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Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) in England 2002

By Fr John A. Jillions, ONT


"If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it"--Albert Einstein

Now that an apparently "absurd" proposal about Bishop Hilarion as a potential metropolitan of the OCA has been floated, his six-month assignment in 2002 as an assistant bishop to the late Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) keeps being brought up as troubling evidence of his unsuitability by people with little or no direct knowledge of Bp Hilarion, Met Anthony or the Diocese of Sourozh. Since I do have such experience I feel it is my duty to comment to set the record straight, at least as I see it. This reflection is based on my own recollection and notes I kept at the time as well as letters and documents.

I lived in Cambridge for eight years, from 1995 until shortly after the death of Met Anthony in Aug 2003. I served as priest of St Ephraim's parish in Cambridge (in addition to being Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies until early 2002). Met Anthony was my diocesan bishop, but I worked closely with Bp Hilarion and Bp Basil. I am intimately acquainted with the events surrounding Bp Hilarion's recruitment, arrival in January and sad departure in July 2002. In that time I served at the altar with him regularly and shared many meals and conversations with him. I have also seen him in the midst of conflict, and can attest to his grace under pressure and in response to unjust attacks, especially painful when they come from those one loves, as Bishop Hilarion loved Met Anthony, his spiritual father, who had actively recruited him to come to England as a teacher and bishop. So first I need to put this controversy in the context of Met Anthony's personality and its fifty year impact on the diocese.

Whether or not one considers Bp Hilarion a good candidate for metropolitan, the man's reputation must not be slandered. Three factors, in my opinion, contributed to Bp Hilarion's short tenure in England: Met Anthony himself, fears of Russian domination and the shock of Bp Hilarion's episcopal energy. I will address each of these in turn and then look at events leading to his resignation and the re-assessment that took place in the diocese after his departure, when it could be acknowledged that the whole situation had been badly mishandled.

[This is a complicated mess, but Wikipedia's entry for the "Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh" has a fairly balanced presentation, with supporting documents from all sides and brings events up to date, including the recent split led by Bp Basil (Osborne).]

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Unfortunately, the lasting public image of the 2002 Sourozh events has thus far been shaped by Met Anthony, whose reputation as a living saint at age 82 was hard to argue with. But in my opinion his behavior toward Bp Hilarion was less than fully honorable. No one can take away from Met Anthony his profound legacy of teaching and pastoral direction. He had profound insights on the Gospel and human nature. To this day he is my image of serving the liturgy with simplicity (he hated the excesses of Russian hierarchical practice), as one engaged in conversation with God. "Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Exodus 33:11).

But even his admirers admit that in personal relations, especially with perceived rivals, there could be a dark side. And, despite his rhetoric of episcopal service and sobornost, he could also be autocratic and unfair.

This is a constant theme in Gillian Crow's biography of Met Anthony ("This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony",Gillian Crow, London: DLT, 2005). She is devoted to Met Anthony, but her work is not hagiography. And while she is critical of Bp Hilarion for being too attentive to grievances and thus encouraging factions, she leaves no doubt that Met Anthony could be harsh and even cruel.

However much he liked to speak of the difference between power and authority, as a bishop he was in a position of absolute power with regard to his own flock. This was on two levels: the personal one, towards individuals, and the public one, when he made official pronouncements. On both levels he had the power, if he wished, to crush people, and there were rare but unfortunate occasions when he used it. "From time to time he targeted people he saw as a threat and showed them the full force of his darker side. Some people found the two sides of his personality impossible to reconcile, and left the church. Some suffered psychological damage from which they only slowly, or never, recovered. The result of this temperament was that, when because of his shortcomings he felt his authority or his personal wishes threatened, he was unable to discuss things reasonably. He would simply withdraw and refuse to shift his position, retreating into his room, staying silent for some time and, if the situation did not resolve itself, finally issuing despotic commands from a safe distance" (198-99).

Crow uses the words high-handed (228) ruthless, despotic and autocratic to describe him on such occasions (224). "Most people who crossed his path had occasion, sooner or later, to go home to lick the wounds inflicted by [this side] of his personality" (194). But those who stayed learned to live with this dimension of Met Anthony. She says that Deacon Peter Scorer summed up this enlightened attitude: "at a certain moment he stopped idolizing him and learned to love him in full awareness of his faults" (200). In my opinion Bp Hilarion was also caught in this inexplicable other side, this "mystery of lawlessness" as St Paul called it (2 The 2:7).

Fears of "Russianization"

Bishop Hilarion's arrival in England fanned fears especially among diocesan leaders that the special character of Sourozh, with its own statutes (modeled, like the OCA's statutes, on the Moscow 1917-18 Sobor) and largely English-speaking, would be threatened, especially in the event of Met Anthony's death. He had been a staunch defender of the semi-autonomy of Sourozh during the Soviet era and afterward, but what would happen when he was gone?

