A few weeks ago I happened to be watching Simon Sebag Montefiore’s series of documentaries about Istanbul. What fascinated me, besides the undeniable beauty of that city, was how power – and religion – seemed to form the very fabric of that city. This got me thinking about London: it’s evident that power still constitutes the weave of the city’s fabric, but what about religion? Is it still its warp, or has it lost importance, replaced by money, consumerism or greed? A walk in the Square Mile along Oxford Street seemed to suggest so. So, I thought, does it mean that religion is dead in London?
I decided to start a journey, aiming at visiting as many different temples, congregations and places of worship I could find. I wanted to visit these places, talk to the clergy as well as the worshippers, and – hopefully – see whether faith still has a place in the epicenter of Europe’s wealth.
The Russian Orthodox Cathedral isn’t actually called like that, for its full name is “Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs” which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is quite a mouthful. It’s located in a quiet road just off the main thoroughfare in Chiswick, its white walls and blue dome refining this otherwise nondescript corner of West London.
As I was to discover the Church, like other places of worship in town, is not only a gracious building but it’s also a beehive of activities. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon while smartly dressed people, families and children, were leaving in cars ranging from modest hatchbacks to shiny Range Rovers (it’s a Russian church, after all…). Meanwhile, from the community house attached to the Church, music, laughter and a smell of food indicated that those remaining were nonetheless having a good time.
Nicolas, Reader at the Cathedral as well as my host and guide, took me on a crash course in Orthodox theology, an interesting insight on a topic that I’ve always read about with the rather biased reading glasses provided by the Catholic church. The main principle, Nicolas stressed, is that, for the Orthodox Christian, being in church is tantamount to being in heaven; and that the church is where the good Orthodox should be, a remarkable difference from what, for instance, John Calvin thought. This is why, then, Orthodox churches are so magnificent, rich in mosaics, paintings and golden finishes; and this is why, again, the Orthodox Mass is such a refined and convoluted ritual. If this is paradise on Earth, well, we better make it right.
London’s Cathedral is on the road to become one of such beautifully adorned places. Built in the late 1990s, it’s still work in progress, at least on the inside, where a large section of scaffolding dominates the nave. This movable structure is indeed being used by a specially trained artist from Moscow to paint the frescoes that, between now and the next three years, will cover every inch of the Church’s walls.
Orthodox churches separate the altar from where the congregation assembles with an iconostasis, a floor-to-ceiling panel richly decorated by icons depicting Jesus, Mary, several saints as well as snapshots of the lives of both Christ and the Virgin. The London Cathedral is no different and boasts a very fine example of iconostasis, a triumph of gold tones that it’s very hard to take one’s eyes away from.
It’s hard not to marvel at the level of detail of this intricate panel, of this piece of art. According to Nicolas this is just the tip of the iceberg of a strictly and minutely detailed expression of faith in God: everything, in this take on Christianity, is carefully balanced, from the elaborate choreography that goes on scene at every Eucharist to the laws that regulate how icons are to be drawn, from how and when the three doors leading to the altar can be used, and by whom. Orthodox Christians have had more than 20 centuries to work on this and it shows.
Icons, as you’d expect, are everywhere, not only on the iconostasis. Elaborate holders are omnipresent, sustaining images of saints and of the Holy Family. Then, right in front of the main door leading to the altar, is the one portraying the next upcoming liturgy (a little bit like a poster advertising the next gig at the Brixton Academy, if you allow me the analogy). Being the next one Sunday mass, the icon on the main spot shows a scene that I don’t recall from catechism, something that I remember reading only in Dante’s Divina Commedia: the arrival of Jesus Christ in hell, during the three days of his death, where he broke the gates of hell and brought salvation to those, righteous, who had been relegated there because they died before his redeeming message.
It was at this moment, whilst discerning upon this powerful image, that I noticed a continuous trickle of people, a constant stream of faithful – young and old, alone or in groups, families or singles – coming in the church to light candles, kiss the icons and, in general, to pay their respects to the presence that, undoubtedly, they felt in that place.
Perhaps encouraged by this honest display of affection, Nicolas and I began discussing the Russian Orthodox community in London. The congregation is quite fluid in terms of numbers, but on average about 150 to 200 people attend the Sunday mass, a good percentage of them children. Surprisingly, despite being an Orthodox church organised according to the Moscow Patriarchate’s precepts, its Synod is not based in Russia but, instead, in New York. Indeed, the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad which, up until 26 years ago, might’ve been called Russian Church in exile.
This congregation owes much of its existence, it can be argued, to the Bolshevik revolution which toppled the Tsarist regime and replaced it with one, based on Communism, that rejected all religions. True, an Orthodox chapel was already functioning in London before the October revolution but it’s undeniable that it was Lenin’s ascent to power that brought a considerable stream of refugees to London, refugees who also took with them their faith.
If this wasn’t enough a hint, there’s another, visible in the name itself of the church: “Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs“. The martyrs are the Romanovs, Tsar Nicholas II and his immediate family, shot dead in Yekaterinburg in 1918; to them is dedicated the second church at the disposal of the London congregation, located below the main one. It’s a miniature copy of the first one, with an iconostasis and also an immersion baptismal font, and it’s already fully decorated with beautiful frescoes.
Religion is flourishing again in Russia, with more than 25000 churches being built, restored and reopened since the fall of the state’s atheism, and this new sentiment echoes clearly in the halls and under the domes of London’s Cathedral. The deep links between Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic nationalism might be worrying (I couldn’t help but think at images from the Balkans from the 1990s), but if there’s one thing I took away from my brief visit to the Cathedral was an image of a lively community, proud of its heritage and desirous to share it with anyone interested enough to learn a little bit about it.
Many thanks to Nicolas Mabin and everyone at the London Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. For information visit http://www.russianchurchlondon.org