Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Intimations of Multiculturalism

Some of my Facebook friends (or relatives to be more accurate) have been discussing British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent comments on the failure of "State multiculturalism".  Both Cameron's views, and those of my friends and family, are fascinating and enlightening.  Cameron particularly has some good ideas about building local cross-cultural relationships and promoting the ideals of democracy and free speech but for some reason seems to think this is different from multiculturalism.  Nor has he grappled with the implications of "liberal values".  It's easy to be liberal when everyone agrees, the challenge comes when someone spouts an idea you find offensive - how strong will your liberal values be then?  As an evaluator of social programs I also want to ask how the failure was judged.  What are the objectives of multiculturalism, and what evidence is there of its success or failure to acheive these objectives?  So often we use such terms loosely and instead of drivers for policy they are reduced to mere rhetorical flourishes.

As usual, amidst all this I had a tangential thought.  My teenage years coincided with the first flowering of multiculturalism in Australia, led by the Whitlam government and its flamboyant immigration minister, Al Grassby.  For the first time in Australia our multi-ethnic history was celebrated as opposed to being swept under the carpet.

Many of my best friends at high school were of Eastern European origin - their parents were refugees from the Communist regimes in the USSR, Yugoslavia and Poland.  One of them in particular was a devout Russian Orthodox believer, and since I was a devout Protestant we had some very interesting discussions about faith and religious tradition.  I remember going to his First Communion and standing through a long Orthodox service (it's considered disrespectful to God to sit in an orthodox service) conducted entirely in a language I didn't understand.

Afterwards he told me that he didn't understand a lot of what was said either.  This was because Russian Orthodox services were not conducted in Russian, they were conducted in "Church Slavonic", an ancient form of the Russian language.  It would be similar to conducting Anglican services in Middle English.

In the process, he made me aware of a debate that was going on in the Orthodox churches in Australia.  While the Catholic Church prior to Vatican 2 privileged Latin as a sacred language and used it for all services around the world, the Orthodox tradition, at least in theory, was to use the local language of its believers in the same way Protestants do.  Greek Orthodox services are conducted in Greek, Coptic services in Coptic, and so on.  Of course liturgy becomes fixed and its language outdated, and churches are slow to change such things - hence Church Slavonic.  Protestants have the same issue - at the time I'm talking about, Anglican services still used the 1666 prayer book.  But the principle is that services should be comprehensible to the congregation.

The issue around this in Australia was and is that most Orthodox believers are immigrants or children of immigrants.  When they came to Australia they brought their faiths with them.  The Greek communities established Greek Orthodox churches and held Greek services.  The Russians established Russian Orthodox churches and held services in Church Slavonic.  The Serbians established Serbian Orthodox churches.  And so on.  These churches were not merely places of worship, they were cornerstones of their various ethnic communities - meeting places, rallying points, bases for community service.  Their members would struggle through their working week with their heavily accented English, but on Sundays they could relax and worship in their own language with people from their home country.

This is fine for the first generation of migrants, but posed some challenges for my second generation friends.  My friend was fluent in Russian but equally at home in English.  Others at school were much more comfortable in English.  What did this mean for the Orthodox church?  My friend's view was that over time, the original ethnic divisions in the church should be dissolved and they should develop into an Australian Orthodox church, with services held in English.  Orthodoxy is not an ethnic faith, he said, it is just as universal as Catholicism or Protestantism, but it can only fourish in Australia by moving beyond its ethnic roots.

His position was clearly a minority one.  There is still no Australian Orthodox Church, although I note that the Russian Orthodox Church in Brisbane now presents a lot of information in English and some churches adverstise English services.  Most second and third generation migrants I know don't attend church, except for big community occasions where they go to please their parents or grandparents.  Some have converted to Protestant faiths and go to English services. 

In the light of David Cameron's comments, I'm not sure if I should be sad about this, or happy.  The ethnic churches were crucial in helping new migrants feel at home.  They made, and continue to make, terrific contributions to the community.  Nothing bad has happened as a result of their retaining their ethnic identities and worshipping in the language of their countries of origin.

Yet the Orthodox faith could have been a great gift to the wider Australian community.  Its rich tradition and heritage can enrich our spiritual experience, link us to the wider world of Eastern Christianity and expose us to alternative ways of understanding the Bible and church history.  Instead, the churches remain ethnic curiosities.  English-speaking Australians, even those with Eastern European heritage, can only ever be tourists in these churches.  Much as we admire their tradition and their beauty, they remain incomprehensible to us.  What would have happened if my friend's view had won the day?

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