Orthodox Christianity


Deacon Michael Lomax

Orthodoxy in Belgium. Towards what future?    

In this essay, I share my observations on the life and development of the Orthodox diaspora in Belgium over the last twenty years. The analyti-cal conclusions from these observations are, I stress, my own and do not represent any official point of view.

Currently, Russian Orthodoxy in Belgium looks to be doing really quite well.  In 1992, when I entered the Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church had just two fully-functioning parishes, one in Brussels and another in Louvain-la-Neuve, plus a small monastery. Today we have churches in Antwerp, Liege, Louvain, Mons, Charleroi, Namur, Libramont and Ostend, we have a full-time Russian-speaking prison chaplain, and have purchased a second, more spacious church in the centre of Brussels after the original church, which dates back to the 1880s, proved way too small. In 1992, besides the Archbishop, there was just one Russian-speaking priest in the entire country - now there are nine. On a typical Sunday we have a total of perhaps 500 people in our churches, a figure that swells to 4000 to 5000 for the Easter Vigil. All of which enabled us to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox presence in Belgium in 2012 with triumphant reports in the Russian press and on Russian television.

We can justly be proud of what has been achieved. But we should be careful - very careful. In my sincere opinion, if in the next five to ten years we do not radically reconsider our position and fail to take any measures to rectify it, then by 2040, the number of parishes will again have shrunk to two or three, and the number of members to 30% of the current total.

The simple fact of the matter is that this rapid growth is not the out-come of the successful preaching and living of the Christian gospel among the local Russian or French or Dutch-speaking population. Its almost one and only cause is a massive inflow of Russian-speaking immigrants. Today's Russian-Belgian Orthodoxy consists almost completely, not of the descendants of the first (post-revolutionary) wave, not of the second (post-war) or third (dissident) waves, but of representatives of the so-called fourth wave.

Knowing the history of the first Russian emigration in Belgium, in particular, the percentage of the third (of fourth) generation descendents of the original post-1917 immigration that have remained in the Orthodox church, I am under no illusions. The 'loss' between the emigration wave of 1917-1922, and the third and fourth generation is of the order of 85-90%. But for a small number of families for whom the preservation of the Russian tradition has been part of their aristocratic identity, the figure would well reach 95%.

The main causes of this "burnout" are, I think, two. The first is that, in the present day, in every Christian denomination, there is a considerable loss from one generation to another. Where a church is functioning reasonably properly, preaching and witnessing the Gospel to the outside world, this loss is made up by new converts from outside. In the Russian-Belgian Orthodoxy the same inter-generational loss occurs, but with no natural source of replenishment, other than new Russian-speaking immigrants. Yes, there was been a certain replenishment in the past:  in the 1970s and 1980s Orthodoxy enjoyed some success among French-speaking Belgian intellectuals, frustrated and anxious at the liturgical changes after Vatican II. For this group Archbishop Basil (Krivoshein) created four or five French-speaking parishes in or around Brussels.  Only one still survives as a full parish. All the others have dwindled to nothing. Two are being kept open a bit artificially, as they have priest salaries attached, but as Russian-speaking parishes.  Today the seriously active French-speaking parishes in Brussels are in the jurisdiction of Patriarchate of Constantinople. The same jurisdiction also has three Dutch-speaking parishes. We have none, though in one church, Dutch serves as a secondary language in the otherwise Slavonic liturgy. 

Otherwise, the outflow has been continuous since 1945. Without the massive influx of immigrants, first of Orthodox Poles in the second half of the 1980s, and then, in the early 90's, Russian-speaking "refugees", most of them from the Central Asian republics of the former Community of Independent States, there would probably no longer be a Russian Orthodox Church in Belgium.  In the best case there might have remained one church to serve embassy employees, Russian students and businessmen, but no more than that - a situation similar to that in Belgium of the Lutheran churches of Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

The second reason for this "burnout" is that the Russian Orthodox Church in this country plays a double function: apart from its strictly religious function it also acts as a 'club' and information centre for people who have not found (or not yet found) their way into the local culture. A key defining feature of the Russian-speaking immigration into Belgium between 1990-2000 (distinctive from the earlier Greek and later Romanian migrations) was the general social downshifting experienced by these emigrants, the majority of them from the Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, etc.) of the former CIS. Many retained their refugee status for years, living off a combination of a relatively generous social benefit plus undeclared work as low-paid cleaners, handymen and babysitters.  The Russian Church was the one place where they could set aside this social inferiority status.  And there is nothing wrong with this.  But as soon as these people, and especially their children, reach a decent level of linguistic proficiency, obtain Belgian nationality and find jobs, there is no longer any need of the Russian Orthodox Church to support self-esteem - indeed what is to keep the next generation in the church, with an ethnic culture they no longer own and a liturgical language of which they badly understand?

In other words, how do we make the transition from "refugee church", to a church of socially integrated people? The turning point lies, it seems to me, where the need of this second function (information, social orientation and support of self-esteem) no longer exists.  This is a pretty much inevitable process, which is already starting, but could in the next ten to twenty years reducing the number of members and jeopordize the very existence of a certain number of parishes.

Let me mention one final factor, less visible at first glance, which is, I believe, a litmus test of a healthy (or unhealthy) situation in the diocese. That is the ability of the Christians to produce full-time priests and monks to serve themselves out of their own ranks. The Russian diaspora in Belgium since the 1917 has not produced a single priest or monk in this category.

Frankly, I do not think that the "burnout process" of the present emigration, which is repeating that of the first emigration, can be stopped. But we can perhaps significantly slow down the process. 

1) We can openly make it clear to those members of the Russian Or-thodox Church in Belgium, who are unable to analyse the situation for themselves, that we are approaching a transition point between "refugee church" and church integrated into its surrounding society. That is, we now have to exist primarily for people whose main reason for their re-maining in the Church is their faith in Christ, and their desire to partici-pate in the sacraments and move towards spiritual maturity, with no need for the church as their primary social structure.

2) We need to insist on the fact that in the list of our priorities, "to be a Christian" takes first place, "to be Orthodox" second place and "to be Russian or Russian-speaking", takes only third place. It is time to understand that our Lord does not care a bit what language we pray in, and that Russians are no more God's chosen people than, say, the Belgians or the Chinese.

3) We need to strive for that level of spiritual life in which is natural for a young man to consider dedicating his life full-time to the church.  In other words, a situation in which holiness is the only justification for our retaining in Western Europe our particular denominational identity.

4) We, that is the Russian Church, ought to insist that any Russian Orthodox resident in Belgium, should by the fifth year of his or her stay in this country be fluently in at least one of the national languages. Failure to do so - and in particular when combined with conscious "squatting" on social assistance - should be regarded as a sin, with all its consequences.

5) We need to insist on the fact that every educated member of our church, cleric or layman, should be able to ‘testify to the hope that is in us’ in at least one of the local languages.

6) One circumstance that cannot be changed, but must be considered squarely: among the new generation of Russian-speaking parishioners, those arriving already churched and with Christian acquaintances and networks at home have been the exception rather than the rule- a rarity (compared with the Greek or Romanian diasporas: almost all the "Belgian Greeks" and "Belgian Romanians" arrived already churched. They keep in touch with their homeland, have relatives there, spending holidays, visit them and churches and monasteries they know). For most of the current members of the ROC in Belgium, to travel to Russia, where they have no roots, is just as hard as visiting any other country.

The outcome is that for them and for their children, Russian Ortho-doxy is in fact Russian-Belgian Orthodoxy, lived in a very small group - a bit like a village isolated in the taiga.  And as with any isolated village, a sort of incest sets in sooner or later, leading to degeneration and death.

In this situation it is possible that instead of trying - from a distance and from scratch - to build relations with Orthodoxy in Russia (the country in which our members at one stage of their lives chose not to live in and still do not want to live, and whose language their children, let alone grandchildren, will inevitably lose) it would be more profitable to engage a relationship with an Orthodoxy that is accessible to Western Europeans. I am thinking here in particular of Mount Athos, or surrogates such as the monastery of Maldon in England.  Actually, the small group of more visionary and intelligent clergy and laity are already stepping in this direction. Yes, we are going to have to break now with Russian folklore and, in the next generation, with the Russian language. But to preserve Orthodoxy, is not better to make this sacrifice, rather than lose the next generation to Orthodoxy by insisting on the Russian language?

