After over ten years here and with all the events of the past twelve months, including for the first time in seven years an episcopal visit, not once nor twice, but three times, and a deacon’s ordination, this end of 2007 seems to me a good point to write a short review of the history of our little church to date.
Introduction: Before Felixstowe
Having married and returned to England from seminary abroad, I was ordained reader in London 27 years ago. At that time we lived in Cambridge, where I worked, with our two young children. Sadly, we discovered that no-one else there was interested in setting up a church locally and having services at least every weekend, even though we could have obtained suitable, town-centre premises for only £8,500. But there is little that can be done against indifference to the Church. Sadly, the building in Cambridge became a mosque and the parish there still has no church of its own. This example should teach us not to waste opportunities offered to us. They are not repeated.
So in 1983 we moved to Paris and matushka’s parish. There, 23 years ago I was ordained deacon and just over 16 years ago, on 8 December 1991 ordained to the priesthood by the ever-memorable Archbishop Antony of Geneva. I had already served in my second parish in Paris for three years as a deacon, when I was ordained priest. The idea was to prepare to take over from a priest who was then aged 69. He was, it was said, probably going to retire the following year, when he would be 70. However, this turned out not to be the case and as a result I was not really needed in the parish. This at least meant that in the meantime I could start the Russian parish in Lisbon in Portugal, as requested and blessed by Archbishop Antony. In the event, the priest I had been ordained to replace in 1992 stayed on in the parish until 2003, when he was 81.
In 1997 I found myself without work, following the collapse of a Business School, after the owner had been killed. As the only breadwinner, I had to think of our children’s future, all six of them. Without pay as a priest, I had to find a secular job amid the unemployment crisis in France at that time. As a foreigner, I was not in the best situation. Firstly, I looked for a paid job as a priest in my Diocese and soon discovered that no parish in the Western European Diocese needed a paid priest. Then I was informed that perhaps I would be needed as a priest in Canada. However, after a promising start to inquiries, it turned out that I was not required there. I knew that back in London, where I had served briefly in 1994, they had lost their priest. However, a deacon from the Ukraine had recently been ordained to the priesthood in his place, so I would not be needed there by the Church either. I asked a ROCOR priest in England, now in a Greek Orthodox group, about the situation. He told me that I was not needed anywhere in the diocese. However, I did know that in England I could get a secular job and also ensure our children’s future, so we decided to move back to England after fourteen years in France.
Why and how our parish opened in Felixstowe
The problem was where we should go and live in England. London, the most obvious place, where there are Orthodox, though no church premises, was far too expensive for us to afford. Since the Church did not need me in a specific place and my mother was dying of cancer, I thought of my native town, Colchester, near where she lived. However, a former Anglican minister had just been received into the new Antiochian Deanery and been ordained there. Therefore, we looked elsewhere in the area, at other towns, ending up in Felixstowe.
We did not choose Felixstowe, as it was not the most obvious place to start services. It was small and far from London. However, it was near the larger town of Ipswich, where we had unsuccessfully looked for premises, and, above all, it was there that we quickly found an affordable house, a job and also church premises. Therefore, on moving, my Archbishop gave me an antimension, and I bought a chalice set and spent several thousand pounds to obtain everything else necessary to celebrate. Different colours of vestments were sewn, the church set up as it should be. Within a few weeks of moving from France, the parish had begun in rented premises, the first liturgies being with the family only.
Parish life over the last ten years
For over ten years, week in, week out, we have just continued to serve the Vigil, the Liturgy and other services on weekdays and in Lent and Holy Week, ensuring the sacraments, insofar as my secular job and therefore survival have allowed. There has always been a sermon and nearly always a talk after the Liturgy. There have been many changes. I have seen the Ukrainians in Ipswich die out. I have seen a number of Russian women coming to live locally through (generally unhappy) internet weddings to Englishmen. At the beginning their Russian School was conducted on our church premises. Romanians have settled here and found work and new Ukrainians, Bulgarians and others have arrived. There is activity as a priest with baptisms, weddings, funerals and pastoral visits. There are Orthodox in Ipswich, where most of our parishioners live, and other small Suffolk villages and towns. I am also the Orthodox chaplain for the local hospitals and prison. We set up the church as a Trust.
We have done our best to publicise Orthodoxy locally and even nationally. We have been featured in a Channel 4 programme, on BBC Radio 4 and on Local Radio. There have been several articles about our church in local newspapers and magazines and on local websites. We have served regular Saturday liturgies in Bury St Edmunds for over two years. We have advertised in the local press, at local libraries and tourist offices. I have spoken at numerous meetings in Felixstowe, Ipswich, in London and abroad. I have also spoken at local Non-Orthodox churches – which is how we obtained our present premises. I have done my best to establish friendly relations with Non-Orthodox, many of whom have visited us here. We have also had an open day one Saturday a year. We have circulated leaflets about the church in Felixstowe and I wrote a booklet about St Felix, the local saint. Since 1997 I have published the journal Orthodox England (the first issue was prepared in France). Since 2007 this has been online. With the help of David Davies, the webmaster and technical expert, to whom I am very grateful, since 2001 we have had a website. This has been a very valuable tool, nationally and internationally, and much pastoral work has been done through it.
Over the last ten years 3 English parishioners have died and 20 mainly English parishioners have moved away to new jobs or to retire, though 4 of them come back regularly. Of course, on the positive side, others have moved here. Above all, since this summer we have had a deacon and a new reader. I believe this is the first time in the history of our Church in this country that anyone has been ordained outside London. I can see therefore some help for the future, if I am actually needed by the Church anywhere else. Also, since the beginning of this year a Russian deacon has been living in Ipswich and has concelebrated here. Since this year, some members of the recently-formed Greek community in Ipswich have stated their intention to set up a church in an Anglican building in Ipswich. This is good if it gathers the small Ipswich Greek community together, who only wish to go to a Greek church. However, it would be a great pity if it were to divide our small local flock, as we have always been the natural Orthodox parish for everyone interested in Orthodoxy in the whole of East Suffolk.
Internationally over the last ten years, the situation inside Russia has been transformed and it is gradually emerging out of the uncertainty, chaos and crime of ten years ago. Without doubt the canonization by the Church inside Russia of the New Martyrs and Confessors in the Year 2000 has been the key event of these last ten years and affects us. Thus, those who before refused to venerate the New Martyrs and Confessors in this country now do so. Churches of other jurisdictions who refused to have icons of the New Martyrs now have them. As part of ROCOR we were isolated and people were directly told not to come here. Our only friends were the Serbs. Now that all the Russian bishops have come together and the Russian Mother-Church has been reconstituted this year, there is now an Orthodox Russian bishop in London, and we are less isolated, though still ignored by others.
The General Pastoral Situation in England
Generally, it has to be said that Orthodoxy meets with little interest from English people. We have to remember that nowadays most people are either non-believers or else totally indifferent. Of the few who do believe, most are committed to some form of Non-Orthodoxy. This leaves us with a very small potential public. For example, people phone up and inquire about the Church, but they do not come, even though they have received all the details they need in order to come (there is also a map of how to find our church on our website). We have regular visitors, but generally I would say that only one in ten visitors is serious. Out of politeness, people will say that the service is lovely, but they cannot mean it, because they do not return.
There is a lack of constancy and reliability, a lack of commitment today. This is nationwide, as other clergy elsewhere have confirmed this to me. People want to talk about the Church as an idea, but they do not want to pray and come to services. In other words they do not want to ‘do’ Orthodox Christianity, only to talk about it as a theory, not live it as a way of life. I have encouraged people to take communion at least once a month, again only with some success. I have also encouraged local people, living in the roads around us, to come. Certainly sometimes, however, the services are celebrated mainly with the angels and the saints, for there are sometimes few present, apart from myself, matushka and our own family. Physical isolation is a major problem.
In short, I conclude from experience that you can expect about 1 English person in 25,000 to become Orthodox. Since there are about 250,000 in our catchment area (that is, the 250,000 people who live within 25 miles of our church), we can realistically expect about ten to become Orthodox. As for Orthodox from Eastern Europe in our catchment area, I would say that 1 in 10 maximum occasionally practises the Faith. Since we have about 250 nominal Eastern European Orthodox in our catchment area (that is, about 1 in 1,000 locally is already Orthodox) – most of them I know or have seen - we can realistically expect about 25 to come to church regularly. (This of course, assumes that the flock will not be divided by liturgies in Ipswich).
Of course, it would be better to be in or near London, certainly not here. First of all, you would have at least 5,000,000 living in your catchment area. If 1 in 25,000 might become Orthodox, that would make 200 potential Orthodox. Secondly, the vast majority of Orthodox from Eastern Europe in this country live in London, with probably about 200,000 nominal Orthodox just in London, of whom 20,000 practise from time to time. On the other hand, it has to be remembered that there is ‘competition’ – there are many well-established Orthodox churches in London, and many people would only go to their national church. And we must recall that to be Orthodox in our times is to swim against the whole secular floodtide of modern, anti-Christian life. More importantly, to remain Orthodox today is even more difficult.
One constant battle we have had to face here is the problem of church premises I have always maintained that to have a church, you need ‘the three Ps’. The first is a group of faithful and motivated People, however small that group may be, some of whom at least can sing. The second is Premises. The third and least important is a Priest.
We have some people who can sing very well. We almost certainly have the second best choir in England, after the Patriarchal Cathedral, singing Russian music in English and Slavonic. Some visitors from London have actually told me that we have the best choir. Perhaps, perhaps not. We have a priest. However, over the last ten years I have had to devote an enormous amount of time and energy to finding premises. I have searched everywhere in this region, in newspapers, estate agencies, the local Anglican diocese, the Non-Conformist churches in Ipswich, the Borough Council. In desperation, I even played the lottery to try and obtain one specific suitable building.
I have visited many buildings in Ipswich and elsewhere and also considered buying pieces of land in order to build something. Nearly all of the premises I have visited were unsuitable. Suitable premises mean something that can be permanently converted for Orthodox worship, something not too large, not too small, something that is accessible and also secure (security is increasingly important, with vandalism a concern), something that can be maintained and heated, something with facilities, toilets for children, a kitchen, a hall to eat and meet together. Suitability also means thinking carefully about planning permission and parking. Ideally this should be in Ipswich, the largest town. The one great problem here has always, as ever, been lack of funds. We are not rich and it seems that those who are rich are not interested in the Church. Without doubt the problem of premises is the most difficult problem.
This is our situation today. We shall continue here until God grants us better, serving week in, week out, witnessing to the faith, however remote and small we may be. The important thing is prayer. The rest is secondary. Glory to God for all things!
Priest Andrew Phillips
13 January 2008