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Vol. 2 No. 5 - Feast of St. Nicholas 2007

The Mother of Relativism:
Elizabeth I and the Shaping of the Canadian Mind

The devil said unto Him, "All these things will I give Thee if Thou wilt fall down and worship me." - Matthew 4:9

It may seem a stretch to suggest that the monarch of a distant land five centuries ago could impact the daily thinking of modern Canadians. For those who know the life and faith of Elizabeth I and the spiritual revolution she brought on England, the connection begins to become clear, however a connection that reaches into modern debates over Canadian law, morality, and the very question of Truth.

It is popular to think of Henry VIII as the father of the Reformation in England. Perhaps his popularity has something to do with the steamy story of his many wives and their untimely and violent deaths by execution: his story simply makes good historical theatre. But for those who really want to gain an insight into the spiritual mind of Canada as a nation, one must look to Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I.

Born to a commoner mother made queen by her father after what is perhaps the most famous divorce in modern history, Elizabeth faced exile, imprisonment, and finally royal enthronement in some of the most turbulent first years of conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics in England. For her part, Elizabeth was her father's daughter: a Protestant who hated the papacy and its political allies, who defended with her every resource the autonomy of her nation against Catholic interference. Yet Elizabeth was something of a spiritual conundrum, a strange sort of Protestant who said the rosary daily, and issued a royal decree that all English churches have candles, kneelers, and a crucifix - some stunningly Catholic trapping for a Protestant queen. At the same time, Elizabeth was a vigorous iconoclast, who ordered the destruction or painting over of every religious statue or icon in her realm, a move which pleased greatly her Protestant allies.

The reign of Elizabeth is often summed up in her famous declaration that she would not inquire into the hearts and minds of men regarding private faith: her singular goal as queen was to ensure the loyalty of all her subjects to her; religion and personal "truth" she considered an entirely private matter.

This is where Elizabeth proved an innovator, and the first major sovereign to adopt not simply a policy of religious tolerance, but religious relativism as her state standard. Alone or with help, she created new sphere of public activity: the secular public square, in which claims of faith and truth have no role, other than to serve as means of division in a nation which might otherwise enjoy harmony. The rule was simple: believe what you like, but be loyal to the crown, and make no public claims to having the fullness of Truth.

It is this mind, given birth by Elizabeth, that was exported to England's colonies, most notably Canada, which experienced the same Protestant-Catholic divide, and which over time, adopted the same religious relativism as its de facto state policy. The same relativism offers us in Canada today whatever we may ask - bigger houses, cars, shopping malls, and a thriving economy - as long as we are willing to silence religious voices, and keep such views out of public debates and the halls of our legislatures.

Most Canadians have willingly obliged to sign on to this now All-Canadian program, which Elizabeth envisioned. From debates over marriage to abortion to religious schools, a significant Canadian voice continues to call for silence from religious voices and church leaders, unless such voices echo what secular politicians are already saying. It is publically acceptable for a religious leader to argue for or against work for welfare, as long as one does not believe God told you to do so.

Relativism is at the heart of the official policy of multiculturalism, and the religious roundtables offered up in its name. All groups are invited to have "a voice", but only if they are willing to give up claims to the Truth, and if they are willing to acknowledge the legitimate "voice" of others. This is the basis for the modern ecumenical movement, as well as the Protestant missionary mind(*).

One major problem is the fact that most Orthodox Christians in Canada have become the spiritual children of Elizabeth I, and have bought into relativism, and (as Richard Neuhaus calls it) the "naked public square", devoid of anything in the way of Divine Revelation or guidance, or even debate. We can no longer assume (as if we ever could) that politicians, social elites, and religious leaders who claim to represent the Orthodox voice are not actually articulating the relativism of Elizabethan England, with all the falsehood and emptiness it brings.

Canada has elaborated on the relativism of Elizabeth I, with the addition of our particular brand of multiculturalism. For Orthodox communities, this has fostered the heresy of phyletism the teaching that the Orthodox faith is uniquely and most perfectly articulated through one culture and by one people. While this heresy (which was condemned by a council of the Church in Russia) was perhaps more virulent in past decades, it is still alive and well in scores of parishes, and simmers within the heart of too many parish members, both those born into the Church and those who joined Her in adulthood and who are now tempted to try to "fix" Her.

Ironically, the bigotry of phyletism and the relativism of Elizabeth I work in symphony, as opposite sides of the same coin, allowing Canadians to maintain their private bigotries and self-congratulations, while remaining publically friendly and diplomatic. Phyletism allows one to speak falsely of Orthodoxy as the "religion of Greeks and Russians" and of Anglicanism, Buddhism, and Islam as the religions of Englishmen, Chinese, and Arabs, respectively. Relativism - the sister of phyletism - allows these groups to "work together" on religious questions where serious spiritual differences exist, setting aside the question of Truth in the spirit of Canadian agreeableness.

In the midst of such an environment, Orthodox Christians are also beset with the temptation to become walled off from public debate, and to become angry critics of those who have fallen into such errors. Yet we have the ideal and only Model of the path of true Orthodox witness, in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who, in response to the offers of the evil one in the wilderness retorted, "It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord Thy God... Alone".

Whenever Elizabethan-inspired relativism presents itself in the spiritual wilderness of Canadian life, let us pray that we, too, will be granted the spiritual sight to reject the false gods of relativism and phyletism, that we may gain the Kingdom of the Eternal Monarch, with Whom there is no variance or turning.

(*) See the book The Missionary Roots of Modern Ecumenism by Father Peter Alban Heers.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Feast of St. Nicholas, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.