Church and State in contemporary Russia

FR LAWRENCE CROSS

Orthodox Christianity in Russia has almost perpetually had a fraught relationship with the State and its politics.

Orthodox Christianity in Russia has almost perpetually had a fraught relationship with the State and its politics.

The popular, post-communist tendency to idealise Tsardom does not disguise this fact.

A healthy symphonic relationship between God and Caesar, Church and State, has been asserted, but rarely has it been observed in practice.

Russia, or Moscovy, did not inherit the mythical symphonic relationship of Church and State from Byzantium when it was baptised in 888. It inherited Caesaro-Papism.

The penalty that it paid at the very nadir of Church-State relations, was the intense persecution of the Church under Joseph Stalin and the persecution of individual believers.

The Russian Orthodox Church was also powerless under the Soviet regime to protect and defend its believers and fellow citizens from the brutalities of the State inflicted upon millions of its citizens.

Some figures will also help to understand the scale of persecution of the Church itself. In 1918 Russia had some 50,000 priests. In 1935 it had but 500 priests and 4 bishops for the whole of Russia.

Remembering this is useful when trying to understand the posturing of the Moscow Patriarchate in our times.

It is a Church that has not really faced its past or found deep healing for the trauma it endured.

The bully is often found to have had an abused childhood. It needs understanding as much as it needs honest criticism.

Whether Old Moscovite, Tsarist or Soviet Communist, Russia has for centuries routinely imposed politics upon religion. Events in 1991 allowed a short breathing space for the Church after the dissolution of the USSR.

But not for long.

Under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, the Church has entered even more deeply into its compromised Church/State client relationship: a pursuit of mutual advantage. It is no longer being persecuted, but it is being drawn into issues of state in a way that does not bode well and are corrupting for the Church.

The Moscow Patriarchate, largely because it is the largest in size of the Orthodox Churches, assumes a right to throw its weight around amongst the smaller Orthodox Churches, and even to tweek the nose of the Roman Catholics with impunity, as did Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk during the Roman Synod on October 16, 2014.

This irresponsible posturing cuts no ice with Russian people as a whole. This attitude and the depth of belief amongst the faithful, is measured by the wave of anti-clericalism which is now surging in Russia.

Less than 1% of the population of Moscow assists at the great feasts of the Church annually.

There are, however, several dissenting Orthodox voices within Russia, two of which reach back to the very beginning of the Soviet State.

One of these is the Autonomous Russian Orthodox Church, a sizable but virtually underground Orthodox Church taking its episcopal succession from St Tykhon, Patriarch of Moscow during the revolutionary years, who was murdered under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1925. Like their martyred patriarch they refused to recognise the legitimacy of the continuing Moscow Patriarchate after Patriarch Sergius, elected to follow Tykhon, pledged that Church’s loyalty to the atheistic Bolshevik regime in 1935.

Upon his arrest, Patriarch Tykhon entrusted the Church to his locum tenens, Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsy. Refusing to accept Bolshevism and its compliant Church, the Autonomous Church went underground, as it virtually remains today.

Metropolitan Peter, arrested in 1925, was executed in 1937 after 12 years of prison.

But there is another Orthodox Church in Russia which is older than the Autonomous Orthodox Church descended from Peter Krutitsy, and that is the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, which conceived of itself as Russian Orthodoxy in communion with the Chair of Peter in Rome.

These Christians are derisively called Uniates, those who, as Orthodox in belief and practice, are in communion with the Roman Catholic worlds and the Universal Church.

Sadly, the Uniates also were driven underground within Russia, supported by neither the East nor the West.

While their appearance towards the end of the 19th Century was admittedly a small phenomenon, it was also of first importance because it was the fruit of the thinking of the virtual father of the Russian Catholic Church, the brilliant Vladimir Soloviev.

He was a layperson and a friend of the great novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and he possessed an exceptional intellectual gift for synthesis; he has been called the Russian Newman.

In the late 19th century, the national Orthodox Church was a department of state and controlled by the government. A Procurator, a government appointee, presided over the Holy Synod making all the decisions.

