My recent trip to Greece was really an eye opener. For one, the presence of an orthodox church in Singapore is so small that not much is known about them amongst Singaporeans. Being able to visit orthodox churches and on one occasion even witness the rite of infant baptism was a wonderful exposure. I also managed to spend a few days visiting the monasteries in Meteora where monks and nuns still live in today.
What the orthodox church is to Greece is perhaps closest to what the roman catholic church is to Italy. The history behind some of the orthodox churches is so rich that churches themselves become a world heritage site. Some of the churches charge a small fee (2-3 euros) per entrance in order to upkeep the building. While this amount is not considered too much (think of the entrance to the vatican that can cause more than 5 times as much), it can cumulatively add up to quite a figure seeing churches can attract hundreds of thousands of visitors in a year due to it being a tourist destination. In this regard, the orthodox church in Greece isn’t poor. But therein lies the problem and perhaps something to reflect on.
The Greek economy isn’t great. Ok, maybe that’s an understatement. They’re in a huge pile of debt. The result is an increase in taxes on the people in order to help pay off the debt. During my trip I spoke to some of the locals and they told me that things weren’t going too good for them. They felt that everyone was feeling the impact of the debt…except for the church. Why? Because unlike the rest of the greeks, the church gets most of its income from tourists. While the greeks that I spoke to were trying not to paint too bad an image of the church, I couldn’t help but sense some unhappiness. Out of curiosity, I decided to ask our guide who was showing us around the monasteries what he thought of the church. It was then that he admitted to feeling some sense of distance. He mentioned that while he still had some level of trust that the church was giving to charity, he concluded by saying “no one truly knows”. Halfway into our conversation, he commented “if you look at all the icons in the church, you’ll never see anyone painted as fat. They’re all skinny. But today, you’ll see fat priests and monks.” Another guide I spoke to told me to visit a newly built museum by a monastery to see if it was worth 500 thousand euros, the price spent building it. In general, based on my conversation, the perception was that the people could not identify with the church. While the standard of living amongst the people had decreased, the life of the priests and monks improved. Citizens downscaled to smaller houses, churches upscaled to bigger and nicer buildings.
I guess to be move objective, one could say that the perception of the small handful of people spoken to should not be seen as representative of the overall sentiments concerning the church. There is perhaps an element of truth in that. However, regardless of the accuracy of perception, a question comes to mind, to what extent should the church suffer with people whether they are members of the church or not? Is it even the church’s responsibility to suffer with society? Churches in Singapore may not find themselves being urgently confronted with these questions but I do wonder whether it is a question we can afford to put on hold. While listening to the different guides express their subtle distrust with the church, a quote from Bonhoeffer though somewhat radical came to mind:
“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others”