Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Orthodox memories

I celebrated the Eucharist in honour of Saints Simon and Jude for the Wednesday congregation at St German's this morning. No school class present as it's half term this week. It aroused memories for me of starting work in the St Paul's Area in Bristol as Team Rector of St Agnes and St Simon with St Werburgh this autumn, forty years ago. This day was one specially observed in the Parish, as the benefice in post war years had absorbed the neighbouring parish of St Simon and there were still a few St Simon's people attending St Agnes. The redundant church had been given to Bristol's Greek Orthodox community, and I'd discovered this in my first year as a University student, as part of my ecumenical education. The impression made on me by taking part in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for the first time was profound and lasting, a landmark moment in my spiritual journey. 

At that service I met Fr Nicholas Behr, newly ordained Russian Orthodox Deacon, just arrived in the city with a mission to grow a congregation among groups of Slavic speaking exiles. We became friends and over subsequent years the conversations we had about our different kinds of Christian tradition showed me how much I'd actually absorbed about Anglican Christianity, from attending church and listening to full content sermons from a priest who really cared. All part of my journey towards ordination.

Within years Fr Nicholas had acquired a church across the street from the University refectory and had grown a Russian Orthodox church congregation, which now has a couple of dozen nationalities among its members. The Greek church flourishes too, having survived the almost total devastation of its neighbourhood, due to the creation of a motorway junction right next to it. With its local parish population decimated, only an eclectic linguistic minority group was in a position to keep it open. The church spire lost its weather-vane and top section in the late eighties and was capped, giving it a distinctive profile in the town-scape, just south of the Ashley Road junction.

I rarely went to the Greek Church, even for social purposes, after I became Vicar, but I kept in touch with Fr. Nicholas and occasionally attended services and sang in his English liturgy choir. Once, I persuaded him to celebrate Vespers in St Agnes as part of our Unity Week observances. We had good relations with local Roman Catholics and local Methodists were partners with us in an Ecumencial Area of Experiment, as it was then called. We also had several afro-caribbean Christian groups in the area, and St Agnes occasionally offered them hospitality, also a tiny group of Latvian Lutherans, a legacy of wartime exiles in the city. It was a time of rich ecumenical and inter-faith experiences that was the richest of my entire ministry.

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