A VULNERABLE Orthodox country in Eastern Europe is attacked by a large expansionist neighbour. Consequently, much of the the population flee abroad. British public opinion mobilises enthusiastically behind the embattled country and its refugees. The Archbishop of Canterbury places himself at the forefront in offering gestures of solidarity to its faith leaders.
The above sounds like a description of developments since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The same words can, however, be applied to events that unfolded after the invasion of Serbia by Austria-Hungary on 28 July 1914 in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand by a Serb sympathiser in Sarajevo a month earlier.
Officially, for the Austro-Hungarians, this was not a war of conquest, but a “punitive expedition”. Perhaps today it would be “a special military operation”?
Despite Serbia’s early success in holding off invaders, a combined German and Austro-Hungarian offensive in 1915 resulted in complete conquest and subjugation. The remnants of Serbia’s army retreated to Greece, and the government was exiled to Corfu — where it waited out the rest of the war under British protection.
Of the roughly 220,000 civilians (approximately five per cent of Serbia’s pre-war population) who fled to Allied territory across the mountain passes of Albania in the winter of 1915-16, only 60,000 survived — the rest dying miserably of starvation, exposure, and disease en route. This was a humanitarian catastrophe sometimes termed the “Albanian Golgotha” by Serbian historians.
Such context, unfortunately not fully articulated in the present volume, forms background for understanding the Church of England’s response to the mid-war Serbian refugee crisis. It was one that, as the essays included here show, gave rise to some surprisingly productive, though fragile, ecumenical developments.
As part of a wider humanitarian effort, exiled Serbian Orthodox leaders were received with great fanfare in London. Facilities for Orthodox priestly formation were provided to several dozen seminarians at Anglican theological colleges (empty of ordinands mid-war) in Oxford. Some read for Oxford’s B.Litt. postgraduate degree in theology, thereby gaining exposure to the style of Western academic research.
Not only were Anglican spaces made available for Orthodox worship, but a reciprocal practice of public intercommunion took root with a freedom and confidence now hard to imagine. Marking Kosovo Day — recalling the heroic, but failed, stand of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic against the Turks on 15 June 1389 — became, briefly, a popular observance among Anglican sympathisers.
Transferred Commemoration of Kosovo Day on 7 July 1916 in St Paul’s Cathedral represented the liturgical high point of wartime Anglican-Orthodox coalescence. It took the form of a memorial service for the Serbian and Allied dead of the Southern Front, and incorporated singing the Russian Kontakion for the dead. Archimandrite Nikolaj Velimirovic, robed in a phenolion (Orthodox chasuble) of cloth-of-gold, took his place in procession immediately before the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chaplain carrying the Primatial cross — an unprecedented ecumenical spectacle.
The Anglican and Eastern (Churches) Association’s report noted: “all hearts were deeply stirred by the moving and pathetic sound of the voices of 300 refugee boys under the dome singing in their national tongue the hymn which they had last heard amid the horrors of the great retreat through the [Albanian] mountains.”
The essays in this collection, by both Anglican and Orthodox writers, capture both the promise and limits of this brief moment of ecumenical flourishing.
Of particular interest for Church Times readers is Andrew Chandler’s essay “Anglican-Serbian Ecumenical Encounters in the Era of the Two World Wars” (chapter ten). It provides excellent overall historical and ecumenical context and might better have been placed at the start (not close) of the volume. Mark Chapman’s reflections on Nikolaj Velimirovic’s time in England (chapter five) offers chastening reflection on how wartime sympathies meant that Anglican leaders were less questioning of Serbian integration of religion with ethno-nationalism than they perhaps should have been.
Among Orthodox contributions, Bogdan Lubardic’s nuanced reappraisal (chapter seven) of (St) Justin Popovic’s relationship with Western thought stands out — especially in explaining how Popovic drew on Maximus the Confessor and other patristic sources to integrate the early discoveries of quantum physics into Orthodox theology.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.
Serbia and the Church of England: The First World War and a new ecumenism
Mark D. Chapman and Bogdan Lubardic, editors
Palgrave Macmillan £56.99