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On the Recent Troubled History of the Russian Church in London

This interview was conducted between a research student, L., and Fr Andrew in 2008. With the recent changes in Russian Orthodox Church life in London, there seems no further reason for it to be withheld from publication.

1) It has been said to me that the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom had an independent approach to things. Such as he kept an icon of the royal family long before Moscow accepted them as Saints. I am more interested however in the more mundane things on the level of his relationship with the parishioners. The Wikipedia article on the Diocese of Sourozh says he eased some of the regulations such as headscarves for women and allowed marriages to take place on Saturday. Can you comment on this issue please?

The first thing is that Metr Antony had no formal training as a priest. He often acted on intuition. He used to phone the Western expert on the canons, the late Bishop Pierre L’Huillier, in Paris for advice. I know I was in Paris at the Exarchate in 1979 when it was happening.

Strictly speaking, many of Metr Antony’s practices were uncanonical, for example weddings on Saturdays (instead of Sundays). People around him justified this by talking about a ‘law of love’, so that anything became acceptable. This shocked traditional (English, Russian, Greek, Serbian) Orthodox from the 1960s on. It was only in the very late 1990s that a group in London formed which was strong enough to protest against such uncanonical practices.

Up until that time anyone who disagreed was forced to leave, as I was forced to leave two years after being tonsured a reader by Metr Antony at Ennismore Gardens in January 1981. Basically, in the early 60s, Metr Antony’s diocese was so small that all he could do was to recruit English people (mainly High Anglicans) to create a diocese. (All the old Russian emigres were in ROCOR, which until the early 1970s was much bigger than the MP and would have nothing to do with what for them was a ‘Soviet Church’). However, in recruiting Anglicans in order to create even a small diocese, Metr Antony had to make compromises, adopting Anglican customs – no headscarves, women in trousers in church, shortening services, doing cremations, engaging in ‘liturgical reforms’, milk in tea on fast days, receiving people within a few days, not Churching women, communion without confession, uncanonical ordinations etc etc. This process was in fact Anglicanisation.

2) Metropolitan Anthony’s charisma coupled with these eased up regulations no doubt attracted a significant following amongst Non-Russian and traditionally non-Orthodox people. Do you think he went too far with this liberalisation of faith and unwillingly sown the seeds of future discontents in the Diocese?

Yes, absolutely, he did go too far and I am hardly alone in this belief. As regards his ‘charisma’ (I would sooner call it a fatal weakness), this soon became a personality cult, which Metr Antony first cultivated and then became a prisoner of. He had made a rod for his own back.

3) A recent article by Paul Valley in The Independent, albeit not good, contained some viewpoints of parishioners that claim to have fled the church to Rue Daru. They say it was because the situation there for was unbearable for them. The newly arrived Russians used the church more as a community centre and not as a place of worship. They also on the other hand bring up the argument that the clergy sent from Russia to help with this situation was addressing the issues of approach of Metropolitan Anthony. The clergy was allegedly critical of the liberal approach taken by Metropolitan Anthony and the splinter group also claims that there were fears of Russification, i.e. having the services entirely in in Church Slavonic. I must say that I went to the church several times and found that English is used extensively, even in the liturgy which I was a bit surprised about. I have looked into discussion boards on the internet, but nowhere have I found any explanation of these sentiments. Can you comment on this issue please?

There was no danger at all of Russification – the danger was ‘Orthodoxification’ that is being forced to abandon the ‘comfortable’ Anglican practices which Metr Antony’s converts were used to. In other words, language was not the problem, it was an unOrthodox and even anti-Orthodox culture, the development of which Metr Antony had allowed around him for decades, that was responsible

Over the years hundreds of laypeople and clergy had left Metr Antony because of the compromises. The 2006 ‘schism’ (the word of Patriarch Alexis) was merely the end point of a long process. Most people who had been at Ennismore Gardens felt betrayed by Metr Antony’s unending capitulations to the liberal clique which surrounded him (and which he had allowed) and which forced him into making compromises in return for the personality cult that they owed him. Some of the people who left him did not altogether abandon the Orthodox Church and indeed were profoundly loyal to the Russian Church and Tradition. They considered, rightly or wrongly, that Metr Antony had permitted the betrayal of Orthodoxy, for which they personally had made huge sacrifices. They, the greatest possible friends that Russian Orthodoxy could ever have had in this country, who had made the greatest sacrifices possible, who would have died for the Church, felt betrayed by its official representative in this country. Apologies have still not been made for this and yet so many lives were utterly ruined.

On a visit to London in the early 60s, Patr. Alexis I commented that Metr Antony would have done better to have been a married priest. With the right matushka he would have been excellent. I cannot agree more with this. He was a brilliant writer – in Russian. But as soon as he went into English, his fatal weaknesses overshadowed his gifts and he compromised. One of his teachers as a child (the late Mother Abbess Seraphima of Bussy in France, who died in about 1990) told me that Metr Antony was already like this as a school child. Clearly, there was a family inheritance there from his father, Boris, and his uncle, the composer Skriabin.

4) I have not done a thorough reading of the wealth of articles I have bookmarked because I have other duties, but from what I have read so far there seems to have been unwillingness on the part of the old clergy exemplified by Bishop Basil Osborne and inability on the part of Metropolitan Anthony to deal with the challenges this post-Soviet wave of immigrants brought with itself. Are my perceptions right?

Yes. But as I say, those who followed the Tradition long before this had also been ejected. But at that time we were a minority and Moscow would not listen to us because it was the Cold War and Moscow was enslaved. I first met Dcn (as he then was) Basil Osborne in 1972, and knew his family and mother quite well. His tragedy was that his matushka Rachel, died quite young. He is a nice, quiet academic (very typical of the academics whom Metr Antony ordained – he never ordained strong characters for fear that they might become rivals – that was why Fr Sophrony left Metr Antony in 1965). Moscow is in some sense to blame for Bp Basil – they allowed his consecration, never investigating the real situation. For example, the only priest that Bp Basil wanted in London from Moscow was the notorious renovationist Fr George Kochetkov, a hero of the Paris jurisdiction, together with Fr Alexander Men.

5) In the third question I touched on the issue of ethnicity. The Ennismore Gardens parish make up looks very multilingual and even multiracial, The Russian Church itself is not made up of Russians only, even in its homeland. The people who left the Church in 2006 however seem to evoke phyletism in their arguments. Is it really an Anglo-Saxon vs. Russian issue here?

Phyletism was indeed the reason, but not Russian phyletism, it was English phyletism, or more precisely upper-class Anglican phyletism. And traditional English Orthodox also suffered from the same phyletism from their Anglican compatriots.

6) I have also read some articles on the issue of unwelcoming treatment of the clergy sent from Russia to handle the situation of swelling numbers of believers.

Not only from Russia, but Serbs and English people – back in the 1970s, like Fr Milevoy.

The affair concerning Archbishop Anatoly who was accommodated in an apartment of low quality and earned a small salary compared to the others. In Paul Valley’s article the parishioners refer to the clergy sent from Russia as “peasants” and other articles hint towards some kind of irritation on the part of Bishop Basil to the criticisms raised by the clergy. Can you comment on this issue please and also if you have knowledge of it, how did this ethos express itself in relationship to the new immigrants.

This is absolutely true. And I know it from Vladyka Anatoly personally. The snobs of Kensington and Oxford did not want to mix with Russian ‘peasants’ (or English or Serbian or Greek ‘peasants’ for that matter). The same was true of some of the children and grandchildren of the old emigres, who had aristocratic attitudes, even though they had largely lost their Russian language and culture. But there was nothing new here. Metr Antony also refused to receive people who were not from rich Anglican backgrounds as far back as the 1960s, including East End dockers – and myself - among many others. It was in so many ways an aristocratic mafia.

7) I have been told that the situation on the ground a couple of years ago used to be quite wild. The new immigrants apparently not skilled in ways of worship and using the church as a community centre did things not appropriate for the church.

Not wild, but undisciplined, because nobody would teach the new Russians, no-one would Church them. They knew no better. But why reject them? They are human beings. Just because they do not have PhDs and do not speak English fluently and did not go to public schools and study French intellectuals philosophy and were not rich, why reject them? This was typical Kensington-Oxford snobbery and racism. The new Russians were not respected, but then nor were many others. This was not so much a racial issue as a class issue. This was upper-class sociology masking as theology.

The very reason the splinters give to justify their argument of being pushed out of the Church. However they seem to not explain how they were pushed out, only that certain elements in the newly arrived wave of immigrants made the situation untenable. I have found things such as there was a fight outside the Church (in Paul Valley’s article) and also I have read a report from a service where it was said that the crowd was so large that people fainted and had to be taken away by an ambulance.

This was Metr Antony’s error of not obtaining other churches in London and the throughout the south-east very cheaply in the 60s and 70s. There was a total lack of leadership and vision, that was so frustrating for everyone else. Indeed, rather than open much-needed churches, Metr Antony actually closed the chapel dependancy (podvorie) in Upper Addison Gardens. He refused to have other churches because he wanted only one church in London. Again those fatal weaknesses, which made him promise so much, but made him unable to deliver anything. He should have just written books in Russian as a married priest, at which he would have excelled. He too was a victim of the situation of the emigration, in which so many lives were broken.

Surely these seem like horrible situations but how could they be changed by transferring the Diocese to Constantinople as Bishop Basil proposed or running off to Rue Daru as he later did? The splinters claim in some discussion boards that there was no choice for them but this move and that Bishop Basil tried to keep the work of Metropolitan Anthony going.

All this is true.

It must be said that as a Russian, Metr Antony would never have left the Russian Church, unlike Fr Sophrony. This is why the Sourozh schism was guaranteed after Metr Antony’s death. Only its timing, on the eve of the Fourth All-Diaspora Council in San Francisco, surprised anyone. But that timing was deliberate. Since it was already clear that ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate would unite, the Sourozh modernists could not bear to stay in the Russian Church. The reality of Russian Orthodoxy had caught up with them, the émigré fantasies of modernism were dead. The whole problem for them was that ROCOR has always remained faithful to the Russian Orthodox Tradition inside Russia – it was Diaspora churches of the Patriarchate which had been unfaithful to it. Once Russian Orthodox came out of Russia in the 1990s, they wanted to practise the Orthodoxy which they had known inside Russia – the same Tradition as that practised by ROCOR.

8) What were the ideological ends of the splinters or how could their ideology be defined?

This ideology is the Parisian renovationist one of combining Western liberal humanism with Orthodoxy. This work was begun before the Revolution in St Petersburg, was rejected and died out in Russia in the renovationist schism, but was taken to Paris after the Revolution and thrived there among St Petersburg aristocrats, philosophers and intellectuals. It is an ideology of convenience, because it means that Orthodox in the West can live a self-justifying Western-style of life while still, nominally, remaining Orthodox. This explains why all the heroes of these ideologues are Western humanists, academics and philosophers, especially French ones. We must remember that the Ennismore Gardens emigres and their children, as they became, were under the Paris jurisdiction until 1945.

9) And also there is the ROCOR church in Chiswick. I have been told by one parishioner in Cathedral that most of the old people now worship there. I have not yet visited that place but have been wondering whether the parish in Chiswick did not act as a filter for those dissatisfied with the way things were run in the Cathedral?

As regards ROCOR and the MP in London, people constantly changed jurisdictions. At one time just after the War, they shared the same church (Ennismore Gardens) and celebrated on alternate weekends. The priests changed, but most of the people did not. There was a constant interchange of parishioners until the 1970s when the ROCOR church made itself very unattractive because it was taken over by an extremist clique directed from New York, not from Jordanville. So, many continued with Metr Antony, not because they liked that cold ethos, but because they could not stand the sectarianism taking over in ROCOR.

What you have been told is only to some extent true - virtually all the old emigres died out between the 70s and the 90s. There is now hardly anyone left, even their children are dying out. The Gunnersbury church (it is not in Chiswick, as many wrongly believe) is populated mainly by new emigres. Not many went there from Ennismore Gardens, because it is so far from central London and also at that time there were extremely serious internal problems which scandalised many people. Most people just gave up on the Russian Church or moved out of London or England, to where there were viable and valid Russian churches. Thank God, today the atmosphere at both churches has been transformed, normalised and both are thriving.

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