Who controls Russian Orthodoxy in Britain?

Xenia Dennen
18 March 2009

From the editors: The Russian Orthodox Church community of the Diocese of Sourozh was set up in 1962 by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom(1914-2003). He welcomed believers of all national backgrounds and developed the principle of lay participation in the management of Cathedral affairs. In1978 the Diocese bought the church in London's Ennismore Gardens that served as their Cathedral for nearly 30 years.When repairs to the building's fabric were needed in 1999, a Russian industrialist (subsequently revealed to be Oleg Deripaska) donated themoney.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,London has become home to ever increasing numbers of New Russians. They have their own ideas as to how the Cathedral should be run. This has resulted in what Paul Vallely (Independent 11.02.09) has suggested could be a ‘Kremlin-backed crusade to reclaim Russia's spiritual outposts in the West'.  The Orthodox Community in Britain has splintered and a court case to settle the question of ownership of the Cathedral and its 5 houses and flats looms. 

The differences are between the Moscow Patriarchate's way and the British way as developed by Metropolitan Anthony. The waters have been further muddied by politics. The UK Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, recently issued a legal opinion in favour of Moscow.  Could it be that the state of British-Russian relations had something to do with this? The court case is due to continue soon.

Xenia Dennen describes the background to the conflict:

The year 2006 will be remembered in British church circles as the year of the Sourozh drama: by one of those strange historical twists the British Isles became the stage upon which a conflict within the Russian Orthodox Church was played out on foreign soil, between an "open" type of Orthodoxy, open to the culture around it, concerned with exploring the faith, unafraid of "the other", as opposed to one that is "closed", defensive, and focussed onpower and control.  Within Russia itself many Orthodox believers, in their search for Christian authenticity, push against the rigid contours of a church adapted to the current neo-Soviet period in Russian history.  This church is the direct descendent of one which, to defend itself against the greatest onslaught against the Christian faith since Roman times, had, if it was to remain above ground, to make compromises and create an authoritarian system of control from above, and leave behind the ideals of its 1917-18 Local Council.  Russian Orthodoxy in the British Isles developed in a different environment and in a different way.  It influenced quietly and nurtured an inconspicuous dialogue with Christians of all traditions; it became part of the local landscape and an example of Christian authenticity.

Many in Great Britain learnt about Russian Orthodoxy thanks to the work of the Sourozh Diocese and valued its main centre, the Cathedral of the Dormition and All Saints, known to us Londoners simply as "Ennismore Gardens", which became an oasis of prayer and devout liturgical life. So what happened at Ennismore Gardens?   Suddenly word got around that hefty young Russian men in leather jackets were elbowing their way through the crowd at the liturgy, pushing aside the serious English converts and Russian émigrés who had arrived penniless in these isles after enduring the horrors of revolution, war and a hostile Communist system.  The New Russians had arrived in town en masse!  Many were relatively new to the church, they were not well-grounded in the Christian faith and, unable to converse easily in English, needed care, teaching, and support from Russian-speaking clergy.  The solution to such a situation would seem obvious: bring in more Russian clergy.  Unfortunately, however, the machinations of a small, well-organised, and determined group within the cathedral congregation, in league with a Russian priest and with the support of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations (DECR) at the Danilovsky Monastery in Moscow, undermined all efforts to solve what was an urgent but not at root insoluble pastoral problem.

The difficulties which accompanied the influx of Russians to Great Britain during and after perestroika had become apparent long before the crisis which erupted at Ennismore Gardens at the end of 2005 and in early 2006: Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, the spirit behind the founding and growth of the Diocese of Sourozh, and beloved of Christians in these islands, whether Orthodox or not, had himself struggled with how to care for so many Russian newcomers and their needs.  Sourozh, under his leadership, had developed quite differently from dioceses within Russia; Great Britain had not, after all, had to survive within a Communist system; here there was a centuries-old tradition of tolerance and anti-authoritarianism - suitable soil for planting seeds which had not been allowed to germinate in Russia after the Revolution.  

The Sourozh Diocese was formed in 1962, and 13 years later at its first Diocesan Conference principles on lay participation in the running of the diocese began to be discussed. By 1977 a Diocesan Assembly, formed by Metropolitan Anthony, met for the first time and from this body grew a committee which began work on a new set of statutes which, on Metropolitan Anthony's insistence, were intended to reflect the principles of the 1917-18 Local Council on the governance of the church.  Thanks to these statutes the laity were able to contribute, with the clergy, at every level within the diocese to decision-making.  Such lay responsibility, based on solid theological understanding and a mature spiritual life, which supported and worked with, rather than was subservient to, the clergy, is an aspect of church life which is very often absent in Russia today where unquestioning obedience is demanded of adults rather than mature Christian commitment which, after all,involves personal decision and individual thought.

