An Interview: Day of the Holy Spirit 2024

1) How did you come to Orthodoxy, Fr Andrew?

In childhood I did not know anything about churches. But I lived in the country, in God’s Cathedral. So although I knew nothing from men, I knew God from His Creation, I knew His presence from the tall trees and the green meadows, the singing birds and the broad skies above me. I knew that God lived just beyond the sky, sometimes I felt I could see Him. I did not believe in God, I knew God.

And around me I also found the living proof of others who had known him. These were the old saints: St Cedd (by the way, his name is correctly pronounced Ched), Apostle of Essex, St Osyth of a village nearby, St Audrey of Ely, St Botolph and St Albright who were recalled locally, and St Edmund, our family saint. They had all lived within a few dozen miles of me. The only problem was that when I asked adults about them, they could not tell me anything at all. Just that they had all lived a long, long time ago and must have been important because they were remembered in local place names. In those days there was no internet to ask further and anyway I was only a child. But I felt their presence. They were like my closest friends.

Later, when I was 12 years old, I saw an American film, which was loosely based on the Russian novel, Dr Zhivago. Although it was full of Hollywood nonsense and Cold War propaganda, it sparked something underlying inside me. For the opening scene showed a funeral and an Orthodox priest. As a result of this film, I bought myself a book and began teaching myself Russian. At the same time, because of the scene with the priest – I had never met any sort of priest before – I opened and read the New Testament. It changed my life, but also confirmed all my childhood experience. When people ask me what I recommend as the best Orthodox book to read, I always answer the New Testament.

At the same time, I also visited some churches. But they felt cold and empty. I could not find anything there. As I had read the New Testament, I knew there must be a real church somewhere. Where was the continuity of the Acts of the Apostles and the letters written to the Local Churches by the Apostle Paul? What had happened next? What happened after the New Testament? Where was the Newest Testament? That is what I wanted to know. When I was 14, I read about the Orthodox Church and I thought: ‘This is what I have always thought and believed’. Finally, when I was 16, I managed to find and visit a Russian emigre church – one which, sadly, no longer exists, as those people are all dead. As soon as I entered that church, I was at home. At once I knew my whole future, all was before me, all was inevitable, I saw my destiny, God’s Will for me. I had found my home at last, or rather, my home had found me. When I was 17, I won a competition and won a prize to visit the then Soviet Russia. That was in 1973.

2) What inspired you to start Orthodox England? What is the history behind the journal?

Since 1974 I had been reading history in order to try and understand Western history and how the break with Orthodoxy had happened and what its consequences were, in other words, I wanted to know why Western people had lost their saints. I was especially interested in the first millennium after Orthodoxy arrived in Rome in about 50 AD up until the mid-eleventh century in Western Europe. In 1976 I had asked someone why there were no books about this. He said that if I read enough, I should write them, filling the gap, because there were no such books. So, from 1989 on, I began writing books about this Age of the Saints, especially in England, which I knew best. Nobody else was doing anything like this. Though I had few qualities, I had no choice. I had to do it. There was no-one else to do it.

In 1997 we moved back to England from France. Having lived for sixteen years in Russia, Norway, Greece, France and Portugal, I had a new understanding of reality. I knew that the real England was not British, just as the real Russia was not Soviet. I wished to publish this knowledge. Someone had advised me that before you start a quarterly journal, you should always have at least the first year ready beforehand. I had a mass of material with the first three years ready. So began 20 years and 80 issues of the Orthodox England journal.

3) A lot of people feel as though converts to Orthodoxy must forfeit their own culture in the process. Where do you feel a healthy balance exists between submitting to Eastern rite, representation, ethnic expression, and ethnic idolatry?

Here you need discernment to distinguish between the primary and the secondary. The secondary is ethnic expression, either of your own culture and language or that of others. Thus, we should not call ourselves Orthodox in front of those on the outside, but Orthodox Christian. The word Orthodox is only an adjective and it has ethnic connotations. Orthodox Christianity is much more than a culture, it is simple Christianity, the following of Christ. Those who are not Orthodox Christians are not fully Christian, though they don’t know that. This is why they call themselves only Catholic or Protestant, they do not know the word Christian in our sense.

You ask about ‘submitting to the Eastern rite’. Forgive me, but this is a very strange phrase for me. I have never ‘submitted to the Eastern rite’. I submitted to Christ. If wanting to join one of the Local Orthodox Churches does not mean you submitting to Christ, then forget it, you are not ready for the Church. You are blocked by your cultural prejudices and have not seen past the folklore and externals. Those who think they have to ape others, including their folklore, suffer from ethnic idolatry. Here we come once more to that old piece of advice: If there is a difference for you between ‘joining the Orthodox Church’ and ‘becoming Orthodox’, then you are not ready for the Church. Becoming Orthodox must mean remaining Orthodox.

There are those who say that they want to join the Orthodox Church, but are not prepared to shed their cultural baggage. If such people are received into the Church, they will always fall away. They were not ready. I remember talking to a priest a few years ago. He told me that he had received some Anglicans into the Church. He told me that for a couple of years, all was OK, but then they wanted to change and ‘reform the Church’ (!), everything they did not like. They walked away, some of them slamming the door, finally understanding that the Church would not change for them. The ones who had to change for the Church were themselves, but they were too proud to do that.

In this matter much depends on what your previous religious culture was. Those of no background, like myself, have nothing to change, nothing to lose. If you come to the Church without cultural baggage and such prejudices, then all is easy. If you have cultural baggage, you are not ready. You have to fast from that baggage. You have to unpack first.

4) What crucial parts of Orthodox history do you feel are overlooked or lost?

There are two areas in particular:

The first area is the first millennium of Western history. We know that the first Christians in Rome were Greek-speaking. We know that in the second century St Irenei and St Justin Martyr wrote in Greek. We also know that from the second century on, local Latin-speaking Romans, like St Tatiana, from the noble Tatian family, were entering into the family of saints. We know that the Church Father, St Ambrose of Milan, conveyed Orthodoxy to the Latin-speaking world. Then came the importance of the Egyptian desert, which influenced St John Cassian and St Martin of Tours and from there came the whole blossoming of Irish holiness, which then spread to Scotland and northern England. (By the way, St Patrick was not Irish but came from Britain. Even the name Patrick is Roman, not Celtic). We know that in the fifth century St Simeon the Stylite and St Genevieve of Paris corresponded.

We know that there are dozens of Irish manuscripts, written in Latin, in the library of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. We know that the last Greek Pope of Rome was St Zacharias (+ 752). We know that Rome conserved its Orthodoxy right up to the first years of the eleventh century. So what happened? What went wrong? How did we end up with the invention of Roman Catholicism? This latter did not exist in the Year 1000, when the anti-Papist Emperor Otto III reigned in the West, yet it clearly did in the Year 1100.

The second area is the ignorance of pre-Revolutionary Russia. I was extremely fortunate to have met Russians who had been adults before the Revolution. They knew what it had been like, the good and the bad. Remember that only 10% of them ever set foot in church. Most were atheists or indifferent to the Church. St John of Shanghai mentioned this fact in the 1930s in Belgrade. I knew them.

Those who had been adults before were not the children of Russian emigres, born in the West, or Non-Russian converts, who all idealised the past as part of a nostalgic ideology. They never wondered, if everything had been so wonderful before the Revolution, why the Revolution had happened. Above all, the children of Russian emigres never read Russian history. All they had to do was to read the accounts of the incredible decadence of Russian Church life before the Revolution, for example, those written by Metr Antony of Kiev, the founder of ROCOR.

That knowledge would have dissolved their nostalgia and idealistic converts could not have been hoodwinked by those who have Russian names or pretend to have them, but know nothing, who cannot read or write Russian, who know only kitchen Russian, because they are second or third generation, or not Russian at all. They should stop playing gurus, putting on false Russian accents. We can see through them. They are charlatans.

5) Do you feel that it is difficult at times to discern the boundaries we hold as Orthodox Christians after the schism, i.e. the tombs of our saints, our ancient churches undergoing reconstruction under Catholic occupation etc?

Yes, absolutely, it is difficult. You must be very clear here, otherwise there will be spiritual confusion. What remains from the pre-Schism West is very fragmentary in material terms, for example, in terms of architecture. Indeed, archaeology can tell you the most because most of the material history of the saints is buried underground, conveniently hidden.

