Old-Time Religion - A Star Rises in the East

by Anthony Gardner
Reprinted from The Times , London, May 22, 2004

While the Church of England struggles to hold on to its flock, a newcomer with an ancient pedigree is packing them in - including the Prince of Wales.

On a Saturday night last month, police were called to control a crowd in the Knightsbridge area of London. Fifteen hundred people were attempting to squeeze into a building designed to hold half that number, and some had started to faint in the crush. Inside, a policeman reported, it was "like an oven".

The occasion was not an illegal rave, but the celebration of Easter Vespers [Midnight Liturgy really] at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens. In the past 15 years, the number of Orthodox worshippers in Britain has increased from 170,000 to more than a quarter of a million, making them far and away the fastest-growing Christian denomination. Orthodox churches - and half a dozen monasteries - can be found from Truro to Dunblane. This is all the more remarkable since Orthodoxy is not given to evangelism, and is, in the words of a convert, "absurdly divided, quarrelsome and grudge-bearing".

A major factor has been the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But while the number of converts is small by comparison, they have played a disproportionately important role. The two most influential clergyman in British Orthodoxy - Bishop Kallistos Ware in the Greek Church, and Bishop Basil Osborne in the Russian - were both brought up as Protestants.

There are, moreover, a number of important figures in the British Establishment who sympathise with the faith without having converted. A focus for these is the Friends of Mount Athos, which supports the monasteries on Greece's "Holy Mountain", and whose members include Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales.

Prince Philip's involvement is not surprising, given that he was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church. Less expected is Prince Charles's, as the future head of the Church of England. "Spiritually, he is very moved by Mount Athos," says a member of the society. "He visits it every year for a week, and he is very much admired there." The Prince has been influenced by Philip Sherrard, a radical commentator on Orthodoxy and ecology, who argued that Western Christianity had devalued the environment by emphasising the division between the spiritual and the physical.

The Prince is also intrigued by his great-great-aunt Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia - a victim of the Revolution who was canonised in 1993 - and has commissioned an icon of her from Aidan Hart [a New Zealander], a former Orthodox monk based in Shropshire. In addition, he has had a requiem written for her by the most eminent of Orthodox converts, John Tavener, who has composed many works for the Church, and created his own icon-filled chapel in Dorset.

To the uninitiated, the Orthodox church is Byzantine in more senses than one, and unravelling it requires a clear head and a good map of the Middle East in the first millennium AD. The early Christian church was organised into five patriarchies, based in Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople; but the first three fell to Muslim invaders, and in 1054 the Roman Church broke away in the Great Schism. This left Constantinople as "first among equals" in the Orthodox world, bolstered by the emergence of new churches and patriarchies in Greece and Eastern Europe. The churches in Britain are offshoots of these, and all have their headquarters overseas: the Russian in Moscow, the Greek in Istanbul, and the Antiochian in Damascus.

The Greek Church has the largest presence here, with 120 parishes. The Russian musters only 35, but according to the author Victoria Clarke, an expert on Orthodoxy, "it's trendier and more open to converts than the Greek. If you go to Ennismore Gardens on a Sunday morning, you'll find young couples who have nothing to do with Russia."

What attracts them? The conservatism of Orthodoxy is part of it: as Anglicans and Catholics agonise over demands to modernise, many find reassurance in a body which, in the words of Bishop Ware, "has preserved the tradition and continuity of the ancient church in its fullness".

This adherence to dogma is complemented by a belief that the Western church relies too heavily on human reason. Orthodox services, with their lighting of candles, prostrations and kissing of icons, are both more physical and more attuned to the emotions. "Our liturgy has a beauty which appeals to the whole person," says Father John Hockway, an English-born priest based in Enfield. "The singing, the incense, the way the church is designed - everything is a manifestation of God and our participation in His kingdom. It answers a deep longing in the soul of man."

If the Church is reluctant to proselytise, it is partly because it believes that the liturgy speaks for itself. In addition, says one convert, "the Orthodox are very conscious of being guests in Britain, and worry about damaging their relations with other churches". The most notable recent conversions have been of about 30 Anglican clergyman who rejected the ordination of women; but according to one of them, Father Michael Harper, neither the Greeks nor the Russians were receptive. "We joined the Antiochian Church simply because they opened their arms to us and the others didn't."

The fact that Orthodox services are traditionally held in unfamiliar languages - Church Slavonic, Byzantine Greek, or Arabic - has been an obstacle to converts. But this is now changing, and many churches have introduced services which are either partly or wholly in English.

The man most credited with bringing English-speakers to Orthodoxy is Metropolitan (or Archbishop) Anthony Bloom. A charismatic figure who died last year, he is considered by many to have been a saint. "I couldn't believe the number of English people at his funeral," says Piers Buxton, the former secretary of the Royal Academy, who was among the mourners. "They were scrambling over the headstones to try to get closer." Among those giving orations was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has approved the sharing of Anglican churches by Orthodox congregations.

Inevitably, there are differences of opinion, though not of doctrine, between the church's different branches. But the most serious conflicts often take place among those of the same nationality. Bitterest of all has been that between the "Red" Russians who accepted the Moscow patriarchy even when it was manipulated by the Communists, and the "Whites" who have given their allegiance to a succession of exiled bishops. Relations, however, are thawing. "There isn't the feeling against the Moscow patriarchy that there used to be," says one White, "because it's not so riddled with KGB - though there are still a few of them in there."

In his book The Inner Kingdom, Ware acknowledges these problems, but argues that it is better to bicker over unimportant things than to be - as the Anglicans are - "united (for the most part) in outward organisation, but deeply divided in their beliefs and in their forms of public worship". "The Orthodox Church," says one convert, "is full of petty personal arguments. But at the heart of it remains an unshakable belief that the world is transformed by the celebration of the Eucharist. It's quite common to find converts who have just wandered into a service off the street and thought, 'This is where I belong. I have come home'."

Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.