02/08/2016, 15.01
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Sergei Chapnin: The Russian Orthodox Church in 2016. The pan-Orthodox Synod (Part One)

by Sergei Chapnin

June’s much anticipated  gathering of all the Orthodox Churches is the first in 1300 years. The differences between Kirill and Bartholomew, between Moscow and Constantinople. On the eve of the meeting between Kirill and Francis, an outline of the open challenges facing the Russian Church. The first part of a study penned by Sergei Chapnin, former editor of the Moscow Patriarchate magazine.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - On February 12, Pope Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba and both will become protagonists of a historical event, when for the first time in centuries the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow meet. To gain a deeper understanding of the life of the Russian Orthodox Church, even before the announced meeting between the two leaders, AsiaNews had asked the reporter Serghei Chapnin to outline the challenges that his Church faces this year. Although dismissed last December from the post of Editor of the Moscow Patriarchate Magazine  - in open conflict with the leaders of the Russian Church - Chapnin remains one of the most attentive minds to the developments of the Russian Orthodox Church. In his analysis for  AsiaNews, he outlines the Moscow Patriarchate’s relations  with the other Orthodox Churches ahead of the pan-Orthodox Synod; the economic crisis that hit Russia and its reflection in the relations between the Patriarchate and the diocese; the loss of trust of the faithful in the church hierarchy and more generally the authoritarian leadership of the Church of the Primate Kirill, who this year celebrates his seventh at the helm of the Patriarchate.

Chapnin, 48, is married and has two children. He is the author of several essays including "The Church in post-Soviet Russia", in which he argues that the problem of Russia today - from society to politics, to the faith - is that it has not yet freed itself of Soviet mentality. He also edited the publications of the Patriarchate and had started a small revolution, in 2014, with a monthly magazine "The Russian temple in the XXI century" that for the first time addressed the issue of architecture of modern Orthodox the churches. In fact he is currently working in the field of contemporary Christian. In December, the first "Almanac of contemporary Christian culture" was published, an independent project in which he critiques the contribution of today’s artists, filmmakers, sculptors to Russian culture. Also in December, at the exhibition hall of the 'Imperial Tower' in Kazan station in Moscow, he opened an exhibition which for the first time brought together the works of contemporary artists of sacred art in Russia of a different kind: from icons and mosaics to sculptures.

It is safe to assume that the challenges faced by the Russian Orthodox Church in  recent months will not resolve themselves in 2016. What seems to be a mere external difficulty Is in fact closely related to the outstanding issues of the so-called Church Revival period when it was easier to leave a problem for the future rather than tackle it. Late 2015/early 2016 saw many of those problems resurface. However, the context has changed radically, as the credit of trust that the Church in Russia had back in the 90s and 2000s has been largely spent by today. The tensions with the Ecumenical Patriarchate have become more tangible. The economic crisis can intensify the discord between the dioceses and the central administration of the Moscow Patriarchate.

  1. Ecclesiology and Church diplomacy

Potentially the most high-profile event of 2016, the Pan-Orthodox Council will gather Orthodox bishops from across the globe for the first time in 1300 years. The word ‘potentially’ was used deliberately, as even though there are a mere four months left until 19 June 2016,  Pentecost Day, which would have been a very symbolic date for the opening of the Council, the final arrangements have not been agreed upon.

Even the very fact of the Council being convened causes controversy. Preparations for the Council began almost 50 years ago and with varying intensity have proceeded ever since. On the one hand, the Council can become the obvious and visible manifestation of the unity and like-mindedness of the local Orthodox Churches. Yet, on the other hand, the antagonisms between the Churches mounting up for centuries naturally heightened on the eve of the Council. Is there a hope to overcome those? If not, the Council stands a good chance of becoming a gathering for the sake of a nice group photo.

For this scepsis one should thank the excessive entwinement of ecclesiological and diplomatic issues. Though the strife between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Moscow Patriarch Kirill is far from being the only problem here, it is still the most obvious. This opposition is more than merely testing one another’s strength. It is based on different ecclesiological models, which have not been explicitly articulated yet, but their general outline is already clear.

The Moscow Patriarchate takes the coming Council too instrumentally. Patriarch Kirill practically fights for specific documents and insists on prompt approval of their drafts, the more the better. In his turn, Patriarch Bartholomew sees the Pan-Orthodox Council not as a set of documents but as a process. In that paradigm, attesting to one’s own genuine longing for unity is most important. Since the conciliar process provides for regular meetings every 5, 7 or 10 years, it is not a tragedy if some of the documents are not approved in 2016. The work on those drafts can continue.

Which of the two positions prevails remains to be seen. Yet, the instrumental approach is by far more open to objection. In Russia itself, that criticism is of harsh and even apocalyptic nature. I believe, Patriarch Kirill is bound to at least bear in mind the voices coming from the Church right that have started calling the Pan- Orthodox Council ‘a Pan-Orthodox shame’ long ago. In this camp, concerns that heretical decisions harming ‘the purity of the Orthodox faith’ may be adopted are extremely strong.

Patriarch Kirill reckons that earliest possible publication of those document drafts to be considered by the Council may help him dispose of such radical accusations. It may happen however that these opposing voices are nothing but an isolated case of a general mistrust in Church hierarchy as such on the part of the Orthodox-monarchist and Orthodox-patriotic groups. For those circles, any attempt to formulate and solve any up-to-date problems is heretical, so the accusations will not go anywhere.

According to their mantra, ‘the Holy Fathers have repeatedly said that everything one needed for salvation had been formulated at the seven Ecumenical Councils, and we need no more.’ In other words, no matter what happens at the Council and what documents are adopted, these groups condemn the very fact of its convening. Is Patriarch Kirill aware that there is no sense to enter into polemics with bearers of this mythologized mentality? Discussion of modern challenges and changing modes of living will hardly command any sympathy on the part of the remote critics of the Council.

Another important question is what the position of other local Orthodox Churches will be. Clearly, the ‘Greek’ Churches, despite all their discord, will speak with one voice. What is the state of affairs before the Council among the ‘Slavic’ Churches? Does the Russian Church have allies and loyal friends in its confrontation with the Phanar? The answer is far from being obvious, and so is the power balance. In January, the Ecumenical Patriarch secured an impressive victory by brokering a long-awaited peace for the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. Under the pressure of Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Rostislav had to accept concessions that run counter to the policy endorsed in recent years by the Moscow Patriarchate. Its hard-line stance turned out to be counterproductive.

(This article was written before the publication of the official decisions of the January Synaxis of the Heads of Local Orthodox Churches in Chambesy)

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