UK diocesan crisis tests Church’s mission to all, by Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky

Immediately after the Orthodox celebration of the Resurrection of Christ in April 2006, a new crisis confronted the Orthodox Church. Bishop Basil (Osborne) of Sergievo, the Administrator of the Russian Orthodox Diocese in the United Kingdom, wrote to Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow to request a canonical release and subsequently to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of to request acceptance into the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The story of the emergence of this crisis (which is known and can be described), as well as the story of the response to the crisis (which cannot yet be fully known) yet again reveal fundamental questions of ecclesiology and mission which are in urgent need of common Orthodox reflection and action.

During the second half of the 20th century Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) made the presence of the Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom a dynamic reality. His ministry encompassed English-speaking seekers who found their spiritual home in the Orthodox Church as well as people of diverse national and cultural backgrounds who found their new home in Great Britain. Metropolitan Anthony’s teaching and preaching found its way to the diverse Russian-speaking people in the Soviet Union, both in the course of his periodic visits to the USSR, and through radio broadcasts of BBC.

The persecution and humiliation of the Russian Orthodox Church by the communist regime strengthened the bonds of affection and solidarity which connected Metropolitan Anthony with the Russian Orthodox Church. He was made diocesan bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in the UK, and his diocese became known by the name of “Sourozh,” an ancient episcopal missionary see in the Crimea whose title was given to him as archbishop and finally as metropolitan.

In the UK the distinct and dynamic witness of Orthodoxy was not a matter of numbers, but a matter of spiritual integrity, integrity manifested both in the voice of Orthodoxy to the society at large and in the internal life of the diocese led by Metropolitan Anthony. There was a period during which his views and words were sought out in the same way as the views and words of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Church of England) and the Archbishop of Westminster (Roman Catholic), although Metropolitan Anthony’s flock, by comparison, was numerically a tiny one. In ordering the life of his diocese, Metropolitan Anthony was guided by the Church of Russia’s Moscow Council of 1917-1918. In accordance with the vision and norms of this Council, clergy and laity were seen as collaborators of the bishop, and not as the bishop’s “subjects.”

When in the 1990s the communist regime in the USSR collapsed, the Russian Orthodox Church was liberated from oppression, a revival of religious life began, and Orthodoxy could be heard and seen in public life. At the same time, many Russians found their way to Western Europe, North America, and other regions. In the UK there are now many thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union, with estimates ranging from sixty or seventy thousand to two hundred fifty thousand.

Tensions between the ecclesial “orientation” and “style” of the Diocese of Sourozh and many new Russian immigrants were painfully evident long before the death of Metropolitan Anthony in 2003, and became progressively deeper and more acute. It was this trajectory of tension and mutual alienation which led to the letters of Bishop Basil to the Patriarch of Moscow and Constantinople. In addition to Bishop Basil’s letters, the chronology of developments includes the following: Patriarch Aleksy wrote to Bishop Basil, calling on him to continue the ministry of Metropolitan Anthony, in the same unity with the Russian Orthodox Church which was maintained by the late Metropolitan; Bishop Basil wrote to the clergy of his diocese, freeing them to seek canonical protection outside the Diocese of Sourozh; by decision of Patriarch Aleksy, Bishop Basil was sent into retirement, and Archbishop Innokenty of Korsun (hierarch of the Moscow Patriarchate residing in Paris and responsible for parishes in Western Europe) was appointed Temporary Administrator; the Patriarch of Moscow appointed a commission of inquiry composed of Archbishop Innokenty of Korsun, Archbishop Mark of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (residing in Germany), and two priests of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate; approximately half of the clergy of the Diocese of Sourozh petitioned the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira (residing in London) for acceptance into his canonical jurisdiction and received favorable responses; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew met with Bishop Basil at Chambesy, Switzerland.

The present crisis offers a new opportunity to address an important challenge faced by contemporary Orthodoxy. There are, without any doubt, various Orthodox “diasporas” in many parts of the world. These are Greeks, Russians, Romanians, and others who now live outside their cultural homes and who are tied by bonds of affection and affinity and nostalgia to the countries and cultures from which they come. There are—equally without any doubt—Orthodox people and communities in such places as France and Great Britain, the United States and Canada who do not understand or feel themselves to be in diaspora. These are descendants of immigrants of many decades ago and these are converts to the Orthodox Faith and their descendants.

On the level of pastoral care the Orthodox Church bears responsibility for both dimensions of Orthodox life. The two dimensions require different pastoral approaches, different languages, different cultural sensitivities.

On the level of ecclesiology, however, there is one Orthodox Church, with one sacramental life, united in the one Orthodox Faith. The Orthodox Church is spacious enough to embrace all diasporas. No diaspora is spacious enough to encompass the Orthodox Church.

Today’s Orthodox consciousness tends to be held captive by the needs and requirements of the Orthodox diasporas. Let it be clearly understood that the large and often growing Orthodox national and cultural diasporas of today are worthy of pastoral care and missionary work. This is not only a legitimate concern of the Orthodox Church—it is an inescapable responsibility. Yet it must also be well-understood and accepted that the Orthodox Christians of Western culture and Western languages are equally worthy of pastoral care. And if the “universality” or “catholicity” of the Orthodox Church is to be evident today, the ability of Orthodoxy to be more than an “immigrant” Church is critically important.

Sadly, when faced with serious questions and challenges of contemporary life and mission the Orthodox Church is either in a state of paralysis and immobility, or in a state of crisis and confrontation. Questions are not answered and solutions are not found at either one of these extremes, but in the middle ground of reflection and thoughtful common action. Will the answers to the current painful questions found within the very small Diocese of Sourozh and within the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow offer signs of impasse and stagnation, or signs of hope?

Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky