Old friends, different paths: A Reflection in Response to the Special Seminar in Orthodox Church History

Siluan is an ordinary German guy and a long-time friend of mine. He studied theology in Frankfurt and Mainz and later also at Pretoria University (South Africa). At the time, as a beginner theology student, I admired his knowledge of both theology and old languages. When I got to know him more than 20 years ago in a pan-European choir, he had started attending the Orthodox Church – baptized and confirmed in an “ordinary” evangelical church, he was a seeker, and the search for his soul took him from one congregation to another. I remember him singing in the Greek Orthodox Church, for instance. Today Siluan has reached the Russian Orthodox Church in Frankfurt, which belongs to ROKA (Russisch-Orthodoxe Kirche im Ausland).


Over Pentecost, the two of us were talking; me, as a Protestant who has come from the Estonian Lutheran Church to work in the German Evangelical Church, and he as a member who has left that church.


I think that Frankfurt is one great “Sobornost” in terms of gathering[1] – there are all kinds of crowds here who, for whatever reason, have reached this city in the middle of Europe. The choice of religions is wide and everyone who comes here should have the opportunity to visit a denomination close to their soul and follow appropriate traditions.


However, diversity also makes it difficult. There are two Russian Orthodox Churches here: the already mentioned Nikolai Church, which belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church in Abroad[2] (centered in New York) and is run from the diocese of Berlin and all Germany; then there is also a congregation directly subordinate to Moscow, which was established only in 2003. It is run by the Archbishop of Berlin. However, in both cases it is the Russian Orthodox Church, and the distribution of its organization is complicated.[3]


Frankfurt also has several other Orthodox churches: the Greek Orthodox Church is represented by three congregations; there are two Romanian Orthodox congregations, one of which belongs to the Patriarchate of Bucharest and the other to that of Constantinople. Both the Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox churches are also represented. There are also Arabic-speaking Orthodox churches, notably from Syria, Libya, and southern Turkey, which are subordinate to the Patriarchate of Antioch and are organized by the Metropolitan of Paris. [4]


Other eastern churches are the Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The oldest and largest is the Syrian Orthodox Church.[5]


If you’re a seeker, like my friend Siluan, how do you find the right place in this multitude of churches? Frankfurt’s St. Nicholas Church is a Russian Orthodox church, but German is largely spoken here, as many of the members of the congregation are German. Moreover, one of the priests does not even speak Old Slavonic (or Russian) – these parts he simply memorizes.[6] However, the older priest is already a sight to behold: he comes from a noble family that expatriated from Russia in the 1920s, speaks five languages fluently, and has been a priest in the congregation for 55 years.[7]


My friend Siluan has a mighty tenor voice and he was immediately caught up in singing in the choir. I asked him if he, as a theologian, could not imagine himself in a priestly role, to which he said no. At the same time, the role of a choir singer in the Orthodox Church is so great that it is also a spiritual service. “Singing is a form of prayer for me and it is essential,” he says.


Why did Siluan convert to Orthodoxy? He replies: first, it is an authentic journey that has grown over 2,000 years, it is grounded by Jesus himself, and there has been always a “red line”.[8]


To experience God was Siluan’s matter of life: “I searched among other mystics (medieval mysticism, Jewish mysticism), but the question was resolved in the “light dispute” of Mount Athos.” The first stage of his turn was during his studies when he discovered the dispute between the church fathers about where divine light comes from, and whether it is created or not. This theme was described by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Gregory was also the one who claimed that man is capable of knowing God, namely when the prayer of Jesus’ heart is truly prayed for.[9] Siluan was very happy with this knowledge, for he was looking for a spiritual home to help him experience God. He points out that hesychasm, as a direct way to experience God himself, has a central and unique role in Orthodox theology. In the Orthodox Church, Siluan enjoys gradual purification through confession and communion. The path to deification – Theosis[10] – is open. While Orthodoxy is often described as strict, Siluan thinks that’s just fine: “Rigor? It helps me to know God. Consciousness sharpens, it helps in the path of Theosis. It’s a soul guidance.”


Today, as a member of the congregation, he is busy feeding refugees from Ukraine – they cook in the congregation every day as the church tries to help these large numbers of refugees.


“Before, I went to Communion every day, but not now – it’s because of the war in Ukraine and Patriarch Kirill,” he says. How so, I ask. It turns out that since his church is still a Russian Orthodox church (even if abroad), the head of the church is Kirill. Not only did Kirill work for the KGB, but in Siluan’s opinion he is not a Christian at all!  “He is a heretic anyway, because he follows the enthnophyletism,” Siluan says directly. The idea of the ethnophyletism is that a local autocephalous church should be based not on a local criterion, but on a national or linguistic one. It was condemned 1872 as a modern ecclesial heresy: the church should not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race.[11] Siluan can´t be in communion with a heretic patriarch who uses people to his advantage. At the same time, the exploitation of religion is nothing new… it is found in every religion.


We discussed what solution there could possibly be and came to the common opinion that the solution is democracy and secularization, i.e. the complete, strict separation of church and state. Here I will also recall the text and lecture of Prof. Aristotle Papanikolaou as part of the seminar series[12], whose idea – the mystical is also political – I still cannot fully agree with.[13] Papanikolaou, in the introduction to his book The Mystical as Political[14], redefines the central concept of Orthodoxy – Theosis – and says that he understands it as the divine-human communion, and communion in turn is the concept of interrelation.[15] He disputes the claim that the church must be in a constant state of tension with society and he argues that “a eucharistic understanding of the church actually leads to a Christian endorsement of a liberal democratic form of polity”.[16] More recently, Professor Heinz Schilling argued that modern Western political democracy is actually the product of Christian history, although many people today struggle with this thesis.[17]


Despite of the theoretical separation of church and state, for example, in the case of the German evangelical (and the Catholic) church, the very dense bite of the state and the church is a burden on the church. “The evangelical church is too rational,” Siluan says, describing what he has experienced in his past. I agree that the problem of the Evangelical Church is its ecclesiology. As Siluan continues, “If people do not associate themselves with their church, then something is wrong with the ecclesiology of this church. And there’s also too little substance in it!”, a statement I agree with. Religion – this is the unity and community that must be experienced.


I now ask this question, which has arisen inevitably – is there any hope for Protestants at all? There are some ways, Siluan explains. All Churches which use the high liturgy are in a better way. (In the Orthodox Church, Liturgy is theology.[18]) Liturgy is beautiful and singing is a form of prayer, but the church can also be authentic without a high ecclesiastical liturgy – as the Hungarian Reformed Church proves, as it is quite pious, he says.


 Siluan: “In Protestantism, the treasure is absolutely there, but it is more in the old stuff.[19] Anything that goes with the spirit of time (Zeitgeist) will be destroyed,” is his clear position.[20] “Tradition is an anchor in difficult times.”  His last sentence contains the essence.


The Evangelical Church must find a suitable middle ground between tradition and the spirit of time. As a church musician, I have many options — more than those who only talk. These opportunities need to be used more boldly. Music can offer something beautiful, so that people can come back to the church.


Kristel Neitsov-Mauer,

Lutheran theologian and church musician


[1] Sobornost Definitions: (288) Andrew Louth – Sobornost’ in the Orthodox theology of the 20th century: an overview of trends – YouTube

[2] Religions in Frankfurt am Main – Jewiki (Visited 05.06.2022)

[3] About Orthodox Churches’ political distribution, see Alexander Kyrlezev and Andrey Shiskov. “The Eastern Orthodox Church before and after the Council of Crete 2016.” In: Vasilios N. Makrides & Sebastian Rimestad (eds) The Pan-Orthodox Council of 2016 – A New Era for the Orthodox Church? Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Peter Lang, 2021), pp. 107–123.

[4] See footnote 2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] (288) German and yet Orthodox? – YouTube.

[7] Oral information from Siluan on 03.06.2022.

[8] He was also interviewed here:  (288) German and yet Orthodox? – YouTube (Minutes 11:43 until 19:15)

[9] About Hesyasm and Light look here: Saint Gregory Palamas and the Essence/Energies Distinction » Saint John the Evangelist Orthodox Church (saintjohnchurch.org)/ St. Gregory Palamas and the Byzantine Hesychasmus – Russian Orthodox Church Dresden (orthodox-dresden.de), Visited 05.06.2022 at 18:47.

[10] Metropolit Hilarion (Alfeyev), Geheimnis des Glaubens. Münster, 2019. Here the whole Chapter 10 is dedicated to “Theosis” (pp. 216-231).

[11] This was mentioned during the seminar on 12.04.2022: (288) Tamara Grdzelidze – Orthodox Churches and the challenges of modernity – YouTube

[12] (288) Aristotle Papanikolaou – Conciliarity and the Social Ethos of the Eastern Orthodox Church – YouTube

[13] Look John 18:36, where Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

[14] Aristotle Papanikolaou The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy (Notre Dame Press, 2012).

[15] The Mystical, p.2.

[16] The Mystical, p.6.

[17] Lecture at 28.06.2022 in Mainz. Read more: Das Christentum und die Entstehung des modernen Europa, Herder, 2022.

[18] “Die Theologie muss sich vorrangig immer am Gottesdienst ausrichten und nicht etwa den Gottesdienst von irgendwelchen theologischen Prämissen her korrigieren wollen.” Metropolit Hilarion (Alfeyev), Geheimnis des Glaubens. Münster, 2019, p.4.

[19] Like Lutheran Orthodoxy=Age of Confessionalism, 17th century in Middle-Europe. (KNM.)

[20] He is very close to Søren Kierkegaard: „Wer sich mit dem Zeitgeist vermählt, wird bald Witwer sein“.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *