The Restoration of Western Orthodoxy
For more than ten centuries, the British Isles and all of Western Europe were in a fundamental communion of faith with the Christian East in spite of the occasional incidents and quarrels which can be found in all families. However, after the 11th-century schism of the West, much of the western liturgical and spiritual tradition was lost from the Orthodox Church. Yet, small pockets of Western Orthodoxy continued for some centuries in parts of Italy and even on Mount Athos. Then followed a long separation (approximately eight centuries), when each side gradually lost much knowledge of the other.
The Russian emigration of the start of the twentieth century was a reminder for the West of the existence of Orthodoxy, that is to say, of Christianity in its original form. Many in the West experienced the desire to rediscover this Church of the first millennium, this ancient, Apostolic Church, in its living and applied faith, in the splendours of its western liturgy and in its capacity for freedom in God, cleared of the excesses and distortions that developed after the West went into schism, and which were heightened at the Reformation. This encounter brought about the resurgence of Western Orthodoxy, and is where the story of our particular church begins.
We are not the first Orthodox Christians to live out our faith in a western way in the modern age. Yet, our particular place in this unfolding history begins in the 1930s, when the torch was taken up, with the help of Father Lev (Gillet), by Father Irenaeus (Winnaert, later St Irenaeus of Paris), a former Old Catholic bishop who brought his flock under the protection of the Russian Orthodox Church, where, by a formal decree of the Holy Synod of Russia they were received into the Orthodox Church, renamed the Western Orthodox Church, and given permission to retain their Western liturgical forms of worship, prayer, and spirituality.
Initially, Fr Irenaeus's group continued their use of the Roman rite as they had in their Old Catholic days, with very minor amendments to bring it in line with Orthodox doctrine. However, soon afterwards, work commenced to restore, insofar as was possible, a rite of Gallican tradition.
This was the labour of love of Fr Eugraph Kovalevsky (later Saint John of Saint-Denis), who was of Russian birth but had, as a teenager, fled Soviet Russia with his family for the safety of Western Europe. He developed a love for his new home and, while on a pilgrimage to her shrine church in Poitiers, was inspired by the Holy Princess Radegund to restore to the people of France his native Orthodox Faith, which was also theirs by right. He came to love the Western rite, memorised the Roman Mass, and said his daily prayers from the Breviary. Therefore, when he met Fr Irenaeus, with his vision for a church grounded in Orthodoxy and steeped in the western liturgical, spiritual, and cultural tradition, it was only natural that he would embrace this church as his home.
Eugraph was ordained a priest in 1937, to find that his first liturgical celebration would be the funeral of Fr Irenaeus, who fell asleep in the Lord having lived to see his flock received into Orthodoxy only weeks earlier. Fr Eugraph was now charged with leading the fledgling Western Orthodox Church, and it was during this time that he started work on researching the ancient Gallican rite of the Mass in the hope of restoring it for modern-day use, as an authentic local expression of the Orthodox Faith. For this, he relied on the detailed descriptions of the worship of 6th-century Paris in the letters attributed to St Germanus, as well as the liturgical books of rites closely related to the Gallican Rite.
By 1946, Father Eugraph had introduced to his church not only a restored Gallican Mass (the Divine Liturgy according to Saint Germanus), but also a full cycle of the Divine Office based closely on the Benedictine Office, as well as orders for the Sacraments and other rites. These rites were supplemented in small ways with elements of the worship of the Orthodox East, reflecting the unity of the Church and also in keeping with the influence that the east had had on western - and specifically Gallican - worship, even in ancient times. Music for these services was composed by Father Eugraph's brother, Maxim Kovalevsky, who was a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church and renowned composer of liturgical music. The church became established in its life of prayer, worship of God, and mission to western people.
