirers. In his preface, Fr. Mihai explains the place of canons in relation to revealed faith and the personal experience of God s presence. A most valuable introduction distinguishes between Canon Law and secular law, and not only discusses how to interpret canons, but also offers several examples demonstrating the interpretive process of analysis and application. Alphabetized topics organize the pertinent canons, which are then listed chronologically under each topic. Numerous footnotes offer explanations for terms and understandings from historical contexts. Three appendices discuss the meaning of the word canon, the priest-penitent relationship, and Byzantine legislation on homosexuality.

Conference: “The Making of Jerusalem” (Jerusalem, July 2-4)

The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem in hosting a conference, “The Making of Jerusalem: Constructed Spaces and Historic Communities,” from July 2 to July 4:

Jerusalem is one of the most contested cities around the world with a rich and complex history. With its web of sacred sites, quarters, and neighbourhoods, it represents a polyglot of historical communities. Today’s Jerusalem is a testament to its temporal, physical and demographic transformations over the centuries. The purpose of this inter-disciplinary conference is to explore various aspects in the making of the city while focusing on historic communities and their concept of – and relationship with – space (be it sacred or secular). It brings together papers from different fields such as history, the social sciences, art, literature, religious studies and area studies, emphasising the Early Modern and Modern periods.

Details are here.

“Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe” (Leustean, ed.)

This July, Fordham University Press will publish Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europeedited by Lucian N. Orthodox ChristianityLeustean (Aston University).  The publisher’s description follows.

Nation-building processes in the Orthodox commonwealth brought together political institutions and religious communities in their shared aims of achieving national sovereignty. Chronicling how the churches of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia acquired independence from the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s decline, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe examines the role of Orthodox churches in the construction of national identities.

Drawing on archival material available after the fall of communism in southeastern Europe and Russia, as well as material published in Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Russian, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe analyzes the challenges posed by nationalism to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the ways in which Orthodox churches engaged in the nationalist ideology.

The Ukrainian Protests and the Orthodox Church(es)

Even casual observers know that Orthodox Churches traditionally have close ties with the state. So many in the West don’t know what to make of the fact that, in the current conflict in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church appears to be siding with the protesters. The New York Times, for example, reports that protesters running from riot police in Kiev take refuge in a historic Orthodox monastery, and that the Church’s patriarch, Filaret (above), strongly opposes the government. Filaret has stated that Ukraine should look West and join the European Union, and that President Victor Yanukovich, who recently announced that Ukraine would not agree to a long-anticipated trade deal with the EU, should resign.

To understand what’s going on, one has to know a little about the divisions within Orthodoxy in Ukraine. Patriarch Filaret is the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyvian Patriarchate. The Kyvian Patriarchate is in schism from the main body of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which, as its name suggests, is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. The Moscow Patriarchate does not recognize the canonical status of the Kyvian Patriarchate; indeed, no Orthodox Church  in the world does. (To make things even more confusing, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA is under the jurisdiction of neither the Kyvian or Moscow Patriarchates, but the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople).

It’s not at all surprising, therefore, that Patriarch Filaret would support closer ties with Europe and a weakening of Russian influence in Ukraine. He and his flock are likely to have more status and independence in a Ukraine that looks toward the West. This is just another example of how religious and political interests often converge. As Daniel Larison writes, it will be interesting to see if there is now a pro-Russian pushback from those Ukrainians loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Will the Hagia Sophia Again Become a Mosque?

When I heard the rumors this fall, I have to confess, I dismissed them. And maybe it is only political posturing. But leading Turkish officials are actually talking about converting the famed Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, was built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. (“Solomon,” the emperor cried when he saw the completed church, “I have surpassed thee!”). For 1000 years, it was the largest Christian cathedral in the world and the emblem of Byzantium. After the empire fell in 1453, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque. About 500 years after that, the secular Kemalist government made it a museum. And so it has remained.

Now, however, a nationalist party has introduced legislation to reconvert the building to a Muslim place of worship. The idea has support at very high levels. In October, the imam at the neighboring Sultan Ahmet Mosque–a government official–called for Hagia Sophia to reopen as a mosque. Last month, at a public event in Istanbul, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, referred approvingly to two other churches-turned-mosques-turned-museums-turned-mosques-again, one in Trabzon and one in Iznik (once known as Nicea). And he made this comment about the Hagia Sophia itself: “We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque. We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”

Arinc’s implication is unmistakable. According to the Religion News Service, Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist AKP, is trying to shore up its base ahead of March provincial elections. It’s smart politics. AKP rank-and-file see Kemalism as a huge historical mistake and wish to return to the pan-Islamism of the Ottoman Empire. Converting Byzantine and other historical Christian monuments from museums into mosques is a way of rejecting secularism and returning to Turkish roots. The Hagia Sophia is the greatest symbol of all. That’s why, in the words of one observer, “Supporting the reopening of Hagia Sophia has become the litmus test of the true believer.”

When it comes to appropriating the temples of the vanquished, no great religion is innocent. Historically, Christians often built churches on the ruins of pagan shrines. One of my favorite sites in Rome, the Basilica of San Clemente, sits atop a Mithraic temple, the ruins of which are still visible. After the Reconquista, Rod Dreher writes, Christians converted the great mosque of Cordoba into a cathedral. The point of such conduct is obvious. The victor wishes literally to squash the altars of the vanquished, to humiliate and demoralize followers of the old way. Our god is greater than yours.

But this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore in the civilized world. As Dreher writes, converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque now, after it has been a museum for decades, would be “a stunning act of cultural aggression” against Christians in Turkey, particularly the handful of Greeks who somehow have managed to hang on there. It would put the lie to claims of pluralism. And it would underline, as few other acts could, what Samuel Huntington famously called “the clash of civilizations.”

Roudometof, “Globalization and Orthodox Christianity”

9780415843737This month, Routledge will publish Globalization and Orthodox Christianity: The Transformations of a Religious Tradition by Victor Roudometof (University of Cyrpus). The publisher’s description follows.

With approximately 200 to 300 million adherents worldwide, Orthodox Christianity is among the largest branches of Christianity, yet it remains relatively understudied. This book examines the rich and complex entanglements between Orthodox Christianity and globalization, offering a substantive contribution to the relationship between religion and globalization, as well as the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and the sociology of religion – and more broadly, the interdisciplinary field of Religious Studies.

While deeply engaged with history, this book does not simply narrate the history of Orthodox Christianity as a world religion, nor does it address theological issues or cover all the individual trajectories of each subgroup or subdivision of the faith. Orthodox Christianity is the object of the analysis, but author Victor Roudometof speaks to a broader audience interested in culture, religion, and globalization. Roudometof argues in favor of using globalization instead of modernization as the main theoretical vehicle for analyzing religion, displacing secularization in order to argue for multiple hybridizations of religion as a suitable strategy for analyzing religious phenomena. It offers Orthodox Christianity as a test case that illustrates the presence of historically specific but theoretically distinct glocalizations, applicable to all faiths.