Once upon a time, in the 19th century, this magnificent marble-columned hall was the home of the Anglican church in St. Petersburg. It retains some beautiful art-work, the case and pipework of a fine organ, and a font. Also, the stained-glass windows are carefully wrapped, lying on the floor and waiting to be re-installed in their frames. Stories are told about how back in the days of imperial Russia, thousands of Anglicans gathered here in these grand surroundings to worship in Russia’s fashionable and westward-facing city.
But the city was one of the principle centres of the Bolshevik revolution. Buildings were ransacked and churches forcibly closed. The foreigners departed from (what shortly became) Leningrad and the Anglican congregation fled to Vyborg (Finland) in 1917, bringing an end to Anglican worship in the city. The building was used and misused in various ways thereafter, and over subsequent decades it grew more and more neglected. The picture above (dated c.1981, taken by Michael Pitts who was Chaplain of Helsinki and Moscow) shows it being used for a Communist party gathering. The text in the banner ‘Решения XXVI съезда КПСС выполним!’ translates as ‘The decrees of the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) will be carried!’
However, rather recently, this splendid reminder of the imperial age attracted the attention of a music company. They imagined how the wonderful space and excellent acoustic offering an ideal location for concerts. Today, renovation work is well underway, sponsored by the city authorities. In the photo above, the Maestro (Fabio Mastrangelio) talks with Area Dean Malcolm Rogers about their plans. I was delighted to receive a standing invitation to visit the concert hall when it is formally opened, and to have the assurance that the Anglican community could use the hall for special events if and when needed. To be sure, with a congregation of 300 or more it could again be a wonderful worship space.
The memory of huge congregations of St. Petersburg Anglicans lingers, but for a long time there was no Anglican community in the city. Winding the clock forward many decades…and a much smaller Anglican community came back into being in the closing years of the 20th century. It gathered in the Swedish Lutheran Church, then in an ecumenical centre, and now in the centrally located and impressive German Lutheran Petrikirke. The community has no permanent clergy, but its current ‘animatrice’ and churchwarden is Dr. Maria Karyakina, mother of two young daughters and Vice-Rector of St. Petersburg Christian University, pictured here.
We (the contemporary Anglican community) use a small chapel on the ground floor of the Lutheran Church. The pastor, Revd. Michael Schwarzkopf (pictured above), speaks German, Russian and excellent English, and takes two Lutheran services a month for our community. He could not be more welcoming and hospitable! Like many of us, he looks forward to the development of the Anglican-German Lutheran agreement (‘The Meissen Agreement’) so that Anglicans and German Lutherans can fully recognise and exchange their ministers.
A key part of restoring Anglican worship has been gaining official recognition. Here Maria proudly displays the recognition certificate. Navigating Russian bureaucracy has required a great deal of persistent work from Maria herself, from local lawyers and from our Registrar.
There was a pastoral purpose in my visit, namely to confirm four adult candidates – (left to right) Illka, who is of Finnish origin, Michael, of Nigerian heritage, Maria herself, and Ruth, who is a very new mum and comes from Tatarstan.
So here is baby James with mother Ruth on the left, and all of the little community: 19 people from 9 different countries. Importantly, next to Area Dean Malcolm you can just see The Revd. Eero Sepponen, a senior Swedish Lutheran priest from Turku who comes to lead worship for the Anglican community – and can do this under the Anglican-Scandinavian Lutheran Porvoo agreement.
While in St. Petersburg, I took the opportunity to visit the Orthodox Seminary and Academy where Malcolm and his wife Alison had studied under Church Mission Society sponsorship in the 1990s. I thought the Seminary was rather grand, but I was assured it was far bigger and grander before the revolution.
It was explained that the Seminary (only for men) has a choir school (mainly for women) attached to it. A good number of Russian male priests are married to female choir directors. But there is more to it than this. Russian Orthodox priests may indeed marry, but they cannot change their circumstances once ordained. So Seminary provides a window of opportunity for courtship and marriage, else the alternative of a celibate monastic life becomes their vocation. I have to say, I could only wonder at the emotional stress, as well as romantic opportunity, this creates for both sexes.
Malcolm and I joined part of the Sunday morning liturgy, which, though the first Sunday in Orthodox Lent, also marked a celebration of the Orthodox Church, and so was a splendid occasion with wondrously spine-tingling music sung by several choirs in different parts of the chapel and some very fine bass/baritone indeed. After the liturgy, we joined the students for lunch. Seeing perhaps 200 young ordinands gather suggests that the Russian Orthodox Church has a strong supply of aspiring priests.
After lunch we had tea and cake with our host, Bishop Silouan, the Rector of the academy. He spoke with us frankly and openly about the challenges of delivering quality, relevant theological education in the face of increasing regulation. Wearing my St. John’s College Durham hat, I found myself longing for the possibility of deeper exchanges between this younger and highly intelligent academic leader and the theological education world in the UK. He raised one particular issue: ‘how can the clergy make best use of social media’? We have much in common!
I often feel I gain more than I give on my visits, and St. Petersburg was no exception. I was humbled by the perseverance of the members of our little Anglican community. I was thankful for the generosity of Lutheran colleagues in providing us with a place to worship and giving us regular ministry. I was touched by the openness and kindness of Bishop Silouan in his hospitality and conversation. The Anglican Community in St. Petersburg is small and fragile. I hope and pray that we can continue to find sustainable ways of pastoring it. Anglicanism in St. Petersburg has a glorious past. The present and future are and will be different. In this vibrant city of 5 million people, I hope that God will guide us into the right kind of Anglican expression of church for today.