Fr Andrew Phillips was born in 1956 in a non practising family that has lived for centuries in the countryside of the Essex-Suffolk border. In childhood he became interested in the history of early England, especially in the local figure of Saint Edmund but also in King Alfred the Great.
At the age of twelve, he began teaching himself Russian and at the same time read for the first time the New Testament. He was struck especially by two phrases: 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you' (Matt. 6,33) and, 'the foolishness of God is wiser than men' (1 Cor. 1,25).
Following religious experiences at this time confirmed by reading, at the age of fourteen he conceived the desire to be received into the Russian Orthodox Church. This finally came about in 1975. From the very beginning, he wished to make English this Orthodox Tradition, without in any way watering down the Orthodox Faith with cultural excuses.
After staying in Russia, he gained an M.A. in Russian at Oxford. Here he also studied theology, history and literature. He then went to work in Greece for a year, next going on to study theology full-time at the Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. Here he was ordained deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1985 and priest in 1991.
In all he spent sixteen years living outside England, in Norway, Greece, Russia, France and Portugal. In France he worked as a lecturer at the ESSEC Graduate School of Management outside Paris and in Portugal he set up the first ever Russian Orthodox parish in that country. In 1988 he wrote a first book called 'Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church', followed in 1992 by a gazetteer of the English Saints, 'The Hallowing of England'. This in turn was followed in 1995 first by an anthology of 100 articles written for Orthodox journals over the previous twenty years, entitled 'Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition', and then by a study of the 19th century visionary William Barnes, called 'The Rebirth of England and English'. A fifth work, 'The Lighted Way' appeared at the end of 1999, providing Orthodox Christian perspectives for the Third Millennium. This was followed by a sixth work concerning the Apostle of East Anglia, St Felix, who came to England as a missionary from France.
Leaving his Russian Orthodox parish in the Paris suburbs, he and his family returned to England to carry out missionary work in 1997. He is now the priest of St Felix and St Edmund Orthodox church in Felixstowe, Suffolk, where he also edits the journal 'Orthodox England'. He lives at Seekings House with his wife, six children and their grandparents, three generations of Orthodox Christians.
An interview with priest Andrew Phillips
Q: How did you, as an Englishman, come to Orthodoxy? How did you become a priest?
APh: I was born into an average English family, the youngest of three brothers. I had a happy childhood in the country. At school I was interested in early English history and at home I used to listen with great interest to the war stories of my father who had spent five years in the Army until 1945. My parents did not practise any religion.
When I was 12 I began to think: Who created all this beauty around me? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? I felt some sort of splendour and mysterious presence, very near, just beyond the fields, the trees, the clouds…At that time I began to read the Gospels and for some reason became interested in Russian. I bought myself a Russian book and began to learn Russian on my own.
When I was 14, I visited a number of Protestant and Catholic churches, but I did not feel at home in them. I discovered that there was another Church – the Orthodox. I managed to visit one when I was 16 and at once I felt at home in that Russian Orthodox church. I had the feeling that I had always been there, as if I had always been Orthodox. My future became clear to me at that moment and I understood that even if I were to be the only Orthodox Englishman in the world, then so be it. In the end my parents allowed me to join the Russian Orthodox Church when I was 18.
After University I worked in Greece and went as a pilgrim to the Holy Mountain. After theological studies at the St Sergius Institute in Paris, I was ordained deacon in 1985. In 1991 the ever-memorable Archbishop Antony of Geneva ordained me to the priesthood. I served in France and in Portugal, and wrote books about the Western saints of the first millennium, when Western Europe had not yet cut itself off from Orthodoxy.
Now I serve in England, in a small Orthodox parish named after St John of Shanghai. This is in the small town of Felixstowe in the English ‘Far East’, as Archbishop Mark calls it. We have just had our Easter in three languages, Church Slavonic, Romanian and English. We publish an English-language journal ‘Orthodox England’ and we have a website: www.orthodoxengland.org.uk.
I have compiled services to ancient local saints and also to All the Saints Who Shone Forth in the Isles. We especially venerate St Felix (7 c.) and his spiritual daughter St Audrey. We have quite a number of icons of local saints and small particles of the holy relics of St Augustine of Canterbury, St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and the Venerable Bede. All the liturgical books have been translated into English. The English liturgical language has beauty, we use the language of the seventeenth century, the language of Shakespeare.
Unfortunately, like virtually all our priests, I have to work in a secular job. Matushka grew up with Russian émigrés in Paris. We have six children and they all either serve in the altar or sing in the choir. Matushka’s parents live with us.
Q: What do the Russian Church and Russian culture signify for you?
APh: For me the Russian Church is both my spiritual home and the centre of World Orthodoxy, although spiritually the centre of Orthodoxy is Jerusalem. The Russian Church is multinational and multilingual. As the largest Local Church, in my view, She has a great responsibility – to keep the purity of Holy Orthodoxy and support it everywhere. After all only Rus is called Holy. The Russian Church is our Mother Church. Unfortunately, during the Cold War the government in Russia did all they could to create the impression that the Church there is not our Mother, but rather a stepmother. If I was 20 years old now, I would go to Russia. When I was 20 that was impossible. A pity! But God’s Will is everything.
All the best in Russian culture is deeply penetrated by Orthodoxy. Pure Russian speech has a spiritual music which the soul can hear, even in works of such unchurchly figures like Turgenev and Rachmaninov.
Q: Have you been to Russia and did you meet simple believers? Are there differences between the views of believers in Russia, those of émigrés and those who have chosen Orthodoxy despite their surroundings and upbringing?
I went to Russia twice, in the 1970s. It was difficult to meet people, but I still managed to do so. And babushki were not afraid of the government. In Russia I saw the faithfulness and piety of the faithful and the spiritual feat of ordinary clergy.
As regards émigré Orthodoxy, émigrés naturally recall Russia as it was when they left it. They often live in the past. Sometimes they have a dreamy nostalgia for that which has vanished for ever. This has both positive and negative sides. The values of the past were often deeply Church values, but we do not live in the past, we live in the here and the now and we have to take into account both the past and the future, for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
Regarding the choice of Holy Orthodoxy, it must be said that nowadays all of us who have consciously accepted Orthodoxy, whether in the West or in Russia, choose Orthodoxy, regardless of our nationality, surroundings and upbringing. Therefore, it is easy to find things in common with those who have become Orthodox in Russia. It is not surprising that Fr Seraphim (Rose) is a popular author in Russia: like a great many contemporary Russians, he consciously became Orthodox.
Q: In your view, are there still any reasons for the continuing division between the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church?
APh: In my view the division was inevitable until the Glorification of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors in Moscow in 2000. The Glorification of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors by the Church Outside Russia 25 years ago was a spiritual exploit of our Church. The whole world mocked our Church then, including, alas! many representatives of other Local Churches. Since then the whole course of world, and especially Russian, history has changed. There are still people who do not understand the profound significance of this Glorification.
In 1988 I wrote an article ‘Who is Rebuilding Russia’. I wrote that the true Pascha, which St Seraphim of Sarov prophesied, will be when the Glorification of the New Martyrs in New York is completed in Moscow. This is exactly what happened in 2000. Since August 2000, through the prayers of the Mew Martyrs and Confessors, we, outside Russia, have been destined, sooner or later, to enter into eucharistic communion with the Church in Russia and, in general, work together. Indeed, the only point of debate is sooner or later. Glory to God, it is not us, but our hierarchs, who will decide this question at the Council. We will listen to the conciliar voice of the Church, not the personal opinions of groups on the fringes of the Church and of extremists.
Nevertheless, I should explain that if there is resistance inside our Church to the restoration of eucharistic communion, then it is because our Church is persecuted and we too have lived and live in a sort of catacombs. And the source of the persecutions against our Church was Moscow. Of course, this is not today’s Moscow, but the Soviet Moscow of the past. The Revolution led not only to mass persecution in Russia, but also to jurisdictional chaos in the emigration. The time has come to untie the knots of this chaos.
Recently I read an article on this subject by Fr Valentin Asmus. There is a lot of truth in it, nothing new, but he simply does not understand that in the Russian Church outside Russia, precisely outside Russia, we live in very difficult circumstances. We ordinary believers and clergy are not at all politically-minded and have nothing in common with certain trends in the emigration of latter years. Why does the world hate our Church? Because, ‘I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord’. We are persecuted, maligned, slandered, isolated. My personal experience of Orthodoxy is persecution. Since I became Orthodox, I have been persecuted from all sides, from the most unexpected quarters. When we are under attack, then it is possible either to support the cause of the Confessors of our Church or else side with our persecutors. If you want both parts of the Russian Church to work together, then we need support. Our life here is a bloodless martyrdom, or as the late Metropolitan Pitirim of Volokalamsk said during the Cold War, when I met him, ‘a daily martryrdom’.
You know, there is an English proverb: ‘It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness’. I have always tried to do that – to light a great many candles, precisely because there is a great deal of darkness here. I call contemporary Western Europe ‘the Northern Sahara’, because we live in a spiritual desert. Our modest ROCOR churches with our Orthodox faith are often the only oases in this huge Western desert and darkness. Now, instead of the atheist Soviet Union, there has appeared the atheist European Union. We have no illusions about this. Either the West will return to its spiritual roots of the first millennium, and those roots are Orthodox, or else it will disappear from the face of the Earth.
Q: Many would like to see in the pre-Revolutionary Russian Church a model for a Local Church. To what extent are such views justified?
APh: Of course there was much that was good, remarkable and holy at that time, but the whole Petrine structure of the Church was uncanonical, decadent, Protestant. This was the tragedy of the pre-Revolutionary Church. In my view, the Revolution became inevitable precisely because the Church had become a department of the State.
It is not surprising that the Soviet authorities adored Peter I. It was only thanks to the untiring efforts of a great universal hierarch, Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), that the Patriarchate was restored. I have a dream that the time will come when both parts of the Russian Church will together canonize Metropolitan Antony of Kiev. All the mistakes of both parts of the Russian Church in recent years have happened because we have not lived according to the admonitions of Metropolitan Antony.
Q: What forces, both inside and outside the Church are impeding unity?
APh: Apart from the well-known problems of mutual lack of knowledge, mutual misunderstandings and prejudices, there are also forces of this world which are preventing eucharistic communion. These forces exist in ROCOR and in the Moscow Patriarchate. Sometimes these are political forces – the spectres of the Cold War which refuse to recognize reality, either through a lack of trust or else through inertia. Sometimes these forces are those of Renovationism, the forces of Western liberalism, modernism and ecumenism, which have always set themselves against both parts of the Russian Church, both in Russia and, with a particular fury, outside Russia. To this day, Renovationism infects parts, or rather former parts, of the Russian Church in the emigration.
Q: How could the two parts of the Russian Church mutually enrich one another?
APh: I would like to answer by giving one concrete example, which cries out to heaven – the catastrophic pastoral situation in London. There are only two Russian churches for a population of between 150,00 and 250,000 Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians. My soul simply aches for them. But, it seems, there are just not the resources to deal with this. Together, both parts of the Russian Church could do something. Just recently a good priest from Russia, Fr Andrei Teterin, was serving there, but he was forced to return to Russia. That was a tragedy. They need to open another five Russian churches in London in order to feed and console these people. The churches could be stavropegic, directly under the Patriarch.
The time of the martyrs has gone, for the moment, now is the time of the confessors. We need the common witness of both St John of Shanghai and St Luke of Simferopol, of St Jonah of Manchuria and St Sebastian of Karaganda, of Abbess Rufina (of Harbin) and the Elder John (Krestiankin), and all the saints and righteous of both sides. The saints unite us; people of this world disunite us. In the face of the threats of the contemporary, post-Christian world, we Orthodox Christians must stand together, sturdy spiritual warriors. This became clear during the war against Serbia, when the West bombed our Serbian brothers. Of all the Local Churches the Serbian is especially close to us. We have always concelebrated.
Q: How could the reunion of the Russian Church influence Orthodoxy worldwide, especially the former parts of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, such as the Russian Exarchate in Europe, the Orthodox Church in America and others?
APh: All parts of the pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church must return to the father’s house, in other words, to the fullness of Holy Orthodoxy. This is important both in Russia and in the diaspora, with all its ‘jurisdictional’ problems. All they former parts of of the Russian Church must return to the Mother-Tradition, only then can we talk about the Mother-Church.
In my opinion, the Russian Exarchate and the Orthodox Church in America are only temporary formations. Look at the major problems with the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America – other Orthodox simply do not recognize it. The situation in the Russian Exarchate in France seems to me to be even worse. There is something schizophrenic there – are they Russians or Greeks? We have many acquaintances there, both laypeople and clergy – they have nearly all gone over to the Moscow Patriarchate. One priest now lives in Moscow, another has taken out a Russian passport, he suffered a great deal in Paris from the lack of love for Russia. We have to contend these anti-Orthodox and anti-Russian forces.
Of course the Russian Church outside the Russian Federation must keep its self-governing, internal status, its local languages. But language is a secondary question. The main thing is Holy Orthodoxy, as it has been kept in Russia, as ROCOR has kept it. The other groups must return to the sources of Holy Orthodoxy, we have to get away from the murk of the contemporary Western-oriented world. I can speak about this to Western people because the first victim of contemporary Western secularism was the West itself. Only by fully returning to its spiritual roots will the Russian Exarchate and the Orthodox Church in America be able to show faithfulness to the ideals of Holy Russia in all languages and in all cultures. It is not languages and cultures which in themselves hamper Orthodoxy, only lies hamper the Truth of Christ.
As regards other Local Churches, let us hope that the example of the Russian Church will be able to influence the new-calendar Churches, they must reconcile themselves with their old calendarists. It is time to finish both with the totally unnecessary persecutions of pious old calendarists and, at the same time, with the endless divisions and schisms of the old calendarists. The situation in Bulgaria is especially complex. The Bulgarian old calendarists are very good people and I sympathize with them. Perhaps the faithfulness to the old calendar of both parts of the Russian Church will serve as an example for the return of the new calendarists to the old calendar.
Q: What role can Russia and her Orthodox Church play in the world?
APh: Together, and only together, we are called to witness to Divine Truth. Globalism, in other words, planetary secularisation, rules in the contemporary world. Only the Orthodox Church, and especially the Russian Church with its host of many millions of New Martyrs and Confessors, can take up the challenge of globalism. The holiness of all ages and of all peoples – this is Orthodox globalism. The Russian Church can play a special role here, because she is a missionary Church. In general, unlike the Russian Church, the other Local Churches play only a very limited role in the missionary field. Most Western Orthodox are in the jurisdiction of the Russian Church.
Q: Let us return to your pastoral experience. How easy is it to preach the Gospel of Christ in the contemporary secular world without playing with it, without compromising your conscience and the dogmas of the faith?
APh: There are matters of principle, in which it is simply impossible to make concessions. The conscience is the voice of God and it must not be resisted. But there are matters where we must show condescension towards human weaknesses. This requires discernment in many cases. For example joint prayer with heterodox is impossible, but on the other hand we can, and must, set out our Orthodox faith before the heterodox world with love, as St John of Shanghai did. We have to have sympathy with all, suffer with them with compassion. There is so much suffering in this world!
Q: Have there been cases in your pastoral experience which have strengthened your faith in God and His Divine Providence?
APh: Of course, there have been many such cases. Glory to God! Especially cases of repentance. For example we had two cases of Russian prostitutes who repented and now live exemplary and edifying lives.
Then, of course, the confessions of children brought up in Orthodoxy. Such transparency, innocence, piety…
And then the confessions of the dying. The Lord granted me the opportunity to baptize both of my parents on their death-beds. My father was not baptized at all. May God grant me to make such confessions.
Q: What would you wish all Orthodox Christians during these holy days?
APh: Light, and yet more light! And that the light should shine though our souls and minds, not only in Bright Week, not only until the leavetaking of Pascha, but the whole year round, all our life. We live at a time when dark clouds are gathering. Antichrist is ‘near’, almost ‘at the doors’, and before the end we must all stand together. We can live only in the Light of Christ: ‘In Thy light we shall see light’.
Dear Readers, Christ is Risen!
Priest Andrew Phillips