Monthly Archives: July 2018

Fr Nicholas Gibbes: The First English Disciple of Tsar Nicholas II and the First English Priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia

A Talk given at Barton Manor near Osborne House on the Isle of Wight on 7 July 2018.

In this centenary year of the martyrdom of Tsar Nicholas II, his August Family, their servants and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, it would be well to recall their first English disciple and the first ever English Russian Orthodox priest, Fr Nicholas Gibbes.

Charles Sydney Gibbes, for short Sydney Gibbes, was born 142 years ago, on 19 January 1876. In the 19th century this was for all Orthodox the feast day of St John the Baptist, the voice that cried in the wilderness. His parents were called John and Mary – more English than that you cannot find. His father was a bank manager in Rotherham, just outside Sheffield, in Yorkshire. Amusingly, this would later be recorded by a Russian civil servant on Sydney’s residence papers in Russia as ‘Rotterdam’.

With no fewer than ten siblings, Sydney grew into a stereotypical, Victorian, Protestant young man of the educated classes. He received his education at Cambridge, where he changed the spelling of his surname to Gibbes, from Gibbs, as the adopted form is the older, historical one. This change was typical of his love of historical detail and accuracy. Sydney is described as: severe, stiff, self-restrained, imperturbable, quiet, gentlemanly, cultured, pleasant, practical, simple, brave, loyal, lucid, witty, crisp, vigorous, honourable, reliable, impeccably clean, with high character, of good sense and with agreeable manners. He seems the perfect Victorian English Yorkshire gentleman – not a man with such an unusual destiny.

However, as we know from history, underneath Victorian gentlemen lurked other sides – repressed, but still present. For example, we know that Sydney could be stubborn, that he used corporal punishment freely, that he could be very awkward with others, and he is recorded as having quite a temper, though these traits mellowed greatly with the years. My good friend from Oxford days long ago, Dmitri Kornhardt, recalled how in later life tears would stream down Fr Nicholas’ face when celebrating services in memory of the Imperial Martyrs, but how also he would very rapidly recover himself after such unEnglish betrayals of emotion.

Underneath the Victorian reserve there was indeed a hidden man, one with spiritual sensitivity, who was interested in theatre and theatricals, spiritualism, fortune-telling and palmistry, and one who was much prone to recording his dreams. Perhaps this is why, when after University he had been thinking of the Anglican priesthood as a career, he found it ‘stuffy’ and abandoned that path. Talking to those who knew him and reading his biographies, and there are three of them, we cannot help feeling that as a young man Sydney was searching for something – but he knew not what. The real man would eventually come out from beneath his Victorian conditioning.

Perhaps this is why in 1901, aged 25, he found himself teaching English in Russia – a country with which he had no connection. Here he was to spend over 17 years. The key moment came in autumn 1908 when he went to the Imperial Palace in Tsarskoe Selo and became the English tutor of the Imperial children. In particular, he became close to the Tsarevich Alexis, with whom he identified very closely. Why? We can only speculate that there was a sympathy or else complementarity of characters; together with Sydney’s bachelordom, this may have been enough for the friendship to develop. In any case, he became almost a member of the Imperial Family and a profound and lifelong admirer of what he called, as an eyewitness, their exemplary Christian Faith, close family life and kindness. His meeting with this Family changed his life forever and he only ever spoke of them with profound admiration.

In August 1917 Sydney found himself following the Family to Tobolsk. Utterly loyal to the Family, in July 1918 he found himself in Ekaterinburg, the city in the Urals between Asia and Europe, East and West, after their unspeakable murder in the Ipatiev House. He helped identify objects, returning again and again to the House, picking up mementoes, which he was to cling on to until the end, and still reluctant to believe that the crime had taken place. Coming almost half way through his life when he was aged 42, this was without doubt the crucial event in that life, the turning point, the spark that made him seek out his destiny in all seriousness. With the murder of the Family, the bottom had fallen out of his life, his raison d’etre had gone. Where could he go from here?

