An Interview: St John’s Church September 2008 – September 2009

This is an interview, compiled from recent e-mails, with Nikolai, who is from the Ukraine and has been living in England for nearly fifteen years.

N: In September last year, you became the legal owners of St John’s Church in your native town of Colchester. Something unusual happened after this, the church where you served moved from Felixstowe to Colchester. People move house, but do churches move? How did this come about?

FA: Felixstowe had never been our first choice. We moved there from France in 1997, firstly, because it was where we could afford to buy a house and where I could easily find a secular job. Secondly, because it was not too far from London, where Archbishop Mark would have liked me to be, if it had been possible. And then there were family considerations. Before this, we had considered moving to several cities in France, Belgium and Switzerland, and also Canada, but none of the parishes in those cities could either pay or house a priest.

Finally, however unlikely, Felixstowe was also the only town where we found suitable premises to rent for use as a church. The nearby town of Ipswich was our preference. It is a large town where ten years ago there were already a few dozen Orthodox, unlike Felixstowe, where there were, and are, virtually no Orthodox. Ipswich was where we had hoped to have a church, but no suitable premises ever came up. This was despite much searching and many visits to various properties there over ten years.

After ten years of waiting, suitable premises at last appeared in Felixstowe. However, to our disappointment, there was no financial or moral support among many church members to buy them, or any other, premises in Felixstowe. We were forced, once again, to look elsewhere. This was providential because, to our surprise, a possibility came up immediately, but it was not in Ipswich, but in the neighbouring town of Colchester. This former military church was a relatively strong possibility, because it was a third of the price of the Felixstowe premises and less than a fifth of the price of anything else that we had considered as even remotely suitable before. It was incredibly cheap, though still expensive for us.

N: What did you do first when this property came up?

FA: First of all, in August 2007 we checked that the Antiochian priest in Colchester was not interested in tendering for the property in Colchester. Obviously, we would give him priority. This was a matter of courtesy and I expected that any Orthodox priest of any jurisdiction setting up a church in Felixstowe or Ipswich, for instance, would have done the same. After I had spoken to him together with a friend, we understood that he had no interest in it at all. We realised then that we could, when possible, go and visit the property to see what they were like on the inside. This was even though we still thought it very unlikely that we could actually raise the money to buy the property.

N: What did you think when the church in Colchester was actually put on the market?

FA: As I have said, we gave ourselves very little chance of obtaining it, since we had virtually no funds. But we were so desperate after over ten years of frustration that we were ready to try anything. So we visited it, three times in all, and then launched the internet appeal at the end of January 2008, when the property was put on the market.

N: What happened after that?

FA: Astonishingly, we collected enough donations very quickly, put in an expression of interest, then put in a tender in March 2008. Again to our astonishment, on 5 May we learned that our tender, one of only four, had been successful. We immediately ordered the iconostasis and collected quotations from builders for refurbishment. We received the keys to the church on 5 September 2008. Then it took nearly three months to get all the work done, to implement the plans we had drawn up since 5 May. The move took place so that the first service, the blessing of the church followed by the Vigil, took place on 29 November. This saved us having to pay the December rent on the premises we had been using in Felixstowe.

N: It is difficult to move house. Isn’t it difficult to move churches?

FA: Yes, there was a lot of planning and work. Project management is difficult, because you have to plan ahead all the time. Selfishly speaking, the move to Colchester was very inconvenient for me and my family. We now have to travel twenty-seven miles instead of half-a-mile to get to church. Eventually, when we can, we will certainly move house to follow the church. But we have done this before, even changing countries. We know that we have to follow the Church. In Church matters we have to look at the long term, not the selfish short term. This is God’s will and He will organise it.

N: But what has the main advantage of the move been?

FA: First of all, Russian Orthodox of all nationalities from Colchester and the area around it now have a liturgical and sacramental life. Previously they did not have that and there are a lot of people here. It has also been a huge relief to me. Now I know that all has not been in vain. Now I can die. I am not joking. I have seen so many Orthodox churches close all over Western Europe, because when the priest died, the parish died. This has always been because the premises which had been used by the deceased priest had not belonged to the Church. For example, in 1939 there were seventy Russian churches in Paris – there are now a dozen. Believe me, I have seen more churches close than open. Just think of all the ROCOR parishes in the north of England – fifty years ago we had a ROCOR Bishop of Preston. But ROCOR simply died out in the north of England, one parish after another. In Colchester at least there is now a permanent Orthodox presence, which can continue whatever happens to me.

