GREAT BRITAIN OF MY HEART
Fr. Meletios Weber, England: Through Oxford to Orthodoxy
England, USA & the Netherlands
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
Archimandrite Meletios Webber, of Scottish background, was born in London, and received his Masters degree in Theology from Oxford University, England and the Thessalonica School of Theology, Greece. He also holds an E.D.D. (doctorate) in Psychotherapy from the University of Montana, Missoula. He is the author of two published books: Steps of Transformation; an Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (Conciliar Press, 2003); and Bread and Water, Wine and Oil; an Orthodox Christian Experience of God (Conciliar Press, 2007).
This interview was originally published in Pravoslavnie.ru.
Fr. Meletios, could you tell us a little about your journey to Orthodoxy in Oxford, and how you became a priest?
I went to Oxford as a theology student in 1968, and very quickly found an Orthodox Church there. The parish priest at the time was Fr. Kallistos Ware, who is now Metropolitan of Diokleia, and the deacon at the time was Fr. Basil Osborne, who is now Bishop of Amphipolis. The parish in Oxford was both a Russian and a Greek one, coexisting in a small room in what had once been the house of the famous Dr. Spooner. I was immediately attracted to the quality of the stillness that I found in that small room. That has been something that I have consistently valued in the Orthodox Church ever since. It is a quality which is difficult to talk about, but it happens when one goes into a space which is so obviously God-filled. That is something that I found very important and very attractive at that time. Under the tutelage of Fr. Kallistos I became Orthodox three years later, and I was ordained a priest some three years after that in January of 1976, by the Greek Archbishop of Thyateira in Great Britain, and served with that bishop as his chaplain for a number of years. My first parish in Britain after I returned from my studies in Greece was in an area of London called Harrow. From Harrow I went to the United States and spent 22 years there, before returning to Europe to live in the Netherlands in 2005.
In which parishes did you serve in the U.S.?
In the beginning, in 1984, I served as the parish priest in the churches of the state of Montana. There were three active parishes, two missions, and several other groups. This was with the Greek Archdiocese. I used to travel a very great deal throughout the year, which was at times a little more exciting than I wanted it to be. The people were very scattered, but very few in number. A trickle of converts started toward the end of my time there, but for the most part I was serving Greek Americans.
Were there any converts at all while you were there?
In Great Falls, Montana there was an air force base, and we had a number of very fine converts coming to us from that direction. We baptized a few families who were attracted to the Church from that place. It would be difficult to say that the Greek community found it easy to accept non-Greeks, because they saw themselves as a sort of bastion of Greekness. They were very friendly on the whole, but they simply did not know how to react to people who wanted to join the Church who were not Greek, who didn’t speak Greek, and so on. They also found it difficult at that time (and I think this is still the case), to keep their children in Montana. Almost everyone would leave the state as soon as they were able, in search of employment or education.
Because Montana simply does not have very much to offer in the way of employment or education?
Certainly in Great Falls there wasn’t. In Missoula and Billings there are universities; in Missoula there was quite a thriving Orthodox community. But even then, with the exception of two or three of my former altar boys, who went to get their law degrees and then returned to practice in Montana, most people found it difficult to find professional development in Montana. It is a problem in a state which has a huge surface area and a relatively small population.
Where did you serve after Montana?
I went to what is known in America as “The Bay Area,” meaning the area around San Francisco, and became the chancellor of what was then the Greek diocese of San Francisco, with Bishop Anthony. I served with him as chancellor for two years, during which time I served as parish priest in Santa Cruz. After I ceased being chancellor, I was then full-time parish priest in Santa Cruz, for another nine years.
Is that the same parish in which the murdered Fr. John Karastamatis served?
Yes. He was not my immediate predecessor; there had been three other priests in between. I knew his presbytera quite well, and his children. He was murdered on the premises of the church, in very unpleasant circumstances, some years before I arrived, but it was still a very dominant factor in the life of parish while I was there—something they couldn’t forget.
In your experience as a pastor in America, with the Greek population and later with a slightly more diverse group, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of being a pastor there?
I think that there are many problems, but none of them is insurmountable, so long as the focus of parish life always centers upon the words of Jesus and the Gospel. It is easy to become distracted into the realms of, for example, Greek culture and cooking, or folk dance, all of which are wonderful activities in themselves, but can never be the backbone of parish life. The backbone of parish life has to be spiritual in nature, and based very firmly upon the Gospel. So, the interests of parishioners can be in one direction, and those of the pastor in another, and it is up to the pastor to help the people whom he is serving stay focused on what is important; encouraging them, of course, in all these other areas as well, but making sure that the spiritual core is always present in everything that they do.
Did you ever find that it was a challenge for your Greek parishioners to have a pastor, even a chancellor, who was not at all Greek?
Yes, well, you would have thought so. But when I was in London I was serving a community that was almost entirely Cypriot, and also Greek- speaking. I survived that experience reasonably well. They used to call me in the Cypriot dialect “O kochenos,” which means “The red-haired one,” since I had red hair in those days. I have always found that although I am not Greek, I speak Greek reasonably well, and I can feel Greek enough to participate in Greek parish life—sometimes perhaps too much so. (Perhaps a little stoic reserve would be more applicable.) But because I speak the language, with very few exceptions (and there have been some), I have never been made to feel an outsider.
Bishop Anthony (whom I mentioned earlier, and who went on to become Metropolitan Anthony, reposing in 2004, on Christmas day), was not an easy man to work with in many ways. But the one thing that always surprised me about him was that with regard to ethnicity, he was sort of color blind. He actually forgot that the people around him were Greek, or not Greek. It simply was not important to him. This was one of his great strengths, actually, in bringing the metropolis together.
Now that you have come to Holland, you are entering into a new realm—the Russians, the Dutch, and other Europeans who are living in Amsterdam, a cosmopolitan city. Could you describe what the parish life is like in the Russian Church in Amsterdam?
First of all, the parish itself is a great deal larger than any other parish I have served in before. Apart from those two years when I was Chancellor and had oversight over a number of parishes, all of the parishes in which I worked personally had around fifty to a hundred families. Suddenly, when I come to Amsterdam, there is a huge parish with a very flexible congregation—new people seem to turn up every week The number of languages flying around is just something that you just have to get used to. In the altar four languages certainly are quite common amongst the clergy themselves.
French, Dutch, Russian, and English; occasionally there are other languages, too. This being only us communicating amongst ourselves, in order to know what we are supposed to do.
French being a sort of lingua franca?
Yes. I don’t think there is actually a French person there. But we do have some people who are very, very qualified in language skills. One of our deacons is an international translator who works for President Putin and other people of that ilk, as the need arises.
Is he Russian?
No, he is actually Dutch. He speaks four languages fluently. He occasionally translates my sermons, which I enjoy immensely. I deliver them in Dutch, and he translates them into Russian. He catches nuances in what I am saying that I’ve missed. I am just amazed at his skill. He is a very young man. It is quite exciting.
Parish council meetings (which I don’t attend) are entirely bilingual, so everything has to be said in Dutch and Russian, and I should imagine that that becomes at times something less than a pleasure.
Twice as long?
Twice as long; and the subject matter at parish meetings is at times not so interesting, or not so important to the central interest of the parish. But I suppose that is just parish life.
Which is the dominant nationality there now?
I would have to say that the dominant group would be the Russians, most of whom have come to Europe fairly recently. There are very, very few old Russians left from previous immigrations, the notable exception being Matushka Tatiana, the wife of the reposed Fr. Alexei (who was Dutch). There are very few, if any, of that generation. There are some older women—particularly women—from a new generation; but that’s another matter—they came over as old ladies.
Is this mixture of Russian and Dutch harmonious?
I would say that it really is. I have been in parishes in England and in the U.S., where people tended to get very defensive about languages. In Holland that is not the case, and in Amsterdam, certainly not. We have a system of trying to balance the languages which seems to work very well. And I don’t think I have ever heard a complaint that we were using one language more than another. Occasionally I have to break into English or Greek during the services, bearing in mind that I know most of the services by heart in Greek, not even as well in English. People will sometimes comment on that, mostly not in too brusque a manner, but it is often the best I can do, if I am in a situation wherein I can’t find the book I need, or if I am in a hurry.
Do you know any Russian?
Yes, I also use Church Slavonic in the Services.
Can you speak to the Russians in their own language?
To a certain extent. I need some help to learn a bit more Russian. I do hear confessions in Russian, but that is more instinctive than linguistic, and normally I reply either in English or Dutch, depending upon what the person’s language skills happens to be.
I understand that the difficulties that occurred in the London Moscow Patriarchate parish have been more or less smoothed out by this time. But in your opinion, what could have been the underlying problem which could have made it so difficult for the new Russian immigrants to coexist with the local converts—a problem which does not seem to exist here in Amsterdam?
I have never been a member of the parish in London, although I have known about it for forty years or so. I could be quite wrong in what I am about to say, and I certainly do not want to offend anyone. I, like many, many other people, regard Metropolitan Anthony Bloom as a very important part of my Orthodox formation, and I venerate his memory as do many, many others. I think what we saw there—somewhat encouraged by Metropolitan Anthony—was a very high level of expectation as to how the diocese would develop as he got older, and eventually what would happen after he died. But the circumstances in Russia were such, that by the time that happened, the reality was altogether different from any possible dream that anyone might have had. And I think that the reality and the dream simply didn’t mix.
I don’t necessarily think that anyone is to blame for this. I know that many feelings were hurt, but I don’t see any wrong-doing on anyone’s part; I think it was simply people doing their best to fight for what they thought was right and just—on both sides. But it is a situation with which Vladyka Anthony himself never really came to grips; and by the time the Soviet Union dissolved, he was already a very old man. Whilst he was mentally very strong right to the end, coping with the sort of ecclesiastical needs of the new Russians was something he had never had to do. He was ministering mainly to English people in very small, rural communities. There were a couple of exceptions, but on the whole, that was where his main influence seemed to lie.
Then, all of a sudden he was confronted with the huge ecclesiastical needs of a lot of Russians in cities, which was not where he was actually comfortable. That is a bit of a guess. I may be entirely wrong on that, but this seems to be part of it.
This is a point of view of someone who was not in the thick of it, an objective observer.
How would you, in a few words, characterize this new burst of immigration coming from Russia and Eastern Europe in general? Is the majority or only a small percentage coming to the Church? How does this big wave of immigration affect the Church?
I think that several things happened relatively quickly when the Soviet Union dissolved. One comment that was made to me by a Russian, which I find quite interesting, was that for a lot of people, once the Communist Party was, as it were, no more, they latched onto the Church as being a point of stability in social life. And it was as if the Communist Party were replaced by the Church. We are not talking here about matters of faith, but simply about social structure, how people live their lives, what they do when they get up in the morning, and how they see the world when they look out the window. If that is true, then the Church obviously has a huge burden of evangelizing, bringing the Gospel to these people. I think that is what we see happening.
Typically the Orthodox method of doing such a thing isn’t by making church life attractive, by trying to “sell” an idea, or imposing an ideology upon people, but rather to open the doors of the parishes, to welcome people when they arrive, to make them feel at home, and gradually to educate them in the prayer life, which is after all, what the Church really has to offer. Of course, it is not an activity where efficiency counts for much. You’re looking for quality rather than quantity.
I would say that the Russian population in Amsterdam is something in the region of six or seven thousand people, which in comparison with the total population isn’t that large. Nevertheless, the congregation on Sunday morning is only, say, 350 people, including the non-Russians. So, yes, there is a great deal more that can be done.
The outreach has to be for Orthodoxy on a personal level. The era for the conversion of Russia was already a thousand years ago, and I don’t think those tactics would work on a modern group—the baptism by sword-point is no longer even desirable. The long term answer is for the Orthodox in Amsterdam to live lives which are attractive enough to people who are potentially Orthodox, so that they can be attracted to what the Church has to offer. We are greatly blessed—we have a wonderful bishop, we have fine clergy, and although they are all human beings, there are very human aspects of Church life as well. The very heart of what is going on is the proclamation of the Gospel.
What is your ministry like to the youth, and how do you bring young people into the Church? How do you feel about rock concerts, and Orthodox priests entering into such realms that are not Christian in nature in order to reach out to the youth?
The teenage years are years of rebellion. Teenagers have been rebelling in one way or another since the dawn of time. So, making teenagers conform to anything has been a heavy task for parents and educators for as long as men and women have been around.
Ultimately, teenagers on the whole—although of course there are exceptions—tend to be driven by peer pressure, and if peer pressure includes a spiritual dimension, then there will tend to be a spiritual dimension to their existence, although it may not be recognizable to anyone else. But if spirituality is entirely lacking—as it tends to be so in the Western world, even amongst fairly religious groups in the United States—you find that teenagers tend to spend time in rebellion. This means that ultimately you pray for the teenagers, and hope that they are going to come through those years without too many scars. The churches tend to pick them up once again when they become young parents. There is nothing wrong with that pattern, it just happens to be the one that seems to be in place.
Now, I know so little about rock music and things of that nature that anything I say is likely to be very doubtful, but let me put it in another context: I can’t say that I have ever met anybody who has been converted to Christianity by attending a symphony concert. Now, if that is true of symphony concerts, I think that that is also true of rock concerts. So rock music is an end in itself—I really can’t say if it is good or bad. But it is unlikely to provide much of a spiritual dimension for most people. It is a diversion, a distraction; it is away from the spiritual quest, rather than on the path. Therefore, I would say that it is somewhat irrelevant; I don’t think that having priests dress as rock stars is going to fill the churches.
What about priests attending rock concerts in order to reach out to the youth?
As I say, putting the same thing in the context of a symphony hall, having a priest sitting in the front row will not drive those people into the Church. The Church is good at being the Church. When the Church tries to be something else—and in the past it has tried to be all sorts of things, including government or administrator, sometimes because it had to, sometimes because it chose to—it is not at its best. The Church is essentially to do with living, and proclaiming the Gospel. The moment you start moving away from that occupation, then there is trouble.
Viewing the youth of Europe, do you see any hope? Does materialism totally prevail, or is there any yearning for traditional spirituality amongst the young people of Europe?
I think the Church has failed to make faith a living issue for a lot of people. I am not here talking necessarily about the Orthodox Church, although I have lived in Greece, and I have seen how the Church there has fallen short of bringing the Christian life to people living in that country.
Here in Holland the churches are almost a dead issue, they are almost irrelevant to the life of the country. When youngsters come in contact with the Church—and now I am talking about the Orthodox Church—they tend to be quite taken aback by not only the spiritual strength which they encounter, but also the depth of experience which the Orthodox Church has. (I am talking about very small numbers of people.) That is because our favorite missionary method is simply to open a church door, and that is pretty much the extent of it. So if people choose to come inside, then we have a lot to share with them. But that is the limit of our activity in that direction.
Nevertheless, I also have a tremendous optimism. First of all, God is in charge, and no matter how badly we are doing, God is still God, and He is very good at being God. He has been doing it for a long time. In the end, God’s will will prevail, no matter how many obstacles we put in His path—or other people do.
This may be very wrong of me, but I see both in Europe and in the United States a quest on the part of young people towards what I suppose I could characterize as a quest for “goodness” as opposed to “rightness.” In the 1930’s and 40’s, certainly during the Second World War, Europe like most of the world was torn apart over questions of “rightness.” Goodness was not the issue at all—there was no goodness. Everything was bad. But the fascists thought they were right, and the communists thought they were right, and they tore each others’ throats out to settle it. What I do see amongst young people is a desire to pursue goodness for its own sake. This isn’t any big movement or anything of that nature.
I was a high school teacher for many years, so I have had much contact with teenagers. But simply from talking with teenagers, I would say that if there has been a trend at all, this is what it is.
Do you have any young people in Amsterdam who have just “wandered in?”
There are some. We also encourage teachers to bring classes. That is beginning to happen.
As a cultural experience?
Yes, because the Church has something very different to offer. The Dutch are living in a post-Calvinist society, where the Church has a rather dour, cold, forbidding aura about it. To come into the middle of a celebrating Orthodox community is actually quite an important event for them, even if it has no spiritual dimension at all.
The search for “goodness?”
Is it difficult for the Russians and Eastern Europeans who immigrate here to adjust to Western European life? Do they go through a period of shock? What words of encouragement would you give to those who find themselves in Holland as their new home? How can they adapt themselves without losing what is best about their own culture and personalities?
I am never quiet clear as to why people come to Holland in the first place, unless they have a specific job offer in this country. Of all the countries in Europe, it is one of the most difficult for an Eastern European to apply to live in. Holland has its own language which is only shared with half of Belgium, and that’s that. So language tends to be something of an issue. Housing is expensive, and social services are no longer as generous as they have been in the past. Having said that, I can also say that many people, although not everybody, find Holland to be home quite quickly.
When I was little, I was intensely aware of the differences between Scotland and England. Most people, for instance, from North America, wouldn’t even be aware that there were such differences. Whenever you move from country to country, or indeed within a country, you are likely to come across some difficulties. Holland has a bureaucracy, which goes at it own pace. Holland has its own educational system, which is different from other people’s. Holland has its own medical services, which tend to have a different slant on things. You can go to a store in Amsterdam and buy marijuana, but you can’t go and buy penicillin. Things are just different.
Do you have any comment on the decision by the European Union to deny the Christian origin of European culture? And in contrast, on the recent attempt in the United States Congress to affirm and value this origin, and the essential role Christianity has played in the development of Western Civilization? What is the portent of this statement for the European Community?
I think that one of the most important factors in the modern world is that perhaps for the first time, the Church has become free to criticize any political leader. I think that the Gospel is, and always will be, at odds with most of the social systems we have developed, at least so far. And it is the Church’s task to call government to account whenever political governments are behaving in ways that are at odds with the Gospel. So, I think that it is interesting that America, in which the notion of the separation of Church and State really originated, or partially originated, is now wanting to affirm some Christian roots; whereas, in Europe, where Christianity is so much part of the life blood that it hardly needs to be talked about, such a statement is deemed to be unnecessary.
The high points in the life of the Church, spiritually speaking, have usually been the times when the Church has been heavily persecuted, and the low points, spiritually speaking, have been times when the Church has been allied with political power. Not always, but sometimes. So, I think it is largely irrelevant as to whether political powers seek to have their roots in Christianity or in any other religion, if they use that religion to justify whatever it is they are doing. So, the freer the Church is to comment on political life in the light of the Gospel, the better the situation is, everything else notwithstanding.
The experience of the Byzantine Empire, which remains somewhere in the consciousness of Christian society, has as its symbol the double-headed eagle signifying the harmonious functions of two heads in one body—the Church as the conscience of the Government, and the Government as the protector of the Church. Does this have any meaning for Europeans today?
Of course, the Byzantine ideal depends upon Christian emperors. That is a great deal more than emperors who happen to be Christian. In the good examples which Byzantium gives us, we see people who are of great spiritual depth, and under those circumstances it is possible for such a thing to exist. I don’t see that the way modern democracy works is likely to bring people who are more than nominally Christian into positions of leadership.
People who are too demonstratively Christian are going to be wiped out in the primaries. That is the nature of the modern political machine. People with strong views about anything are likely to be wiped out. The people you are left with are those who are good at balancing, pleasing all sides. The Church is not like that. The Church should not be like that. The Church has a mission which hasn’t changed from the day that Jesus was physically amongst us on Earth.
It is the call to repentance, the call to bring people back to God. Very few states can be seen to have been successful in doing that same thing.
You are speaking of states in the Western world, or states in general?
In general. I know that Byzantium is a beautiful idea for many, many people. Holy Russia is a beautiful idea for many other people. Yet both the Russian political system and the Byzantine political system fell short of the Gospel in many ways, at least during certain periods of history, and sometimes markedly so. Neither one was of the mold of modern democracy. Unless things change dramatically in the future, I don’t see that the sort of government that existed in Russia, and in Byzantium, is going to be a possibility at all. So I would see the future being where the Church and the State might be amicable, but the Church always needs to reserve the right to criticize. And many governments don’t particularly care for that particular part of the Church’s mission.
Do you think that this might be the underlying cause for this statement by the European Union?
To be honest, the people who seem to be making the rules in Europe at the moment baffle me entirely. I have no idea why they say anything. Or even who they are.
But you do not see this as setting the stage for more strictures on Church activities?
No, absolutely not.
They have fallen away from the Church, so they assume that all of Europe has fallen away from the Church?
Pretty much. In some ways, that is good for the Church. Wherever, for example, Catholicism has been hand in hand with a particular government in a particular country, you haven’t always seen Catholicism at its finest.
Being hand in hand with the government did not bring out its finest?
Precisely. On the contrary.
It brings out its worst?
Well, the Spanish Inquisition leaps to one’s mind, but there are other examples.
So, do you think that this decision could also have sprung from the Western European historical consciousness of abuses springing from a unity between Church and State?
The Christian background of Western Europe is so vast, and so omnipresent, that nobody could actually eradicate it. It is an historical fact, there to stay. That is the basis of what’s going on. Given the arrival of Islam into Spain and parts of Eastern Europe, it has always been one variety of Christianity or another which has dominated this area for 1200 years, in some places even longer.
And the new wave of Moslem immigration—are you feeling any pressure from this in Amsterdam?
I am almost certain that there is a solution waiting to be found to what appears to be a problem. Most Moslem people here in Holland are very happy to lead there own lives, doing what they usually do peacefully with what are usually post-Christian neighbors. There will always be layers of fanaticism in every society, but on the whole, the Moslem presence in Holland is something that most people can live with.
However, when people turn to religion to provide themselves with what one might want to call “ego identity,” simply because that identity is not present anywhere else, it transforms the religion into something which is rather distasteful, and also makes their own psychological make-up somewhat suspect. This isn’t the best way of finding an identity. That is the problem. If people only find some sort of living identity in their religious affiliation, then we’ve got a lot of work to do. Because in the end, religions aren’t made to coexist. Religions, by definition, tend to be at odds, and this has always been historically true for Christianity as well as Islam, there has always been a tendency for one to want to wipe out the other. They don’t live side by side naturally. Quite how we can get them to live side by side with some sort of friendliness, I am not quite sure, but that is the work that needs to be done.
Finally, do you have any words for the readers of Pravoslavie.ru.? Some wishes for the people of Russia, and her relationship to Europe?
I suppose my view is that the communists who took over Russian society at the time of the revolution were (and I think this is true), genuinely trying to improve society. But I also believe that the way they went about it, particularly becoming adversarial towards Orthodoxy, meant that their labors were, as it were, in vain. Russia is Orthodox to the marrow. I see it in the people who come to Church, who have no real academic or book knowledge of what Orthodoxy is all about, but who have a deep, deep reverence for Orthodoxy, and the life of Christ that Orthodoxy exhibits. Russia without Orthodoxy is, and has been, impoverished. It might be splendid in some ways, but there is something desperately lacking. And I am fairly certain that in God’s time the roots will be connected with the leaves. Then, what is in the depths of Russian history—what you might want to call the depths of the Russian soul (but perhaps that’s a little more dangerous)—will begin to manifest itself once again in positive ways, through growth, outreach, and commitment to the words of Jesus. That future is very bright indeed.
Nun Cornelia (Rees)