(The Independent) It is a restrained, well-proportioned interior, as befits a church by Sir Christopher Wren. There is an Augustan austerity to its oak panelling and large, arched windows of plain glass. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling is painted in a tasteful Anglican sage-green, discreetly picked out with cream and gold.
But hanging above the altar is something huge and exotic. It is an overwhelmingly massive Byzantine icon in the shape of a jet-black cross. On it hangs a gigantic crucified figure with bright red blood streaming from his hands and feet. The image is surrounded in an edging of the brightest gold clearly designed to turn darkness into glory.
Beneath it is something else alien to the aesthetic of the building. A figure in a golden robe wearing a golden, onion-domed crown is waving two bundles of lighted candles over the altar. Around him stand half a dozen priests, deacons and altar servers in faded burgundy silk robes and copes.
This is St Andrew’s church in Holborn, on the first Sunday of the month. The congregation, several hundred strong, are refugees, some for the second time in their lives. Over six decades, a small but vibrant branch of the Russian Orthodox Church has grown in the UK. Its members were a miscellany of elderly émigrés, and their descendents, who had fled their homeland in the Communist era, and who had arrived via long sojourns in Finland, Switzerland, Italy and France, along with a collection of aristocratic and upper-class English converts. What united them was the charismatic personality of the holy man who led them for 50 years, the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
But now, this community is again in exile. This Anglican church, where they gather twice a month, is a temporary home. They are no longer welcome in Bloom’s cathedral.
This is more than just a story of schism, much like the others that have dogged Christianity for 2,000 years. For these curiously anomalous English Orthodox Christians claim they have been pushed out of their own cathedral by a large influx of Russians who arrived in the UK in recent times, some of whom have launched a Moscow-inspired takeover of the church.
It’s all part of a much bigger story in which Oleg Deripaska is a key figure. He is Russia’s richest man, the aluminium tsar who is a friend of the British cabinet minister Lord Mandelson, and on whose yacht the hapless Tory shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, entangled himself in the rigging of the oligarch’s lavish hospitality and allegations of illicit soliciting of political donations.
What has stirred the pot is that another government minister, the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, has issued a crucial legal opinion in advance of a court case next week between the two warring Orthodox factions â*“ and has come down on the side of Moscow, which has just elected a new Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, a man widely regarded as an ex-KGB agent.
The whole saga comes to a head on Monday when the two factions meet in the Chancery Division of the High Court to contest ownership of the £15m cathedral in Kensington, along with five houses and flats. But there is more than property at stake; the battle is for the soul of Orthodoxy.
The cathedral of The Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints in Ennismore Gardens, down the road from the Royal Albert Hall, is a very different kind of building from the church in Holborn. Italianate in style, the Church of England decided in 1978 that it was redundant. Inside, vast electric candelabra dangle from the ceiling. The walls are hung with icons in hues of gold. Candle stands illumine icons and relics. Across the nave is a high screen, the “iconostasis”, which hides the church’s inner sanctum from the profane eye of the ordinary worshipper.
There is a lot that is impenetrable about this place. At the side of the nave is a portrait of the cathedral’s founder, Metropolitan Anthony. Yet those who insist they have been driven from the church say that his memory is more honoured in the breach than the observance.
Anthony Bloom was born in Switzerland of Russian émigré stock and raised in France. He was a medical doctor and a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, before being ordained and sent to London as chaplain to the community of white Russians there.
His Orthodoxy was cosmopolitan in its character. After his arrival in Britain in 1948, he made it a principle that his church should meet the needs of people of all national backgrounds. He refused to accept any money from the church in Moscow, which under Stalin had been revived as an organ of the state. Indeed throughout the Cold War, Bloom broadcast to Russia as the free voice of its Church when its entire hierarchy was tainted by collaboration with the Communist authorities. When perestroika came, he welcomed it, and he welcomed too the flood of Russians who migrated from their homeland to the UK.
What he had not anticipated was that the incomers would try to change the distinctly open-minded brand of Orthodoxy his community had developed over the previous 40 years. “Huge numbers arrived,” says one of the parishioners, Ruth Nares, a teacher who converted from Anglicanism two decades before because of what she describes as Orthodoxy’s extraordinary sense of sacredness. “We were a community of white Russians, Finns, French, Italians and English converts. But the incomers had a different mentality. To many, it was just a place to meet fellow Russians. They would come in halfway through service, talking loudly at the back, and started making lunch there.” Karin Greenhead, a musician, says: “There was a lot of unpleasantness and elbowing and pushing. It was noisy and unprayerful. There was even a fight outside the church.”
