Sergei Chapnin: The Russian Orthodox Church in 2016, and its economic failures (Part Two)
Like the rest of Russian society, the Church too is in recession, suffering from financial losses and bank closures. Problems afflict the monasteries of Trinity-St Sergius Lavra and St Daniel. Lack of financial transparency is an issue whilst parishes are reduced to poverty. A gap exists in the lifestyle of city and country priests.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - We publish below the second part of a study by the former editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. The first part was published yesterday (click here).
2. Economy and Church Administration
Besides inter-Orthodox relations’ challenges, in 2016 the Russian Orthodox Church will face economic grievances due to the economy of Russia undergoing a profound crisis.
Judging from the fact that the Holy Synod called the late 2015 merging of two minor Synodal Departments numbering several dozens of staff members an optimization, the Russian Church still does not grasp the real scale of the economic crisis. Undoubtedly, the relevant decision was purely political. There are no benefits in terms of cost saving or introducing new management models behind this measure.
In the meantime, 2016 will see the recession giving a serious blow to the activities of the ecclesial bodies. The first indications are already there. This refers to the direct losses caused by the closing of Ergobank and Vneshprombank, two banks that used to be most closely connected to the Russian Orthodox Church. Revoking Ergobank’s licence had a negative impact on 61 Orthodox organisations, including such major monasteries as the Trinity-St Sergius Lavra and St Daniel Monastery.
However, the exact sum lost can hardly be calculated. In the case of Vneshprombank, the losses of the administration of the Moscow Patriarchate were estimated at 1.5 billion roubles.
3. Poor Church
The crisis his not only in the Church administration. Deep recession will have its effect on all levels of Church life. As likely as no, we may soon hear of bankrupt parishes incapable of maintaining their churches.
During the so-called Church Revival period, churches were opened spontaneously and chaotically. Bishops and priests rarely considered the chances of the community to sustain it. Even less consideration was given to the parish paying wages to its rector.
As a result, we now have multitudes of churches in once-populous villages with 5 to 10 parishioners today who will never be able to maintain it. Ends meet only because of the parish rector’s good relations with the local authorities and his private sponsors. In view of growing shortage of funds, the sponsors will leave and the rector will remain alone to struggle with upkeep of the church and paying for the utility services.
Isolated cases of such parishes shutting down are known. Yet, it is entirely possible for this trend to grow into an epidemic. Certainly, no one will use the word ‘bankruptcy’ when describing these problems, but the core of it remains the same.
In crisis times, calls to make the financial statements of parishes, monasteries, dioceses and the central administration of the Moscow Patriarchate transparent will be repeated with ever-increasing frequency. There is virtually nobody today who knows how much it costs to maintain a church, how big is a diocesan budget and what it takes to upkeep the dozen of Patriarch’s residences that he visits once or twice a year. Those supporting the Church financially can’t help having these questions and trying to understand whether their donations are spent in a befitting way or not.
For the moment, such transparency is rather an exception. It exists in real parish communities where the clergy and the laymen see the upkeep of the church and its clergy as a direct duty of parishioners. Yet again, such communities are scarce, and their financial statements are available to members alone and are not published in any way.
Until recently, any mentioning of the possible disclosure of the Church’s budget were seen as attacks on something sacred. How can one distrust those managing the finances of the Church even though there are no reports? Who can dare to cast doubt on their diligence and how to do it? Orthodox widely believe that only outsiders, impious people can ask questions about Church finances. There is even a joke: a regular churchgoer can be distinguished by his ability to avoid asking questions on the expenditures but continue donating money to the Church.
However, it is important to remember that persecutions against the Church are part of the very recent history. And the memory of communists closing churches down still lingers on. Any repeat of churches closure, even if the reasons are economic, will cause a serious psychological trauma for many. Associations with times of persecution will be made involuntarily. Yet, apparently, this is a trial that cannot be avoided.
Things are made worse by the financial stratification of the Church that became even more obvious after Patriarch Kirill had launched the process of partitioning dioceses.
The commonplace truth that a bishop should be closer to his flock and to his clergy is only one side of the coin. While commenting on the process of dividing large dioceses into smaller ones, it has always been in the spotlight. Meanwhile, elevation of poor areas to independent dioceses causes problems that nobody has ever thought of. How are they to maintain themselves? How much money will be needed to support hundreds of new diocesan administrations? How will the financial load on the priests grow?
These are the questions that are being asked only now.
Living standards of clergy in big cities and major monasteries are several times higher than those of countryside priests. The hierarchy and the senior Church leaders have paid no regard to this problem, but the coming times will change that.
The truth is that besides some of the clergy there are now some of bishops who find themselves below the poverty line. They do not have much experience in leading dioceses, but clearly in most of the cases their expectations were not realized. Will they keep silent? Quite possibly, they might start asking their questions to Patriarch Kirill very soon.