An Interview with Serbian Orthodox in Belgrade
In January 2003 Fr Andrew Phillips was interviewed from Belgrade for the Serbian Orthodox Review 'Pravoslavije' in order to give information to Serbian Orthodox readers about English Orthodoxy and Orthodox views of the situation in Serbia. Ten questions, listed below, were asked and Fr Andrew answered in the form of a brief article.
1) When did you become the Orthodox and how?
2) What jurisdiction do you belong?
3) When did you become an Orthodox deacon and finally, priest?
4) How many people are there in the parish?
5) How many people do you baptize per year? Is there a catechumenate (a period before baptism) in your parish?
6) Do people take Holy Communion commonly and often in the parish?
7) What are your relations with other Orthodox jurisdictions? And what are your links with Non-Orthodox?
8) What is your opinion about the Serbian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and in general?
9) What are your opinions about the Kosovo crisis? Do you know how many people died and how many churches have been destroyed since KFOR arrived in Kosovo?
10) What are your opinions about the NATO bombing of Serbia?
I was received into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1975 when I was eighteen years old. Having read about Church history and visited different churches, including an Orthodox church, I had wanted to become a member of the Orthodox Church when I was sixteen. I knew that this was my spiritual home, I could never be anything else. However, my parents did not give their permission for me to join the Orthodox Church until I was eighteen, when they considered that I would be mature enough to take this step. My family, like most English families, has no religious background and my parents never went to any church, though I suppose in mentality they tended towards Protestantism.
In 1974 I had gained a place to study Russian Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, because I had wanted to get to know better an Orthodox language and culture. During that period I visited and studied in Russia. After obtaining my degree and qualifying as a teacher, in 1978, I went to work in Salonica in Greece and was able to make pilgrimages to the Holy Mountain and become acquainted with the Greek language and the Theological School in Salonica. As a result of this, in 1979 I decided to study at the Russian Theological Instituite of St Sergius in Paris. One of my fellow-students was Fr Luke (now Bishop Luke), the present Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in France.
I married an Orthodox girl in 1980 and we now have six children. We live together with her parents. I believe that in Serbia there used to be such a system, where families lived together. I was ordained deacon in 1985 and priest in 1991. I was ordained priest by a great friend of the Serbian Church, the ever-memorable Archbishop Antony of Geneva. My present bishop is another great friend of the Serbian Church and disciple of St Justin of Chelije, Archbishop Mark of Berlin. We belong to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, that part of the Russian Church which has been administrated separately from Moscow by decree of the Russian Patriarch St Tikhon since 1920. At the present time, there are friendly conversations between the two parts of the Russian Church, including those recently organised by the ever-memorable Serbian Bishop Danilo in Hungary. We are hoping that an administrative reconciliation will take place between the two parts of the Russian Church, since the Moscow Patriarchal Church inside Russia is now more or less politically free.
I serve in a small provincial parish in England in the town of Felixstowe, which is a port. It is named after the Enlightener of Eastern England, the seventh-century St Felix. Obviously he was Orthodox, because at that time Catholicism and Protestantism had not yet been invented. We venerate his memory here.
I work as a full-time teacher in order to live and look after our children. At present there are about fifty people in the parish, but our parish has existed only since 1997, when there were only ten of us. Previous to this, I served in Russian parishes in France and Portugal. There I wrote several books about the Orthodox Church.
We have quite a poor life here because there are so few of us, but we exist and for Orthodox in our region we are like an oasis in a desert. We do as many services as we can. I also publish a journal 'Orthodox England' and run a website. From time to time we have English people who wish to become Orthodox and they are prepared as catechumens to become Orthodox. I insist that they come to services very regularly for a good period of time to make sure that they are serious about their desire to become Orthodox. It is a great and serious step to enter the Church of Christ. They have to understand this.
I encourage the people to come to confession and communion frequently. I recommend once a month, but probably on average people come less often than this. When you live in a country of Orthodox Tradition, like Greece or Serbia, perhaps you do not take communion so frequently, but in Western countries which are spiritual deserts, you have to take an active part in Church life in order to survive spiritually. On the other hand, I also believe in very careful preparation before communion. We must keep the fasts, say our prayers, read the Gospels and the Epistles, read the Lives of the Saints. Our Orthodox Life is a virtuous circle: we need the grace of God from the holy sacraments, but we also need to make great efforts of repentance in order to partake of the sacraments regularly. This in turn gives us the zeal to repent and desire to take communion even more regularly.
