If there was ever a quote describing the often bewildering problems Christianity is experiencing in the West, this profound statement from Donald T. Williams in Touchstone Magazine (Highly Recommended) accomplishes much more than I ever could:
If there was ever a quote describing the often bewildering problems Christianity is experiencing in the West, this profound statement from Donald T. Williams in Touchstone Magazine (Highly Recommended) accomplishes much more than I ever could:
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I will be honest from the outset, I admire Benedict XVI (or Herr Ratzinger if you prefer) greatly. This may surprise some of my evangelical/fundamentalist brethren, but let me encourage you to cast aside the polemical blinders for a second, and take a look at one of the great theologians and Christian leaders in modern times. A Christocentric, Scripturally adept, and thoughtful theologian who is also an accomplished Mozart pianist and one who understand the worldview shifts going on in the West better than most. Anyone who publicly warns against the “tyranny of moral relativism” gets my attention. This is who Benedict XVI is, and as such, he represents the best of the Roman tradition, and is to be applauded. His trilogy on the life of Christ called “Jesus of Nazareth” should be read by all Christians, and in the words of one confessional Lutheran, the work is a victory for “Mere Christianity.” His defense of what has always been taught about life, marriage, and other moral issues are often stronger and more persuasive than some of the “playing nice” stuff that comes out of American evangelicalism in particular.
Now as one who is not in communion with the Bishop of Rome (Pope) over several areas of theological disagreement (with the Roman church in general), but who is tradition-minded, creedal, conciliar, and sacramental Western Christian, I am choosing to focus on the “Mere Christian” perspective, and wish more would do the same as the West becomes increasingly secularized. A fundamental Baptist, confessional Lutheran, continuing Anglican, and traditional Roman Catholic have far more in common than they do apart, especially in a culture of increasing secularism and hostility to the Christian worldview. Benedict was (and still is) an ally in this regard. We can only hope and pray his successor shares the same willingness to challenge the secularizing of the West.
But rather than continue praise his merits as a leader, scholar, and yes, fellow Christian, I thought I would demonstrate what Christians in other traditions have written about him, to show that I am not alone in this thinking, but rather a little late to the party! First, consider this article by Baptist theologian Timothy George at Beeson Divinity School:
To quote George:
“Soon after Benedict emerged as the surprise choice of the most recent papal conclave in 2005, I wrote an essay on why Evangelical Protestants, among orthodox believers of all persuasions, should be pleased at his election. I summarized the promise of his new pontificate in five points. I emphasized that:
• he takes truth seriously, an antidote to what he called on the eve of his papal election “the dictatorship of relativism”;
• his theology is Bible-focused, building on the declaration of Vatican II that “easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful”;
• his message is Christocentric, boldly asserting that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God and the only Redeemer of the world;
• he is a fierce champion of the culture of life, advocating for the most vulnerable members of the human community, the children still waiting to be born.
To these four items I added a fifth: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is an Augustinian.”
Read the whole article here.
For another perspective which I alluded to above, a confessional Lutheran professor shares his thoughts, and says that “But, as a frail and exhausted man stricken in years now passes into the annals of history while remaining for a while alive on earth, I express my appreciation, admiration, sympathy, and prayers.”
If you aren’t praying already for the Cardinals gathered in Rome to select a new leader, you should be. There are many goats in the Roman church who want to compromise with the world and “change with the times,” and the media of course wants to choose someone who is politically correct. Like any Christian tradition, Roman Catholic, Protestant/Evangelical, or Orthodox, there are many forces for ill both within and without, as the Great Realignment continues. So pray! Any other perspectives you would like to offer?
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“This is not the protestant/catholic divide; it is not the evangelical-charismatic vs. mainline divide. It cuts across all communities in the West, even affecting the Orthodox and Roman Churches in some degree…It is creating a massive realignment within Christianity; those who hold to the traditional Scriptural and patristic Faith and discipline of Orthodox Catholicism; and those who reject it, criticize it, and I will add, as you well know, persecute it…There is a radical cultural shift away from traditional Christianity, toward something unrecognizable.”
- Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), addressing the assembly of the Anglican Church in North America (ANCA).
What is happening to the church in the West? To summarize Metropolitan Jonah, an apostasy is taking place, where good portions of people claiming to be Christian are utterly compromising with the post/anti-Christian western world, to the point of claiming God endorses sin as part of his design, and denying the exclusive truth that is the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and everything that entails. While heresies have always plagued the church from the very beginning (Gnostics, Arians, etc…), the wholesale rejection of the classic Christian ethic on issues such as the family, sexuality, life, and evangelism is new in the history of Christianity. It is an interesting time when the “global south” or “third world” has to call out Christians and church bodies that previously evangelized them!
This split has its roots in some of the “higher criticism” that came out of the misnamed “Enlightenment” of the 18th century, and the radical break with traditional Christianity in academic circles in the 19th century. In fact, this conflict would come to a head in the 1920′s-30′s “fundamentalist vs. modernist” controversy that affected all of the major Christian communities in the United States. While the “modernist” group early on compromised on essential parts of the Christian faith (such as the Virgin Birth, bodily Resurrection of Christ etc…), there was enough residual Christian worldview and Western culture that the shift wasn’t as noticed in the overall culture until later on in the 20th century, when the invention of “new theologies” and the rise of ultramodern/postmodern thought came to the fore. While the following chart is not absolute by any means (thank God for the faithful still remaining and trying to turn things around, and every faithful group has goats), it does demonstrate where the general trends are in the different Christian traditions, and what groups are at least attempting to be faithful to the “traditional Scriptural and patristic faith” as Jonah put it (for brevity, I will focus on three traditions in the U.S.):
Confessional/Traditional/Orthodox —- Modernist/Compromising
Anglican Church in North America Episcopal Church
Orthodox Anglican Church
Continuing Anglican Groups
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ELCA (Evan. Luth. in America)
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
American Association of Lutheran Churches
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Bible Presbyterian Church
With very little variance, those on the right-hand side tend to take a “progressive” and “new” view on things such as women in ministry, sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, liberation theology, and the like. The biblical text is considered “important,” or “central,” but modern chauvinist readings of the text and “alternative theologies” are accepted or even encouraged. The classic consensus of the church (based on the Scriptures, the fathers, the ancient councils and creeds etc…) are given historical value, but are not part of an active, living and breathing faith handed down since the beginning. This allows them to engage in politically correct sociopolitical actions, and to change theology on the whims of cultural trends. Those who actually maintain the faith handed down are branded “(prefix)-phobic, patriarchal, oppressive, unloving” and many other favorite pet-labels of the modern chauvinist.
By contrast, those on the left hand side almost always subscribe to a confession of faith that is considered normative and binding on believers everywhere (all three include the ancient councils and creeds), and maintain the biblical (as the actual inspired word of God) and natural law positions on sexuality, family, etc…The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions officially maintain what has always been taught on these issues like those on the left-hand side, but there is much rebellion in the ranks of the average congregant and some of the lower clergy, as Jonah notes above, meaning the most tradition-minded churches are not immune.
The Great Realignment is taking place, so where do you stand? One encouraging development has been a renewed interest in the consensus-bearing era of the church (first 700 years or so), as a way of Christians expressing a common heritage. Other developments include faithful Christians joining together in statements such as the Manhattan Declaration, or in visual support such as that of Metropolitan Jonah to the faithful Anglicans. We should also pray for those who have been seduced by the post-Christian west to return to the faith handed down, and for those faithful who remain within to try to work for renewal. Kyrie Eleison!
(Let us hope and pray that the new Pontiff of the Roman church is firm, faithful, and addresses these issues head on).
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Today the church throughout the world honors St. Nicholas of Myra, the origin of what has become the Santa Claus idea (via the Dutch Sinterklass, meaning Saint Nicholas). Many places in Europe actually give the majority of their presents to each other today. Most people who study Nicholas are quite familiar with his helping of three daughters whose father could not afford a dowry, saving them from slavery or prostitution. Nicholas tried to sneakily deposit gold in the family’s house, and some versions have the gold landing in stockings drying over the fire. This is just one of many charitable acts Nicholas was known for, and in the eastern traditions of the church, he is also known as a “wonder-worker” due to the miracles associated with him.
What many people do not know however, is how committed to the orthodox Christian faith and sound doctrine Nicholas was. He was at the first Council of Nicaea in 325, and was so offended by how the heretic Arius demeaned Christ, that he slapped him across the face in front of the council! The eastern church adds that he was put under arrest for a night for this bad behavior, but then woke up in the morning with a copy of the gospels hand-delivered by Christ himself. For a good and often hilarious take on this (and an idea to “retake” Santa Claus), see this article by Gene Edward Veith:
May we all defend the orthodox Christian faith with the same zeal as Nicholas, although perhaps not with the same method!
My friend over at The Pocket Scroll posted on this last year and it is worth a read:
A fantastic initiative is taking place in an online community, and I heartily recommend to those of you reading this to participate. It is simply called, “Read the Fathers,” and can be found at readthefathers.org. By dedicating yourself to reading just 7 pages a day, you will become familiar with the great treasures of early Christianity, and deepen your faith and worldview in the process. Here are just 5 reasons in no particular order of why I hope many do this:
1. You Will Know Your Family History. Many Christians from a variety of traditions often refer to “our church family” and point out the frequent family language used throughout the Scriptures. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but the view of family here is often limited to one’s local congregation. Our family is MUCH bigger than this, and includes those who have gone before us (and are still alive in Christ). In an age when orthodoxy is mocked and every opinion considered equally valid, reading and studying the fathers will show how temporal much of what passes for modern trendy theology and church is.
2. You Will Be Inspired. If as a Christian you do not weep at some point while reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp, you are doing it wrong. And this is only one writing. When you see these ancient Christians stand up to emperors, conquer the flesh, encourage the struggling, persevere through suffering, and do their best to live authentic Christian lives, it will make you want to “go and do likewise.” This will also help you put our current situation in the West into perspective. Speaking of the West…
3. Restoring the West. It is almost cliché to mention the decadence of the West, but the fact of moral, spiritual, and cultural decline is ever-present. One great way to help reclaim the culture is to rediscover our roots. What is great about western civilization is founded on the Judeo-Christian and Classical traditions, and the church fathers were steeped in both. Our own heritage is counter-cultural today, and one must be familiar with it in order to take action and educate others to “stem the tide.” This is one way in which we can truly create culture, rather than just whine and complain about it. Read Gregory the Theologian’s Poetry and set it to music if you must!
4. It Will Help You Read the Scriptures. As theologian Thomas C. Oden puts it, “The history of the church is a history of exegesis.” The fathers knew the Scriptures extremely well (many had huge portions memorized), and many were active pastors teaching the Scriptures to their flock. Reading how John Chrysostom teaches on Matthew, or how Gregory the Great deals with Job, will force you to dig into the text, and better understand the Scriptures yourself. Even if you disagree with a conclusion, you will have to know why you disagree, meaning you are contending with Holy Scripture the entire time. The Holy Spirit has been with the church since Pentecost, so why not read how the Spirit guided what became some of the most foundational received doctrine in Christendom?
5. It Will Help You Be Disciplined. Self-denial and discipline, especially of the mind, are not popular in today’s entertainment and consumer driven culture. We may admire those who are able to exhibit such behavior, but we rarely do anything ourselves. By committing to do this in community, with a schedule and seeing how others respond, you will be amazed at how little time you will have for frivolous things. In fact, if reading the fathers caused more Christians to get rid of most Christian self-help books based in individualist pop-psychology, many pastors would be in trouble (in a good way). In a very real sense, reclaiming our classic Christian heritage could go a long way in regards to renewal in the church.
There are many other reasons for doing this, such as the reasons provided here at the Pocket Scroll. He also has a great list of ways to NOT read the fathers, which I also recommend checking out. The website has links to all of the works for free online in late 19th century editions, and also provides some recommendations for other more modern translations should you need them. So, I challenge all of you to join me, just 7 pages a day, in participating in the community of saints.
