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On the Present Situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Isles

E-mail exchanges with Vadim L. in October and November have been brought together below in an interview form.


MP: The Moscow Patriarchate. This is the main part of the Russian Orthodox Church based in Moscow. This was closely controlled by the Soviet authorities from 1927 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when it began to free itself. Since 1945 it has also opened several dioceses outside the former Soviet Union. Initially tiny, these have expanded greatly in recent years as a result of economic immigration. According to official figures it has 164,000,000 members in all, representing over three-quarters of the whole Orthodox Church.

ROCOR: The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. The free and independent part of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, founded in 1920 by the then still free Patriarch in Moscow. Today it is based in New York and is the main worldwide outreach of the Russian Orthodox Church outside the territories of the former Soviet Union. The MP and ROCOR linked together in 2007 after the consequences of decades of Communist control of the MP had finally died out in 2006.

OCA: The Orthodox Church in America, a small Orthodox group in North America. It is composed mainly of descendants of native Alaskans, converted by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century, when Alaska was still part of the Russian Empire, and of descendants of oppressed Uniat (Greek Catholic) immigrants from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The latter converted to Orthodoxy as soon as they had the freedom to do so on immigration to the New World. The OCA was given its name and autocephaly (independence) in 1970 in controversial Cold War conditions by the then Soviet-controlled MP. Most Local Orthodox Churches do not recognise this autocephaly as canonical.

VL: You have run the Orthodox England website and journal for over a decade. What is the future of Orthodoxy in England? Will there ever be an English Orthodox Church?

FA: An ‘English Orthodox Church’ was never on the cards in our lifetimes and it is at present quite undesirable, since we are far too small and weak to bear the cross of independence from Mother Churches. I think we have seen this from the story of the OCA. It is 35 years since I first heard the phrase ‘English Orthodoxy’. That is real. However, the concept of an ‘English Orthodox Church’ - let alone a strange-sounding conglomerate ‘British Orthodox Church’ - remains just as much in the realm of fantasy as then.

VL: So what is the future?

FA: What is on the cards within the years to come is the idea, announced in April 2003, of Metropolitan (now Patriarch) Kyrill of Moscow. This is for an autonomous (self-governing) Russian Orthodox Metropolia of Europe, of which Great Britain and Ireland will be part. This would avoid any narrow local nationalism, to which Western Europe has been so prone, especially since the Protestant Reformation.

VL: When will this Metropolia be established?

FA: Naturally, I could not say exactly, but I believe within the next ten years. This is not fantasy; this is sober and realistic and will happen. This will unite both Russian-speaking and many ‘local-speaking’, or native, Orthodox throughout Western Europe. At the same time it would be flexible, open to any others who might wish to take some part in it, while at the same time remaining canonically dependent on other Local Orthodox Churches, for example, the Serbian, Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian, Georgian Churches.

VL: Why can’t such a Metropolia become a full Western European Church and be autocephalous, fully independent?

FA: Even if that were desirable (which is very debatable), it would be uncanonical. The Orthodox Churches have met and agreed that autocephalous Churches cannot be founded on territories shared with other Orthodox, for example, in Western Europe, the Americas and Australia. Thus, ROCOR, which exists in shared territories, is not an autocephalous Church (and has never had any desire to be so), but is a self-governing part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

VL: Doesn’t this mean that the OCA is uncanonical?

FA: That is a viewpoint of many Orthodox, but the MP will not take back the OCA autocephaly until the OCA itself has asked the MP to do so.

VL: Is that possible?

FA: At the moment it is looking increasingly likely, as the OCA faces bankruptcy, scandal and faces calls from inside itself for it to be abolished as a Cold War relic. We shall see.

VL: What is the situation as regards native Orthodox in Western Europe? Are there many?

FA: No, very few, perhaps ten thousand.

VL: Why so few?

FA: The reasons are complex. Firstly, of course, there is the contemporary anti-Christian Western mentality, which is like a poison or an acid bath. Very few Western Europeans have any Christian, let alone Orthodox Christian, practice. For example, there was a time when several hundred Anglicans joined the Orthodox Church in this country, but this is less and less the case and those who did join are now ageing and dying out. The fact is that there are few Anglicans left at all, the Church of England is an institution that is dying out. Many English people, including Anglicans, hardly know what it is. Only last week five of its bishops left it. Its leadership must frankly be incompetent. The Archbishop of Canterbury, a British academic, has recently been in Rome with the Pope, a German academic, pleading with him not to take Anglicans. It is absurd. If he does not want devout Anglicans to leave him for Catholicism, then he should start treating them decently. He has brought this situation on his own head.