We are relatively isolated where we are, but we have very good relations with other Orthodox dioceses in Great Britain. This is especially so, because our Non-English parishioners come from so many different Orthodox countries, Russia, Cyprus, Romania, the Ukraine, as well as from Western countries like France and Ireland. With such an international parish, we do the services in English, although sometimes I add some Slavonic, Romanian or Greek.
Often our parishioners go back to their countries and bring us small gifts from their homes. We value these greatly. So we have friends all over the Orthodox Commonwealth, from Transylvania to Crete, from Siberia to Belgrade, from Moscow to Athens. Most Orthodox parishes in Great Britain are in big cities like London. However, we are in contact with the Serbian Church in London and Birmingham and our nearest Orthodox neighbour, an Antiochene parish about forty miles away from us. Strangely enough, some of are closest contacts are with churches in Russia, for example the Convent of St John in St Petersburg. We also have many contacts with other parishes of our Russian Church in America or Australia for example. I have to admit that we are most closely linked with the Orthodox Churches which have kept the Orthodox calendar for all the feasts, that is the Russian, the Serbian, the Georgian, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Holy Mountain.
I believe that I can say that we have very good relations with Non-Orthodox Christians. We are good neighbours. Of course, in England we are not persecuted by groups like the Catholics or the Anglicans, so why should relations not be good?
On the other hand, although we have good relations with Heterodox, we do not participate in Ecumenism because we do not want to compromise the Orthodox Faith. The Orthodox Church is the Church, She is unique. Although we consider that all the other Non-Orthodox are in some sense Christian, they do not know, recognise or understand Orthodoxy, the Church. Therefore we must not confuse Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. You do not confuse part of the Truth with the whole Truth. But as Orthodox Christians, we must also show mercy and love towards others and not be like the Pharisees, so we have friendly relations, but we do not compromise the Truth that God has given as a gift to His Church.
For example, there is a local ecumenical group in our town called 'Churches Together' . We are not full members and do not wish to be, but we are observer members. It is useful for us to see how the Heterodox think and do, but we cannot be members of a group which does not believe in the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, the Mother of God, the Saints as we do. We cannot compromise such basic beliefs for some worldly advantage.
We have a high opinion of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Before Hitler's War, our Bishops were based in Serbia at Karlovtsy. In this country we have great admiration for what the Serbian Church has achieved in Birmingham, building the magnificent church of St Lazar. But it is a pity that we do not see more of each other. Sometimes the Serbian Church seems to be very inward-looking and does not cultivate links with us other Orthodox. But then that is perhaps true of us too, in the Russian Church we are so involved with Russian matters that we do not have time to cultivate links with other Orthodox. We Orthodox have to put our Orthodox Faith first and then our passports, Serbian, British, Russian, Greek, French etc, second. As the Gospel says, we Orthodox are in this world, but we are not of this world.
I think that we only have one difference of opinion with the Serbian Church and that concerns the World Council of Churches. It is our belief that Orthodox should not be full members of such an organization. However, I do not wish to be critical, this is an internal matter for the Serbian Church. I know that some Serbian Bishops think the same as us, but others disagree. In any case, this is not a great difficulty. We all have to respect the internal decisions of Local Orthodox Churches and we have great confidence in the leadership of His Holiness Patriarch Pavle, who, as far as we are concerned, is the one outstanding Orthodox Patriarch of our times.
As regards Kosovo, we are shocked and scandalised by what has happened there. I am not sure of the exact statistics, but I know that KFOR troops have idly stood by while Albanian fanatics have been ethnically cleansing Kosovo of its native Serbs. Among those troops are British troops. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Serbs have been murdered and martyred and over one hundred Orthodox churches there have been dynamited or otherwise damaged. The attitude of the West is totally hypocritical. However, the West is now having to pay the price. In Bosnia the CIA armed, trained and worked alongside Muslim mercenaries, the very same ones who have since 11 September been attacking the West. The so-called KLA are simply brigands and drug-dealing terrorists.
The West simply refuses to understand that it has to be responsible for its every action; the West will have to pay the price for its every misdeed. For long Serbia protected the West from Islam. Instead of thanking Serbia, what does the West do? It stabs Serbia in the back. You wait until the Muslims start doing in Western Europe what they have done in Serbia. Only then will the West begin to understand the consequences of its errors, but by then it will be too late.
regards the NATO bombing of Serbia, all I can say is that it was a war
crime. Of course, the problem is
that it is the West that controls the International War Crimes Court,
and the West will never put itself on trial.