Battle for the ‘Soul of Orthodoxy’ in the UK?

Writing for the Independent, a UK newspaper, Paul Vallely looks at a legal battle over control of an Orthodox cathedral. The power struggle, he writes, began with an influx of Russian immigrants to the United Kingdom and their clash with an assimilated, diverse Orthodox community.

“Huge numbers arrived,” says one of the parishioners, Ruth Nares, a teacher who converted from Anglicanism two decades before because of what she describes as Orthodoxy’s extraordinary sense of sacredness. “We were a community of white Russians, Finns, French, Italians and English converts. But the incomers had a different mentality. To many, it was just a place to meet fellow Russians. They would come in halfway through service, talking loudly at the back, and started making lunch there.” Karin Greenhead, a musician, says: “There was a lot of unpleasantness and elbowing and pushing. It was noisy and unprayerful. There was even a fight outside the church.”

But it was not just the congregation that changed. Extra priests sent over by Moscow during the past six years imported an unwelcome world view, too. “Nearly every Sunday we were bombarded with Soviet-style propaganda and warnings that ‘the Devil is among us’,” says Nicholas Tuckett, the founder of Ikon Records, which markets recordings of Orthodox music. “I was finding it impossible to pray.”

The points at issue largely concerned the minutiae of church life. There were disputes about whether marriages could take place on a Saturday, how frequent communion should be, how strictly fasting rules were to be observed, whether women were obliged to wear headscarves in church or forbidden from wearing trousers.

But what lay behind all the nit-picking was a fundamental struggle for power. The Russo faction began to petition Moscow for reform to press the original community to become more Russian. Metropolitan Anthony’s anointed successor, Bishop Basil, asked Moscow to disassociate itself from what he saw as troublemakers. But in Moscow, Metropolitan Kirill, who was last month elected head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church, declined to reply.

Read “The Battle Over Britain’s Orthodox Church” in the Independent.


  1. Scott Pennington :

    If you read the piece cited above, look at the Interfax material posted on the subject, and look at the Wiki article on the situation, you get a clearer picture. The writer of the Independent piece seems to me to be a pretty clear Slavophobe.

    Apparently, Bishop Basil and his flock became more English than Orthodox. The many references to KGB style this, and Soviet style that betray a deep hostility to the MP and any attempt for it to exert authority in its own cathedral. There was a huge influx of Russians after the fall of the Soviet Union. They needed Russian speaking priests to confess them. They also were apparently upset at the non-standard Orthodox practices allowed there. I’m not sure exactly what these were but part of it had to do with women covering their heads (as St. Paul commanded), laxity regarding fasting and confession, etc. I’m sure there were a number of these things.

    The “Anglo-Orthodox” faction simply couldn’t deal with these changes and bolted to Constantinople, invoking the spectres of Lenin and phyletism.

    It appears that the MP will get to keep the property.

  2. Scott Pennington :

    Actually, “Slavophobe” is not the right word. “Moskvaphobe” is more accurate.

  3. George Michalopulos :

    What I get out of this whole imbroglio is that leaving all the valid concerns of both sides, it is a complete mirror- image of what happened in America in the early 20th century when the Serbs, Greeks, etc. bolted from the Metropolia. Of course, they didn’t try to take it over but the concerns of the immigrants were the same: they didn’t like what they saw already there.

    A little humility and a lot of perspective would be called for in this regard, on all sides.

  4. Fr. Francis DesMarais :

    Hello to All,

    It certainly is an interesting article and one which is much thought provoking.

    First, let me say that I am a priest in the Exarchate of the Russian Tradition (which I would prefer to be called “Slavic”) in Western Europe. This is the Archdiocese that left Moscow in the late 1920’s and was received by the EP. Its present Bishop is Archbishop Gabriel of Comana, and Bishop Basil in the UK is now his Vicar-Bishop. I make this point so as not to be accused of being prejudicial. Indeed I will make every effort to be objective.

    It is very true that Moscow was not at all pleased with the pastoral direction which was being taken By Metropolitan Antony Bloom during the time he was the Ruling bishop of the See of Sorouzh. One only has to read his many writings and sermons, as well as survey his prophetic pastoral concern and action during the period. It was all of this, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God which laid the foundation for the split that inevitably would develop once the new migration of RO faithful arrived on the shores of British tolerance and restored patristically based Orthodox praxis and teaching. These people arrived wanting to continue the practice which was the norm throughout the years of the USSR – a practice which smothered the enlightenment of the pre-Revolution theological advances and renewal which was almost extinguished by the Communists. Thanks be to God there were luminaries such as Metropolitan Antony who kept this light burning and instilled in the faithful of his Archdiocese and faith grounded in spiritual development and not national or political attachment or ethnic idiosyncrasies. I make this point strongly because this is the crux of the whole issue in the UK. And it is truly this which led Bishop Basil Osborne to take the decisions he took in 2006. There was nothing of a “sour grapes” character to his departure from the MP. It was profound and sincere pastoral concern for his people – those who had been “bequeathed” to him by the teaching and example of Metr. Antony Bloom. My quick call for caution would be that the OCA had better beware.

    All this being said, the property situation in the UK is not an isolated situation. It is being repeated in France and elsewhere. In France the “battle” has been sparked by the claim of properties in Biarritz and Nice. Both legal procedures are still in the courts. And I know first hand of situations in which the MP has made efforts to influence faithful of the Exarchate hoping to “reclaim” lost faithful. One parish has already succumbed. Certainly one can read between the lines regarding the recent visit to France (and it’s President) by the late Patriarch Alexei, accompanied by the then head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (a somewhat strange office and title for an Hierarch)and now Patriarch Kyril.

    I do have one qualm with the author of the article. He wrote: Bishop Basil decided that the situation was untenable and applied to have his diocese transferred from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to that of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople – who is the leader of the entire world’s Orthodox who are not Greek or Russian. I’m sure there are many in the UK who would sound a loud gasp at this statement. The author had better do a bit of brushing up on Orthodox Ecclesiology before writing his next article.

    I’m sure there will be more to say regarding the above issues.

    Fraternally in Christ,
    Fr. Francis DesMarais

  5. Scott Pennington :

    “prophetic pastoral concern”

    “the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God”

    Um . . . Fr. Francis, what does it look like when you’re not trying to be objective?

    But seriously, I would be curious to know more specifics regarding the actual practical differences between, “the shores of British tolerance and restored patristically based Orthodox praxis and teaching” and practices “which smothered the enlightenment of the pre-Revolution theological advances and renewal which was almost extinguished by the Communists.”

    I seemed to me from what I’ve read that it could be a traditionalist-modernist dichotomy. If that is actually the case then I guess it’s just a matter of opinion as to which camp you prefer. I wonder, precisely, what they were arguing about.

  6. Scott Pennington :

    I read back through the Independent article and all the comments on that site to date and I believe I understand what is at the crux of this: The Anglo-Orthodox do not want a traditional church. That is why they make the truly preposterous equation of MP = Soviet. To them, since each tried to exert authority over them contrary to their wishes, they are to be grouped together. Really, the only way you come to the point where you could conflate the two is if you have been taught to have serious contempt for traditional Orthodox practice. The Soviet government was composed of militant athiests. Their policy, in general, was harshly anti-Christian. However, they did seek to exert control, through the MP under the USSR, over Russian Orthodox churches abroad.

    In contrast, the current MP in the Russian Federation seems to be calling its churches back from Western un-Orthodox practices (traditional practices being “ethnic idiosyncracies” to some, funny how the different Orthodox Churches had very similar practices regarding these “ethnic idiosyncracies” until the beginning of the 20th century). Being that the Orthodox Church is a hierarchical church, the MP does so through hierarchical means. The trick that the Anglo-Orthodox seem to be attempting is to convince the world that modernism/liberalism/”tolerance” is truly Orthodox (this, of course, is historically untenable) and that the hierarchy of the MP are just successors to the Bolsheviks. No doubt the Independent is willing to buy this equation because it fits their politics: the more cosmopolitan the church, the less “illiberal”.

    Apart from complaints about talking in the back of the church and late arrivals (which if it’s true, the present bishop or priests should clamp down on) the complaints seem to be that these unwashed Russians are a) invading and talking/”conspiring” amongst themselves and b) trying to change cosmopolitan English Orthodoxy.

    Maybe it deserves to be changed.

  7. Steven Lacey :

    I am an English member of the Russian church and as such would like to put the record straight

    The Russia church in London is multi ethnic church
    Far from being the home of just Russians. The Russian church in Knightsbridge is multi – ethnic: containing Americans, Arminians, Beleruusians Estonians, English, French, Latvians, Lithuanians, Polish, Greek and Irish. This is despite the split.

    A closed church
    The Russian church in London is not a closed church it is open to everyone. People are free to express their views openly

    A move away from ‘Liberal autocracy’
    Despite Bishop Basil supporters claim that they are ‘open’, the truth of the matter is that the reverse was often the case. The church under Bishop Basil was ruled by an iron fist, a priest was banned from church, members of the Parish council were banned from meetings, public meeting were cancelled and not allowed to happen. This was not a democratic church. The group around Bishop Basil were often refereed to as the ‘orthodox Taliban’: as anyone who disagreed with their stand point was harshly treated.

    A club for the boys
    The Russian church under Bishop Basil was run as a closed club, those that disagreed with the club were ostracised. The club was essentially made up of ‘middle class’ English academics who loved the over intellectualise religious thought, those who were not as academically gifted and could not speak with an oxford twang were ignored and treated like idiots.

    Lack of cultural understanding bordering on Xenophobia and racism
    Those around Bishop Basil showed a real lack of understanding for people that are not English e.g. referring to people as ‘new Russians’: when this is a term for Russian oligarches, one must consider that most of the congregation are poor immigrants from ex USSR(a large majority of which are not even Russian) – who need help not condemnation, this group often referenced women in head scarves as those that look like Muslims – these are the kind of comments that you would expect to find BNP literature, not comments made by Christian people

    A question of spin
    Not sure if Bishop Basil and his supporters have a ‘spin doctor’? But at times it feels like it. These guys are the masters of ‘black PR’, everything is dressed up like we are still in the ‘cold war’: everyone is KGB, everything is run by oligarches, false rumours such as everyone will be forced to wear head scarves, English will be banned, women won’t be able to wear trousers etc was regularly spread around the church.

    Political cronyism
    Bishop Basil and his supporters are very well connected to the ‘English establishment’. I think it is amazing that Liberal MPs are taking up their cause especially when you consider that one of Bishop Basil parish councilors is the aunty of Nick Clegg – cronyism – you make up your own mind?

    Destroying the memory of Metropolitan Anthony
    Bishop Basil supporters claim they are upholding the memory of Metropolitan Anthony. Yet Metropolitan Anthony did not believe that the Parish Exarch(which Bishop Basil and his supporters joined) should exist. So by joining this organisation they are going against Metropolitan Anthony’s wishes.

    So what was the row about?
    The row was orchestrated by a handful of Bishop Basil supporters who were members of the parish council – this group ruled by fear and believed that their power base on the parish council was under threat, due to the wave of new immigration. Rather than face a vote at the parish council elections they decided to take matters into their own hands and planned a split that has caused immense pain to a large number of the orthodox faithful within the U.K.

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