St. Botolph's Orthodox Church

St. Botolph's Newsletter, March 2023 (GREAT LENT)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:


'... of the fittest' is a doctrine in evolutionary biology and sociology asserting that organisms are most likely to survive and reproduce in the degree that they adapt successfully to the immediate environment. Borrowed from philosopher Herbert Spencer's Principles of Biology, published in 1864, the term appears in the 5th edition of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1869). This doctrine appealed to both biologists and sociologists from the start.

Having studied Thomas Malthus (1766-1824), Darwin was aware that the 'survival of the fittest' is relative, not absolute. Factors including diet and climate make an organism the 'winner' one day, the loser the next. Dating fossils would suggest that gigantic reptiles cannot survive cooler temperatures as well as much smaller, weaker mammals. Whether or not an organism survives is also impossible to predict. We survive retrospectively. Social Darwinists who have predicted, planned, and executed policies designed to ensure a 'superior' cultural stock quite evidently fail to grasp how the fittest survive. Darwin's own cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911), founded the London Institute for Eugenics at the height of British imperial power on the premise that British and other northern Europeans were 'destined' to rule the races of Asia and Africa. US President Calvin Coolidge supported the Immigration Act of 1924 in order to curtail the influx of 'inferiors' from Southern and Eastern Europe and beyond. Based on the same doctrine, Hitler's thousand year Third Reich (1933-1945) lasted a total of twelve years. By 1947, the free Republic of India signalled the gradual decline of the British empire. Ceding Hong Kong to China in 1997 brought it to an end. The 1924 US Immigration Act could not foresee Frank Sinatra and chop suey, later staples of American life. It seems more scientific to speak of survival of the 'fitter' than the fittest. Whether an organism or a community flourishes at this moment is irrelevant. How it flourishes in the final analysis is all that matters.

Our community enters its third month in exile. We still gather, Sunday by Sunday, in the private home of a parishioner in a fairly remote suburb of North London. We live-stream a brief Orthros and the Divine Liturgy to a growing audience on YouTube, including members of a congregation whom I have not seen since January. Social Darwinists could gloat: 'See what happens when they use only English in the Divine Liturgy! See what befalls a congregation with no ethnic label, no Greek, Romanian, or Lebanese benefactors. Behold what befalls a lunatic priest who nurses a cult of 20-somethings and preaches against those rich who could bail him out!' Orthodoxy, say the Social Darwinists, is cultural. Why not 'adapt' yourselves, meekly and unobtrusively, to that cultural environment? Those who exalt faith above culture are evolution's losers, whom history leaves behind. In time, they shall go extinct.

Changes in diet and climate, however, suggest a different outcome. At the start of a third month in exile, we have survived.

An average of 22 Orthodox, catechumens, and enquirers has journeyed weekly from all parts of London to our 'catacomb'. This represents 63% of our weekly congregation when we met on Bishopsgate Street or Westbourne Road, Nearly all our catechumens have attended weekly, not in order to receive the Precious Gifts but because they find a home among us. Weaned off a diet of glitz, they feed on the Gospel preached in all its raw, uncompromising power and on real questions asked, answered, never swept under the rug. An intimate climate of trust, the bond of a real family manifested in a bring-and-share Lenten meal as abundant as a Paschal feast, fills lungs that otherwise would choke on hypocrisy. The idly curious and the mere church tourists fall away. The true faithful remain. Whether our exile persists over six months or six years, one variable promises our survival: the calibre of our people. Today's apparent losers shall prove to be tomorrow's winners.

We have no gleaming iconostasis, rather the Saviour depicted on the icon. We have no golden cupola, rather the gold that no thief shall ever take away.

We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.

(II Corinthians 4.8-10).

As long as we survive, stay tuned.


Our Board of Trustees keeps me updated on the search for a new temple towards the end of every month. Meanwhile, if anyone wishes to attend our Catacomb Liturgy, he should email me in order to ensure that there is room. Only Orthodox and catechumens need apply.

TRUE WORSHIP: the Triumph of Orthodoxy

What does 'Orthodoxy' mean? Some use it for the Orthodox Church per se, as though the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church were a denomination ('I'm interested in Orthodoxy' sounds like a hobby). An academic with an ecumenical bias once called it 'correct Chistian belief or teaching'. Incidentally, the Greek for belief is pístis, while teaching is didaskalía. If Orthodoxy is neither belief nor teaching, what must Orthodoxía mean? Doxázo, from dóxa, means I glorify. To glorify is to worship. Orthodoxy means right worship.

Between 726 and 787, again between 814 and 842, a series of East Roman emperors outlawed the use of holy icons in churches and private homes. In 843, the Empress Theodora, the regent for her underage son, Michael III, officially restored the veneration of holy icons. She championed the decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787, based on the teachings of Saint John of Damascus (ca. 675/6-749). Commanding that the faithful carry holy icons from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia, she designated the first Sunday of Great Lent hē Kyriakē tēs Orthodoxías, the Sunday of true worship. It is the only feast in the year that bears the name Orthodoxy. Brazenly 'triumphalist' - rejoicing, that is, in the triumph of Christ Incarnate - it is the one day on which we cast out of the Church all those who call the holy icons idols and thereby, in deed if not word, reject the doctrine on which Christianity stands or falls.

A holy icon is the touchstone of our Orthodox faith. Whoever shows it respect by crossing him- or herself, bowing, and kissing it is Orthodox in faith. Whoever dares to refuse is a heretic. Our faith is not opinion. Our faith is not morals. Our faith is our worship.

Please bring a holy icon and carry it in the procession on the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Sunday 5 March.

