Towards The Real Thing:
Reflections on Native Orthodox Mission
in The British Isles
‘Save your soul and thousands
will be saved around you.’
St Seraphim of Sarov
Some thirty years ago a Russian American, now a priest in the OCA, told
me the following anecdote about the late Archbishop John (Shakhovskoi)
of the then Russian Metropolia in North America. An aristocrat of refinement,
Archbishop John had been asked for his opinion of two Paris-born Russian
academics (we shall call them Fr X and Fr Y) and an American one (we shall
call him Fr Z). He said: ‘Fr X’s theology is like sparkling
champagne. Fr Y’s – like fine bordeaux. As for Fr Z’s,
When I first heard this anecdote, what struck me first was not so much
the aristocratic and haughty manner of the Archbishop, but the absence
of any Russian comparison, such as: ‘So who has the vodka’?
What I mean is, why mess around with Non-Orthodox drinks, when you can
have the real thing? Now I am aware that the Coca-Cola Corporation used
to have some sort of ridiculous slogan, in which they claimed that their
product is ‘the real thing’. However, by ‘real thing’,
I mean ‘authentic Orthodoxy’, not an unnatural and probably
toxic drink. In this essay, I would like to consider where, over the last
fifty years and more, the native people of these islands have gone in
search of authentic Orthodoxy, ‘the real thing’, and how they
might proceed in the future.
Some Recent History
Up until the 1960s, it seems that the native people of these islands who
were attracted to Orthodoxy turned to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside
Russia (ROCOR). For example, it was here that Fr Nicholas Gibbes (9 1963)
had been serving for some thirty years, it was here that Fr Lazarus (Moore),
Mother Mary (Robinson) and Mother Martha (Sprot) had all become Orthodox
in the 1930s. It was here in the late 1940s that the now Bishop Kallistos
(Ware) first encountered Orthodoxy. It was also here that a number of
other individuals became Orthodox in the 1950s and 1960s, for example
Fr Mark (in monasticism, Fr David) Meyrick, Fr Alexis (Pobjoy), Protodeacon
Christopher (Birchall) and a number of laypeople, some of them now passed
on, some still with us.
However, in the 1970s the trend moved to the Sourozh Diocese (the Moscow
Patriarchate), centred in Ennismore Gardens. An opening there towards
the use of the English language meant that English people were drawn to
Orthodoxy there and not to ROCOR. I myself met two members of ROCOR in
1974 who told me that their Church was ‘only for Russians’.
In other words, ‘Non-Russians need not apply’. It was this
sort of spirit which meant that people turned away from ROCOR to the Sourozh
Diocese. The attitude of racial exclusiveness, expressed to me by ROCOR
laity in 1974, was confirmed to me in 1983 by a ROCOR bishop and a priest.
Even now there are ROCOR parishes in various countries, where this remains
However, as a result of internal problems, from the 1980s on, native people
seem to some extent to have deserted the Sourozh Diocese. It seemed to
be hostile to those who appreciated more traditional piety and those who
did not belong to a certain sociological category. Therefore, from the
1980s on, native people began to look to the Greek Archdiocese as a refuge.
Thus, once famed for its ethnic exclusiveness, under its Archbishop Methodius,
the Greek Archdiocese began to accept the people it had for so long rejected,
i.e. the 99.8% of the population of these islands who are not Greeks and
Greek Cypriots. Interestingly, however, converts here tended almost wholly
to use Russian customs, Russian singing etc. The impression given was
that would have preferred to have been in one part or another of the Russian
Church, but were accepted by neither.
However, as we remember, the controversial Archbishop Methodius did not
last long in his position. Therefore, in the 1990s, a group of anti-priestess
Anglicans who were interested in Orthodoxy, began to look elsewhere. Strangely
they were rejected in one way or another by all three of the largest established
Orthodox jurisdictions in these islands, ROCOR, Sourozh and the Greeks.
They found no refuge either in the other Balkan jurisdictions, like the
Serb, the Romanian and the Bulgarian. Therefore, they turned to the Middle
East, the Patriarchate of Antioch, which actually welcomed them, though
failed to prepare them for the future once they had been received. Interestingly,
once more, these ex-Anglicans tended to use Russian customs, Russian singing
etc. Even their priests took to wearing Russian crosses. It was as though
they too would have preferred to have been in one part of the Russian
Church or another, but had been rejected by them.
In saying the above, we do not wish to say that those who have become
Orthodox in these islands over the last few decades all headed for one
jurisdiction at any one time. Nevertheless, clear trends, as described
above, can be seen. But all this is history. What is happening today,
in the 2000s?
A Pause For Thought
Although the trickle of converts to the Orthodox Church of the last fifty
years and more has not entirely dried up, there is today no group wishing
to become Orthodox and no discernible trend as to jurisdiction. There
has only been a reshuffling of the cards with jurisdictional transfers
and realignments. This may quite simply be because so few people in this
country believe in anything, that there is almost nowhere where converts
could come from. Most heterodox congregations seem to be well over 65.
The only exceptions are African Pentecostal congregations, which depend
on immigration, and ‘happy-clappy’ congregations with a quick
turnover, whose services resemble anything except Orthodox services.
As regards English-language Orthodoxy, the situation regarding age is
perhaps little better. The native people who accepted Orthodoxy from the
1950s onwards are now dying out and the average age of native clergy now
seems to be the early 60s. (It should be said that the same is happening
for the immigrant Orthodox who arrived directly here after 1945. Many
churches have already been shut down, as these groups too have died out).
Two of the three English Orthodox bishops (two of them living abroad),
all of whom became bishops over fifteen years ago, are ‘retired’.
Native Orthodox in these islands are being replaced by new waves of immigrants
from Eastern Europe, especially from Romania, the Ukraine and Russia.
Given the prevalent atheism and indifference to any form of Christianity
in these islands, we may indeed wonder if there is any future for English-language
Orthodoxy at all.
With such a pessimistic – but I would maintain realistic –
analysis of the situation, we should not overlook some achievements. Some
of us are old enough to remember the battles of the 1970s and before.
Then, to find a book about the Orthodox Church was difficult. To have
services in English was a ferocious battle. English in the liturgy was
demeaned and sneered at – as, often, were English people. (At that
time Scottish, Welsh and Irish Orthodox were even rarer). To find poorly
photocopied translations of the services at that time was an accomplishment
– let alone to find exact and competent translations. Today we are
awash with Orthodox publications. And if you have no money to buy them
or order them through public libraries, then turn on the Internet –
but take care not to drown in Orthodox websites of varying quality.
In fact, today, more or less every county has one or more Orthodox churches
or places where services are held regularly in English. There are dozens
(not a handful, as thirty years ago) of native Orthodox clergy. As regards
the service books, amazingly, they have all been translated into English.
(Strangely enough, four-fifths of the highly monastic Philokalia, which
is not recommended reading for novices and new monks on Mt Athos, were
translated before the service books!). True, the translations of the service
books, made by gallant people, may not always be perfect, but they are
far better than what they used to be and, more than that, they actually
exist. Let us be honest. This is all a miracle. Give thanks to God. Given
the hostility shown in the past by many immigrant clergy and laity to
native people becoming Orthodox at all, it is simply a miracle that all
these immigrant jurisdictions were not simply ignored by native people.
On the one hand, we must confess that native Orthodox are very few in
number. Moreover, we live in a society which is ever more hostile to any
sort of Christian faith and values. Therefore the fact that there are
any native Orthodox at all is simply a miracle, especially given the attitudes
towards them of many who treat them as second-class citizens. The fact
is that, generally, native people became Orthodox not because of other
Orthodox, but because of Orthodoxy. It is as though, in the nineteenth
century, Protestant pastors had gone out to Africa to convert native Africans
and then told the selfsame natives that they were not allowed to join
their Church because they were not English and could not speak English.
Not exactly the way to run a mission.
Quality Not Quantity
Nevertheless, since there seems now to be
a pause even in the always small numbers coming into the Orthodox Church,
perhaps it is time to stop and reflect. If atheism and indifference are
to grow even stronger for yet another generation in this country, then
what are we native Orthodox to do? The answer seems obvious: It is now
time to consolidate, keeping, but also improving on what we have for the
future, when, if the world goes on that long, the wind turns and blows
our way again. If voices cry in the wilderness for long enough, eventually
they will be heard. What do we now need to do?
