20 years have passed since the terrible murder of the priest Alexander Men, a gifted preacher and missionary, who called people to a spiritual quest and spiritual transformation, and called the church to cleanse itself of the many remnants of paganism, superstition and prejudice. Just two months before the murder of Father Alexander, to the Saint Petersburg cathedra Metropolitan Ioann (Snychov) was appointed, the holder of great-power, nationalist, anti-semitic convictions, an ideologue of a kind of “Orthodox Taliban”. They are full spiritual antipodes!
Although Metropolitan Ioann died in 1995, his work and his teaching in the Russian church survive and flourish. Everyone knows that genuine author of his teaching was the shamefully famous Konstantin Dushenov, who was recently convicted of enflaming ethnic hatred. This is not even conservative, it is reactionary: an unrestrained idealisation of long-obsolescent forms of church life, and appeals to return to an invented past that never existed. As a result of such teaching, archaic semi-pagan forms of worship are widespread in the Russian church, as well as the categorical rejection of church reforms without which it is impossible to restore true Christian life.
Despite the present authorities' encouragement of the clericalisation of the Russian state on the base of the Moscow Patriarchate, there has been no spiritual revival in Russia. In the years when atheist ideology and the communist empire collapsed, religious ardour very rapidly awakened in the people. However, it was reduced to nothing by the efforts of the “Metropolitburo”, which was scared of the prospect of a weakening of their authority over the clergy and the people. In and of themselves, believers have no particular value for the synodal oligarchy; the profits from them are miserly. They are needed just for show, to show the church oligarchy's “electoral power” to the state authorities. Therefore there has been no real support of missionary activity or strengthening of the social life of parishes – such initiatives have been met only with distrust. A particular blow has been aimed against parish life, which is the religious family within which the religious life of the whole people revolves. The very element that forms the spiritual basis of this family – the unity of the priest with his community – has been mercilessly suppressed. As soon as this unity has appeared, the priest has been dismiss or has been moved to some far and inaccessible parish. Despite the fact that the hierarchy encourages certain elite priests, there is no more socially unprotected condition in Russia today than that of the parish priest. All the energy of the clerical authorities is concentrated in one direction – the expansion of church property: here there is real money and real political influence. They had to avoid the “danger” inherent in a parish community exercising its constitutional
to the own and control its own church. And the hierarchy did not struggle in vain: the aim, for the sake of which the spiritual rebirth of Russia was halted, was successfully achieved. Many Orthodox churches were permanently removed from the people and became the effective property of the synodal oligarchy.
The experience of the last two decades has shown that a Christian transformation of the country, a genuine evangelisation of public life, cannot be achieved without a cardinal reconstruction of the church organism, without the restoration of genuine sobornost (conciliarity) . Of course, freedom within the church could at first serve to bring to the surface the most uncivilised and archaic ideas, but an attempt to combat these through bureaucratic force is completely hopeless. Apart from this, the possessors of aggressively fundamentalist positions gain a positive image, when they are the victims of the tough and brutal church administration. Let them separate out into different structures and express their opinions openly. That would be better than tolerating their half-underground existence or their attempts to seize power with their own hands.
With great sorrow we must admit that not just the Russian church, but all of Orthodoxy long ago went into a stage of stagnation. As a result Orthodoxy has been marginalised, and is ever more on the edge of world history. The reason for this spiritual misfortune lies not so much in the problems of doctrinal beliefs, but in the backwardness of the church structure, in its complete inability to meet the demands of the modern age. This crisis finds its roots in those far-off times when the church, unexpectedly and decisively coming up from the catacombs, was immediately integrated with the Roman Imperial state, and became part of its administrative structure. The structure of relations between church and state created by Constantine, and strengthened in Justinian's laws, put the church authorities in an honoured place, but also stripped the church of spiritual and social freedom, as established by Christ and the apostles. Despite the fact that Christianity became the ideological foundation of the empire, the Christian emperors fully preserved the pagan idea of the state as the supreme value. They never doubted their right or even obligation to interfere in all aspects of church life. Today in Russia, we are once more hearing about the medieval “symphony”, although in an age of constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of conscience it looks like nothing more than a caricature or a farce: state officials, posing for the cameras with church candles in their hands, the people has been blessed by “candle-holders”.
Despite state interference, leading to splits and dissent, the church in Byzantine times still managed to achieve great spiritual gains. With many centuries of effort they worked out the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas,
introduced these truths into liturgical practise, created and protected the great hesychast tradition oftheosis, and brought many pagan peoples to the Christian faith. But the defective nature of the church's organisation inevitably led to a steady destruction of the spirit, since the strength could not be found for the final step – changing the church's public life to agree with Christian belief. And this faith was also deadened, the creative discovery of its depths that had begun with the early Christian and Patristic periods all but stopped. One of the most pernicious errors of the Byzantine period was that the church structure began to be taken as something external and separate in relation to faith, when it must be an object of faith itself. The believers completely lost their understanding that the church's teaching about itself is no less important than that about God or Christ. The lack of an accepted teaching about the church structure, implanted in the apostolic tradition, caused a gigantic spiritual breach, into which pagan temptations poured.
The question of the relation between church and state as two fundamentally different forms of human organisation was replaced with questions about the relations between the church and state authorities. The idea of a “symphony” between church and state was accepted in eastern Orthodoxy as being akin to the relations been the soul and the body; though, this fully contradicted the apostolic idea of the church as a special spiritual and social organism, full of the divine grace of the Holy Trinity and headed by Jesus Christ. It is necessary to state that, in distinction to the Eastern Church, the Roman church in its fight with the state fell to the opposite extreme – it took on an imperial form for itself, and became a global priestly empire. As a result of its tough authoritarian organisation, Catholicism is also itself living through a deep crisis.
Despite the collapse of the Christian Empires, the internal church structure created in the imperial period remained unchanged. While Orthodoxy was unable to escape from Caesaropapism, and Catholicism remained in a position of Papocaesarism, western Christian nations were developed and transformed by secular means, and steadily transformed society with Christian teaching. The first, and basic right, from which all the others were born, was Freedom of Conscience, created in the Reformation – here was the biggest departure from the era of the middle ages. After the English and French revolutions, and the American War of Independence, the constitutional and social structures steadily began to be perfected, based on the sovereignty of the individual, the freedom of social organisations, the supremacy of the law and the independence of the courts. In the difficult, often dramatic battle with the remnants of the medieval political mindset, societies and states of a new type were born and realised their great creative potential, declaring their basis
to be Human Rights.
These are the rights that most closely resemble Christian dogma and ethics. Every person stands alone before God and he personally receives the evangelic instruction to renew his life. And only a free human being is suitable for gathering together with those around him for joint services to God and human society. The fact that God was incarnated not in a state or a nation, but in a specific person, bears witness to the fact that in the hierarchy of creation, the human is placed higher than the state or nation. Therefore the state is created to serve humans, and not the other way round, and nationality is no more than one of the aspects of an individual. Every attempt to totally subordinate the interests of an individual to the interests of a state, nation or even religious confession is anti-Christianity.
In the act of baptism, every “common” Christian is introduced to the authority of Jesus Christ. In the words of the apostle: “you are a chosen people, a royal priest-hood, a holy nation” (Peter 2:9). The Revelations of St John declare “the glory and dominion “of Jesus Christ, and that he “hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father” (Rev.1:6). This kingly power is not given for the life ahead, but for life on earth; God gives his gifts for direct earthly use, he gives those talents that a person must use in life, and not bury in the earth. The joint consciousness of the church must answer the key question: how must this kingly power, given in the holy baptism to every Christian, be realised in a large community of believers? It is necessary that we reach a common resolution of the questions of church structure, by achieving a developed system of church electoral right and equality for the legislative, executive and judicial branches of church authority at all levels. The fundamental principle of canonical structure is the right of free church self-determination for every Christian. And this same freedom is given to groups of believers – eparchies and communities, who have the right to join one church structure or another, a confederation or a federation, and the right to unrestricted departure from it. Only in a condition of organisational freedom can the early-Christian unity of the church be restored – not as an administrative-bureaucrat unit, but as a union of faith and life.
The teaching about the church is nothing more than the projection of the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas on everyday church life, in both its mystical and social aspects. The short formula of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed contains the spiritual seed of the future dogma about the church: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”. But for now this is just a seed, which has not grown into a full teaching. The sense of this formulation is still not reveal and therefore there are arbitrary and contradictory interpretations, leading to enmity and estrangement among Christians, the mystical unity of whom is
set out in the act of baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity and the sacrament of the Eucharist relating to the body and blood of Christ.
According to the Chalcedonian dogma, Jesus Christ has two natures both the divine and the human, and the church, which is headed by Jesus Christ, has this same twin-nature. If the divine nature of the church is revealed in its divine life – in personal charisma, in the mysteries of baptism and the Eucharist, then its human nature is realised above all in the means of organisation and governance of church life. The godly beginnings of the church are eternal and unchanging, but its human beginnings undergo constant change, growth, and development. If the divine life of the church deserves to be kept always as it was, then the church structure must be reformed whenever the practical necessity for that appears. As it says in the Bible: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (St Paul's Letter to the Romans, 12:2).
Saint Cyprian of Carthage taught us that: “despite its powerful capabilities, grace cannot violate human freedom”. Therefore, in its human form, the church must aim to avoid any use of force or compulsion. From absolute monarchy, not infrequently degenerated in eastern despotism with a tough vertical of power, the Orthodox Church must return to conciliar structure. Without this it is impossible to hope for a revival of Orthodoxy, to the revealing of the spiritual riches hidden and saved within it.
The clear necessity of such a reform is confirmed by all the experiences of the Orthodox churches in the last century.The refusal to subordinate to a church authority and the movement to the principle of a free union between eparchies and communities was a wide-spread tendency in the post-imperial era of Orthodoxy. This is conditioned by different causes: an opposition to state terror (the Russian church after 1917); differing positions on questions that have not yet been jointly discussed (the problems of the calendar, ecumenism, etc); changes to state borders; the problems of national or social self-determination abroad and so on. Clear examples of such small church congregations are the Greek “old-style churches” and the many “fragments” of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad.
In and of itself this process is natural and organic, reflecting the real conditions of life and social ministry of the church in contemporary world. The only harm is that the lack of understanding of the fundamental principle of church freedom leads to endless discord and mutual condemnation. Canonical law of the imperial period recognises only one basis for “separation” from the central church authorities – the descent of these authorities into heresy – which leads to intentional and unfounded mutual accusation of all-possible “heresies”.
The most serious crime, which can cause deep wounds to
the Christian conscience and drive many human souls away from faith and the church, is the blasphemous claim by the bureaucratic administration to the direction of grace. Such a claim appears in the statements of various church “authorities” about the “gracelessness” of all congregations and communities that refuse to subordinate themselves to their administration. Statements about the invalidity or unholiness of the rituals of such unsubordinated church unions are a means of scaring the believers, an attempt to guide their consciences, and in their religious nature a clear case of “abuse of the Holy Spirit”. Deprived of the fear of God, the church officials do not believe in their own anathemas and forgot about them when church politics demands it. A clear example is the communication between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad, despite the fact that the Patriarchate had repeatedly condemned it in the past. They did not even consider it necessary to cancel all their prohibitions and excisions, probably because they did not want to remind anyone of these dishonest and dishonourable acts. The deadly evil of church bureaucracy is the main obstacle on the path to a return to a fully Christian life.