This fear was all the more realistic in light of two other factors. First the large numbers of Russians in England (estimates as high as 250,000), and second, the power that the statutes of the Russian Orthodox Church gave to its Department of External Church Relations, headed by Met. Kyril of Smolensk, to oversee church life in dioceses beyond the borders of Russia. The fact that Bp Hilarion was the protege of Met. Kyril only made suspicions worse. Met Anthony was reassuring, but Bp Basil and others were increasingly anxious that Bp Hilarion would be used to undermine Met Anthony's fifty-year labour. And their fears had some basis in fact. The Statutes of the Russian Orthodox Church (2000) make it clear that its churches and institutions outside the CIS and Baltic countries would report to Moscow through the chairman of the department of External Church Relations (XIV.2) and would be governed by the aims of said department.

The institutions located abroad shall carry out their mission in accordance with the aims and tasks of foreign activities of the Russian Orthodox Church under the authoritative supervision of the Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations. (XIV.5)

The heads and executives of the institutions located abroad shall be appointed by the Holy Synod on the presentation from the Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations. (XIV.6).

Fears of being taken over were thus a key reason why reactions to Bp Hilarion in England went far beyond his skills or personality, and why he became such a troubling figure for those who did not trust the intentions of Moscow.

A dangerously energetic young bishop

The diocese was not used to having an energetic young bishop. Indeed, this exacerbated whatever fears were already abroad concerning the pace of alleged Russianization. He traveled around the diocese extensively, noticed what has happening (or not happening) pastorally, looking especially for Russians, and set in motion plans to make improvements (he thought with Met Anthony's blessing). After decades of a diocese being accustomed to act in one way, there is no question that change was viewed by some as a breath of fresh air, but by others as a threat.

The latter said he was arrogant, driven by power not service, only interested in Russians. What became apparent was that Bp Hilarion's pastoral visits were opening up a wide vein of disaffection in the diocese. As one OCA priest who frequently traveled to England commented to me in letter, "As an outsider I think that the fifty years or so of Met Anthony's reign have been dominated by his personality and in more recent years by a British way of keeping conflicts sub rosa and dealt with in indirect ways. Bp Hilarion's presence must have raised some strong anxieties to result in such direct action".

I was quite unaware of the depth of opposition until April 8, 2002. I had gone down to London to speak with Met Anthony and get his advice on personal and pastoral matters. I was surprised when he asked about Bishop Basil and said that he had some doubts about how he would do as successor in the diocese of Sourozh (this had been the plan for some time). He was mulling over the possibility that Bp Hilarion might be the one to succeed him instead. He asked that I keep this confidential, which I did, until now. No one can verify this of course, and Met Anthony certainly disavowed any such intention later. So this can't be taken as solid evidence for his views. After our conversation I went next door to one of the rooms in the church hall where the five Sourozh Archpriests happened to be having a meeting (they acted as a kind of executive of the presbytery). They were gathered around a table with a six-pack of beer. They offered me one and invited me to stay (though I was not an archpriest). There was a distressed and depressed air among them. They brought me up to date, and said they were discussing "how to get rid of this new bishop." I was honestly shocked. This was a cabal, plain and simple, and I had innocently never encountered such plotting in all my years of church life. Yes, Bp Hilarion could be cool and matter-of-fact, yes he was demanding (he himself was and is extremely hard-working), but I thought he was doing a good job and I thought of him as a friend. He was prayerful, quiet, fully centered it seemed to me when he was celebrating the Liturgy, a person of lively intelligence and wit, intent on serving God and His people. Besides this he was an accomplished scholar and musician (he told me during his two years of compulsory service in the Soviet army he was assigned to band detail, and played the piano in every corner of the country; he had to mix with all levels of society and this helped him overcome his natural shyness). I did not recognize the caricature they were giving me. I said nothing about my conversation with Met Anthony, but I did say that they might not want me there, since, based on my experience, I couldn't share their view of Bp Hilarion. They thought I was good-naturedly naive and didn't hold this against me, but they warned me of the threat he represented. A little while later Met Anthony joined the meeting and they told him their concerns. He listened attentively but said little, except that Bp Hilarion was young, had many gifts and should be given a chance to get to know the diocese. He said nothing about his thoughts on a successor.

"Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?"

Opposition to Bp Hilarion mounted, especially among the diocesan leaders, and Met Anthony increasingly accepted their view of the situation. He called a meeting of the clergy for May 25th to discuss Bp Hilarion. But I was stunned that he had no intention of inviting Hilarion himself, Met Anthony's own assistant bishop, to hear what was being said about him. I called and wrote to Met Anthony to reconsider this. He agreed to make this a matter of discussion at the meeting itself, but Bp Hilarion would first need to wait in the hallway while his fate was deliberated by the rest of the clergy. There was vigorous discussion pro and con, but finally Met Anthony relented and agreed that Bp Hilarion should be admitted to hear what was being said and to reply.

Bp Hilarion began by quoting Nicodemus' words to the Sanhedrin in John 7:51: "Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?" To me it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. Soon after, Met Anthony issued an edict that was to be read from the ambo of every parish recounting Bp Hilarion's supposed failings and giving him two months to sort himself out, but there was no mention of Bishop Hilarion's replies to these accusations. A few priests and parishes wrote to protest, but the majority wished to follow Met Anthony's lead.

To save the diocese any further distress on his account Bishop Hilarion resigned in July 2002, but still the diocese continued to publish attacks on him in Sourozh, the diocesan journal edited by Bp Basil (Osborne). At that time I wrote an open letter to Bp Basil:

"High-minded debate about ecclesiology, canonical order and the special character of the Sourozh diocese cannot cover up an ugly run-of-the-mill injustice that we as a diocese still have not acknowledged: how a new assistant bishop was publicly accused, humiliated, effectively put on trial and dismissed by the diocesan leadership. Whatever his perceived flaws, the fact remains that Bishop Hilarion was not given the due process that should be accorded to anyone in the Church, let alone a bishop. His trial by public propaganda was worthy of Soviet justice, not a diocese claiming to be heir of the 1917-18 Council. Indeed, if today any priest or bishop in Russia had been treated this way there would have been a huge public outcry from Orthodox in the West."

The reaction to this criticism of the bishop was not unlike similar reactions in the OCA situation: how dare anyone question the bishop! I received a letter from a senior priest who expressed dismay that I would publicly disagree with Met Anthony. "It disturbs me very much that you should be making public your disagreement with the actions of Met Anthony. We have in this Diocese unusual freedom to speak our mind to our Bishop(s), but within the confidentiality of the Presbytery Meetings or of the Diocesan Assembly. Must I assume that you have the blessing of the Bishop to go public with your disapproval? If not how can you continue to stay within the discipline of this Diocese and its bishop?" [emphasis in original]. Indeed, at the previous diocesan assembly Bp Basil had underlined that clergy and assistant bishops must unite themselves with the mind of the diocesan bishop. That would be even more true he said of the Diocese of Sourozh, "where the personal authority of our Metropolitan is so great that this requirement is particularly strong."

No one asked what happens when the bishop is the one whose actions need to be questioned.

Re-assessment after Bp Hilarion's departure

Yet after Bp Hilarion left England, it was widely accepted among the clergy that the whole situation had been very poorly handled, that there were long-standing issues in the diocese and that "we as clergy need to ask forgiveness for what we allowed to happen." As Fr John Marks, the dean of the presbyters said in December 2002, "The assumption that sending Bishop Hilarion packing was the way to get rid of all our problems is just infantile: whether he was right for Britain or not, the problems are still here." Another priest admitted that Bp Hilarion was a blessing, in that he visited far and wide and discovered a lot of unease. He unearthed issues that needed attention for some time. Bp Hilarion's presence forced open a discussion of these problems, but he was not their cause. A post-mortem report stated that

"This controversy has left wounds which need healing. One the one hand the harvest is great here and the labourers are few, and the addition to the clergy of someone gifted and energetic created very positive relationships with many members of the diocese. On the other hand a conflict of aims rapidly emerged - and led to very negative experiences on both sides. "

In the end, the report agreed that a better system was needed to address conflicts, especially those involving assistant bishops, to keep them from becoming so accusatory and bitterly personal.

"It is possible the diocese will need to consider having a code of mediation when conflicts of aims or practices are perceived to be occurring, including principles for the selection of peers as mediators, and a focus on policies rather than personalities. If mediation fails, arrangements should be made to allow an assistant bishop to secure an alternative appointment without prejudice. We are relieved that this has been achieved."

Bp Hilarion as Metropolitan of the OCA?

Is Bp Hilarion the one God is raising up for us to be Metropolitan? Maybe, maybe not. On the face of it, the idea seems absurd, as many have commented. I'm not sure. But whatever Bp Hilarion's faults- and Met Anthony's life should be a lesson that even the most saintly have faults - my experience of him in England would not discount him, not least because I saw the profoundly Christian manner he handled the strain and hurt of those few months. Judging by the Scriptures, God does like doing unexpected things. Could Bp Hilarion be His unexpected message for us?


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