By Michael Bourdeaux
The Times (27.08.2016) – “Here we Orthodox are in a minority, so I must relate to our local Buddhist Lamas and not offend them; I must think about my every action; I mustn’t cause conflict. Dialogue with Buddhists is the norm.” Archbishop Justinian of Elista, capital of Kalmykia, the only region of Europe where Buddhism predominates, revealed his enlightened attitude in a conversation last year with Keston Institute,which studies faith in former communist countries.
To imagine, therefore, that the stiff voice of the Moscow Patriarchate alone represents the kaleidoscope of views within the Russian Orthodox Church is a grave mistake, as the researchers reveal in every area they visit. Officially, having withdrawn from the Conference of European Churches in 2008, Patriarch Kirill may have turned his back on ecumenism and dialogue with other religions, but the reality on the ground is often different.
In 1988 the Church seized a public platform in Russian affairs for the first time since the Tsars. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms propelled it back to centre stage when the nation celebrated the Millennium, the thousandth anniversary of the baptism of the ancient Kievan land of Rus’. For nearly thirty years the Church, having been virtually eliminated by 1939, has been reclaiming its lost heritage and the revival is unique in Christian history.
Yet the Moscow Patriarchate boycotted the “Great and Holy Council” of world Orthodoxy held in Crete last April, the result of decades of planning, in which the Russians had fully participated. When it came to the point, they were apparently unwilling to acquiesce in the historical primacy of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, a Turkish citizen, whose position the Moscow Patriarchate has long wished to supplant. The evidence is growing that Church and State are identically set on re-establishing the glory of Russia’s Christian history and claiming to lead world Orthodoxy.
Below the level of officaldom, Russian Christianity (Protestant and Catholic, as well as Orthodox) continues to draw its inspiration from countless martyrs for the faith. The most remarkable recent example is Father Aleksandr Men, the last priest to be murdered before the old system collapsed. Killed at Semkhoz, in the Moscow region, he was on his way to celebrate the liturgy at dawn on September 9, 1990. The crime remains unsolved. His death was probably the last–ditch revenge of thwarted atheists who had just seen seventy years of domination collapse, not least due to the fearless and ceaseless teaching, preaching and interpreting the faith by Fr Aleksandr himself. He was also of Jewish stock, so there may have been a strand of anti-Semitism in the murder, too.
All this is revealed in a new biography by an American academic, Professor Wallace L. Daniel, whose Baptist background enables him to interpret persuasively for those not of the Orthodox faith. The book underlines Fr Aleksandr’s bravery in the face of constant harassment by KGB interrogators; it is an inspirational work, perhaps the finest on the Russian Orthodox Church in recent years.
For long, Orthodox officialdom spurned his pristine ministry, claiming he was too ecumenical and too ready to admit the positives in other religions. Whether or not he directly influenced Archbishop Justinian, there are growing signs that his legacy is becoming more important as the years pass. His voluminous writings were smuggled abroad, printed in Brussels, and infiltrated back into Russia. Son of Man, now freely available, presents Christ to a young generation, speaking directly to the heart. This one book has achieved sales of over a million in Russia. Now, at long last, Patriarch Kirill has endorsed his works, two decades after another bishop publicly burnt them.
Fr Aleksandr would have led the widespread criticism of the legislature in passing, last month, new laws which severely restrict evangelism and which form yet another measure to ensure the protected status of the Orthodox faith. However, the judge threw out the first court case brought in under these, exonerating a follower of the Hare Krishna movement in the Karachay-Cherkessia region of the Caucasus for handing out a religious tract (August 14).
Everywhere the Orthodox Church, at local level, is doing good work led by thousands of dedicated priests, monks, nuns and Christian laity. The heartland of the Russian Orthodox Church today is in its parish ministry. Fr Aleksandr Men led the way.
Russia’s Uncommon Prophet: Father Aleksandr Men and His Times (Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, 2016).
Canon Dr Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford and winner of the 1984 Templeton Prize.