Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Charismatic head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland
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The Independent Online

André Borisovich Bloom, priest: born Lausanne, Switzerland 19 June 1914; clothed a monk 1943, taking the name Anthony; ordained priest 1948; Priest, Russian Orthodox Church in Paris 1948; Chaplain to Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, London 1948-50; Vicar, Russian Orthodox Parish in London 1950-2003; appointed hegumen 1953, archimandrite 1956; Bishop of Sergievo 1957-62; Archbishop of Sourozh and Head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Church in Great Britain and Ireland 1962-2003; Metropolitan of Sourozh 1966-2003; Exarch of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in Western Europe 1963-74; died London 4 August 2003.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sorouzh, the senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Church and the head of the Russian Church in Great Britain and Ireland, was the single most influential voice of the Orthodox tradition in the British Isles.

A charismatic figure, with a palpable spiritual presence, he was cast more in the mould of a Staretz (a holy man of great spiritual insight and wisdom) than a career bishop responsible for the administration and pastoral oversight of a diocese. With his striking dark looks, and beautifully spoken English - reprised through a French rather than a Russian accent - he would hold an audience in the palm of his hand. His gifts of communication were legendary: he never used notes or prompts, and whether he was preaching in the Russian Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens in London, giving a lecture on the Orthodox tradition at a conference, discussing Christianity with a group of students, or giving spiritual direction to an individual, he always radiated a sense of personal depth and boundless faith.

He could also be disarming. His conversation on BBC television in 1970 with the atheist Marghanita Laski would have been memorable enough for his respect of her intellectual integrity, and his undeniable charm. But it was the more remarkable for his wit, intellectual toughness, and his unconventional arguments. Instead of trying to justify his faith, for example, he told Laski that he knew that God existed, and was puzzled how she managed not to know. This unexpected turn in the conversation was typical of him and it threw her off guard.

The hallmarks of his ministry throughout his 50 years in Great Britain were pastoral sensitivity, penetrating insight as a spiritual director, and an eirenic missionary outlook. He took the view that everyone was welcome in the Church - Russian, African or indigenous Briton. And, while he was congenitally opposed to proselytising, he attracted hundreds of English converts over the years. More significantly he indelibly stamped the spirituality and theology of the Orthodox tradition upon the British religious consciousness, influencing many thousands of British lives through personal contacts and his writings, chiefly on prayer. At the height of his fame, Gerald Priestland, the renowned BBC religious correspondent, called him "the single most powerful Christian voice in the land".

Metropolitan Anthony had strong aversions and predilections. Despite making a significant contribution to the World Council of Churches at Delhi in 1961 he was allergic to institutional ecumenism. And while he deeply respected individual Catholics he was less than enthusiastic about Roman Catholicism. Conversely he warmed to Evangelical religion. In the early 1980s he requested a meeting with the Evangelical Alliance, and on arrival stunned them right from the start by, in the argot of Evangelicalism, "giving his personal testimony". He told them that when he was a young teenager living in France, and a convinced atheist, he was reading St Mark's Gospel in his room when he was aware of a personal presence which he was convinced was Christ.

This dramatic story of conversion highlights Metropolitan Anthony's existential approach to faith. He said in a published interview in 1988, "I don't know anything of metaphysical language. What we [the Orthodox] say about Christ is experiential." While many labelled him as a mystic, he eschewed this designation, and preferred to talk of Christianity in the language of ascesis and disclosure. He genuinely believed that Eastern Orthodoxy was the simplest way to faith. The combination of simplicity in his personal life (he was completely indifferent to money and ecclesiastical haute couture) and his passionate commitment to the Gospel were the inner springs of his spirituality. He once said that he had never preached Russian Orthodoxy in his life, but only Christ.

This Christian for all Christians was nevertheless strongly attached to Russia. During the Soviet era, his BBC Radio talks, and his books and sermons, penetrated deep into Russian culture and were proudly accepted as the authentic voice of "Holy Russia". When he visited the Soviet Union in person, he was overwhelmed by excited crowds eager to hear his words and just to see him. Metropolitan Anthony's stature among the people of Soviet Russia was enhanced by the fact that he remained loyal to the Patriarchate but maintained total political independence. This unique position of a see in the Russian Diaspora was the lynchpin of the Metropolitan's realpolitik throughout the Soviet years.

The end of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s opened a new chapter in his relationship to Russia: with the easing of travel restrictions by President Boris Yeltsin, a fresh influx of émigrés found their way to his door. He welcomed them with open arms and devoted the last few years of his life trying to facilitate these post-Soviet Russians into the diocese as best he could.

One of Metropolitan Anthony's favourite quotations was Nietzsche's aphorism that chaos gives birth to a star. It could stand as a summary of his own life. He was born André Bloom, at Lausanne in Switzerland in 1914. His father was a Russian imperial diplomat of Dutch extraction and his mother was the half-sister of the modernist composer Alexander Scriabin (and also related to Vyacheslav Molotov). While the young André admired his father, they were not really close. His mother, on the other hand, was the dominant influence in his life until her death when he was 40 years of age and already well established in Britain.

The young André missed the cataclysmic events of 1917 for at that time he was living with his parents in Persia. After sundry adventures and hardships they ended up living in Paris. His experiences as a refugee were mainly negative: his parents were living separate lives and he was the victim of bullying at school. After his dramatic conversion it was not to the priesthood he first turned but to medicine. He trained initially at the Sorbonne and then in the French Medical Corps with the outbreak of war.

During the German occupation he worked as a doctor, but joined the Resistance. He took secret monastic vows and was first professed as a monk in 1943, when he adopted the name of Anthony after the founder of monasticism. And then, quite unexpectedly, he was ordained priest in 1948 and came to Britain to pastor the predominantly White Russian émigrés in London. His rise through the ecclesiastical ranks was meteoric. He became a bishop in 1957, archbishop in 1962 and the Patriarch of Moscow's exarch of Western Europe in 1963; and in 1966 was elevated to Metropolitan - the highest-ranking bishop in the Russian tradition outside the office of Patriarch.

But, like most people of genuine charisma, Metropolitan Anthony was a powerful and perplexing figure. Conservative in theology and politics, he was nevertheless totally free of sexism even to the point of daring to question the theological warrant for an exclusively male priesthood. A personalist through and through, he was an inspired visionary but had a poor grasp of administrative detail and diocesan strategy. He liked to be in control but ideologically was deeply committed to lay participation in the Church and always talked of hierarchy in terms of service rather than power. He put his money where his mouth was too, and set-up a democratically elected Assembly and Council to run the affairs of the diocese of Sourozh in Britain which, in concert with him, it has done so until the present time.

Charismatic leaders, however, whether saints or savants, grow old and inevitably judgement falters as health and vigour fade. Towards the end of his life Metropolitan Anthony simply had more on his plate than he could manage and people expected too much of him. But one thing remains clear: he once said that no one could turn towards eternity if he has not seen in the eyes or in the face of at least one person the shining of eternal life. Metropolitan Anthony was not infallible, despite what the hagiographers will say, but he shone.

Andrew Walker

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