On Missionary Work among Non-Orthodox in the West
Tatiana B., from Minsk in Belarus, has been in England for six months. Recently we spoke together and the following is the gist of the conversation translated into English.
TB: Being in the West is very different from Belarus. What are the problems of being Orthodox here?
Fr A: Being Orthodox here is a battle for survival. Our cry of victory is not that we are expanding or prospering, that would be fantasy. Our victory is simply this: ‘We are still here’. That is as great a victory as we can expect, simply to still be ‘in business’ after all these years. Everything is against Russian Orthodoxy here. And it is the same all over the Western world. And by the Western world, I mean not only Western Europe, but the Americas and Australia. But I would rather talk about Western Europe, of which I have direct experience.
TB: Where have you served?
Fr A: I have served in France, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and England, though I did not serve my first English liturgy until twelve years after I was ordained. I served mainly in Slavonic during that time.
TB: Are there any differences between these different countries and the approaches of local people towards Orthodoxy?
Fr A: Although Western Europe can be divided into two parts, the north or Protestant part and the south or Roman Catholic part, there is not much difference between them. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are only the two sides of the same coin, the north and the south.
TB: What sort of people become Orthodox in Western Europe?
Fr A: A great variety. Some come from non-religious backgrounds, like myself, many previously belonged to some Western confession, Protestant or Catholic. But most who come to the Church have a University education. Otherwise they are not so likely to meet Orthodoxy. But there are exceptions.
TB: What is the attraction of Orthodoxy to Western people?
Fr A: The Tradition. The West has abandoned all sense of Tradition. Then suddenly Western people discover the Orthodox Christian Tradition, the Church. It is a revelation, the Revelation, of the Absolute. This leads them in turn to realise that the Tradition is Apostolic. The Church, led by the Holy Spirit, does not and cannot undergo the constant changes that Western confessions undergo. So Western people begin to realise that this is the Church. There is no other Church, only the Orthodox Church. Outside the Church, there are only fragments, vestiges, monuments and memorials of the Church. In other words, only the Orthodox Church has the fullness of the Church. Outside Her there are only former parts, more or less withered. There is only One Church and She is Orthodox.
TB: How do the doors of the Church open to Western people? I mean, who helps them to enter the Church and receives them?
Fr A: A great many people come to join the Church, simply because they attend a church service. This is the best way. Others have some traumatic experience and this makes them think about the meaning of life and death, the serious things. A third way that brings people to the Church is through reading. Increasingly, as people read books and magazines less, this means the internet. This is a very valuable missionary tool.
TB: What was your own door into the Church?
Fr A: When I was twelve, I became interested in the Russian language and literature. I felt at home in it, strangely, it all recalled the atmosphere of my early childhood. It took me two years to realise that the beauty and greatness of Russian culture come only from Russian Orthodoxy. Then, through discovering the Gospel, I realised that the source of Russian Orthodoxy was the Gospel. Everything fitted together.
TB: When and where were you received into the Russian Church?
Fr A: I was received into the Church in 1975 in the Oxford parish of the Russian Patriarchal Church.
TB: Why were you not received into ROCOR?
Fr A: Parishioners did not want to receive me because I was English. They said that only Russians could belong to ROCOR.
TB: Are there any personalities who have brought people into the Church in the West from other confessions?
Fr A: Since the 1960s, there have been three such personalities in Western Europe in particular. Strangely, they have all been in England. These have been the late Metropolitan Antony Bloom, then Timothy Ware, now Metropolitan Kallistos, and finally the late Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov. All three writers provided excellent introductions for those who know nothing, each in his own way. It is true that there were others who wrote similar, but more Protestant-style introductions. In America, for instance, there were other writers, the late Fr Alexander Schmemann and the late Fr John Meyendorff.
For example Timothy Ware, an ex-Anglican Oxford academic wrote a book called ‘The Orthodox Church’ for Anglicans, especially for the University-educated. Later editions of his book are ecumenical and actually sometimes somewhat controversial and divisive, but they do speak to Non-Orthodox in their own language. He has also done brilliant translations and those are a great achievement. The writings of Metr Antony Bloom, who was a Parisian, wrote English-language books in a contemplative, almost Buddhist, style with an emphasis on the psychic. They appealed a lot to wealthier people in England. (Metr Antony’s Russian books are quite different from these and provide excellent introductions for ordinary people brought up under the Soviet system).
