Perhaps my opinion would not be of much interest to people adhereing to certain opinion, i.e. those who made up their mind completely about leaving the Moscow Patriarchate. I am not offended-- we experience now a difficult moment, schism, that pierced through the body of the church. Many services now, as well as attendance of a church is indeed a heart breaking experience. An yet… I am very quiet, even despite multiple problems (I am aware that there will be people who will never get along with the idea of staying with the MP). For the following reasons.
I have not been a new convert who discovered Orthodoxy here, in the UK. I had a long period of doubts, inquiring and visiting Buddhist temples, theosophic clubs and protestant communities but, in fact, I discovered Orthodoxy in America (Bishop Basil’s homeland), when studying in the Ivy League university (Dartmouth College). All accusations of Russian nationalism are not for me, please… I have been to a number of parishes in America, in Moscow, in the UK (Colchester)— as a result I have quite an experience— I sang in the choir everywhere. BUT, never before did I have an experience similar to Sourozh in London (for many it is not a funky name any more). I am thankful for this experience here and, yet, I am scarred a bit…
Honestly, after some years of Orthodox experience, it is in Sourozh that I was quite stunned about. Because Sourozh is cold, freezing cold… It is colder and less accommodating than any other parish I had seen before. In fact, I was struggling to give it a name, although I tried to get used to it. To me, from the start, it certainly looked hierarchal, political and “full of itself”. In my university parishes, both in the US and Essex, the parishes and the priests were all different from London. They took a special care of us, students, they gathered us and lectured us. Our varying identities (my identity is Russian) were somehow secured too, each on their own. But in Sourozh I struggled, spiritually struggled to identify myself. There looked like no middle ground as such.
My first impression/ image of Sourozh, when I arrived in here in 2001 for the first time on a train from the countryside was the sight of four Ukrainian men (gastarbeiters) standing in front of the closed doors of the Cathedral and waiting… Waiting for what, I wonder now?! They were perhaps more coarse and with not so well spoken English, but they were humans waiting that the God will open the doors... It is only later that I learned how to struggle here in London with my insatiable desire to be in the church as often as possible, since the church doors were closed most of the time of the week. It is easier to find Catholic or Anglican churches in London than a hospitable Orthodox parish (the Orthodox here in the UK are all closed communities anyway and Sourozh is not an exception in its own way). I struggled to suppress my religious-- please do not confuse with national identity-- feelings. The only difference was made by Vladyko Antony’s lectures and the choir conducted by Fr. Mikhail Fortunatto. They both indeed gave me the spirit of freedom unknown before. Both Vladyko and Fr. Mikhail are perhaps the most pure people I have ever met.
But there were quite a few grotesque people around Vladyko too. I still remember that woman (do not remember her name) pronouncing “the verdict” against Bishop Hilarion. No matter whether the young Bishop was indeed right or wrong in his activities, that woman resembled my scary kindergarten teacher in the Soviet Union, who managed to traumatise a lot of us, children, to the state of neurosis.
I learned throughout the years, that Sourozh is more than the church/ parish. It is significantly more— it is the universe of characters— priests, laity, choir and Parish Council members, regardless of national origins. It was exciting, but stiff.
The main idea with which many people (including Bishop Basil now) were driven is “to preserve”, i.e. to preserve a special unique character of the parish and its life. Someone might say—“so, it is brilliant, you learnt that there can be spirit of diversity in the church” or “it is great to have “unity in diversity and diversity in the unity””. So I thought, but… Initial problem is not only in me or in the people in the parish, but also in the fact that we are living in the changeable world that is less and less Christian. London, the UK, the whole Europe and even Russia with its religious revival are no more “Christian”. I mean people, not the institutions. The human values are so downgraded around us, as they were never before. The sense of preservation in this environment generates the sense of a closed club. Sorry for saying so, but Sourozh did become a closed sanctuary, with its privileged membership and hierarchy. Although hierarchy is not a fallacy in itself, in attempting to preserve, we all, both Russians and English, forgot that there are people around us, in this city, who need spiritual help, in any form. For years this was left almost entirely to Fr. Maxim, one of few who never said ‘no’ to anyone and a few English ladies, who lacked resources and had a fading strength.
This “preservation” has nothing to do with protecting Vladyko Antony’s legacy as is claimed by Bishop Basil. Vladyko simply does not need protection, as He still “speaks” for himself. His books and video tapes are on the shelves of every village parish shop in Russia or Ukraine and it will be so in the future, unless this schism undermines this process of “Antonisation” of church life in out home countries.
We have forgotten what the priority of modern church life is. It is not to preserve, but to proselytize-- among not so much “English” or “Russians”, but rather among the non-believers as we are all today. Formally, on the surface, Sourozh establishment did so. Conferences, for instance. Even when I was still charmed by the uniqueness of characters among us here and although conferences had great and spiritually enhancing liturgies, for the rest, I was entirely bored and was using every opportunity to skip talks or discussions as well as to distract others to admire the Oxford views. Indeed, there were a few interesting speakers (including Vladyko Antony, Vladyko Anatoly and, indeed, Bishop Basil), but no more, no more. No more did I go there for the last couple of years.
In writing this letter, I do not pursue the goal of accusing someone. I also feel quite pessimistic… But I simply want to voice the middle ground. It is easier for me to turn my back to this parish. I am a Russian, who has certain opportunities life— I can find a suitable Orthodox parish, even if it does mean for me a return to Russia. But I am simply concerned about the schism-- it is dangerous, particularly for some of my English friends, many of whom, in following Bishop Basil, will turn out to be “strangers at anybody’s feast”. For them it is more difficult than for me, because the real interest of folk in this country to the “established church” is almost nil, and Bishop Basil’s followers will have a very limited group of clerics, not quite understood in the communities, due to the “odd” orthodox ways.
But neither will I join you, my friends, because I do not want to be on a sinking boat holding no future, with all my due respect. Russian church is not only the church of my forefathers, but also the only place, where I can see a true spiritual “diversity in unity and unity in diversity”, i.e. I will simply have a choice.
Dr. Ivan Leonidov,
PhD (Lond), LLM (Essex)