Sadly, after nearly two decades, differences among the clergy about the forms of worship to be used, along with jealousy at the news that the Patriarch of Moscow intended to have Father Eugraph consecrated as bishop for the Western Orthodox Church, provided the fertile soil needed for those opposed to the Western Rite to plant seeds of discord. Accusations of impropriety were brought against Father Eugraph, who, without investigation, was removed from his position of dean for the Western Rite churches early in 1953. When an investigation later that same year revealed the accusations to be unfounded, it was too late. Upset by the treatment he had received, Father Eugraph had resigned from the Moscow Patriarchate, and all of the parishes and the majority of the clergy of the Western Orthodox Church had left with him.
After a brief period of isolation, in 1959, the group (by this time known as the Orthodox Church of France) came under the protection of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and was cared for by Archbishop John (Maximovitch, later Saint John the Wonderworker), who at the time was the ruling bishop of the ROCOR Western European diocese, with his see at Brussels. At his request, the church was again renamed, this time as the Orthodox-Catholic Church of France.
This began a time of great blessing for the church. Under St John's care, the church's spiritual and liturgical life flourished. St John was a dedicated pastor to his clergy and people, and himself celebrated the restored Gallican Mass on a number of occasions. Seeking to give the Western Orthodox Christians a sense of permanence to further their mission, along with Archbishop Theophilus (Ionescu) of Sèvres, and with the blessing of the ROCOR Council of Bishops, in 1964 he consecrated Father Eugraph Kovalevsky as the bishop of Saint-Denis, under the name John-Nectarius - the first Western Orthodox bishop for nearly a millennium.
On that occasion, addressing the newly-consecrated bishop, St John Maximovitch imparted the following words of wisdom:
'Unfortunately, many of our compatriots, despite being good children of the Orthodox Church, cannot always distinguish the essence of Orthodox doctrine from its manifestations in one form or another, depending on local conditions and the character of the people concerned.
'You will have to face misunderstanding and adversity in pious men acting not by bad designs, but by lack of understanding.
'Be brave. Hold all the afflictions and do not be afraid of them. Be benevolent to those who obstruct you; strive, where possible, not to be scandalous and not to induce temptation, so that those who oppose you will come to the knowledge of the truth, because the Lord desires the salvation of all.'
The repose of Archbishop John in 1966 came as a severe blow to this young western church, for no other advocate for them could be found on the ROCOR Synod of Bishops, who sought to undo the work of St John and, like the Moscow Patriarchate before them, put pressure on the church to abandon their Western Orthodox identity and adopt Byzantine forms of worship.
The Western Orthodox Christians again found themselves alone. This time, however, the church was not left without episcopal care, for the new Bishop John of Saint-Denis led them faithfully until his repose in 1970.
After Bishop John fell asleep in the Lord, the Orthodox-Catholic Church of France found a home within the Romanian Orthodox Church with permission to retain their Western Orthodox identity under the leadership of Bishop Germain of Saint-Denis, who was consecrated in 1972 with the blessing of the Holy Synod of Bucharest. The church experienced considerable numerical growth during this time as the Western Orthodox mission reached more and more native western people, bringing them to life in the Saviour.
However, over time, the Byzantine and Slav diaspora had difficulties understanding and accepting the Western Orthodox experience, and put pressure on the Romanian Church, leading it to curtail the missionary efforts of the Western Orthodox Christians, and forcing them to relinquish the missions and monastic communities they had formed in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere outside of France. Ultimately, this was not enough and the Patriarchate of Bucharest eventually severed ties with Bishop Germain and the Orthodox-Catholic Church of France in 1993.
This led to a sad period in the history of our church and some irregularities crept in. Some communities remained part of the Orthodox Catholic Church of France, which became an independent church and remains so to this day, a quarter of a century later. Others, not wanting to exist in isolation from the wider Church and wishing to preserve their Orthodox life, joined various local churches - Serbian, Romanian, Coptic - only to find as the years went by that their Western Orthodox identity was to be suppressed to varying degrees, or even abolished altogether.
Over the history of the various Western Rite Orthodox communities, what has been revealed is that the churches based in traditionally Orthodox lands often have great difficulty in understanding that one can profess the Orthodox Faith and still be western. They often confuse faith with culture and want to impose the latter by means of the former. Individual bishops are sometimes sympathetic to the western missionary cause but ultimately, after some years, at each attempt, driven by phyletism and the conviction that Orthodoxy must only be eastern, the eastern churches try to abolish the restoration of Western Orthodoxy. Our church has been no exception to receiving such treatment, and we know that other Western Rite Orthodox Christians will be very familiar with this experience.
Thus, hurt and defeated, our Western Orthodox clergy and communities prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they tried to discern the will of God for their future. Their ordeals had taught them that they could not expect help from anybody apart from God and from themselves. Yet, despite their experiences, still they had before their eyes the original vision of their founders, Father Irenaeus and Bishop John of Saint-Denis, of St Radegund of Poitiers, and of St John the Wonderworker: of an Orthodox church calling western people to the saving Faith, expressed using the forms of worship - the Mass, the Divine Office, the hymns, the prayers - that are accessible to western people, and which were prayed and sung by the very saints who walked these western lands in ancient times, who entered into communion with God here, and whose blood and tears hallowed this soil.
Therefore, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them that they should remain together and gather others of like mind to form the Orthodox Church of the Gauls, no longer relying on the hierarchies of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, while still recognising them as sister-churches and keeping their hand of friendship extended towards them.
Therefore, at Gorze in the Moselle region, in the east of France, on the 17th of December 2006, Father Michael (Mendez), the Abbot of the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Michael & Saint Martin of Bois-Aubry in the Touraine region of France, was consecrated as bishop of the Orthodox Church of the Gauls, under the name of Gregory, with his episcopal see at Arles.
His chief consecrator was Archbishop Vigile (Morales) of Paris, founder and archbishop of the French Orthodox Church, which had originally been the French presence of the Old Calendar Church of Greece.
In the years since then, freed from external interference by those opposed to our mission, our church life has been marked by harmony, stability, and growth. The original Western Orthodox vision of the 1930s has begun to be realised, with new parishes and missions having been founded, drawing new Orthodox Christians in France, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Brazil, Argentina, the Caribbean, the United States of America, and now the United Kingdom.
At the prayers of St Radegund of Poitiers, St John the Wonderworker, St John of Saint-Denis, and St Irenaeus of Paris, may God continue to bless this mission to bring all people to salvation in Christ.
A little over a year after Bishop Gregory's consecration, on Christmas Day 2007, the French Orthodox Church, our own Orthodox Church of the Gauls and others came together to form the Western Orthodox Communion, with each member church retaining its distinctive identity, but in a communion of faith and love with the others.
In October 2008, the bishops, as well as a number of the clergy and faithful of the Communion gathered together for the canonisation of Bishop John-Nectarius (Fr Eugraph Kovalevsky), thereafter known and venerated as Saint John of Saint-Denis.
In 2009, our Orthodox Church of the Gauls entered into communion with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America.
This Orthodox Church of the Gauls, which by its history is so ancient, and yet so young in its recent resurgence is, for the moment, made up of small parish communities mainly in the French-speaking world but open to those from elsewhere, and offers to those westerners who so desire the chance to live out in this world Christ’s message, which is still relevant, in the quest for love and depth, unity and diversity, while sharing Christianity’s original vision for the world and for humankind, in order to respond to the great challenges of our post-modern civilisation.
While sharing the same Faith, but rejecting what is often the authoritarian and conservative culture of many of the Orthodox churches as we know them, we wish to establish relations of love and respect, of collaboration and solidarity among ourselves and with others, grounded in the Apostolic witness.
Admittedly, we are at present just a small minority. Nevertheless this minority should be a real spiritual force, and that depends on each one of us. "The grain of mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds” says the Gospel (Matthew 13: 32). But the Gospel adds that the grain of mustard seed can become a tree where the birds of the air come and make their nests in its branches. Does God wish to make our grain of mustard seed grow? We do not know. What we do know is that we must strive to make ourselves more worthy of such growth, seeking the Kingdom of God in humility and charity.
This is our story, and we invite you to join us and make it your own.