The Role of Religion in a Changing Europe

(3 November 2005)


Your Eminences,
Your Excellencies,
Your Honours,
Learned Sirs,

I.    Does religion still have a role in Europe?
Let us begin this evening by thanking Professor Kevin Featherstone, Director of the Hellenic Observatory, and Mr George Rodopoulos, President of the London Hellenic Society, for inviting us to deliver this lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  You have chosen a topic that is of vital importance to all of us without exception: ‘The role of religion in a changing Europe.'  This is, needless to say, a subject that is of burning concern to us personally in our ministry as Ecumenical Patriarch.  In all the countries of Western Europe, the Orthodox flock that is under the spiritual care of the Ecumenical Throne is rapidly growing in numbers.  It is, therefore, natural and necessary for us to ask ourselves: What is our vocation as Orthodox Christians in Europe as a whole?

The title of our lecture tonight refers to ‘a changing Europe'.  In what particular ways is Europe undergoing change?  Two features come at once to mind: multiculturalism and secularization.  First, the national boundaries separating one European country from another are becoming less sharp and clearly defined, and this is happening on many different levels, political, economic, and social.  None of us are living any more in a monolithic, pan-ethnic cultural milieu; all of us belong to or find ourselves cast into broader cultural currents.  This is true, not only of the countries of Western Europe such as Britain, France or Germany, but of the traditional Orthodox lands such as Greece or Romania.  One aspect of this multicultural trend is the ever-increasing scale of immigration.  In Europe today, for example, there are between fifteen and twenty million Muslims: in Britain they constitute 2.7% of the population, but in most other countries the proportion is higher – in Germany, 4.9%; and in France as much as 8.3% (no less than five million).  Surely we should see this not as a threat but as an opportunity.

Alike as a result of immigration and of other factors, we Europeans are coming to recognize – in a way that we have never done before – that we belong to one another and need each other.  Nations in the contemporary world are not self-sufficient but interdependent.  To Cain's question in the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel – ‘Am I my brother's keeper?' (Gen. 4:9) – there can today be only one answer, equally on the personal and the international level; and the answer has to be, ‘Yes, I am.'

This does not mean that national loyalty, patriotism and love of one's native land, have ceased to have any meaning.  On the contrary, what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Prize speech thirty-five years ago still remains fully valid today: ‘The disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all humans were to become alike, with one personality and one face.  Nations are the wealth of humankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.'   But our experience of our own national identity has today to be lived out within a pluralist and multicultural context.

The most striking contemporary expression of this multiculturalism is of course the emergence of the European Union.  From its first beginnings on 9 May 1950 – when Robert Schuman, as French Minister of Foreign Affairs, proposed the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community – it has now come to embrace no less than twenty-five Member States, and it continues to expand.  As a Turkish citizen, we would like at this point to express our hope that in due course Turkey will become a full member of the EU, when the necessary preconditions of such membership have been met, including in particular the recognition of the religious and other rights of minority communities.  The admission of Turkey to the EU, so we are convinced, will significantly contribute to rapprochement and reconciliation between the Muslim world and the West.

It is true that, during recent months, the EU has been passing through a time of crisis.  The idealistic vision of the Union's founders has sadly faded.  Political leaders in the different states have to ask themselves why so many of their citizens are strongly hostile to the proposed Constitutional Treaty.  Yet this should not blind us to the remarkable achievements of the EU.  For more than sixty years there has not been a major war in Europe; probably, since the fall of the Roman Empire, there has never been in Europe such a prolonged period of peace.  With a minimum of violence and bloodshed, the Iron Curtain has been broken down.  To a degree unthinkable in the 1930s, the peoples of Europe are today committed to the principles of freedom, justice and democracy.  When we Orthodox pray, as we do at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, ‘for the peace of the whole world', we have good reason to reflect with gratitude on these developments.

Along with multiculturalism, a second major feature in today's changing Europe is the growth of secularism.  In most countries, especially in the western part of Europe, there has been a dramatic decline in church-going.  Almost everywhere, with certain notable exceptions, religious groups in Europe are lamenting a lack of candidates for the priesthood and the monastic life.  In education and in the total life of society, Christianity is becoming marginalised.  All of this leads us to ask: Does religion any longer have a role in the future of Europe?  It is surely disquieting that, in the proposed Constitutional Treaty, despite protests from many church leaders, there is no explicit reference to the contribution made by Christianity to the formation of the European heritage.

