The following is the recap of an interview given in Colchester on the Feast of the Dormition, 28 August 2023, to pilgrims from Romania, one of whom, Starets Vikenty from Targoviste, concelebrated with us.
Q: How did you obtain this enormous and beautiful church in Colchester, which is like a monastery?
A: It was through a miracle of St John of Shanghai. For eleven years we had been renting temporary premises and then this church came up for sale. We only had £4,000 in our account. So we prayed to St John and after six weeks, without even the slightest help from the Russian bishops or local Russians, we came to have £180,000 in our account. We bought the church. I still cannot believe this happened, even after 15 years.
Q: How did you come to be in the Romanian Church?
A: That too was a miracle of St John. You know for decades the Romanian church in Paris, where I studied, was under the Russian Church. This was through the kindness of St John and his successor Archbishop Antony of Geneva, who ordained me. It was on the new calendar – in those days the Russian Church had no problem with that. The Romanian problem was purely political, they were political refugees, so the Russian Church sheltered them until the political situation in Romania was resolved and the Paris parish could return to the freed Romanian Church, as it did twenty years ago.
Now when the Russian Church came quite recently into great political turmoil, we had to take refuge in the Romanian Church. I said to Metr Joseph at the time (we communicate in French): ‘We have Russian traditions and use the old calendar’. He answered: ‘No problem’. This was undoubtedly too by the prayers of St John. Here in Colchester we have been repaid for St John’s charity in Paris all those years ago. It is the spiritual law. Do good and good will come back to you. Do bad and bad will come back to you. It is the boomerang principle.
I would add also that in the 1970s the well-known Romanian ascetic, Fr Raphael (Noica), had a great influence on me. This gave me even then a very positive picture of the spiritual grandeur of the Romanian Church.
Q: You are now a well-established parish under Metr Joseph and his Synod of the Autonomous Romanian Metropolia of Western and Southern Europe. What has been the greatest change in recent years?
A: Without doubt, it was the government lockdowns during covid. Since we refused to close down and I said publicly that I was willing to go to prison for it, we doubled our congregation. True, that did make our then bishop very unhappy because his small church in London was forced to close. We were at some points the only Orthodox church open in England. We had people of all nationalities coming to us from all over the south and east of England, up to 150 miles away, from Brighton, Reading and Lincolnshire. Both Russian churches in London closed down, as well as the Greek churches, the Antiochian churches and the monastery in Tolleshunt Knights.
Recently someone told me how nostalgic he was for that time! We did not ring the bells, we did not switch on the lights, no parking was allowed in the Church car park and we never opened the front doors which had a notice on them saying: ‘Due to the government lockdown, these doors are closed’. It was absolutely true, we used the side door which people went in and out of in small numbers and people were told not to gather and talk outside in front of the Church. This man said to me: ‘It was like the catacomb Church’. He is nostalgic for that. I can understand him.
Q: What was your attitude to covid vaccination?
A: Neutral. It was not a dogmatic question, it was up to everyone personally. But I always told people to make the sign of the cross over the vaccine, if they had to receive it, just in case.
Q: The situation of having a church to go to was good for the people. But did it affect you?
A: Yes, definitely – apart from being constantly very tired from overwork! First of all, we realised that we as a church had been virtually unknown before. Suddenly hundreds, if not thousands, of Orthodox discovered us. It was the best advert we could ever have had. Secondly, I also went out, covering a thousand miles a week, and gave hundreds more people communion in their homes. I was never stopped by the police, the roads were more or less empty. I discovered that the Russian priests in London were refusing to go out and give communion. I was the only one doing so. Thirdly, I realised just how many Romanian Orthodox there were in England, realising that they were by then three-quarters of all Orthodox here. We could no longer remain as a small minority amidst this ocean of Romanian Orthodox. We had a pastoral responsibility towards them.
Q: Until the 1990s, the majority of Orthodox in England were Greeks. Why did you not think of joining them, as you later joined the majority Romanian Church?
A: First of all, from 1983 until 1997 I lived in Paris, the centre of the Russian emigration, where I studied at seminary and where there were and are very few Greeks or Orthodox of any other nationality except Russian. Secondly, sadly, the Greeks had always been hostile to Non-Greeks. I remember in the 1970s and 1980s how Greeks simply told Non-Greeks to go away (and sometimes not as politely as that). It does not matter how numerous you are, when you have that attitude, you condemn yourself to dying out – which is exactly what has happened. And thirdly the Greek hierarchy was always politically and masonically very compromised and I was very uncomfortable with that, whatever the ordinary priests and people. I did not want to have to become a freemason, as they offered me.
Q: So was this ‘ocean’ of Romanians the reason why you joined the Romanian Church?
A: No. The reason we joined the Romanian Church eighteen months ago, just before the conflict in the Ukraine entered its new and very violent phase, was the sectarianisation of the Russian Church Outside Russia.
The old Russian archbishop had been completely indifferent to us, celebrating in our church only once in 20 years! When I asked for his blessing to obtain the church in Colchester, he gave it, without hostility, but made it clear that he thought I was crazy to set up a large church and that he would not in any way help us. However, the new bishop, who replaced him, belonged to what we, and many others, came to call ‘ROCCOR’, ‘Russian Orthodox Crazy Converts Outside Russia’.
A very recent, inexperienced, young convert, with huge gaps in his knowledge, without seminary training and no pastoral experience, he was put in charge of the few remaining ROCOR parishes that remained in Western Europe and made mistake after mistake. He governed through google-translate! We had been members of the Russian Church before he was born and had known those who had been adults in Russia before 1917. He also told us all publicly that ‘I don’t like Romanians and only half-like Moldovans’. This was in front of a group of twenty of us, half Romanians or Moldovans!
It was one of the final acts of suicide for the ROCOR Diocese in Western Europe, the last in a long series. They had run out of competent bishops. All the older and experienced priests had to be cast out and replaced with crazy converts, neophytes. Fr Seraphim Rose’s ultimate nightmare from the 1970s had come true. ‘Super-correctness’ had taken over. (Remember that Fr Seraphim was a disciple of St John of Shanghai, and so was a sort of spiritual uncle to me).
In extreme cases, as in the USA, this meant expelling families, women and children from real parishes, and repopulating the tiny remaining groups with crazy converts, ‘internet Orthodox’, misogynists, repressed homosexuals, indifferent to the future of the Church, the children, incels and even youths who like toying with Nazi weapons. Such will debate at length the Typikon, fasting, any outward rules, taking on names like Seraphim, Moses, Vladmir and have long hair and beards like monks. However, real monks live in humility and obedience and do not hate others and do not hate themselves.
How did they imagine they could get away with this?! A Church which persecutes its faithful is no longer a Church. It is as simple as that. As it is written: ‘Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For so persecuted they the prophets who were before you’.
Q: So why did you not simply transfer from this new ROCOR to the Patriarchal Church, the Sourozh Diocese?
A: That was the first thing we tried, nine months before we joined the Romanian Church, but they turned us down! We had the impression that they had received strict instructions from Moscow not to take anyone from ROCOR. It seems to be their policy. It is of course their loss. We wanted to be in the Russian Church, but they did not want us and our parishes.
Q: Why was this ‘sectarianisation’ such a big deal for you?
A: First of all, because sects are always full of hatred. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus, (c. 330 – c. 391) wrote: ‘Not even wild beasts are as hostile to men as Christian sects’. I can assure you of the truth of this.