VA: Did all those Anglicans who joined the Orthodox Church in the past, join the Moscow Patriarchate in England?

FA: At first, quite a few went to the MP, but not later.

VL: Why not?

FA: Until a few years ago, MP bishops outside Russia (and for that matter inside Russia too) were controlled by the KGB. The KGB generally selected men on whom they had ‘kompromat’, compromising material, or, in everyday English, ‘dirt’. These were compromised individuals. Those who were not compromised were not chosen to become bishops and were often not chosen even to become priests. When converts discovered this and the scandals linked with it, they would leave the MP and go elsewhere. This was all the more serious when in reality Anglicans especially were converted not so much to Orthodoxy, but to the personality cult of a particular bishop. So they may have joined the Orthodox Church, but they never became Orthodox, they only became part of a personality cult. In this situation only the naïve, weak or hoodwinked lingered. Many of those devoted to the personality cult simply disappeared once they had seen through it, others went elsewhere.

For example, our Metropolitan Hilarion of New York was brought up in the MP, but when he discovered what was going on, he left it and joined ROCOR. It is also my own story. I came to the MP, believing it to be the Russian Orthodox Church, out of conviction that my destiny was in the Russian Orthodox Church, at whatever cost, and not out of any attachment to any individual. When seven years later I discovered the extent of the scandal, I literally walked out and did not return for 25 years, until completely new conditions, without compromise and fully canonical, had developed in 2007.

VL: So, if converts did not join the MP or left the MP disillusioned, did they all go to ROCOR?

FA: Not at all. ROCOR was never a popular choice, it was the most demanding choice. They scattered. Only those who loved and believed in the resurrection of the martyred Russian Church and were not afraid of sacrifices, persecutions and slander, sooner or later ended up in ROCOR, provided that they were welcomed there even though they were not Russian. There were also two other possibilities. Thus, many converts from Anglicanism, like the ex-Anglican Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), went to Constantinople and others went to Antioch.

VL: Why did they go to those jurisdictions?

FA; In general, I think because the latter two choices were particularly attractive to the Anglican spirit of compromise. Unlike among the more serious and traditional Russians, within those Patriarchates they could combine their Protestant spirit with outward Orthodox rites, so they were allowed to keep their Anglican calendar for the fixed feasts, be ecumenical and in the latter case, they could even practise intercommunion with Anglican friends.

VL: What about marginal phenomena?

FA: The few exalted converts, whether liberal or conservative extremists, (I have to say, all those on psychological ego-trips) went off sooner or later to their own ultra-strict sects. Having brought their sectarian, Protestant divisiveness into the Church, they took it out again, together with a pseudo-monastic sectarianism, despite all attempts to moderate them.

VL: So the scandals in the MP meant a division of converts?

FA: Yes, exactly. This is another reason why the now reunited Russian Orthodox Church (the repentant MP and ROCOR) has to work together to repair the divisive damage done in the past by the old Soviet-controlled MP and gather together those who were scattered.

VL: So, if there are today very few converts, where do the people come from?

FA: Apart from a few converts mainly from Non-Anglican backgrounds, who are still coming to us, there are two main sources, new immigrants and the children of immigrants, both old and new. The last twenty years, even ten years, have seen huge numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union coming to the West, these islands included, especially perhaps to Ireland. And there are their children who were often born in Western Europe and study in schools here and may often speak the Western language better than their parents’ native languages.

However, there are also the descendants of previous generations of both pre- and post-1917 immigrants, including the throwbacks or ‘returnees’. For example, my wife’s great-grandfather was Romanian and her family came back to the Church. As for me, it was only in May 2005, when I did some family history research, that I discovered that the vague family legend was true - my own great-grandmother, my mother’s mother’s mother, was Russian. Arriving via Southampton at the end of the nineteenth century, she had anglicised her name from Maria to Mary, married an Englishman and, living outside London, lost all contact with the Church. On top of that, her heritage and the facts of her life and faith were not passed on because she died when my grandmother was very small. But it was all there. Similarly, I regularly meet Anglo-Greeks, baptised in the Church of England, who return to Orthodoxy, as they rediscover their family roots and history.

VL: The MP Diocese in Great Britain, called the Sourozh Diocese, is far bigger than the tiny ROCOR Diocese in Great Britain. Why not join together?

FA: Yes, it is an irony, but in this country the MP, based inside Russia, is much bigger than ROCOR, based outside Russia. After 25 years without a resident bishop in this country and many difficulties before that, the ROCOR Diocese has been reduced from the largest Orthodox jurisdiction here in the 1950s to only three parishes and a pair of chapels with occasional services.

