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Orthodox church consecrates sincere, worthy man.

I suppose it's a sign of age, like cops' looking younger, when friends start being appointed bishop. Sometimes I think I have acted as a talisman especially for Anglicans. NCR takes them out to dinner, and - presto! - Queen Elizabeth II makes them a bishop the next day.

Sunday, March 7, my first Russian Orthodox bishop was consecrated in the Cathedral of the Dormition and All Saints, London. That is rather a grand name for a converted Anglican church with inappropriate Pre-Raphaelite stained glass.

Basil Osborne is an American, as was his wife, Rachel. When I arrived in Oxford in 1973, he was a priest-worker because his small congregation could not afford his upkeep. He wasn't an accountant or an insurance salesman. He was a gardener.

That seemed somehow right. A gardener knows you can't make plants grow where they do not want to grow nor get them to turn corners for your convenience. He has to get things ecologically right, too. In those early days we used to share baby-sitting.

Suddenly his fortunes improved - perhaps a legacy from some rich White Russian - and the Osbornes moved into a grand house with a large garden where a lamb was roasted over a spit at Eastertide.

Osborne created something new in the Orthodox world: He got the Greek and the Russian Orthodox to share a church and form a joint parish. No big deal, but such cooperation does not often happen.

Rachel Osborne was the vital spark in the Orthodox parish. She knew everyone. She arranged the feasts. She was also dying of cancer.

Yet she baffled the physicians by living on long after she logically ought to have died, until March 1991. Her funeral was a most joyous occasion. We reached the point at which, at traditional non-Forest Lawn burials, you drop a symbolic bit of earth upon the coffin. That did not happen here. Osborne and his two sons seized spades and began to fill in the grave.

Everyone was encouraged to join in. The work was soon over. It became part of the natural process of grieving. Nothing had been left undone.

Father Basil went back to work with, it seemed, a heavy heart. He had depended so much on his wife. What nobody realized was that now that he was a widower, he was eligible to be made bishop.

There was also a new Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexsei. Osborne described Alexsei, on a visit to London, chatting with everyone after the liturgy "like a good parish priest."

But if he was observing Alexsei, Alexsei also was observing him.

Picking Russian Orthodox bishops takes one form in the homeland, another abroad. At home, the bishops were appointed by the Ministry of Cults, which was effectively a KGB organization.

However, it would not be true to describe all bishops as "agents of the KGB," as some exiles do. There was always a difference between those who cooperated for their own advancement and those who cooperated "for the good of the church" - though admittedly that distinction was not easy to draw or perceive.

The Russian metropolitan in Britain, Anthony Bloom, was immensely well-known as a writer and broadcaster on spirituality.

Bloom contributed powerfully to the vogue for icons and Russian church music. He has never been suspected of KGB involvement by any sane person. Yet his loyalty to the Moscow patriarchate was equally unquestioned.

But who would succeed him? Various bishops arrived from Russia to be "tried out," but either they never managed to learn English or pined for home or both. So the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate settled on Basil Osborne.

There was a moment of tension last year when the quarrel between Russian Orthodox and Catholic Ukrainians was at fever pitch. I understood Osborne to be saying that although Uniate Catholics (like the Ukrainians) had a legal right to exist, they had no theological right so to exist.

But that is not what he actually said in a letter to The Tablet. He said merely that a distinction could be drawn between the legal and moral "right to exist" (which he did not question) and the theological justification of the Uniate churches and their present relationship with Rome (which he wondered about).

Even Ukrainian Catholics like Serge Keleher, author of a book on their history in 1939-89, agree that in some sense the existence of Uniate churches is "provisional." They would rejoice if they ceased to be necessary, for then unity with the Orthodox would have been achieved.

So along with Keleher, an Irish Ukrainian, and others I cried Axios five times in crescendo, meaning, "He is worthy," as Osborne became bishop. This was the assent of the faithful, the consensus fidelium, without which the appointment of a bishop is incomplete because not yet "received" by the people.

Yet how many people have cried Axios in response to the KGB nominations? That worried me a bit. "Don't worry," said Tania, Russian-born wife of a friend, "he is quite different from any Orthodox bishop I have heard: He is utterly sincere."

I am sure that is right - as to the last point. It reminded me of what Golda Meir said after her visit to the Vatican: "Our form of Machiavellianism is to tell the truth."

Peter Hebblethwaite is NCR'S Vatican affairs writer.
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Title Annotation:Bishop Basil Osborne
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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