Who are the Orthodox Christians, and why are they here in Britain?
They came either as refugees from war or revolution, the emigrations
of Russians after 1914 and 1945, for example, or they came looking
for work; part of our heritage from the British occupation of
Cyprus. They are those Christians belonging to the ancient self-governing
churches, which remained in communion with one another after the
Roman Church began to introduce new doctrines and practices in
deviation from universal orthodoxy during the ninth and tenth
centuries. Territorially they are the Churches of Constantinople,
Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia,
Roma- nia, Bulgaria, and others in the Middle and Far East. But,
because of the dispersion that has taken place in this century,
they are now also to be found in the United States, Japan, Africa
and South America, where there are about five million Syrians,
as well as in Europe, Scandinavia and Finland.
Numerically the largest group in the British Isles consists of
the Greeks and Cypriots, some of whom have lived here for three
or more generations. The Church of Cyprus has been self-governing
since the fifth century, and it together with the Greek Church
displays many aspects of Apostolic Christianity, which often surprises
Western Christians. Their chief bishop in these islands is Archbishop
Grigorios of Thyateira and Great Britain, though he has four or
five other bishops to assist him in caring for the Orthodox people.
One of these is Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, an Englishman, whose
book on the Orthodox Church is an excellent introduction to its
history and present condition.
The Greek and Cypriot communities have firmly adhered to their
language and culture, which in its Orthodox formation enabled
them to survive as nations under the four hundred years of Turkish
domination. But equally this means that until more recently they
have been less ready to accept British people, who wish to become
members of the Church, except for those who marry an Orthodox
partner. This position is changing, however, partly because many
younger people think and speak English as their first language,
although they also know Greek from their parents and grandparents,
as well as from the Greek schools that most parishes run on Saturdays
to inculcate language and Hellenism.
The other Orthodox immigrants have a somewhat different history.
The first wave of Russian immigration after 1918 went first to
Constantinople and Serbia and France. Some found their way to
London, and of these some had had English or Scottish nannies
in former times, and so spoke good English. Many in this group
were articulate, cultivated, and soon became well-known in British
social and academic life. They were later joined by those who
sought refuge here after the Second World War, some of whom knew
only Soviet life. All these Russians tended to fall into two groups.
The first group adhered to the Patriarchate of Moscow, although
it was held captive by the Soviet Government. This group is headed
in Britain by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, who is known for
his radio broadcasts. The second group resisted contact with Moscow,
and is known as the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside
Russia; and their chief bishop is in New York. Both groups, however,
have been more ready to accept British converts to Orthodoxy,
and amongst them English is in some places now the main or sole
Another considerable group is the Serbian Orthodox Church, which
has several churches in this country, the best known of which
is probably the Lazarica at Bournville, which is a church built
in the traditional Serbian style. They are led by Bishop Lavrentje,
who also looks after the Serbs in Western Europe.
Besides those already mentioned there are also smaller bodies
of Byelorussians, Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, and others but
in practice most of them are attached to the Greek Archbishop,
though they have services in their own languages. But it is also
possible to come across Uniat groups, whose ceremonies are outwardly
Orthodox, but those doctrine and church life is heavily influenced
by Roman Catholicism; which is not surprising since they evolved
from former Orthodox congregations that joined the Roman Church,
either voluntary or under duress, during the sixteenth and seventeenth
All the Orthodox communities are united by the same worship and
doctrine, by the same adherence to the seven great Ecumenical
Councils and a common liturgy, each in its own language, though
there is some diversity of local customs.
For many British people their first contact has been made through
the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius, an informal body
of mainly Anglican and Orthodox believers, founded in the 1920s,
which meets for conferences, local lectures, and for common prayer,
in order to understand each other better. During the last twenty-five
years, however, an in- creasing number of English speaking people
have been attracted to Orthodoxy, either from a completely non-Christian
background, or from membership of other Christian confessions
in which they no longer felt entirely at home.
There is no doubt that some people, brought up with European
values and rationality, have approached Orthodoxy in a spirit
of romanticism, expecting something ‘entirely mystical’, which
is only western parlance for ‘non-material’, only to be confronted
by long services with ‘shockingly’ evangelical texts, and equally
challenged by Orthodoxy’s insistence on the total unity of body,
soul, and spirit; of the Word made flesh, of spirit-bearing matter.
They have also been faced by the very architecture of the church,
which insists that ‘God is with us’, not that we have to stretch
up to a distant God; and in the churches and in private homes
there are the ever present ikons of Christ and the Saints, who
constantly confront the worshipper or the enquirer with a spiritual
reality of transfiguration.
