One Diocese in Two Broad Territories: The British Isles & Western Europe
Our singular Diocese incorporates eleven nations and multiple tongues, and lives and works as a singular whole in terms of its missionary and liturgical life. It is an historic diocese, headed over its history by many notable Hierarchs, including the glorified St John the Wonderworker who was the Ruling Bishop in the mid-twentieth century.
In order to provide for a dedicated focus on certain pastoral matters that are specific to given regions in the present day, the Diocese is also internally organised into two broad Diocesan Regions that follow the natural geography: one for the British Isles and one for Continental Western Europe. These do not have their own administrations or formal structures, but simply provide a means for clergy and parishes in shared geographies to aid each other in matters pertaining to local needs. A Regional Council is convened by the Bishop for each, allowing for focused concentration on the pastoral and missionary needs in local terms as we work to draw peoples of every nationality, tongue, age and race into the life of the Gospel.
I. The Diocesan Region of the British Isles
Britain is one of the oldest Orthodox lands in the world, having received the Gospel proclamation from an Apostle of the Seventy, St Aristobulus, in the first century AD. For more than 2,000 years the Orthodox faith has been proclaimed on these islands, producing a host of local Saints whose veneration is integral to the life of our communities throughout Great Britain and Ireland, as well as the Diocese as a whole. In more recent terms, the British Isles (encompassing Great Britain, the island of Ireland and hundreds of smaller islands and isles) have been home to the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia since its beginnings, at times administered as a vicariate of a separate European diocese, at times as its own diocesan entity.
Russian Orthodoxy began in England, unsurprisingly, in its capital city of London where relations between Britain and Russia have long been fostered — and there has been a Russian Orthodox Church in London for more than 300 years. After the Russian Revolution, the Imperial Embassy Chapel was closed and a new home was sought for the longstanding parish. In 1929 Archmandrite Nicholas (Karpov) was consecrated as Bishop of London and took up residence in the United Kingdom, beginning the hierarchical presence of Russian Orthodoxy in Great Britain. In 1932 Bishop Nicholas reposed in the Lord whilst attending a meeting of the Holy Synod, which was at that time headquartered in the Kingdom of Serbia. The next Bishop to reside in London and have oversight of the Diocesan parishes was the ever-memorable Archbishop Nikodim (Nagaieff), who served as head of a separate Diocese of Great Britain and Ireland from 1954 until his death in 1976 at the age of 93. Initially, His Grace Nikodim was a Vicar Bishop under the ompohor of Archbishop St John (Maximovich), who from 1953 to 1962 was Archbishop of Brussels and Western Europe (glorified in 1994 as Saint John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco). Following the response of Archbishop Nikodim, Bishop Constantine (Jessensky) governed in Great Britain and Ireland until his retirement in 1986. In that same year, Archbishop (now Metropolitan) Mark of Berlin and Germany was appointed as Ruling Hierarch of what remained a separate Diocese of Great Britain and Ireland. Upon Archbishop Mark’s retirement from that role in December 2016, the Diocese was temporarily cared for by the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, assisted from May 2017 by Bishop Irenei — who was, at the time of his appointment, the Bishop of Sacramento. In September 2018 the Holy Synod of Bishops appointed His Grace Irenei as Bishop of London and Western Europe, thus once again combining what in the most recent decades had been the separate Diocese of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Diocese of Western Europe, into our present-day Diocese of Great Britain and Western Europe.
The Diocesan Cathedral is located in London, and though it has moved locations several times in the three centuries of the Russian Orthodox Church’s presence in London (usually surrounding historical considerations of property leasing in the centre of the Capital), it has been in its present location in Harvard Road, Chiswick, West London, since 1990 (previously it had been located at Emperor’s Gate, London; for a more detailed history, see the excellent book, Embassy, Emigrants, and Englishmen by Fr Christopher Birchall, published by Holy Trinity Press, Jordanville, 2014). It is the only purpose-built Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Great Britain, constructed in the Pskov Style and containing two Altars. The upper Altar is dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God, and the lower to the Holy Royal Martyrs. A project of beautiful frescoing of the upper church was completed in 2017, and the Cathedral was consecrated during a special reunion of the Holy Synod on 8th / 21st September 2018.
The Chancellery of the Diocese, which looks after its administration, is located in Wallasey in the north of England.
II. The Diocesan Region of Continental Western Europe
Just as our history within our Diocesan Region of the British Isles is long and marked by notable figures and events, so too with our Diocesan Region of Continental Europe, which comprises of several nations (France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal and Monaco). The Diocese’s presence throughout Western Europe dates to the beginnings of the Church Abroad — and, in many places, to the pre-revolutionary Diaspora.
The origins of the Diocese’s presence in Continental Western Europe lie in Switzerland. The first Russian Orthodox parish was founded near the city of Bern by a decree of Emperor Alexander I dated to 25th December 1816 / 6th January 1817. As a result of the Sondenburnd War, that initial Bern parish of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross — an Imperial Mission — was temporarily evacuated, and resumed operations in 1854 in Geneva. In 1862, the city authorities of Geneva donated to the Orthodox community a piece of land on the site of the former early Christian cemetery, where a monastery dedicated to St Victor had once stood, for the construction of an Orthodox church. It is believed that the initial concept for the church came from Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, eldest daughter of Emperor Nicholas I. The Cathedral’s foundation stone was laid on 14th / 26th September 1863, and precisely three years later, on 14th / 26th September 1866, the temple was consecrated in honour of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. At various times this has been the principal cathedra of a separate Western European Diocese, and today is the second cathedral of the Diocese. Within it, two of our Diocesan bishops are interred: the Right Reverend Leonty, Bishop of Geneva, who ruled what was then the ‘Swiss Vicariate’ from 1950 to 1956; and with him, his brother, the Right Reverend Anthony, who ruled after his brother’s repose, from 1957 to 1993, and was the first hierarch to be given the title ‘Archbishop of Geneva and Western Europe’.
Only an hour from Geneva in the city of Vevey stands another historic temple, dedicated to St Barbara the Great Martyr, which was home to Bishop Ambrose (Kantakuzen) of Vevey, Vicar of the Diocese and from 2000-2006 Bishop of Geneva; and which today is the cathedra of the present Vicar of the Diocese, His Grace Bishop Alexander (Echevarria) of Vevey.
Many of the Diocese’s parishes across Continental Western Europe have their origins in pre-revolutionary communities, and thus have historic temples. Our parishes in Florence and Sanremo, Italy, are stunning examples of Moscow-style church architecture of the late-nineteenth century, both established under the patronage of the Russian Royal Family; and so to with our smaller but equally historic churches in Menton and elsewhere.
III. The Lives of Our Parishes
Across the whole of our Diocese, both in Western Europe and in the British Isles, our Church life is centred in our parishes and their liturgical and pastoral cultures. Our parishes worship in Church Slavonic as well as the local languages of our many regions — including English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and occasionally Welsh and even Gaelic — as well as employing additional languages in communities where this is helpful (for example, we have strong Romanian-language based communities in parts of England and Italy, and so serve portions of the Divine Services there in Romanian). Our presence throughout Great Britain and Western Europe is actively growing, seeking always the establishment of new missions in places where they are needed, the founding of monastic communities, and other blessed works.
The doors of our parishes are open to all who seek to live the Orthodox faith in its fulness, whatever their nationality, background or language.
Find out more about how our Diocese is structured and administrated through its eleven nations