Daily Archives: December 5, 2022

December 2018-December 2022: On Becoming a Local Church

After the Liturgy for the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Mother of God on Sunday 4th December, Fr Andrew was interviewed informally about the present situation of the Orthodox Church. Below is the slightly edited interview.


Q: What would you say about the events in the Orthodox Churches over the last four years?

A: The present very tragic situation of the Local Orthodox Churches is such that I almost feel nostalgic for the first third of my Orthodox life, before 1989, during the Cold War. In those days there were two groups of Local Churches: those in front of the Berlin Wall and those behind the Berlin Wall. All was clear. You knew exactly why some spoke in one way (because they had a Communist gun in their backs) and why others spoke in another way (because they had an anti-Communist gun in their backs). The first were involuntary hostages, the second were voluntary hostages.

I did not think I would live to see the present chaos, which has accumulated as a result of the errors over the last thirty-three years. First of all, precisely in December 2018, exactly four years ago, the Church of Constantinople, backed by the USA, for purely political and financial reasons started a major schism with the Russian Church in the Ukraine (it had already started a minor one in Estonia, back, I think, in 1994). This 2018 event was the foundation of the OCU, or ‘Poroshenko’s Orthodox Church’ (PCU), as it is called in Ukrainian. Result? The Russian Church refused to concelebrate or have anything to do with the Church of Constantinople and all those who supported it, for example, the Church of Alexandria. In so doing, however, it locked itself into isolation.

Then, in 2019, the small New-York-based Diaspora part of the Russian Church began taking numerous clergy and churches from Constantinople. This caused even more division and controversy. Then, exactly two years ago, in December 2020, the same fraction started a schism with the other Diaspora part of the same Russian Church, which is based in Paris. So there developed a still unresolved schism inside the Russian Church itself! A Church in schism with itself. What have we come to? Then, a year later, in December 2021, the Russian Church formed a schism in Africa, taking nearly 200 clergy and parishes from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, nearly half of its total number of missions there.

As if that was not enough, on 24 February 2022 the Russian Federation invaded the Ukraine and most of the hierarchy of the Russian Church backed the action. From this highly divisive moment on, the once multinational Russian Church started splitting into different Churches, the Russian, the Ukrainian, the Latvian, and perhaps tomorrow the Estonian, the Moldovan and the Lithuanian (where the situation is already dire after the uncanonical defrockings of clergy for merely expressing a different political viewpoint from the Russian Patriarch).

As a result, the Russian Orthodox parishes in Western Europe are cruelly affected, for a majority of their clergy and people are not Russians from Russia, but Baltic Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans etc. So people have left those parishes, many of which are now undermined. Therefore new parishes of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (not the tiny and uncanonical OCU) have been opened for the (so far) four million Ukrainian refugees in Western Europe. The situation is catastrophically divisive.

Oh, for the good old days of the Cold War! It was all so simple then.

The whole situation is in an out of control spiral. Where will it end? What has happened over the last four years – most of the events taking place every December – is that the century-old uncanonical chaos of the Diaspora, with its multiple jurisdictions, has been spread to Estonia, the Ukraine and Africa and may very well spread elsewhere. For example, it now looks as though Cyprus is going to be affected in the same way, with two jurisdictions developing there too.

This is all due to a problem of lack of authority in the Church, caused by those who are more interested in politics than in Christ. And here authority is very different from bullying authoritarianism. Authority comes from the Holy Spirit, whereas authoritarianism comes from a perverted human spirit.

Little wonder that the Vatican is looking on and saying: ‘What do you expect, look at the chaos of the Orthodox Churches, always at each others’ throats, because they do not have the Pope in control and guaranteeing unity’. Of course, that is nonsense. Anyone who knows anything about the schismatic situations within the Roman Catholic Church knows it to be nonsense. Nevertheless, there is a problem and that problem can only be solved by the highest organ of authority in the Church, a real Orthodox Council, free of politics. Sadly, at the present time the chances of that are probably as small as they were fifty years ago. We have not moved forwards at all. However, miracles do happen.

Q: What do you think will happen in the Ukraine?

A: The arms and army of Russia will win against the very weak and now even weaker NATO in the very risky war that the US began there in 2014. For there has never been a war between Russia and the Ukraine. The latter is just a location for the NATO battles. The war has always been purely between Russia and NATO. The Ukrainians and the huge number of mainly Polish mercenaries there have only been pawns and cannon fodder for the USA, just like the now increasingly arm-less NATO. The new cemetery for them in Poland has 1,200 dead so far.

However, the coming Russian victory in the face of the lack of real support for Kiev on the part of the now bankrupt West, does not solve the pastoral problem. You can conquer a country, but you cannot force its people to attend your churches. There will have to be an Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, without mention of a Russian Patriarch. The only very unlikely chance of unity would be if there were to be a Ukrainian Patriarch of the whole Russian Church and the ‘Moscow’ title was dropped from it altogether. Then the once multinational Russian Church might be restored.

Q: But surely this is just another Cold War situation, with the Church divided as before into two, East and West?

A: Not at all. It is far more complex than that. There are now three groups of Local Orthodox Churches. There is the Russian Church all by itself in the first ‘group’ and the US-backed Constantinople/Alexandrian Churches in the second group. Those two groups are at daggers drawn. Then, there is the third group, the thirteen other Local Churches. The thirteen others are the only ones that are in communion with everyone, Greek and Russian alike, but still independent of both of them.

