The Orthodox Christian Communities in Britain Today

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 liturgical language.

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 centuries.

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 and helpfully.

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.
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