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On the Emerging Identity of Orthodox England

Approximate Statistics

Population of the Isles (Great Britain and Ireland): Approx. 65 million.

Approx. 61.75 million or 95% of the population is of native stock. Approx. 48.5 million or 75% of these are English and approx. 13 million or 20% are Celtic (Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish and Manx).

Of the 95% native population, a mere 2,000 (0.0003%) are members of the Orthodox Church and the vast majority of these are English. Celtic Orthodox are virtually invisible.

Approx. 3.25 million or 5% of the total population are immigrants or descendants of immigrants born here (Eastern European, Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean, African, Bangladeshi etc).

Of the 5% immigrant population, approx. 325,000 or 10% are nominally Orthodox. Of these approx. 63,000 (approx. 2% of the immigrant population or nearly 0.1% of the total population) are ‘Orthodox’, inasmuch as they practise their faith at least once a year.

The total number of ‘practising’ Orthodox, immigrant and native together, is then approx. 65,000 or 0.1% of the total population. That is to say that one in a thousand of the total population of the Isles practises the Orthodox Faith at least once a year. However, most of these are concentrated in the large urban areas, above all in the London area. Here the figure for ‘practising’ Orthodox may be as high as 40,000 or 0.33% of the 12 million population of that area. This means that in the rest of the Isles, out of a population of 53 million, only 25,000 or approx. 0.05% are practising Orthodox.

Multinational and Multilingual

It is clear that ‘Orthodox England’ is therefore not to be confused with a racial concept. Orthodox England is ethnically only to a very small degree English, let alone Celtic. Orthodox England is immigrant, multinational and multilingual, above all, Slav, Greek and Romanian. The global world is not a place where English nationalism can survive. As an Anglican priest once said to me: ‘Anglicanism does not export’. This is why ultimately it is destined to disappear, as indeed it now is disappearing.

The late Archbishop Athenagoras of Thyateira used to say that Anglicans who were interested in Orthodoxy should first become Roman Catholic, because until they had reconciled themselves to this, they would not be ready for the Church. Thirty-five years ago the late Fr Barnabas Burton confirmed to me, to my astonishment at the time, that this really was so, and that many Anglicans had to become Roman Catholics before they would be ready for the Church.

This explains the very limited appeal of Orthodoxy to Anglicans. Anglicanism, that is to say ‘The Church of England’ (1), is an ethnic religious association, a political construct which was invented by 16th century monarchs of England. Even it, since 1850, has been a minority religion in the Isles overall Today, the number of practising Anglicans is under one million, well under 2% of the total population. Culturally and nationally, the Orthodox Churches do not appeal to many Anglicans. As one Anglican said to me, ‘How can you possibly confess? I would be too ashamed. It’s just not English’. And another said to me that he could never get used to a church without pews and an organ, where you could not stand up to sing hymns with their well-known tunes or clap your hands.

I am reminded of the words of Nicholas Zernov, who once told me that the old Russian stereotype of the English was that they were ‘intriguing and backbiting hypocrites’. When I told him that this was a definition of a certain type of Anglo-Catholic, but not of English people, he was quite nonplussed. Having lived in north Oxford for fifty years, he had no idea who English people were and seemed to have imagined that they were all Anglo-Catholics (2). Moreover, as Protestants, some Anglicans do have a tendency to make up their own church and services, especially if they are interested in secondary outward trappings like ritual and vestments. Thus, if the Orthodox Church as it really is does not meet their expectations, they tend to disappear or break away and set up their own separate jurisdictions.

The Return to Apostolicity

It is surely significant that contemporary Orthodox immigrants in England have taken to the veneration of local saints, especially the very earliest ones, like St Alban. And in Ireland there is a great appreciation among them of the early Irish saints. Personally, I have never had an English Orthodox come to me for a service of intercession to an English saint or to all the Saints of the Isles, but Russians do. Interestingly also, book with the lives of these saints seem to sell better in Russian, Romanian and Greek than in English. It is a paradoxical fact which should at least make English people think.

In apostolic times, the Church was also multinational and multilingual. This is the sense of the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Today’s Orthodox England is also part of such a multinational and multilingual Church and this appears to be its emerging identity.

July 2010


1.Most English people have never heard of Anglicanism. They know only the term ‘C of E’ (Church of England). Many English people will tell you that they do not know what religion they are and that they have not been ‘christened’, so therefore they must be C of E.

2.Nicholas also informed me, to my shock at the time, that no-one in the Russian Orthodox community in Oxford had the Lives of the Saints of St Dimitry of Rostov. I even began to wonder just what the highly-educated people there actually knew of the Russian Orthodox Tradition.

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