Yet we must take care not to exaggerate.  Even if levels of church-going have fallen in many places, the majority of Europeans – as recent surveys indicate  – still affirm that they believe in the existence of a God.  In some countries, the proportion of those who do so is surprisingly high: in Malta, 95%; in Cyprus and Romania, 90%; in Greece and Portugal, 81%; and in Poland, 80%.  In EU countries as a whole, an overall average of 52% state that they believe there is a God, and only 18% declare that they do not believe in the existence of any sort of God, spirit or life-force.  Of course by no means all those who accept God's existence are actively practising their faith.  Interestingly, in Turkey the number of those expressing belief that there is a God is as high as 95%; and of these the great majority are indeed practising their faith. A modern and democratic political and social structure has to respect the religious wishes and sentiments of its citizens. Religious freedoms cannot be curtailed in the name of secularism.

II.    Does the message of Orthodoxy matter in a United Europe?
Even if, in all too many countries of Europe, organized religion is passing through a time of difficulty, religious belief is by no means merely a thing of the past.  Christianity in numerous European lands is like a sleeping giant, but according to all indications the giant is soon going to wake up.  Indeed, this has already been happening since the fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union: in Russian and Ukraine, since 1989 the number of Orthodox parishes has increased nearly threefold, and now exceeds 20,000; whereas in 1989 there were only 18 monasteries, today there are more than 600.  Let us not underestimate the resilience of Christianity.  And let us not forget that the founding fathers of the EU, such as Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi, were profoundly Christian in their vision of a unified Europe.

With approximately 300 million faithful in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East but also in the New World, the Orthodox Church is a force of unity, a stabilizing factor and an essential component in the ongoing process to create a new European reality bridging the eastern and western Christian cultures and traditions of the continent. Under the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Orthodox dioceses have also been present for a long time in almost all the countries of western Europe, providing spiritual guidance to the Orthodox faithful.  Because of its decentralized structure, Orthodoxy is in a position to reach, in a much more direct and effective manner, its faithful through its 16 local Churches, operating under the coordination of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, first among the equal Churches of the Orthodox commonwealth.

Given the global revival of religious faith and attachment to spiritual values of the recent decades, the Orthodox ecumenical message and cultural legacy has assumed greater credibility and has turned into a bulwark against the transcendence of extreme nationalistic, confessionary and religious contradictions. In this respect, the Patriarchate of Constantinople upholds the work of conciliation of all mankind, the propagation of peaceful coexistence and the preservation of the natural environment. Towards achieving these goals, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been undertaking multifaceted activities; organizing international environmental conferences since 1992, co-sponsoring a dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the European People's Party and the European Democrats since 1996 and promoting interfaith dialogue starting with the Bosphorus Declaration of 1994, an interfaith document which condemns all crimes in the name of religion, as a crime against religion.

Historical Constantinople and modern day Istanbul is a city where religions and cultures converge. Thus the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with its seat in this city for 17 centuries, has co-existed peacefully and constructively with Islam and Judaism. While contact between Orthodox and Muslims has been an everyday process in multicultural Istanbul, an academic dialogue of friendship and mutual understanding between Christians and Islam started in 1986 in the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambesy-Geneva. Under these circumstances, Orthodoxy, headed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whose headquarters are situated in a predominantly Muslim city, has all the credentials to assume the role of a bridge between Europe and Islam. In the same manner, the staunch support extended by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to Turkey's membership to the European Union is linked to the belief that Europe will benefit greatly by integrating a predominantly Muslim country, willing of course to adopt European principles such as respect for religious freedoms and minority rights.  A similar dialogue between Orthodoxy and Judaism has been going on with the blessings of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

III.    The spiritual foundation of Europe
Europe, it has often been said, is not simply a geographical area but an idea.  What, then, we ask, is the fundamental ‘idea' that gives unity to Europe, that constitutes the ‘soul' of Europe, and that the European Union is seeking, however imperfectly, to embody?

The answer can be found in a Jewish saying recorded by Martin Buber in his Tales of the Hasidim.  ‘What is the worst thing that the evil urge can achieve?', a Rabbi is asked; and he replies: ‘To make us forget that we are each the child of a King.'   As human persons, we are each of us from royal lineage, in the spiritual sense; that is to say, we are each and every one of us free.  This notion of personal freedom – of the free dignity and integrity of every single human being – lies at the heart of what we mean by the European idea, and it is the primary guiding principle of the EU.

It is precisely in this perspective that we can begin to appreciate the role of religion in Europe; for personal freedom is fundamental likewise to the Christian doctrine of human personhood.  ‘The truth will make you free,' states Christ (John 8:32); ‘Am I not free?' asserts Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1).  Emphasizing the element of freedom in God's relationship with the world, the 2nd–century Epistle to Diognetus affirms, ‘God persuades, he does not compel; for violence is foreign to him.'    This is indeed a golden saying: would that Christians over the centuries had paid more attention to it!  The cardinal significance of freedom is vividly underlined in ‘The Tale of the Grand Inquisitor', in Fyodor Dostoevsky's masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov.  For the Christian tradition, freedom – the ability to make decisions consciously and with a full sense of responsibility – is the most tremendous thing granted by God to human persons.  Without liberty of choice there is no authentic personhood.  As God says to the people of Israel in the Old Testament, ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose …' (Deut. 30:19).

