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Victory in Oxford

The beginnings of Russian Orthodoxy in Oxford go back to Fr Nicholas Gibbs, the tutor of the martyred Tsarevich Alexei. Converted by the martyric examples of the Russian Imperial Family, he joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in China and became a monk and priest there. On his return to England from China, he would celebrate occasional liturgies in Oxford. This was some seventy-five years ago, in the 1930s. However, these services became regular in 1941 when he moved to Oxford and then established St Nicholas House in the Oxford suburb of Marston in 1949.

It was in 1972 that I first attended the Russian Orthodox church in Oxford. It was then a house chapel, with a prayerful atmosphere where nostalgic emigres gathered. I at once felt at home, as though I had always been there. When in 1974 I returned to Oxford to study at the University, I was disappointed to see that the house-chapel had become a library and that services now took place in a curious octagonal building, erected in 1973, some thirty-seven years after the first Russian Orthodox services in Oxford had begun.

That building did not resemble an Orthodox church and was used by both Russian and Greek Orthodox, despite objections from both sides. Later, at the Effingham Conference in 1977, Metropolitan Antony Bloom admitted to me that the building of the church had been his mistake and that he would not bless such a project again. It was clear that the shared building was, literally, a half-way stage. Many of us still hoped that one day a more normal Russian Orthodox parish could be founded in Oxford. What we did not know is that would take the tragic events of 2006 to motivate Russian Orthodox there to do this and at last establish their own church.

Today, thirty-seven years later, in 2010, St Nicholas has intervened again. 9 October 2010, the feast-day of St John the Theologian and of St Tikhon of Moscow, the founder of ROCOR, also marked the day of the consecration of St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Marston. This is a former Anglican church, which had always been dedicated to St Nicholas. Some twenty members of the clergy concelebrated, nearly all of us Oxford graduates. Thus, the prayers of Fr Nicholas Gibbs and so many, many of us, have been answered; a Russian Orthodox church has at last been established in Oxford and nobody can take the church away from us.

At the end of the service Fr Irenee Steenberg, a ROCOR priest from San Francisco, presented the new parish with an icon and relic of the Saint of the Diaspora, St John of Shanghai. Thus was renewed the link with China and so with Fr Nicholas Gibbs. It seems that history has turned full circle and that justice has now been done. The Russian Orthodox of the City of Oxford, rather than just those of the University, are now served. The wisdom of the fishermen and the humble shepherd Nicholas is proved greater than the neat schemes of academics. We wish the rector, Fr Stephen Platt, and his parishioners many, many years and generations of worship in their new home.

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