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.
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.