Orthodox Education

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How Orthodoxy Educates Its People


Orthodox Christians are the True Believing Christians who have continued in the ways of Christ since the first Christian century, in the way Christ passed it on to His apostles and disciples, and their subsequent true followers.

In the first five Christian centuries there developed five great centres in the Mediterranean world. These were, in order of development, Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople. The first ranking bishop in each centre was called Patriarch. Each of the five patriarchal churches was independent from the other, yet subject to the decisions of the ecumenical councils of the whole Church if the decisions were accepted by the whole Church.

Around 1000 AD, the Patriarchate of Rome began to differ markedly from the other four patriarchates and over a period of time the differences became more pronounced. This led over time to a great split within the Mediterranean Church. The patriarchate of Rome went its own way separate from the combined way of the remaining four patriarchates.

The Patriarchate of Rome adopted the name Catholic, which is now the common name for this Church in western Europe and in western European influenced nations. The other four patriarchates called themselves the True Church, or Orthodox (the Greek word for true believers, true practitioners). This is the common name for these four Churches throughout the world, and for their loyal offshoots.


Usually, in the western world, educational theorists say education is larger than just schooling, and continues, or should continue, after schooling finishes. They point to the Latin origin of the word education, educare, to draw out, to lead out. They say the purpose of education is to lead a person to self-actualise themselves and reach their own potential by gently guiding them onto the path of self-education. But in reality, most people do not distinguish between education and schooling.

For most people in the western world, schools are the place to go to get educated, and then afterwards perhaps tech, or college, or university. This includes education for service in the Church as ministers, priests, monks, nuns, lay leaders, and lay assistants.

This method of education is derived from the great centres of learning in western Europe, both the monastic centres, and their offshoots, the universities. All were profoundly influenced by the thinking and practice of the Dominicans and their greatest educational theorist and educator, Thomas Aquinas. The method which developed out of his teachings is known as the Scholastic method.

The Scholastic method is still the underlying philosophical base for almost all education in Western Europe and satellite nations.

In the Christian East, education has not been highly influenced by the scholastic method, although Russia has been a most notable exception.

Eastern Christian Education

In Russia the Jesuit method was introduced into all church seminaries by tsarist fiat, and continued until the virtual dissolution of the Orthodox Church in Russia under the atheistic soviets. A few seminaries were permitted to continue under very closely supervised and reduced circumstances. These continued to follow the rigorous militaristic seventeenth century Jesuit method. Students lived in barracks with no heating. In winter, most of Russia has snow with temperatures regularly dropping to minus 40 degrees centigrade and to minus 60 in parts of Siberia. Educational discipline was spartan, health breaking, and capricious.

When Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria wrote his influential outline for the reform of Russian seminaries in 1999 Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, ''Orthodox Witness Today'', WCC Publications, Geneva, 2006, the 17th century Jesuit method was still the norm in Russia.

At the same time, the other great Orthodox world centres were all suffering the after effects of atheistic communism’s depredations, purges, closures, destructions, and slaughters; or similar actions under the Ottoman Turks, the Seljuk Turks, the Islamic Marmalukes, the Islamic Fatimids, the French Catholics in Lebanon and Syria; and later the Islamic Arab states.

For instance, it is still illegal for any Christian in Syria to attempt to convert any Moslem to Christianity. Consequently, the Orthodox Church of Antioch has no missionary programs in Syria whatsoever. They are illegal under Syrian law. Similarly it can only educate those who are still of the Orthodox faith who are willing to risk being seen educated in a non-Islamic faith.

Education in the Arabic countries for the Orthodox clergy and laity is still a rather hidden affair, like it had to be under the communist regimes of eastern Europe.

None of the Orthodox Churches with perhaps the exception of the Church of Jerusalem, and some of the Orthodox churches in the United States, is financially well-off. Consequently they cannot endow centres of learning or fund modern style catechetical programs for the lay. Some of the great centres of learning in Greece, such as Thessalonika and Athens, continue to train fine theologians. Romania also trains a large number of doctoral students in theology, who have proven most profound in their thinking and influence over the last 20 years or so.

But the independent Orthodox Churches of Finland, Poland, the Czech lands and Slovakia, Belarus, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Constantinople itself in Turkey, Cyprus, Antioch in Lebanon and Syria and the Arab Peninsular and Kuwait and Iran and Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, and Alexandria in Africa, plus the almost extinct Orthodox Church of China, all suffer the continuing after-effects of massive confiscations, theft, and hostile government domination. In all these places, education is in the family home, during liturgical services, or in small gatherings at friends’ places. In these places, formal education is largely not apparent.

The current world scene for Orthodox education therefore is largely non-formal, and almost tribal, in much the same way as a lot of remote barrios in the Philippines pass on their tribal history and traditions.

For this reason, most commentators see the Liturgy in church as the pre-eminent means of educating people outside the family circles. The church buildings themselves are lessons in Christianity and usually have large numbers of artistic paintings (icons) expressing primary Christian lessons in pictures.

Western Orthodox Education

In the twentieth century, Paris became a great centre of Orthodox learning (Institute of St Sergius) following the flight there of the Orthodox intellectuals from Bolshevik persecution in Russia, and the subsequent pogroms there of Stalin and his ilk.

A large number of them migrated to the United States of America about the 1950s and 1960s and substantially altered the nature and character of Orthodox education in USA. St Vladimir’s Seminary near New York City became the shining beacon, followed closely by the Greek Orthodox College in Brookline, Massachusetts, and St Tikhon’s Seminary, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’s Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York [1].

These centres, registered as tertiary education centres under US laws, comply with state law and follow western educational methods, with decreasing reliance on the methods of their countries of origin.

Western methods of teaching the laity were also adopted over time and proved very successful in giving the faithful an intellectual understanding of the tenets of their faith. Unfortunately, the secular, scientific, agnostic, basis of western teaching also undermined the faith and values systems the Churches were less successfully trying to convey to their faithful. The result is to be seen in current times with declining membership of all Orthodox Churches in the United States, with the exception of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (www.antiochian.org).

World Orthodox Education

A very interesting development in the last two or three decades has been the flourishing of church websites giving much more accessible accounts of themselves, their origins, their teachings, their news, their aspirations, and their methods.

This style of delivery no longer follows the Scholastic method of education, but peculiarly is more aligned to the Socratic method which Saint Thomas Aquinas himself found so attractive. It allows for self directed, self paced learning, at the interest and timing which best suits the end user. It also allows for interactive contributions, such as can be found on the main orthodox online encyclopaedia, OrthodoxWiki (www.orthodoxwiki.org).

Some more traditional centres of Orthodox learning are also implementing distance education programs in conjunction with their usual in situ programs. The distance learning programs do not seem to have had the success their promoters envisaged when they first appeared 20 or so years ago. One suggestion why this happened is because they were still too closely aligned with the usual physical centres of learning with all their commitment to maintaining the seminary or university buildings, prime physical amenities, and staff housing. Distance learning does not require lecturers to have the best of housing in the leafiest most remote parts of the institutions campus. So distance learning became a threat to institutional learning unless held under strict and rigid conditions.

Future Orthodox Education

Non-residential web-based learning is still an excellent option for the future for teaching Orthodox Christianity, as it is for all types of academic subjects.

But whether Christianity is best taught as an academic subject, or as a technical subject like blacksmithing which requires hands on experience and guidance, or some mix of the two, is the vital question for the future direction Orthodox education is to take to be successful.

In any event, it seems abundantly clear that it is primarily essential for Christian values to be inculcated from the earliest age in the family home, and to continue to be nurtured and cultivated throughout life.

It is essential for all the clergy, leaders, and faithful to always see value in Christianity throughout their lives, and in the lives of their children and grandchildren, for true Christianity to survive and fulfil its role in the divine order.