Extracts from the Parish Newsletter of September 2006
FATHER DAVID’S LETTER:
BEGINNING OF THE CHURCH’S YEAR.
As this new year dawns, we are beginning to emerge from a very difficult time, a Paschaltide we shall never forget. Not all is negative. In the turbulence we have seen that the Orthodox Faith and belonging to a particular part of the Orthodox Church has touched people very deeply. Members of the Parish and others in the Russian Church across the land have been passionately moved in a way that is rarely seen in the post-Christian society of Western Europe in which we live. Realignment can lead to new possibilities and new growth. If we had thought that the second decade of our life together would be plain sailing, we now know that that is not to be the case. Turbulence in the Christian Church is always a sign of blessing to come.
The problem has arisen because there are two groups, particularly in London, with different needs and different aspirations; two groups with markedly differing missionary tasks. Those Russians, newly arrived in this country, as with former waves of immigration, desire and need a church life which most closely resembles that which they have experienced in their home land; they seek Russian priests, or Russian-speaking priests, who present worship and the sacraments in a way which only seems authentic to them and to touch them deeply when served in a precise and familiar Russian way. This is understandable and is how the Russians of an earlier emigration would have expected the first church in London to be.
The second group are second, third, or fourth generations of Russian émigré families and the many, many converts to the Russian Orthodox Church. These have lived or been brought up in English or British culture and see things very differently. They, without any compromise of the essentials of the Orthodox Faith, seek a different Church life which broadly follows that presented by Metropolitan Anthony of blessed memory. Indeed, many are his spiritual children and dearly desire a continuity with the Diocese he founded and in which he was bishop for more than forty years.
Metropolitan Anthony, inspired by the decisions of the great Sobor (Council) of the Russian Church of 1917, sought, in the best tradition of Orthodoxy, to establish a local Church, within the great Russian Tradition, but not exclusively for Russians. Indeed a local Church by its very existence is for all of whatever nationality and ethnic group who desire to embrace the treasures of Orthodoxy and be enfolded within the safe haven that it provides. Mother Maria Rule writes:
We must remember that Orthodoxy, by its very being, is universal; it has its local expression in the countries where it is located, and to be truly itself, it must take root in the local culture and permeate that culture with the fullness and the richness of the Orthodox Christian Faith.
In our situation in Western Europe this is as true as it is in Greece, Russia, Serbia, or any other traditionally ‘orthodox’ country. If the Ukraine, and gradually the whole of Russia, was converted, the Orthodox Church would never have developed in the local soil as the ‘Russian Orthodox Church’ that we know.
We, in Western Europe, are living in a situation in which the Faith has, over the last decades, begun gradually to be rooted in our soil. In our experience in the Russian Church, this was greatly due to those of the First Emigration and the ensuing years, who brought their deep and instinctive faith with them, learning to articulate it and spread it among both Russians in the West and western people. In this country, London and Oxford were the two main centres, with Metropolitan Anthony inspiring and leading its development. He personally, and the Diocese with him, was deeply loyal to the Mother Church, but firmly refused any pressure or influence from Moscow on any level, especially financial and nationalistic.
With the massive immigration of Russians after the fall of Communism, enormous pressure was exerted, most especially in the London parish, to provide a totally recognisable ‘Russian’ setting, not just for worship but for the sense of national and cultural identity for the newcomers. The sheer pressure of numbers swamped the original congregation, and some of the newcomers began to ignore the structure of Church life, appealing to Moscow over the head of the local bishop and being supported by Moscow in this action. The reality of Orthodoxy in its local development was being throttled, and a ‘clone’ of the Church within Russia, contrary to the very essence of Orthodoxy, was being demanded.
It is for this primary reason that our bishop, Bishop Basil, has decided to move back into the Exarchate of Russian churches across Western Europe. In 1931 this Exarchate was transferred from the Patriarchate of Moscow to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The London Parish belonged to it until 1948 when Father Vladimir Theokritoff, the predecessor of Father Anthony (later Metropolitan Anthony), placed it again in the Moscow Patriarchate. Two thirds of clergy and a large number of former members of the Diocese of Sourozh have moved with the Bishop and I have decided to be with them.
It has been a very difficult decision to have to make and the cause of much agony and soul searching. After much consultation I have formed the view that it is best to remain loyal to Bishop Basil and that this is the only way to preserve an important part of Metropolitan Anthony’s legacy. I have done this to promote the continuing development of a local Orthodox Church in Great Britain and to protect this important part of our mission from those who would otherwise ignore it. I believe it also to be best for the Parish. The main difficulties have arisen in the London Parish, but we are all interlinked and sooner or later similar problems would arise in Nottingham.
The Parish after much debate has decided to support me, but several very important members of the congregation have felt unable to accept this decision. This could be considered a tragedy. It is certainly a cause of great sadness. They have been staunch supporters of the Parish, even founder members, who have played an important part in the building of the Parish. They will be sorely missed if they leave the Parish altogether. On the other hand, Nottingham, over the next few years, will be ready for a second Orthodox Church of the Russian Tradition and perhaps this crisis gives the impetus for its early creation. What is certain is that this division, so painful and real, will only be for a short time.
The Patriarch of Moscow, in his encyclical of 1st April 2003, pleaded for the establishment of a Metropolia of Western Europe, gathering together all of the Russian Tradition, including the Exarchate of Western Europe. This we should now work for from the position of strength which we have now been given. Indeed, we should work for more than this, even for the coming together of all, of all jurisdictions into a United Metropolia of all Orthodox Traditions. Too long have there been too many breaches in the Holy Apostolic Tradition of Unity. Too long have there been divisions with ‘I belong to Paul, or I belong to Apollos, or I belong to Cephas, or I belong to Christ.’ Rather we must stand with ‘Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (I Cor 1: 12, 23- 24).
Our Christian hope and our prayer is that God will work in this temporary dividing in order to bring a richer coming together. This reconciliation I shall work for with the whole of my being because my heart too remains deeply attached to the Greater Russian Church.
Meanwhile we shall continue to present to Nottingham the Holy Orthodox Faith in the Russian Spiritual Tradition. Inspired by our patrons Aidan, the Orthodox apostle to the English, and Chad, the Orthodox Bishop to the Midlands, we shall remind the greater Orthodox Church of the unity and therefore orthodoxy which existed in these lands during the whole of the first millennium. The doors of the Church in Carlton will be open to all and through goodness, Godliness, and love, we shall welcome everyone into the haven, the Ark of Salvation which our Lord Jesus Christ has established for all who turn to Him. In this mission, we shall stand with all of the scattered and divided Church of Christ who seek to proclaim the Gospel to a nation so desperately in need of his saving power and transforming love. May God grant us discernment and strength!
THE MOTHER OF GOD
in Orthodox Hymnography and Homilies
For the past three years I have been working on a project at the University of Birmingham, funded by the Academic Higher Research Council (AHRC) on the liturgical praise of the Mother of God in the Byzantine Orthodox Church, focusing especially on hymnographers and preachers of the eighth century A.D. It has been wonderful to work on this material, which is inspiring and instructive even to this day. Many of the texts have in fact been incorporated into the hymns and prayers that we use in celebrating the great feasts of the Mother of God. In the eighth century, texts were still being written for these feasts and they were not yet universally celebrated.
The feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God was probably instituted in the sixth century, but hymns and homilies specifically in its honour only began to appear in the early eighth century. One of most striking of these texts is St John of Damascus’s sermon on the Nativity of the Virgin. Since we are just about to celebrate this feast, I would like to include a section of this homily, which I have translated for the first time into English from the medieval Greek, as follows:
O ever-virginal little daughter who needed no man to conceive! He who has an eternal Father was borne in the womb by you! O earth-born little daughter who carried the Creator in your God-bearing arms! … Truly you became more precious than the whole of creation. For from you alone the Maker received a share, that is, the constituent element of our dough. For his flesh is from your flesh and his blood is from your blood, and God suckled milk from your breasts, and your lips were united with the lips of God. O incomprehensible and ineffable matters! The God of all things, having known in advance your worth, loved you; and because of this love, he predestined you, and ‘at the end of times’ (I Peter 1: 20) he brought you into being and revealed you as God-bearer (Theotokos), Mother, and Nurse of his own Son and Word.
It will be noticed that John writes in a high-style Greek, which might be off-putting to our more colloquial manner of speaking and writing today. However, he wrote this oration in order to inspire his congregation, who probably stood throughout the all-night vigil that preceded the feast.
It is interesting to note that just two centuries or so earlier, a saint who lived geographically closer to us and who was also orthodox was writing hymns in praise of the Mother of God. This was St Columba, who lived in solitude for part of his life on the Island of Iona in Scotland from about 563-597. According to the translation of Esther de Waal, St Columba wrote the following, in praise of the Virgin Mary:
Thou art the Queen-maiden of the sea,
Thou art the Queen-maiden of the kingdom,
Thou art the Queen-maiden of the angels in effulgence.
Thou art the temple of the God of life,
Thou art the tabernacle of the God of life,
Thou art the mansion of the God of life,
And of the forlorn.
Thou art the star of the morning,
Thou art the star of watching,
Thou art the star of the ocean Great.
Thou art the star of the earth,
Thou art the star of the kingdom,
Thou art the star of the Son of the Father of glory.
(Esther de Waal, ed.,
The Celtic Vision)
It is a joy to translate the Greek sermons that I am working on and to meditate on the eternal meaning of the Mother of God and her place in the mystery of the incarnation.
VISIT TO VARLAAM
The Monastery of Varlaam takes its name from the group of islands on which it is situated in the northern part of Lake Lagoda. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by St Sergius and St Herman and for many centuries was the spiritual centre of Russian Orthodoxy and known as the Northern Athos. Surrounding the main monastery are ten sketes. It was my privilege to visit the skete of St John the Forerunner on the feast day of his nativity, 7th July.
The abbot, Bishop Bankrati, invited me to accompany him at the end of Matins. We traveled the five kilometers by small boat which also carried Lev, my friend and interpreter, and the two choir monks. On arrival we walked through the pine woods and along a steep path until we had sight of the church. The bells rang out to greet the abbot and the hermit monks of the skete came to meet us. After a beautiful celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we sat outside at a prepared table and enjoyed breakfast.
Valaam is mainly covered by forest surrounded by a rocky shore and fine beaches. There are foxes, squirrels and hare in abundance and we also saw evidence of elk. Nearby are seals of a unique variety, adapted to fresh water and only found in Lake Lagoda. There is an abundance of flowers in the summer.
During the Soviet era, monastery buildings housed a naval school and a home for the disabled. The monastic life was restored in 1989 and the refurbishment and rebuilding programme has progressed with amazing speed and thoroughness. There are now 150 monks with all sketes now occupied and thriving. The Rule is hard and the climate harsh. The lake freezes over in winter when access is by hovercraft rather than hydrofoil. For our visit we took the latter, a three and a half hour journey, but for the return the kindly guest-master, Father Methodius, hitched a lift for us on a returning helicopter. That journey took only one hour!
Varlaam is a very spiritual place, perhaps one of the most exciting in the whole of Russia. A visit is well worthwhile.
Wisdom of the Fathers
I recently came across the following two extracts from the writings of John Cassian, which in the Quaker phrase, ‘spoke to my condition’.
1. “If we take St Paul literally, then we are not allowed to cling to our anger for even a day (cf. Eph 4.26). I would like to make a comment, however, that many people are so embittered and furious when they are in a state of anger, that they not only cling to their anger for a day, but drag it on for weeks. I am at a loss for words to explain those who do not even vent their anger in speech but erect a barrier of sullen silence aroung them and distill the bitter poison of their hearts until it finally destroys them. They could not have understood how important it is to avoid anger, not merely externally, but even in our thoughts, because it darkens our intellect with bitterness and cuts it off from the radiance of spiritual understanding and discernment by depriving it of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.”
2. “If we want to set our lives aright and find peace, it is not the tolerant attitude of others that will do it for us. It will come about, rather, by our learning how to show them compassion. If we try to avoid this hard struggle of compassion by preferring a withdrawn and solitary life, we will simply drag our unhealed obsessions into solitude with us. We might well have hidden them; we certainly will not have eliminated them. If we do not seek liberation from our obsessions, then becoming more withdrawn and less social may even make us more blind to them, since it can mask them.”