Firstly, we need to overcome the superficiality of much of the Orthodoxy
around us. The atmosphere of exaltation and self-congratulation noticeable
in several convert publications and at convert gatherings simply does
not fit in with the sober and modest spirit of Orthodoxy. The conference
circuit, with the same incestuous circle of people and ideas as thirty
years ago is a switch-off, not a switch-on. Much there seems to have been
taken over from the Protestant, or simply, secular world.
This is noticeable in the use of Protestant jargon on the convert fringes,
words like ‘workshops’, ‘ministries’, ‘outreach’,
‘fellowship’, ‘spirituality’ (replacing the Orthodox
term ‘churchliness’). The concept of pins in a map showing
how many places exist where there is an Orthodox ‘presence’
is not Orthodox. All of this is horizontal, not vertical, as they say.
And quite simply, viewed from the outside, ‘the real world’,
this whole ‘triumphalist’ syndrome seems to be that of a tiny
sect, which is dying out.
For instance, as a result of being so few, at the present time we suffer
from the lack of the visible presence of basic Orthodox church buildings.
In a hundred years, incredibly, only two Orthodox churches have been built
in England, the Serbian church in Birmingham and the ROCOR Cathedral in
London. (I do not include the small Oxford chapel, which apparently may
be demolished, and in any case does not have Orthodox architecture). If
we do not have the funds to build such churches, then at least let us
do what we can to convert buildings for Orthodox use. All this should
also help to make us realistic: a Church which relies on rented or borrowed
buildings could easily leave nothing permanent in a generation or two
and disappear. We must have our own properties and infrastructure to show
that we are serious about the long-term.
If such visible signs of numbers are not within our grasp, then at least
let us have depth. What does that mean? Depth means realism. Spiritual
life can only be built on reality. It is reality, not fantasy, that we
need to improve. We Orthodox of all nationalities are tiny in number.
Let us stop looking at numbers of nominal, potential Orthodox, those registered
at foreign embassies, and consider numbers of practising, real Orthodox.
We should see this clearly, so that we do not have any illusions about
ourselves. We should admit that the lack of depth has come about through
the lack of traditional monastic life. We desperately need a Russian Orthodox
monastery and convent in this country, open to English.
Overcoming a lack of depth also means inner mission, a deepening of spiritual
and liturgical life, an improvement in our Church culture. Let us be frank:
our liturgical life is weak; often untrained clergy seem unable to celebrate
any services except the liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Since most clergy
have to work, there are few weekday or even Saturday services. Services
are often transferred to Sundays. Many liturgical practices sometimes
appear to have more in common with Protestant moralism and rationalism,
with an emphasis on sermons. There is sometimes little concept of the
sense of the sacred, of mystery, with secret prayers often being read
out loud – always so hurtful to Orthodox sensitivities.
We should take care over our worship and do all that we can properly.
Then, in this same domain of Church culture, our church singing is weak.
True, it can technically be quite good, almost of Anglican precision,
but then it is cold. Better a service sung badly but prayerfully than
a service sung well but prayerlessly. In the same way many parishes have
few icons, especially icons of quality, and poor church furnishings. Even
quite large parishes do not seem to spend money on quality church furnishings
and different-coloured sets of vestments for the clergy.
If we are to convert others to Orthodoxy,
then the first thing we must do is ourselves become better Orthodox. Let
us be honest. Much nonsense has been talked about ‘An English Orthodox
Church’ or ‘A Church of the Isles’. For this to happen,
the numbers of native Orthodoxy would have to grow enormously, at least
twenty-fold, probably much more than that. Given the present situation,
that is generations away, if ever. If, on the other hand, we cannot increase
the quantity of native Orthodox, then let us improve the quality.
This means improving the quality of what we have at present, so that we
may yet achieve something in what remains of our lives. God knows, but
in this way we may yet save our souls. Let us use the present time, given
to us providentially, to consolidate our faith, to bring ourselves to
‘the real thing’. In this we can be helped by present immigration,
which can bring us nearer to the real thing. In other words, we should
not expect to see numbers of people coming to our churches, until we see
dramatic improvements in the quality and depth of our faith.
12/25 March 2006,
St Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English