The British Orthodox Church

within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

THE BRITISH ORTHODOX CHURCH MISSION & MINISTRY

HISTORY

Origins of Christianity in the British Isles

We do not know exactly how Christianity came to the British Isles although there are many interesting and improbable traditions of great antiquity. The earliest documentary evidence is from Tertullian, writing around 200, declaring that the Christian faith had even reached “the haunts of the Britons, inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.” Origen, in 239, speaking of polytheism, asks, “When, before the coming of Christ, did the land of Britain hold the belief in the one God?” And again, “The power of the Saviour is felt even among those who are divided from our world, in Britain.” During the age of persecution the British Church had its saints and martyrs who upheld the faith and when it emerged from persecution the insular Church had the same hierarchy and ministry as the rest of the universal Church. Its bishops took their place in the Councils of the Church and helped to uphold the apostolic faith in the face of early heresies.

Britain and the Universal Church

Although separated politically from the Roman Empire in the late 4th century, the British Church not only sustained its spiritual ties with the European Christian Churches, but maintained links with the Christian East. Archaeological and textual evidence exists suggesting that Egyptian monks settled in Ireland in the 5th or 6th century whilst many similarities with Coptic monasticism indicate that it was from here that it derived its rich monastic spirituality, which flourished and renewed the church. Glastonbury Abbey, in the west of England, is regarded as one of the earliest Christian foundations, surviving as a spiritual centre until the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.  

glastonbury abbey

The Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

Despite the Saxon conquest of much of Britain, these pagan tribes were eventually converted to Christianity enabling them in turn to actively evangelise large areas of pagan Europe. British missionaries made a notable impact on Western Europe. St. Columbanus (543-615) from Ireland established a network of great monasteries across northern Europe and into Italy and converted the Lombards from Arianism; St. Willibrord (658-739), from Northumbria in the north of England, became the Apostle to the Frisians (today the Netherlands and Belgium); whilst St. Boniface (died 754) from Devon, in the west of England, became the Apostle to the Germans.    

Looking towards the East

At the beginning of the 18th century the ‘Nonjuring’ Anglican bishops who had been removed from office because they refused to break their oaths of allegiance to the deposed Catholic King, James II (1685-1688), entered into correspondence with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs and the Russian Orthodox Church. They were conscious of their isolation from the wider Christian community and were impressed by the apostolicity of the Orthodox Church. The correspondence lasted from 1716-1724, but nothing came of it because the British government eventually intervened. However, for a time they called themselves ‘The Orthodox British Church’ and adopted a westernised version of the Liturgy of Saint James of Jerusalem. This is seen as an early attempt to re-establish Britain’s links with its Orthodox roots.       

Jules Ferrette and the Syrian Orthodox Mission

marignatitus

Mar Ignatius Boutros IV

 In 1866 the Syrian Orthodox Ecumenical Metropolitan, Mar Boutros ibn Salmo Mesko (1799-1894), whilst serving as Bishop of Emesa (Homs), consecrated to the episcopate a former Roman Catholic Dominican priest, Jules Ferrette (1828-1904), who was well known to him because of the support he had given to Syriac Christians in the Lebanon. Ferrette was a distinguished Syriac scholar and had printed liturgical texts for the local Christians. Although a Frenchman by birth, he had a passionate desire for church unity based on bringing the Orthodox faith to western countries. It was as ‘Bishop of Iona’ – an ancient British monastic settlement – that Metropolitan Boutros raised him to the episcopate, not for the Syrian Church, but for a Western mission. Metropolitan Boutros was subsequently elected Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch (1872-1894).

When Bishop Julius arrived in London he was met with mixed feelings. The Anglo-Catholic clergy warmly welcomed him and invited him to speak about his mission, but the Anglican hierarchy saw him as an interloper and attempted to discredit him, even claiming that his documents were a forgery. Later research has revealed that the Archbishop of York encouraged the British Foreign Secretary to require the British Consul, who had witnessed the Deed of Consecration, to repudiate his action, but he merely reiterated his testimony. Nevertheless the Archbishop of York suppressed this information and continued to encourage belief that his documents were not authentic. Bishop Julius faced such fierce persecution that he sailed to America in 1867 and retreated into academic studies for a number of years.

Bishop Julius’s successors

British Orthodox Bishop at Armenian Church in London 1930

British Orthodox Bishop at Armenian Church in London 1930

After his removal to America, Bishop Julius maintained close contacts with his friends and supporters in England and returned to the United Kingdom on at least one occasion, but this time working discreetly to avoid rekindling the hostility he had previously met. It was during one of these visits that he consecrated as a bishop an Anglican priest to perpetuate the mission to Britain.  Bishop Julius eventually retired to Geneva, where he died in 1904. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Patriarch Boutros IV established two further missions: to former Catholics in Ceylon and India (1889) and to Old Catholics in North America (1892) and these also sent clergy to England. Understandably, the bishops deriving their succession from the Syrian Orthodox Church, worked closely together. The British Orthodox Church was the continuation of this mission dating back to 1866. 

Union with the Coptic Patriarchate

Abba Seraphim's Ordination 1994

Abba Seraphim’s Ordination 1994

Towards the end of 1993 a number of Coptic Orthodox friends living in the United Kingdom, spoke of the work of the British Orthodox Church to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria; and Mar Seraphim, as he then was known, was invited to Cairo. Pope Shenouda wanted to support our ministry and to bring us back into fellowship with the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches. During the first half of 1994 several more journeys were made to Cairo and a Synod of British Orthodox clergy met in London to formally request that we might be received into the Patriarchate of Alexandria. On 6 April 1994 a Protocol determining the relationship of the British Orthodox Church to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate was jointly signed in Cairo by Pope Shenouda and Abba Seraphim, who was received in his episcopal orders by chrismation and ordained a Metropolitan at the hands of Pope Shenouda, assisted by the members of the Holy Synod, in the Great Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo on 18 June 1994.

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