The Early Conferences
There had been limited, though influential, contacts between Orthodox and Anglicans in the period before the St Albans conferences. In particular, valuable work had been done by individual churchmen such as Birkbeck and Palmer. The Eastern Churches Association, which remains active although small to this day as the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, was founded in the 1870s under the influence of a group of Anglican churchmen and politicians, among them the then prime minister William Gladstone. This association was intended as an official channel for fostering good relations between the Orthodox Churches and the Church of England. By the 1920s, it already seemed to those attending the St Albans Conferences rather old and stuffy.
The conferences at St Albans broke ground in a number of areas. First, they provided an opportunity for informal contact and the fostering of friendships between Christians of different traditions. Secondly, an opportunity was found for common worship, something not experienced previously, and in fact regarded with great suspicion by many Orthodox mindful of their canons prohibiting 'prayer with heretics and schismatics'. The daring decision was made to hold a daily celebration of the Eucharist, alternating between Orthodox and Anglican rites. There was no intercommunion, but the liturgy was offered each day on the same altar, and this was seen to provide a symbolic focus for the hope of future full eucharistic unity.
In this light, the conferences of 1927 and 1928 can be considered ground-breaking for their time. Both annual conferences and alternating Orthodox and Western celebrations of the Eucharist have remained features of the life of the Fellowship up to the present day.
It might be worth pointing out at this point that Roman Catholic participation in the conferences (and subsequently in the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius) was not possible in the 1920s and 1930s, owing to the prohibition of Catholics by their bishops to participate in ecumenical affairs. One encyclical issued by Cardinal Griffin, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales at the time of the Fellowship's foundation, actually banned the Catholic faithful from membership of the Fellowship.
The lasting result of the Anglo-Russian Conferences, which actually included many who were neither English or Russian, was the foundation of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius as a means of providing a focus for continued contact and friendship between Orthodox and Anglicans. The two saints were chosen as heavenly patrons reflecting the cultural and spiritual characters of the Fellowship's two constituent parts. St Alban, England's first martyr, was a Roman of the second century in whose town the conferences of 1927/28 had been held. St Sergius of Radonezh, a great Russian monastic leader of the fourteenth century is one of Russia's most popularly venerated saints. His lavra (monastery) of the Holy Trinity at Sergiev Posad (known to many Westerners by its Soviet name Zagorsk) may be regarded as one of the major spiritual centres of Russian Church life.