Although most of the books of Fr Sophrony are philosophical, his main work is his book about St Silvanus, which is quite different from everything else written by any of these three authors. It stands out head and shoulders above everything else, because these included some of the words of a saint. Fr Sophrony, who was one of St Silvanus’ disciples, wrote down the words of St Silvanus. This was and is very important. These writings open the door to the wider and deeper Church, to the discovery of the Lives of the Saints and so the discovery of the Tradition, once the door of the Church has been opened.
TB: Who is deeper than these writers? What about Fr Seraphim and St John? Did they not bring people into the Church?
Fr A: St John was the instrument through whom many in Western Europe, though very few in England, where he spent little time, came to the Church in the 1950s. He left Western Europe where he was Archbishop at the end of 1962. As for Fr Seraphim, his influence, like St John’s, generally only reaches people after they have left a Western confession. This is quite different from the above three writers who wrote especially for people outside the Orthodox Tradition. People are often not ready to understand Fr Seraphim before leaving heterodoxy. Fr Seraphim and St John are the second course of the meal, meat for the soul, the other three writers, with the exception of Fr Sophrony’s noting of some of the sayings of St Silvanus, provide the first course. The writings of St John and Fr Seraphim become accessible once you are inside the house, inside the Church. Their writings help keep people inside the Church, they nourish the soul, generally they do not introduce people into the Church, for which you need the first course.
But to get inside the house and taste Fr Seraphim and St John, first you have to get through the door. For most who came from a Protestant, Anglican or Roman Catholic background, one or other of the above three writers helped. For them you do not really need any spiritual understanding, just intellectual understanding. The same is true for the two American writers I mentioned above. Generally speaking, they do not feed the soul, only the mind. But if the soul is not awake, then Fr Seraphim and St John will be too much. St John and Fr Seraphim write for those who want something deeper.
Another solid though academic writer is Fr George Florovsky. But those who want something deeper and have read Fr Seraphim and St John, generally move on to the holy elders, the Optina Elders, Fr Paisius the Athonite, Fr Cleopas of Romania. Then there are the Lives of the Saints, St Ignatius, St Theophan, and the other Holy Fathers. With a little spiritual experience and understanding we can read these authors. We have to understand that there are layers of Orthodoxy. We come to them only with spiritual readiness, when we have overcome shallowness. The ultimate step is the Philokalia, but that is not for beginners and can even be dangerous for the unaware or Non-Orthodox.
TB: In Minsk I heard that Metropolitan Antony Bloom converted thousands in England. Was that the case?
Fr A: I think that that is an exaggeration. True, he got thousands interested in the possibility of God, but that is not the same as conversion, especially conversion to the Church. I remember how Metr Antony himself used to say that he had converted far more people to Anglicanism than to Orthodoxy!
Only God converts people to His Church, it is the grace of God that converts. As for personalities, they can often get in the way of that grace or even repel it. Metr Antony received into the Church many, perhaps several hundred, who had been touched by the grace that radiates from Orthodoxy. Sadly, not so many stayed, as we saw in the Sourozh schism. Sadly, even before he died, most of his converts to Orthodoxy had lapsed. Very few Western people accept Russian Church discipline. It is too ascetic for those who are used to Western comfort, self-gratification. They want something easy and the Cross of Christ is too much for them.
TB: Did you know Metr Antony or the others you have mentioned?
Fr A: Yes, I knew Metr Antony. He was very different from the Metr Antony you know from his Russian-language books. He ordained me reader in January 1981 at the London Cathedral. He had a very strong personality. I also knew Fr Kallistos, as he then was, in Oxford in the mid-70s and I much respect his intellectual brilliance. In the 70s, I also used to cycle to Fr Sophrony’s monastic community and would listen to Fr Sophrony. And in 1980 I also met Fr Alexander Schmemann and got to know him, though I knew other members of his family, many of whom were in ROCOR, better.
TB: An Englishman in London talked to me about a Western Rite in Orthodoxy. He told me that St John allowed this. Can you explain what this is?
Fr A: St John was the only Russian missionary who ever worked in Western Europe. He was quite unique. And he is of course the only Russian confessor-saint we have ever had here.
In the 1950s Western people still had a sense of rite. This was not Orthodox, but Roman Catholic, but St John allowed changes to it and accepted it as a Western Orthodox rite. Sadly, this sense of rite is no longer with us. Today there is no such thing as a Western rite, because Roman Catholicism destroyed it at the Second Vatican Council. True, it is still possible to revive rites through archaeological restoration, but these are not living rites, just as the Uniat rite is not a living rite. Sadly, such ritual restoration can attract fantasy, so that there are spiritual dangers attached to such movements. A rite must always be living, having continuity with the past.
TB: If we can move onto the Russian Church for a moment, you recently said that in your opinion unity should have been restored between ROCOR and the MP after the Moscow Jubilee Council in 2000, instead of in 2007. Why did you not wish to move to Moscow at that time, in 2000?
Fr A: That is my opinion, but you know, both my and anyone else’s personal opinion is irrelevant here. The first thing is Church life is obedience to the bishops. Unless a bishop asks me to renounce the faith, morally and spiritually to corrupt myself, to disobey the Ten Commandments, or for example asks me to become a freemason, I must obey him and remain where I am. Otherwise, there is pride. Obedience in Church life is vital. Personal opinion is purely secondary. So we waited until the whole Church moved in 2007. In any case, Russian Church unity in England was impossible until 2006, when at last spiritual freedom in the Patriarchal Sourozh Diocese was restored and an Orthodox bishop, Bp Elisei, was appointed from Moscow with the help of Archbishop Mark.
TB: Why was Russian Church unity in England impossible until then?
Fr A: The Patriarchate here had for decades been controlled by renovationists. Metr Antony himself suffered from them and their manipulations. They tried to take him over. All sorts of renovationist practices were introduced, especially from the early 1980s on. For example, there was ecumenism, then the proskomidia was sometimes performed in the middle of the church, there were similar liturgical ‘reforms’, there was pastoral liberalism, cremation was allowed, there were funerals of Non-Orthodox, communion without confession, communion of those living in sin, refusal to venerate icons by kissing them, only bowing in front of them, any sort of liberalism on issues of women’s and men’s dress in church etc. All of this was under the pretext that this was all ‘English’! In fact, it was just ethnicism, phyletism, putting Anglican Protestant practice above the Orthodox Faith.
At one point the Sourozh Diocese became so anglicanised that they even said that they would accept female clergy. Orthodoxy had to be restored in a whole jurisdiction. This has very much been accomplished by Vladyka Elisei, who is an excellent diocesan bishop. He has very much returned his small diocese to the same practices as dioceses in the MP in Russia or as in ROCOR. He is a Godsend to this country.
TB: Does the ecumenical movement still play a role in Orthodoxy in England?
Fr A: Ecumenism is liberal Protestantism, which has now completely dissolved into secularism. I think it is dead.
TB: What about relations with Roman Catholicism?
Fr A: On paper, Orthodoxy has far more in common with Roman Catholicism, as one or two rather naïve Orthodox bishops believe. But for us who live in Western Europe and know the daily realities of Roman Catholicism, it looks quite different. Here, modern Roman Catholicism is in reality very much reduced to a Protestantised rite with a nominal submission to the Pope. Then there is the illusion of Uniatism. If the Vatican could give that up, we could begin talking seriously. So far no serious talks with them are even possible, with dozens of Orthodox churches in the Ukraine stolen by Uniatism.
At present both Protestants and Roman Catholics are leaving their confessions by the million throughout Europe. Will there be any believers left, when Christ returns? It is a good question, and one asked in the Gospel, but we are also asking ourselves this question now. At present spiritual decadence in Western Europe is such that it looks as though in Western Europe there will in two generations time only be Orthodox left. An example. Over twenty years ago I met the only student of Patristics in Holland. One person in sixteen million who knew something about the Church Fathers and he was Orthodox, a Dutch convert! This is the Western Europe of today.
TB: Are you a pessimist or an optimist regarding native Orthodox in the Orthodox Church in Western Europe?
Fr A: I am realistic, that means both optimism and pessimism.
TB: Can you explain that?
Fr A: I am a pessimist because there are very few of us. There will never be very many native Orthodox in Western Europe without a massive spiritual revival. For that it requires repentance. And there is no sign of that, except in individual cases. There is only humanist self-justification of sin, political correctness, which has become a tool of the devil. There are only individuals in Western Europe who are Orthodox. There is so much fantasy. Many people come to the Church with their own agenda. They admire the Orthodox Tradition, but want to change it. They do not want to live by it. For example, I have seen people with ‘icons’ of the anti-Orthodox preacher Francis of Assisi, whom they venerate! I tell them to go and become Roman Catholics, if that is the way they feel. They will never be at home inside the Church. They are not spiritually ready for Orthodoxy.
