W.J. Birkbeck was a living bridge between Orthodoxy and Anglicanism at the turn of the last century. An Englishman, he fell in love with Russia and spent huge amounts of time there, developing contacts with pretty much every major figure in the Russian Orthodox Church. He visited monasteries and village churches, elders, bishops, Tsar Nicholas II himself. He was convinced that Orthodoxy and Anglicanism should unite, and this belief was based on his deep love for Orthodoxy. Had he lived in modern times, he simply would have converted. But in the heady days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, if you were an Anglican who loved Orthodoxy, you didn’t convert; you tried to bring about a union. Somewhat surprisingly, he appears to have found an ally in, of all people, St John of Kronstadt.
Birkbeck was rather prolific, writing pro-Russia and pro-Orthodox articles for English journals, lecturing about Orthodoxy, and maintaining a correspondence that sort of boggles my mind, but was par for the course for an educated person in his era. And he barely wrote a word that didn’t relate to Orthodoxy. Amidst that mass of writings, there are some fascinating accounts of St John of Kronstadt, the most famous Orthodox priest in the world.
Birkbeck’s first encounter with St John occurred in 1889. He tells the story in a letter dated August 9, 1889:
You see we have got to the White Sea at last, though it is quite out of sight down the river two or three miles. . . . Only fancy how lucky! There is a certain Father John at Cronstadt, whom I particularly wished to see, but who I heard was away. Yesterday morning at Povénetz who should appear on the steamer on his way back to St. Petersburg but this very Father John. He certainly impressed me very much. He has the most beautiful face you can imagine, and, though there is no cant about him—for he laughs and talks quite unaffectedly like anybody else—yet you feel‘as if he was something different from anyone you ever met. I can’t make out why, but it is so. He is a simple parish priest, but the people have a tremendous veneration for him, and say that he works miracles, though Father John himself denies that he does, and says it is only their faith which heals them. I didn’t get a very long talk with him, for it soon became known in the town that he was there, and the place was quite besieged with poor people coming to ask him to pray for one thing or another for them, or to ask his advice.
(Life and Letters of W.J. Birkbeck, pp. 32-33)
In 1897, the Archbishop of York visited Russia, and Birkbeck was basically his tour guide. It included the following encounter with St John:
The greater part of Friday was occupied in leave-taking before our departure to Moscow. But one more episode of the Archbishop’s visit to St. Petersburg remains to be chronicled —namely, a visit paid him by the well-known priest Father John of Cronstadt, the reputation of whose saintly life and extraordinary influence for good in all parts of Russia has already reached this country, where his book, My Life in Christ, has lately been published in an excellent translation by M. Goulaeff, preceded by a letter of dedication to our gracious Sovereign.
On returning from a visit to the Hermitage picture gallery we found a telegram saying that Father John would call in the course of the afternoon, and it was evident by the groups of hotel servants already waiting about in the passages near our rooms that the news of his intended visit was already more or less public property.
At last we heard a sort of rush in the passage, and one of the servants hurriedly looked into our sitting-room and told us that Father John had come. I went out in to the passage and met the venerable priest, his face as usual calm and lit with smiles as he made his way with difficulty through the crowds of hotel servants who were pressing round him in order to kiss his hand or to receive his blessing. His influence in Russia extends far beyond the Orthodox population, and I noticed that not only several of the German Lutheran servants in the hotel were pressing round him, but that even two of the Mohammedan Tartar waiters from the restaurant were seeking and receiving his blessing.
Father John stayed with us for more than an hour, and he and the Archbishop carried on an interesting and remarkable conversation on the subject of the religious condition of the poor in England and Russia respectively, and more especially in the great towns, where each of them has had such a wide experience. His departure was attended in the passage by a similar demonstration to that which had taken place on his arrival, and it was with great difficulty that he made his way to the lift, only to meet with a still denser crowd in the street as he made his way from the hotel to his carriage.
(Athelstan Riley, ed., Birkbeck and the Russian Church, 1917, pp. 123-124)
In 1903, the famous American Episcopalian bishop, Charles Grafton, visited Russia. He did so with the encouragement of his friend, St Tikhon, who at the time was the Russian bishop in North America. As with the Archbishop of York, Birkbeck played host to Grafton. And again, they encountered St John of Kronstadt. Here’s Birkbeck’s description in a letter to Lord Halifax, dated September 30, 1903:
On Monday afternoon we had a long visit from Father John of Cronstadt. He and the Bishop got on splendidly with one another, and talked a great deal about unity. We discovered that they were both 73 and that they were both ordained in 1855! I told Father John that he didn’t look a bit older than when I first met him 14 years ago on the north of Lake Onega. He said : ‘You see, I say the Liturgy every day, and that renews my life.’ I then told him that the Bishop did the same, and we shewed him his little portable altar, and I told him how the Bishop had celebrated every day on the boat coming across from America as well as here. He then knelt down, unfolded the corporal and kissed where the vessels stand, and then the picture of the crucifixion behind, and prayed there. It was all very beautiful.
By the time he went away all the servants in the hotel had collected in the passage and on the staircase, and people from outside had invaded the place, as well as a great crowd in the streets. I walked down with him and heard one poor girl come and tell him that her sister was very, very ill, and ask him to pray for her. ‘ What is her name ? ’ said Father John. ‘ Anna,’ said the girl. ‘ Yes, I will pray,’ said Father John, and put his hands round her head. . . . In the entrance there was an old woman determined to get to him. One of the porters pushed her away, and she dashed round Father John’s brougham and like lightning opened the door on the other side, and when Father John got in, there she was kneeling inside the carriage with her head on the floor.
We went off yesterday to the Ivanovski monastery on the Kapnofka, arriving at 9 o’clock. Father John celebrated. We were in the ‘ altar ’ (Sanctuary). As usual he celebrated with great freedom, but most devoutly. At the words of institution after ‘ This is My Body,’ he turned round towards the people, who are of course [on] the other side of the Royal Doors, holding his right hand out as he said the rest : and so with the chalice. While he prayed for the living and dead he held the edge of the paten against his forehead, and then placed his forehead on the outside of the chalice during the rest of the great intercession.
We made the acquaintance of Captain Tzervitski and had tea with Father John afterwards. We were shown his bedroom and study, and on his study table was his diary, which is apparently public property as Tzervitski read out an entry about yesterday beginning ‘ “I bless the Lord” for allowing me to visit the American Bishop Grafton and to talk with him about praying for the Reunion of the Church.’
His entry unfortunately was not finished.
(Life and Letters of W.J. Birkbeck, 1922, pp. 248-249)
I was really surprised by this account: here we have St John of Kronstadt, a bastion of traditional Orthodoxy, first venerating Bishop Grafton’s (Anglican) objects, and then actually allowing Grafton and Birkbeck to stand in the altar during the Divine Liturgy, and finally writing in his diary about praying with Bishop Grafton for the “Reunion of the Church.”