Last week Pushkin House hosted an interesting event touching upon the Russian world in England – often so unfamiliar and mysterious to outsiders. With the rise of Russia-West hostilities over the past year the hearts of many long for stability and more warmth within Anglo-Russian affairs. But how to avoid polarised and aggravated opinions? How not to delve into feelings of mutual spite and even hatred when so much of it is promoted by the media on both sides? Is there an alternative peaceful co-existence outside politics for Russia and England?
Answers to these questions can be found in the oft-overlooked world of Russian Orthodoxy in England. Russian Orthodoxy is an eastern branch of Christianity and an undeniable part of Russian culture. It is here in Russian Orthodoxy abroad that the Russian and English spirits meet “unarmed”, embracing mutual principles of faith, dignity and love. One of the most prominent figures in this spiritual dialogue was the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the head of Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and a man central to the discussion at Pushkin House last week.
A surgeon, a parish priest and an inspiration to English and Russians alike, Anthony of Sourozh lived through the height of the Cold War. Now one of the foremost symbols of Russian spirituality in the 20th century, Father Anthony never really lived in Russia and in many ways opposed the Soviet regime of the time.
He was born in 1914 in Lausanne, Switzerland, to a Russian diplomat of Scottish descent, and was named Andre Bloom at birth (not the most Russian sounding name…). His formative years were spent in Russia, Persia and then France. It was in Paris that he discovered Russian Orthodoxy and eventually became involved with the Church. But it would have been quite predictable from here on in were it not for young Andrew’s pursuit of a very worldly career as surgeon in Sorbonne instead. He secretly took his monastic vows alongside the study of medicine and worked as a GP for several years before officially becoming a priest. Either way, from 1948 to 2003 Andrew, then known by his Christian name Anthony, or Father Anthony, was the spiritual leader of Russian Orthodoxy in Great Britain and in his final years, the Dean of the Russian Orthodox Church in Knightsbridge (yes, it’s not all about oligarch property and glamorous shopping out there). Throughout his ministry in England, Father Anthony promoted a unique vision of Russia and Orthodoxy, welcoming people from all walks of life and nationalities, challenging the stale stereotypes and preconceptions on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
So what is the significance of all this, you say? Well, it seems that many of us have now grown out of the secluded and parallel worlds that the Iron Curtain had hoped to maintain. And I imagine many would be delighted to know that there are other facets to the unfolding complexity and drama of Russia-West relationship. In any case, it must have been a lot worse at the height of the real Cold War. Yet even then figures like Father Anthony managed to walk a dignified middle ground in-between cliché politics, becoming a spiritual compass for both Russians and British.
Nor was his audience always Christian. Lecturing at Cambridge University in the 70s and a frequent guest at BBC radio and television, Father Anthony was always open to a liberal and honest dialogue with atheists and parishioners alike – a rather unusual alternative to conventional preaching. To Russians, Anthony’s half-a-century spiritual mission in England went a large way towards saving Russian Orthodoxy from full extinction at the hands of an anti-religious Soviet government at home. To the British he was a Russian who during the Cold War was a willing and honest interlocutor, and a contributor to the renewal of spiritual life in their country, with many members of Anthony’s parish being English converts. In the words of late correspondent Gerald Priestland at the BBC, Anthony was “the single most powerful Christian voice in the land”. As a surgeon and a religious figure, a Russian by blood and an Englishman by presence, Anthony embodied a unique blend of experiences, cultures and spirituality. Now on the centenary of his birth, Anthony of Sourozh should remain an exemplary model of a man for east and west, who is so not in virtue of spineless compromises but of the strength of his faith in things more fundamental and sacred to each one of us as human beings than Sochi, Crimea or Putin.
A Man for East and West: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh was part of the ongoing cultural programme at Pushkin House, London.