What remarkable and unique factors come together today! At the very kind permission of the Chapel Royal and the Duchy of Lancaster, the peculiar status of this historic place permits the ordination of a Diocese in Europe Deacon, Glen Ruffle to serve at St Andrew’s Moscow.
St Andrew’s may need some brief introduction. The chaplain, Fr Malcolm Rogers cannot be here today. As well as serving our community there, he is the Archbishop’s Apokrisiarios to the Patriarch of Moscow, Third Rome and All Russia. The worshipping community is made up of people of many nationalities. St Andrew’s is represented, as is the Diocesan Office, and the venerable Russia Company a historic pioneer of in the Diocese’s ecumenical work. Not being able to get to Russia, Bishop David has been to Madrid to ordain one deacon, to Milan to ordain four priests, and tomorrow flies to Norway to ordain yet another. That’s 2 deacons and five priests in four countries in five weeks with two sets of quarantine.
A word about Glen, although I am clear an ordination is not an opportunity for a eulogy. Friends, European, countrymen: I come to praise God not to bury Glen. Glen has lived and worked in Moscow for some years before training. As his DDO, it is my job with others, to assure the Bishop Glen is a good thing. Which he most definitely is, otherwise we would not all be here.
Exactly 360 years ago this week, here in the Savoy, Commissioners met to establish the contents of the Book of Common Prayer. We could even say “The Prayer Book is coming home!”
Glen you are vested in red, the colour both of the Spirit, and the blood of the martyrs, just as monarchs arrive at their coronations robed in scarlet.
Today is the Feast Day of St Elizabeth of Russia. For brevity, may she permit me to refer to her as Ella, the name by which she was known by her extended European family.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, read by Alison on behalf of all you will serve in Moscow, recounts the ordination of the first deacons. We are introduced to Stephen, the Proto-Deacon, who was also the Church’s first martyr, whose commemoration, the Feast of Stephen, is significantly the day after Christmas. The diaconate is not just about service but, martyrdom as well.
We start in 1878. When just fourteen, Ella’s mother, Princess Alice, third child and second daughter of Queen Victoria, died of diphtheria in Darmstadt on 14 December. It was 17 years to the day since the death of her beloved father, Prince Albert. The family was devastated. Ella and her sisters would spend much of the rest of their teenage years with Queen Victoria, in loco parentis. The Queen took a real interest in their upbringing, and future marriages! From an early age, Ella had been marked by her namesake and ancestress, St Elizabeth of Thüringen, foundress of the Houses both Saxe and Hesse, an interest the keen genealogist Queen Victoria greatly encouraged.
Ella’s great aunt on her father’s side had married Tsar Alexander II (d. 1880), and through that connection, Ella was courted by her cousin Sergei or Serge. Serge was a suave and cultivated man. The informed Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, regarded Serge as “one of the handsomest men I have ever seen.” She could speak as one who knew.
Serge was steeped in Russian literature and culture, a devotee of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He was also a devout Orthodox, passionate for the Holy Land and the care of its Russian pilgrims. Part of his youth was spent in Rome with his brother Paul. Despite confessional differences, Pope Leo XIII took avuncular care of them. It was he who broke the news of their father’s assassination in 1881.
Serge and Ella were married in 1884. Their match frowned on by Queen Victoria, suspicious of Romanov autocracy. Nevertheless, Serge and his German Grand Duchess dazzled court life. Ella converted to Orthodoxy to the joy of her husband and family. Ella’s younger sister, Alix met the Tsarevich, Nicholas, at the wedding. Another Princess of Hesse would make her way from Darmstadt to St Petersburg in 1894. How could any of them have known this would be the start of the final act of this dynastic drama?
1905.Nicholas II had mishandled conflicts abroad and government at home, culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of 22 January. Serge meanwhile was a reactionary Governor of Moscow. In a move about which Ella had forebodings, Serge exiled 20,000 Jewish citizens with wilful disregard for popular feeling.
On 17 February, an insurgent Ivan Kalyeyev hurled an improvised bomb towards Serge’s carriage as it passed through the gates of Nicholas Palace. The murder was horrific. Ella heard the explosion and rushed to the scene, too late.
In the aftermath, Ella visited Kalyeyev. She gave him the Gospels, which she implored he read, saying she had forgiven him. She asked that he seek forgiveness. If he did, she would plead with the Tsar for clemency. Kalyeyev would not, preferring death for the cause of revolutionary socialism. This act of mercy was unprecedented, albeit spurned. Ella’s love for her husband and Christian response to his death, marked all around her and beyond, at the tensest time of Tsarist rule.
She left court. A dear friend wrote:
The horror left a deep trace on her countenance which only passed away when, having learnt the futility of earthly existence, and she received the experience of divine beauty, and after this time her eyes seemed to be gazing at a vision of the other world.
She set about founding a women’s religious community dedicated to Ss Mary and Martha. The same friend, just quoted, described her clothing as a nun:
So it came to pass. Through the grey veil of the Sisterhood her works shone with a divine radiance.
Many give witness that the work of the Sisterhood and the offering of worship in the chapel were seamless.
Russia’s prosecution of War was catastrophic. A generation of Russia’s youth perished. The Tsar’s reign was doomed, with few to blame but himself. He abdicated in 1917.
Elizabeth’s convent was raided by ascendent Bolsheviks at the same moment as the abdication. They found only signs of an austere community, living alongside and in communion with the poor. Their leader told Elizabeth as they left “Perhaps we are heading for the same goal but on different paths.” She observed to the sisters “Obviously, we are not yet worthy of a martyr’s crown.” The Soviets seized power in late 1917. The Imperial family now a liability to their captors and possible saviours.
At Easter 1918, Ella, Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, four Imperial princes, an aide, and faithful sister Barbara, were escorted to Ekaterinburg, on the Siberian side of the Urals, very near Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, but there was no contact.
104 years ago yesterday, the Tsar and his wife and children were shot in cold blood in the basement of the house named, The House of Special Purpose. We know the details from the accounts of those who took part. It was horrific. I will say no more.
The carnage did not stop there. The same direct orders from Lenin to his henchmen in Ekaterinburg outlined what was to follow. The Soviet guards were determined if ham-fisted to the end.
Early on 18th July the captives were ordered from their makeshift prison at a school in Alapayevsk and trundled in carts to a disused iron-ore mine, with a shaft some 20 m deep. Elizabeth was cast into it, the rest of the party following. Ella’s fall was broken by a ridge some way down, her nephew landed next to her. She bandaged his broken arm with material torn from her head-dress. All the while, she led the singing of Easter hymns. A grenade was lobbed into the mineshaft, then another; despite the injuries, the singing continued, haunting their inept guards. They poured a quantity of branches and dry leaves into the opening and set them on fire.
Pre-arranged telegrams were sent from the Ekaterinburg Soviet announcing that the school at Alpayevsk had been raided by “an unidentified gang”. Lenin’s ploy was to inform the world Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her companions were no more. No hint of responsibility implied, or remorse recorded.
Those close to Lenin noted his fear of Ella’s reputation. Apparently, he observed:
Virtue with a crown on it is a greater enemy to world revolution than a hundred tyrant Tsars.
Not knowing the details only that Ella had certainly died, the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg wrote:
If ever anyone has met death without fear she will have, and pure faith will have upheld and supported and comforted her in all that she has gone through so that the misery poor Alickey [Ella’s sister, the Tsairna] will have suffered will not have touched Ella’s soul.
Ella was Princess Alice’s beloved Godmother. The work Princess Alice undertook in Athens as a nun from the 1940s was a deliberate continuation of her aunt’s mission. Poignantly, Alice’s choice of final resting place would be near her Aunt’s.
The bodies were found in September, when the White Russians commanded by General Smolin, occupied Alapayevsk. A drunken guard let slip his part in the gruesome murder. That is how we know of Ella’s nursing of her nephew, and that she did not die in the fire, but of starvation, possibly days after she fell.
The bodies were recovered, given funeral rites, and taken to Peking, to the cemetery of the Russian Mission. Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s older sister, in England, Princess Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, arranged for the bodies of her sister and Sister Barbara to be transported to Palestine for burial on the Mt of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the church built by Serge and his siblings to honour their mother, and Serge and Ella had seen consecrated in 1888. On 15 January 1920 the remains of the two nuns were met in Jerusalem by the British interim authorities and processed to their final resting places, accompanied by the Greek and Russian Orthodox hierarchs of Jerusalem. You might picture the onion domes of St Mary Magdalene glimmering amidst the green olives of Gethsemane, overlooking the site of Solomon’s Temple. It is the Feast of the Madeleine this week, who in another garden on the first Easter Day encountered the Risen Lord. To those whose faith causes them to hold fast to the end, Our Lord says “I am the resurrection and the life. He who liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”
Elizabeth had written to Countess Alexandra Olsoufieff, departing Moscow in April 1918:
“One must fix one’s thoughts on the heavenly country in order to see things in their true light, and to be able to say, “Thy will be done.” Dear friend, I am only certain that the God who chastises is the same God who loves. Thank you for the dear past.”
This was the last farewell, said as simply as everything else in her life. Knowing her as well as I did, I can say with certainty that she thanked God for throwing open to her, through suffering, a place among His elect. She was of the same stuff as the early Christian martyrs who died in the Roman arenas. Perhaps in the time of our grandchildren the Church will beatify her as a saint.
Indeed, they did. The Russian Church in Exile canonised her in 1981, and the Moscow Patriarchate followed in 1992. Elizabeth’s statue was consecrated above the West Door of Westminster, before the Queen and Prince Philip in 1998. Elizabeth stands next to Martin Luther King as one of the martyrs of the 20th c.
Our first reading pictures the call of a deacon. The Greek widows were not getting their fair share, and the lofty Apostles in Acts chapter 6 wanted it sorted and to have as little to do with it as they could. They lay hands on Stephen and Philip and their friends, and a new chapter in Church life opens.
St Luke delights in irony. His Gospel takes a particular interest in the lives of servants. There are several parables which involve domestics, one of them today’s Gospel. It is reminiscent of Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids with oil or not in their lamps. But the story is different. In the parable Glen our deacon read, the master is about to return, the faithful servants, are waiting up. The master arrives, jolly late, but far from expecting himself to be served and fawned over, the master puts on an apron, girds his loins, and serves them.
The Apostles were just that little bit too grand, and had forgotten that Jesus, their master, came not to be served but to serve.
Grand Duchess Ella had tried in 1909 to revive the ancient order of deacons for women in the Russian Church. She nearly succeeded. Had she done so she would be remembered for one of the boldest ecumenical moves of the early 20th c. Her name though is hallowed with all the martyrs, for holding firm to the end.
Whether you will be called to martyrdom or intimating to Malcolm the “estates, names and places where the needy of the parish may dwell” remains to be seen. But we trust and know that you are “inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon you this office and Ministration, to serve God, for the promoting of his glory and the edifying of his people.” “So let your loins be girded and your lights burning.”