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Tools to encounter God

19 September 2014

Metropolitan Anthony is still an inspiration, says Gillian Crow

THIS year marks the centenary of the birth of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Anthony Bloom), the foremost Orthodox hierarch in Britain in the 20th century. By the time of his death in 2003, he had presided for more than 50 years over a remarkable congregation and diocese, which was, he liked to claim, in the mould of the Early Church: a place where all - whether male or female, Jew or Greek, Russian or English - could come together to be the Body of Christ, crucified and risen for the life of the world.

It was centred on the Russian Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, in Knightsbridge, London, where the families of Russians exiled in the Revolution had been augmented over the years, first by converts - mainly English, but also from a variety of nationalities - and, from the 1990s, by Russians. From London, the territory of the diocese covered the whole of the British Isles.

Whereas Orthodoxy is often thought of as hidebound and theologically narrow-minded, he saw it as the true expression of the gospel, centred on a person's live relationship with the God of love, and the struggle to share that by living out the gospel message: a simple message in concept, if not in execution.

Things that did not conform to the law of love he dismissed as being against the true spirit of Christianity. He was fond of saying that Orthodoxy was not a legalistic faith, like, as he saw it, the Roman Church. Nor was petty rule-keeping part of his vision.

Yet he was not a "liberal" as the word is generally used to describe those who reject the traditional tenets of the Christian faith. Indeed, he upheld them vigorously. But he was free of traditionalism for its own sake, free of bigotry, and of the nationalism that so often dogs the Orthodox.

He hoped that his diocese, in which all were truly free to be the laos, the People of God, would be an example for other Orthodox dioceses to follow, particularly those in Russia. He was adamant that a bishop's ministry was one of service, not of ruling over his flock.

Sadly, during the last decade of his life, the fall of the Iron Curtain meant that his congregation was swelled by newcomers from Russia whose experience of the Church was very different; and, after his death, the Moscow Patriarchate was able to exert its influence over his diocese.

But his legacy lives on. His books on prayer are still powerful tools for learning to encounter God in the personal way that, for him, was the essence of prayer. Never prescriptive, they speak from the heart to the hearts of his readers - readers of all Christian confessions.

Since his death, several more books have been published. Like the earlier ones, they are compilations of transcribed talks, which contain his thoughts on topics varying from "Freedom and spiritual obedience" to "Christian witness in a secular State". For people wishing to take his vision of the Church forward, they are invaluable guides.

Metropolitan Anthony was a bold man, never afraid to speak out against the ills of his - or any - Church. Nor was he afraid to acknowledge like-minded Christians from other Churches. He also did not shy away from thinking deeply about issues such as the ordination of women, and was saddened that so many Orthodox had closed minds on the subject.

He was a man who inspired others: who gave of himself 100 per cent, in a world where too many were content to settle for accommodation to modern secular values. And he expected others to do the same, knowing that to bring people to the risen Christ, you have to walk via Calvary.

Gillian Crow is the author of Metropolitan Anthony's biography, This Holy Man (DLT, 2005), and the editor of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh: Essential writings (Orbis, 2010).

A conference to mark the centenary is to be held at King's College, London, on 15-16 November (details on www.exarchate.org.uk).

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