Interview with Fr. Andrew Phillips on his book Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church
- Father Andrew, to begin our interview, let us note that you are one of the serious researchers of Orthodox Christianity in England. Your many works pay attention to the spreading of Christianity before the schism of 1054. Tell us first how did it happen that you decided to dedicate yourself to this mission – to find and spread information and facts about the spreading of Christianity in England.
I was born and brought up not in London, which is not England, but the Norman capital of Britain, but in the English countryside. Here there still survived English traditions. There I lived near or heard of saints and places connected with saints, of whom I knew nothing. Adults seemed to know very little either. They would say, for example: ‘That was all a long time ago’ or ‘Things were different then’, or simply ‘He was a saint’. But nobody could tell me what a saint was. All I knew was that there was a special atmosphere around those saints and places, something warm and pleasant, something that made me feel at home.
So when I was eight years old I began trying to find out about them, asking people and looking for books about these saints. Who were these mysterious people with unfamiliar names? Even then I felt that they had a special aura about them, which was quite different from the atmosphere surrounding other more recent figures and places. I began realising that their values were quite different, but they were values with which I identified. By the time I was twelve, I knew that I belonged to them. Imagine a Bulgarian child hearing of St John of Rila and trying to find out about him. Who was he? When did he live? What did he express, write and believe? Why does he have this special atmosphere? What was this Church that he belonged to?
When I was twelve, I opened a mysterious book called ‘The New Testament’. I realised that the atmosphere and values expressed there were also mine and that they were identical to the atmosphere and values of these old saints. The New Testament, the words of Christ, explained them. When I was fifteen, I understood that somewhere there must be a church with these values. I could not find one. They all seemed empty inside. However, when I was sixteen, I managed to visit a Russian Orthodox church. Immediately, I felt at home and knew that this was my place, both the Church of the Gospels which Christ had spoken of and the Church of the old saints I hd heard of in childhood. Their spirit was identical. I had found my identity, the world that I belonged to, Orthodox Christian Civilisation, of which the old saints in England had been tiny fragments a long time ago.
- When you were researching this subject did you come across something that made a particular impression to you and remained etched in your memory? Something which you kept with yourself and remember well.
I think what impressed me as I did more research in my late teens and twenties was the parallels between the lives of these saints and those of Orthodox Eastern Europe, Russia, Greece and the Middle East. For example, I understood that Orthodoxy had come to Ireland from Egypt via Gaul. Later, indeed, I discovered that there are some fifty ancient Irish manuscripts at St Catherine’s monastery on Sinai! Or that the lives St Seraphim of Sarov in nineteenth-century Russia and St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne in seventh-century England are astonishingly similar. I realised that time and space, history and geography, are nothing before the Eternal God.
- At the end of 2020 your book Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church was published in Bulgaria. In it you deal chiefly on the evangelization and the mission organized by St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury. Christian evangelization however reaches further into Ireland and Scotland. Tell us more about the spreading of Christianity in these lands?
I wrote that book in 1988, so it has come to Bulgaria after 32 years!
The evangelisation of the Isles is very varied and there are many threads. For example the Celts in what is called Wales very much kept the Roman Christian inheritance which had come in the first four centuries after Christ. This is what lies behind the myths of King Arthur, fighting against the pagan English in order to defend the spirit of Roman Christianity. By the way, Arthur itself is a Roman name, meaning ‘Little Bear’. Many of the Welsh saints had Roman names like Ambrose or Justin, though the greatest is called David. Legend has it that in the sixth century he was consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The light from the East, and Christianity began in the East, in Asia, in Jerusalem, not at all in Europe, had to enlighten the West. From sunrise to sunset, east to west.
On the other hand, the Irish, who had never been Romanised received their Christianity from Egypt via Gaul. Here St Martin of Tours and his followers played an important role in transmitting the monasticism of the Egyptian Desert to Ireland. From Ireland this was taken by St Columba to Iona in what we now call Scotland. From Iona the Irish monastic influence spread southwards to Lindisfarne in Northern England and further south still to the Midlands and southwards.
Finally, there was the mission of St Augustine, sent by St Gregory the Dialogist from Rome to convert the English. (He had no knowledge of the situation in Wales, Scotland and Ireland). This mission was successful in the South of England, but the rest of the country was converted by the Irish influence. However, the future National Church was organised by this southern mission.
So the conversion of England was an Anglo-Celtic evangelisation. Influences came from Egypt, Gaul, Rome and then were assimilated by the local peoples, principally by the Irish and the English.
- If one enters deeply into the subject of Christianity in Britain, he will see that there is a certain difference between English Christianity and Celtic Christianity. What is the difference between the two and to what can we attribute it?
As we have said, the British Isles and Ireland were evangelised from two places: Continental Europe and Egypt. I am not keen on the word Celtic in this historical context, it has pagan/New Age connotations. It can often be replaced by the word ‘Irish’, but we can keep the word Celtic if we give it a Christian sense.
If we simplify the situation, we can say in general that administration and organisation came from Rome and affected the English more, whereas asceticism came from Ireland and influenced the Celtic peoples more. Of course, as we have said, the two influences merged. We have to see that the Isles (the British Isles and Ireland) are an Anglo-Celtic domain. The English need the Celts, the Celts need the English. Both organisation and asceticism are essential. Here there is a mystery, which is contemporary and even has a political dimension. The two peoples need one another.
- Today the English Church is very different from what it was before. Do you consider that there is any opportunity at all in time for it to return to its deeper roots?
It depends what you mean by the English Church. There is really no such thing. In England 97% of people have no real and practising attachment to any Christian religious organisation. Perhaps 1% belong to Anglicanism (the State Church), 1% belong to various other Protestant groups and 1% to Roman Catholicism. All these organisations are dying out, very rapidly.
Once you have lapsed into heresy, that is the end of the road. For example, we receive English people into the Church who, like myself, were never Christians before. They have not been tainted by heterodoxy so they are receptive to the Church. As the Gospel says: ‘If a corn of what falls into the ground and does not die, it remains alone, but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit’ (Jn. 12, 24).
- Which English saint do you most often pray to and who are the most revered and worshipped saints of England among Orthodox Christians today?
I live in a town called Felixstowe, named after a saint called St Felix (+ 647), who nearly 1400 years ago came from Gaul and brought Christ to Eastern England, where I was born and live. The other saint is St Edmund, who was King of East Anglia, but was martyred by the pagan Vikings in 869. His memory is very much alive here and even his life is known to many in this region. We are just opening a new church dedicated to him. The saints live!
There are perhaps four other saints who are still revered. These are St Alban the Protomartyr (+ 305?) (and was recently added to the official Russian Orthodox calendar), St Cuthbert (+ 687) (especially in the North of England), St Audrey (+ 679) (especially in the East of England) and St Hilda (+ 680) (especially in the North).