True, the Cypriot and Greek Churches may well be forced by political pressure from the local US ambassadors to join the Constantinople/Alexandria group. This would leave only eleven in the third group, independent of both Russian and American politics. However, it seems as if more new Local Churches will also be founded and increase the number of those eleven. Certainly, Autocephalous Ukrainian and Latvian Churches would join that group and any others that might come into existence, for example, perhaps in Moldova. Quite simply, nobody wants to be too close to the Russian or Constantinople Churches at the present time, but all want to remain distant from them and any schismatic actions.

Q: So there is great disunity in the Church?

A: Tragically, yes. For instance, if I think about the Russian-French parish where I used to serve in Meudon, a suburb of Paris, I can clearly see this disunity. In Meudon there used to be only one church, the one where I served. It united everyone locally. Now there are three small parishes in the same small suburb and none of them is in communion with each other! There is the one where I served, which sadly has become very closed, almost club-like and very much Russian only, excluding Non-Russians and even Russians who do not have a certain spirit. Secondly, there is a very modernist Greek parish, which mainly uses French, and finally there is an old calendarist Greek parish, which also mainly uses French. It is so sad to see this quite unnecessary disunity. This is not a local church, but three anti-local churches.

Q: How do you see your own situation in Colchester?

A: In Colchester we defended the church against the evil one. Let me explain.

I remember in 1976 the Belarussian priest in Cambridge, a dear friend, Fr John Piekarsky (Eternal Memory to him), telling us how in the late 60s all the people in his home village in Belarus near Dokshitsy, gathered together and stood around their village church which the atheists, instructed by the crazy Ukrainian Khrushchov, wanted to destroy. An armed militia faced them. The people made it clear that the soldiers would have to gun everyone of them down in order to close their church. The militia backed off and the church was saved.

We also have a Ukrainian parishioner, whose grandmother, Galina, also in the 60s, just lay down in front of the bulldozer which the atheists were going to use to destroy the village church. She made it clear they would have to murder her, the most respected person in the village, to close the church. The atheists backed off and the church still stands today.

Well, we did the same, using English Trust law as our defence. We too had to defend our church from those who wanted to take it away from us, demanded the keys (which we refused to hand over), persecuted and slandered us (only the weak in faith believed such nonsense), and then wanted to close it, just as the atheist nationalists of the OCU do in the Ukraine. We won with the support of many.

Now is the time to confess the faith, there is no need for martyrdom, that is not yet required. But we have to confess the faith against aggressive bullies, those with hatred and not love in their souls, whether Communist or Capitalist. They will have to kill us to steal our churches. We made that clear to them despite, and because of, their aggressiveness and they backed down and lost everything. That was visible to all.

Q: What sort of churches do you have in your group, which since last February has been inside the Romanian Church?

A: I suppose we are rather like Moldovan churches, not just in the sense that we all have Moldovans, but in the sense that we are Russian and Romanian. However, we are also more than that in Colchester, as we have 25 nationalities and our other churches, in Coventry, Little Abington just outside Cambridge, Wisbech, Bradford and Felixstowe, are all still multinational.

Q: Do you have any Greeks among your parishioners?

A: We have very few Greeks, only four in fact, for the simple reason that there are hardly any practising Greeks in any of those places.

Q: How would you characterise the Colchester parish?

A: As you know, our patron saint is in effect a Ukrainian from Poltava who lived all over the world and was multinational in his outlook, St John of Shanghai and Western Europe. He also accepted the Western rite, which at that time, over sixty years ago, was still a reality.

Now, all my life I have worked and prayed that we might be able to build a Local Church. Be careful what you pray for, because you might get it! Well, towards the end of my life, we have managed to avoid all ghettos, both ethnic and ideological, and have been given what we prayed for, a local church.

In the home countries of Orthodoxy, inevitably churches will be mononational. That is normal. In capital cities like London, Paris and Berlin, centres of immigration, you will also have embassy churches, that is, mononational churches. That is not the case here outside London. Here we have to go with the flow, to go with the majority. God sends you a flock of all nationalities, who knock at your door. You behave as the Good Samaritan, not like the priest who walked by on the other side. You have to accept them all, with all their diversity, but it is logical to be with the majority, providing that their hierarchy behaves canonically, and not schismatically.

Q: Isn’t it difficult to have different nationalities together?

A: It can be, but it does not need to be. Nationalists and racists do not come to us (but nationalists and racists tend not to be Christians and, if nominally Orthodox, do not set foot in church anyway), but those with a little tolerance do come. And they learn to accept each other, with the result that you end up with mixed marriages, mixed in the positive sense of inter-Orthodox. For instance, our second priest who is Romanian is married to a Latvian and that is only the tip of the iceberg. We have couples who are Scottish-Cypriot (yes, he did get married in his kilt), Estonian-Nigerian, Moldovan-Guinea-Bissau (that must be unique!), Romanian-Slovak, Ukrainian-South-African, Lithuanian-Serbian, as well as the really rather ordinary English-Russian.

Sad to say, I have seen very many Orthodox parishes all over Europe closing in my lifetime. Why? Because their flocks died out. The original immigrant-parents, the first generation, died and as their children were assimilated and gave up attending a church which to them was foreign, the parishes died out. We must not do the same here. We have hordes of children at our church, between 50 and 100 at every liturgy. I am told that this is more children than in any other church in this country. They are our future. We must not lose them to narrow, bigoted, right-wing ideologies, relating to the past or to the present, or lose them to attempts by exclusivists to grab our properties, as they are the properties which belong to all the local Orthodox of all nationalities, or to some ethnic narrowness, which refuses to preach Christ in the local language.

In the last three months we have chrismated two English people (former Protestants) and baptised another one (who had not previously been baptised) into the Church. May this continue. So, despite the great changes and the chaos caused by politics over the last four years, we continue. We continue despite them all and despite their opposition.