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Angela Tilby: Another side of Russian Orthodoxy  

01 April 2022

The Community of St Antony & St Elias

Fr Benedict Ramsden, found of the Community of St Antony & St Elias comae.org.uk

Fr Benedict Ramsden, found of the Community of St Antony & St Elias comae.org.uk

MOST Russian Orthodox parishes in Britain have been silent about Ukraine; Archpriest Stephen Platt, from Oxford, being an exception in his recent criticism of the Moscow Patriarch (News, 18 March). But, while remaining formally obedient to Moscow, many Russian Orthodox parishes have also been raising money for Ukrainian victims of the war. This paradox has its roots in Orthodoxy itself.

No one should doubt the authoritarian strain in Russian Orthodoxy. Patriarch Kirill’s approach is best understood against the background of covert collaboration between the Church and the KGB during the Cold War period. But power does not always have the last word. A contrasting strand of nonconformity in the Russian tradition makes room for independent holy men and women — the spiritual descendants, perhaps, of the Desert Fathers. They can be unconventional, or just plain rude. But they also manifest a subversive compassion beyond good works.

My first encounter with this side of Russian Orthodoxy was through a convert English couple: a priest, Fr Benedict Ramsden, and his wife, Lilah. After seeking the guidance of God, they bought a rather magnificent house in Totnes, which they lived in and subsequently opened to individuals previously institutionalised with severe mental-health problems. In 1990, I made an Everyman film about them. They had already at this point opened a second house. Others would follow. I have been thinking of them recently, as I had heard from a member of the community that one of the “stars” of my film — a young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia — had recently died of Covid.

Fr Benedict and Lilah had an underlying philosophy, derived from Orthodoxy, that life was a gift to be relished, and that everyone had a right to fulfilment. In this spirit, the couple welcomed residents as “family”. Some would stay for years; others would move on. I found a generous staff-to-resident ratio; lots of celebrations; a sense of aesthetic pleasure in such mundane things as glass, furniture, and crockery; scary, fun experiences (the first and last time I squeezed through a pothole in the mud).

Although the homes were secular in ethos, the Orthodox liturgy was celebrated quietly and devoutly. As Fr Benedict put it, so much of Jesus’s healing ministry took place in silence, away from the crowds. I loved the ordered anarchy I found with Benedict and Lilah. It was impossible to think here of “care” as something being dispensed, along with pills and therapy. Rather, Benedict and Lilah shared their lives, their very selves.

We may recoil from Archbishop Kirill’s attack on Western values. But we should not forget that, alongside the bluster and the nationalism, there is a prophetic and loving freedom in the Russian tradition to follow where the Spirit leads. Silence and love. Sometimes, the left hand must not know what the right hand is doing.

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