In appealing for the necessity of a deep reform of the church structure, we are not appealing for the destruction of the currently-existing traditional forms of governance, we are appealing for them to be filled with a conciliar Christian spirit. A church structure cannot be based on spiritual compulsion, threat or force – in all its parts, in the whole of its daily life – it must be based on the free and informed choice and decision of the church people. From an unlimited authoritarian monarchy, headed by the pope in Catholicism or by the “mini-popes” in Orthodoxy, the church structure must be transformed into a sort of “constitutional monarchy”, in which the sovereign right of every believer, every community and every eparchy is considered holy. We notice in this context, was not the recent visit of the Pope to Great Britain connected to an attempt to draw the attention of Catholics to the successful historical experience of constitutional monarchy? And is not the spiritual impulse given to Catholicism by Vatican II moving in this direction?
In Orthodoxy, the Russian Church started on the road of internal transformation while retaining traditional forms immediately after the collapse of the empire. This route was chosen and clearly laid out in the decisions of the council of 1917-18, but further on the church authorities completely changed the spirit and letter of this great council. It is worth pointing out, however, that formally the decisions of the council were never re-examined and cancelled, so these decisions remain in the existing regulations for all churches that consider themselves to be the successors of the historical Russian Orthodox Church. In modern orthodoxy, the tendency towards a deepening of sobornost (conciliarity) is shown above all in the Constantinople Ecumenical Church, which traditionally serves as an authoritative example for all Local churches.
History teaches us that our dogmas of faith have always been developed in battle with false teachings that threaten to weaken and destroy the message of the gospels. In the fight against Gnosticism, Manicheism and Arianism, the church more than once stood on the edge of destruction, but every time it was victorious, thanks to the efforts of zealots of the faith, supported by a conciliar consciousness. The dogma of the church is also being born painfully in our days. Today we not only are battling the lack of a clear and accepted teaching about the church, but also the aggressive onslaught by false, antichristian teachings about the organisation of church life.
In connection to all that we have said above, we suggest the following seven basic principles of church reform.
1. Every Orthodox Christian has the right to freely unite with fellow believers in church communities for the conduct of joint Eucharistic life and social ministry.
2. Every community has the right to choose its priest for the fulfilment of the mysteries and for spiritual guidance and to propose from within its midst candidates for priest chirotony.
3. A community or group of communities has the right to choose its own bishop and to propose candidates for bishop chirotony.
4. Orthodox eparchies have the right to unite among themselves and choose a primate or collegial order (synod) to fulfil governance functions. All unions of communities and eparchies are voluntary, and retain the right to freely depart from these unions.
5. Traditional forms of uniting eparchies – territorial, missionary, national or state – are all possible but not compulsory. None of these forms can be imposed or exclude the possibility of the others.
6. With a cancelling of the principle of compulsory church authority, the concept of schism loses its traditional sense and can be use only for communities that openly reject the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils.
7. The adoption by any church administration of the right to proclaim anathemas or excommunications, so that any not belonging to it are proclaim “without grace”, is church bureaucratism – the deepest false teaching, leading to the spiritual suppression of church life, and to an attempt to destroy the church from within.
Remembering how in the past were overcame the deepest crises in church history, we believe that the current crisis will not lead to death, but to life and a rebirth. But this will be possible only when the true zeal for the Christian church once more flares up in people's hearts.
Gleb Yakunin, priest
Lev Regelson, church historian
Moscow, Nov. 1-st, 2010
Gleb Pavlovich Yakunin (Russian: Глеб Павлович Якунин); born March 4, 1934) is Russian priest and dissident who fought for the freedom of conscience in the Soviet Union. He was member of Moscow Helsinki Group, and he was elected to Russian Parliament from 1990 to 1995.
Lev Lvovitch Regelson (Russian: Лев Львович Регельсон); born July 30, 1939) is Russian Church historian, author of monograph “The Tragedy of Russian Church. 1917-1945”, edited: Paris 1977 and Moscow 1996, 2006.