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Russia: Anglican Parsonage Returned

Posted on: January 17, 1997 1:12 PM
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People unfamiliar with the historical, architectural and religious landscape of Moscow are often puzzled by the sight of a distinctly Western-looking, neo-Gothic, dark-red brick church in a quiet street in the centre of the city, flanked by two typical Russian Orthodox churches.

Even some Muscovites mistake the church for a kostyol (Roman Catholic church) or kircha (Lutheran church). But the building is in fact the Anglican Church of St Andrew, where, every Sunday, British, American, Canadian, Australian, African and Russian Christians attend a Eucharist service which includes a unique ecumenical prayer. Led by their priest, the congregation of 150 to 200 people pray not only for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, to whose diocese this church belongs, but also for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei, Pope John Paul II and the heads of Protestant Churches.

The dean of St Andrew's, Canon Chad Coussmaker, told ENI that Anglican services in Moscow dated back to the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, when trade between Britain and Russia was controlled by an official "Russia Company" which included chaplaincies.

By 1825 the British community in Moscow was big enough to be able to buy a gentleman's residence on Voznesenski Pereulok, a lane in the city, and convert the house into an Anglican chapel, dedicated to St Andrew. In 1882 the house was pulled down and a church was designed by a noted British architect, R.K. Freeman, and completed in 1884.

In 1920, after the Bolshevik revolution, the church was closed down and the Anglican priest ministering to Moscow's Anglicans was expelled. After housing Estonian and Finnish legations to Moscow and then serving as a boarding school for girls, the building was given to the Melodia Recording Company in 1960 and converted into a sound studio.

However, as it had official status as a designated landmark, the exterior of the church remained virtually unchanged.

In 1991, when the massive changes to Russia's political system brought an end to communism and to official repression of religion, Tyler Strand, an Anglican priest who had for several years regularly traveled to Moscow from Helsinki to minister to the British Embassy staff, was given permission to hold occasional services in St Andrew's Church.

Two years later Canon Coussmaker, the first Anglican priest permanently based in Russia since 1920, started a regular weekly service, thus signaling the start of a full parish life which now includes three Bible study groups, a nursery class and ministry to Sudanese refugees.

When Queen Elizabeth II made her first official visit to Russia in October 1994, a brief service at St Andrew's was part of her schedule. During her visit the Russian Prime Minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, signed a decree ordering the transfer of the building to Moscow's Anglican community by the end of 1994. The transfer has not yet come into effect, because, as in the case of many former church buildings, long-standing occupants are having difficulty finding new accommodation. Melodia and St Andrew's are now official "joint users" of the property. Melodia was recently offered new accommodation elsewhere in Moscow, and is seeking funds to restore its new premises.

In November 1996 the community marked another milestone in the rebuilding of its parish life - the three-storey parsonage, adjacent to the church building, was returned to the church and given an official blessing. A British construction company is to start restoration work there soon.

"I would claim to be chaplain of everything British in Moscow", Canon Coussmaker told ENI in his characteristic light-hearted manner. As well as holding the rank of first secretary at the British Embassy, he ministers to an international and interdenominational English-speaking congregation, and also serves as a link between the Church of England and the Russian Orthodox Church.

One of his many titles is Apocrisarios (envoy) of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. Relations between the two churches have historically been particularly close and cordial since the 18th century when the High Church movement in the Church of England first saw the Eastern Orthodox Churches as an avenue for unification. They have much in common: they are all liturgy-based national Churches which belong to the apostolic tradition but are not subject to the Pope, and they have never perceived any threat from each other. The Russian Orthodox Church, apart from its close relations with other Orthodox Churches, for many years looked upon Anglican Churches as their closest spiritual neighbours in the Western Churches.

However, that close relationship has changed in recent decades as Anglican Churches around the world began ordaining women priests. Inter-communion between the Russian Orthodox Church and Anglican Churches now appears unlikely.

"We certainly suffered a regrettable cooling of relations when the vote of November 1992 [to ordain women as priests in the Church of England] took place," Canon Coussmaker told ENI. He said that in 1991 Patriarch Alexei traveled to Britain "virtually begging the Church of England not to take this decision".

For Canon Coussmaker, who voted against it as a member of the Church of England's General Synod because of his relations with Roman Catholics and Orthodox, that initiative by the Church was a "totally untraditional decision taken by one branch of Christianity without consultation with the others". Canon Coussmaker said that over the past four years relations had improved, and this was evident in the way he was treated in Moscow.

St Andrew's parish, unlike some of its Roman Catholic and Protestant counterparts, feels that it is very welcome in Moscow, a predominantly Orthodox city. According to observers, the main reason for the benevolent attitudes of many Russian Orthodox Christians towards the small Anglican community is that their presence is not seen as linked to proselytism.

"We have no plans to introduce a Russian service," said James Connell, an American Embassy official who is secretary of the Church Council at St Andrew's. The several Russian members of the congregation are "people who love English language, Anglophiles and Russians of Scottish descent". "When Russians talk to me about baptism," said Canon Coussmaker, "my response, which comes from my heart, is that the Russian Orthodox Church is the Church of the Russian people, and they should examine its doctrine very deeply before choosing against it."