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The End of the Russian Orthodox Church as we Know it

By Sebastian Rimestad

This is a continuation of my previous bulletin entry, which can be found here. Whereas the  previous article provided a basic understanding of the Orthodox view of the conflict in Ukraine, this one analyses a number of new developments, especially the latest utterances of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Sunday, 6 March 2022, was Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church, the last day before the beginning of the Great Lent before Easter. It is  a day when every believer publicly asks everybody around for forgiveness. In the last few days before Sunday, there had been numerous pleas from all over the Orthodox world for Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, to use Forgiveness Sunday to speak out against Putin’s war efforts, which pit Orthodox believers against their also Orthodox neighbours. This included an open letter from Russian Orthodox clergy, which had received almost 300 signatures by Saturday evening – even though many of the signatories serve outside the Russian Federation. Moreover, numerous Christian Churches of other denominations as well as ecumenical organisations tried to appeal to the Patriarch to openly condemn the military assault on Ukraine.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the patriarchal sermon for this Sunday was eagerly awaited by many. However, the actual sermon shocked almost everybody. Instead of saying anything about forgiveness or the sinfulness of war, the Patriarch devoted almost a third of his sermon to speak about Gay Pride parades, which he blamed as the main reason for the Russian need to militarily intervene in Ukraine. According to the Patriarch, it was the refusal to hold a Gay Pride parade in the Ukrainian Donbas region that made the Ukrainian government, allegedly consisting of Nazis, oppose and subdue this region. In this narrative, the Russian military operation in Ukraine is no more than the justified consolidation of the moral integrity of the Orthodox brethren in Ukraine from the evil moral decay emanating from “the West”.

Kyiv Pride 2018 (Arrideo Photography; cc-by-nd-2.0)

While this narrative is even more ridiculous than anybody I know could have imagined, it is not principally inconsistent with what has happened over the last decades within the Orthodox Church. There is a deepening chasm within this religious community – almost all across the globe to varying degrees – between those who see the unchanging church as the answer to all current questions and those who attempt to creatively adapt Orthodox theology to the challenges of the modern world. It is a split that appears in most religious communities at some point, when the question of the relationship between religious tradition and the modern world is raised. Should religious tradition conform to modern realities or the other way around? In principle, for the believers the question boils down to whether the challenges of the modern world are a chance or a threat. In the case of Orthodox Christianity, as in other „non-Western“ religious traditions, the issue is further exacerbated by the perceived need to prove the superiority of one’s own approach over and against that of “the (blasphemous) West”.

In the Orthodox Church, the chasm is between those who accept “Western” notions, such as democracy, liberal market, separation between state and church, fluid gender theories, liberal sexual norms, etc. without questioning them, and those who claim that the Orthodox Church has established that the theologically correct attitude to each of these developments is outright rejection – a stance which ought to be defended to achieve the salvation of mankind. Now this characterisation is obviously overly simplistic, for there are many more differentiated and complex theological approaches available and the chasm is only one in the narrative of the most reactionary conservatives – or in the case of North America, the overzealous converts from evangelical Christianity. It is easy to argue that the chasm is only a perceived one that is much more easily overcome if one were creatively engaging with the opposing side, but there is often a tendency to reject any dialogue altogether. This aspect was eloquently elaborated by the American Orthodox theologian John Jillions in his Florovsky Lecture from January 2022 and it is evident in Patriarch Kirill’s refusal to engage with any narrative other than the rejection of the Gay Pride parade.

It would therefore be a fallacy to dismiss the patriarchal sermon as one man’s delirious attempt to make sense of the situation. It runs much deeper, and is not just a regurgitation of Putin’s propaganda either. Rather, it is the discourse of a religious mindset that sees itself cornered by morally evil forces in a modern world where religion does not command the same kind of respect as it presumably once did. Not only the Patriarch buys into this kind of rhetoric, but also a growing section of the disillusioned evangelical community in USA, a portion of which has converted to the Orthodox Church precisely because they perceive it as a last bastion of moral integrity in a decaying world (see here).

Returning to Ukraine, there the indicated chasm has been portrayed as one between two kinds of Orthodoxy, respectively associated with the new autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC). The latter – with strong backing from the Russian Church and the Moscow Patriarchate – has repeatedly sought to paint its adversary – the OCU – as a pawn of Western moral decadence. In return, the OCU does not shy away from describing the UOC as an entity stuck in the past and unable to engage astutely with contemporary issues. These mutual epithets rarely fully reflect reality and are often no more than polemical rhetoric, but they help fuel the image of an unbridgeable chasm between “good” and “bad” Orthodox Christianity, which especially the Moscow Patriarchate is eager to propagate.

In the context of the ongoing conflict, this attempt to force the separation of the wheat from the chaff can be observed in the reactions to the war from other Orthodox Churches. There is a more or less clear divide between those churches that are traditionally counted in the same camp as the Moscow Patriarchate – i.e. the Churches of Serbia and Bulgaria as well as the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem, and the churches traditionally more allied to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the primate of honour in the Orthodox Church – the Churches of Greece and Finland. The latter clearly condemned Russia’s aggression whereas the former were rather general in their calls for a peaceful resolution. The Church of Romania, which usually sits between the camps, also condemned Russia, as did the leading bishop of the Orthodox Church in America. These responses, in Moscow’s eyes, illustrate whether a church feels the need to outright oppose modern developments or not.

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that these are all reactions of church leaders. They are not necessarily an indication of the mindset of the mass of believers, who often have their own views on these issues. There is a tendency to assume that the more conservative churches also consist of a more conservative laity, but that is difficult to ascertain without large-scale statistical analysis. What is clear, though, is that there are believers of all persuasions in all churches. It is therefore very important to refrain from judging a person based solely on his or her religious affiliation. That Russia has introduced prison sentences of up to 15 years for calling the operations in Ukraine a war or publishing “knowingly false information” about what is happening is an obvious red flag, suggesting that there are people of dissenting opinions also within Russia. Not all of them might be pious believers, but such are certainly also among them. The only reason they are still being heard at all is because many of them have already fled to a safer country where freedom of opinion is more valued.

Finally, let me come to the future of the Russian Church and why I and many other analysts believe that this might be the end of it. First, if the Moscow Patriarchate survives the global headwinds it has received for its complacency in the war and will receive following this Sunday’s patriarchal sermon, it is unlikely to have any credibility left for ecumenical dialogue and inter-religious events. Patriarch Kirill can no longer hope to be seen as an authority figure among Western elites, except perhaps on the fringes. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Department of External Church Relations, has so far been surprisingly quiet. During his working visit to the Patriarch of Antioch, one of the ancient Orthodox Churches, on 4 March, he avoided to speak about Ukraine altogether. The Faculty of Theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where Hilarion occupies a honorary professorship, on 2 March publicly demanded of him to condemn the war, but he has failed to respond so far. Influential commentators are already quite unanimous in their rejection of him as a serious theological scholar as long as he does not comment in any sensible way on the war.  

So, even if the Moscow Patriarchate survives in the current form, it will have lost much of its influence and standing in the wider world – not to mention in Russia itself. In many Western capitals, there are large Russian Orthodox Cathedrals attached to the Embassies. The one in Paris – right across from the Eiffel Tower – published a statement about the war on 2 March, which repeats official Russian propaganda word for word, confirming that it is part of a parallel world. Calls for its confiscation emerged immediately and petitions to that end popped up. If this kind of isolation continues or is extended, voices have warned that Russia could become a second North Korea.

If the Patriarchate does not survive, on the other hand, the question arises how to rebuild it. It is important for the Russian Orthodox Church to have a functioning central administration and this administration is the Moscow Patriarchate, so it cannot be completely abolished. However, there are already public debates on Facebook and elsewhere underway to determine what a reconstruction could look like. There is near unanimity on the fact that a complete change of the leadership is necessary, but that it is simply too early to say much more. First, there is a war to be fought and an ideology to be disproven. Once this has been achieved, the next steps can be metered out. For now, it is important to recognise the leadership’s propaganda as such and not assume that this is the opinion of all ordinary Russian Orthodox believers.