We must understand that the Church is never a ‘one-man show’. Priests die, but this should not mean that churches die. It is a tragedy if they do. That’s why premises owned by the Church, and not privately owned, are vital. We serve the Church, not ourselves. I have known people who are self-serving, claiming that they are serving the Church. This is wrong. I have always said that no priest, or anyone else, is indispensable. The cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Believe me, I have seen this, this comes from experience.

N: So Colchester is not your church?

FA: Of course not! It belongs to the diocesan bishop. We run it on trust from him. After my period there, whether short or long, it will be handed over to the diocesan bishop and another priest will serve here. Churches must never be private property. Thank God!

N: You seem to be saying that permanent premises for churches are very important?

FA: Faith is clearly the most important thing in Church life. But if a group of genuinely local (and not artificially assembled) people has faith, and therefore liturgical knowledge, the ability to sing and a priest is available somewhere in the area to provide regular sacramental and liturgical life, then obtaining permanent premises is vital. People, priest, premises. But they must be suitable premises, in the right place, where there is a real and not artificial need, not just any premises.

N: How do you define suitable permanent premises?

FA: First of all, the premises must be accessible to the public, this is vital. This means that the premises should be in or, at worst, close to, a town with a reasonable population, and therefore a reasonable Orthodox population. In England excluding London, on average a town of 100,000 will have a nominal (and multinational) Orthodox population of between 100 and 500. The larger the town the better, so that there are good transport links. Secondly, the premises should also have a hall, kitchen, toilets and parking. Thirdly, if possible, the premises should not look unOrthodox (for example, not Gothic style, ultra-modernist octagons or deltas or something like that). Fourthly, if possible, you should be able to process around them. Last of all, if it is at all possible, they should be east-facing, oriented. But thses last details in the circumstances of the diaspora, are a luxury. We must not confuse details with essentials.

N: What impressed you the most in this whole process of obtaining a permanent church?

FA: First of all, there is the generosity of our benefactors, our founders. They gave over £184,000. We very much welcome visits from them. Some of them do not live near us, some of them even live abroad. This year already we have already had the visits of three founders who live far away. Two have come from other parts of England and one from the USA. Remember that we were collecting funds in 2008 at a time of financial crisis, so their generosity was all the more impressive.

Secondly, there is the hard work put in or offered by a group of people in the first three months. Two of these were not even members of the Church then. When there is hard work to do, sacrifices to make, then you see who is really Orthodox and who is not. Those who are not Orthodox are in love with the mere theory of Orthodoxy, not with living it, doing it.

Thirdly, when we looked at the finished church, we were astonished to see how everything had come together. It is always surprising when plans and hopes actually work out.

Finally, we were also very impressed by the loyalty of our people, especially our Ipswich Romanians, who could have been tempted to leave us because of the move. Many of them very much wanted to help, but during the week it was impossible because of their full-time jobs. Everybody who went to Felixstowe now comes to Colchester, with the exception of the four members of the church who had already left Felixstowe to set up a mission in the north of the region.

N: Could you tell us about that mission? When did it begin?

FA: Two and a half years ago we began to prepare and train a member of our church, so that he could be ordained deacon. We taught another how to sing and read so that he could be tonsured reader. The idea was that, once trained, they could leave to set up a mission with our second priest, Fr Elias, but we did not know how, where or when exactly. After a year they indicated that they were already wanting to leave. At first we had hoped that they would obtain an ideal former Methodist church in a small town in the north of Suffolk, not far from Norwich. This was priced at £200,000, for which they had the money. Or else there was an excellent church available (and still available) for the same price in Norwich itself. I would love to buy that and set up a church there. There is a real need for a Russian Orthodox presence in Norwich. But what was preferable did not happen. So instead, once the deacon and the reader had been released from their canonical attachment to Felixstowe just before our move took place, they erected a small domestic chapel in a garden. Three priests are available to serve there, when regular sacramental life will be required.

N: Do you think that other missions will start now that you have moved to Colchester?

FA: I should stress that in the case of this one mission, it was only the financial ability of the people in question which enabled them to erect a domestic chapel. We do not have that sort of money. But we could probably borrow premises for monthly liturgies elsewhere. At the moment there is a need for a church in Thetford in Norfolk, not so far from Norwich, and I have asked local Russians to look for premises there, so far without success.

It is true that some years ago for two years we served liturgies in Bury St Edmunds on a Saturday. But we stopped, because nobody came, nobody supported us. I believe that that there should be a centre. In the centre, people can be trained to go out and open missions. But the centre must remain the centre. It is a mistake to disperse your efforts in such a way that the centre is affected. There must be vigils every Saturday and liturgies every Sunday in the centre. That rhythm must not be interrupted.

N: You mentioned a church and a pastoral need in Norwich and Thetford. Is there a possibility of obtaining the church in Norwich?

FA: Give us £200,000! But there is a great need in Norwich and since Thetford is not so far, Norwich would be a good centre.

N: What contacts do you have with other Orthodox in the Colchester area?

FA: In the general area there is the stavropegic convent of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights. (This is known in Greece and Russia as ‘Essex’, in France as ‘Maldon’). We have known it for over 35 years, when it was still quite Russian and very poor. We have some contacts there, but you must understand that theirs is not a parish church, but a monastic settlement, with its own totally unique liturgical and spiritual customs, different from any Orthodox monastery in the world. Moreover, it is stavropegic, that is, independent of other Orthodox dioceses in this country. There they do a lot of excellent work Churching Cypriot Orthodox from London and also bringing to the concept of Orthodoxy intellectuals, who were often originally very far from the Church. It is very open to the Constantinopolitan world.

Secondly, there is a medieval chapel in Colchester, which has temporarily been leased by a small group of ex-Anglicans under the Antiochian jurisdiction. Thus, like most English towns the size of the Borough of Colchester (150,000), there are now in Colchester two Orthodox churches, one catering for the spiritual needs of those who keep the old calendar and a chapel for those who prefer the new calendar. As before in Felixstowe, we still invite them to come to our services and concelebrate when they are free to do so, for example for the Sunday of Orthodoxy or for our patronal feast.

N: Looking back, do you still feel that the fact that this church was obtained for the Russian Orthodox Church is a miracle? I know you said so at the time.

FA: Of course, it is a miracle, a miracle of St John. We still cannot believe what has happened to us. But it is also a great responsibility. Last October, when work was still under way, we received the visit of Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco. Seeing the size of the church, the largest wooden church in Great Britain and in fact, by a little, the largest Russian Orthodox church in Great Britain, he said: ‘God has given you this church for a reason’. We have to use what God has given us for His glory. We also know that God can take away what He has given us. Our lives hang by a thread. ‘Here today, gone tomorrow’ is possible for all us human-beings. This is a great responsibility, of which at any time we risk being found unworthy.

N: Is it not extraordinary that this church is in your native town?

FA: Yes, it is. I had not thought, not for the thirty years since 1978 anyway, that we could set up a church in Colchester.

N: How do you see the future in Colchester? What hopes do you have for the future?

FA: We see that a lot of hard work will be needed to continue to create a centre for the Orthodox Tradition and culture in Essex and south Suffolk. We have a lot of baptisms in Colchester, where there are over 500 Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian Orthodox alone. What a difference with isolated Felixstowe! We will also need, when children get older, to start a permanent Sunday school.

Having trained one man to be deacon for his mission, one day we hope to have another deacon, bilingual, who will be permanently attached to our church. Similarly we are now training two more readers to replace the one whom we released for the mission. I hope that we shall have subdeacons one day. Ultimately, I would love to have a bilingual second priest.

Also we want to have daily services, starting with vespers and eventually having daily matins too. People forget that daily services in parish churches are the norm. Our diaspora life is quite abnormal. This will not be possible until we have sold our house in Felixstowe and bought one in Colchester. At the moment that is a very slow process. But may God’s will be done. I also still have to do secular work to pay our way. This gets harder as the years pass. Worst of all, it is, as ever, a very frustrating waste of time and energy.

N: Thank you.

Compiled during July and August 2009