If, however, we are to appreciate the true meaning of this personal freedom, we have to ask further what is meant by a person.  Here again the testimony of the Christian tradition is of decisive significance.  Is the human animal merely a political animal, politikon zōon, as Aristotle says,  or a logical and rational animal, logikon zōon, to use the Stoic phrase?   Are we no more than an animal that laughs and weeps, as some have thought? Is the human animal to be seen simply in materialistic and economic terms, as a consumer?  Such unfortunately is exactly the approach of many citizens today within the EU: they think almost exclusively of what they can get out of the Union in terms of material advantages, not of what they can contribute on a spiritual level; and that is perhaps the chief reason why the EU is passing at present through such a severe crisis.

Against this concept of the person as merely an economic entity,  a consumer, Christianity insists that as human beings we are zōon theoumenon, to use the words of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus,  ‘an animal that is being deified', that is called to share in God's glory and to become a ‘partaker of the divine nature' (2 Peter 1:4).  The most important fact about our humanness is our transcendent dimension: we are formed in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).  We are endowed, that is to say, with God-consciousness, and so we are capable of prayer.  We have the capacity to offer the world back to God in thanksgiving, and it is only in this act of offering that we become genuinely human and truly free.

We do not expect all this to be stated explicitly in the Constitution of the EU; for the Constitution is a legal document, not a theological treatise.  But it is our hope that, implicitly if not explicitly, the foundational documents of the EU will at least be open to such an interpretation.  We trust that full recognition will be given to the fact that man does not live by bread alone.

Hitherto, we have spoken of ‘personal freedom', but it needs also to be said that our freedom is not only personal but interpersonal.  As human beings, we cannot be genuinely free in isolation, repudiating our relationship with our fellow humans.  We can only be genuinely free if we form part of a community of other free persons.  Freedom is not solitary but social.  We are only free if we become a prosopon – to use the Greek word for ‘person', which means literally ‘face' or ‘countenance' – if we turn towards others, looking into their eyes and allowing them to look into ours.  To turn away, to refuse to share, is to forfeit liberty.

This indeed is specifically what is implied by the Christian doctrine of God.  According to the teaching of the Greek Fathers, ‘in the image of God' means primarily ‘in the image of Christ'; to be human is to be Christ-like, for Christ is the supreme model of what it is to be a person.  But the phrase ‘in the image of God' means also ‘in the image of God the Trinity'.  As Christians, we believe in a God who is not only one but one-in-three.  The Christian God is not merely personal but also interpersonal; God is not just a unit but a union.  As Trinity, God is not simply the Monad, unique, self-sufficient.  God is the Triad of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the three divine persons united to one another in the unceasing movement of mutual love that the Greek Patristic tradition terms perichoresis.  God is communion, koinonia.  In the words of Saint Basil of Caesarea, ‘The unity of God lies in the communion (koinonia) of the Godhead',  in the interrelationship of the three persons.  As Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon expresses it, ‘The being of God is a relational being: without the concept of communion it would not be possible to speak of the being of God.'

Now if as humans we are formed in the image of the Trinity, then it follows that everything which has just been said about God should be applied also to humankind.  We are called to reproduce on earth, so far as this is possible for us, the perichoresis or movement of mutual love that in heaven unites the three persons of the Trinitarian God.  This we seek to do not only on the level of our interior life of prayer, not only within the immediate circle of our family and friends, but also more broadly on an economic and political level.  Our social programme is the doctrine of the Trinity.  Every form of community – the workplace, the school, the city, the nation, even the European Union – has as its vocation to become each in its own way, a living icon of the Trinity.  Nations are called to be transparent to one another, just as the three persons of the Trinity are transparent to one another. Such is the role of religion in a changing Europe.

To some of you, we fear, what we have just been saying about the imitation of God the Trinity may appear remote, unreal, over-idealistic.  Of course we do not expect such language to be used in the legal formulations and the official documents of the EU.  But such are the decisive inner convictions that inspire our commitment as Christians to a united Europe.

IV.    State and Church separation: or co-operation?
Accepting, as we do and must, the pluralist and multicultural character of Europe today, what should be our understanding of the relationship between the state and organized religion?  There are in principle three main systems for regulating this relationship.  There is first the confessional system, whereby the state gives official recognition to one particular religion or Church.  Secondly, there is the non-confessional system, whereby the state is separated from religion, and assumes an attitude of neutrality towards all expressions of religious belief and practice.  In the third place, there is the situation whereby the state is officially atheist.

Within the European Union, only the first two systems exist; there is within it no example of a state that is officially atheist.  As examples of the first system, the confessional, we may take Great Britain, Denmark and Greece.  Within these three countries there is of course full freedom of religious worship and observance – indeed, this is presupposed by the basic principles of the EU – but a special position is assigned to one particular religious body: to the Church of England in Great Britain, to the Lutheran Church in Denmark, and to the Orthodox Church in Greece.

Most countries in the EU, however, follow the second system, the non-confessional.  This is the case, for instance, with France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.  In the 1970s, Ireland, Spain and Italy abandoned the confessional pattern, whereby special recognition had been given to the Roman Catholic Church.  More recently, in 2000, Sweden ceased to be a confessional state.  Even in confessional states such as Great Britain and Greece, the link between Church and state is being gradually weakened: now in Great Britain the state plays a far smaller role in the appointment of bishops; in Greece the president of the state is no longer required to be a member of the Orthodox Church.  Increasingly, the norm within the EU, and within Europe generally, is coming to be the non-confessional pattern.

Both in the confessional and the non-confessional systems, there are of course many variations in detail.  Even where the non-confessional system prevails, it is usually accepted that religion cannot be simply a private matter for each citizen, but it has implications for the public life of the state, and these may be recognized on the legal level.  In some non-confessional states, for example, religious bodies continue to play an official role in the educational system.  Thus, even in non-confessional countries, usually there is no attempt to establish a total separation between religion and the state.

Indeed, so we may legitimately ask, is ‘separation' the most appropriate word for us to employ in this context?  Instead of using what is essentially a negative word, would it not be better to speak in terms of mutual respect and co-operation?  It is significant that, in what is for Eastern Orthodoxy the most important statement of political philosophy – the Sixth Novel issued by the Emperor Justinian around the year 534 – the key word is the term symphonia, ‘concord' or ‘harmony'.  Justinian begins by distinguishing the roles of the emperor (that is, the civil authority) and the clergy (that is, the religious authority): ‘The greatest gifts that God in his philanthropia has given from above to human beings,' he says, ‘are the priesthood (sacerdotium) and the imperial authority (imperium).'  He goes on to specify what the respective spheres in which each authority is competent to act, and he emphasizes their reciprocal interdependence: the emperor watches over the good order of the Church, and in their turn the clergy pray for the work of the emperor.  He continues: ‘For if the priesthood is in all respects without blame and full of faith before God, and if the imperial authority rightly and duly adorns the commonwealth committed to its charge, there will ensue a happy concord that will bring forth all good things for humankind.'

This evening we would like to underline in particular the phrase used here by Justinian, ‘a happy concord'.  Between sixth-century Byzantium and Europe in the twenty-first century, there are obvious and profound differences.  But in speaking of a ‘happy concord', Justinian's Sixth Novel offers us a paradigm for the relationship between the state and religion that is still valid today.  Whether we are living in a confessional or a non-confessional system – and as Christians we can accept either situation – it is our hope that there will exist between religion and the state a symphonia of active collaboration.  We should not think only of separation, neutrality or mutual tolerance, but of a relationship that is far more dynamic and creative.  Our Christian attitude towards the total society in which we live is expressed exactly in the statement of Saint Paul (he was speaking, it is true, of membership within the Church, but we are justified in giving his words a wider application): ‘If one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it' (I Cor. 12:26).

All that we have been trying to say this evening can be briefly summed up.  Freedom, respect or the dignity and integrity of each human person, is fundamental to our vision of a united Europe.  It is equally fundamental to our religious understanding of the relationship between the divine and the human: ‘God persuades, he does not compel.'  But freedom is not only personal, it is also interpersonal.  The Self has its being and its fulfilment in the Other.  We cannot be truly free, truly personal, unless we are in communion with other persons.  We need you in order to be ourself.  If we make that the guideline in our personal religious life – and if we make that our guideline as citizens of our own nation, of Europe and of the world – then without doubt religion will have a vital role to play in a changing Europe.

1)  See L. Labedz, Solzhenitsyn: a Documentary Record (1974), p. 314.
2) See, for example, the special report in Eurobarometer 225 (2005), pp. 7–11.
3) Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (1968), p. 282.
4) Epistle to Diognetus 7.4.
5) Politics 1.1.9 (1253a)
6) H. von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, III (1903), p. 95, §390.
7) Oration 38.11.
8)  On the Holy Spirit 18 [45].
9) Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church (1985), p. 17.
10)  See Ernest Barker, Social and Political Thought in Byzantium (1957), pp. 75–76.