—Your parishioners provide serious help in your ministry. Can you tell us about them? Who are they? Describe the congregations you pastor. To what extent does the community share with the priest responsibility for the church, the organization of liturgical and extra-liturgical life, and financial issues? Or does most of the burden lie with the priest?
—It depends. Of course, they help. Our deanery doesn’t yet have a church of its own. The parishioners in Edinburgh prepare everything before services. By the time I arrive everything is ready there. Each Liturgy needs to be arranged. We use church space that Protestants provide for us. Catholics don’t give us their churches to serve in. We pay for the use of electricity and heating, make donations, and agree on service times.
In Glasgow we serve in the church where, according to legend, the remains of King Arthur may be buried. Through the efforts of our parishioners, everything necessary for the Liturgy is assembled and then put into special cabinets and rooms till the next service. It’s the same in Belfast and Newry. In Douglas the church is shared by Protestants and Catholics.
We often use chaplaincies—churches belonging to universities. In Scotland they have been preserved unaltered since the Reformation. All Catholic churches that passed to Protestants were mercilessly reshaped, with their stained-glass windows and icons removed. But in accordance with the law university churches weren’t touched, and images have been preserved there. At the chaplaincy in Aberdeen where I served, my nominee was ordained. I go there occasionally as the dean.
—What projects do you implement in your parishes?
—We have Orthodox schools. For example, in Glasgow there is a very active school, founded with the blessing of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, with about 100 students under the auspices of our parish. It formed along with the parish. It has a full cycle of subjects: Russian language, literature, mathematics, and so on. Classes are on Saturdays, all day long.
—A kind of “national school.”
—Exactly, and that is how it should be. In Glasgow special attention is given to the Orthodox faith. We begin every school day with prayer. I and my catechist assistants worked with children. It gave me sincere joy. The children are all different, and we cannot say that they became Orthodox overnight after our classes. But seeing the interest and sparkle in children’s eyes is worth a lot. When you talk about beauty, peace, creation, God, faith... In the West, raising the topic of faith is considered not very appropriate. In an Orthodox school it is different. My lessons were a sermon for pupils who hadn’t yet become Orthodox. Some parents take their children to church, others don’t. But in some cases children brought their parents to services with them! After some talks I saw interest in the children’s eyes, and then they appeared in church. This is very inspiring.
There is a Russian school in Aberdeen—the principal was our churchwarden, who later became a priest.
I opened a school in Dublin when I came with my wife, and it became the first Orthodox school of this kind in Ireland. I was officially its principal, but my wife was in charge of all the school affairs. This was the case until 2009. Many Russian schools in Dublin have branched off from it because the diaspora is very large.
We provide social support to parishioners who seek help. But our options are extremely limited. The parish is our main social project—such is the reality of the life abroad. This is a kind of “Russian club.” People are looking for their native culture and contact with compatriots in a foreign land and find this in an Orthodox parish. It is like that everywhere abroad.
—Which denominations and Local Churches are represented in Northern Ireland and Scotland?
—There are the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic churches in Scotland, while there are only Anglicans and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and you know what kind of relationship they have. The issue is delicate and painful.
I tried to get in direct contact with the Catholic Archbishop, but he showed no interest in us. I was invited to the Synods of the Church of Scotland, where the issue of “same-sex marriage” and the ordination of homosexuals was discussed. The Church didn’t want to make this decision, but it couldn’t go against State laws. Now our relations are frozen.
—Are the IRA, Northern Ireland’s struggle for independence and the violent clashes already in the past?
—Our Liturgy is sometimes celebrated in the area where the Orangemen’s marches take place. As I see them, I pray that their procession will not end in bloodshed. This is an annual event, when they walk through the Catholic neighborhoods.
Belfast in some areas still resembles an army camp. After the 1990s the IRA officially laid down its arms. But not much time has passed for this story to be sorted out. The Catholics are Republicans and the Protestants are Royalists. The Protestants walk through the Catholic quarters as they have the right under the law, but they are deliberately provocative.
Brexit washes dirty laundry in public. When I was in Belfast, I was told that there were some troubles. I once saw the Queen visit Northern Ireland—I’ve never seen so many police armored vehicles in the streets in my life! But everything went calmly—Her Majesty is treated with reverence and respect everywhere.
—As dean, do you manage to interact with local self-governing bodies?
—We take part in joint interreligious projects and all consular events—for example, where the Russian cruiser “Varyag” sank in the Irish Sea. The event takes place with the participation of the Russian Embassy and our authorities. There are also events in Dundee at the monument to submariners from different countries, including our submarine, which was mistakenly sunk by the British Air Force.
—Fr. George, how did your writing begin? When did you decide to take up the pen?
—I took up the pen while writing my theological and philosophical works. I have a unique book called, Theology of Dialogue. A Trinitarian View. I presented my ideas there and put an end to my academic career.
—There is no point in doing theology in the area where I serve. I saw no interest in this in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I wrote the novel, The Atomic Pastor, partly related to my own biography. After that I switched to fiction. I finished a novel entitled, The Third Brother, which is a trilogy. The Summer of an Extinct Volcano was also published. But each of my works remains a sermon, explicit or implicit, about how God manifests Himself in the life of an individual, society or country, even during the period of atheism. I raised the topic of people’s lives during WWII and the Soviet era. I concluded that despite everything, our godless country didn’t remain without God.
—Why is your book entitled, The Third Brother?
—Because God appears where two agree to become brothers in a difficult and tragic situation and are ready for sacrifice. It was there that Christ appeared and acted among them, reminding them that a human being should remain a human being.
The Third Brother trilogy begins in the post-war era on Sakhalin. My grandfather was the editor of an army newspaper. He served in the Far East, and then on Sakhalin. There they first lived in a Japanese family while there was still neutrality between the countries. In 1945, the situation changed. Nevertheless the relations were warm.
The first novel was dedicated to his story and the fate of Nagasaki. And then events in the novel moved to Arkhangelsk. It talks about the Atlantic convoy known as the PQ-17. My main character writes a novel about the cooling of relations between the USSR and the UK.
The second novel is entitled Pound’s Order, or Hell’s Crusade. Unlike the first, it has not yet been published. The third novel, The Broken Image, was submitted to the publishing house too. It is about the first years of perestroika and the events associated with radical changes in the military structure and in the USSR itself.
My work continues—I write stories and novels. And the main driving force of my works is preaching Christ and faith in Him.
—What is the path of conscious faith like? I have deliberately chosen a question on the basis of the title of one of your books, which reflects the logic of a whole series.
—Yes, this is one of my first series, published by the Moscow Patriarchate’s publishing house. The path of conscious faith is what I devote myself, my knowledge and experience to.
Starting from my first services in the Dublin church (when I arrived as a newly ordained priest) and to this day I have been trying to pay great attention to the preaching of the Holy Scriptures in an understandable language, against the background of what is going on around us at the present time. It is about our life, and not about some events of bygone days. I try to view the Lives of the Saints and Church history through the perspective of our era. Especially after the Liturgy, because this is a unique moment for human attention, which is difficult to achieve in other circumstances. Every pastor can and should take advantage of this to ensure that words will remain in people’s hearts. Richly adorned churches and beautiful singing are fine, but the Word of God shouldn’t be overlooked.
—And about your book, The Privilege of Being Alone. How can wed stop the panicky fear of illness, old age and death? This is relevant for the situation around COVID-19.
—This is a very relevant subject, judging by the numerous responses to my posts on Facebook. I touched on the subject of euthanasia. Secular people are perplexed: “What is wrong with aiding a person in dying when he is suffering and has exhausted his strength?” Church people understand that euthanasia is suicide. I answer my opponents: “Life and death are two gifts from God.” Nobody asks a person whether he wants to live here or not. You have appeared in this world, and you just live. You live with it. The moment of death is also a gift that no one can refuse, no matter how paradoxical it may sound. Consciously depriving yourself of life is taking one’s ‘I’ from what was going naturally. A fatal illness, for example, doesn’t depend on us. And if a person accepts such a course of events, he is able to pass into eternity with consent and reconciliation. Taking oneself out of life through suicide or euthanasia is a personal decision. A person has his own blood on his hands. He passes into the other world with this burden. There may come a moment of understanding (belated) that he was not ready for this departure.”
The book was entitled, The Privilege of Being Alone, because during a serious illness a person has the opportunity to meet with God and spend time alone with Him. It is a privilege and a gift. We come into the world from our mother’s womb, and leave it into the unknown. And behind all this uncertainty there is the Meeting with the One Who cares for you. And this is exactly “Who” (and not “what”). He is a Person.
—What are the main spiritual challenges of our time that you as a pastor can point out based on your practice and observations?
—The main challenge of our time is indifference. Not only in religious life, but in life in general. People are guided by indifference. My conclusions concern primarily Western society because I have spent most of my ministry here. For Western society, including Russian parishes abroad, the main task is to avoid indifference. You need to bring yourself into a state where life will be interesting, informative, active and filled with faith... in Man. Faith in the One Who is like you. How can you not believe in the One Who was sanctified and sent by the Father into this world to reveal the Father? The Father is God. Let’s not hurry to say “God” while preaching because in the West it causes some skepticism: “Again you are talking about God—we have already gone through this.”
Fr. Alexander Men’ did it brilliantly, and in a non-religious and atheist environment at that—in institutes, for example. He spoke about God, never mentioning His name, no matter how strange it may sound. He called His name in such a way as to catch a person’s heart, and only after that did he say “God”. This is the point! This is a challenge to us, believers, pastors and archpastors. Speak about God, but first catch the attention and hearts of people. Don’t speak about God in passing or didactically—this is alien to in society and absolutely not accepted. You have to talk about God in such a way that you will be heard. This may be the answer to the main challenge of our time: indifference.
—What is the main lesson you have learned from the years of your priestly ministry?
—Don’t misinterpret your life. Don’t change the path the Lord leads you down. You need to see it and not try to change it. Attempts naturally arise, and readers will understand me. I had them too. I believed that it was necessary to act like this, and not otherwise. But from my experience I later became convinced of the opposite. Life experience is what God has in mind for man. You can get a basic idea of yourself from this experience. And this experience shouldn’t be denied.
—Thank you for this wonderful talk! And the last question: What words from Holy Scripture have especially inspired you and supported you in difficult moments of life?
—The entire Gospel of John. But first of all:
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.) (Jn. 7:37–39).
This passage is considered the oldest manuscript that has come down to us from the beginning of the second century.
And I love the words of Christ about the living water in the conversation with the Samaritan woman: Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (Jn. 4:13-14).
For me this is a key gospel message that living water is given by Christ, and it becomes the source in a person of the water that flows into eternal life.