AN INTERVIEW WITH Fr ANDREW
Recently the Editor of Orthodox England was interviewed by Nadia Shmakova, a Russian Orthodox artist from Portugal, who was interested to discover the motivations of the work of an English Orthodox priest. Here we present the tapescript of that interview, translated into English.
Nadia Shmakova: Fr Andrew, why do English people join the Orthodox Church?
Fr Andrew: There are many reasons. Some have belonged to one of the denominations.
In this country this is often Anglicanism. This is nominally confessed by over
a third of the population. Such people have been disappointed. They have found
something which means more to them in the Orthodox Church and realized the
historic errors of their original denomination in the light of the Orthodox Faith.
Nadia Shmakova: What was your reason?
Fr Andrew: I suppose I belong to the last group, to the others! In childhood I had a quest for some kind of purity, a spiritual purity, a world without compromise, a thirst for the Absolute I suppose you'd call it. I could not find this in the world around me. There, at best, I found moralism, conformism, custom, obligation, but not spiritual freedom, no authentic spiritual Tradition, no depth. However, I knew that such a spiritual Tradition had existed before, because I grew up in the country, near a monastery that had been ruined in the sixteenth century. I spent my childhood playing in the fields and farmyard of Abbey Lane and Abbey Farm. It was a very happy childhood. I felt as though I was touching Paradise, which lay just beyond the hill on the other side of the farm. At the same time, at my primary school, I had learnt of people called saints, St Peter, St George, St Andrew, St Patrick, St David. Then, I was eight then, I learnt about someone called King Alfred the Great, and I thought what a great person he was. Locally, in North Essex and South Suffolk where I grew up, people talked about a St Edmund and a St Albright. I found out something about them and this set me wondering why there were no longer any such holy people. Protestants actually told me that saints do not exist. And I thought that I did not want to belong to such a society.
Nadia Shmakova: Did you go to a church?
Fr Andrew: No. My parents were supposed to be some sort of Protestants, but they did not attend any church. I was, however, baptized into a Protestant group by my grandmother.
Nadia Shmakova: So you never read the Bible?
Fr Andrew: No, not until I was 12. At that age, three things happened. Firstly, I read the Gospels for the first time. Secondly, I was dazzled by the beauty of the countryside. I seemed to see a Divine presence just behind every hill, tree, field and cloud. And thirdly, I began teaching myself Russian by reading the New Testament in Russian. Don't ask me why! I then became very interested in Russian literature (pre-Revolutionary), because I found that it reflected the Faith that I had read about in the Gospels. I then began investigating Christianity and visited different churches. They all left me cold. However, there was one church I had not visited, because there was not one where I lived. This was the Orthodox church, which I started to read about, borrowing books wherever I could. By the time I was 15, I knew I would have to be Orthodox, even though I had not yet been to an Orthodox church. When I was 16, I managed to do this. Immediately I walked into it, I was at home. It was as though I had always been there. I knew that I could never be anything else, because I had always been there. Almost at once I knew that I would go to study at an Orthodox seminary in the future. At the same time, I became very interested in pre-1066 England and Kievan Russia. However, my parents would not allow me to join the Orthodox Church until I was 18, so I had to be patient. That was very frustrating, but perhaps also good for me in some way.
Nadia Shmakova: Was it Orthodox spirituality that attracted you?
Fr Andrew: I'm sorry, I don't like the word 'spirituality' very much. There are all kinds of so-called spirituality, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, New Age. Usually it means psychic or even demonic fraud or illusion. Look at Russia before the Revolution. Look at Rasputin, a man of immense psychic and demonic gifts, and the destruction he worked. There were many émigrés from the pre-Revolutionary aristocracy who made the same confusion, provoking the Paris Schism and founding the Paris School of so-called Theology. I cannot say that I am interested in 'spirituality', I'd prefer to say that I try to live by the Orthodox Faith and Church. It is Christ Who attracted me to His Church.
Nadia Shmakova: How do you know if someone is a fraud or if someone is really spiritual?
Fr Andrew: 'By their fruits ye shall know them'
Nadia Shmakova: Can you explain that?
Fr Andrew: If you want to know if someone is Orthodox or not, ask to see his prayer book. If it is all tattered and dog-eared from use, that is a good sign. Ask them how often they go to confession, whether they attend vigil-services, how they fast. These are signs of genuine Orthodoxy. The best sign though is to see how people live. Do they love God and love their neighbour. It really is as simple as that. This is what St John speaks of in his Gospel. ' Behold, I give unto you a new commandment: love one another.'
Nadia Shmakova: Who converted you or influenced you in becoming Orthodox? Do you have a spiritual father?
Fr Andrew: Nobody influenced or converted me. I had made up my mind about the important
issues long before I was able to become Orthodox and meet any other Orthodox.
I knew my destiny.
Nadia Shmakova: What do you think are the main problems in the Church today?
Fr Andrew: The main thing is that most Orthodox are simply not Orthodox, or do not behave as Orthodox. The Church today is not in a normal state, it is in an incredibly decadent and corrupt state. This is why so few people become Orthodox. This is hardly surprising. The most amazing thing is that there are actually people who think that the Church is in a healthy state, even mistake this decadence for genuine spiritual health! This shows inexperience and spiritual naivety.
Nadia Shmakova: Do you think that anyone is indispensable in improving the state of the Church?
Fr Andrew: No-one is indispensable! There is a saying: 'The cemeteries are full of indispensable people'. No saint ever thought that he was indispensable. Only God's Will is indispensable.
Nadia Shmakova: Fr Andrew, there is something that bothers me as a Russian. Here you are an educated Westerner. You have become Orthodox. But the West is rich and well-organized, Russia is poor and chaotic. Romania, Greece and the Balkans are the same. Many in the West say that this is because of Orthodoxy, a backward religion. What do you as a Westerner say?
Fr Andrew: The appalling state of the former Orthodox countries like Russia is not because of Orthodoxy, but because of a lack of Orthodoxy. What did the West invent? The Crusades, the Inquisition, Capitalism, Imperialism, Marxism, Fascism, the concentration camp, the Atomic Bomb and ecological catastrophe. It then exported this all over the world. If Russia and the other ex-Orthodox countries have a fault, it is not in inventing these horrors, but in accepting them from the West. This is a lack of faithfulness to Orthodoxy, apostasy from the Faith, for which these countries are still paying the price. As regards the West, I think that what Gandhi said is true. He was once asked by a British journalist what he thought of Western civilization. He answered: 'I think it is a very good idea'.
Nadia Shmakova: How do you see the future for Orthodoxy in England?
Fr Andrew: The future? Well, I suppose I do have hopes for the future, but you have
to remember that maybe there is no future on earth, because Christ will come back
very, very soon. In any case, there is no future without Christ.
Nadia Shmakova: Can you explain what you mean by 'the savour of authentic Orthodoxy'?
Fr Andrew: Just one example. In Paris there are three parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Rector of one, in the close suburbs, was the late Fr Sergei Shevtsov. He was a well-respected confessor, typical of the best Russian priests from before the Revolution. He used to refuse to concelebrate with the French parish of the Moscow Patriarchate in Paris, because he said they were heretics. They used the Catholic (new) calendar, would not do a full vigil service, and introduced all sorts of modernisms, like reading aloud the secret prayers and the eucharistic canon, giving communion without confession etc. This was all within the same diocese, the same town. For him that parish had lost the authentic savour of Orthodoxy. He used to call them Catholics. How can you take them seriously, he said, when they call themselves Orthodox but use the Catholic calendar?
Nadia Shmakova: How could an English Orthodox Church come about practically? Is there a bishop who could play an important role?
Fr Andrew: A renewed and free Russian Orthodox Church could set up an autonomous
Exarchate for Western Europe, rather as the Moscow Patriarchate has for the
Ukraine and Belorussia. The Metropolitan could be fixed in Germany or Switzerland.
Under him there would be a Synod of Archbishops and Bishops, representing the
individual countries of Western Europe. Eventually, when spiritually mature and
ready, individual local Orthodox Churches could be founded. I am not thinking so
much of an English Orthodox Church as such, more of a Church covering the four
countries, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, a Church of the Isles.
Nadia Shmakova: You mentioned a renewed Russian Orthodox Church? What would happen to ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate?
Fr Andrew: I believe in 'the biological solution'. That is to say that the handful of individuals in Moscow, Communist-trained ecumenists and modernists to the core, who are at present holding the Moscow Patriarchate in captivity, will eventually die out. If it is God's Will, then there can be some kind of dialogue among Russians and the Russian Orthodox Church re-founded. The present tragedy of the Moscow Patriarchate is that although it is outwardly free, it is inwardly captive, a captive of the Soviet mentality. It is a captive of a system that officially disappeared years ago, but of which the main representative's mummified corpse is still on display in the centre of Moscow.
Nadia Shmakova: Why would you need the Russian Orthodox Church to establish some independent Exarchate? Why could the Patriarchate of Constantinople not do something?
Fr Andrew: Since the so-called Councils of Lyons and Florence and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, that Patriarchate has not been free to establish new Churches through missionary work. It has become balkanised. The Russian Church is the only Orthodox Church left with the sense of catholicity, an international breadth of vision. Of course even that has been sorely compromised in 1917. But all is not lost.
Nadia Shmakova: Why is all not lost? Why could there not be a revival of Constantinople?
Fr Andrew: All is not lost because there could be a revival of the Russian Church. As regards a revival of Constantinople, that too is possible. With God all things are possible. Then the words 'primacy of honour' would have a meaning. For this to happen, however, the Patriarchate would have to move out of Istanbul to Mt Athos and start choosing its bishops from monks, rather than from celibate bureaucrats and ethnarchs. Orthodoxy today lacks an international voice. The last one was St Justin of Serbia, who reposed in 1979. If Constantinople could free itself from hellenist nationalism and consequent Uniatization, have real monks as bishops, then maybe it could produce an international figure and reclaim the primacy it lost in 1453. But frankly there is no sign of this, though Constantinople did have an opportunity in the USA with its Archdiocese there to establish something. Unfortunately, there is no sign of any revival in Constantinople today.
Nadia Shmakova: What do you think of the question of Ecumenism?
Fr Andrew: Most Protestants either don't understand Orthodoxy or simply ignore it and
the Catholic authorities want to conquer us and latinize us. In many parts of the
world, the Holy Land, the Ukraine and Slovakia, the Catholic authorities mock us,
just like the Romans mocked Christ on the Cross. Of course it is not like that
everywhere, in some places we have more or less good relations, especially with
the ordinary people.
Nadia Shmakova: Do you have any regrets?
Fr Andrew: I suppose it is not good to regret, but I must admit that I regret that I cannot yet give up my secular work to devote myself to the priesthood full time. But then we live in an incredibly irreligious age. And I suppose that must be the main regret. I have a list of books I want to write about Orthodoxy, but no time to write them, because I have to have a secular job to provide an income.
Nadia Shmakova: Do you have any ambitions?
Fr Andrew: What a horrible word! My ambition is to be spiritually free. On the other hand I suppose there is one thing I would love to do. That is to build a church, and build it in the style of a Western Orthodox church of about the Year 1000. That would be to redeem a thousand years of heresy.
Nadia Shmakova: Where would you take your model from?
Fr Andrew: There are many models, especially in France, where, ironically, they did not suffer the Norman Invasion and subsequent destruction. In this country people have strange concepts of church buildings of the Year 1000. For example, they think that all churches of that time were very small. They were not, it is simply that the surviving fragments are small. Churches at that time were plastered white on the outside and frescoed inside, just like in Russia. After the Middle Ages, in this country especially, the frescoes were destroyed and the white plaster taken off the outside walls. The surviving fragments of early Orthodox Church architecture in this country are merely vandalised vestiges of the real thing.
Nadia Shmakova: Do you think that you could build such a church in Felixstowe?
Fr Andrew: I have no idea. in any case, I will not build anything, though the Lord God may do it through me. A priest is only a tool, an instrument, an agent. Nothing more. As regards Felixstowe, the Lord has put me here for today. Tomorrow, I don't know about, tomorrow is, as they say, another day. I am reminded of the saying: 'If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.'
Nadia Shmakova: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future in general?
Fr Andrew: Both: pessimistic, because I may not be able to withstand torture and martyrdom, if it comes to that: or in general, because I shall not find salvation on account of my sinfulness and many weaknesses. Optimistic, because as a Christian, you always have hope in the mercy of God. He is a good God and He loves mankind. That is the only thing that keeps me from despair.
Nadia Shmakova: Thank you. To end, can you give us a word?
Fr Andrew: I am not very good at this. You ought to ask a wise monk. All I can say is that one prayer has carried me through the last twenty-five years of Orthodoxy: that is: 'God forgive me a sinner'. I am hopeful that it will carry me through until the end, whenever that may be.