Secondly, because it had long ago become part of my destiny, with many others, to work for the reconciliation of the three parts of the Russian Church in the emigration, ROCOR, the Paris Archdiocese, and the tiny Moscow Patriarchate in the emigration. In May 2007, ROCOR was at last reconciled with the Patriarchate and then in December 2018, the Paris Archdiocese, where we have many family members and friends, was reconciled with the Patriarchate. We had achieved victory and everything I had worked for had come to fruition through all those long decades. For two years we had the miracle of unity! But, of course, the devil would not leave it there.
In December 2020 everything was completely ruined when the young crazy convert bishop created a schism with the Paris Archdiocese because it had received a Catholic priest in the usual Patriarchal (and pre-Revolutionary) way, by confession and communion. All of us, sixteen clerics and thousands of people, well over half the diocese, were horrified and were forced to stand up to his schism, which had created an international scandal. We acted in accordance with Canon XV of the First and Second Council under St Photios of Constantinople. We now understand what sectarianisation means, for the young bishop in question has been backed up by the whole of the americanised ROCOR. It is the end of that group, it had degenerated into a cultish sect. So sad to see. It is said, as we saw, that even the blood of martyrs cannot overcome schism.
Q: Did you ever regret leaving ROCOR?
A: Never. We acted according to our Orthodox conscience. We had no choice. It was an existential question. Either we belonged to the Church, or else we were a sect. We took the only possible path, to leave the sect and all its hatred and slanders. And persecution for righteousness sake is always spiritually rewarded, as we have seen.
Q: You mention crazy converts, but you are also a convert, aren’t you?
A: I was converted in 1971, 52 years ago, but I am not crazy! Ask our many parishioners in our parishes.
Craziness always comes from having no roots. I was saved from that by being rooted, coming from a literally down to earth family (my grandfather and those before him were ploughmen) on the Essex-Suffolk border, and by being a historian, hagiographer and, above all, by being a pastor. When you are a pastor, you work with real people, not with woolly ideas, which then turn into ideologies, which then turn into dangerous fantasies.
Q: One question before we move on from this. Did you think about joining the Church of Constantinople, given the political turmoil in the Russian Church?
A: We thought about it, but dismissed it, because Constantinople was, and still is, in schism with the Russian Church. We wanted to be in communion with everyone, as we are (except with the tiny ROCCOR, though they are de facto in communion with no-one and do not wish to be and do not allow their clergy, at least those here, to be in communion with others).
Q: So, given this schism inside the Moscow Patriarchate, how do you see your future?
A: The internal schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, caused by the new ROCOR episcopate, is now nothing to do with us, thank God. They must clean up their own mess, which sleeping Moscow has allowed to develop. Far worse than that is the external schism between Moscow and Constantinople. Fortunately, we in the Romanian Church, as those in several other local Churches, are in communion with both sides. And that therefore is something to do with us.
I have worked for Orthodox Church unity all my life. Now the Russian Church is outside unity with the Greek Local Churches and vice versa. There must be a way out of that, but that way out can only open up once the Ukrainian conflict is over, probably next year. Those of us who are neutral, neither Greek, nor Russian, can help here.
Though I suspect that the Russian State can also help here. It has a very broad vision of traditional values, which it has expressed in BRICS, which is Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, Catholic and Protestant. It is this building on traditional values between nationalities which can help overcome parochial splits between the Local Orthodox Churches. Only a broad vision can overcome ‘jurisdictionalism’. This latter is only an advanced form of the spiritual disease of parochialism. This means narrow and racist bigotry – the concept born from total inexperience that ‘only the church I go to is good and everyone else is wrong’.
Q: But what about the schism in the Ukraine between the Orthodox under Metr Onufry and those under Constantinople? How can that be overcome? A merger?
A: There is right and wrong in the Ukraine, no merger between the Church and the schismatics is possible. We know what we are talking about. For example, just as in the Ukraine, so here too renegade bishops want to steal our churches and when they fail, they try and close them down. There is no difference between atheism coming from the Ukraine and atheism coming from the USA – atheism is atheism.
We all know that there is only one real Church in the Ukraine, that of Metr Onufry. Metr Onufry and his Church find themselves persecuted by both sides. He is the answer. Autocephaly given to him will solve all the problems, once the military conflict is over. Once that conflict has been addressed, then there will have to be a Council of the Church and both Moscow and Constantinople will have to grant autocephaly to the canonical Church in the Ukraine and not to some band of Nazi gangsters. Then we in the rest of the Church can return to normality and canonicity.
Q: The Church situation in Moldova also seems to be dire. The Moscow Church there claims that the Romanian speakers who join the Romanian Church there have no grace. What do you think of this?
A: It is very sad to see. Bishops who lose property and money by driving clergy and people away through aggressive bullying and jealousy always claim that those who leave them (with the property and money, which never anyway belonged to those bishops anyway) ‘have no grace’ or are ‘uncanonical’ or are ‘schismatics’. This went on for generations in the Russian Church in the emigration. I have seen it all before! Then, suddenly, one day, they all said, yes, we hated each other for decades, but we did not mean it! It was all politics! (Which of course, it was). Nobody believes their nonsense about those who fight for truth and justice against schism and injustice having ‘no grace’. Those who claim such nonsense merely discredit themselves and are laughed at by other bishops.
Another example. In 2006 in these islands there took place the so-called ‘Sourozh schism’, when half of the local Moscow Patriarchate Sourozh Diocese left Moscow and joined Constantinople. The half that left had been the liberal half created by the late Metropolitan Antony Bloom. And he had been allowed to create that. Now that half had already told me in 1982 that they intended to leave Sourozh for Constantinople! They had made no secret about it.
It is a typical example. There are those who do nothing about a potentially critical situation for 25 years and then over-react in a completely over the top way. They then find they have to start all over again. The usual story. It seems to be something in their psyche. The Ukraine is another example. If the Ukraine had received autocephaly in the 1990s, there would never have been the temptation of setting up a Constantinople Church there.
Another small example was the little monastic community at Brookwood outside London. For years it had been concelebrating with Greek Old Calendarists and saying quite openly that they would leave for that group if ROCOR agreed to unity with Moscow. When ROCOR declared its intention of doing just that, Brookwood left. I had the job of announcing their departure to their archbishop. He refused to believe me! And yet Brookwood had never made the slightest secret of its views. And then the ROCOR episcopate, as usual, went completely over the top in reaction, and declared that somehow, mysteriously, Brookwood ‘no longer has any grace’! The grace switch had been turned off! No wonder nobody believes anything that the ROCOR episcopate says.
The problem is that once Brookwood had gone to the Greek Old Calendarists and any chance of negotiation to return had been very aggressively rejected by its ROCOR bishop, who denounced Brookwood as ‘graceless’, leaving it no way of going back, Brookwood became ever more extreme. For example, it has recently rebaptised a man who was baptised into ROCOR some years ago and had received confession and communion in it for several years. This act denies the Creed: ‘I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins’. This is psychopathology, the crazy convert syndrome.
As for Moldova, as in the Ukraine, as usual, extremists will commit suicide by their typical over the top ‘no grace’ reaction. They will lose everything there. They may as well give up now. If they continue, they will fall out of communion with the Romanian Church, on top of everything else. They do risk total and self-imposed isolation.
Q: You mentioned Metr Antony Bloom. You knew them both very well and I believe that Metr Antony tonsured you reader in 1980. Can you explain to us the argument between him and St Sophrony of Essex?
To answer that, I have to explain the whole historical background.
Q: Go ahead.
A: After 1917 the Russian emigration divided into three groups along political lines (divisions in the Church are always because of politics). The largest group was the monarchist and right-wing ROCOR, attached to pre-1917 Russia and also largely pro-German (later some of its members, called Vlasovtsy, became traitors by actually fighting with Hitler in order to ‘liberate Russia’). Then came the group in Paris, where the French-speaking Saint Petersburg aristocrats (who had the money) and leftist intellectuals and anti-monastic freemasons had gone. Under Constantinople, they controlled most of Russian Orthodox France, as well as the fringes around the French borders, for example, in Belgium, north-west Italy, western Germany, as well as a parish in London, but they had little influence outside that Paris-centric world. Finally, came the tiny Moscow Patriarchate, which the mass of emigres saw as a Soviet organisation. In reality, it attracted only Russian patriots and ultra-nationalists, for whom Russia, even Soviet Russia, could do no wrong.
Now both St Sophrony the Athonite (that is his official title, not St Sophrony ‘of Essex’) and Metr Antony Bloom came from wealthy families in Russia, who had quite naturally gravitated to Paris. After the future Fr Sophrony had been through his Hinduism and liberal Art Nouveau phases and the future Metropolitan had been through his atheist and liberal intellectual phases, both gravitated to the Moscow Patriarchate. However, they had totally different experiences there.
The future Fr Sophrony went to Mt Athos, where he, a young intellectual and philosopher, met the great but semi-literate peasant saint, Fr Silvanus, or Silouan in its Russian form. It was the making of him, a huge revelation. Then Fr Sophrony had to go through the Nazi occupation of Athos, when the Nazis forced the Russian monastery there to hang up a picture of Hitler. On the other hand, the future Metr Antony, a young doctor, had remained in Nazi-occupied Paris, where he helped the French Resistance. After the war this Andrei Bloom became a hieromonk with the name of Antony and was sent to England. Meanwhile, Fr Sophrony and two others were expelled from Mt Athos by the Greek authorities, who very unjustly accused them of collaboration with the Nazis. From there he went back to Paris to write his great work, the saint’s life. This is most of our source about the future St Silouan. Then, in 1959, Fr Sophrony moved to England.
So it was that two ex-Parisians met in England. Fr Sophrony and his tiny monastic community of three came under the jurisdiction of Metr Antony in England. The former was obviously pro-monastic, the latter ferociously anti-monastic, in the Paris tradition. Thus, in 1965 Fr Sophrony, the Moscow loyalist, was forced to cross over to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was a fatal loss for Moscow. I saw some of the correspondence about it in the 1970s.
I was actually present on a Saturday in summer 1981 or 1982 at the formal reconciliation of the two men. However, it was only formal, the fact is that the Russians never accepted Fr Sophrony, seeing him as a traitor. When in 2019 he was canonised by Patriarch Bartholomew, at a time when Constantinople had set up a new Church in the Ukraine, it was not accepted by the Russians either. Thus, we were not allowed to venerate St Sophrony when we were under ROCOR. Our first act on leaving ROCOR was to get out his icon and put it out in church for veneration.
Q: So you clearly accept him as a saint?
A: Yes, I am now free to say so and will not be attacked for it, as I was when I was under ROCOR. It is because Fr Sophrony reflected some of the glory of the great saint, Silouan. This is shown in the excellent Tolleshunt Knights icon where St Sophrony is depicted holding the icon of St Silouan.
Here we have to understand that there are international saints, national saints and local saints. International saints are the apostles, St Spyridon, St Nicholas, St Nectarios of Aegina, St Silouan the Athonite, St John of Shanghai, St Paisios the Athonite etc. Then come national saints: St John of Rila (Bulgaria), St Sava (Serbia), St Sergius of Radonezh (Russia), St Daniel of Sihastra (Romania), St Gregory V of Constantinople (Greece), who are little known outside their own countries. And finally there are local saints, commemorated only in one place or local region, like the Irish saints of old and also like St Sophrony. He is a local saint.
Interestingly, after going through an early Russian phase, then a Greek phase, St Sophrony’s convent (?) in Tolleshunt Knights in Essex is now going through a Romanian phase, with 25 Romanian nuns and a Romanian deacon. This binds it and us in Colchester even closer together.
Q: Thank you.