The Russian Orthodox Church in the West

Andrew Louth explains the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe

Until a little more than a century ago, members of the Eastern Orthodox family of Churches were virtually all to be found in countries that had at one time or another adopted Orthodox Christianity. These were the new nations emerging from the decaying Ottoman Empire—Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, as well as Romania—and many of the constituent parts of the Russian Empire.

In the West, Orthodox churches were mostly embassy churches, together with a few churches built for holidaying Russian aristocrats (e.g., Nice) and merchant communities (e.g., Budapest).Converts to Orthodoxy in Western Europe were rare, though not unknown (in 1792 Frederick North, later fifth earl of Guilford, received Greek Orthodox baptism).

The situation has now changed dramatically: there are probably about half-a-million Orthodox in Britain, there are Orthodox communities of varying sizes throughout the rest of Europe, and much larger communities in North America and Australia.The reasons are primarily historical.

In the wake of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and especially with the exchange of populations after the Greco-Turkish war of 1922-3, many Greeks left their homelands and settled abroad. There was a similar influx of Cypriots to Britain after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The Communist Revolution in Russia produced a large emigration, not least the hundreds of intellectuals and their families exiled by Lenin in 1922-3.

The Russians, who had been expelled from their own country, mostly never expected to return. In the West they received a warm welcome, especially in Paris, and in England. Their Russian heritage—their culture and their faith—was something many of the exiles wanted to share with those who welcomed them, and there were many in the West eager to listen.

The emigration came to be seen as something providential: as the means by which the spiritual treasures of Holy Russia could be made known more widely. As the twentieth century progressed, and Christianity in the West seemed to many to lose a grip on its own spiritual traditions, some in the West turned to this Orthodox presence now in their midst. They shared in the worship of the Orthodox, and found there something lacking in their own experience. Some Western Christians came to embrace Orthodoxy, others discovered in Orthodoxy a Christian way of life they had never otherwise known.

What have these Westerners (amongst whom I include myself) found in the Orthodox tradition?

First of all, I would say, an experience of worship that is unselfconsciously focused on God. One is allowed—encouraged—to ‘lay aside all earthly care’ and ‘sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity’, as the Cherubic hymn puts it: acknowledgment of God in his awe and wonder is something worth doing for its own sake.

Secondly, there is a powerful sense of belonging—all Orthodox converts I know speak of it as a ‘home-coming’—a sense of belonging that is palpable in the prayers that seem to surround one and bear one up, as one stands before God.

Thirdly, there is a sense of entering into a tradition that has been passed on from the Incarnate Lord, through the apostles and Christians down the ages; our Orthodox faith—in God the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God—is not that different from that professed by other Christians, but with us there is a much stronger sense that this is not a faith made up, not a spirituality that I have put together to satisfy my own needs, but something received, a precious inheritance tested by the prayers and lives of the Saints.