Metropolitan Anthony is “a Christian leader respected far beyond his own congregation”, says the Archbishop of Canterbury. How has this Russian Orthodox patriarch affected the lives of his adherents here?
You expect magnificence, incense, embroidered robes, gilded icons. At the very least an acolyte or two to open the door of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral on behalf of its present incumbent, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. The Cathedral itself looks like some faded relic of Byzantium, a piece of 19th century baroque tucked discreetly into a Knightsbridge backwater between Hyde Park and a cluster of Middle Eastern embassies. It was originally built for Anglican worship. It is now entirely Russian, leased to the Orthodox church after the last war and recently sold after a massive fund-raising effort by the Russian Orthodox community.
If you have been brought up in the traditions of the Church of England, the Russian Orthodox Church sounds faintly outlandish, a foreign branch of Christianity encrusted with onion domes and the gaudy ornament of ancient and outdated ritual. Certainly, in terms of sartorial glory at least, its archbishops look a cut above our own. And few Archbishops of Canterbury have made more visual or spiritual impression on the people of Britain over the past 30 years than this grey-bearded, mellifluous Russian who had never before visited England, and knew no English, when at the age of 35 he was appointed as a recently ordained priest of some 300 Russian emigrйs in London.
The present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, believes that Metropolitan Anthony’s influence goes far beyond his own Church. “People who live in this country — Christians, doubters and unbelievers — owe an immense spiritual debt to Metropolitan Anthony”, he says. “He represents the great Orthodox tradition, and particularly its Russian faith.
“These are days when Christians in the West are tempted to be mentally restless, and eager to express their social relevance. The Russian Church has a steady sense of the eternal truth that cannot be shaken. Its liturgy does not put before us ideas. It puts us in touch with God. Especially in his broadcasts, Metropolitan Anthony communicates the Christian faith with a directness which inspires the believer and challenges the enquirer.
“As well as being a personal friend of successive Archbishops of Canterbury, he has worked untiringly for closer understanding between Christians of the East and West, and brought the writings of the Orthodox mystics, particularly those of Holy Russia, to readers in this country.
“Metropolitan Anthony is a Christian leader respected far beyond his own congregation”.
Today Metropolitan Anthony’s lucid English prose in books like Living Prayer and Meditations on a Theme has reached thousands. He is the best-selling spiritual author in Britain and his books have been translated into ten languages. The measured cadences of his speech, his simple but profound convictions, have made him a natural broadcaster. That original exiled community of Russians has grown into a parish of some 1,000 people in Greater London alone, with another eight parishes which include Bristol, Devon, Sussex and Norfolk. In one of them the parish priest estimates that half his parishioners are English converts to Russian Orthodoxy-including himself and his wife.
The differences between the western churches and the Orthodox of the eastern Roman Empire go back a long way. By the sixth century, the religion of Christianity recognised by the Emperor Constantine two centuries earlier was polarising already on the crumbled and disparate western Empire and the wealthy, more stable civilisation based on Constantinople. The power of the Pope in Rome was increasing, and relations between the Pope and the Patriarchs in Constantinople came to a hasty, acrimonious and formal end when the Papal envoys and Patriarchs parted company in Constantinople in 1054.
The western world put its faith in the authority and infallibility of a single man in Rome: the loose hierarchy of Orthodox bishops and patriarchs, or archbishops, remained true to their principle of corporate decision. Other differences are variously profound and trivial, but this fundamental schism is unlikely ever to be bridged, at least between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. As late as 1848 the Eastern Patriarchs wrote to the Pope: “Among us neither Patriarchs nor Councils could ever introduce new teaching for the guardian of religion is the very body of the Church, that is, the people themselves”.
Yet the Russian Orthodox Church in particular has in recent years played a major role in bringing Christians of all denominations together, particularly as it is not a proselytising church out for converts. And curiously enough, despite its carefully maintained rituals and traditions, it has also retained a directness and simplicity in its approach to the teachings of Jesus. Many of those who attend the monthly English services at the Russian Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, London SW7, do so, simply because they prefer their form and liturgy to those of their own Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.
There are no pews, no ordered responses, no prayerbooks to follow, although everyone is free to join in the formal chanted worship or unaccompanied singing if they wish. People enter quietly through the service, buying white candles to light with a private prayer before a special icon. It is part of the essential paradox of the Orthodox church that icons of Christ, the Virgin or a great number of saints, signify God’s intimacy with man, whereas the painted icon screen that divides the sacred area of the altar from the body of the church is a reminder of the separation of God and man. The ministers emerge from doors in the screen to speak and give the communion wine and bread to the congregation-babies first. Children play on the polished floor. You wonder if this is how it was under the czars: the people standing in humble and indeed silent worship before that gilded screen. One or two elderly worshippers nearby suddenly prostrate themselves on the floor. Yet in this ancient liturgy, with its spacious candlelit richness, you feel a curious freedom.
“It’s an odd thing”, observed one English convert, John Palmer, a teacher in Bridgwater. “You don’t take part in the service, but you have a real sense of participation — it’s not just an intellectual activity, thinking of the words, but you bring the whole of yourself, mind, body, into it. Children feel at home in it, but so do very intellectual and very simple people. It has great simplicity, and great depth”. Which is perhaps what characterises Metropolitan Anthony himself, and why an average of 50 people, many of hem young, sceptical and certainly agnostic, attend the talks be gives three times a month at the Russian cathedral.
You do not get magnificence from him. He is a small man, but broad and strongly built, dressed in black. The hem of his cassock brushes the floor. He is wearing a black knitted jumper. In the darkness of the porch, which smells mustily of incense, you notice the dull gleam of his crucifix, the grey symmetry of his beard, the kindly but peculiarly penetrating quality of his dark eyes. You scent shyness, overcome. He is courteous and welcoming, but it is curiously difficult to make the usual conversational moves, and you are conscious that he is a monk by vow and inclination, without the urbanity of more worldly primates. You have the curious feeling that he could both offer comfort in a knitted embrace and at the same time bring down a thunderbolt with a glance. He is at once as cosy as a lady in the Women’s Institute and as frightening as some elemental force like the wind, or a quiescent volcano.
It is reassuring to be led mildly through the dark space of the Cathedral to a brightly lit vestry beyond, where he adjusts an electric fire for your benefit and then sits down on an upright chair to await your questions in smiling and attentive silence. Nevertheless you cannot forget that this man once said that the realm of God is dangerous: that “you must enter into it and not just seek information about it”.
Danger was a part of his childhood from the beginning. At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution his father, a diplomat with the czarist government, was serving in Persia, and even that was not safe in 1917. The Bloom family escaped over the mountains of Khurdistan and by barge down the Tigris and Euphrates to find a ship bound for India. Not until 1923 did they finally settle in France. Anthony was then nine years old. His father, out of a bitter sense of responsibility, as he saw it, for the tragic developments in Russia, chose to become an unskilled workman. Anthony, his only son, remained stateless until he took French nationality at the age of 23; he is still a French citizen. It was not a comfortable time for any of them. The family had nowhere permanent to live and the young Anthony was boarded out at a school in the slums of Paris.
“My experience in childhood was that life was violent, brutal, heartless, that men were to one another adversaries and causes of suffering. One had to fight, to overcome in order to survive”.
Curiously it was not during this time, but when he was about 14, and the Bloom family managed to settle happily under one roof in the suburbs, that he faced his first real crisis.
“I was confronted with the sheer problem of perfect happiness. I discovered that it was worse than all the difficulties I had encountered before. Surrounded by hardships in life, at least you can do something about them; being happy meant that suddenly there was no challenge, no purpose, no reason for living. It was like eating sweet cream without any other food for the rest of my life”.
It was perhaps the beginning of a search, not unlike that of many adolescents, for some meaning in life. For him there was no question of turning to the church. “My parents were believers, but they believed more in integrity and truth than in ‘churchianity’. And I soon found that I could escape going to church at all. If I inhaled the incense deeply enough I could make myself faint, so I never got further than three paces . . .”.
Reluctantly he was persuaded, as a courteous gesture, to attend a lecture given by a priest to his local youth club. He found the vision of Christianity presented in this way a considerable affront, and describes it as “profoundly repulsive to me”. Nevertheless, being of an analytical mind, he decided to confirm this first impression — which indeed it was: he knew nothing of the gospels before this, and had to ask his mother if she had a copy of the New Testament he might see. He was not expecting to like it. He chose what appeared to be the shortest of the four gospels, St Mark, and began to read.
He has often described, but never embroidered, the moment when he became aware that on the other side of his desk there was a presence, and that he knew that it was Christ standing there. For him the certainty was so strong that it has never left him. For him Christ was alive, and he had been in his presence: he could say with absolute certainty that the centurion was right when he said, “Truly he is the Son of God”.
“The Gospel did not unfold for me as a story which one can believe or disbelieve. It began as an event that left all problems of disbelief behind because it was a direct and personal experience”.
In conversation with Marghanita Laski, Metropolitan Anthony countered her belief in no God with his, own, as he said, knowledge: “… it seems to me that the word ‘belief’ is misleading. It gives an impression of something optional, which is within our powers to choose or not. What I feel very strongly about it, is that I believe because I know that God exists, and I’m puzzled how you can manage not to know”. The dark eyes look faintly amused. “I’m quite prepared to be told d I’m a crackpot, that I had a sort of brain wave. But the fact is I am quite sure of what happened. And even if I am a crackpot, I’m a lot steadier and more normal than some other people you might call normal. I’ve been a doctor for ten years and a priest for 32, without showing much sign of mental derangement”.
He qualified as a doctor in 1939, having previously taken classics at school and graduated from the Sorbonne in physics, chemistry and biology. To pay for books and tuition he had, since the age of 12, taught these same subjects to younger students in the evenings. In the September of 1939 he was called up by the French army, and spent the rest of the war working both as a surgeon and with the French Resistance. One vivid recollection of that time is of a German soldier brought into the hospital with a smashed finger. Amputation seemed the simple and obvious decision, but Anthony could speak German, and found that the man was a watchmaker. To remove the finger would mean the end of his skill. The finger was not amputated, and he says: “From this I learned that the fact that he was a watchmaker was as important as anything else. I would say that I learned to put human concerns first”.
“He has a vision of a personed God, and of people as vital and important individuals”, says Father Benedict Ramsden, an English convert and Russian Orthodox priest in Exeter. “It can be very attractive, that quality, but it can make people try to turn him into a kind of guru. He is incredibly self-effacing, but he’s often not allowed to be. He simply wants people to be special in themselves”.
Metropolitan Anthony remains above all a contemplative monk. “I am a loner. The more lonely I can manage to be, the better. From this aloneness one can go out and do more, but I need a great deal of aloneness”.
He took his monastic vows secretly in 1943, when to have revealed them would have meant he could not practise as a doctor. Nor did he reveal them until he was ordained priest in 1948. There was no opportunity for him to follow the purely contemplative path, in the tradition of Orthodox monks, which goes back to the time of the Emperor Constantine. Priests were needed. He was appointed to London, and consecrated bishop nine years later. It is one of the paradoxes of the Orthodox church that priests are usually married, but bishops are chosen only from among the monks. And as bishop, there is little chance for solitude.
Metropolitan Anthony now has two priests to help him, Father Michael Fortounatto and John Lee, and they have taken over the task of visiting; but some six hours of his day is spent in seeing people who come to him: he is extremely accessible. He also maintains meticulous correspondence with those who write to him — he receives some 2,000 letters a year, and prefers to write a letter rather than talk to a person. He has to prepare his thrice-monthly talks, and finds this a considerable effort: he once said, “I speak with all the conviction and belief which is in me. I stake my life on what I am saying”.
In addition, he has a great many official and ecumenical duties to carry out. Yet somehow he manages to retain some kind of seclusion. The Cathedral is not only spiritually, but physically, his home. He lives in a room rather smaller than the vestry, with a bathroom along the corridor.
“Fortunately there is all the night to be alone. I’m something between the vicar, the bishop and the verger. It is wonderful to walk out of one’s room into the church, into the quietness. I try to finish the day between eight and nine, and no one usually calls before nine in the morning, so I have about 12 hours to be alone, to think and read. I do my own cleaning and cooking, and very little shopping, because there is a parishioner I can ask to bring me this or that. On Sundays a number of people bring food for me, cheese, salads, on which I can live for most of the week. And I’m richer now than I used to be — my stipend was Ј1,000 a year, but I’m an old age pensioner now”.
He returns to Russia every year to report to his Patriarch in Moscow, to preach and talk. The church in Russia has been criticised for its acquiescence to the Soviet state, but then the history of the Russian Orthodox Church has always been one of surviving fracture, pressure and persecution. One of its strengths perhaps lies in its tough hold on tradition, which has nevertheless been flexible enough to accommodate state intervention, whether under the Czar or the Kremlin. It has been fortunate, too, that since the ninth century, Slavonic, the language of the people, has been the language of the liturgy, unlike the Latin of the Roman Catholic church. Yet perhaps most important has been the curiously intangible quality of Orthodox belief. Father Sergei Hackel, vicar-general of the Russian church in Britain, says:
“The Orthodox Church has not gone out of its way to draw up long lists of carefully numbered and officially approved beliefs. There are a number of things of which the Church is well aware, without needing to speak about them in detail. In any case, human speech is rarely subtle enough for mysteries”.
For Metropolitan Anthony words can be dangerous, and never more so than in defence of dissidents in the Soviet Union. He himself has spoken out more than once, but he does not believe it to be the best way of helping people within Russia. “In Russia you can try to be a hero and make tremendous statements — or you can be a very ordinary parish priest, teach the Gospel, look after the living and the dying and perhaps do more in the end. There is a very humble way of serving people which is in the long run more important than making political statements. There are millions in Russia who will receive communion and learn of the Gospel, who will live and die long before history has done anything about them”.
And today the churches in the Soviet Union are full, despite continued persecution of individuals and increased repression since the invasion of Afghanistan. In Britain Russian Orthodoxy now not only gains converts, but has a powerful ecumenical influence.
Father Sergei Hackel suggests that this may be in part a negative attraction: “Many people who feel there is an impoverishment of Christianity in western churches find in the Orthodox an unreformed, undiluted richness of liturgical and spiritual life, a lack of ambiguity, a curious mixture of authority and freedom”.
Metropolitan Anthony says cautiously: “I think it is considered almost a virtue now to question without answering. A number of people have come to us who feel they can’t live with a question mark all the time. Yet there is so much that we know from God. We think we have some answers”.
Telegraph. Sunday magazine. N. 238, April 19, 1981. Pp. 32-33,35,48,41, photos.
Published with the permission of Diana Winsor