I remember talking to an Orthodox who went on pilgrimage to Rome. Every time he had wanted to see Orthodoxy, he had to go downstairs, to basements and catacombs. On top there was just medieval and Renaissance decoration. To venerate relics, you had to write a letter to the Roman Catholic authorities three weeks in advance! All was buried, hidden away. This symbolises it all. The heritage of the Western saints is above all spiritual. The best way of feeling it and recreating it is by our prayers to these Saints of the glorious past. They are believed missing for many, but we know them as immortal.

Here we must understand that 1054 marks not the beginning, but the end, of the first part of the process of Schism, which had started three centuries before. The second millennium is the second part of that process. This is the story of degradation. The latest Papal blessing for homosexual couples is simply the latest and completely inevitable stage of that same apostasy of the process of Schism. Make no mistake, the Western Schism is a process, and an ongoing process.

6) What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your ministry?

In May 1980 I met Fr Alexander Schmemann in Paris. He wanted me to come over to the US to finish off my studies there and then I think, in time, to teach at St Vladimir’s. I did not wish to. The saints interested me more. During our conversation I asked him for his impressions of the Church in the then Soviet Russia. He answered me that the episcopate could be divided into two halves. One half were saints, the other half were among the biggest rogues you could find anywhere, the dregs of humanity. There was nothing inbetween. His story simply confirmed my earlier impressions of the Orthodox episcopate I had met in the Western world.

I had already twice met Metr Pitirim (Nechayev) of Volokolamsk, the mentor of my friend, the present Metr Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Crimea. Metr Pitirim was a real gentleman, who had retained the old-world nobility of the best of pre-Revolutionary figures. And yet in 1986 he was put on Soviet television to tell lies. This was the time of Chernobyl and Ukrainians knew that chernobyl is the name of a plant, which we call ‘wormwood’ in English. But some of the pious ones had read the Scriptures. Why did he lie, saying that waters tasting of ‘wormwood’ was not among the prophecies of the Book of Revelation? He could have called all to repentance, but he, like the others, were all hostages. He told lies because he was protecting others. If he had not told lies, he would not have suffered, but dozens of parishes would have been closed, or parish priests and their wives and children left destitute. It was all very well for those who lived outside the system to judge, but I think we had and have absolutely no right to judge. God is our Judge, of us all.

But there is something far worse than all this. Metr Pitirim was on the saintly side. There are those who are not. There are those who tell lies voluntarily, when they live in freedom, when they have no guns in their backs or when those who depend on them have no guns in their backs. They still tell lies. Why? Because they reap some material benefit from their psychopathic lies, money or power for themselves. They are on Fr Alexander’s other list.

You may ask why I have not answered your question about challenges. Well, I have done. The biggest challenges I have faced over the last forty years of service at the altar are bishops who do not preach Christ, but who preach hateful and extremist ideologies, which involve them in slandering, bullying and betraying those under them and taking pleasure in trying to close their churches. They are used by the devil to try and destroy the Church on earth, blaspheming the Holy Spirit and so committing personal spiritual suicide.

Another instance. We have a very good friend in Moldova. Fr Gregory is a priest with a long black beard and he looks like an icon. Though he is married and has five children. He has built a huge, stone church there and is now building a convent. Five years ago he too was forced to move from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Romanian Patriarchate. Why? Because the Moscow bishop was intent on stealing the newly-built church, to which he had not given a penny, from Fr Gregory. Just another case, the same thing again.

Another case. In our parish we have a former priest’s wife from Kazakhstan. Her husband was a violent drunkard, but as he paid his bishop a lot of money for various honours and awards, mitres and what have you, that was fine. As she says, the local bishop was just ‘a mini-oligarch’. Of course, he was. Corruption is everywhere.  Nowadays the main qualification to be a bishop is to act as an ‘effective manager’. That is the current jargon, all Western words. But the old White Russian bishops, who died out in the last century, God rest them, told me that the Revolution happened because the bishops then were only ‘good administrators’ (another Western word). That was their only qualification. Nothing new under the sun…

Then, only a few years ago, one of these ‘effective managers’ was living in his Cathedral in Paris, with his wife and child. That was not so bad. But on top of that he was a drunkard. Or in London, the ROCOR priest who was a sex pest, but who also loved money. He could not stop molesting women parishioners. Why did they ordain such a notorious man, against all advice, including our own? Well, you can guess: because he was ‘an effective manager’ and, at the start at least, he brought in lots of money, until all the younger women had fled. Of course, it all ended in tears. It always does.

I have only met four Patriarchs. Two of them were saintly, two of them are not. Awful things are being done in certain Patriarchates today. The Church canons are being used for politics. There are bishops who are schismatics, spies or who are depraved. What should we do?

First of all, it has all been seen before. For example, read Russian medieval literature. My professors in Oxford were experts on it and wrote a book about it in 1974. Only the inexperienced and ignorant are scandalised when they discover that some Russian bishops of that time were sodomites.

Please do not be scandalised. Remember that Judas was one of the Twelve. Just because there are a few rotten apples in the basket of lovely, sweet, rosy-red apples, you do not throw them all away.

I could tell you far worse than any of these stories. But why? Let me tell you the words of St Paisios, which he told a good friend of mine from Switzerland in the 1980s. My friend asked him precisely how to react to such scandals. Fr Paisios answered: ‘When you are walking along a path to the skete or kellia, you may come across excrement left there by a wild animal. Well, when you who live in the world find the excrement of other wild animals, do what I do: Kick it aside and wipe your shoes on the grass, so that the person who comes after you does not walk in it and you keep your own shoes clean’.

7) What are some of the best moments of your ministry, or memorable events?

The best moments are always when the repentant come home. This includes especially ex-criminals and ex-prostitutes, the prodigal sons and the prodigal daughters. Afterwards they make the best Orthodox. Think of the thief on the cross, read the life of St Barbarus, or of the ex-prostitutes, St Mary of Egypt, St Taisia, St Pelagia. As a prison chaplain, I see it especially often. Salvation comes through the depth of our repentance and that becomes visible by how our way of life has changed. The deeper the repentance, the greater the salvation. That is the key.

Then there is missionary work. This is among Orthodox who have been abandoned by their own Patriarchates. This work has taken place in several countries in Europe, but especially in Portugal, from north to south, and in England. In the latter case, I have been active throughout the eastern half of England, from the north-east near the Scottish border, down through the East Midlands and my native East Anglia, right down to the coasts of Kent and Sussex. Half the country. Although I was later briefly forbidden to do missionary work, including baptising children in kitchens, confessing people in their living rooms, serving memorials in the open air, preaching Christ to those who wanted to know, the efforts to stop me were in vain, for then the people came to me! The bad bishops hate missionary work. This is because they have renounced the Holy Spirit and do not love Christ.

Next there is Providence. Providence is God’s Love for us, as He provides what we need, even if we do not expect it and even if at first, this seems hard to us. Providence is God sharing our burdens, making our yoke light, our burden easy. Since the war broke out in the Ukraine in 2014, they have tried to force the whole world to take sides, one ghetto against another ghetto. I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, but although we were followed by an embassy spy in London in 2021 and were approached by certain politically-minded people, we remained outside politics, outside the ethnic and political ghettos.

We were not forced to take sides, as God had provided for us an intermediate space, in the Patriarchate of Bucharest. Here we were able to steer the ship of the Church so that we are able to welcome both Russians and Ukrainians to all our churches, as well as many other nationalities, Romanian, Moldovan, Greek, English. This ability to stand outside ethnic ghettoisation and politicisation was sent to us by God. This was a miracle of His loving Providence. None of us has the slightest doubt about this.

Finally, there are the miracles. We Orthodox experience many miracles around us, because we confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds directly from the Father. At the liturgy on Ascension Day 2022, we had the phenomenon of a wonderful fragrance being given out from the large icon of St John of Kronstadt. This was a great comfort, as St John was a model pastor, who accepted all nationalities. He was not made the rector of the huge church he had until after 40 years of priesthood. This was because his bishop was jealous of him and of his popularity. It mirrors the experience of so many. If you are sincere, you involuntarily show up the compromised. They will hate you for that and slander you and try to destroy you. I am reminded of the words attributed to St Basil the Great: Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.

  1. What friends do you have in the Local Churches in Western Europe?

 You must have friends in many Local Churches. They will protect you from the sharks, so you can outmanoeuvre them. Thus, I have known Metr Seraphim (Joanta), the bishop of the Romanian Church for Central and Northern Europe, since 1986 and our own Metr Joseph (Pop) of Western and Southern Europe, whom we got to know over 20 years ago whom we got to know years ago through my sister-in-law, Princess Laskin-Rostovsky, in Paris.

Since 2004 we have been able to build up an inter-jurisdictional network of clergy throughout Europe, especially when I was appointed missionary representative for Western Europe by the late and greatly missed Metr Hilarion (Kapral). He was the last. This network goes from Belarus to Italy, from Czechia to Bulgaria, from Greece to Germany, from Moldova to Finland, from France to Norway, from Romania to Belgium, from Portugal to Slovakia, from Latvia to Scotland, from the Ukraine to Switzerland, from the Netherlands to Russia. This European network supports all of us in our struggle to build up the Local Church of Western Europe, which has been the purpose of my life, the law of my being, these past forty years as a cleric. I will tell you know – we are not the last of the Mohicans – we are the first of the Mohicans!

9) Who is the saint you have the closest relationship with in the West? In the East?

A saint in the West? There are so many of them! But it must be St Edmund, because he is our local family saint. Six generations of my direct forebears were named after him, all Edmunds, who lived from 1590 to 1768. One of my first memories from childhood, was going to the ruins of St Edmund’s monastery with a great-uncle in 1959. He looked at the ruins and took his cap off with great sadness and respect. I saw it in his eyes. Our last martyred King is in my blood, in my genes. That is how I composed the service to him nearly twenty-five years ago now.

A saint in the East? Even more difficult!  Well, I love St John Chrysostom, have all his works in ten volumes, and also St Andrew the Fool, my patron saint in New Rome in the tenth century, who saw the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. St Andrew always told the truth. A few years ago, I was able to compose an akathist to him.

More recently, there is St Nectarios, who has a wonderful Life and now there is an excellent film about him. All the slandered must pray to him. Then there is the greatest Ukrainian saint of the last century – St John of Shanghai and Western Europe.  (We call him like that because he spent thirteen years in Western Europe, but only three in San Francisco, and there they killed him). St John was a pastor and for that he was slandered, put on trial and suspended by his fellow-bishops in the ROCOR Synod. He was not the first and not the last.

But there are also those who have not yet been canonised as saints, the priests and elders, who have also inspired me very greatly.

In 1974 I met Fr Alexander Nelidov in Paris. He warned me: ‘They will be out to get you. Satan is inside the Church’. These were terrible words, but he was a prophet. Then, in 1976 there was Elder Seraphim Tapochkin near Belgorod in Russia. He gave me his blessing and encouragement. They want to canonise him now. Quite rightly. In 1979 I met Fr Paisios at Stavronikita. We knew he was a saint even then. He was the real thing. Now he is St Paisios. He appreciated greatly our Archbishop Antony of Geneva, who later ordained me priest.

Then there was the Romanian Elder Cleopa. I never met him in person, but I saw in him how Carpathian spirituality was the same as that on Athos, as in Diveevo in Russia, and as the ancient Irish had. He is a saint, we know and he will be canonised soon. Then in 1979 I met Fr Ephraim at Philotheou. He devoted some time to me. I can show you exactly where we met at Philotheou on Athos. I still remember his words, even though my Greek was not very good. He foresaw. He has always been with me. He too was clearly the real thing, though then there was, as far as I know, no question of the USA and Arizona.

Finally, I must mention Elder Nikolai Guryanov (+ 2002). He had understood everything. Confined to a tiny island near Estonia, he saw beyond. He was mystical. His prophecies are still coming true. You will see! And do not be surprised when you see his words coming true and all the present nonsense being swept away like the chaff from the winnowing floor. ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire’ (Matt 3, 12). You will be astounded by the miracles and transformations that are going to happen in the coming years. You will be breathless and say: This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes. And again: Who is so great a God as our God. Thou art the God Who workest miracles. I sing these words in my heart every day.