On the other hand, all three ROCOR parishes and the two chapels have their own premises, whereas Sourozh lacks premises and has many new, small and quite fragile groups which borrow or rent premises. One of the ROCOR parishes has the only purpose-built Russian Orthodox Church in the country and another has the biggest Church building in the country. Both these are recent, tributes to the prayers and long-term patience of a non-resident bishop, but also to the results of long-term presence and local knowledge and contacts – as well as a lot of hard work and sacrifice over decades. You do not get self-owned, well-established premises just like that.

VL: That still does not answer my question about ROCOR merging with the MP in these islands.

FA: There are reasons why ROCOR clergy and people would not want to go under the Sourozh diocese (the first two reasons also explain why MP clergy would also not want to go under ROCOR):

1.Obedience to our bishops. This is a canonical reason. Presumably, our bishops want us to stay with them and not to go to the MP.

2.Personal loyalties and friendships with bishops, clergy and people, scattered around the world and built up over decades. ROCOR is an international family, to which we belong. In hard times in one country, when we have faced persecution, slander and isolation here, for instance, we have still had close friendships and supportive links with other members of ROCOR elsewhere in the world. ROCOR is a global family of confessors.

3.Why change? Humanly speaking, what is the advantage? Those of us who suffered immensely from the old Soviet MP in the past have never received apologies for their treatment of us. Why should we change now? ROCOR gave us shelter and we are grateful for that.

VL: What is the present situation with those dissidents who left ROCOR, rather than take part in the reconciliation between ROCOR and the MP in 2007?

FA: The situation has not changed in the last three years. 95% of ROCOR went along with the movement, 5%, mainly in countries in South America, or in France and England, where there was no resident ROCOR bishop, broke away and joined various groupings, some more extreme than others. On the one hand, the conduct of the leaders of those groupings is reprehensible. On the other hand, there are simple and pious people and even clergy who have been misled. The leaders will never return. They already caused many problems when they were under ROCOR through their sectarian inclinations. Now they accuse us of being ‘without grace’ (!) and some claim to be the ‘Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’ – and yet even their headquarters is in Russia, not outside Russia.

However, I do feel sorry for the simple and misled, who have been misinformed. All we can do is show them patience and love, even if it takes years. But in general, these groups will die out because they are composed mainly of the elderly, who have a nostalgia for the black and white truths of the Cold War past. Here, there is a strange parallel with Russia, where you will find that the supporters of the Communist Party are also all elderly and dying out. I suppose that old people naturally live in the past and we must understand and make allowances for this.

VL: You sound pessimistic about the future.

FA: On the contrary, I am cautiously optimistic. I will tell you why. It is because I have so often seen the Providence of God working, especially in my own life, preventing me from making mistakes (though, of course, I have still made other mistakes).

For example, in 1977, I was destined to go to Kenya to help in missionary work. The sponsor of this, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, died suddenly, only days before I was to buy the ticket and go. I had even begun learning Swahili. I can now see that it would have been a mistake for me to have gone there. That was not my destiny. In 1996, I was invited to go and be the priest at a ROCOR church in Canada. Circumstances beyond our control prevented this. If we had gone, we now know that it would have been a disaster. In 2006, I was invited to go and be the priest at St Michael’s Cathedral in Cannes. Again circumstances beyond our control prevented this.

Another example: In 2007, I was invited by a bishop to go and be the priest at another ROCOR Cathedral. Having left my secular job and made preparations to leave, at the last moment everything was dropped and I was ‘no longer required’. Within only a few days of this, before I start murmuring against God, I was informed of the possibility of purchasing what is now St John’s Church in Colchester. This came into our hands, not just providentially, but miraculously. To have rejected it would have been to reject the Will of God and therefore a sin. As one brother-priest in England said to me at the time: ‘You don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth’.

These are only a few among dozens of examples of the Providence of God in my own life, but it is the same in Church life in general. When you have touched death, you want only life. Man proposes, but God disposes. I have seen so many examples of people planning things, even plotting, and their plans always go wrong, especially when they are hatched behind other people’s backs. God’s Will can be a terrible thing for us, if we try and go against it. As the Apostle says, God is not mocked. But if we are doing God’s Will, then every impossibility falls away and it all becomes easy. He does this and I speak from experience. There is great comfort here. Even when we make stupid mistakes, God brings good out of them. So, let us never despair. God’s Providence is our hope and our inheritance, the sign of His Love and Mercy towards us and His Love and His Mercy are unfailing.

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