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.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder