One of Us:
An Interview with Bishop Basil Osborne
Fr. John Jillions and Fr. John Shimchick / Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Winter 1997
He lives a few blocks away from the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation in Oxford, where he and Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia serve together in a church that is home to two parishes, one belonging to the Patriarchate of Moscow and the other to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As Bishop of Sergievo he helps to administer the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh, headed by Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom). It was there at his residence that we shared lunch with Bishop Basil Osborne, learning about his life and the life of the Orthodox Church in England.
Like many before him who have made England their permanent home, Bishop Basil is actually a transplanted American. He, was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1938, where his father and grandmother had also been born. One of his earliest memories is of the ten-week journey to the US in 1941 on an Egyptian steamer with his mother and sister. His father had attempted to go to the US earlier, in 1940, but the Germans were destroying all shipping, so when his ship was stopped by a German U-boat all the passengers were transported back to Europe and the ship was torpedoed. His father, being of Czech background, was sent to Germany where he spent the rest of the war. He is now 91 years old and still lives in Buffalo, NY where the family eventually settled.
His parents were Protestant, but often like those who have no particular church allegiance, it seemed that moving from one community one also meant moving to a different church. The one he remembered best was the Presbyterian church which he attended during high school, ages 13 to 16, though he eventually dropped out of church life altogether until he went to college. There he met an Orthodox priest, Fr. Michael Gelsinger who had a small parish (the Church of the Theophany), and was professor of classics at the University of Buffalo where he was doing undergraduate work in classics. He took his course in New Testament Greek, which he taught at his home, wearing his cassock, surrounded by icons. Fr. Michael was a very good teacher and an interesting man, and so he started going to the Orthodox Church and was eventually Chrismated there. Of course the first question anyone gets in church is "Can you sing?" so he was in the choir for several years until his undergraduate studies were completed.
A break occurred in those studies when he served in the army and was sent to Europe. That's where he met Rachel whom he married in 1962. Moving back to Buffalo, he finished his undergraduate degree and then continued with a Ph.D. in Classics at the University of Cincinnati. He was interested in liturgical poetry and in 1966 came to Oxford to study for a year with Constantine Tripanis, the Professor of Byzantine Greek at Oxford who was working on Romanos. This enabled him to be involved in the life of the Russian parish and to meet Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), who ordained him a deacon in 1969. He was able to complete the research while living in Oxford and spending four summers with the University of Cincinnati on archeological digs in Greece.
His oldest son, Jacob (Jake) was born in 1970. He and Rachel were planning to return to the US to look for work and so they had bought only one way tickets. But a few days before leaving England, and with no clear prospect of housing or work, they changed their minds and decided to buy return tickets. They wanted to remain with Metropolitan Anthony and serve the church in England. He called Metropolitan Anthony and told him that they would be going to the US for the summer but were returning to England without any place to go. A few weeks later, while they were already in the US, he called to say that there was a place available for them. He had arranged for them to live and work at St. Simeon's house, a boarding school for Orthodox boys at Ampleforth College (a Roman Catholic private school) that had been set up with a grant from the Vatican as an ecumenical gesture, under the direction of Fr. Vladimir (now Bishop Basil) Rodzianko, whose assistant he would become. They stayed in a caravan with a coal stove for heat, then moved to a dilapidated forester's cottage.
In 1973, their life took another turn. The Oxford parish petitioned Metropolitan Anthony to have him ordained as their priest, and the Metropolitan then asked if he was willing. It was a difficult decision, but they decided to accept. A few days later they received a phone call from the University of Cincinnati. A member of the Classics department had just died: would he return and take a position there? He decided that he would not and was ordained in 1973 on the feast of the Protection.
Today in Oxford there is a single church building and a single schedule of shared services for the Russian and Greek communities, but there are two communities, two parish councils and two diocesan bishops [Metropolitan Anthony and Archbishop Gregorios]. But originally the parish was part of the Russian Diocese of Sourozh. Monthly Greek services had begun in 1966 with the arrival of then Fr. Kallistos, but it was not until 1972 that the relationship between the Greek and Russian communities was formalized. Both care for the church building, but the property is actually owned by St. Gregory and St. Macrina House and granted in perpetuity to the Orthodox Community in Oxford. Neither community has equity in the building. In this way the joint character of the parish is safe-guarded.
The Russian parish provided housing and a stipend of 35 pounds a month, with the promise that they would give more as they were able. And indeed, over a period of ten years they did just that, so that he was able to gradually do the pastoral work full-time and cut back completely on the other part-time work that he needed to do to support his family: editing, Greek translations, and a lot of gardening.
In 1975 Rachel became ill with cancer. At the time his sons Jake were 5 and Michael 3 -- a daughter Mary would be born the following year. Rachel, after continued suffering, died in 1990. He was consecrated a bishop in 1993.
What about the life of the Orthodox churches in England? They, in fact, have a fairly recent history with most of them being formed after the Second World War. Before that there was a very small Russian community and a few Greek communities in London and at ports around England. But there was a lot of growth in the 50's and 60's especially with the influx of Cypriots. Eighty-five per cent of the Orthodox in England are probably Cypriot Greek in origin. Then there are Russians, Romanians, Georgians, Bulgarians, Antiochians, Copts, Ethiopians and others.
The Diocese of Sourozh has understood its mission in several ways. First, it has recognized the need to deal with the Russian community, and secondly, to see that the Orthodox Church develops a place in England in its own right, not simply as an ethnic community. It has been noted by many that when Metropolitan Antony speaks to non-Orthodox he does not begin by talking about Orthodoxy--he talks instead about the Gospel and lets them decide if that has anything to do with Orthodoxy. He insists that mission be gradual. And he is willing to run risks with small parishes. Admittedly, this can sometimes have the appearance of no one "doing anything" about mission. But Bishop Basil feels that, "We're growing as fast as we can -- any faster would be hard to assimilate." He says that he is generally opposed to mass conversions: "We deal with people one by one, partly because of the need to assimilate them and maintain continuity. But we can afford to take risks, we don't have to be right all the time. In business if you're right 51% of the time you're doing all right. And mission does not simply depend on our activity. God's involvement is much more than what we're doing as individuals."
What about the formation and life of the clergy? He felt that, first, "it was important in knowing simply how to do the services in a way that's Orthodox." This is especially important given that most of their clergy, like most of their people generally, come from non-Orthodox backgrounds. And knowing how to deal with people who have not grown up in the Church is essential. "But," he added, "this is not a question of rubrics: it's being there in the right way, relaxed, at home. This is hard to pin down, especially for converts." The second concern is the relationship between priest and parish. "It is so easy to impart a clericalism," he remarked, "this is my parish and we'll do it this way, instead of doing it together. It takes time to learn how to do this. The main task of the priest is enabling the community to pray together. But there is also the need for the priest to listen to others in his parish." He observed that in his case, there were many wise voices in the Oxford parish: the Zernovs (Nicholas and Militsa), the Obolenskys (Dimitri) and others. Thirdly, there is need for the priest's own conversion. [Note: It should be stated that in the Diocese of Sourozh, candidates for ordination normally come from within the parish they have been serving as laymen for some years. They are ordained to serve this same community as deacons and priests after a period of guidance by the bishop and fellowship with other diocesan clergy. There is no seminary in England, though some candidates have had formal theological education at Orthodox seminaries else where, at university and/or through Anglican clergy training programs at some point. Almost all have full-time work besides their parish ministry.]
Finally, what can be done when priests become discouraged? Here Bishop Basils reply rings true for all clergy, no matter where we live. "Priests often become discouraged. Especially in small parishes, such as we have here, the priests may take the whole burden of the parish upon themselves. And there are parishes which are quite happy to let someone bear the whole burden alone. This is wrong and can be disastrous both for the priest and for the parish. Most of our priests have other full-time work and this can be overwhelming. It's okay when youre young--30 or 40--but by the time you're 55 it's hard to keep going. The strain can be unbearable. There's a need to spread the burden of parish life. But priests, too, need to have a greater willingness to let the community carry part of the load. Finally, we need to feel that the presbytery is a college, where we bear one another's burdens. No one ought to feel that they are alone."
Bishop Basil is one of us. But in him, we Orthodox in America can recognize not simply one of our own countrymen, but also a sensitive, intelligent, and articulate hierarch who seeks both to present the Orthodox Faith in ways that meet the pastoral needs of his flock and the spiritual hunger of those in his adopted country which he has made his own.
Fr. John Shimchick is the pastor of Church of the Holy Cross,