We receive only small numbers of people into the Church here. On the other hand, in the old Sourozh Diocese they received many into the Church, in the Paris tradition, that is, they often only had to wait for a week or two before they were received into the Church. They virtually all disappeared within a few months. As they say, ‘easy come, easy go’. This is not serious. To become Orthodox – not just to be received into the Church - it requires commitment. Over the years I have seen thousands received into various Orthodox jurisdictions, canonical and uncanonical, in England, Portugal and France. They virtually all disappeared. They were not serious. I believe in lasting, permanent Orthodoxy. Only this can save souls.
TB: What is your policy with regard to converts?
Fr A: We simply follow the Russian Orthodox Tradition in all respects, except for two things. Firstly, instead of Slavonic we use liturgical, not everyday, English. And secondly, we venerate the local saints from the first millennium, when English Christianity was in communion with the rest of the Church.
We do not change anything because we believe that English people need to learn from the integrity of the Russian Orthodox Tradition. Too many converts learn nothing, but think that they can begin teaching at once. We discourage such fantasies. We honour the local saints and use good liturgical translations. And this is the policy of the whole of ROCOR – it comes from decades of experience. Our task is to save souls, above all our own. For if we cannot save our own soul, then we cannot help others. The Church is not a game or a hobby. Being an Orthodox Christian involves suffering. So we strive to express the views and values of the Russian Orthodox view of the world but in English and in an English context.
TB: Do you have any other reasons for pessimism?
Fr A: Unfortunately, yes. We are disturbed by the increasing polarisation within the Orthodox world. Recently we saw this with the Georgian invasion of Russia, all because the American-backed Georgian President wanted his country to enter NATO. It was interesting to see who supported him. Any Orthodox who supported him was in fact supporting the very organisation, NATO, which bombed Orthodox Serbia at Easter 1999. Such Orthodox who support NATO have this sin on their consciences. Even the American political commentator and staunch Republican, Pat Buchanan, has denounced the US government’s policies in this field
In other words, this polarisation in the Orthodox world is between normal Orthodox and those who have a secular and political axe to grind. Therefore they support secular organisations like NATO and the EU, Washington and Brussels. And that goes together with modernism, the new calendar and all the rest of it. You know, we Russian Orthodox are not fools! This polarisation is between the Orthodox Tradition and modernism, semi-Orthodoxy.
Over the last decades we have tried to be open as possible towards new calendar Orthodox, seeking co-operation, bending over backwards to help them, but it has been difficult. Many of them have been political in their attitudes. They must re-examine, purify and so depoliticise their Orthodoxy and eliminate their secular compromises with Western nationalism, putting the Church first. But for the sake of this simple Christian viewpoint, the Gospel viewpoint, there are people who call me ‘mad’ and try to censor our website!
TB: In Western Europe and in England do you suffer from the other extreme, from old calendarism and ‘Orthodox’ sects, with views like those of the former Bishop Diomid in Russia?
Fr A: Not very much today really, but we certainly did in the past. And very much so then. Today, such extremist groups are very small and insignificant. They are simply an over-reaction to modernism. I cannot say that we suffer from them very much. Their day was in the seventies and eighties. There is no more future in them than there is in renovationist modernism.
TB: You say that you are also optimistic. In what respects?
Fr A: Yes, alongside pessimism, I am optimistic, very much so. First of all, we now have translations of all the services in liturgical English. Therefore, Orthodoxy is much more accessible than even a few years ago. This has transformed our situation and means that there are far more English-language Orthodox, of all nationalities, than thirty or forty years ago. At that time, all Orthodox jurisdictions, Russian, Greek, Romanian, Serb, would tell Western people to go away – and sometimes not as politely as that. They literally refused to accept them into Orthodoxy, telling them that they should remain or become Protestants or Roman Catholics. That was my own experience. Fortunately, this sort of thing is in the past now. It is possible to join the Orthodox Church, relatively easily.
Then the second problem in the past was that you could not get a blessing from bishops to have services in English or the local Western language, even if you could find good translations. Today we are on a different planet from the bad old days of racism and xenophobia. I think there is only one church in London where the old attitude still prevails. On top of that, we have also won the battle for the veneration of local saints and having their icons and services. It took us thirty years to win that battle. But we did and our battle was won both in New York and last year in Moscow. I can remember how just under thirty years ago one English priest in London was actually put on trial by his bishop for venerating the relics of a local saint!
