Orthodox England

Excerpt from: Volume 10 Issue 3 Date 1st March 2007

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, it’s coca-cola’.
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 true.
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

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(c) Orthodox England - Published within the English Deanery of the Church Outside Russia: with the blessing of the Very Reverend Mark, Archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland.