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Christian Unity and the Russian Orthodox Church

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The miraculous post-Soviet revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, all but destroyed by the end of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, is one of the great stories of 21st Century Christianity. This revival is now focused on the restoration of church life that saw its great institutions and spiritual treasures — churches, monasteries, seminaries, libraries — more or less obliterated by an aggressively atheist regime. Many of the Church’s best and brightest monks, clergy and theologians were martyred, imprisoned or forced into exile. Yet, plans are now underway to build 200 churches in the Moscow area alone.

The Church’s renewal is set against Russia’s steep population decline and grave social ills including alcoholism, the disintegration of the family, what amounts to an open season on journalists, and an immense and growing corruption problem at all levels of government and society. Building new churches is one thing; getting believers to fill them and then effect a social transformation by following the Great Commandment will be a more difficult climb. “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved” — St. Seraphim of Sarov.

It is perhaps impossible to comprehend, without having lived through it, the depths of destruction and despair that Russia had sunk to under the Soviets. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay “Live Not By Lies” and you begin to comprehend, albeit at a great distance, something about a system that destroyed tens of millions of people:

Things have almost reached rock bottom. A universal spiritual death has already touched us all, and physical death will soon flare up and consume us both and our children — but as before we still smile in a cowardly way and mumble without tongues tied. But what can we do to stop it? We haven’t the strength.

The public face of the Russian church is lately, for much of the global media, an Oxford-educated bishop who is also a composer of music, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. His web site is here. As the director of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, he is a much traveled spokesman for the largest and most influential Orthodox Church in the world with more than 150 million members. Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg included Hilarion in what he referred to as Pope Benedict’s “creative minority.”

Christianity Today deputy managing editor Timothy C. Morgan interviewed Hilarion on the bishop’s recent trip to Washington. Here’s an excerpt and, following that, some recent links to interviews where Hilarion talks about a unified Christian witness on social problems. Finally, a link to his condemnation of Stalin as a “monster.”

CT: What role can the Russian Orthodox Church play in world evangelization?

Hilarion: Christ created his church not just for private use but also for missionary purposes, and the church has a missionary imperative that must be embodied in the concrete forms of preaching and evangelizing.

Some say you can be a practicing Christian in your home and your family, but you should in no way exhibit your Christian commitments in your public life, especially if you are a politician. I believe that a Christian should be a Christian everywhere. And if he is a Christian and a politician at the same time, then his political agenda should be motivated by Christian values.

In our country, some people say the church exists in order to provide certain services to people when they need them: to baptize children, to marry couples, to organize funerals, and to do services in the church.

I believe that the role of the church is much more inclusive. For example, very often nowadays our church will publicly express positions on what’s happening in the country.

Some people ask, “Why does the church interfere? It’s not their business.” We believe that the church can express its opinion on all aspects of human life. We do not impose our opinions on the people, but we should be free to express them. And people will have to choose whether to follow or not to follow, whether to listen to what we say or to ignore it.

CT: Church leaders worldwide are challenged by secularism and Islam. Which do you see as a greater threat to global Christianity?

Hilarion: Secularism.

If we speak about Islam (and of course if we mean moderate Islam), then I believe there is the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity. This is what we have had in Russia for centuries, because Russian Islam has a very long tradition. But we never had religious wars. Nowadays we have a good system of collaboration between Christian denominations and Islam.

The picture is different in many other countries, and recently, even the European Parliament publicly recognized that Christians are persecuted and discriminated against in many countries, including in Islamic countries. This is a problem we have to address. Yet I believe that on many essential points, especially in many aspects of moral teaching, Christianity and Islam are allies, and we can cooperate in those fields.

Secularism is dangerous because it destroys human life. It destroys essential notions related to human life, such as the family. One can argue about the role of the church. One can even argue about the existence of God; we cannot prove that God exists to those who don’t want to believe that God exists. But when the difference in the world outlook touches very basic notions such as family, it no longer has to do with theological truths; it has to do with anthropological issues. And our debate with secularism is not about theology; it’s about anthropology. It’s about the present and the future of the human race. And here we disagree with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly, and we believe that it destroys something very essential about human life.

Further reading:

An alliance of faith
Moscow Patriarchate calls for strategic alliance with Catholic Church
Interview with Russia Today

Archbishop Hilarion on Christian Unity
‘We should not pretend we are close to solving this problem’
Interview with National Catholic Register

Metropolitan Hilarion thanks Catholics for their active assistance rendered to Orthodox believers abroad
Interview with Interfax

Address by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations to the Annual Nicean Club Dinner (Lambeth Palace, 9 September 2010)
Web site of the Dept. of External Relations, Russian Orthodox Church

Russian archbishop’s censure of Stalin as “a monster” makes waves
By Sophia Kishkovsky, ENI

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


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  • Russia emerges as Europe’s most God-believing nation (Christian Science Monitor, May 6)

    … according to the poll, just 50 percent of Russians say they are Orthodox, while 27 percent didn’t associate themselves with any particular organized faith. Among young people between 18 and 24, the number of unaffiliated believers was 34 percent.