Orthodoxy is still, as yet, on the perimeter of British society,
although many Orthodox Christians have been educated in this country
and have absorbed its intellectual ethos. Yet, it must be said,
there is in the Church generally some resistance to over-active
proselytising, partly because many are still ‘foreigners in a
strange land’, conscious of being the guests of generous hosts,
and also because it is not, perhaps, ‘part of the tradition’.
The method of winning hearts to Christ is perhaps an indirect
one — the late Archbishop Athenagoras used to say that the ikons
are the Church’s missionaries — and in addition care is taken
to discourage any superficial and unformed reactions to the faith,
which would be damaging to the enquirer, whose whole person must
be respected in freedom.
There is an emphasis amongst the Orthodox on the person within
the community, on each believer being a person rather than a mere
individual, each one developing in relation to God the Holy and
Undivided Trinity, and in relation to the other believers. Observers
from a protestant background are often pleasantly surprised by
the strong lay emphasis in the Orthodox Church (most theological
teachers, for example, are not priests or ministers), though this
also goes with a reverence for the person of the priest or bishop,
as one who brings blessings or handles the holy gifts. There is
thus a vigorous participation in the life of the Church by the
‘ordinary’ believer, indeed the presence of the Holy Spirit in
all the believers is the life of the Church! Generally the hierarchy
are easily approached, and the traditions of the Church are seen
as useful parameters within which everyone can grow into saints.
When difficult circumstances arise, which they frequently do,
the Orthodox clergy and people exercise a certain ‘economy’ in
dealing with the unique condition of each person, interpreting
the ‘rules’ in a merciful and constructive way whereever possible.
For example, in marriage breakdown the reality of that tragedy
is acknowledged, and instead of the sufferers being cast out the
‘economy’ of divorce can lead to healing and salvation, for otherwise
it can happen that the Church can appear impotent to act positively
If a visit to a local Orthodox church is planned, the reception
will vary enormously; some places being well equipped to cope,
others less eager, maybe even suspicious. If the services are
conducted in English this can be aurally an advantage, but to
hear Slavonic or Greek may give a greater impact of ‘authenticity’;
this is a matter for individual judgement and opportunity. A visit
to the church in Oxford, for instance, would be a chance to ‘taste’
all three strands, Greek, Russian and English, in a setting which
is modern but traditional. Equally a visit to the Lazarica, near
Birmingham, will give a fine, clear impression, while a trip to
Walsingham in Norfolk, or the Russian Patriarchal Cathedral in
Ennismore Gardens, London, would show places that have been adapted
for permanent Orthodox worship; the church at Walsingham is a
converted Methodist chapel, and the Cathedral a former Anglican
church, both made redundant by their erstwhile owners.
In some churches the visitor will find ikons of the traditional
style, but newly executed by professional ikon-painters while,
in other places, the more westernized ikons of the nineteenth
century may be found, or again good reproductions of famous ikons
mounted on board. Sometimes, it must be admitted, the decor and
furniture may be more ‘ethnic’ than necessarily Orthodox. If the
visit is to be made during the Holy Liturgy, whether it be on
a Sunday or a Feast-day, then it is probably best to take the
advice which Metropolitan Anthony usually gives in such cases:
that is, simply to stand attentively in the church, listening
and looking as one would at a concert, gaining an impression rather
than ‘following the score’. Those familiar with western eucharistic
worship will find many parallels and similarities, and would only
be encumbered by a book. But, if the visit is to be to Vespers
or the Vigil Service, it might be as well to make some preparation,
since these services are more static and depend more on both hearing
and understanding the texts. An orthodox baptism, where the child
or adult is submerged three times, would be a truly dramatic introduction,
though perhaps more difficult to ‘arrange’; or, if there is even
the remotest possibility, the joyous feast of Pascha (Easter),
which will capture totally the radiant triumph of the Risen Christ,
the heart of all Orthodox belief.
But whatever way it is, if God grants it, it will be a blessing
not only to the visiting party but to the whole Orthodox Church
in every place.
- T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin.
- Abp. Paul of Finland, The Faith We Hold, SVS Press (Mowbrays)
- Fr. Schmemann, The World as Sacrament, SVS Press (Mowbrays)
- K. Ware, The Orthodox Way, Mowbrays
- Fr. Sophrony, His Life is Mine, Mowbrays.