But it was not just the congregation that changed. Extra priests sent over by Moscow during the past six years imported an unwelcome world view, too. “Nearly every Sunday we were bombarded with Soviet-style propaganda and warnings that ‘the Devil is among us’,” says Nicholas Tuckett, the founder of Ikon Records, which markets recordings of Orthodox music. “I was finding it impossible to pray.”
The points at issue largely concerned the minutiae of church life. There were disputes about whether marriages could take place on a Saturday, how frequent communion should be, how strictly fasting rules were to be observed, whether women were obliged to wear headscarves in church or forbidden from wearing trousers.
But what lay behind all the nit-picking was a fundamental struggle for power. The Russo faction began to petition Moscow for reform to press the original community to become more Russian. Metropolitan Anthony’s anointed successor, Bishop Basil, asked Moscow to disassociate itself from what he saw as troublemakers. But in Moscow, Metropolitan Kirill, who was last month elected head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church, declined to reply.
At that point, Archbishop Kirill was head of the Church’s Department of External Relations, a post which his critics point out was created by Stalin when he revived the Church to boost civilian morale during the Second World War. The Moscow Patriarchate became an organ of the Russian state. In the years that followed, those who rose through Russian Orthodoxy’s hierarchy were either collaborators or active KGB agents.
Papers disclosed relatively recently suggest that Archbishop Kirill, who had the agent codename of Mikhailov, had close links to the KGB and saw the Church’s interests as aligned to those of the state. In 2001, he stated that the Moscow Patriarchate “acts today in close co-operation” with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “re-establish historical justice with the aim of returning to the Motherland her architectural and historical treasures which have been built by Russian artists and with money of the Russian people. If an Orthodox church building abroad used to belong to the Russian Church, and if this is legally proven, it must become again the property of our Church. If it was in former times on the registry of State property, it must return to the State.”
Under his leadership, Moscow has moved to re-acquire property in Israel, Hungary, Germany, France, and now the UK. Sometimes court action has been the strategy; in others, such as Manchester, money has been deployed.
A decade ago, the church used by the Russian Orthodox community there began to fall down. The local community struggled to raise cash for a new building. Then, as their website reveals, “in late 2001, the Building Trust received a very generous donation from a well-known industrialist from Russia”. It turned out to be Oleg Deripaska, the oligarch who had given support for the restoration of Orthodox churches in Russia.
But there was a price to pay, it seemed â*“ the local community was expected to vote to remove itself from its relationship with Metropolitan Anthony in London and place itself under the direct authority of Moscow. The Orthodox community in London should have seen the writing on the wall. But being middle-class English folk, they were too diffident. “I think we were all probably too polite, but then we did not understand what was happening,” says Karin Greenhead.
When Moscow sent a committee of inquiry, they co-operated. The English converts thought they were just a bunch of rather vulgar peasants used to pushing people around. “Too late we realised it was a more orchestrated, deliberate attack,” Greenhead recalls. “The inquiry was a very unpleasant, traumatic experience. Everyone was taken off privately and grilled about our loyalty.”
“It was the tactics of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” says another parishioner, Nicolai Matveyev. “Having been arrested by the KGB, I was naturally suspicious,” says another parishioner who asked not to be named.
Bishop Basil decided that the situation was untenable and applied to have his diocese transferred from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to that of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople â*“ who is the leader of all the world’s Orthodox who are not Greek or Russian. Before that could happen, Moscow peremptorily announced that Bishop Basil has been “retired”.
“He arrived one Sunday morning to find that an Archbishop had been sent over from Paris and had taken over,” says one of the priests, Fr Stephan Maikovsky. “It would have ended up in a fist fight had Bishop Basil not just bowed out.” Permission came then from Constantinople for the bishop to set up a new body â*“ the Vicariate â*“ under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Bishop Basil left. Fifteen of the parishes in the diocese went with him, as did half the clergy and 554 of the 1,161 members registered on the diocesan roll.
In response, Moscow went to court to demand that the two trusts holding the community’s property should hand over the £15m cathedral and five clergy houses or flats â*“ and throw two priests out of their homes. What complicated the picture was that the deed of trust drawn up in 1944 spoke only of “the promotion of the Orthodox Faith” and deliberately made no mention of “Russian” Orthodoxy just in case Moscow ever tried to grab control. What the British courts must now settle is who are the rightful heirs.
Moscow is represented by the solicitor Paul Hauser, who insists the position is legally clear: “A bishop had a falling-out with the church and left, taking some of his co-religionists with him. But that does not fundamentally alter the fact that the charities exist for the benefit of the diocese and parish, which continue to exist.”
He offers an analogy: “Say a trust was established for the benefit of Guy’s Hospital. Suppose a group of doctors at Guy’s had a fight with the hospital administrator and went down the street to set up a new hospital which they called Guy’s 2 â*“ and then turned around and said that this new hospital should be the proper beneficiary of the trust. The original Guy’s Hospital undoubtedly would say that, although these doctors were entitled to start a new hospital, that did not change the position with respect to the trust. The trust remained for the benefit of the original Guy’s Hospital, not for the new one the doctors established.”
The Attorney General, he insists, had no option but to give her opinion in favour of Moscow. But others suspect politics is afoot. The effect of the Attorney General expressing such a clear view is that Bishop Basil’s side are now in line to pay the entire costs of the hearing if they lose â*“ and they are not allowed to use the trust’s money to pay for lawyers, so they cannot afford legal representation in the High Court on Monday. “That means that our witnesses will be without lawyers,” says another parishioner, Tamara Dragadzay, “but the other side seems to have unlimited funds.”
Hauser, who also acts for Oleg Deripaska, does not say where his side’s money comes from. “Let’s put it this way; it is not coming out of trust funds because the church has adopted the position that it doesn’t want to see the trust funds disturbed for any other purpose. So the Russian Orthodox Church has had to make arrangements to fund this matter, which it has done. It has not been funded from any funds in UK.”
This is where politics re-enters the picture. Britain’s relationship with Russia has been in a delicate phase since Moscow refused to hand over the agent suspected of killing the KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, and the UK refused to hand over the dissident businessman Boris Berezovsky. There have been tit-for-tat expulsions. Things have been more frosty since Britain backed Georgia in its stand-off with Moscow. The last thing the Government needs is to irritate Vladimir Putin by ruling the wrong way in a small row over Church property.
The Attorney General’s office insist that their “view on these cases has been arrived at on advice and after careful analysis of the evidence and having regard to the original trust deeds and their objects”. It has not, a spokeswoman said, “been influenced by foreign policy considerations”.
A number of MPs aren’t convinced. “The intervention of the Attorney General to try to prevent one side of the case having legal representation is very singular,” said the Lib Dem MP Norman Baker. “It goes against natural justice, which leads you to suspect this may be about not upsetting relations with Russia.” He is to raise the matter with Sir Alan Beith, chair of the Select Committee on Justice, who is now conducting an inquiry into the office of the Attorney General and its susceptibility to political interference, following rulings in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Back at the cathedral, they raise their eyebrows at such a notion. “It is too ludicrous to comment on,” says Adrian Dean, the secretary of the parish council in whose name the court action has been brought. “It looks like a bit of scandal-mongering to me. The clique who have left have invented the idea purely because the Attorney General’s ruling has gone against them. It’s just sour grapes really. The legal fact is that this church has always been the diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate and it still is.”
The court will find things more complex. The present parish was set up in 1934, and its 1944 trust deed was designed to allow for a change of jurisdiction. It was that which allowed the Parish Council to vote, in 1946, in a mood of post-war euphoria, to join the Moscow Patriarchate. What the court must decide is whether the switch back to Constantinople of just half the community allows the trustees to choose which way to go.
What heightens the sense of grievance of Bishop Basil’s supporters is that it was they who bought the cathedral in 1978. “We raised all the money ourselves,” says Ruth Nares. “Elderly White Russians sold their gold teeth to pay for it. The rest of the community worked tirelessly to find the money, and to fund a restoration programme â*“ only now to find ourselves homeless and all because Moscow wants to extend its tentacles.”
Emotions are high. Tamara Dragadzay likens what has happened to the way groups of foreign Muslims have tried to take over certain British mosques. There are parallels with the infiltration of Militant Tendency into the Labour Party in the 1980s. There is talk of cuckoos and nests.
“I just don’t recognise that,” says Adrian Dean, a more recent convert. “No one asked Bishop Basil and his supporters to go,” says Moscow’s lawyer, Paul Hauser. “They just decided to leave of their own volition. No one has slammed the door in anyone’s face. They are always perfectly free to return.” But no one in the new Vicariate believes that. They suspect that what goes on behind the iconostasis is something that Moscow would prefer to keep from public view.