    “It would be correct to describe Russia as a land of believers, but it cannot be called a country of religious people,” says Mikhail Tarusin, head of sociology at the independent Institute of Public Projects in Moscow. “We were an officially atheist state for 74 years, and it may take some time to rebound from that. Right now I don’t think we could put the proportion of truly religious, church-going people at more than 20 percent.”

    Experts say that most Russians lead overwhelmingly secular lives and pay little heed to the Orthodox Church’s increasingly frequent efforts to influence public morals, including a leading priest’s recent call for a national dress code and a string of Church-instigated lawsuits against artistic “blasphemy.”

    “There is no doubt that Orthodoxy is the traditional confession in Russia, but only a small part of those who call themselves Orthodox actually go to church regularly, mark the festivals, or practice the rituals,” says Vladimir Gurbolikov, deputy editor of Foma, a missionary magazine published by the Orthodox Church. “The problem is a lack of information in society. People do not have normal communication with the Church and are unable to establish it, and so they do not know the Orthodox Christian faith even if they identify themselves with it.”


  • TR

    As a Protestant Christian missionary who has lived in Russia for the last 15 years, I find much of this story ironic. Honestly and objectively I can say that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is the greatest cause for Christian persecution in Russia. Second place doesnt even come close. To the genuine believers and church leaders who truly desire to follow Christ, the view the ROC as the only way of salvation, with all other forms of Christianity (Cath, Prot.) falling into 2 categories (1) eresy (2) cults or sects.

    Our town (a major city with po over 1 million) recently had a 3 day seminar from the church leaders titled “The threat to Russian society from the pseudo-Christian cults.” I sat in the front row, and it was brutal. All Christian faiths outside the ROC were belittled and ridiculed in language that would make the average American Christian blush. One leader spoke and compared “these cult members” to the terrorists in the Middle East. The main Bishop of our entire state stared at me in the eyes when he said, “there are many people in this room (over 1000 from the host university) that believe they are Christians and are going to spend eternity with Christ after death. You are badly mistaken and are leading people to damnation. This book (the Bible) and this person (holding an Icon of CHrist) have no value to you whatsoever if you are not under the covering of the ROC. None.”

    In my informed opinion (and I know most Russians would agree with me), the ROC is a political machine, first and foremost. The church buidling program the author speaks of is not intended to increase a spiritual awakening in the country. It is intended to strengthen a “national identity” that has been lacking since the fall of communism. The Gov wants to strengthen the “concept” of what it means to be Russian, and the church is a handy tool for this. Many of the funds for these churches come from the state budget.

    Russia – for the 8th year in a row – was listed on the State Department’s list of countries that do not permit religious freedom. Certainly, the ROC and not the government is the largest cause for these troubles.

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  • TR: Thanks for your comments. Did you see this exchange from the CT interview?

    CT: What about the activity of Christian groups coming into Russia, setting up shop, and trying to reach people who have not heard the gospel?

    Hilarion: In many cases, the activity of foreign missionaries in Russia might be profitable to people, because there are many social problems. But whoever comes with missionary purposes to our country must first learn our history, our tradition, and see how to correlate with the existing Christian churches. We distinguish between mission and proselytism. Mission, for example, is when you go to a foreign country where Christianity was not preached and you preach Christ. But when you come to a country where there is an established church that has existed for centuries, then you have to respect it. Ideally you have to come into contact with her and work together with her. Such work brings very positive fruits.

    Generally after the election of Patriarch Kirill, the ecumenical climate and inter-Orthodox climate changed drastically. He made a direct appeal to the Patriarch of Constantinople to come to work together on various issues that are still dividing us, to come to a new type of relationship built on mutual trust rather than competition. And I think so far it’s worked well.

    CT: How do you describe the model for church-state relations in Russia, and how could it be improved?

    Hilarion: I don’t represent the Russian Federation. I represent the Russian Orthodox Church, which includes other countries—Ukraine, Moldova, Belorussia, Kazakhstan. And in each of these states, the model of coexistence between the church and the state differs.

    Our relations with the Russian political authorities are now based on two principles.

    One principle is the separation of the church from the state, a mutual noninterference in internal affairs. This means that the government doesn’t interfere with our life. And, we do not interfere with political processes. For example, we do not and cannot support one particular party against another party; we cannot say that this party is ours and this party is not ours, because we have to be inclusive. We are prepared to include members of all political orientations, except for extremists. And this is why, for example, some members of the Communist Party are Orthodox believers. This was not possible 20 or 30 years ago.

    The other basic principle is collaboration. We build our relationship with the state to collaborate in those areas that are related to people’s lives, and where such collaboration is necessary and welcome. For example, on all the issues I mentioned—family, demographics, education—we have a constant dialogue with the government in order to assist each other and people in their daily lives.

