Russia’s religious challenge

  • May 24, 2007
The suffering imposed on Christians by the Communist regime of the now-vanished Soviet Union was one of the tragedies of the tormented 20th century. The clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church were humiliated and co-opted by the Stalinists. Scandalized by the compromises of the Moscow patriarchate with Communism, many Russian Orthodox believers in exile cut themselves off from their mother church in the 1920s, initiating decades of hostility and suspicion on both sides.
But on this past Ascension Thursday, a small but significant step was taken toward healing the wounds of history.

In a magnificent ceremony at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral — a church dynamited by Stalin in 1931, but rebuilt in the early 1990s as a rebuke to the Bolshevik past — Alexei II, patriarch of Moscow, and Metropolitan Lavr, leader of the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, formally ended the schism that had long divided Russian Orthodoxy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official who has publicly embraced Christianity, was on hand for the celebration. He told the congregation that the agreement was “a nationwide event of a historical scale and a vast moral importance.”

“The division of the churches was one of the last remnants of the sad history of the revolution,” Fr. Alexander Lebedeff, the chief representative of the Church Outside Russia in the negotiations, told a reporter. “By overcoming this division, we are closing the book, or at least a chapter of one of the most difficult times in Russian and Russian church history.”

Under the terms of the reconciliation, the Church Outside Russia will continue to administer its 400 parishes worldwide, which serve about 480,000 members in the United States alone. Intercommunion and clergy reciprocity are guaranteed, but the ecclesiastical autonomy of the Church Outside Russia will be respected by Moscow.

At the heart of the split was the oath of submission to the Communist authorities sworn in 1927 by Metropolitan Sergius, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. This agreement did not save the church from persecution: In the decade following, an estimated 80,000 Orthodox clergy, monks and nuns were executed on orders from Stalin, and many churches were demolished. A major obstacle to reunion fell in 2000, when a council of the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Czar Nicholas II and his family, along with hundreds of victims of Stalinist terror. The staunchly royalist Church Outside Russia had taken this step in 1981.

The Ascension Day move toward the unity and renewal of the Russian Orthodox community comes at a critical time in this history of post-Communist Russia. Seventeen years after the disintegration of the world’s largest and most destructive experiment in socialism, Russia finds itself suddenly rich, floating on an ocean of oil and natural gas reserves. Yet the country is plagued by high crime rates, widespread corruption and a dangerous hesitancy about implementing much-needed democratic reforms. Perhaps the most serious challenge to Russian society is the aggressive, government-sponsored capitalist modernity now sweeping the nation.

It is a challenge that Russian Orthodoxy may be ill-equipped to address. The Ascension Day accord calls on the newly unified church to denounce sin in high places. But can it be relied on to do so? From the time of the country’s conversion under St. Vladimir a thousand years ago, until the baleful 1927 submission and beyond, the Orthodox hierarchy has always tended to align itself with the often reactionary ideas and personalities of the Russian ruling elite. The church thus has little experience of acting in sacrificial opposition to the state. This historical position could doom the church to complicity once again, this time with a Russian government that is openly backing aggressive Western-style capitalism and dangerous renascent nationalism.

We should pray for the Russian Orthodox Church, that the Holy Spirit will give it the wisdom and courage to inform creatively Russia’s domestic debate about the nation’s way forward. While Mr. Putin’s speech-making should always be regarded with caution — his sponsorship of the Orthodox faith is coloured by nationalist ambitions — his public assertions of the importance of Orthodoxy in rebuilding Russia are true and to the point.

A great opportunity for Christian witness has opened up in Russia. Yet it is not just religion that Russia needs, but religion that is vigourously alive to the trials that now lie before the Russian people. In a recent interview, the famous author Alexander Solzhenitsyn put the matter this way: “A return to the forms of religion which perhaps existed a couple of centuries ago is absolutely impossible. On the contrary, in order to combat modern materialistic mores, as religion must, to fight nihilism and egotism, religion must also develop, must be flexible in its forms, and it must have a correlation with the cultural forms of the epoch. Religion always remains higher than everyday life. In order to make the elevation towards religion easier for people, religion must be able to alter its forms in relation to the consciousness of modern man.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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