Russian Orthodoxy : Two Paths

John Binns

The fall of Communist governments across Eastern Europe and Soviet Asia has left the churches there facing a volatile if more liberated future prospect. The changes have left the church, especially in Eastern Europe, with two overriding challenges. The first task is moral and spiritual. The twentieth century saw a series of persecutions of a ferocity unparalleled in any period in the history of the church. Many discovered a new life and strength through persecution. Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh was asked once, “Is the church in Russia free? “He replied, “The freedom of the church is to love until death.”

The Need for Renewal

Now, however, new trials are confronting the Orthodox churches. There is the need for the renewal, nurture, and re-conversion of societies undergoing economic and political disorientation, and for a response to the arrival of Western exports of secularization, consumerism, and globalization. Faced with a rapidly changing society, the Orthodox churches may see their vocation as maintaining a pure and unchanging tradition and so become inward-looking, defensive, and condemnatory of others. Or they may become committed to a new world order, responding to new demands and questions posed by science and technology and to the sheer presence of other churches and faiths in an increasingly interdependent world. They may find it possible to be both true to the tradition of the past and open to the opportunities of the future. This will require far-reaching spiritual and moral reorientation.

The second task is similar to the first, but is transposed to the political and cultural arena. In the course of a long history, the Orthodox churches have moved through several locations on the world cultural map. The process began with a thousand years of being the center of culture, in the Byzantine Empire, with Islam and the Catholic West as increasingly assertive but still subordinate competitors on either side. In the next period Western Europe and Islam were the two major powers, with the Orthodox churches functioning partly as a minority within Islam and partly as a Russian Empire which could be called, with some reservations, Orthodox. The question now is: where do the Orthodox belong?

Separation or Integration?

For the Orthodox of Eastern Europe and Russia the options are twofold. The Orthodox could become a separate cultural entity, part of a reconstituted Russian-dominated economic and cultural alliance. This is the view of the celebrated – or infamous? – theory of Samuel Huntington, set out in a book which touched a raw nerve among many Orthodox by suggesting that Orthodoxy belongs to a different civilization from Western Christianity: The Clash of Civilizations and the Re-making of World Order (New York: 1996). Or they could become part of a new Europe, culturally reverting to the Graeco-Roman synthesis of the empire before it was torn apart by the embitterment of the Great Schism (1054), and so developing an identity within a new enlarged Europe. This is a question which has long preoccupied Orthodox Christianity: in fifteenth-century Constantinople, with its debate over the acceptance of the Council of Florence (1439); or in nineteenth-century Russia, with the division between Slavophil’s and Westernizers. In the past the Orthodox have decided against seeing themselves with the West, as part of European Christian culture; and any suggestion for  rapprochement with Catholic or Protestant has been firmly rejected by the common mind of the church. But now the new circumstances of the post-Communist era in the East and the post-Christian era in the West may lead both East and West to come up with different answers from those of the millennium before, and to evolve a new Christian sense of common purpose and shared life within a unified European political and economic entity.

The Difficulty in Measuring Orthodox Adherence

In Russia the period following the fall of Communism has been marked by the rebuilding of churches and re-opening of institutions on a massive scale. The existence of this religious revival has, however, been questioned. Although accurate statistics are not available, those familiar with Russian society generally agree that between one and three percent of the population of Russia attend church regularly. This level of attendance is less than in many countries in secularized Western Europe. But caution must be exercised over this more negative approach. For the West, with its post-Enlightenment individualism, belief is a matter of individual choice and the commitment of faith is expressed through attending church worship. The Orthodox East has inherited a more communal approach, with membership of church often being bound up with membership of a nation. Expression of faith is more finely nuanced and can be shown through keeping the fasts, sharing the celebration of the feasts, venerating icons, and visiting places of pilgrimage. People are likely to attend church on major festivals, rather than on Sundays. Such diverse forms of expression of faith are harder to assess, but there is plenty of evidence of firmly entrenched Orthodox practice. In 1999 the relics of St. Panteleimon were brought to Moscow. There was huge interest: observers reported that around a million people queued for eight hours or more to venerate the relics. Such indicators suggest that religious practice is too varied and many-sided to be accurately captured in a survey.

A fuller picture of religious observance in Russia has recently been presented by a team of researchers who have traveled to all parts of the country. Rather than compiling statistics, they have chosen to produce a more descriptive survey of their findings. It provides detailed information about the state of church life in different parts of Russia. (Some results of this survey are published in Religion, State and Society 28 [March 2000],7-69.) Compare, for example, the situation in two dioceses which the research team visited and described: Petrozavodsk, a diocese formed in the1990s in the northwest of Russia; and Ekaterinburg, the former Sverdlovskin the Urals, where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were assassinated.

Comparing the Diocese of Petrozavodsk . . .

In Petrozavodsk the researchers found a lively and vibrant church life. Bishop Manuil is from an intellectual St. Petersburg background, enjoys good relations with Lutherans and Pentecostals, and uses a translation of the New Testament made by Finnish Pentecostals for his work among Karelian-speaking congregations. The monasteries, especially the Muromsky Monastery, are centers for his catechetical work. In the city itself the Zhuravka Educational Center has been financed by the head of a building firm who is also the director of the center. Its three-year course for catechists is taught by the bishop, leading priests, and secular teachers.

Some of its graduates have become priests. The bishop’s press secretary, however, is a leading conservative who regularly publishes nationalist articles that contradict the public statements of the bishop. The bishop values the variety of church life in his diocese.

Russian Orthodoxy

. . . And the Diocese of Ekaterinburg

Ekaterinburg sprang into the news when it was learned that in May1998 books by the more open Orthodox writers - Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Men - had been burned in public. This was in fact the second book burning, as there had been an earlier occasioning 1994. The bishop who had ordered these burnings was the young and upwardly mobile Bishop Nikon, who had been appointed to the diocese in1994 while he was still in his early thirties. He turned out to be a keen fundraiser for the diocese, raising money mostly from parish churches, and also an opponent of foreign missions and heterodox sects. He built up good relations with the army and some of the local institutions but was unpopular with many clergy. He cut off support for the church’s education

program, acted against liberal priests, and aroused the opposition of some of the monasteries. He later denied to the Synod of Bishops that the book burnings had taken place, but nevertheless he was eventually removed after numerous complaints against him had been received by the Patriarchate. He was then sent to the well-known and conservative Pskov Monastery of the Caves.

The leadership of the church under Patriarch Alexis II is sometimes criticized for caution at a time when positive leadership is required. These two examples show just some of the range of church life in Russia and show the importance of the task of holding the church together in a time of social change.