Archdeacon Tesfa Michael Williams (Delegate of Uk & Ireland and Chief Overseer of the Oriental Orthodox Research Center) – OCP News Service – 4/3/19
Special Courtesy: Brother Nectarios of the Brotherhood of the Glorious Apostles Peter and Paul
Canonical Eastern Orthodox Monasticism in the British Isleshasfor many years rightly been synonymous with the Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England. Established in 1959 by its now-famous founder Fr. Sophrony(Sakharov), it is renown across the Orthodox world as a bastion of genuine Orthodox monastic witness. Housing both Monks and Nuns, it has become the pride of Orthodox in the British Isles. As an Essex native myself, I’m always delighted to hear that from Russia to Romania and Belarus to Bulgaria, my home county is so unanimously associated with such a highly esteemed fortress of the Orthodox Faith.
It is therefore ironic that outside of the Orthodox world the County of Essex itself possesses an increasingly notorious reputation amongst the general populace of the British Isles; in no small part due to a reality TV sensation of recent years which belies its piously Orthodox association. One may find it difficult to fathom what TOWIEandTolleshunt Knights have in common past a seemingly accidental geographical glitch. Yet, as ludicrous as this disparity is, it serves as an appropriate allegory for the state of Orthodox Monasticism in the British Isles, albeit until very recently.
St John’s success is not only due to its holiness, sanctity and international character but its outreach. Although not a missionary endeavour per se, Christian monasticism has always both inadvertently and inversely missionized since its very inception. Just as St. Anthony the Great’s disciples sought him out in the acrid Egyptian desert, across the Orthodox World it has not been uncommon for entire cities to emerge around such.
Analogous to Oxford and Cambridge universities in its sheer prestige, too many aspirants and would-be postulants. St.John is both a boon and a ban. A single well established monastic institution cannot possibly cater to the sheer volume of vocations a population of over 70 million people inevitably generates, even if the Orthodox percentage of that population is relatively small. Many are therefore left looking to the traditionally Orthodox countries to answer their perceived monastic calling, thereby perpetually not laying further monastic roots down in the British Isles.
Others, particularly those whose cultural origins lie outside traditionally Orthodox cultures and/or those whose primary language consists often exclusively of English, frequently look to alternative options in theAnglosphereworldsuch as Australia or the USA: where Orthodox Monasticism is generally far more widely established. This is especially true when considering Orthodox per-head-of-population in the aforementioned countries, which is much higher than in the British Isles by approximately three-to-one.
Yet just as the Orthodox diaspora following the First World War unexpectedly nestled a foundation for Orthodoxy in the West, the fruits of that nestling have finally begun to extrapolate into the budding and sprouting forth of a variety of Orthodox monastic institutions in the British Isles; the likes of which has not been seen in almost 1000 years.
Firstly, there are currently a number of tonsured monastics that have been given a blessing to live outside of the usual monastic enclosure that might otherwise be expected of such an individual. Many are “attached” to parishes or places of pilgrimage whilst others live secluded in rural areas or even in apartments of sprawling cities such as London. Many live alone but occasionally perhaps two or three brethren dwell together under the tutelage of a spiritual guide who unfortunately all too often is at a great distance from their locale.
It is commonly the case therefore that such groups and individuals suffer from a lack of regular access to a presbyter and by implication the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) and other liturgical activities of the Church. Those in the most rural of locations may be left relying on parishes at a great distance, which themselves are not always fully enabled communities in their own right and may only be a fledgling mission or otherwise nascent endeavour. However, particularly since 2006, there has been a burgeoning awakening.
A number of hermitages and metochions have blossomed forth in the UK in recent years. In East Sussex (England) under the Diocese of Sourozh (Moscow Patriarchate), the Sisterhood of the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth and the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is a Hierarchical Metochion residing at Rocks Farm, Robertsbridge. Primarily consisting of His Eminence Bishop Matthew of Sourozh and Nun Martha (Head Sister), a thriving community of ever-growing clerics and laymen have formed around them; giving the metochion a missionary flavour which belies its humble first impressions.
The Saint Bridge Hermitage in Scotland enjoys ROCOR patronage. Established by Fr. Michael Wood and under the care of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, it is bi-ritual and employs use of a Western Rite as well as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, with a number of cell dependencies under its care at the time of writing.Fr Michael has published a number of works pertaining to the Western Rite which in comparison to the USA and Canada is not at all well established in the UK. It has however laid a firm foundation for the future should newer generations wish to follow suit.
Also in recent years, two new fully-fledged cenobitic (living in common) Orthodox monasteries have been established in the UK. On the picturesque and relatively secluded Scottish Isle of Mull, Fr. Seraphim Aldea is joined by three Nuns and a number of dedicated guests. The Orthodox Monastery of All Celtic Saints is under the jurisdiction of the Romanian Patriarchate and in true likeness to the Celtic ascetical tradition of old is in a largely secluded location which is not easily accessible to the general public.
Despite this, their website includes talks and lectures by Fr. Seraphim as well as a bookstore and blog. In part due to his popular videos on social media platforms such as YouTube, Fr. Seraphim has become very well known amongst the Orthodox youth of the British Isles in particular and has been instrumental in reaching out to the young. That the Monastery also offers pilgrimages is well worth the consideration.
In rural Shropshire, England, just on the Welsh border, the Monastery of Saint Antony and Cuthbert sits perched just opposite the Long Mynd, below the breathtaking wonder of the Stiperstones Nature Reserve. Currently inhabited by the Brotherhood of the Glorious Apostles Peter and Paul since the late summer of 2018, it resides under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch. It is currently headed by Archimandrite Philip who is joined by two novices and a number of aspirants, along with regular dedicated community helpers who have helped transform it into a fully-fledged community.
The monastery follows an Athonite-style Typikon, which is the first of its kind in the UK. Daily services (which are open to the public) begin at 05:00and usually finish by 20:00 as the Great Silence begins. Although the Brotherhood itself has only inhabited the Monastery for less than a year, the Monastery itself is now in its third decade of existence. Previously inhabited by Archimandrite Silouan and used as a hermitage under the Romanian Patriarchate, it now enjoys a full cycle of daily services under the current Brotherhood and patronage.
The monastery also exudes a strong missionary outreach which continues to grow; with the Archimandrite alone overseeing no less than three missions and a parish.Fr Philip also enjoys popularity on various social media platforms and is well known by many Orthodox in the British Isles as a veteran of many years of service to the cause of Orthodox evangelisation including a focus on the use of the English language during services. The Monastery currently offers professional web development services and well as a soon-to-be-published online music resource of comprehensive Byzantine Chant recordings in English, along with other personalized products.
So where does Orthodox Monasticism find itself in the British Isles in 2019 and how does its future bode? Over the years there have been a number of waylaid projects and non-canonical endeavours which have doubtlessly stunted the development of the genuine article. Orthodox monasticism in the British Isles is undoubtedly at a crucial stage of its development.
On the one hand, it could all-too-easily stagnate into a few scattered groups of largely underfunded and unsupported communities struggling simply to survive. On the other, if it continues with an emphasis on outreach and mission (largely unthinkable in a monastic setting in the traditionally Orthodox countries), then with each endeavor the budding sapling will continue to flower until one day, God-willing, multiple communities will exist in full bloom. Crucially, it has to move on from being defined by a single monastic community that ironically and without which it would likely never have existed in the first instance.
It is hard to imagine that just 30 years ago it was almost unthinkable that regular Orthodox services in a canonical context would be available in the English language outside the Essex Monastery. If all monastic endeavours in the British Isles follow the precedent set by St. John’s for the foreseeable future then there is no reason why another ten or more similar such communities cannot illumine Britain’s now largely non-Christian landscape in an age of increasing apathy and aggressive secularism which in so many aspects is not too dissimilar from the pre-Nicene age of Christianity. If Saint Arsenios of Paros’ prophecy of the British Isles is to be fully realized, it surely cannot be any other way. (Which is: “The Church in the British Isles will only begin to grow when she begins to again venerate her own Saints.”)
As the old adage goes “You can’t keep a good band down!”
OCP News Service