Detail of original Anglican church frescoes in the Moscow Patriarchate Russian Orthodox parish in London, UK.
Sgraffito detail (the expulsion from Paradise) at Kensington cathedral

London 1716: On Orthodoxy in the Western World

by Nicholas Chapman

Detail of dome in former Russian embassy church in London.
Wel­beck St church dome

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.

Floor to ceiling interior photo of the former Russian embassy church in London.
Floor to ceil­ing inte­ri­or of the 19th c church at Wel­beck St, London

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.

Orig­i­nal icon on pan­el at Wel­beck St church

Today these dis­tinct com­mu­ni­ties remain as the Cathe­dral of the Dor­mi­tion of the Moth­er of God and the Roy­al Mar­tyrs in Chiswick and the Cathe­dral of the Dor­mi­tion of the Moth­er of God and All Saints in Kens­ing­ton — unit­ed in the one Russ­ian Church as sees of the Dio­cese of the Unit­ed King­dom and Ire­land and the Dio­cese of Sourozh, respectively.

Patriarchal Visit

In cel­e­bra­tion of this three hun­dredth anniver­sary, His Holi­ness Patri­arch Kyrill of Moscow and All Rus­sia vis­it­ed both cathe­drals over the week­end of Octo­ber 15–16 of this year.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at the ROCOR cathedral in Chiswick, London
Patri­arch Kir­ill of Moscow at the cathe­dral in Chiswick, London

His Holi­ness served the All-Night Vig­il on that Sat­ur­day evening in Chiswick and the rite of Con­se­cra­tion of a Tem­ple with the Divine Litur­gy on Sun­day morn­ing in Kens­ing­ton. The con­se­cra­tion was neces­si­tat­ed by a very exten­sive refur­bish­ment of the cathe­dral’s inte­ri­or that had restored the grandeur of what was orig­i­nal­ly a mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Angli­can place of wor­ship with its sgraf­fi­to dec­o­ra­tions and syn­the­sized these seam­less­ly with resplen­dent Ortho­dox iconog­ra­phy. The upper church of the cathe­dral in Chiswick will be con­se­crat­ed in 2017, some twen­ty years after its foun­da­tion stones were laid. Whilst the Patri­arch was serv­ing at the Vig­il it was pos­si­ble to see the fres­coes still being com­plet­ed on the ceil­ing and walls, includ­ing a whole area giv­en over to native British saints of the the first millenium.

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
Patriarchal service at the Moscow Patriarchate cathedral in London.
Patri­ar­chal Divine Litur­gy at the new­ly refur­bished cathe­dral in Kens­ing­ton, London.

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.

Sgraffito on wall above the altar in the Moscow Patriarchate cathedral in London.
Sgraf­fi­to on wall above the iconos­ta­sis at the cathe­dral in Kens­ing­ton, London.

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.

About the Author

Nicholas Chap­man is direc­tor of Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions in Jor­danville, NY. He is also exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Asso­ciates of Colonel Phillip Lud­well III, a group ded­i­cat­ed to pre­serv­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing the lega­cy of the first known con­vert to Ortho­doxy in North America.