Major Challenges for Christianity in Europe

Address by Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Vienna and Austria, Representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions to the 12th Assembly of the Conference of European Churches, 30 June 2003, Trondheim, Norway.

Christianity in Europe is challenged both from without and from within.

The main challenge from without is, in my view, that of secularism. In European secular society Christian values are being more and more marginalized, God is being driven to the outskirts of human existence (the fact that God did not find place in the recently adopted European Constitutional Treaty is indicative of this tendency). It is now almost taken for granted that religion can exist only at a private level: you are free to believe in God or not, but this should in no way be manifested in your social life. Churches and religious communities are tolerated as long as they do not trespass their own borders and do not publicly express opinions that differ from those consonant with ‘political correctness’: should they begin to express such opinions, they are readily accused of intolerance. Secular press is largely negative towards Christianity. The youth culture is predominantly anti-religious and anti-Christian. Moral standards accepted by modern society are markedly different from those that were until recently accepted by most Christian communities.

The main challenge from within Christianity is the liberalization of doctrine and morality which is occurring in many churches of the Reformation under the influence of processes taking place in secular society. This liberalization is constantly criticized by the Orthodox Churches, but their voice is not properly heard, and the gap between them and their ecumenical partners of the Reformist background is only widening.

There is now a deep-seated discrepancy between those Christian communities, like the Orthodox Churches, that try to preserve the Holy Tradition deriving from the Ancient Undivided Church and those, like many Protestant communities, that have revised and continue to revise Tradition in conformity with secular standards. This divergence is as evident at the level of church teaching, including doctrine and ecclesiology, as at the level of church practice, including worship and morality.

In my opinion, recent liberalization of teaching and practice in many Protestant churches has alienated them from the Orthodox much more than all prior Protestant history.

It has also undermined the common Christian witness to the secularized world. Here in Europe Christian voice is not united: we preach different moral standards, our doctrinal standpoints are dissimilar, and our social positions vary a great deal. One wonders whether we can still speak of ‘Christianity’ or whether it would be more accurate to refer to ‘Christianities’, that it, markedly diverse versions of the Christian faith.

Liberal tendencies, I contend, make Christianity ever more vulnerable in the face of militant secularism, which steals from us millions of people, notably youth. Many Christian communities, especially in Western Europe, experience a catastrophic shortage of vocations. But what is the reason for this? One of the reasons is precisely that doctrinal and moral liberalism which not only undermines credibility of Christian communities in the eyes of the secular world but also makes Christianity uninteresting and irrelevant, since it does not challenge secular society and does not have anything significantly different to offer to young people educated by secular culture.

I believe it is around these questions that our deliberations should be centred in the years to come.