“That in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic.” – Augsburg Confession
(This a bit of fun with an extended metaphor of mine. Like any metaphor it isn’t perfect, but I hope it illustrates an important point).
Imagine for a moment that you have a cut of meat. This cut includes meat, fat, and a large bone (perhaps a t-bone stake for my western American friends). Now these three elements in the cut can vary greatly in proportion, and these proportions can greatly affect the taste, cooking, and perception of the meat.
So where am I going with this? It is my contention that the idea of “reformation” at its best is trimming the fat. In the late medieval church, the “fat” part of the cut of meat was obscuring the meat and bone, and many of the leaders of the church were so focused in on the fat part that the meat and bone were being neglected or confused. Notice however that the cut of meat still exists, and that the gospel is still present, even if the fat has gotten in the way. Fat can be a good thing. It can add flavor, complement the meat and bone, and for those who have had “good fat,” one absolutely misses it when it is gone. This idea of “trimming the fat” is exactly what I think what most Lutherans and a good portion of Anglicans were doing. Both were attempting to cut away the excess fat, but as a whole were naturally conservative, trying to maintain the classical Christian tradition (especially the councils, creeds, and liturgy). This attitude is reformation at its best, a calculated and cautious response to the abuses of the age, and a call to the sources (Scripture, and the classical consensus). There is nothing new being taught, as reflected in the quote from the Augsburg Confession above (the emphasis on the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” found in the Anglican tradition is similar).*
This can be contrasted with what one might call more “radical” types of reformation, so much so that some groups even argue for some form of “restoration.”** Many of these groups are so paranoid about the fat part that they overreact, cutting away not only the good fat, but parts of the meat as well. In fact, some pride themselves in creating theologies that define themselves by their avoidance of fat. Some are perhaps left with a bone and little else. Now this may be the correct bone (i.e., the gospel is still present), but it is such a limited and stunted view of the life of the church that they are missing out. Many of these groups can be seen making statements like “we don’t preach the creeds here, we only preach the bible” (as if somehow one excludes the other), or “we don’t do what the Catholics do,” or “I like Luther, but he didn’t go far enough.”
Please don’t misunderstand, many that I know from this mindset do live exemplary lives, and know the Scriptures in ways that should make any orthodox Christian applaud. But there is something inherently troubling when entire groups of Christians so divorce themselves from the historical church that the gospel is ONLY the bone, and anyone that disagrees “isn’t reading their bible.” The blood, sweat, and tears that were shed over centuries to pass down to us a living breathing faith, is ignored because “it isn’t in my Bible” (usually based on a certain set of presuppositions going in). Many fail to see that 19th century revivalism is NOT the norm for Christians everywhere and for all time, and that reading post-Enlightenment ideals of “democracy” into the church creates a myriad of problems. When this occurs, those in the Roman and Eastern Orthodox traditions are absolutely correct when they accuse Evangelicals of having “millions of little popes.”
So as we approach both Reformation Day and All Saints Day (and yes, we should keep observing the latter, along with the calendar in general), remember and honor all the great Christians that existed (and are alive today!) before the reformation, and for most of my Protestant friends, that means the Christians that lived between 500 and around 1200 in particular. Unless of course you believe the church disappeared for 700 years and Christ lied when he said, “…I will build my church and the gates of Hades (Hell) will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
* For an interesting take on some Anglican heroes, the pocket scroll has a good post (and he shares my sentiments I believe at the end).
** This is the view of heretical groups such as the LDS (Mormons), JW’s (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and perhaps some forms of the Seventh Day movements. To use our analogy, the piece of meat completely disappeared for centuries, and needed to be restored and reconstituted by 19th century Americans.
