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Interview with Antiochian Archpriest Gregory Hallam, Manchester, UK

Archpriest Gregory Hallam, Dean of the Antiochian Orthodox Deanery of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and blogger at Antioch Abouna, recently launched a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio. Titled A Voice From the Isles, the podcast features Fr. Gregory's sermons and lectures, delivered to Orthodox Christians and inquirers in the United Kingdom. Recently, caught up with him in cyberspace, where he graciously answered our questions.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself, Father. How does a Christian clergyman in the United Kingdom end up as a priest and Dean in the Antiochian Archdiocese?

I wasn't raised in the Anglican Church but I served it for 12 years as a priest after coming to faith in my early 20s.  My journey to Orthodoxy is a long story so I will just give you a reasonably detailed but short summary. 

My first encounter with the Orthodox Church was at Anglican seminary 30 years ago when I attended a liturgy in English at a parish in the Greek Archdiocese in Southampton.  This was in the context of an ecumenical visit from our college to the church there.  I was blown away by the worship much in the same way that the emissaries of Kiev reacted after experiencing the Liturgy at the Great Church in Constantinople.  I then began a theological exploration of Orthodoxy while still at Anglican seminary and found that it rang true in every aspect of Christian life. However, at the time, I thought I could continue serving in the Anglican church whilst introducing something of Orthodoxy into it.  By 1992 some 10 years later this had become impossible.  Not only was I having to deal with the ordination of women to the priesthood but also an energy-sapping struggle within Anglicanism to help the communities I served to hang onto some semblance of orthodox (lowercase) Christian faith and life. 

I left the Church of England in 1994 on the feast of St Aidan of Lindisfarne, 31 August.  The patriarchate of Antioch and in particular, at least initially, our brothers and sisters in the American Archdiocese were the only Orthodox who grasped and handled well the point that we were seeking to establish new English-speaking communities and that we were not content to see our groups picked apart one by one and sent to churches where the people would not understand one word of what was going on. 

We spent a very difficult six months at that time seemingly in the doldrums, not yet received and trying to maintain some semblance of Christian life and worship in the teeth of, frankly, opposition from other Orthodox Christians.  For half of that time, some three months, we had to practise a Eucharistic fast since some other Orthodox were complaining that we were using the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as an independent Christian body.  We complied knowing that we could trust Antioch to bring us home, as surely she did in the spring of 1995 at which time we were also formally transferred into the then Vicariate of Europe (now Archdiocese) under the now reposed Bishop Gabriel within a Deanery formally set up for this purpose. 

Father Michael Harper, later archpriest, a prominent evangelical convert to Orthodoxy in the UK, was our first Dean and served until his repose on the feast of the Theophany 2010.  During this 15 year period the original communities and some new ones developed spiritually and grew within the deanery, acquiring church buildings and earning the respect of other Orthodox, some of whom originally opposed us.  We still regret the fact that not all the Orthodox churches in the UK at ground level see the need to cooperate, let alone advance a mission to the indigenous peoples of Britain and Ireland, but we do what we can by God's grace together.  When Archpriest Michael reposed our Bishop, Metropolitan John, appointed me as Dean in his place and I was elevated in turn to the office of archpriest on my birthday, 19 June 2010.

2.  How do the English respond when they find out you are an Orthodox priest? How would you describe some of your greatest challenges since venturing forth on this path?

Most people, and that would include most Christians, haven't a clue what the Orthodox Church is and some by the use of the word “Orthodox” would assume that we were Jewish!  Even those who do recognise the Orthodox Church as being the Church of say, Russia and Greece would not know that this was also the predominant Church of many countries in the Middle East, since of course they think that everyone is Muslim there!  As far as British Orthodoxy is concerned, well of course you just get a bemused blank stare.  When they do find out what we are all about and what I am in particular, then their interest is kindled and we have a good conversation usually.  However, what this emphasises to me is the fact that for a long, long time the Orthodox in these Isles have chosen to be invisible.  There are many theories why this should be so but we need to concentrate on reversing the trend; to make Orthodoxy visible in faith, worship, holiness and service.  Churches that don't do that will simply die as many have before.  There is no spiritual legacy or capital for us to rely on here in the West.  We sink or swim; no treading of water is possible.  Arguably of course this is true for every Orthodox Church no matter what its location or situation.

3.  Those of us on this side of the pond are interested to know what some of the differences might be between the Antiochian landscape of the UK and that of the States. Do your liturgical practices vary?

Yes, our liturgical practices, for example, do vary.  Both our previous and our present Bishop have agreed that in matters of music especially we should have the freedom to develop for the long-term a form of chant that will evolve from within any given Orthodox tradition and usually of course this means Greek / Arabic or Russian / Slav.  I think in other areas as well we have permitted variations of practice not generally allowed in the US.  For example, most of our clergy for example would wear the rasson in public.  Also, here in Europe where there are significant Muslim minorities many people confuse an Orthodox priest, so attired, with being a Muslim.  That might be an argument for wearing a clerical collar and a suit; however, in that way we would often be confused with being Protestants or Catholics so we follow the Russian practice here of all priests at all times wearing a cross and this works quite well.  Even here in Britain most people know that the cross is Christian, at least for the moment anyway!