TB: Are there any other reasons for optimism?
Fr A: Yes. Two other reasons. Firstly, the reconciliation within the Russian Church. This was a huge event. I can remember in the 1970s, even before the ROCOR canonisation in 1981, inserting the names of New Martyrs into my own calendar and asking for their prayers. I got their names and dates from Fr Michael Polsky’s books. That was all that was available in those days. Then came the ROCOR canonisation, then came the Moscow canonisation in 2000. And from that moment on, we knew that the reconciliation would happen. Even those who were against it said that it was inevitable, only a matter of time and they still say that. Their only argument is that the reconciliation happened too soon, not that it happened.
The second reason for optimism is this. For thirty years we battled for a Russian Metropolia to be established in Western Europe. Everyone was against us. You cannot imagine how hard it was. They reduced, literally, us to tears. And then His Holiness Patriarch Alexis brought this idea up four years ago. That was an amazing moment. Here was His Holiness putting forward the very idea for which we had fought for over thirty years! Our enemies fell silent, they were so surprised. We had official support for the first time. We had waited for thirty years for this and fought against all the odds, the institutions and the secular prejudices. This idea is now on the agenda, even if, for the moment, there is no practical movement towards it.
The Russian Metropolia of Western Europe, the building block of the future Local Orthodox Church in Western Europe, needs to be set up with proper Orthodox commitment. If there is commitment in Moscow, and not just from His Holiness, but from other senior figures, some of whom still perhaps entertain ecumenical illusions regarding Catholicism, then it will happen. But we will need infrastructure, organisation, a seminary, we will need to build churches, to have our own properties and finance. That is what commitment means - sacrifices.
TB: Why could only Moscow set up this Metropolia? Why could Constantinople, perhaps through the Paris jurisdiction, not do it?
Fr A: To establish this Metropolia, you need to be Orthodox, not half-Orthodox, undermined by modernism and the US or EU politics behind modernism. You need to have the Tradition without fantasies and with the full support of the Mother Church. Constantinople has never freely given autocephaly to anyone. Moscow has. Historically, Moscow is missionary-minded, even if certain individuals in it have not been and are not. As for the Paris jurisdiction itself, it is very small and very fragile, most of its clergy are not trained. Outside France, its jurisdiction is tiny. And it is all dependent on Russian-built properties, the Cathedrals in Paris and Nice. Its collapse – it is already internally very divided – is only a matter of time. Let us be honest.
TB: Why could ROCOR not set up this Metropolia of Western Europe?
Fr A: ROCOR is also small and poor, just like the Paris Jurisdiction. ROCOR is only a small part of the whole Russian Church. We cannot even look after own clergy. For example, sixteen years ago, without support, I set up the first Russian church in Portugal. But then I had to tell its parishioners to go to the Patriarchate, because there was no priest to replace me there, when I had to get a job in England for survival. But the Patriarchate was able to send a priest, Fr Arseny, to Portugal and pay him. He is still there today. I have served as a clergyman for 23 years, without a penny. It has always been a battle for survival. At one point we did even not have anything to eat for the next day. For other clergy it has been even worse. In ROCOR we have to do everything ourselves. In the Russian Church we need bishops who believe in missionary work and have the means to help, to set up the infrastructure we need. Only Moscow can do this.
TB: ‘A bishop who believes in missionary work and has the means to help’. You need another St John?
Fr A: Exactly, you are quite right! Another St John. But, of course, we must be worthy of another St John and we are not and never were. And even he was put on trial by false brethren.
TB: Fr Andrew, to sum up, how would you describe your mission among native people in Western Europe?
Fr A: Our mission in Western Europe is to gather the fragments, save the best, build oases of hope for Orthodox of all nationalities, not just native people. We use several languages in our services. We must do. Our mission is to gather everyone together, as the multinational Russian Church already has done in its best representatives. This is even more urgent today, as we approach the end.
God rewards those who give their neighbours the best of what they possess. This is what we must do, this is our destiny, our Divine calling. We are called to fulfil this destiny, our destiny, whatever the circumstances God has put us in, or else we will spiritually die. Rich or poor, we can only find happiness in this way, finding our inner calling, achieving the one thing we were put here on earth to do, as instruments of God. We are called to find the roots and spiritual wellsprings of our nations, or else we will spiritually die. We need only one thing to do this, spiritual purity, that is, the light of uncompromised Holy Orthodoxy, so that we can see aright, so following our path and doing God’s will.