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According to a new Pew survey, and as publicized by news organizations such as CNN, the number of Americans claiming “no religion” has reached 1 in 5, the highest ever. Anyone who has observed the culture in the last few decades should not be shocked by this number. In fact, the number in all likelihood is actually higher, since many of those who officially “affiliate” are still “practical atheists,” meaning that their supposed faith has no bearing whatsoever on their daily lives, and that their religion is a completely private affair. God is weightless in this type of Christianity. If a Christian is better defined as one who is active in the church, takes scripture seriously, tries to live an upright life, and tries to implement and practice a comprehensive Christian worldview, the number is actually probably reversed. In other words, only 1 in 5 are actually committed Christians. Since the Pew survey also includes other religions and heretical groups, the number might actually be optimistically 1 in 8. Of course many secularist and atheist organizations are ecstatic, thinking that this will lead to some sort of secularist utopia, where man can worship himself (read some of the Christian-bashing comments on the bottom of the story if you feel up to it).
In typical post-Christian (and post-modern) fashion, many of these “non-affiliated” call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” a statement symptomatic of the highly individualized “personal religion” that is in vogue currently. The number is even higher for young people, with numbers in the 30-40 percent range. Interestingly, the “header” on the top of the CNN page involving this story includes an article of how the “spiritual not religious” statement is in reality an intellectual cop-out, and is worth a read. With this in mind, here are a few thoughts (not necessarily systematized, as this is pretty fresh):
1. Apologetics is and will continue to be extremely important for the church, especially in the education of the young. The vast majority of Christians who are still making an attempt to be faithful, are woeful when it comes to “knowing why you believe what you believe,” and in many cases fail to even successfully articulate basic Christian doctrine (such as the Trinity, person of Christ, etc…). Young people can see through the latest and greatest programs and gimmicks, so let’s give them some meat and teach them how to defend it. If your response to questions about the faith is “that doesn’t matter as long as you have a personal relationship,” you may be making the problem worse. Educate thyself!
2. The church (especially those classified as “evangelical”, although other orthodox Christians as well), in order to “reach the culture,” has preached such a stunted view of Christianity that this is a highly predictable result. When it is preached constantly that “all you need is a personal relationship,” and that “personal study” is the be-all/end-all, every person becomes a pope unto himself. Who needs the church, the creeds, the councils, the fathers, Greek, etc…when it is just me and my Jesus over a cup of coffee? What is amazing about this is how many assert this version of evangelicalism dogmatically while saying “we don’t need dogma/doctrine” without missing the irony of the statement.
3. This is also why grounding one’s self in historic Christianity is a position of strength, as it inoculates you from being “tossed about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Become biblically literate, know the Creeds and Councils, and live and defend them. Do NOT just do this because “we’ve always done it that way.” Keep in mind the axiom of the late Jaroslav Pelikan, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead.” We have a living faith that has been dearly bought by blood, sweat, toil, and tears. Receive it and pass it down faithfully, “tearing down every argument that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (II Cor. 10:4).
4. Faithful orthodox Christians will become increasingly unpopular and unwelcome in the culture. Modern chauvinists will try to marginalize, persecute, and ridicule those of us who hold to the faith and worldview that results. The culture will continue to deteriorate as the West undercuts the foundation that made it great in the first place. We should rejoice when we are subjected to this however, and be ever more bold when opportunities arise.
5. Orthodox Christians everywhere, who are already starting to cooperate together (in movements such as the Manhattan Declaration), should start taking seriously the idea of forming cultural alternatives, not just aped versions of what passes for culture today. You may be viewed as a reactionary, “anti-progress,” “old-fashioned,” or whatever label that usually comes with such things. The great classical Christian culture of the West is now counter-cultural, and this is a good thing. Our own heritage in the West can be a witness against the West.
Anyone else care to comment on this story? Possible Solutions? Experiences?
