Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 21st October 2012

21 October 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you.

They are fascinating black and white photos, just a pair. But they really are only fascinating if you pause long enough to see not just what is going on, which is fairly obvious, but when it took place, where it took place, and, more importantly, who is in them.

The year is 1977. Queen Elizabeth is celebrating the Silver Jubilee of her accession to the throne: street parties are held throughout the land. The Punk era is upon us and the Sex Pistols are in the charts. The Iron Curtain is well and truly fixed and we in the West know little of what goes on behind it. The first sign of thawing in the Cold War is the signing of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but the fall of Communism is more than a decade away.

In fact, what we hear in the West, as far as religion is concerned, is a story about Christians being oppressed, churches being closed, and the faithful being driven underground. It is a small part of a broader narrative of how fortunate we are to have grown up living with the freedoms we enjoy here.

All of which makes the photographs rather puzzling.

The first is of a huge funeral cortège. Not a state occasion of pomp and circumstance, rather it is clearly a rural scene. But nonetheless, thousands of people are visible processing behind the funeral cortège, and many more line the grass banks that run beside the road. The traditional and rural nature of the scene is reinforced by oxen pulling the cart on which the coffin lies and women in traditional national dress lead the procession.

So, who has died? That is revealed in the second photograph which shows the coffin being carried into a churchyard by pall bearers, among whom is the unmistakable sight of the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, himself an avowed and ardent atheist. This was the funeral in 1977 of his mother, Alexandrina, by contrast deeply devout, in fact, so much so that Nicolae ordered a church to be built in her memory.

And it is memory and the revival of memory which is one of the themes of this series of sermons at Matins during October. I have been following the results of a government-backed research programme looking at ‘New Forms of Public Religion’. While the narrative of western Europe has been one of decline for institutional religions in both attendance and influence over the past 150 years, surprising things are happening elsewhere in the world.

In fact, so striking is this change that some are talking about ‘European Exceptionalism’, that is, of Europe now being out of step with the rest of the world. And just as we are getting used to the idea that economically, politically and culturally, the centre of gravity in the world is moving South and East towards the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, so we are witnessing a parallel shift in the world of religion. The emerging churches of South America, Asia, and Africa no longer look towards western Europe for their models of mission, but rather keep themselves focussed on the gospel rather an the institution.

In previous weeks, I’ve been looking at how Pentecostalism has exploded in Brazil, how multiculturalism has flourished on the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Vancouver, and today I am considering how stubborn religion can be in not dying off.

And much of the research carried out over the past twenty years, shows that far from killing off religion, the atheist regimes of eastern Europe under Communism perversely created a climate in which the Christian faith flourished even when it was severely persecuted.A good example of this is in Romania, but could be applied to many former Iron Curtain countries. In her research, Simina Badica from the Central European University in Bucharest, carried out in depth interviews with women over the age of 75. The importance of this group was that they lived through the imposition of post-war Communism.

The results were startling. This is Florina, who was married in the 1950s in Bucharest:

'Although you should know that even then [after communism was installed] the majority of weddings were done with a religious ceremony. That they did it secretly… I do not remember any wedding, even if it was done by high-rank party members… for them to suffer because they married their children religiously … So in 1950, one or two years afterwards, the priest closed the doors of the church out of fear that someone might come and see he is doing a religious wedding. And he had the ceremony with closed doors'.

In other words, despite state intervention religion continued on a day to day basis, especially around important rituals. Similarly, baptisms were often held in secret. This is Zahari when asked whether her children were baptised:

‘Yes. We might have got into a lot of trouble with the older son. We got him baptized when he was in first form. And we are travelling to a village called Kochevo. While we are travelling, there’s a priest on the bus and my son starts shouting, “Daddy, daddy, this is the priest that baptized me!” Everybody stared at us. So I say to myself, “Oh, we got lucky today!”. But we got away with it… My wife became a godmother of a lot of children. Not many people were willing to be godparents at that time‘.

Christmas Trees were put up at New Years; Christmas itself celebrated discretely on another day; funerals continued to be marked in all the traditional ways they had always been. For many of these women, they would say, "I was born Orthodox, I will die Orthodox".

The results of fifty years of communist era restriction and oppression seem counter-intuitive. Today almost 97% of Romanians class themselves as Christian, overwhelmingly Romanian Orthodox, which is now the second largest Orthodox Patriarchate after Russia. Nearly 40% of the population claim to attend church at least monthly.

And what are we to make of this? If my general thesis has been that the state of the Christian churches in western Europe is out of kilter with the global picture, this provides a further ray of hope for the future. Namely, that as the ‘State’, under the twin burdens of deficit and national debt, retreats across from its bureaucratic involvement in the lives of its citizens, the natural place for communities to be re-born must be in the local churches, synagogues, and mosques which make up the authentic patchwork of our countries. And the real point of hope is that, just as communism failed to extinguish completely the light of faith, so state-interventionist capitalism will likewise give way to spiritual renewal.

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