He did not, like most, return to England. We know that he, like Tsar Nicholas, had been particularly shocked by what he saw as the British betrayal of the Imperial Family. Indeed, we know that it was George Buchanan, the British ambassador to St Petersburg, who had in part been behind the February 1917 deposition of the Tsar by treacherous aristocrats, politicians and generals. This coup d’etat was greeted by Lloyd George in the House of Commons as the ‘achievement of one of our war aims’. (We now also know from the book by Andrew Cook that it was British spies who had assassinated Gregory Rasputin and also that the Tsar’s own cousin, George V, had refused to help the Tsar and His Family escape).

In fact, disaffected by Britain’s politics, from Ekaterinburg Sydney went not west, but east – to Siberian Omsk and then further east, to Beijing and then Harbin in Manchuria. Off and on he would spend another 17 years here, in Russian China. In about 1922 he suffered a serious illness. His religiosity seems to have grown further and after this he would go to study for the Anglican priesthood at St Stephen’s House in Oxford. However, for someone with the world-changing experience that he had had, that was not his way; perhaps he still found Anglicanism ‘stuffy’, I think he would have found almost anything stuffy after what he had been through – seeing his adopted Family wiped out. Finally, in 1934, in Harbin, Sydney joined the Far Eastern Metropolia of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

There is no doubt that he did this as a direct result of the example of the Imperial Family, for he took the Orthodox name of Alexis – the name of the Tsarevich, whom he naturally saw as a martyr. He was to describe this act as ‘getting home after a long journey’, words which perhaps describe the reception into the Orthodox Church of any Western person. Thus, from England, to Russia and then to China, he had found his way. In December 1934, aged almost 59, he became successively monk, deacon and priest. He was now to be known as Fr Nicholas – a name deliberately taken in honour of the martyred Tsar Nicholas. In 1935 he was made Abbot by Metr Antony of Kiev, the head of our multinational Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and later received the title of Archimandrite.

Wishing to establish some ‘Anglo-Orthodox organisation’, in 1937 Fr Nicholas Gibbes came back to live in England permanently. He was aged 61. Of this move he wrote: ‘It is my earnest hope that the Anglican Church should put itself right with the Holy Orthodox Church’. He went to live in London in the hope of setting up an English-language parish within the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. In this he did not succeed and in 1940 he moved to Oxford. In this last part of his life in Oxford he became the founder of the first Russian Orthodox church in Oxford at 4, Marston Street, where he lived in humble and modest circumstances. In recalling the address of that first church, dedicated to St Nicholas, we cannot help recalling that today’s Russian Orthodox St Nicholas church in Oxford is not very far away from it.

Not an organiser, sometimes rather erratic, even eccentric, Fr Nicholas was not perhaps an ideal parish priest, but he was sincere and well-respected. In Oxford he cherished his mementoes of the Imperial Family to the end. Before he departed this life, on 24 March 1963, an icon given to him by the Imperial Family, was miraculously renewed and began to shine. One who knew him at the time confirmed this and after Fr Nicholas’ death, commented that now at last Fr Nicholas was seeing the Imperial Family again – for he had been waiting for this moment for 45 years. He was going to meet once more those who had shaped his destiny in this world.

In the 1980s in an old people’s home outside Paris I met a parishioner of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, Count Nikolai Komstadius. He had met Fr Nicholas in 1954, in connection with the false Anastasia, but perhaps had seen him before, since his father had been in charge of the Tsarskoe Selo estate and he himself had been a childhood friend of the Tsarevich. I remember in the 1980s visiting him. In the corner of his room in front of an icon of the martyred Tsarevich there burned an icon-lamp. He turned to me and said: ‘That is such a good likeness, it is just like him and yet also it is an icon’. Not many of us lives to see a childhood playfriend become a saint and have his icon painted. Yet as a young man in his thirties Fr Nicholas had known a whole family, whom he considered to be saints. Indeed, he had been converted by their example.

There are those who have life-changing experiences. They are fortunate, because they stop living superficially, stop drifting through life and stop wasting God-sent opportunities and so find their destiny. Such life-changing experiences can become a blessing if we allow them to become so. Fr Nicholas was one such person, only his life-changing experience was also one that had changed the history of the whole world. For a provincial Victorian Yorkshire bank manager’s son, who had grown up with his parents John and Mary, he had come very far. And yet surely the seeds had been there from the beginning. To be converted we first of all need spiritual sensitivity, a seeking spirit, but secondly we also need an example. Fr Nicholas had had both, the example being the Imperial Martyrs. As that late and wonderful gentlewoman Princess Koutaissova, whom many of us knew, said of his priesthood: ‘He was following his faithfulness to the Imperial Family’.

In this brief talk I have not mentioned many aspects of Fr Nicholas’ life, such as his possible engagement, his adopted son, his hopes in Oxford. This is because they do not interest me much here. I have tried to focus on the essentials, on the spiritual meaning of his life, his destiny. Those essentials are, I believe, to be found in his haunted and haunting gaze. Looking at his so expressive face, we see a man staring into the distance, focusing on some vision, both of the past and of the future. This vision was surely of the past life he had shared with the martyred Imperial Family and also of the future – his long hoped-for meeting with them once more, his ‘sense of completion’.

 

1,000 Words on the Four Generations of ROCOR

Introduction: The Past 1918

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) was effectively formed after the martyrdom of the Imperial Family, even if it was only on 20 November 1920 that the besieged and persecuted Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow and his Synod in Moscow issued Decree № 362. This instructed all Russian Orthodox bishops outside Soviet territory, unable to keep in contact with a free Moscow, to organize themselves as an independent Synod.

With personal experience and knowledge of both the bright moments and the dark moments in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) over the past almost fifty years, here is a brief sketch of the near-centennial history of ROCOR. This is a history which is varied, filled with diabolical temptations and insidious attacks from internal and external enemies, and yet one in which faithfulness has always in the end prevailed.

The Old ROCOR: 1918-1943

In exile, ROCOR, with over 30 bishops, organized its monastic and parish life worldwide. It included many of the best theologians from the Church before the 1917 Revolution and bravely stood up both to the compromises of senior Church representatives captive in the Soviet Union and to the modernist heresies of the schismatic Paris Jurisdiction. Thus, patriotically, most members of the Church rejoiced in the successful defence of the Russian Lands following the racist Nazi invasion of 1941.

However, there were also more worldly émigrés, dangerous sectarian elements, who were more politicians than Churchmen, and threatened the future of the Church. Especially after the repose of Metr Antony of Kiev in 1936, the first Primate of ROCOR, these elements slowly began to threaten the integrity of the Church leadership. Indeed, just before and during the Second World War such secular political elements even tried to compromise the ROCOR episcopate with Fascism.

The Threat: 1943-1968

After the Second World War these elements, now resettled in the USA, started to try and compromise the Church with the CIA and other dependent spy services. From the 1960s on, indeed, these elements tried to isolate the Church, putting the future St John of Shanghai on trial and linking ROCOR with fanatical old calendarists, making out that all the Local Churches had mysteriously ‘lost grace’, which they alone had conserved.

According to such phariseeism, on account of the political compromises of a few hostage-bishops in Eastern Europe, 100 million Orthodox were condemned, ‘deprived of grace’! Such was the theological nonsense of these extremists. However, these Donatists were opposed by the mass of the Church, who remained faithful to the old ROCOR, remembering the history of the Church before the Revolution and the whole bimillennial Church.

The Time of Troubles: 1968-1993

The situation worsened at the end of the 1960s, though gallant bishops, like the ever-memorable Bishop Sava of Edmonton (+ 1973), Bishop Nectary of Seattle (+ 1983), Archbishop Antony of Geneva (+ 1993) and many faithful priests and laypeople, all disciples of the spirit of St John of Shanghai, resisted. They held faith with the missionary heritage of the Church and genuine monastic life, with the Orthodox Tradition.

Meanwhile, on the political wing, one senior archimandrite debauched nuns and sold and stole property in Jerusalem for $6 million, money which he pocketed, though at last he was defrocked for this and his other crimes. However, his father tried to ally ROCOR with old calendarism and later opened communities which were not on the canonical territory of ROCOR. Some very dark events took place then.

