Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow - Priests don't come more unorthodox

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CHRIS HILL could be a character from Coronation Street. His flat accent betrays his origins in the back streets of Manchester. He likes beer and laddish jokes.

Fr Christopher Hill is a powerful presence in Samotechny Lane. Better than any Russian-born priest, he has helped me to understand the essence of Orthodoxy.

Chris grew up in an ordinary working-class family that was Anglican if it was anything. All that distinguished him from the other fans of Manchester United was that he took Russian at school. He went on to study Russian at Glasgow University, and theology at Oxford. He entered the seminary at the monastery of Sergiev Posad and has worked as an Orthodox parish priest in Moscow for the past five years.

I met him at a dinner party, where he took issue with me for criticising the authoritarianism and nationalist tendencies of the Orthodox Church. To be sure, there are autocratic priests and elements that are downright anti-Semitic. But Fr Chris wanted me to know that his church was broader than that.

Last Thursday was St Helen's Day. With a delicate kindness, he chose my name day, as well as that of his Russian wife, Yelena, to invite me to his Church of St Catherine in the Fields on Bolshaya Ordinka Street.

In Communist times, St Catherine's was turned into a communalka (communal flat), with partitions cutting through the 18th-century architecture to divide the workers' living space. The original frescos have still not been restored and the interior today is simple and white.

A choir sang clear as a bell at the morning service. Fr Chris was splendid in the emerald green vestments worn in the period of Pentecost.

As he performed the Eucharist, he was visible through the open iconostasis, or altar screen, which in most Orthodox churches hides the priest from view. This was intentional, he said. "Intelligibility" and "openness" were the aims. I noticed that there were seats, whereas in many Orthodox churches you are expected to stand, and not every woman was wearing a headscarf.

"It is important to be able to feel at home in church," said Fr Chris. "This is God's house, not a military parade ground."

St Catherine's, where Fr Chris serves under a rector from the United States, acts as the "embassy" of the Orthodox Church in America to the Moscow Patriarchy. Orthodoxy came to America in the 18th century, via Alaska. The US branch is not a reform church but is relatively liberal.

Fr Chris's mostly Russian parishioners, including some Jews who have converted to Christianity, seem to be looking for a tolerant atmosphere. Fr Chris himself could use some tolerance. I had bashed the entire Orthodox Church for being "fascist". On the other hand, Russian nationalists sometimes say he cannot be a real Orthodox priest because he is a foreigner. "But this is rare," he said. "The vast majority of Russians, 99.999 per cent, have accepted me warmly."

To his surprise, attitudes remained the same despite the war in Yugoslavia. As a priest, Fr Chris said he was bound to speak out against violence, regardless of who was inflicting it, and naturally, he felt for his fellow believers in Serbia. I asked, what united the faithful in Russia and the Balkans and distinguished them from Catholics and Protestants? "Tradition," he said.

"The Byzantine expression of Christianity is very sensuous. But it is important not to make a fetish of tradition." What about obedience? Was not that the essence of Orthodoxy? To which he replied that love should temper discipline and most important was human freedom.

The service was over. We were standing outside in the sun. A man in black glasses slunk past. "He's from Mossad," said Fr Chris, explaining that the Israeli embassy was next door. Therefore, the brick house that should be the rectory of St Catherine's was occupied by the Federal Security Service, keeping an eye on Mossad.

As for Chris, he lives with his wife and three children in a rented flat in the suburbs. I went back with him for coffee. He and I, as a native of Yorkshire, have much in common. A Northerner can feel at home in Russia, where it is possible to recreate the warmth of a working-class background while escaping the stupidity of the English class system. But what had prompted a Mancunian to join the Orthodox priesthood?

"People always ask me that," he said. "It must have been more than the attraction of the exotic, or it would not have lasted." In Russia, Fr Chris has found his spiritual home.