Another important aspect of the Diocese of Sourozh was its identification with the culture of the country in which it developed; it had not tried to use the Russian Orthodox Church as a vehicle for preserving Russian national identity.  This principle of acculturation was by implication condemned by the then Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk (now the Patriarch of Moscow) when, in a statement on 24 October 2006, he said that the Russian Orthodox Church should, on the contrary, seek to prevent assimilation and to preserve a separate cultural and religious identity for Russians abroad.  Acculturation was also attacked in January 2004 by Mikhail Sarni, then a member of the Ennismore Gardens congregation, and Mikhail Peregudov. The latter two argued that Russians abroad needed their church to be a contact point with their country, language and culture; Sarni and Peregudov dismissed the Sourozh statutes with the words "so-called" as they had not been formally passed by the Holy Synod, and proceeded to suggest that the governance of the diocese be completely changed, with the removal of lay involvement and a return to what they considered to be the traditions of the Russian Church, that is clerical control along national lines, with only Russian clergy appointed at a senior level to care for the Russians. Such attitudes towards some of the founding principles of the diocese were bound to foment conflict.

And indeed they did. Despite efforts to satisfy the pastoral requirements of the many new arrivals from Russia - and plans were being worked out in the autumn of 2005 -the Russian priest, Fr Andrei Teterin, who had come to London in 2004 at the invitation of the diocese to help care for them, proceeded to foment a shocking and unchristian attack on Bishop Basil Osborne, the person to whom Metropolitan Anthony had entrusted his diocese. On 3 December 2005 he publicly attacked Bishop Basil and the diocese; on 10 December he sent a letter criticising his bishop's leadership to Patriarch Alexi in Moscow, Metropolitan Kirill (head of the DECR), Archbishop Innokenty of Korsun based in Paris, and even the Russian Ambassador in London, which he then circulated to the cathedral's parish council on 12 December leading to his banishment from the cathedral by Bishop Basil the next day.  It had become clear that Fr Andrei felt no obligation to observe the usual rules of obedience to his bishop and acted confidently in a way that revealed he had protection and support from on high for his actions.  Immediately on 13 December a small group of Teterin supporters gathered a total of 209 signatures and wrote to Patriarch Alexi and Metropolitan Kirill claiming that Fr Andrei was the only priest who had been educated in a Russian theological college and preached "strict canonical traditions".  Evidence of his protection from on high came when on 13 January 2006 Bishop Basil received a telephone call from the DECR asking him to reinstate Fr Andrei.  After expressing repentance Fr Andrei was allowed to return to his duties; on Sunday 15 January 2006 he took the microphone at the end of the liturgy and thanked those in the congregation who had supported him and who were later heard to exclaim triumphantly "We have won!" Unfortunately his reinstatement did not bring to an end his disruptive activity.  Thus disciplinary procedures in conformity with British employment law were instituted until on 22 February 2006 Fr Andrei was given a "final warning" and dismissed on 3 March.

Meanwhile Fr Andrei's supporters within the parish council continued campaigning against Bishop Basil, gathering signatures for petitions and writing messages on the Internet (Fr Andrei Kurayev's website provided a rich feast of discussion between many a "humble servant of God" whose pious phrases masked a viper's tongue) until the troublemakers on the parish council were expelled by an Episcopal decree on 20 March 2006.  By 25 March Fr Andrei, in a letter published on the Internet, was emitting wild accusations of "schismatics and sectarians" against Bishop Basil and his "team": they were leading an anti-Russian campaign and attacking the Russian Orthodox Church; it was time to form a "real diocese" in the British Isles in the place of a "fictitious"one.   Three days later on 28 March Fr Andrei's supporters, calling themselves  "the Initiative Group", were circulating a petition on the web "defending the norms of church life and the true legacy of Metropolitan Anthony".  What on earth had such behaviour to do with the life to which Christ called his followers and about which Metropolitan Anthony preached? 

By 30 March the situation had become intolerable: Bishop Basil wrote to the DECR asking Metropolitan Kirill to confirm that those writing petitions did not have the department's support.  He did not receive such confirmation. At the beginning of April a gentleman called Viktor Nikiforov claimed that his "democratic rights had been infringed" because members of the parish council had been expelled.  He announced that he would begin a strike, inviting others to demonstrate their "position as citizens" by joining the strike, while on the Internet bewildered parishioners wondered whether by singing in the choir they would be failing to stand up for their own "democratic rights". 

Rather than firmly supporting Bishop Basil's authority, the DECR chose simply to investigate the situation at Ennismore Gardens: it sent over Fr Mikhail Dudko during Lent. The latter did not speak to those members of the parish recommended by Bishop Basil and made clear that headquarters considered it was time to bring the Sourozh Diocese to heel and turn it into an ordinary Russian diocese.   Thus towards the end of April, Bishop Basil decided that if the diocese was to continue to develop along the lines instituted by Metropolitan Anthony, it was time to deliver it from imprisonment within an authoritarian system: on 24 April he wrote to Patriarch Alexi asking to be released from the Moscow Patriarchate as he proposed to approach the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  This he did on 2 May with the request that he and all those clergy and lay members of the Sourozh Diocese who wished to do so should be received into the Archdiocese of Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe (within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate).  Patriarch Alexi did not accede to Bishop Basil's request and instead on 9 May issued a decree retiring him. The latter only learned of this decree on 14 May when the text reached London and was publicly read out by Archbishop Innokenty of Korsun whom the Moscow Patriarchate appointed as temporary administrator of the Sourozh Diocese.  On 8 June Bishop Basil was accepted into the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and accorded the title of Bishop of Amphipolis as head of the Episcopal Vicariate of Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Great Britain and Ireland.

These events have divided the clergy of the Sourozh Diocese (most of whom are English converts to Orthodoxy)  - some have remained in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, others have supported Bishop Basil.  A list of each side's clergy can be found on the relevant website so it is not difficult to establish that the split on this level has been about equal.  Two Russian priests and one Russian deacon have stayed with the Moscow Patriarchate whereas four deacons of Russian descent (two of them recently arrived in the Britain) have sided with Bishop Basil.  The division among the laity is not so clear, however. There were many who, unlike the small campaigning "Initiative Group" at Ennismore Gardens, stood on neutral ground, not wishing to take sides, and indeed deeply regretting the divisions which had developed.  Many of the pre-perestroika Russian émigrés, and many of the English who were converted to Russian Orthodoxy by Metropolitan Anthony, followed Bishop Basil, but not all.  The situation in different parishes has varied enormously: some followed Bishop Basil, and others, like the Russian Orthodox parish in Oxford, split into two separate groups, yet not along ethnic lines.

British secular and church circles have not shown any great interest in the Sourozh split, although among Anglican clergy and bishops Bishop Basil has many friends and is deeply respected.  Some Anglican bishops and clergy have felt much sympathy for his position and indeed have tried to help him.  But for Lambeth good relations with the Moscow Patriarchate are too important and not worth damaging for the sake of friendship with Bishop Basil.  The official position of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church is a strictly neutral one.  Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, is prepared to maintain good relations with whomever the Moscow Patriarchate chooses to appoint as head of the Sourozh Diocese despite his friendship with Bishop Basil.  Bishop Elisei of Bogorodsk, recently sent to London by Moscow in order to help Archbishop Innokenty of Korsun, has been officially received by both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church.

The Sourozh Diocese was different from other Russian Orthodox dioceses and had become "an embarrassment" for the Moscow Patriarchate, according to Protodeacon Peter Scorer in a Radio Liberty interview given on 13 June 2006:

"Thanks to the labours of Metropolitan Anthony, Sourozh was a diocese unique in the entire Moscow Patriarchate. [...] Now this free, sobornaya (communal) diocese, unlike any other within the Russian context, has become an embarrassment for Russia.  They would like to see them ‘all of a kind', so that the churches abroad, which are being built in many countries, would be something like the embassy churches before the revolution.  They are representations of Moscow abroad, and are controlled not by their local bishops, but by the DECR."

The Moscow Patriarchate would like Ennismore Gardens to become a Russian enclave, an outpost of Moscow in London within a diocese ruled firmly by headquarters (DECR). The principle of lay participation in decision-making, which was central to the way the Sourozh Diocese was run, will not sit easily with the Moscow Patriarchate's authoritarian culture which prefers obedience to mature lay-clerical cooperation.

Does the split in the Sourozh Diocese sound the death-knell for Russian Orthodoxy in the British Isles?   Time will tell. These events may, however, represent the growing pains of a Christian tradition in this country which will now develop towards greater maturity:  let us hope that the Vicariate under Bishop Basil of Amphipolis can continue the mission of Metropolitan Anthony,opening up the riches of Orthodoxy to people in this country and nurturing mature Christians who can contribute at parish level to inter-denominational and inter-faith dialogue which is so essential if our world is not to disintegrate.

This article first appeared in 2007 in the journal"Humanitas" (Journal of George Bell Institute)


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData