One of the greatest pastoral problems in London is the chronic lack of Orthodox churches. For example, St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow Road is very small, hardly a Cathedral at all, and the medium-sized Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Knightsbridge is smaller than St John’s Russian Orthodox church in provincial Colchester. Of course, there is one church building that would suit Orthodox in London, providing it was frescoed and fitted with iconostases and other Church furnishings. One person who works there would be glad to help us use it.
St Paul’s Cathedral is located on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London. Its dedication to the holy apostle Paul dates back to the original church on the site, founded in 604, though unproven stories assert that this was because St Paul actually preached here. The present Cathedral, dating from the late 17th century, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. At 365 feet (111 m) high, it was until 1967 the tallest building in London.
The first recorded Orthodox Bishop of London was called either Restitutus or Adelphius and attended the Council of Arles in 314. However, the location of his Cathedral is unknown. St Bede recorded that in 604 St Augustine consecrated Mellitus as the first Bishop of the East Saxons, whose territory covered London, and their King, Sabert. Sabert’s uncle and overlord, Ethelbert, King of Kent, built a church dedicated to St Paul in London, as the seat of the new bishop. It is assumed that this first Cathedral stood on the same site as the present one.
On the death of Sabert in about 616, his pagan sons expelled Bishop Mellitus from London and the East Saxons reverted to paganism. Christianity was restored later in the seventh century and it is presumed that either the Cathedral was restored or else a new one was built as the seat of seventh-century bishops like St Cedd and St Erconwald, ‘The Light of London’, who was buried in the Cathedral in 693. This building, or a successor, was destroyed by fire in 962 but rebuilt in the same year.
In 1016 King Ethelred the Unready was buried in the Cathedral. This was burned down with much of the city in a fire in 1087. The Norman occupiers then built a new Cathedral, known to history as ‘Old St Paul’s’. This Gothic building was in turn gutted by the Great Fire of London of 1666. While it might have been possible to rebuild it, a decision was taken to build a new Cathedral. The task of designing it was assigned to Sir Christopher Wren in 1669.
The design process took several years, but the result was the present St Paul’s Cathedral, modelled partly on St Peter’s in the Vatican. St Paul’s is still the second largest church in Britain. The building was financed by a tax on coal and was completed within the architect’s lifetime. It was declared officially complete by Parliament on 25 December 1711, though in fact construction continued for several years after that. In 1716 the total costs amounted to £1,095,556 (£148 million in 2015 money).
Today, though with a small but active Protestant congregation, St Paul’s is largely a tourist monument. With an area of some 6,000 square metres and several altars, it is ideally suited for London’s huge numbers of Orthodox Christians. Consecrated to the holy apostles Peter and Paul, it could become the Cathedral for all Orthodox in London. Fantasy? But our God works miracles.