So far we have talked about our own, so to speak, internal problems. But it would be incorrect to leave aside the question of what indeed is our role in the confession and preaching of Christianity beyond our linguistic and cultural boundaries. Is the raison d'être of the ROC in Belgium limited to spiritual "maintenance" of the Russian-speaking population? If we believe that we are called to a missionary, preaching activity in the West (and can indeed any Church live a full life without a confessing openness to the society in which it exists?), then we are faced with a number of fundamental issues.

First of all we have to define – if not dogmatically, at least on a practi-cal level - our position in relation to the Christian environment that sur-rounds us. The ‘party line’ remains that Orthodoxy is the only correct form of Christianity. But I ask: is this the testimony the Lord sent us into this country to give?  Is institutional (Russian) Orthodoxy sole bearer of Christian truth? Or do we need to consider ourselves as part of the (wider) picture of Christianity in Belgium and in Europe - a picture in which other Churches for historical reasons have a leadership role, and let's not dictate to the Lord the boundaries of His Church but leave Him to show them to us?

These are issues we cannot ignore or circumvent.  “Come and see”, the Lord said to His first disciples. But come and see what? Our parishes are, for non-Russian speakers, closed internal worlds; impenetrable and inaccessible from the outside. In the whole of Brussels there is not a single church of the ROC (and throughout the country - only one), to which I can invite a Belgian seeking the fullness of Christian truth, who will not suffer an immediate and profound disappointment.

Put simply, for "come and see" to work, three factors are important:
1) the level of spiritual life
2) language
3) social and cultural level.
Let us consider each of these separately.

1. SPIRITUAL LEVEL. The vast majority of converts to Orthodoxy among native Western Europeans have arrived in the church because of a religious leader who managed to make a deep impression on them. The two obvious examples, both now deceased, are Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (London) and St. John (Maximovich) (San Francisco). To their number we can possibly add our own Archbishop Basil (Krivochein), who led the Russian church in Belgium from 1960 to 1985 and was instrumental in the founding of several local language parishes.

Not to put too fine a point on it: the spiritual level needed to sustain life of the "ethnic" parish, to fulfil its need for identity, requires little more than the most accurate simulation of standard religious practice in the home country. But that needed to attract western non-Orthodox, is totally different. Archbishop Basil (Krivoshein) left this world in 1985 and since then the Russian Orthodox Church in Belgium has experienced an acute shortage of people of genuinely high quality spiritual life. Yes, we have two or three priests whose spiritual and intellectual level makes them worthy companions of intelligent Catholic Europeans. But in terms of average spiritual temperature, you will find much more sad situation. I am acutely aware of this ambiguity in my own path within Orthodoxy. The attraction was the patristic ascetic theology that I read of in books. Becoming a member of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belgium, however, I have met only a very small number people living lives that come anywhere near the excellent theory.  Worse than that, despite the frequent berating of European morality out of Moscow, the moral level I have found in the ROC in Belgium does not exceed that of European society as a whole, and is probably lower than that of the local Roman Catholic Church. I have seen more than I would have liked, among Russian-Belgian Orthodox, of organization of illegal entry into the country, intentional deception of public services to gain refugee status and attendant social benefits, marriage in order to gain citizenship, reluctance, even after obtaining the necessary rights, to take regular work and pay regular taxes. And amid all this - rampant consumerism, which to me, something of a Puritan already at the time of my conversion to Orthodoxy, I have a hard time in swallowing.  I stress once again that this way of way of life is contrary, not only to the high ideals of the patristic asceticism and morality, but equally to the ethos of the average European, including the bourgeois Catholics, whose lack of spirituality and amorality is branded from the pulpit by local orthodox preachers. I note parenthetically that such morality turns off not only local Belgians, but even those few Russian who legally came to Belgium to work or study. The natural desire to avoid social downclassing and what is a demoralizing environment for many prevents many of them becoming permanent parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church in this country.

2) LANGUAGE. I will say briefly - we are very far from a situation where all diocesan priests are fluent in the language of their country of residence. The fact that the local persons who converted to Orthodoxy in the ‘70s and ‘80s and were then priested, did not speak in Russian, only exacerbates the abnormal situation and the cultural division between French-speaking and Russian-speaking Orthodoxy within the ROC.

3) SOCIAL AND CULTURAL LEVEL. It is well known that the people inter-ested in Belgium in the Orthodox Church are generally educated people belonging to the middle or upper bourgeoisie, with the ability and inclination to theological debate. Exceptions are rare. Most Russian Orthodox Church in Belgium are less educated, do not speak the local language, are incapable of serious discussions, and are socially one of two classes below. As for the knowledge of the members of the Russian Orthodox Church of the local religious culture, it is usually close to zero. Russian Orthodox in Belgium are nearly totally unfamiliar not only with the theology, liturgical practice, and history of the Roman Catholic Church in their country of adoption (which can be understood), but with the architecture and design of the Catholic church, with church art, with the iconography of saints. Even the local saints of the first millennium, that is of the 'undivided' church, are hardly known to the Russian Orthodox.

Let me add one more remark. the Russian Church in times of persecu-tion aroused sympathy among Europeans, and for many the idea of be-longing to the Church of the martyrs exercised a certain attraction. Later with the renewal of the Church in Russia in the late '80s and '90s there was an invigorating sense of belonging to a resurgent church. But those days are past. Even leaving aside the recent series of scandals, skilfully played up by the media - the overall style of the modern Orthodox Church (at least that of the members of its senior clergy) is not coincident with that sought for by European Christianity. Extreme luxury, autocracy, the desire for symphony with a government portrayed in the Western press as anti-democratic and corrupt - all this creates additional obstacles to any Orthodox "mission" in the West. In this country, where bishops travel on the subway, trust in a pastor is in inverse proportion to the size of his limousine.

But it seems to me incorrect to see the missionary work only as a con-version of non-Orthodox to Orthodoxy.

There is another form of missionary work in which it is possible for a member of the Russian OrthodoxChurch to lead an active and creative life with positive perspectives.  This is the area of the non-institutional deployment of Orthodoxy, that is, its penetration into consciousness and, more importantly, in the religious experience of people nominally remaining in the Roman Catholic Church. Helping rehabilitate and strengthen the spiritual life of our Western brothers by correcting certain theological, moral, ascetic abnormalities. This includes Orthodox being able to speak out - both in private conversation, and even in public - on things on which Catholics are thinking, but are afraid to speak, so as not to be accused of insulting liberal democratic idols. Long and constantly enriched experience of such communication with non-Orthodox is essential to my own understand of my own task.

I personally believe that the future of Orthodoxy in Europe lies pri-marily in this approach.  Not in increasing the number of parishes and parishioners (a growth which is not going to happen), nor in the growth of the number of state-paid Orthodox clergy (in the coming decades it will be a miracle if we can at least maintain the status quo).  Nor should we count on any significant influx of local people. The only thing which is able to give, in my mind, really good fruits in any 'Orthodox Mission', is to multiply the number of serious Catholics (especially among priests and religious) who are ready and open to receive from Orthodoxy what is the best in it, and which can supplement what is lacking or has gone weak in their own tradition.

Will we make it? There is no guarantee. But one thing is clear - if we try to ignore the obvious difficulties and dangers of our present situation, we have no reason to hope for divine grace. We will have only ourselves to blame if the next generation of Russian-Belgian Orthodoxy fades and dissipates. Yes, the Lord blesses and helps in difficult and even hopeless situations, but on the condition that those involved this situation do not hide their heads in the sand or, worse, sing their own praises while doing so.

Published in 'Alpha and Omega' magazine, Moscow,

Michael Lomax, Deacon in the diocese of Brussels and the Belgium of the Russian Orthodox Church. Education: Philology (Cambridge, England), business management (INSEAD, France), and theology (Institut St Serge, in Paris). Responsible within the dio-cese for relations with non-Orthodox confessions. Born in England, confirmed in the Church of England in 1963; entered the Orthodox Church in 1992.  He lives and works in Brussels. His wife, Irina Gorbunova-Lomax, is a well-known icon painter, author of books and articles on iconography and the theory of Christian art.
© Deacon Michael Lomax, 2013