From Bishop Michael Ingham:
I’ve spent the last three months on sabbatical leave, and first of all I want to thank everyone in the Diocese of New Westminster for this gift of time away. It’s been a period of rest and renewal, of travel and new experiences, much needed and greatly appreciated. Thank you one and all, especially to Dean Peter and the Synod Office staff, for taking on my responsibilities.

A few weeks ago I stood in prayer in a church in Russia (there are no pews). Unlike ours in the Anglican tradition, Russian churches are Byzantine in style – richly painted gold interiors; sacred murals filling every space; elaborate icons of the saints and patriarchs encircled by candles and incense standing in every corner. Devoid of stained glass windows, Russian churches tell stories of the faith through icons and pictures decorating walls and ceilings. Most of these are very old, and you have a sense of entering an ancient place when you step inside an Orthodox church.

I had expected to find these churches empty, or at least tended only by old people, but instead I found them surprisingly vibrant. Young people mingled along with the aged, women with heads covered with scarves, men crossing themselves reverently, at all times of the day, during the week as well as on Sundays. The liturgy is sung by monks or priests, in a language no one speaks today, and while to a Westerner this might look like the church is ‘out of touch,’ to the Russian people this is not the case at all.

Russia has an astonishing history, both magnificent and cruel. Ravaged by wars and winters, its people have suffered harsh brutality from both czars and communist dictators. For centuries the Church has stood with the people – to be sure, making dubious compromises with political power along the way – but now the imperial and socialist eras have been swept away the Church remains the place of solace and strength to the nation. Even 70 years of official atheism during the Soviet period have not eradicated the obvious respect shown to the Church by ordinary Russians.

As I watched people lighting candles for the dead, saying prayers for the living, meditating before icons, and standing in lengthy lines to approach holy relics, it struck me how visual and sensual is their piety – how centred it is in sight, sound and touch - and how different from our intellectual and social piety in the West. In our Church we gather to eat and to talk. In the Orthodox tradition they go to look and remember. Theirs seems a faith less rooted in dogma and suppers, and more grounded in spiritual intimacy with the saints and in simple acts of devotion and service.

Perhaps the years of suffering and hardship have not permitted the kind of intellectual luxury we have had in the West to question our faith and traditions. Through the long history of Christianity in Russia, the Church has not become alienated from the people or from popular culture in the way we have experienced in the West. It has remained the guardian of language and memory, of a deep spirituality and a monastic tradition that remains strong despite enormous social turmoil. I shall reflect further on this, and what we can learn from it, as I think it through.

One strong image from my travels is of a picture I saw in Berlin. Standing on Friedrichstrasse – at what was once known as Checkpoint Charlie, the famous death-strip crossing from East to West Berlin during the communist years – I saw a photograph of a church being blown up. It was called the Church of Reconciliation, and it stood for decades in a barbed wire wilderness between the American and Russian sectors where the Berlin Wall divided the city, stranded by politics and hatred, a witness to the love of God. Brave people from East and West would worship there week by week, one of the few places they could meet during the years of enforced separation. In 1985, the East German authorities had it destroyed by dynamite. Today, near where it once stood, there is a picture of the tall spire falling tragically to the ground in a wasteland of hopelessness.

The authorities wanted it to be clear – they were not interested in reconciliation. But the church’s message was equally clear – reconciliation is the ministry of Christians, because it is the work of Christ. Though the building fell, the Church did not. And four years later in 1989 both the Berlin Wall and the communist repression came crashing down together.

The story of East German Christians and their counterparts during these extraordinary years is one of the most magnificent acts of peaceful rebellion of the 20th century (known to us in part through the efforts of our own Professor John Conway). And it is particularly important to note as we celebrate the season of Christmas.

God became human in Jesus Christ so that we might become reconciled with God and with one another. This is such a simple thing to say, but such a profound thing to live out. If I have learned, or re-learned, anything on my sabbatical it is the powerful truth of God’s incarnation in people’s lives. From that manger in Bethlehem there went out through the world such a power of hope, such a strength of endurance, and such a depth of faith in God, that has sustained billions of ordinary people through times of happiness and tragedy, and with such force that neither brutality, cruelty, nor death itself could overcome it.

We are the bearers of this spiritual message to the world. We are the witnesses to its truth. God is love and has come among us. We are the beloved of Love itself, friends and disciples of Jesus, who desires us to be one with each other and with God. It is a love far stronger than mere affection, much more enduring than momentary pleasure. God’s love draws us together beyond ideology and class, beyond status and like-mindedness to make us a new community and a new creation. Division and schism in the Church, though long present throughout its history, is a counter- witness to that. We are capable of something much higher and better. We have many examples of Christian faith and courage to help us to re-focus our priorities.

This Christmas I shall be deeply thankful for my time of rest, and for the ways in which Orthodox spirituality has touched and changed me. I wish you a blessed and happy season, and I pray that God may be incarnate in our Church and in all our lives.