There have a been a variety of studies done, both in North America and in Europe, involving the state of the church and the culture. One of the questions often asked of those who leave orthodox Christianity, especially of young people, is something along the lines of “What single factor caused you to abandon the faith?” Another frequently asked is “If you could change one thing about the church (or western culture) what would it be?” At the top of virtually every survey or poll are the following issues/problems:
1. Hypocrisy (usually coupled with a misunderstanding of “judging”)
2. Lack of Commitment…”Sunday Christians”
3. No Authenticity
4. Gimmicks and “the latest and greatest” programs (yes, young people can see through these)
5. Lack of community
While it is true that in our “post-Christian” or “post-modern” world, words like “authentic” and “community” can become highly clichéd and overused, they do contain important truths that have been lost in our individualist, “personal,” and privatized version of Christianity. This is yet one more reason why the early monastics are highly relevant today, and need to be read by Christians everywhere. Some of the same problems existed in the early church, especially in the cities when many in the “upper strata” of society adopted Christianity for political or social reasons, causing the faith to become a matter of convenience. The early monks wanted to live a more “authentic Christian life,” and viewed themselves as living martyrs. In other words, instead of merely complaining and whining about the state of things, they actually went and did something about it.
Because of this, much of the wisdom involved is highly practical, and almost could be taken as Christian counseling. Many of the desert fathers for example, spent years trying to defeat the myriad of ways that a Christian can be challenged, to varying degrees of success. For example, what Christian hasn’t been frustrated by the way evil and wicked thoughts enter our minds, even when we don’t want them? Consider the following exchange from the Philokalia involving St. Moses the Strong (or the Black):
Germanos then asked, ‘How does it happen that even against our will many ideas and wicked thoughts trouble us, entering by stealth and undetected to steal our attention? Not only are we unable to prevent them from entering, but it is extremely difficult even to recognize them. Is it possible for the mind to be completely free of them and not be troubled by them at all?”
Abba Moses replied: “It is impossible for the mind not to be troubled by these thoughts. But if we exert ourselves it is within our power either to accept them and give them our attention, or to expel them. Their coming is not within our power to control, but their expulsion is. The amending of our mind is also within the power of our choice and effort. When we meditate wisely and continually on the law of God, study Psalms and canticles (spiritual songs), engage in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come – the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works – our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place.”
This sort of thinking has echoes throughout Scripture, and is simply practical advice. This is “authentic” Christian living in the most intimate of senses, that of the struggle that goes in the mind. St. Moses goes on to state that one of the greatest gifts is that of “discrimination” (what many today call discernment), because of how deceptive certain thoughts and passions can be. Contrary to the attitude of “Sunday Christians,” this thinking is also why one must discriminate in regards to what music one listens to, what movies one watches, the company one keeps and the like.
The Christian worldview is a completely immersive worldview, filled with “keeping our minds on things above” (Col. 3:2), which includes the positive things St. Moses recommends. Contrary to some reactionary evangelicals, this has nothing to do with “earning salvation,” but everything to do with “working out your faith with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). May we all take St. Moses’ advice, and the culture will most likely change as a result!
**For another rationale why we need the fathers in today’s culture, see this post at The Pocket Scroll about our view of God**
I have now added an entirely new section of this site as a resource hub of sorts for the subject of the Crusades. There is a topical bibliography, powerpoints, internet links, and a book review initially, and I plan to add much more in the future. This will be under the new “topics” tab on the top, with the implication being more topics will be added soon (hopefully). The bibliography includes amazon links and the like:
Please don’t hesitate to leave me a note on the page itself (or this post) if you have any questions or if something doesn’t seem to be working right. It is my hope that this helps at least a few dispel the myriad of myths that surround this fascinating part of history.
I have been asked several times while teaching church history and leading apologetics as to “who is who” in regards to the Christian teachers of the church. Because of the sheer volume of names, events, heresies, and the like, this is an understandable question. In order to help remedy this, I have created a new page of the main teachers/fathers of the church in the first 700 or so years of history that is shared by virtually all of Christendom:
These are universally admired for the most part across the board, which means Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc…all view these as authoritative figures in the church, faithfully teaching the Scriptures and the faith passed down from the Apostles. While individuals may certainly (and do) error from time to time, the consensual approach applies here. In other words, unlike the modern obsession with innovation, the method of St. Vincent applies, “What was once believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This page is not meant to be comprehensive, and there will be more details added in the future (such as links to their works and biographies, dates they are honored on the church calendar etc…). Any feedback on this new page is of course quite welcome!