    For example, the demographic crises cannot be addressed only from an economic or social point of view. They have to be addressed also from the spiritual point of view; we cannot change the declining demographic unless we address it from different angles, unless the whole society and all healthy forces of the society are involved. And this includes the government. If we succeed in creating an alliance between at least four pillars of society—politics, education, the church, and mass media—then we can change this tendency.

    As to your anecdote about the Orthodox bishop, I can’t speak to that. You haven’t told us what sort of theology you were preaching, or what criticisms you may have leveled against Orthodox Tradition. I assume, since you have identified yourself as a Protestant missionary, that these weren’t altogether complimentary.

    Also you might be interested in this article, published today:

    9 May 2011

    Religious leaders urge Russians to heed lessons of World War II

    By Sophia Kishkovsky

    Moscow, 9 May (ENInews)–Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church and Rabbi Berl Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, speaking at separate ceremonies on 8 and 9 May, urged Russians to heed the lessons of World War II.

    The end of the war, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, is marked on 9 May in most of the other former Soviet republics as Victory Day over Nazi Germany. Soviet civilian and military deaths in the war are estimated at upwards of 20 million and the losses are still seared into memories here, even of those born long after the war.

    Kirill, who was paying a pastoral visit to Ukraine, which makes up one of the largest and most important parts of the Russian Orthodox Church and is at the fulcrum of disputes over Soviet history, laid a wreath of chrysanthemums at a war memorial in Kharkov. The city in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, was the scene of intense battles between the Soviet Red Army and the Nazis.

    “At memorials devoted to those who died in the Great Patriotic War, one understands especially well how deep is the wound inflicted by the war on the body of our entire people: Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians — all those who fought together defending a united Fatherland, who fought with the most frightening and dangerous enemy, which wanted to change the world according to its image,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency.

    Post-Soviet historical debate has raised questions about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s role in the war and wartime losses, and brought out into the open long-taboo information about collaboration with the Nazis and even suggestions that Russia would be better today if Nazi Germany had won.

    Kirill and other church leaders have strongly condemned Stalinism and the persecution of the church in the Soviet era, but the Russian Orthodox leader warned against attempts to reinterpret the memory of the war.

    On 9 May, he addressed war veterans who gathered at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, where a celebration was being held to mark the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the war. After nearly destroying the church in the 1930s, Stalin revived it under strict Kremlin control, to rally the nation in the war effort.

    Also in Moscow, Lazar, war veterans and students of Jewish schools on 8 May placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin wall in Moscow. Lazar said that Victory Day marks the day when Jews were miraculously saved from total annihilation. “That’s why we will never forget the feat of those who saved Europe from Nazism,” he said.

    But he also warned that “right now in Russia a gradual return of Nazi ideology is taking place.” For that reason, said the rabbi, Victory Day “is not only a holiday, but a moment when we can learn some lessons from the past so as not to allow it to be repeated in the future,” he said, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

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  • Head of Synodal Department proposes to hold subbotnik to “clean” Russia from Lenin’s monuments

    Moscow, April 27, Interfax – Head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for Relations with the Armed Forces Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov proposed to hold the all-Russian subbotnik, a day of volunteer work, to “clean” Russia from monuments to Lenin.

    “We have a strong tradition of cleaning cities from winter garbage. It would be reasonable to expand this cleaning tradition on monuments and signboards which carry the name of this monster. We should hold such all-Russian subbotnik to delete his name from our memory,” Father Dimitry said in his video blog.

    Those effigies of the “monster”, as he puts it, which have artistic value should be “moved to museums.” However, the priest says it would be better to have an open air museum “so that it deteriorates in time.”

    According to Father Dimitry, “Russia has not seen such a monster before” and therefore, it should “clean itself from his bitchy name and the names of his vicious assistants” just as Germany has cleaned away the name of Hitler and his associates.

    Father Dimitry proposes to remove Bolshevik’s names from the names of all Russia’s cities and streets as they “intoxicate the spiritual environment.”

    [posted at Interfax: 11 May 2011, 15:27]

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  • Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff interviews Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on evangelism, evangelicals, and the Orthodox Church. (Posted July 6). Neff asks, “How about social justice—how does Orthodoxy practice that?”

    Ware:There is a great deal of room for Orthodoxy to do more.
    The most notable efforts in recent years have been by the church of
    Russia. At its local council in 2000, and more recently in 2006, the
    church of Russia has produced reflective documents on social witness.
    This may be only a beginning, but it’s a valuable beginning.

    In the West, we ought to develop our social witness.
    Within Orthodoxy, there is a strong tradition of compassion for the
    poor, the underprivileged, the suffering. This you see in many of the
    lives of our saints. But all too often, this was merely on an individual
    basis, helping those who were in distress and need. There was not
    enough effort made among Orthodox to question unjust social structures.
    We gave bread to the poor, but we did not ask sufficiently why the poor
    had no bread. We did not, perhaps, protest against the unjust social
    structures that existed in Orthodox countries and now exist in the
    Western world.

    Read the whole thing: