The 1970s and after
It must be remembered that until at least the mid 1970s, the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius provided one of the only forums for Western Christians to encounter Eastern Orthodox worship, prayer and thought. Although the number of Orthodox Christians and places of worship increased in Britain after the war, and particularly after the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus in 1974, it was still largely impossible for British people to experience Orthodox worship in English. Not only did the Fellowship organise celebrations of the Orthodox Liturgy in English at its conferences and at other events across the country, it also published its own translations of and music for the Orthodox Liturgy, together with the Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, which remains a classic, in print to this day. Recordings of Orthodox services were made and distributed, and experiments were also made in producing forms of worship for use at Fellowship gatherings which drew on both eastern and western sources. It is not really possible to ascertain how popular these latter orders of service were, but their publication must have made an impact.
Theologically speaking the Fellowship's impact was also felt. The introduction to the English-speaking Christian world of theologians like Bulgakov, Lossky, Florovsky, Meyendorff and Schmemann often came via the Fellowship and has had an impact which can still not be adequately assessed. Symposia of studies on various theological themes involving both eastern and western theologians were published. These tackled issues such as ecclesiology and the place of Mary. Above all, the Fellowship's journal Sobornost provided (and continues to provide) a forum for serious theological debate and discussion between Christian East and West.
Unity as Christians is intrinsically bound up with the peace of the whole world, the 'peace which passeth all understanding', for which we are bound, as Christians, to pray. The work of the Fellowship is rooted in common prayer and fellowship between separated Christians. It is honest enough to be able to acknowledge differences, both positive and negative. It realises that unity in Christ need not mean uniformity in Christ. The Christian Church existed for centuries without division, but with numerous variations in local church life and practice The one constant factor was a common faith which was firmly rooted in the Gospels and the church tradition, that whole body of teaching, faith and life handed down from the apostles. 'Unofficial' ecumenism seeks to regain something of the bond of self-sacrificial love which existed between Christians in the infancy of the Church. It welcomes our unity in diversity as brothers and sisters in Christ with different traditions.
In the Russian Orthodox tradition, this unity in diversity may be translated by the word Sobornost (not by accident the name of the journal of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius). The same word, Sobornost, is also used to translate the word 'catholic' in the creed. We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, but our catholicity does not mean a rigid uniformity. Rather, our unity should have as its model the image of God, a unity of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one in essence, undivided and co-equal, but distinct and different as persons.
The question of involvement of the various denominations within Christianity in ecumenical work is, itself, not an easy one. Officially, until relatively recently, Roman Catholics were forbidden to take part in acts of worship with non-Catholic groups. Similarly, Orthodox canon law forbids 'prayer with heretics and schismatics'. One might, of course, argue what constitutes a heretic or a schismatic, but one might also have the boldness to say that, like other canons, this one has outlived its purpose in a world where common prayer and unity as Christians are of paramount importance. It is no longer really possible to pretend that we, in the western world, live in Christian societies. The brutal fact is that our societies, although some are still nominally Christian, reflect a post-Christian, secularised attitude to life. A great spiritual thirst has led thousands to explore new age religions and non-Christian alternative belief systems in an attempt to make sense of their otherwise empty lives. In the east, societies are frequently dominated by often militant Islamic regimes. Here Christians can find themselves a small, even persecuted minority. In both situations, the Gospel message can only have an impact if Christians do together all that they possibly can to provide a united witness to Christ, and a united defence against hostile forces.
In this context, the Fellowship's role must be to build up mutual trust, respect, understanding and love between eastern and western Christians. It is best equipped to do this at a small, local level in its branches. In many parts of the world, the Fellowship brings together Orthodox, Reformed and Catholic Christians when they might not otherwise come into contact with each other. This is particularly obvious in places like Russia, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, where western Christians are often perceived as a dangerous group of heretics with whom unnecessary contact should be avoided. Incidentally, this estimation usually also includes Orthodox Christians in the west as equally tainted and suspicious.
The Fellowship can help to overcome the suspicion which results from a lack of knowledge of the other. By meeting, common prayer and study, by education and information through our journal, information service and conferences, we have a role to play. In very practical terms, the capital realised from the sale of St Basil's House in 1993 allows us to award grants of about £30,000 per annum to support projects which will increase east-west Christian contact and understanding. In recent years, by way of example, we have supported scholarships for Orthodox theological students to study in western university faculties, we have funded publications of western theological works in Russian and Bulgarian, and of Orthodox works in English, we have supported theological libraries and schools in Russia, Bulgaria and Britain. We have funded two British conferences, one on Orthodoxy and the future of Europe, the other on the history of Anglican-Orthodox relations. We have supported exchange visits of icon painters and scientists to and from Russia and Romania and Britain. We have provided numerous small travel grants to help facilitate study visits by Western Christians to traditionally Orthodox countries.
In all of these areas, we are able to build up a number of friendly contacts which remain for years. As the participants in the Anglo-Russian Student Conferences of 1927/28 discovered, it became easy to see the urgency of the need for unity once one had developed a personal relationship of trust and friendship with the other: 'Cor ad cor loquitor', as Cardinal Newman wrote - 'heart speaks to heart'.
For more detail about the history of the Fellowship read The Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius: A Historical Memoir by Nicolas and Militza Zernov published in 1979 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Fellowship.