As I live in Gloucestershire I asked Philip to write a few words for me on the first ever Russian Orthodox service held in Gloucestershire:
Babushkas (grannies), young mums with babes in arms, youngsters and families made up the list of worshippers to Gloucestershire’s newest Christian community – a county due west of London, famous for horse racing and Royals has welcomed ancient Orthodoxy to its green and pleasant land.
When it comes to ritual it is hard to beat the Orthodox Church! Boy, do they know how to put on a show, and to provide that spine tingling atmosphere which invites worship.
To top that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) – sometimes known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad – seems to have that extra special mix of mysticism, splendour, ritual and yet an informal and laid back approach with young and old free to come and go during the long services.
This heady mix of religion and ritual came to rural Gloucestershire in the form of a full sacred liturgy in the ancient Church Slavonic language celebrated by the archpriest of the London Cathedral of the Russian Church Abroad Father Vladimir Vilgerts. Father Vladimir and professional choir director Anna Kobrina had driven up to the hamlet of Bentham, near Cheltenham from the magnificent Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and the Holy Royal Martyrs, now a proud icon of Orthodoxy with splendid blue cupola on the Chiswick drag of the main route into London from Heathrow. The two hour journey led them to the quintessential Cotswolds countryside replete with early morning riding out teams cantering an array of horses in readiness for the jump season at nearby Cheltenham Racecourse.
The service – held on a Saturday (24th Sept) rather than conflict with the host congregation’s liturgy on Sunday – which started with the hours and then the exquisite voice of Anna who was assisted by local volunteers to provide a very moving choral background to the liturgy (of course, a capella as is the tradition in the eastern Orthodox Church). Blessings of the icons and profuse censing produced a heady aroma of incense, beeswax candles and the trappings of a truly holy ritual. All the more impressive because this was set in the Church of St John Chrysostom, which falls within the Churchyard of St Peter’s at Bentham (a redundant Anglican Parish Church a Grade I listed building dating back to 1889.).
One of the parishioners Lora Goldaeva, who has lived in Cheltenham for seven years explained: “There are many Orthodox in the Cotswolds and some have made the long journey to the Cathedral in Chiswick just for a service. Now we have the opportunity to build our own Parish here in Gloucestershire.” The service attracted worshippers from Broadway, Cheltenham, Evesham, Gloucester, London, Pershore, Swindon and Worcester.
“It is estimated that the community in the Cotswolds runs to at least several hundreds of Orthodox Believers,” said Father Peter Baulk, who together with Father Vladimir, is based at the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs. Father Peter stressed that the Church was not exclusively for Russian speakers. “We embrace many native English-speakers, such as myself, and are keen to relay the message of the Church as it was here in Britain in the early centuries,” said Father Peter.
The county is home to numerous Orthodox Christians, some of whom are British converts from churches such as the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions, whilst many have come to the county over the years from countries including the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria and Romania and some from Poland – although a predominantly Catholic country Poland has a rich history of Orthodoxy.
The historic first Russian Orthodox liturgy to be held in the county in the ancient tongue is witness to cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the Greek Orthodox Church and its local committee represented by Father Anthimnos Papandreou who has welcomed not just Greeks but Romanians and a few Russians into his congregation. Now the population of churchgoers has swelled to a combined 60. The Russians say they will aim for an ambitious 100 regular worshippers by the new year. The ROCOR Diocese (previously the old emigre and fiercely anti-Bolshevik wing of the Church) is now a sister of the larger Moscow Diocese of Sourozh boasts a combined 41 parishes.
Precedent has been set with cooperation on a similar basis between the Greeks and Russians in Cardiff and this could provide a template elsewhere despite the different jurisdictions and the fact that the Greeks follow the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar whilst the Russians adhere to the ‘old’ Julian calendar. Despite these differences Blessings to go ahead were received from His Grace The Most Reverend Mark Archbishop of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain, Russian Church Abroad and His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira & Great Britain.
The intention, according to one ROCOR insider, is to create a home for Slavs and others in the County and beyond, rather than having to go farther afield to Oxford, Bristol or the London Cathedral parish. How the joint initiative with the Greeks will pan out is anyone’s guess, but already rumblings have been heard from the Gloucester City-based Ukrainian Catholics who have by default or design garnered many erstwhile Orthodox believers to their community. Now a Slavic Orthodox presence is on their doorstep, it is only time before what is thought to be a trickle could turn into something more meaningful and ‘return many to Orthodoxy from their temporary Uniate home’.
Orthodoxy is the second largest Christian communion in the world, with an estimated 300 million adherents.
The next Russian Orthodox liturgy will take place at the Church of St John Chrysostom, Benhall Lane, Benhall, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire at 10am on Saturday 5th November.
More information from:
Facebook Page: Russian Orthodox Community in Gloucestershire & Cotswolds
Here’s the press report.