The Rebirth of ROCOR: 1993-2018

In 1993, 75 years after the slaughter of the Royal Martyrs, came the long-awaited canonization of St John of Shanghai, who had so long awaited the canonization of the Royal Martyrs. This was a turning-point, for it meant that the Johannite wing of the Church, the spirit of St John, was winning, whereas the political wing, with its spiritual and moral hypocrisy, love of ritual, pomp and show, was being defeated. Meanwhile, in Moscow in 2000 the compromised of the Church inside Russia repented, at last canonizing the first of the New Martyrs and Confessors, nineteen years after ROCOR, and rejecting political and spiritual compromises. The final victory came in 2007 when ROCOR accepted the repentance of those in Moscow who had compromised themselves during the Soviet period.

However, some in ROCOR itself had also had to repent for the errors which had compromised it with the nonsense of politicized individuals and their naïve followers. In effect, both the old ‘Moscow Patriarchate’ (MP) and the anti-historical sectarian trend in ROCOR in the 1960s-1990s were finished. Even the term ‘MP’ is now used only by polemicists, who cling to the unpleasant past in order to justify their sectarian present. Since 2007, there has only been the Russian Orthodox Church: the 98% inside the Russian Lands and the 2% outside them. We are united by our common saints, the Royal Martyrs, all the tens of thousands of New Martyrs and Confessors who followed them, and the confessor-saints of ROCOR: St Jonah of Hankou (+ 1925), St Seraphim of Sofia (+ 1950) and St John of Shanghai (+ 1966).

Conclusion: The Future 2018

Approaching the third decade of the 21st century and its centenary, today’s ROCOR must stand steadfast in its uncompromising faith. It must stand against geriatric ecumenism, political or academic compromises, which make theology and so Church life into an ideological or intellectual game. It must oppose those who value property and money over human souls, always siding with the saints. ROCOR must be the Local Church, on whatever continent we exist.

Throughout Western Europe, the Americas and Australasia, ROCOR must stand for the local people, whatever their native language and origins. It must stand for already Orthodox people, as well as for people who seek to live according to the Orthodox Tradition. We must stand against ideology, bureaucracy, centralization, politics, what is done for mere show and prestige, for the Orthodox Tradition without either compromise or sectarian foolishness.

Lady Godiva – A Righteous Englishwoman

According to a well-known tradition, Lady Godiva was a noblewoman who rode naked through the streets of Coventry, covering her modesty with her long hair. This was in order to free the townspeople from the taxation that her husband had imposed on them. Although postmodernists have doubted this story, we see no reason to doubt the backbone of the tradition, which does date from at least the twelfth century. Of course, modern misunderstandings should be avoided – for example, Coventry was then a settlement of only a few hundred people and not a major city.

Godiva, in Old English Godgifu, was a popular name, meaning ‘gift of God’. Lady Godiva was probably a widow when she married Leofric, Earl of Mercia. They had one known son, Aelfgar. Both were generous benefactors to monasteries. In 1043 Leofric founded and endowed a monastery in Coventry on the site of a convent destroyed by the Danes in 1016, Godiva being the moving force behind this act. In the 1050s her name was coupled with that of her husband on a grant of land to the monastery of St Mary in Worcester and also on the endowment of the minster at Stow Mary in Lincolnshire.

 She and her husband are also commemorated as benefactors of other monasteries in Leominster, Chester, Much Wenlock and Evesham. Lady Godiva also gave Coventry a number of works in precious metal by the famous goldsmith Mannig and bequeathed a necklace valued at 100 marks of silver. Another necklace went to Evesham, to be hung around the figure of the Virgin accompanying the life-size gold and silver rood she and her husband gave, and St Paul’s Cathedral received a gold-fringed chasuble. She and her husband were among the most generous Old English donors in the last decades before the Norman Conquest.

The manor of Woolhope in Herefordshire, along with four others, was given to the Cathedral in Hereford before the Norman Conquest by Wulviva and Godiva – usually held to be Godiva and her sister. Her signature appears on a charter purportedly given by Thorold of Bucknall to the monastery of Spalding. It is possible that this Thorold, the sheriff of Lincolnshire, was her brother. Leofric died in 1057, but Lady Godiva lived on, dying some time between 1066 and 1086. She is mentioned in the Domesday survey as the only Englishwoman to remain a major landholder shortly after the Norman Occupation. There seems little reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband in Coventry.