xactly three centuries ago, most probably near the end of the year of our Lord 1716, a community of Orthodox believers in London celebrated its first Divine Liturgy. They worshipped in the upper level of a building off a dimly lit back alley in the center of London. Early on, the faithful found it necessary to retain a doorman to prevent unattended entry into the church by patrons of the brothel operating next door. Despite these inauspicious beginnings this community has endured and now takes the form of two cathedrals that offer a spiritual home for hundreds if not thousands of Orthodox believers.
A Common Beginning
The Orthodox community in London three hundred years ago was both a gateway to and microcosm of Orthodoxy in the West.
It should be understood that by 1716 London was not only far and away the largest city of Britain but also the de facto capital of the British American colonies. The parish was established with the blessing of the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia but its first two priests were provided by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The congregation seems to have been comprised of some mix of Greek-speaking merchants from the Levant, English converts to Orthodoxy and members of the nascent Russian Empire’s representation in London, which would become a full blown Embassy some twenty years later. By 1738 (if not earlier) the parish included members from America and may have used English as well as Greek, Slavonic and quite possibly Arabic in its worship. It would take more than one hundred years for the Greek speaking members to become numerous enough to create a distinct community in 1837.
Following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 the number of Russians increased exponentially but in 1927 the parish divided into two distinct communities over jurisdictional conflicts among the Russian bishops in the diaspora.
Another high point of the weekend was the temporary restoration to the former Embassy church in Welbeck St of its original iconostasis and the holding of a prayer service there for the first time since 1922. Use of this building had first been granted to the parish in 1813 and in the 1860’s these former stables of a townhouse were fully converted into an Orthodox temple. Even after the church ceased to use the building at the end of 1922 some of the iconography in the dome and elsewhere was preserved. It was a particular joy to see this building returned to (albeit temporary) church use following the reception we had held there less than two years previously to celebrate the newly published history of the parish.
A common future
So what does all of this history, both of recent events and centuries old origins, have to say to us as we strive to live our life as faithful Orthodox Christians in North America,Western Europe or Australasia where we remain very much a minority in a secular sea? Our faith declares that God is both immanent and transcendent, both rooted in history and beyond time. We perhaps declare this most clearly at the coming Feast of our Saviour’s Nativity when we celebrate God become Man in Jesus Christ who as the troparion of the forefeast tells us is born to restore the image that He made in the beginning. As Orthodox believers today we also have an inheritance from the past to which we must stay connected if we are to be well rooted and not easily shaken by all the vicissitudes of life. For believers of the Russian Orthodox Church in the U.K. and Ireland this inheritance is made up not only of the saints who have shone forth in the Russian lands for over a millennium but also of the multitude of righteous ones that labored for Christ in their islands from the first century onwards. These saints of the Russian lands, Britain and Ireland had in their turn sanctified through the Gospel the ancient sacred places of their forebears who perhaps whilst worshipping pagan gods in their blindness yet yearned unknowingly to set apart place and time for the One True God. In North America, with the possible exception of Alaska, this task has yet to be addressed.
When the Lord first began His public ministry He stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and read aloud the words of the Prophet Isaiah that begin, The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; and ending at To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. If we continue to read on from there we encounter the prophecy of the people of God that:
they shall rebuild the old ruins, They shall raise up the former desolations, And they shall repair the ruined cities, The desolations of many generations. (Isaiah 61:4 NKJV)
Surely this is one of our most vital tasks now: to uncover our own spiritual heritage and rebuild from it a fitting home for all the peoples of the earth. His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill communicated this idea both in his words and actions at the end of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning when all those present were given a copy of the icon of All the Saints of Britain and Ireland. He explained:
And to all those present here today, I would like to hand over this icon of all the saints of Britain. Britain has many saints of God, many of whom belonged to the ancient undivided Church. Their names are venerated in Russia and in other countries where the Russian Church has a canonical presence no less than in Great Britain. It is these saints that bind us more firmly than any human ties. They are our common heritage, our common history, they are the embodiment of our common values. And I believe that this is the foundation of a good common future.