The Church had been restructured along Lutheran lines by Peter the Great. It had become as Erastian as the Church of England. The head of state was also the virtual head of the Church.

Soloviev, however, argued persuasively that for the Church to be free, Russia needed to be in communion with the Universal Church in Rome.

He used the French phrase, to have a ‘point d’appui’: a reference point outside itself that allows it to define its identity properly.

He argued that the Byzantine Christianity that Russia had inherited contained an unhealthy element of Caesaro-Papism – a confusion of state and religion – that was harmful to the Church.

To him, the centre of the Christian wheel was in Rome and this was something Russian Christians should take advantage of. Soloviev’s ideas are as relevant to modern day Russia as they were in the nineteenth century.

Today the Russian Church is receiving heavy investment from the government and the Church is being expected to support its policies. The implications of this became clear during the Ukrainian crisis.

There is no doubt that the situation is better than during the Soviet Union, when Christians were tormented and persecuted. But the portents are not good.

Few groups are more without friends than the Russian Catholics, the Uniates, a shameful reflection on both the Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

Under Pope John Paul II there was a stated desire to improve relations between West and East, but the reality has been very different.

The Russian Orthodox’s Church attitude to Uniates is that they are an unwelcome fifth column and are Rome’s attempt to fool the Orthodox into communion with Rome: a fake church with a sinister missionary intention.

The Roman Catholic’s approach has been to cut the legs out from under the Uniates by converting Russians who want to be in union with Rome into the Roman rite, not the Eastern rite as required by canon law.

The result has been that the representative of a universal Christian faith in Russia has been left without support and has been hounded underground.

Which is why Soloviev’s ideas are so important, and remain so relevant. Whatever else you may think of him, Vladimir Soloviev stands amongst the most original philosophical and religious thinkers that Russia has produced in modern times: if not the greatest.

The spiritual ripples that he created in Russian thought flow to all the best modern Russian Christian thinkers – Bulgakov, Florensky, Berdyaev and Bakhtin, to name the obvious.

But quite apart from his original contribution to idealist philosophy, he had much to say about the Russian Church and its relationship both to the State and to the Universal Church.

Indeed, we Russian Byzantine Catholics count him as the inspiring spirit of the Russian Catholic movement finally led by Exarch Leonid Feodorov, Fr Abrikosov and their martyred communities.

His Russia and the Universal Church, deserves to be read again with deep attention and with a degree of urgency. Of course there are elements in it that apply only to the late nineteenth century situation in Russia, but it is uncanny in its relevance to Russia and the situation of her Church presently.

The other voice that could be added to that of Soloviev is that of Andrei Sakharov, who insisted that only the Church, and no other agency, can lead Russia into her moral renewal, under a canopy of transcendent values, after the corrosion of communism and the moral shipwreck of the last twenty five years.

But how can she achieve this? Only by becoming repentant and free. But she is so closely allied to the State, the very apparatus which is so much the cause of the disaster.

Let me cite Soloviev:

A national Church that does not wish to be subject to the absolute authority of the State, that is to say, surrender its existence as a Church and become a department of civil administration, must needs possess a real point d'appui outside the confines of the State and nation. With these it is connected by natural and historical ties; but as a Church it must belong to a wider social group with an independent centre and a world-wide organisation of which the local Church can only constitute a single individual member.

Soloviev hammers home the fact that it is not ecclesiastical freedom but Caesaro-papism, which we have inherited from Byzantium ...

Thus, the Church of Russia, deprived of any point d’appui or centre of unity outside the national state, has inevitably come to be subservient to the secular power.

I do not need to point out of which point d’appui he is speaking. It is the very same one to which Chrysostom, Flavian, Maximus, Theodore of Studium and Patriarch Ignatius turned to with their appeals.

Naturally we are not talking about later medieval or baroque forms of papacy, but to the Apostolic Chair of Peter that some of these cultural epochs and accretions so obscured before Orthodox eyes and were further obscured by disastrous political rivalries, cultural imperialisms and poisoned memories.

It is no humiliation for the Great Russian Church or for any of the Orthodox Churches to recognise a real primacy attached to the Chair of Peter at Rome.

The Church of Rome is no greater a Church than Moscow, or any other Church – it simply has a special function and mandate designed to promote and strengthen the brethren.

This writer was also very surprised to read the statements on primacy in the Church issuing from Moscow in recent times. They are certainly at variance with the writings of Metropolitan Philaret, the best of Russian 19th century theologians – and almost the only one – for whom the Primacy of Peter is clear and evident (Sermons and Addresses, 1853).

These statements are also totally at odds with the best of contemporary Orthodox theologians such as Ware, Zizioulas, and colleagues.

What does this take on Primacy seems to represent for the Moscow Church? The next comment is impressionistic, and I am open to correction and rebuke, but it is based on the observation of ecumenists of both East and West.

It almost seems that Russia desires now to be the greatest among the Orthodox Churches: the greatest almost because of its supposed size.

There is evidence of a certain bullying attitude to other Orthodox jurisdictions.

This is worrying, in that we all know that, according to the Lord, greatness lies in loving service and being content to be the least in the Kingdom. This applies as much to Churches as to souls.

God forbid that this perceived tendency in any way mirrors the flexing of military and political muscle by the Russian Federation. That way lies disaster.

In a strange and perhaps wondrous manner, the time of the Russian Byzantine Catholics, in the sense of relevance, not size, has come again.

They are called in a special way to lead the way into the light for the Church and for Russia.

The darkness surrounding both is now very deep and getting worse, but what the miniscule Russian Byzantine Catholics represent may be a light upon the path, along with the Autonomous Russian Orthodox, though perhaps the light of the fireflies.

The Russian Byzantine clergy in Russia are now a mere handful and the tiny communities are virtually invisible and underground.

But how is it that this tiny presence is virtually “the pea under the mattress of the princess”? She is discomforted by even the tiniest pea under the layers of mattresses that constitute her bed? Is this the skin response of the Moscow Patriarchate to the very existence of the Russian Byzantine Catholics? I believe it is and has been.

But the Russian Byzantine Catholics have never been representative of the failed missionary style proselytism of the largely Jesuit efforts in Russia.

The handful of priests, still almost underground in Russia, represent the very opposite.

They are the children of Soloviev, Feodorov, Abrikosov and Sheptytsky, and they are the ever hopeful heirs of St Leonid Feodorov and St Tikhon of Moscow whose eirenic dialogue was smothered by Satan in their mutual martyrdom.

Our remnant longs to commemorate both the Patriarch of Moscow and his brother the Bishop of Rome.

They count the Moscow patriarchate as their Mother Church and, like all children, they love that mother and long for unity with her.

They ask themselves why it is not possible to truly be a bridge, an honest bridge, between the mother Church and the elder brother in Rome? 

But the main theme is the freedom of the Russian Orthodox Church and the necessary condition for her to lead the moral transformation of Russian society.

Freedom depends on having that point d’appui, which has as it happens, the Lord gave to the Church in his post-Resurrectional appearances.

Clearly there will be problems. Some quite insane and pseudo-religious political doctrines are at work in Russia.

Alexander Dugan is the high priest and ideologue of this semi-pagan madness. Speaking of which, how can such a demonic ideology gain any purchase among Russian Christians, and how can the Stretensky Monastery offer hospitality to this new political paganism, which even an intelligent and devout child would recognise as not of Christ? How has this death cult gained influence even in the training manuals of the security organs of the state?

And returning to the question of the Russian Byzantine Catholics for a moment, and the Roman Catholics for that matter, the Orthodox and Catholic Church Churches are already in union in the depths of the Churches.

It is the communion between the Churches that we seek, the dearest wish of the Russian Byzantine Catholics.

Is there a way, a possible model, by which they can be the often dreamed of bridge, a prelude or token of the full communion, which we trust the Holy Spirit to realize?

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