The First International Conference on The Spiritual Legacy of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

In the last three years, two international conferences have taken place on the life and work of Anthony Bloom [AB]. Between 28-30 September 2007, the first conference, “The Spiritual Legacy of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh” took place in Moscow, dedicated to analyzing the life and work of the late metropolitan of Sourozh (1914-2003). The second conference, “God Believes in Man: Man in the Theology of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh,” took place 11-13 September 2009 in Moscow. The following essay is based on materials from the first conference, recently published in Moscow.

AB is one of the most prominent Orthodox personalities of the twentieth century. He influenced not only Eastern Christians but also many others, especially Anglicans and Roman Catholics in Britain, Russia, and North America. He never considered himself a theologian and never wrote a book, but his long record of theological contribution was recognized with the granting of honorary doctorates of divinity from Aberdeen University, Cambridge University, and the Moscow and Kiev Theological Academies.

As of 2007 AB’s bibliography of published talks, sermons, and homilies in many languages includes 440 items. AB lived most of his life in the West, but Russia, its Church and its people were ever-present in his thoughts, and he was one of the few Orthodox voices who broadcast on radio on both sides of the “iron curtain.” But whether he was in the West or in Russia, with fellow Orthodox Christians or with members of other Churches, his basic theme was always the same: life in Christ. According to his words, he never preached Orthodoxy as such, but Christ, albeit from an implicitly Orthodox point of view.

AB definitely cannot be placed among theologians who do systematic theology “behind a desk” because he understood theology as a practical reality where one encounters the living God. AB never used notes for his homilies, sermons or speeches, and always spoke from the heart. Almost all his published books and articles are the result of recorded and transcribed speeches, homilies, and sermons. Those who met him, either personally or through his books, were convinced that here was a person who not only had encountered Christ and lived his life with Him, but who could transmit this experience to others. The followers of AB continue his work through gathering the archives, publishing books, making documentaries, and organizing conferences. The overall aim of the Moscow conference was to share the ideas of the late Metropolitan Anthony and to begin to analyze his legacy. This was the first conference on such a large scale, and organizers were aware of the wide legacy of AB, and therefore did not pretend to cover all the major contours of his ideas. Instead, they decided to make initial steps in the direction of a more thorough analysis, beginning with three specific goals:

– to define the teaching of AB;

– to define how this teaching was realized in the life and work of AB;

– to understand how AB’s followers can continue his teaching.

Most of the speakers knew AB personally and shared their experiences of meeting him. On the one hand, this personal dimension gives the conference papers a living picture of this great man; on the other, this becomes an obstacle to analysis, as presenters find it difficult to establish the critical distance needed to properly assess AB’s inheritance. This is why many of the talks are filled with romantic enchantment and memories that may be uplifting for AB’s disciples, but lack scholarly value and thus fall short of the conference’s analytical aims.

And yet a number of the papers open avenues for fruitfully applying AB’s thought. A few speakers including psychologists and psychotherapists shared their practical application of AB’s ideas in their professional work and personal life. They recounted their experience of applying some of AB’s approaches to work with patients, following his maxim, “It is not enough to love a person: you have to believe in him!”

Some of the speakers did analyze AB’s legacy directly, focusing on his methodology and the influences that shaped his theology. For example, A. Kyrlezhev analyzed AB’s style, distinguishing four main categories: (1) the context of the Russian Orthodox diaspora in England (AB partially used English during services and sermons, and would comment on mission in the U.K. environment and veneration of local saints from the era of the undivided Church); (2) the kerygmatic and existential style of his sermons; (3) the combination of AB’s work as a medical doctor and a pastor; and (4) the context of personal spiritual encounter with the living God.

F. Vasiliuk’s paper looks at AB’s understanding of the human person as a damaged icon, but he does not move much beyond repeating AB’s own words.

According to K. Kharabet, AB worked out an approach for discussing any contentious theological question. First, he began by setting aside any moralistic, mentor-like superiority over the opinion and personality of the opponent. Second, he invited the opponent (the audience) to discuss the topic from the perspective of the beginner in questions of faith (indeed, this is how AB referred to himself many times). Third, he would refer to passages of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church and also to his own personal and pastoral experience, often in times of crisis (war, illness, death).

Avril Pyman analyzed the influence of literature on AB’s thought. According to her, one of the biggest influences on AB was poetry: Russian, German and French and, to a lesser degree, English. She analyzes which authors AB referred to the most and in the context of the audiences to whom he was speaking.

Some of the conference participants said that expressions such as “the teaching of Metropolitan Anthony” should be excluded, because he personally never considered himself a theologian and never called himself a teacher, but rather a disciple. One can be sympathetic to this humble approach, but nevertheless this would defeat the purpose of conferences like this aimed at analysis and the understanding of the particular creative contributions made by remarkable people like AB or any other authors, including Fathers of the Church.

Among other speakers, it is worth noting that the first prominent biographer of AB, Gillian Crow, shared not only her experience of encountering AB and how it changed her life, but also gave a number of insightful examples of how AB treated other people and participated in community life. Spirituality, as AB understood it, transforms the whole of one’s life down to the smallest details. This is why AB was always ready to wash dishes and clean the church after the services. Crow summarized AB’s understanding of Orthodoxy as directed toward the resurrection, but only by passing through the crucifixion.

Was the aim of the conference fulfilled? If its primary aim was to consider “the spiritual legacy of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh,” then it was successful: the speakers presented not only the greatness of AB, but also how the encounter with him, either directly or through his publications, changed their personal and professional life. But the organizers had other specific goals that in my view were only partially fulfilled. Apart from the few papers that analyze AB’s methodology and the applications of some of his ideas in various professional fields (psychology, literature, linguistics, education), the rest are mainly recollections about AB. The papers lack a direct and substantial theological analysis of AB’s teachings, and they overlook many of AB’s writings – e.g., none of the speakers referred to the content of AB’s article “What is Spiritual Life?” in which he clearly outlines what is essential for the spiritual life of Christians. In general, in the future it would be useful to have a thorough presentation of the main outlines of AB’s theology. I would agree with Lev Bolshakov, who said at the very end of the 2007 conference: There is a long road of work ahead of us. To systematize and formulate Vladyka’s experience is hardly possible, but someone was right who said at the beginning that we have a scholarly task here. It is not enough to feel or to know something just for ourselves, but we must find a way to transmit it to others. We are not Vladyka Anthonys; we cannot talk in the way he did but we are obliged to bring his experience into our church life. 

Originally published at: Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Vol. 51 (2010) Nos. 1-2, pp. 107-111.

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