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The Future of the Orthodox Church in Western Europe

Introduction: SWOT

There was at one time a fashion in the business world to carry out SWOT analyses. These analysed the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for any given business. Could the technique, common sense enough in itself, also be applied to the situation of the Orthodox Church in Western Europe?

Strengths: 1989-2009: The Tide Reaches the Shore

I write beside a tiny piece of the Berlin Wall. Its fall, fifty years after the outbreak of the Second World War, was the defining event of my generation, though it came too late for many. The fall of the Wall and the subsequent fall of dictatorships like that in Romania twenty years ago (even though it only involved one corrupt dictatorship being replaced by another) has changed everything. Within a few months supposed internationalist Communists in Central and Eastern Europe were transformed into extreme nationalists or else privatising, millionaire Capitalists. Some certainly knew on which side their bread was buttered and how to swim with the tide. Others did not.

Western Europe and so its pet project, the EU, were transformed by these events. Although some Western European leaders like the pro-Communist French President Francois Mitterrand clearly supported the continuation of the division of Europe (and more particularly of Germany), it was too late. Western Europe began to realise that it was only a small corner of Europe. Viewed from the East, it was geographically little more than a backyard, though economically a powerhouse – albeit a powerhouse to be powered by Russian gas.

With the fall of Communism, Western Europe would have to come out of its shell and face the real Europe, in particular Orthodox Europe, which had more faithful Christians in it than Western Europe had Roman Catholics. Western Europe at last realised that it would have to give up its self-centred ethnocentricity. It had another half – and that was far more Christian than the West was.

In this way, since 1989 the situation of Orthodox in Western Europe has been transformed from that of a tiny refugee minority which barely registered on the political screen, to being that of representing over 8% of the EU population. Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus are now together inside the EU. There are some two million new Orthodox in Germany (especially from Kazakhstan), one million in Italy, hundreds of thousands of new Orthodox in France, the UK, Portugal and tens of thousands in Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Spain and Norway. New Orthodox bishops have appeared and hundreds of new Orthodox parishes have opened all over Western Europe. There is talk of forming new Church structures which are required to cope.

Then there are new EU member countries with their own Local Orthodox Churches (Poland, the Czech Lands and Slovakia, and Finland), on top of which there are new EU member countries like Latvia and Estonia with large Orthodox minorities. Moreover, there is talk of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova and the Ukraine one day joining the EU. Numbers of Orthodox MEPs sit in the European Parliament. Little wonder that there are representations of Local Orthodox Churches in Brussels.

Weaknesses: Poor Immigrants? But does this really mean anything outside what some would call ‘immigrant ghettos’? True, not all the new immigrants are poor. Just as among the Greek immigration between the 1950s and 1970s there were millionaire shipowners who helped the Church, so today there are also Russian oligarchs (though most of them are of Jewish extraction or else atheists) and wealthy Romanian businessmen. Nevertheless, most of the new Orthodox parishes in Western Europe either borrow or rent premises, usually disused Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. Most of the new immigrants are poor and can contribute little to the upkeep of parishes and clergy. Often they most generously and nobly send much of their income back home to help out their chronically poor relatives there.

And, let us be frank, a certain number of young Eastern European women are in Western Europe working as prostitutes – a proposition which is horrible, but for most more attractive than starvation. Let those who would condemn them out of hand keep silence. True, many of these prostitutes are nominally Roman Catholic and Protestant from countries like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but many are nominally Orthodox, from Romania and the Ukraine especially. And many of them are basically slaves.

The results of the Orthodox presence in Western Europe are so far very modest. Outside the Western Capitals, most Orthodox communities in Western Europe are smallish, poor, unstructured and chronically underfunded. Most clergy are not only unpaid, but they actually have to pay for their churches themselves, out of money earned in time and energy-consuming dead-end secular jobs, depriving their flocks and their families. How can they catechise and instruct, creating an Orthodox consciousness among the faithful and their Western-born children, in these circumstances?

Parish choirs are often weak and suitable premises a constant worry. Monastic life has hardly begun. There is only one real Orthodox seminary in Western Europe, the brand new Russian one, near Paris, and even it is operating out of rented premises. The supply of liturgical translations, books, icons, vestments and liturgical utensils is dependent on others. Either it is dependent on the Orthodox homelands, and the supply from there is very limited and often very expensive, or else it is dependent on the heroic if sometimes amateur efforts of the pre-1989 Orthodox past.

It is this past which also has to be taken into account in explaining the administrative weakness of the situation. Until the fall of Communism virtually all the Local Orthodox Churches were split into Communist-controlled administrations in the homelands and those separate abroad, because they refused to bow down to Communist idolatry. They were free, but poor. Thus, the Russian churches in Western Europe were largely in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had been canonically set up before Communism in Russia actually took hold, many Romanian parishes had allied themselves to it and the Serbian Church had its own Serbian Church Outside Serbia etc. Some Russians and later uncanonical Ukrainians were even (and still are) under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The result of these divisions was and is structural duplication.

Opportunities: A Post-Christian West or a Pre-Christian West?

It had often been said that the European Union has replaced the Soviet Union. As atheist dictatorships, the similarites between the two have become disturbingly close. It is all the more disturbing because the Soviet Union was replaced by the Russian Federation which now has an openly Orthodox President and a Prime Minister, who has an Orthodox chapel in his own home and says that ‘life is a gift from God’ and that ‘happiness comes from God’. They will have nothing to do with Western atheist political correctness. On the other hand, the European Union has become a giant and anti-democratic atheist bloc, saturated by the intolerant tide of liberal humanism. Western Europe and its secularist offspring, the EU, is openly ‘post-Christian’. However, this provides the Orthodox Church with an opportunity. No longer do Orthodox have to be careful not to offend heterodox in Western Europe. The vestiges of heterodoxy, if not dead, are largely dying in self-imposed decadence; its failed ecumenism is dying together with it. Orthodox are now free to speak as missionaries to Western Europeans.

Perhaps, in reality, Western Europe is not so much ‘post-Christian’, as ‘pre-Christian’. Is not the mission of Orthodoxy to preach the Word of God in its Orthodox context to the four corners of the earth before the world ends? Western Europe is falling to the level of animals, from which it unashamedly proclaims that it is descended, and is becoming obsessed with the human body, sports and healthcare systems, sexual, eating and drinking functions, as reflected in its often bestial ‘art’ and ‘culture’. Orthodox are called on to preach the Church Truth of Orthodoxy to the new pagans. Through its own apostasy from the heterodox vestiges of Orthodoxy, Western Europe has now become a missionary territory.

Church and political representatives must organise themselves and take a higher profile. So far only Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow seems to be addressing European institutions and governments, urging them not to fall into the anti-Christian ways of the old Soviet Union. True, there exists an Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy, but not yet any European Inter-Orthodox Conference. New Church structures, funded properly, need to be created. Orthodox churches need to be built, and outside European Capitals, so that the representational ‘Embassy church’ mentality can at last be overcome. Orthodox parish priests need to be paid. Often people come to churches on weekdays and find them locked. They cannot understand why they are not open, like ‘at home’, why they cannot come in, light a candle and order a service. The reason is simple: the priest is out doing a secular job. ‘Those who do not work in secular jobs do not eat’. This is the rule for Orthodox priests in Western Europe.

Then choirs need to be trained. Ultimately, Orthodox schools need to be set up. We need our own educational system. We can no longer rely on the heroic efforts of individuals who for the ninety years between 1917 and 2007 served, sang, taught and translated Orthodoxy without the support of Communist-controlled Churches in the Orthodox homelands. They did this, not only mocked and rejected, without finance and support, but often against the opposition of the very people who should have been financing them and supporting them – the ‘Orthodox’ anti-missionaries. Most of what has been achieved so far has been achieved despite those who should have helped, not because of them.

1,000 Orthodox churches need to be built throughout Western Europe. Yes, 1,000. Every Western European town of over 100,000 should have its own Orthodox Church, premises, paid clergy and choir (1). Every diocese should have its parish and monastic structures, funding, Church supplies, conferences and pilgrimages. A massive injection of capital of one billion euros is required. For us, this is an impossible dream and yet just one oligarch could do it by himself without noticing very much. If each Orthodox man, woman and child then gave just 20 euros a year, this would provide over 100 million euros a year to fund these churches. Otherwise, Orthodox Christianity will not be systematically preached to neo-pagan Western Europe and immigrant Orthodox will themselves be assimilated into Western secularism. And make no mistake, that is the ardent desire and planned aim of the neo-pagan Western European elite. So the ‘salt’ will lose its ‘savour’ and will be ‘good for nothing’ (Matt. 5, 13).

Threats: Betrayal?

Apart from the most obvious threat that none of this funding will be forthcoming, there are other threats. The first is that Orthodox will be betrayed by their own representatives, allured by the temptations of EU money and prestige. It was ever the policy of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1914 to kill Orthodoxy by giving its bishops luxurious palaces. We can see the same trend in Romania and Bulgaria, for example in the apostasy of two Romanian bishops earlier this year. That compromise of Orthodox witness was much to the delight of the EU secularists. The current reluctance of some of the Bulgarian episcopate to restore the Church calendar to the Bulgarian Church is surely of the same variety.

Sadly, we can also see the same trend in the words coming from a young intellectual belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate. Only this week, having given his personal opinion that women may worship in churches dressed as men, other of his personal opinions have been projected as Church Truth. Thus, he has, according to foreign media, recognised Roman Catholic sacraments and so much minimised the profound theological, dogmatic and ecclesiological differences between the (Orthodox) Church and the Vatican that he appears to be saying that they are identical. The official Roman Catholic media adore him, but they misunderstand that he does not represent the Orthodox Churches and average Orthodox. His words only sadden mainstream Orthodox worldwide.

By making out that the Orthodox Church is just a backward, underfunded and disorganised sub-branch of the Vatican, all such opinions do is poison the minds of Western Europeans, both ex-Roman Catholic and ex-Protestant, against the Orthodox Church of Christ. Having turned their backs on Roman Catholicism, popularly viewed as pedophile, and its pro-Hitler past, the masses of Western Europe long ago switched off from anything resembling it and its pietism. Thus, they dissolved into secularism, either with or without the passage through Protestantism. Any Orthodox who is close to Roman Catholicism is simply dismissed by Western Europeans (both secular and Orthodox) as a puppet of the Vatican. If anything, it is the profound differences between the Orthodox Church and Faith and Roman Catholicism (let alone modern Protestantism) which need to emphasised.

There is also another possible betrayal of the Orthodox witness. It is that which we saw with the Greek Diaspora of the 1950s-1970s. Uprooted from their national Churches of Greece and Cyprus and transferred to the Turkish-controlled Patriarchate of Constantinople, many of their parishes tended to become ethnic clubs. Many of them were used to promote Greek nationalist causes and became Greek cultural centres rather than Orthodox Christian spiritual centres. Now, although there is no reason why there should not be cultural centres attached to parishes, we must always remain above that. Otherwise our sense of catholicity is damaged. Let cultural centres of several nationalities be attached to the same parish: this will foster the sense of catholicity among all.

Even worse is when political groupings, often right-wing, try to take over émigré parishes. This occurred in the past in émigré groups, Russian, Serbian and Romanian, for instance. On the other hand, in Soviet times certain clergy of the then Moscow Patriarchate, like the late Archbishop George Wagner in Berlin, were asked to spy for the Communist government. (To his credit, he did not do so and left their jurisdiction). We do not want to return to the bad old days of politicking in the Church. May no Eastern European State try this again.


We pray that the present opportunity to set up a real network of dozens of Orthodox dioceses and thousands of Orthodox parishes in Western Europe will not be lost. We say this with a sense of urgency. It is not only that so many smaller opportunities have been lost already, but that so many generations of Orthodox people have been lost already, assimilated into Non-Orthodox populations. We believe that as Orthodox, we now have a briefly-opened window of opportunity, one of which we dreamed during the long decades before. We must hurry before the darkness closes in on us again, as before. Remember the Apostle: ‘Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?’ (I Cor. 5, 6).

Archpriest Andrew Phillips

4/17 December 2009
Great Martyr Barbara
St John of Damascus


1.There are 407 towns and cities with over 100,000 inhabitants in EU countries outside the mainly Orthodox countries. Their total population is about 120,000,000. Since they all have a population of over 100,000, many would need to have several Churches, perhaps one for every 100,000 in their population. Given that some already have Orthodox churches, it is not at all unreasonable to ask for a thousand churches to be built. See: here

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