Introduction: The Russian Orthodox Presence in the British Isles and Ireland
There has been a Russian Orthodox presence in England for 300 years. And yet, incredibly, both dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church in our countries (that of the Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and that of the Church based inside Russia (the Diocese of Sourozh)) have faced battles to get even the name of their diocese right! Although it is thirty years since the late Fr Mark (Meyrick) of the Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) painted his Icon of All the Saints Who Have Shone Forth in the British Isles and Ireland with the correct title, we recently had a battle at the Theological Commission of the Inter-Orthodox Committee of Bishops even to establish this title, since most of the foreign bishops had no concept that there was a difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles and whether any of these names included Ireland!
The Present Crisis
Both Russian Orthodox dioceses here have been in crisis in recent decades, facing three problems.
The first problem faced by the small Diocese of Sourozh, directly under Moscow, has been a mixture of modernism, liturgical renovationism and a personality cult characteristic of small organizations, all problems inherited from the Paris School of modernist Orthodoxy. This battle for the integrity of the Faith against what was in reality Protestantization resulted in the 2006 Sourozh schism, when the Diocese lost over half its mainly convert clergy and 300 people, also mainly converts. Though this is all in the past, there is still a hangover from that period. The second problem faced by that Diocese is its chronic lack of properties because of its defective ecclesiology in the past. This entailed dependence on Church of England for borrowing properties and so a lack of independence and freedom to preach the Gospel in the Orthodox way. All that the Diocese possesses is a smallish Cathedral in west London and tiny chapels in Oxford, Manchester and Nottingham. The third problem is its chronic lack of (overworked) clergy, whose average age is about 65 and few of whom speak the language of the masses of the Russian-speaking people, whose average age is about 35 (excluding children)!
The first problem faced by the even smaller ROCOR Diocese of the British Isles and Ireland, has been a narrow nationalism mixed on the fringes with old-fashioned Anglo-Catholicism, which in the past created a dead end of insularity. This battle for the integrity of the Faith against such Sectarianism, mixed with personality conflicts characteristic of small organizations, resulted in the 2007 ROCOR schism, when the Diocese lost its only monastery and convent. Though this is all exactly ten years in the past, there is still a hangover from that period. The second problem faced by the Diocese is its chronic lack of properties because of its over-strict narrowness and rejection of any form of mission (there was even a missionary tax!) in the past. This entailed total exhaustion and demoralization of the clergy and so a lack of any encouragement to preach the Gospel in the Orthodox way. With one exception, the Diocese largely only exists in London (and missions dependent on London) and in East Anglia. All that the Diocese possesses is a very small Cathedral in a sidestreet in west London, the largest Russian Orthodox church in the British Isles and Ireland in Colchester (not London) and tiny chapels in a house in Essex, in a private garden in a Suffolk village, in Norwich in Norfolk and near a village in central Ireland, far from where Orthodox live. The third problem is its chronic lack of overworked clergy, whose average age is about 65 and few of whom speak the language of the masses of the Russian-speaking people, whose average age is about 35 (excluding children)!
A Future Solution?
As can be seen, the common crisis is today purely pastoral in nature. Given that two of the three problems of both dioceses, lack of church buildings and lack of clergy, who are elderly, overworked and exhausted, are identical, there should be some common solution. One shrewd commentator has said that the Diocese that will dominate will be the one that sets up proper, large churches in London to provide proper pastoral care for the tens of thousands of faithful there. Notably, churches are required in the south of London, around, Croydon, in the east, around Stratford and in the north, around St Albans. The scandal is that there is only one permanent Russian-speaking priest to cover the country to the east and south of London – one third of the whole country!
However, we should also take into account the wider Russian Orthodox world in continental Western Europe and beyond. The Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) dominates the Russian Orthodox presence in the English-speaking world, in North America and Australasia. However, the Russian Orthodox Church based inside Russia, dominates elsewhere, notably in South America and above all in Western Europe. Here, where 25 years ago ROCOR was dominant and representatives of the Church inside Russia hardly existed, today ROCOR hardly exists. Just the Diocese of the Church inside Russia in Italy is larger than all of ROCOR in Western Europe. This has only eight parishes outside its parishes in western Germany and the few in Switzerland. Surely it is the Russian Orthodox presence in continental Western Europe will one day come under representatives of the Church inside Russia, with its new Cathedral and seminary in Paris and active young bishops, large flocks and newly-built churches in Rome, Madrid and many other places?
On the other hand, perhaps at this point we should consider what can be called ‘the Brexit Factor’. With the United Kingdom, at least, leaving the European Union, it is inevitably returning to closer relations with the rest of the English-speaking world, former colonies, especially in North America and Australasia. Surely, ecclesiastically, this means the Russian Orthodox presence in the British Isles and Ireland one day coming under ROCOR? Rather than the canonically absurd arrangement of two dioceses of the same Local Church on the same territory, there should surely be some rearrangement, at least in the British Isles and Ireland. It may seem premature to talk of this to some, but, after all, the two parts of the Russian Church have been united for ten years now, since 2007. The only delay on such matters can be because of pastoral considerations, in the interests of economy, that the people may not be upset.
Conclusion: Divine not Human
Of course, none of this can take place without the right leader, that is, without the right bishop, one acceptable to both sides, and this must be a bishop who speaks English and understands English people. A pastor. It is no wish of ours to hurt anyone’s feelings with the above considerations. The above is all written in the spirit of throwing a stone into a pond and seeing what ripples there may be. In other words, surely it is time at least to begin discussing such possibilities as we have outlined above in the spirit of pastoral love and unity. Let us remember: All crises are man-made and all solutions are God-made. Let us all strive to discern and do God’s Will.