“But who are you?!” asked one of the members of the St Nicholas greek orthodox congregation in Brixton, Johannesburg. We had been asking them all kinds of questions about the orthodox tradition. We were a group of visitors, mainly active or interested in the emerging church conversation. Her simple question, asked towards the end of our conversation, in a way summed up the issue of emergent identity for me. I could almost sense her saying: “We know who we are. We have been around since 33 AD, yet we are the ones having to answer all your questions. You are the new kids on the block – who are YOU?!”
The question triggered spontaneous laughter among all sitting around with snacks and coffee in hand. There was nothing hostile about the question but it put the issue of emergent identity on the agenda. Hat-tip to Cobus van Wyngaard, associate pastor at the dutch reformed church Kameeldrif for arranging the visit and thank you to Steve Hayes for the generous hospitality with which we were received. Steve is the orthodox deacon who led the Vespers service (Saturday evening service) this past week-end.
My only previous visit to an orthodox church was in the early nineties, when our ecumenism lecturer, Gustav Gous took us to this very same venue in Brixton. Maybe the reason why I haven’t visited an orthodox church again since then is because it was a bit of a shock to my evangelical and reformed system first time round.
This time was different however, maybe because I had already had the previous exposure and because I’ve grown a bit. It was a very special experience for me, a sacred experience loaded with symbolism. I almost had the sense of being transported back in time, of walking into an early church gathering (of maybe around the 3rd or 4th century?)
The sight of the paintings, icons, candles and the clergy’s clothes, the sound of the choir and the chanting of the priests and congregation, the constant movement of the clergy who kept appearing from and disappearing behind doors, their walking around the open space of the building, their blessing of the parishioners, the members crossing themselves every time the Trinity was mentioned in a chant, the smell of incense, which towards the end was enriched by that of cinnamon as a special cake was brought in, all combined to create a multisensory drama of worship.
At the end of the service the cake was served to us. As I closed my mouth around a freshly baked portion and tasted the cinnamon and nuts, I could sense the sacred act of worship flowing over into the everyday acts of eating and chatting.
Much of the conversation afterwards was taken up by the question of contextualisation. Cobus wanted to know how this congregation contextualises the gospel. One response was that most of the members don’t live in the area and that they don’t think they are making a significant impact on the Brixton community. Another explained the concept of orthopraxia, which is the practical living out of orthodoxy. For him it meant the way he treats his staff and customers in his pharmacy. Yet another said that the SABC had recorded some of their services which are also available on CD.
Father Athanasius asked “What context?” He pointed out that there are so many different contexts and that the church shouldn’t just change to fit the context. Different respondents emphasised that the variety of prayers covering all aspects of life have remained relevant throughout the ages and that there is no need to change these. I got the impression that they were saying we run the risk of losing our identity if we change too easily.
This brings me back to the title of this post. Linguists use the term negotiating meaning to describe the process when a language learner can’t speak or understand enough of the new language to communicate well and then combines her existing ability in the new language with gestures and words from her own language. It is a very natural phenomenon.
One of the features of the emerging conversation is that it’s difficult to define. It eludes definition. Participants seem to embrace the uncertainty, the preliminary nature of answers to questions and the open-endedness of the conversation. It is probably fair to say that the identity of the emerging church lies to some extent in its non-identity. But as the word emerging suggests, it is moving towards an identity.
Reggie Nel, minister of the uniting reformed church and senior lecturer at Unisa, mentioned the absence of a sermon, which in the reformed tradition is the central element of the service. The response was that there is a sermon in the Sunday service and that even the Vespers service had a theme – the Publican and the Pharisee. I remarked that I am struggling with certain theological elements in the orthodox tradition and our hosts assumed correctly that I was referring to the centrality of “the mother of God” (Mary) in the worship service. Add to that the reverence for the icons of the saints. One of the members said that they don’t worship the saints but that they kiss the icons in loving memory, almost like one would think dearly of deceased family members.
Arthur Stewart of NieuCommunities, a nieu-monastic protestant ministry, remarked that the element of mystery in the orthodox service was also typical of emerging worship. Roger Saner, who also has close links with NieuCommunities added that there was nothing digital in the service. One of the members noted that during a recent power failure their service was not affected at all. And so we were just starting to negotiate identity when the “But who are you?!” question came. We agreed that we needed another time to continue this conversation.
Listening to the orthodox seemingly hesitant response towards the question of contextualisation, I was suddenly reminded of the image of the gyroscope. James Collins & Jerry Porras wrote the following about continuity and change in their book, Built to last – Successful habits of visionary companies (Introduction to the 2000 edition, p XV):
Even the visionary companies studied in Built to Last need to continually remind themselves of the crucial distinction between core and noncore, between what should never change and what should be open for change, between what is truly sacred and what is not. Hewlett-Packard executives, for example, speak frequently about this crucial distinction, helping HP people see that “change” in operating practices, cultural norms, and business strategies does not mean losing the spirit of the HP Way. Comparing the company to a gyroscope, HP’s 1995 annual report emphasizes this key idea: “Gyroscopes have been used for almost a century to guide ships, airplanes and satellites. A gyroscope does this by combining the stability of an inner wheel with the free movement of a pivoting frame. In an analogous way, HP’s enduring character guides the company as we both lead and adapt to the evolution of technology and markets.”
The lesson for the emerging church is clear. One of the hallmarks of the emerging conversation is the desire to be relevant in a post-modern world. This remains a valid pursuit but we need God’s wisdom to discern between “what should never change and what should be open for change”. Note the use of terms such as sacred and spirit by Collins & Porras in a business context. How much more should we as the body of Christ treasure our core identity in Him!
I have been saying for many years that the church needs to change, not so much because society is changing, but rather because we have degenerated so far from our original identity. We need to change back to what we were before the church became an institution. We need to rediscover our roots. These are also prominent emergent sentiments.
It is exciting to be alive in a time like this. We need more cross-pollinating experiences such as this one, more conversations, more community and especially more prayer, Bible reading, meditation and practical ministry to hurting people. We will negotiate our identity in motion, as we are impacting our environment in community with one another, living lives of worship before God.
Other blogposts about the same event that I am aware of:
- Orthodox emerging missional dialogue by Steve Hayes
- Vespers worship, strange but intriguing by Reggie Nel
- Orthodox-Emerging dialog by Cobus van Wyngaard
- It was all Greek (Orthodoxy) to me by Roger Saner
Please let me know if you also blogged about this (by commenting here or by emailing learnmylanguage at gmail dot com) and I will add your post to my list. Please also copy this list to your post.