Russian community faces schism as Patriarch Alexis sacks London bishop

Click to follow
The Independent Online

With sacred song echoing down the aisles and incense filling the air above gilded icons, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition and All Saints seemed a haven of religious harmony.

But behind the scenes yesterday at this place of worship in the heart of one of London's most exclusive neighbourhoods, there is discord and schism which goes to the heart of Britain's burgeoning population of Russian émigrés.

A power struggle for control of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain reached a climax this week when the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexis II, the worldwide head of the denomination, in effect sacked his British subordinate in a clerical putsch.

In a battle every bit as Byzantine as the faith that it concerns, the dispute led to warnings this weekend that police should be called to the cathedral in Knightsbridge, worth an estimated £15m, in the event of violence at the main Sunday service.

The Charity Commission confirmed last night that it was investigating a complaint that the charitable trust that controls the ornate church has been illegally usurped by Moscow.

A senior lay member of the church said: "The whole thing has become very personal and very painful. We are facing schism and a long legal battle over just who controls the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain."

The "forced retirement" of Bishop Basil of Sergievo, an Egyptian-born American who has run the London diocese as acting archbishop since 2003, followed long-running friction between two rival factions, broadly split between established Anglo-Russians and an influx of new arrivals.

Since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, the Russian population in London has risen from fewer than 5,000, mainly descendants of exiles from the 1917 revolution, to more than 200,000 "New Russians". Among them are super-wealthy expatriates, headed by the billionaire Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, whose taste for expensive real estate has led to the term "Londongrad". The British branch of the Russian Orthodox Church has expanded on a similar scale, with an estimated 100,000 devotees. The Easter service at the cathedral - surrounded by the Bentleys, Mercedes and Ferraris of monied parishioners - was attended by 3,000 people, most standing outside.

Bishop Basil claims he is the victim of a choreographed campaign by London-based clerics supported by Moscow. He was dismissed after he began moves to break away from the Moscow patriarchate, to which most new immigrants adhere, and join another, more liberal branch of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul, still known as Constantinople in Orthodox circles. The move towards schism began after many of the new Russians and several cathedral clergy demanded restoration of a "traditional" style of worship in London, including longer services conducted entirely in Russian and the compulsory wearing of headscarves for women.

In a public letter released after his dismissal, Bishop Basil wrote: "It has become clear that the agenda of the Moscow patriarchate is to make Sourozh [the Russian name for the British diocese] conform to their idea of a normal diocese outside Russia. A diocese organised around recent immigrants whose main concern is that the life of the Russian Church in this country should be an exact replica of that at home, cannot be effectively combined with the life of the established diocese in Britain."

The result is paralysis for Russian Orthodoxy in Britain. Bishop Basil, who was acting head of the British church, has been told he cannot transfer to Istanbul until an inquiry into the state of the London diocese, headed by another bishop brought in from Paris, has been completed.

Supporters of Bishop Basil, who could not be contacted yesterday, want the London cathedral to stay under the control of the "old school" émigrés, whose services are conducted in English and Russian, and a new, separate parish set up for the more recent arrivals.

Russian Orthodoxy has been successful in attracting a number of non-Russians with its "high church" mixture of sung liturgy and theatrical ceremony. The composer John Tavener was a member of the church for two decades.

But the idea of a split has infuriated new members of the congregation. Liubov Alieva, a member of the parish council in favour of staying under Moscow control, said: "We represent thousands who don't want to go to Constantinople. We represent the majority of the population. We now have in London 100,000 Russian émigrés who need this place. Bishop Basil is more than welcome to move to Constantinople himself."

The Charity Commission said it was assessing complaints about "governance" of the London cathedral.

Battle of the bishops


Bishop Basil of Sergievo, 68. Born in Alexandria and educated in the US, Bishop Basil came to the UK in 1966. After being made acting archbishop in 2003, he continued the "liberal" style of his predecessor with services said in English and Church Slavonic, and women not required to wear headscarves. He announced in December that he was taking the British church away from Moscow and joining its rival, Constantinople [Istanbul].


Patriarch Alexis II, 77, has played a major role in re-establishing his church as a force in Russia. He has apologised for transgressions in the Soviet era and is seeking to reunite the sect worldwide, including the British church. Claims in 1999 that he had been a KGB agent, recruited in 1958, were denied.


Patriarch Bartholomeos I, 66, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, is seen as "first among equals" of the Orthodox patriarchs. Has yet to reply formally to Bishop Basil's request to come under his oversight. Church leaders have said the power struggle between Istanbul and Moscow is something they "will have to settle between themselves".