Six weeks have gone by since the first services took place in Colchester on 29 November. We are now beginning to gain some initial impressions of what the future might hold for what is both an established church and a mission. We hope that a report on life in our church since our move will be of interest to our donors and readers.
First of all, the ethos of the Felixstowe church continues. In this sense there have been no changes at all – we are building on the base established since 1997. We continue to be a multiethnic church, which tries to meet the needs of all the nationalities who come to us. The multiethnic nature of our Church has been highlighted by the fact that the clergy delegate of our Diocese to the Local Council in Moscow at the end of January is an English priest, Fr Peter Baulk. As Archbishop Mark has rightly said, this reflects the nature of our Diocese and we wholeheartedly welcome the choice of Fr Peter to represent us. As before, we also have people coming regularly from a distance, not only from all over Suffolk and Essex, but also from Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, London and even further afield.
We enthusiastically recommended the canonical releases which Archbishop Mark requested for our second priest, deacon and new reader, so that they could help at the new mission church in Mettingham on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. Although we thus lost five members of our community, these have been made up for many times over by new members. Congregations are already over double what they were in the much more isolated Felixstowe. Every Sunday we are seeing up to ten new faces, both of Orthodox and of those interested in Orthodoxy. It will be interesting to see what the longer-term future will bring and where this expansion stops. Although the Colchester church is very large, several people have told us that with time it will eventually fill.
We have also seen some changes in nationalities. Thus, we have had not only our English, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Moldovan, Georgian, Cypriot, French and Romanian members as before, but new nationalities have appeared – notably Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian. Moreover, we have increased numbers of Cypriots, Russians and Ukrainians. In this way the national mixture has become even more varied – as we thought it might. This reflects the international ethos of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. People are especially grateful to see the only Orthodox church in the whole of the east of England, which uses the Orthodox (so-called ‘old’) calendar for the fixed feasts, set up in such an accessible location as Colchester. Polish Orthodox have been particularly enthusiastic in this regard.
Our expansion has been made possible by having suitable and permanent premises - factors which are vital to the growth of the Church.
Firstly, the white, wooden exterior of the church is far more pleasing to Orthodox eyes than the grey-Gothic or red-brick styles of many former Non-Orthodox buildings. Secondly, our new premises are not only permanent, giving us the security that we did not have before, but are also located in a far more accessible town. We cannot emphasise how important this is, though of course it did take us over eleven years of struggle and search to reach this situation. In addition to this, the new premises contain not only the main church, but also the chapel, which has been valuable for evening and weekday use.
Above all, we have a superb iconostasis. Many people have come to us and said that ‘it is just like in Moscow’ or ‘this is just like at home’. It is true that we are still waiting for the remaining icons for the iconostasis, but four of these will be arriving in the next few weeks and the others before Easter, as planned. The fact that the premises have wonderful acoustics has also meant that the quality of our choir can now be appreciated. The acoustics of the old rented premises in Felixstowe are a distant nightmare. Finally, we have our own facilities, the parking spaces, the meeting room, the vestry, the office, the hall, kitchen and toilets, all repainted and fresh and, for the summer, extensive gardens. This infrastructure is invaluable and gives us many new opportunities for the future.
The fact that we have saved a landmark heritage building of local and national importance, has won us many friends in the region. In November and December we received more positive publicity in local newspapers (Essex County Standard, East Anglian Daily Times) as well as in the national Anglican ‘Church Times’, exposure on BBC Local Television (Look East) and BBC Local Radio Ipswich, as well as on the Russian hour of Ipswich Community Radio and on Russian Television (see www. vesti.ru and type in ‘Colchester’ in Cyrillic characters). This coverage has all been friendly and supportive. However, we have been even more heartened by visits from local people, including several neighbours and members of the former community here, who have expressed their enthusiasm that the Church remains a Church and is far better looked after than it ever was before.
Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, we now have financial security for the long term. A healthy reserve was left after the purchase and refurbishment of the Church, which came out only slightly over budget. It is true that we are still waiting for two invoices, but these have already been budgeted for. Financially, we no longer have the wasteful burden of paying rent and our costs are now largely limited to insurance, heating and grounds maintenance, with very minor costs for electricity, telephone and water. We feel confident that at least half of all our costs will be met by hall rentals, which should begin in earnest next September. Having said this, we have also been pleasantly surprised by the generous donations from those who come to Church, almost double what we used to receive in Felixstowe. (Although we have never had collections during services, we do have a box where people can put donations).
Clearly, we do not know what the future will bring. No doubt there will be difficulties as well as rewards. Nevertheless, we can now look to the future with renewed confidence and security: at last the Russian Orthodox Church has a permanent, multinational base in the east of England. And for this we cannot but thank once more the generous donors who made all of this possible. You and your loved ones are remembered at every liturgy. We hope in the coming months and years to be able to welcome all of you, so that you can see for yourselves what you have achieved. Thank you and may God bless you!
Archpriest Andrew Phillips