Due to our hosts' travel plans, please arrive by 9:30 am instead of 10:30 and be ready to leave by 3:00 pm. The Divine Liturgy begins one hour early at 10:00 am

ENERGIES: St. Gregory Palamas

Few priests that I know ever preach on the second part of the Triumph of Orthodoxy: the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). They assume that the laity are too 'simple' to grasp the doctrine of essence versus energies. Instead, they infantilise them. I do not.

Stated simply, we cannot know WHAT God is: his essence. We are creatures. God is God. We should have to be God in order to define God. We can, however, know WHO God is by his energies or energy. God reaches out, goes out from himself, embracing us. If I embrace you, you cannot necessarily know what sort of being I am. More likely, you shall know who I am. I am one who embraces you. My energies embrace you.

Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, argues against the scholar Barlaam of Calabria (ca. 1290-1348) that God is not an idea, a remote, abstract First Principle or Ground of Being. If he were, he would not be the living God. Instead, God is the essence that goes out from itself in energies. Actually named Bernardo Massari, Barlaam ends up a cardinal of the Latin Church. In the scholastic movement that stems partly from his ideas, the energies are forgotten. Thomists and other scholastics go so far as to imagine an ideology called Palamism. We know it as the Biblical faith in the living God.

By refusing to 'adapt' themselves to the quasi-Islamic, proto-Protestant environment of the icon-smashers, the defenders of Orthodoxy lost only to win in the end. By refusing to 'adapt' the faith to Barlaam's prejudices, the defenders of the living God lost in the West only to win in the East. Survival of the fittest is funny.

BOW DOWN: the Veneration of the Cross

The Cross is no bauble around some teenager's neck. The Cross is no rack on which the cosmic abuser whom some call god extracts the last bead of agony from his only Son in order to satisfy his injured ego. The Cross is the key by which an Undying God unlocks the gates of death. His plan? To burn death out from the inside. When we take up our Cross and follow Christ (Matthew 10.38), we pass from death into Life.

If you have been fasting at all - fasting, not dieting - a flood of worries, fears, or painful thoughts usually engulfs you by the third week of Great Lent. Unless you face them now, you shall do so after this life. On the third Sunday, we literally bow down at the foot of the Cross and lift up ours freely and willingly. This is not the Exaltation of the Cross in mid-September. It is not the Cross of Christ that we take up. It is our own.

The measure of our fasting is not sunken cheeks, pallid nail beds, or shaking knees. These are measures of death. It is how deeply we dare to look inside.


There is a tale about a pagan walking down a rural road. Crooning some ancient folk lament, he sings: 'Alas, my youth, my golden youth, gone forever. My grey hairs and fading eyes shall not see thee again!' Passing him on the road, a Christian asks: 'Do you want your youth again?' 'Is it possible?' asks the old man. 'There is a fountain', explains the Christian, 'in which old age will die and youth is reborn. It was made possible by a young girl saying "Yes" to an angel of God. If you would be young again, enter that fountain and live'.

Baptism is the death of an old self and the birth of a new. When the blend of olive oil and myrrh that we call chrism anoints the forehead, eyes, ears, lips, breast, hands, and feet of a new-made soul, the gift of the Holy Spirit fashions him afresh. The past is no more. Only the future is alive. Without the 'yes' from a Galilean girl of twelve or thirteen, this could not be. At the very dawn of womanhood, she conceives her own Creator in her womb.

The Annunciation to Our Lady nearly always falls in Lent. When our souls (and often bodies) feel weary from the inward journey, her fresh face reminds us: we fast in order to set ourselves free. Betrothed to a much older carpenter named Yosef of Naṣraṭ (Nazareth) in order to care for the widower's children, Mariam has never yet 'known' a man. A face appears to her in a flash of light and salutes the 'favoured' one. It informs her that the Holy Spirit shall overshadow her. She shall bear a Son to the Most High. What girl of twelve would not laugh or tremble? Having grown up in the Temple, Our Lady is not yet jaded. The sense of wonder that older folks usually lose has never left her. Instead, she answers the angel: 'Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word' (Luke 1.38). From that instant, the Logos of God the Father by whom he created the universe is conceived in her womb.

This year, the Annunciation 'eclipses' the Feast of Saint John of The Ladder, a monastic manual from around 600 AD. What loftier ladder, what more trustworthy rungs can there be but a 'Yes' from a Virgin of twelve whose absolute faith gave God his human identity? What ascetic works could equal the gleam of hope in her eye? On this day, we receive into the Body of the Church a catechumen who has both suffered and hoped much. When our Laverne becomes Elizabeth, Our Lady's cousin and mother of John the Forerunner, a promise of hope shall be fulfilled.

Come rejoice in Our Lady's hope and welcome the catechumen Laverne into the Body of Christ on the ANNUNCIATION, Sunday 26 March

DYING, AND YET WE LIVE (II Corinthians 6.9)

The events of late 2022 and early 2023 have taken a toll on my health. As anyone who watches our live-streaming Divine Liturgies can see, I struggle to read my text and stumble over familiar words. I cannot recognise faces in dim light. My right hand shakes when I hold the chalice in the Great Entrance. Moist, windy weather sucks the breath out of my lungs and inflames my bones. When I began this newsletter, a bout of sinu-bronchitis left me frail from the start. Only now am I beginning to recover.

Why do I struggle on? Why not lower my standards, go through the motions like a robot, giving only a portion of my strength? For the sake of the little flock that God entrusts to my care, I do not pray for 20-20 vision or a 20-something's nerves. I pray for integrity.

No compromise! No surrender! Never, never, never!

Yours faithfully in Christ,
Fr. Alexander.

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