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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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser