Born Anthony Bloom, son of a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh spent his childhood in Russia and Persia. He studied medicine in Paris and served with the French Army during World War II as a medical officer. During the Occupation he worked in a hospital in Paris and participated in the Resistance. In 1943 he took monastic vows and was ordained five years later. In 1949 he went to England and since then has served there, in charge since 1962 of the Russian Church in Great Britain and Ireland. He is also Exarch to the Patriarch of Moscow in Western Europe. Metropolitan Anthony has published a number of books, several of them on prayer. He is no stranger to television evangelism, street-corner preaching or university mission.
Emilio Castro: Metropolitan Anthony, you are well known as a man with an evangelist’s vocation. You say that you try to evangelize the ‘neo-pagan man’. Who is that neo-pagan man?
Metropolitan Anthony: I think that most Europeans, that is most of us, are neo-pagans to a certain extent. We have emerged out of a culture that was very deeply pervaded by Christian thought in art, in music, in style of life — and into a period which we sometimes optimistically call ‘the time of independence’, and with even more optimism, ‘coming of age’ and ‘maturity’, but which, unfortunately, corresponds to the loss of our past while we have not yet attained to a present which is another culture. We are in an intermediate period. We have lost our Christian rootedness, and we are not yet rooted again in the Gospel with newness. And I feel that when people speak of a post-Christian period they are right only on this cultural level, because things which one possesses in the spiritual realm cannot truly be lost.
Are you saying that in your preaching and teaching you can appeal to, let us say, some forgotten Christian sub-conscious or some Christian cultural heritage that is present, whether we like it or not, in people’s minds?
I would say, No. And I think this is a very important thing, a very positive thing. As long as we have a chance to appeal to people’s past, particularly their cultural past, we can easily push them back into a rut. And then they have got to start all over again, emerging out of it, to re-discover the Gospel with freshness, with newness, and with sharpness. It is my very deep conviction that what one can appeal to is that absolutely — no, ‘absolutely’ is a bad word — that truly human quality of every human being. If we believe that God has made us in conformity with him, has made us capable of being attuned to him so perfectly that we become partakers of all that he is, including his divine nature — then this is what we can appeal to. I am not really interested in the cultural background; I say quite often that I am happy to feel that I am neither Greek, nor Jew, but I am a barbarian, without roots anywhere, a Scythian, if you want.
You’ve mentioned several times that the Gospel is a new thing. But for the people who listen to you, the words they hear when you refer to the Gospel are old words : ‘God’, ‘Christ’, ‘Bible’, ‘Church’ — all of these are very old words. How do you overcome this problem of using words which come loaded with the past when you are attempting to transmit the newness of the Gospel?
Well, I think the newness is not in the words. One can use old words with new feeling. Take, for instance, poetry. A beautiful poem may be made of the most ordinary, the simplest words in the world, and yet they convey a sense of newness, of freshness, of discovery of something never heard before. My conviction is that the words you use must at times be renewed. For instance, we use words all the time that have become technical words in Christian language and have lost any meaning outside of our Christian intellectual framework. I believe that whenever we can we should avoid this and use a word which makes simply… sense. For instance, I speak very often of God’s solidarity with us. In the beginning people went at me for it. ‘It is not theological.’ ‘What do you mean by solidarity?’ ‘It is a word taken from social life and polities’, and so on. I said, ‘Yes, but it is a word which everyone does understand.’ We all understand what it means to be solid with someone, or to let him down. Yet, there is a period when you speak… in certain words. There is a first moment when you must use the ordinary Christian words in such a context that they stand out in new relief, that one doesn’t recognize them as an old song. Suddenly, because they are placed side by side with other thoughts, they emerge as one can make a painting come out of the wall by choosing the right colour to put behind it.
You have mentioned the poet. The poet can renew words because he possesses that mystery called ‘inspiration’. Let me put it this way: How can a Christian preacher find that newness? How can he preach so that his hearer experiences a newness of life, the newness of the Gospel? Is there any technique for that?
I don’t think there is a technique, because there can be no technique to catch God, to make God one’s own prisoner. But what I do believe is that if a preacher at no moment in his preaching allows himself to repeat thoughts which he has had in the past and stored away, but speaks only of what is at that particular moment his experience of God, then he can convey something.
Are you speaking here of what is summed up in the word ‘prayer’?
Prayer? Yes, if you want to use the word ‘prayer’ not to indicate an exercise but a situation, a rapport with God. But for instance, when a deacon in our church reads the Gospel I always insist that he forget completely whether or not other people are listening, that he read during the week the passage of the Gospel which he will rehearse in church time and again, that he meditate on it, that he bring it not only to his intellectual awareness, but cover it with flesh and blood, so that when he reads it, every word he reads comes alive for him. And then it will come alive for the person who listens. I think that what you must not do when you preach is direct your attention at the listener. As one of our Divines has said, you must plunge the word of God into your own heart as though it were a dagger, a poignard. And when your heart’s blood flows, don’t worry. Someone else’s heart is hit, too.
I understand that you know something of the academic world in England, that you have been engaged in mission to university students. Do you think that mission in this milieu is different from mission to working class sectors of society or mission in a country in which Christianity is not the religious background of the majority?
Yes and no. What I have got to proclaim is the same message. It is the good tidings, the good ‘spell’ of the Gospel. In that sense there are a certain number of themes which are to be proclaimed to all: and they are summed up in Jesus Christ — with all that that means. Obviously when you speak to one person you do not speak the same way as you do with another person. But that’s not even a question of milieu. We are speaking here in terms which I will probably not use with another person because it is we who are talking; there is an exchange of thought, an emotion between us.
Then there are the students. There are two kinds of students at present. There are students who belong already through personal conversion or because they are rooted in their families and their congregations to the world of Christianity. And there are those for whom all this world is totally unknown. They know words, but there is nothing beyond the words. I have done a certain amount of street preaching, on London docks, on Aberdeen docks, in the streets of Oxford. And there it is not only students you meet; it is just anyone. The dockers are very different indeed from the people who stray into the group around you in Oxford. So, you cannot use the same vocabulary, technical, cultural or literary. And then I have had a certain amount of contact with people who do not belong to the Christian religion.
But in all cases, there are two focal points for me: my heart and their heart. My humanity which is to a certain extent, however little, integrated to Christ’s humanity, and their humanity which is integrated also in part to Christ’s humanity. We meet in real humanity, simply. And I try to speak from the one to the other with all the imperfections and approximations of language, because most of the time I speak foreign languages, so that I can’t even say that I speak at a very high level of eloquence or knowledge of a language.
Let me now ask you a very blunt question : What do you evangelize for? What is the object of your evangelism?
Well, that’s a question which I feel is easy to answer in general terms, more difficult to analyse. You see, I was a totally nasty unbeliever until I was in my middle teens. I had never read the Gospel. I had never held one in my hands, never heard it; I made sure that I never got to church. I was totally outside this realm of things. At fifteen I read the Gospel for the first time at a moment of very deep despair and negativism, when life…, people… made absolutely no sense, had absolutely no meaning to the point that I had determined to commit suicide if I did not find a meaning within a year. A meeting face to face with Christ as my living God, in the living, risen person of Jesus of Nazareth, made an absolute difference to everything. And this is what I have got to speak about: the discovery of meaning who is a person; the discovery of truth who is someone; the discovery of the end which is not ahead of us but which is come now and is even behind us, 2,000 years back; the discovery or eternal life which is not for tomorrow when I will be dead but for today because one lives it. And all that is in the context of the total Gospel with all its narrowness, its sharpness, its refusal of any compromise with anything which is not that truth which is declared there.
Let me play the devil’s advocate for a bit. The kind of experience you have described, so intensely personal, so intensely emotional, is it not open to the traditional Marxist criticism that religion provides an escape for the individual from social responsibility? Does this kind of experience not concentrate the attention of people on their own salvation and make them, well, selfish people, happy with their own spiritual blessing but not interested in participating in the common faith and life of their country and their peoples
No, I don’t think so. As a child, after the revolution, I felt totally alienated and isolated as far as anything around me was concerned, because life was such that I perceived the human world, of children and grown-ups, as a jungle of danger and enemies. And my reaction to the world around me was that one can survive in this world by becoming totally insensitive, as hard as nails, and as predatory as any predatory beast can be. So, in that first situation there was complete isolation and a negation of the other person. When I discovered Christ, the first thing I discovered was that God is a God of all and of each, and that my reaction to the surroundings was wrong because every one of those whom I felt were my enemies and whom I was prepared to hate wholeheartedly and deny and destroy, within the limits of my capabilities, were God’s own people whom he had willed and loved into existence, whom he loved continuously, whether they were good or bad, whether they were in danger of being damned or being saved, whether they crucified Christ or were his disciples. And I remember that after this first reading of the Gospel, the next morning I went out, I looked round and I saw the world totally transfigured: every person from whom I would have shrunk before I looked at and said: ‘He’s God’s. He’s my brother. We belong together’. So from within my experience I do not feel the rift between this personal experience and its social dimension. In Marxist terms, in the terms of any unbeliever, I am just a mental case. I was told that more than once, and I am quite prepared to be considered as such. My only problem is that mad as I am, I have meaning in life, I have a dynamic, I have a joy that nothing has ever taken away from me, and people who are sane come to me to see how one can go mad! While I don’t go to the sane people to see how one can kill joy, kill meaning and kill the sense of truth.
The young people who through your preaching come in various ways to a wonderful experience of Jesus Christ, a personal meeting with him, do they all become professional religious, or do they go into trade-unions, into political life, into the social struggle of society, where they encounter not only the problem of relation of person to person but of class to class?
No, they certainly do not become sort of professional religious. That would be really too bad. I think the Christian must be present everywhere. You know, by profession I am a physician; I am not a theologian. I have never been in a theological school. I did five years of war surgery and five years of general practice. That’s my background. And I have met people of very different walks of life in both capacities. Now, what I feel is that what is characteristic of the Christian individual and of the Christian community is that both are eschatological realities. They are a presence of eternity, of the world to come, of the final summing up of history already here within time. And it is in that capacity and as such that we should be present in all the walks of life. Now, that is a very important thing, because I do not believe that Christians should be in politics, social work, medicine, or anywhere else simply as human partners, but as people who have another dimension. Not as people who are prepared, say, on the ground of the Gospel’s commandments to do things better or slightly differently, or with more love, because all that is untrue. There are millions of people who do things better and with more love than we do. But we can introduce through our very presence, without saying a word about it, a dimension which is properly the dimension of God, and that is our vocation.
How do you answer those who say that this is again a religious message? What is the difference between a religious message and the Gospel message?
For one thing, I am not ashamed of bringing a religious message, because it is not my fault that Bonhoeffer has made of ‘religious’ almost a dirty word, and others have followed suit. If you mean by religion, religion as understood in the ancient world or by people who use the terminology of the Gospel with the mentality of idolatry, if religion is a system of methods and means and ways by which one can trap God and hold him prisoner and make him do what we want, then of course we have no religious message because the whole Gospel is a testimony that this is no approach. What one could say about Christianity is that Christianity is the end of religion in the sense that we need no longer hunt God down and hold him. God is in our midst, Emmanuel. God is one of us, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God become the real son of man. In that sense we don’t need to look for God anywhere. He is in our midst, and not only the fullness of the godhead in Jesus, but the fullness of that godhead in the Spirit given to the Church and given to each of its members. In the presence and the relatedness to the Father, as St. Paul puts it: ‘Our life is hid with Christ in God.’ In that sense it is no religion.
You have mentioned one word in passing: the ‘Church’. What is the role of the Church in evangelism?
It depends on what you call the Church.
The community of believers.
The community of believers, in the words of the Russian theologian Samarin, should be an organism of love. The Church should be in its function, in its dynamics, in its visible life, an image, a reflection of trinitarian relationships within God, with all that it implies: the cross and the crucifixion, and the glory of eternal life. The Church and every single Christian are inseparable, because, as Wesley puts it, ‘An isolated Christian doesn’t exist’. To be Christian is to be a member of a body, because the very body of which we speak is a love relationship. Anyone of us who would say, ‘I am self-sufficient’ would deny love. But the first point at which the Church could, should, must be a revelation of the Gospel is, in the words, say, of Tertullian or of the apologists who record that the pagans of that time looked at the Christian community and said in amazement ‘how do these people love one another’, which means ‘where do they get this quality of considerate, tender, sacrificial, redeeming love which we can find nowhere else?’
I have only one more question, and it is this: You are a member of the WCC Central Committee. You work in the Christian Medical Commission and at the same time your heart is warm with the desire to convey the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What would be your advice to the WCC, or if not advice, your brotherly message? Is there something that the WCC can do, should do, must do?
Yes, I think that the WCC should emerge out of a confusion or what seems to be a confusion to me. What I perceive all the time is that the WCC works on two different levels, and that these two different levels are not identifiable with one another. On the one hand we are a council of churches, a Christian council of churches, and our vocation and duty is to proclaim Christ as our Lord and our God, the Gospel in all its fullness and integrity, without minimizing anything which it proclaims, drawing all the conclusions, remaining absolutely faithful to the faith once delivered to the Saints. But on the other hand, the World Council of Churches is involved, and legitimately so, as a body of Christians in the total destiny of mankind because, again in the words of Tertullian, ‘nothing human is alien to us’. But there are so many fields in which we are involved with people with whom we must and can cooperate apart from any Christian background on their side. That is, we cannot say we will cooperate with a given body of people in feeding the hungry only when we have converted them first, because the bread will then have another taste. But on that level the witness to the Gospel must be made, perhaps first of all, in the shining of a Christian eschatological personality or in the resplendence of a Christian eschatological body of people and secondly, in the supernatural way in which we can work sacrificially, loving beyond the measure of human love and with a degree of forgetfulness of self which will leave us without any awareness of self, so that only others can assert us because we have forgotten to assert ourselves at all. Our witness comes not by speaking in quotations of the Gospel, but in the spirit of the Gospel, in being leaven in the dough, so that every situation is leavened, every situation is made new by the salt added to it. And in that respect, may I say that I do not believe that the people of God are the people who possess Bible in 250 languages, can read it aloud to others or can make timely or untimely, true or doubtful quotations from it. The people of God as I see it in the Old and the New Testament, are the people who are so rooted in God, know him in such a personal way that they could write and proclaim the Bible, not only rehearse and repeat it. And unless we learn that approach to our message, unless we become the people who can re-proclaim the whole Bible — I am not, obviously, saying ‘re-write it’ as it was written — bringing to people the message of the Bible whether the Bible exists or not physically, we are not yet the people of God. We are simply people repeating other people’s messages, while we play the role of a postman delivering a letter, and that is not enough. If we were the people of God in that true sense, we would not make people angry by eternally quoting at them things which have gone stale on them or go against the grain. We would be a revelation of what there is to be revealed.
Published: International Review of Mission. 1974. N. 249. P. 87—95.