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I want to begin with a story from my Godmother in Orthodoxy, Anne-Marie Brandon. I joined Orthodoxy in France and Anne-Marie was like a walking encyclopaedia of the travails of Orthodoxy in France, at least of the Russian tradition, the different groupings formed in the chaos imposed by the Russian Revolution. When we were discussing the inevitable question - what first attracted you to Orthodoxy? - she told me that as a child she had been educated by nuns in a Roman Catholic school. When they were teaching the history of the church, young Anne-Marie was puzzled to notice that the story seemed to begin in one part of the world, broadly speaking the 'Middle East', but suddenly, without explanation, switched to another part of the world, broadly Western Europe. She asked the sister who was giving the lesson if there were still Christians in the places where Christianity began. The reply was 'Well ... yes ... but they went wrong.' When Anne-Marie asked how they had gone wrong, the sister replied: 'They cross themselves the wrong way'  ... leaving the young Anne-Marie with a burning desire to know more about these Christians who were so perverse as to cross themselves the wrong way.

As a member of a church which suffered a serious schism over the question of how many fingers to use when crossing oneself (1) I cannot pretend that these things are matters of no importance - but the main point I want to indicate here is the enormity of the gulf of understanding that has opened up between between Eastern and Western Christianity. It may be narrowing a bit nowadays but it has been profound, and it still has terrible consequences, for example the Hell into which Christians living in Iraq and Syria have been plunged by the ill-considered policies of people who consider themselves to be Christians in the West.

(1) This was one of the issues resulting in the schism of the 'Old Believers' in Russia in the seventeenth century.

I recently gave a talk on the subject of 'British Values' in Llaneglwys Village Hall. (2) I drew attention to the importance in forming a distinctively British world-historical view of Edward Gibbons' book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is largely a history of Eastern Christianity. Admiration for the Roman Empire has been an important strand in British culture. It embodies an essentially secular ideal of 'civilisation' as opposed to any distinctively Christian idea. The education of the British upper classes has for a couple of centuries at least been largely based on the 'classics', on construing Latin verses. According to this view of the world civilisation reaches a certain height in ancient Rome, then it collapses under the pressure of the barbarian invasions. Then there is a long, slow process of rebuilding, advancing through the 'dark ages', the 'middle ages', the Renaissance, all of them a bit barbaric, until we final reach some sort of restoration of civilised values in, say, the eighteenth century.

(2)  The text can be found under the title 'The English Ideology' on my 'British Values' website -

In this view, Christianity can be said to play a positive role in the recovery of civilised values but it is essentially a positive role in the realisation of something other than itself - 'civilisation', whose highest point is considered to be the classical civilisation of ancient Rome. But in that view of things, what are we to make of Constantinople, of the Roman Empire in the East? The Eastern Empire didn't collapse, at least not in the fifth century. It continued in existence. The knowledge of the classics, at least of the Greek classics, continued. The texts of the Greek tragedies and of the writings of the philosophers were preserved and taught in schools. They were maintained intact as a heritage to be passed over to the West at the time of the Renaissance (coinciding with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453). So Christianity in the East cannot be seen as the means by which civilisation was rebuilt after a barbarian destruction. Gibbon could only see it as presiding over a process of 'decline and fall':

'The Greeks of Constantinople ... held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony; they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action.' (3)

(3) Quoted in N.G.Wilson: Scholars of Byzantium, London, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 1996 (1st ed. 1983), p.275.

Needless to say that was not how it was seen in Constantinople. They certainly respected their heritage. The 'classics' provided a wonderful model of the good use of the Greek language. The philosophers provided a useful model for the process of thinking. But they believed that with Christianity they had something better. Classical culture and philosophy had been a great quest for truth, an attempt to give context and meaning to human life. The Romans (and I stress the word Romans which is how they saw themselves, not Byzantines) believed that they had found the truth, the context that gives meaning to human life.