Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) in England 2002
By Fr John A. Jillions, ONT
“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”–Albert Einstein
Now that an apparently “absurd” proposal about Bishop Hilarion as a potential metropolitan of the OCA has been floated, his six-month assignment in 2002 as an assistant bishop to the late Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) keeps being brought up as troubling evidence of his unsuitability by people with little or no direct knowledge of Bp Hilarion, Met Anthony or the Diocese of Sourozh. Since I do have such experience I feel it is my duty to comment to set the record straight, at least as I see it. This reflection is based on my own recollection and notes I kept at the time as well as letters and documents.
I lived in Cambridge for eight years, from 1995 until shortly after the death of Met Anthony in Aug 2003. I served as priest of St Ephraim’s parish in Cambridge (in addition to being Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies until early 2002). Met Anthony was my diocesan bishop, but I worked closely with Bp Hilarion and Bp Basil.
I am intimately acquainted with the events surrounding Bp Hilarion’s recruitment, arrival in January and sad departure in July 2002. In that time I served at the altar with him regularly and shared many meals and conversations with him. I have also seen him in the midst of conflict, and can attest to his grace under pressure and in response to unjust attacks, especially painful when they come from those one loves, as Bishop Hilarion loved Met Anthony, his spiritual father, who had actively recruited him to come to England as a teacher and bishop. So first I need to put this controversy in the context of Met Anthony’s personality and its fifty year impact on the diocese.
Whether or not one considers Bp Hilarion a good candidate for metropolitan, the man’s reputation must not be slandered. Three factors, in my opinion, contributed to Bp Hilarion’s short tenure in England: Met Anthony himself, fears of Russian domination and the shock of Bp Hilarion’s episcopal energy. I will address each of these in turn and then look at events leading to his resignation and the re-assessment that took place in the diocese after his departure, when it could be acknowledged that the whole situation had been badly mishandled.
[This is a complicated mess, but Wikipedia’s entry for the “Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh” has a fairly balanced presentation, with supporting documents from all sides and brings events up to date, including the recent split led by Bp Basil (Osborne).]
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh.
Unfortunately, the lasting public image of the 2002 Sourozh events has thus far been shaped by Met Anthony, whose reputation as a living saint at age 82 was hard to argue with. But in my opinion his behavior toward Bp Hilarion was less than fully honorable. No one can take away from Met Anthony his profound legacy of teaching and pastoral direction. He had profound insights on the Gospel and human nature. To this day he is my image of serving the liturgy with simplicity (he hated the excesses of Russian hierarchical practice), as one engaged in conversation with God. “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
But even his admirers admit that in personal relations, especially with perceived rivals, there could be a dark side. And, despite his rhetoric of episcopal service and sobornost, he could also be autocratic and unfair.
This is a constant theme in Gillian Crow’s biography of Met Anthony (“This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony”, Gillian Crow, London: DLT, 2005). She is devoted to Met Anthony, but her work is not hagiography. And while she is critical of Bp Hilarion for being too attentive to grievances and thus encouraging factions, she leaves no doubt that Met Anthony could be harsh and even cruel.
However much he liked to speak of the difference between power and authority, as a bishop he was in a position of absolute power with regard to his own flock. This was on two levels: the personal one, towards individuals, and the public one, when he made official pronouncements. On both levels he had the power, if he wished, to crush people, and there were rare but unfortunate occasions when he used it. “From time to time he targeted people he saw as a threat and showed them the full force of his darker side.
Some people found the two sides of his personality impossible to reconcile, and left the church. Some suffered psychological damage from which they only slowly, or never, recovered. The result of this temperament was that, when because of his shortcomings he felt his authority or his personal wishes threatened, he was unable to discuss things reasonably. He would simply withdraw and refuse to shift his position, retreating into his room, staying silent for some time and, if the situation did not resolve itself, finally issuing despotic commands from a safe distance” (198-99).
Crow uses the words high-handed (228) ruthless, despotic and autocratic to describe him on such occasions (224). “Most people who crossed his path had occasion, sooner or later, to go home to lick the wounds inflicted by [this side] of his personality” (194). But those who stayed learned to live with this dimension of Met Anthony. She says that Deacon Peter Scorer summed up this enlightened attitude: “at a certain moment he stopped idolizing him and learned to love him in full awareness of his faults” (200). In my opinion Bp Hilarion was also caught in this inexplicable other side, this “mystery of lawlessness” as St Paul called it (2 The 2:7).