Reflections on the Pastoral Crisis: Seven Days and One Thousand Miles in the Life of a Diaspora Priest


Last week was particularly busy. Why? Because we are so desperately short of churches and priests in England. The situation in London is one of pastoral abandonment for many. There is now no Russian bishop in the Patriarchal Church. One of the rumours has it that the Russian bishop cannot return from Moscow because of threats to his life in the present Russophobic UK. Is that true? There are other rumours which say quite the opposite. Now there are threats to send any Russian priests who do not have British nationality back to Russia. Who will listen to confessions in Russian? Already the Russian Patriarchal Church has more or less done like the Greek Church, which does no confessions at all because of the shortage of priests (or worse because of an anti-Orthodox ideology), whereas the Russian Patriarchal Church uses the (uncanonical) ‘general confession’. In any case both generally refuse to listen to confessions.

All I know is that in 1985 some had to agree to become freemasons before they could be ordained to the priesthood. (I was one of them and refused, so remained a deacon for seven years). Now in 2022, it seems that you have to agree to do even worse and compromise yourself with the powers that be.

Monday: 100 miles

I travel locally to see several parishioners.

The main topic is the new Ukrainians. Thirty years ago there were 50 million Ukrainians in the Ukraine. Today there are 30 million. Who wants to have and bring up children in a wretchedly poor country without a future? I have been to the Ukraine many times and noticed the absence of children – one-child families are very common. On top of the low birth-rate and the high death-rate (high because who wants to live in a wretchedly poor country without a future?), there are the refugees.

According to UN statistics 10,000,000 Ukrainians fled the Ukraine between February and July 2022, but 4,000,000 returned, making 6,000,000 refugees. 2,000,000 have taken refuge from Ukrainian bombardments in Russia since the war began in 2014. That still leaves 4,000,000, who are now in EU Europe and the UK, half of them in Poland. Quite a few appear to be from the far west of the Ukraine (where, ironically there is no war), so they are Catholics, that is, Uniats, or belong to one of the other schismatic nationalist groups, which worship not God, but the Ukraine. Nobody knows what proportion are canonical Orthodox and what proportion of those are churchgoers, but it must be at least 1% of 4,000,000, or 40,000. Thus, of the 104,000 new Ukrainians in the UK, there may be over 1,000 who are churchgoing, canonical Orthodox.

If these refugees are concentrated in a particular city, for example, in London, they will inevitably set up their own church, as has already been done in Brussels and elsewhere, under Metr Onufry. The Russian Church will not help them, but we in the Romanian Church can help, as we are politically neutral, outside both Russian and Greek political scandals. (This includes the latest scandal in the Russian Church, the highly divisive meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Kyrill, planned to take place in Kazakhstan next month during what is an existential war). Just in our part of the Romanian Church, we have four Russian-speaking priests. (Russian is the main language of the Ukraine. Just as Welsh is the second language of Wales, Ukrainian is the second language in the Ukraine).

From Amsterdam I hear of the pastoral disaster there. The clergy and many laypeople of the large Russian church, which I know very well, has joined the Greek Church, thus splitting the people into two groups Those who did not want to change now celebrate with their (Belarussian) priest in the Armenian church building. I feel sorry for the traitors and narcissists, victims and perpetrators alike. (Yes, even most victims have their responsibility, as it is often cowardice that brought them there, not truth). However, to be overwhelmed by sadness or disgust is not an option for an Orthodox Christian. Some there are already regretting the move, in view of the scandal in the Greek Orthodox Church in North America. Our own Greek parishioners in Colchester know all about this: we live in the internet age, you cannot hide.

Next I receive a phone call from York. I have been going there for years. The community needs its own church. And for that we need money. One couple I knew well actually returned to the Crimea in despair at the situation. I will have to return to York soon to continue missionary work there.

Tuesday: 150 miles

Today is a prison day. I have been a prison chaplain for 10 years now in four different prisons. I do not really have time to do it, but there is nobody to replace me. Of Orthodox prisoners a majority are Romanian. This is normal, given that some two-thirds of the 670,000 Orthodox in the UK are Romanian. Indeed, our Autonomous Romanian Metropolia in Western Europe has six bishops and nearly 700 parishes, which makes it bigger than some Local Churches.

Perhaps all Orthodox in Western Europe should be under the Romanian Church, as it is by far the biggest? It is in fact multinational and allows both calendars. Many of our clergy speak Russian and there are many Russian and Romanian-speaking Moldovans here (20% of churches in Moldova itself are under the Patriarchate of Romania). Sadly, most Moldovans in England and France have been forced to leave the Patriarchate of Moscow, for complex and very dark reasons internal to that Patriarchate.

If there were one united, multinational, bicalendar Western European Orthodox Church, there would be a flock of perhaps 5,000,000, at least 2,000 parishes, many monasteries and over 25 bishops. This is bigger than any of the Four Ancient Patriarchates or the Georgian Church. We should have had such a Local Church years ago. Instead, we get political and divisive ideologies from Russians and Greeks, sometimes even sectarian and schismatic tendencies, which split the Orthodox presence and destroy all hope of a Local Church. This is abnormal. I want my children and grandchildren to be part of a Local Church.

In reality, of course, by far the largest jurisdiction of Orthodox is that of Orthodox who do not go to church anywhere. And in part this is because they have been so disgusted by Orthodox bishops and priests who want only money or power that they do not go to church. As one taxi-driver parishioner from Colchester said to me last year in all too fluent English: ‘In my country the priests are all (expletive deleted) thieves’. Why indeed should people go to church in those conditions?

At the end of the day, I have a house blessing for a Ukrainian parishioner. Although she has been here for 15 years, now all her family are refugees in London.

Next, I receive news from the Western Rite parish. Here too is another pastoral catastrophe: they are being abolished. I know little about the ‘Western rite’. I have only ever been Orthodox, I know only one rite, the Orthodox Christian rite, which for me is universal, Eastern and Western, Northern and Southern. But the situation shows there is still a real pastoral need for an all-English parish in London. We have been waiting for one for 50 years. Much has been prevented by the vanity of individual bishops. It is the big fish in the little pond syndrome.  Vanity, already pernicious, develops into egomania and narcissism when it is given power, hence the big fish, so all except cowards and yes-men inevitably leave, hence the little pond.

A married man has problems developing into a narcissist, just as a monastic bishop. Both are restrained. However, a non-monastic bishop has no restraints. And then the usual disasters follow. I have seen it all so often before. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday: 150 miles

Today is a day of house blessings and visits up the east coast to Lowestoft. Although we have our parish we set up in Norwich, Norfolk needs parishes elsewhere. Our community in Yarmouth is very small, but we do have others in west Norfolk, where people feel abandoned. The obvious place to set up a church there is Kings Lynn, where I have been twice recently. Here I feel really concerned. If I had the money, I would definitely start something here. We should dedicate a new parish to the Tsar-Martyr, as he visited the town in summer 1894. This would bring in Orthodox from south Lincolnshire. Could the Romanian priest in Boston help us?

One of our parishioners phones to tell me about how in Belarus, where her very ill grandmother lives, it costs 100 euros to get a priest to cross the road (the church is opposite the grandmother’s  flat) and give her communion. That is a week’s salary in Belarus! If it were 100 euros here, it would be scandalous, but there, it is ten times more scandalous. Sadly, it is similar in some parts of the Russian Church, where some bishops demand money and threaten their faithful clergy if they do not get it. St John gave his shoes away to the barefoot, others buy themselves £400 shoes….what a difference….

Thursday: 150 miles

Today I go to south Essex for the funeral of a baby. It is very sad. The local priest told the mother that God had taken the life of her baby as a punishment for her not being married. It is hard to believe that someone as heartless as that could be ordained. I would like to know the name of the bishop who ordained him.

There follows the wake and the blessings of two houses. Here too, in this large city, we have parishioners and we have long needed to set up a church. I know where we can get a priest, but how can we buy a building?

Later I return to Colchester to tidy the church for the Liturgy on Saturday. In the early evening I meet one of our Ukrainian parishioners who has brought us a large parcel with icons and rosaries we ordered last January. This has been brought by courier from the Ukraine (he travels by van every week and he often brings us things we have ordered).

The main very large icon is wonderful. We ordered it in January and would have had it months ago but for the war. The iconographer, who lives in a house outside Kiev which is used by our church, fled when she saw a missile flying overhead last March. We had hoped to receive this icon of the 1962 prophecy of St John of Shanghai for our patronal feast on 2 July. Then he entrusted our Church to St Alban. The icon illustrates this. It has come now, by Divine Providence. This is our parish icon of St John and St Alban.

Friday: 120 miles

Today is another prison day, though I am giving communion in an old people’s home first. Here there lives an elderly woman who remembers Fr Ambrose Pogodin from the old Emperor’s Gate church in London. Fr Ambrose, a real scholar who knew the Latin Fathers, was of the old generation of ROCOR. Archbishop Seraphim of Brussels reminded me a lot of him. Both were completely unmercenary, lived in poverty, and dressed and celebrated in whatever they had. No bling for them. They were the real thing.

Saturday: 170 miles

Fr Ioan serves the Liturgy in Colchester. But this morning I have a child baptism in the hospital in Cambridge. Our priest in our new Moldovan parish there speaks only Romanian and Russian. Here we need English. Though the boy is a Russian Muslim, he speaks very little Russian. We need bilingual clergy who speak a language like Romanian, Greek or Russian, but also English. This need has been urgent for 50 years. English is essential to communicate with the children. They were born in England and speak English far better than their parents’ native language. They go to English schools.

It is always a shock to me that I have hardly ever seen children in Greek churches, except for Romanian children. It is much the same story in Russian churches here (though not in Russia). This was how the old pre-Revolutionary Russians died out. I can remember how in the 1970s Russian churches typically did 12 funerals a month and 1 baptism every two years. Now we do 12 baptisms a month and one funeral every two years.

In the afternoon I have three Russian baptisms. They have no church where they live, so they have come here. In the evening I have a memorial, the Vigil service and confessions.

Sunday: 60 miles

Confessions. Liturgy.


In the last 30 months I have covered 70,000 miles in my car doing pastoral work.

I feel as though I am the only Russian-speaking Orthodox missionary in the country, or at least in the Eastern quarter of the country. In the last year, apart from Essex and Suffolk which effectively form our parish, I have been to see Russian and English-speaking Orthodox in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, Kent and Sussex, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, over twelve counties – exactly one quarter of the country.

I have spent nearly fifty years, thirty-eight of them as a clergyman, working towards the creation of a Local Church both here and in Western Europe. Neither the Greek and Russian Churches seems to be serious about setting up a Local Church here. Despite their mountains of fine words over the decades, there are no actions, promises are broken and indeed there is only negativity towards others and narrow ideologies. Can the Romanian Church help? Someone has to lead the way, to be a pioneer, especially if others are only interested in futile politics, divisions, arguments and intrigues. A Local Western European Orthodox Church remains our long-needed ideal.

This Sunday evening I had just written these words, almost in despair at the pastoral crisis, when within five minutes, I have received messages from two Ukrainian priests who wish to come here. Since we are in the Romanian Church, they are particularly interested. Godsends, literally. Tomorrow I start the search for paperwork.

7 August 2022