4.  Are the ethnic influences and traditions present in American Orthodoxy also alive and well there?

Yes most certainly there are and the same issues and problems surround these.  As part of the rich diversity of Orthodoxy such ethnic traditions are most welcome but sadly if they become a principle of exclusion between Orthodox themselves, or between Orthodox and others, one really does have to ask whether or not people truly understand what is primary about being an Orthodox Christian and what is useful but secondary. I think it's a matter of Christian teaching in each parish and helping people to conform their practice to Orthodox norms.  We have also witnessed a worrying tendency recently - at the same time that the churches are being encouraged to cooperate at hierarchical level after Chambesy 2009 - for local churches on the ground to retrench and to make their ecclesiastical identities even more rigid and exclusive.

5.  What or who are some of the theological influences there--we assume Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, but are there other prominent institutions or people we should know about?

Obviously we all know that his Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos is hugely influential in the English-speaking world and his teaching ministry is greatly appreciated by all of us.  Since the death of Metropolitan Anthony of the Russian diocese I cannot think of anyone else who could match him in his ability to speak clearly and attractively to a non-Orthodox English-speaking audience.  As far as institutions are concerned, perhaps the most promising has been and is the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge.  As well as providing for degrees and other non-graduate courses it has also sponsored and developed “The Way” - a 12-week course for those interested in Orthodoxy and exploring the possibility of joining the Orthodox Church.  There is also a similar provision to that in Cambridge but on a smaller scale hosted by a parish in Birmingham entitled the Midlands Orthodox Study Course.

6.  What provided the impetus for your podcast, and what do you hope to communicate with this vehicle?

The impetus to publish on Ancient Faith Radio actually came from a listener to my sermons when they were hosted on one of my own sites with a much more limited audience.  It was he who suggested to Ancient Faith Radio that they might be interested in hosting my podcasts.  What do I hope to communicate?  Well, since the podcasts are simply for the most part recordings of my Sunday sermons at the Liturgy that has to be answered in two ways.  As sermons locally given they are offered to teach and inspire our own community but for a wider audience outside the context of the needs of our own church here in Manchester I hope that they might at least give people cause to think and question about how they could become more faithful and stronger in Orthodox Christian living.

7.  On your Deanery website, a program called "E-Quip" is described.  Tell us about this program, which grants a theological diploma at the end of the course of study.

Although the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies does provide some excellent courses, many in our community living in a poorer area of Manchester could not afford the fees, travel and accommodation costs associated with a quite difficult cross-country location.  This would also apply to the fees levied for the Institute's online long-distance learning project, as excellent as this is.  Some two and a half years ago, therefore, I decided to design, develop and implement a local course at first year college-level which would address this gap and so E-Quip was born, with our bishops' blessing.  We provide a long-distance online learning option at a very reasonable rate and with up to a 100% discount in cases of need.  There are 90 lectures in all over three years with the completion of six essays each year toward the diploma.  However, it is possible for a lower fee simply to attend lectures or read them online without completing any essays, but of course for that option there is no diploma at the end of the course.  I should mention that at the moment it is only recognised by our own Bishop within our own Archdiocese and Deanery but, nonetheless, anyone whilst understanding this can take part.  Full details are on our deanery website here.

8.  Is the number of Orthodox communicants in England growing? How do most Orthodox relate to the other Christian traditions there?

These two questions are very difficult to answer.  Few people complete accurate records here in the UK and Ireland of communicant numbers and overall attendees or members in our parishes.  A ballpark figure of 300,000 Orthodox in the UK and Ireland might be realistic with perhaps one quarter of those actively practising their faith in terms of church attendance; so we are really quite small.  What is the trend?  Well, anecdotally, amongst those churches that are concerned with mission and its requirements, congregations do seem to be increasing but that is not the whole story.  Churches that have historically grown through immigration and the preservation of a diasporal cultural mentality and identity are now shrinking fast since these are losing their younger generations which have assimilated now within Britain and who think of themselves first and foremost as British and English speakers and not as displaced Cypriots and Eastern Europeans with one foot psychologically speaking still in the country of their birth.  That might seem a little harsh but it is the truth.  Again anecdotally, a lady told me recently of a church she belongs to in London in the Greek Archdiocese, mainly Cypriot in its demographic, which 10 years ago had over 300 youngsters in its Saturday afternoon Greek school.  This year there were just 30.  That is a significant issue of problem for churches with this mentality.  So overall in terms of active membership, I think that the Orthodox churches' combined adherents total is actually fewer in number now than it used to be even five years ago; but, more mission minded parishes and particularly those who have grasped the nettle of the use of English where this has not been usual before, are bucking the trend and growing quite vigorously.

As far as ecumenism is concerned there is a huge variation in practice.  Formally at hierarchical level ecumenical relationships are good in the sense that we have here Christians and Christian leaders in particular who are on good terms with each other and who meet from time to time to support one another and cooperate where cooperation is possible.  Within the household of God itself, the Orthodox churches in their parishes up and down the land, the situation is more mixed as indeed it is in America.  Some traditions regard any kind of meeting, including especially of course those involving prayer, as a gross breach of the canons and not in any way to be countenanced.  Others take a more relaxed view and consider that Orthodoxy is never going to make a significant impact in the West unless it comes out of its shell and makes contact with other Christians, in dialogue at least but also in common witness to those things that we genuinely share in common.  I think that is all I can say about that.