IT WAS in the lower church of the Transfiguration Cathedral, on the monastic island of Valaam, that we experienced our first full taste of Russian Orthodox liturgy. Confronted with the sheer beauty of this obviously holy place, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were already in heaven — and the majesty of the worship reinforced that impression. This was a thin place: a place where heaven and earth seemed somehow closer together, as if a veil between them had slipped.
At least, that was the case for a good 40 minutes, by which point my legs were really starting to hurt. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom reportedly used to say that “Orthodoxy starts in the legs,” and, with the combination of no seats and standing as the normative posture of prayer, I can truly understand why. As the liturgy continued, any pious thoughts dissipated fast, and it began to feel more like a task of endurance rather than worship.
After about an hour and a half, still standing, the Anglican in me yearned for coffee — I’d even have accepted instant — but, as I started to feel aching in parts of my body which I didn’t know could ache, I realised that I was learning something important. The more I felt the pain and discomfort — those points of tension in my back, arms, and shoulders — the more aware I became of myself and, through that, God’s presence within me. It was an awareness of a need of healing, of refreshment; and of the way God is present through all that. It was also an awareness of worship as a gift: a redeeming gift of intimacy with God.
Besides deepening my relationship with God (and discovering how knotted my shoulders were), this experience allowed me to understand the Russian people better. This is a people who have endured much over a millennium punctuated by political turbulence, oppression, and persecution. Perhaps the capacity to endure such atrocities grows out of their liturgical practice; perhaps it’s from the conditioning of tough winters. Whatever the explanation, these people are resilient, and so is their faith.
It is easy to forget that, for decades within living memory, Christianity (and, indeed, religion in general) was illegal here. Millions were murdered for it. Yet their God knew a way out of the grave, and so their Church followed. We heard hundreds of stories of heroic Christian witness, from the great Fr Alexander Men and his commitment to parish ministry and the teaching of the faith, to no fewer than 40 martyrs of St Petersburg theological academy, who died in the service of Christ. As a recent ordinand, I wondered how such proximity to martyrdom might have shaped my formational experience at theological college. . .
IN A convent in Moscow, we heard of another great modern saint: Elizabeth of Russia, who also happens to be a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and great-aunt to the Duke of Edinburgh. We learned of her remarkable response to the murder of her husband by founding a religious Order dedicated to serving the sick and the poor.
Elizabeth herself was eventually murdered, though not before surviving a brutal first attempt, and defiantly singing Easter hymns. That defiance, and belief in the resurrection, lives on to this day in the order she founded, her hope and faith ever more palpable, seemingly infectious.
It is these torturous experiences, I think, that play into the more controversial reputation of the Russian Church. This is a Church that never again wants to experience persecution or oppression, and, as a result, refuses to fall victim to politics and politicians. While this can cast a shadow side (as is well known), the Russian Church that we encountered was one of immense beauty, generosity, and joy.
This was demonstrated not least in the restoration of the churches. No expense has been spared. These are stunning works of art: testimonies to God, and arrows toward the heavens. Such has been the commitment to restoration that, in some places, the decoration borders on excessive, perhaps even lavish. Some churches almost literally drip with gold. Although it would be easy to be critical here, I want to offer a more generous assessment. What I perceive in all this is a sense of hope for the future of Christianity in Russia. This is Russians’ way of articulating it.
WHAT of the future of Christian unity? While there is some way to go, I felt signs of hope. One senior monk remarked over dinner that, although we were not yet able to break bread together in church, we should not be scared of one another. For them, he said, the dinner table was the second altar; and we can feast together there. Over such banquets (and they really were), we were able to listen to one another, learn, and grow in love.
We heard of their appreciation of traditional English pastoral practice, and of how they taught their seminarians about it, using our textbooks. We heard of their gratitude for Anglican diplomatic support during the Soviet era, and for our prayers during their time of persecution. We heard of the opportunities and challenges in theological education and mission which bare a striking resemblance to ours. And, unexpectedly, we heard of their love of the TV programmes Rev. and The Vicar of Dibley. Out of this, real relationships were built, and friendships were made — these are the fruits of a genuine eucharistic hospitality.
As we flew home, reflecting on the future of ecumenism and the relationships between our Churches, I saw from a new vantage point the vast Russian landscape. From here, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming reality of the diversity of God’s creation, and the sheer beauty within that.
What does all this mean for our fundamental call as Christians to unity? Any answers will need much discernment, commitment, and prayer. But, if I have learned anything from this experience, it is that we must take that call more seriously. As I ponder all these things from home shores, I pray that I have absorbed some of that Russian resilience — that strength to endure — for the journey ahead.
The Revd Tom Mumford is Assistant Curate of Sudbury. He was part of a group that represented the Church of England on a recent visit to the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia.