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What Should the Church be Like Today

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  • Nina Tkachuk Dimas
    What Should the Church be Like Today There is a tendency in Orthodoxy today to return to the XIX Century. Tatiana Aleshina interviews Dimitry V. Pospielovsky
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2007
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      What Should the Church be Like Today

      There is a tendency in Orthodoxy today to return to the XIX Century.
      Tatiana Aleshina interviews Dimitry V. Pospielovsky
      Translation 2003 by A. Smirensky

      Every other person in Russia considers himself a believer. But only one out of three will call himself Orthodox. According to some surveys, there are more Orthodox than believers in Russia which is a complete absurdity. How does one define belonging to Orthodoxy and to the Church? To drop in to the church, light a candle, be Baptized or have the children Baptized just in case?

      If one refers to statistics then the cold figures show the following picture. There are only 2% who are Orthodox in the country, that is those who regularly attend church and participate in the sacraments. Why is it that people who are looking for a spiritual life in most cases simply pass through the churches as through a passageway? What is it that they can�t find in today�s Church? We attempted to find answers to these and other questions in a conversation with Professor Dimitry Vladimirovich Pospielovsly, author of a number of scholarly books on Church History, and who teaches at the University of Western Ontario (Canada).

      - Dimitry Vladimirovich, it is becoming quite obvious that today the time has come for the Orthodox Church to undergo reforms which would reflect the needs of today�s people. To be more specific, this already became evident in the beginning of the XX Century. During the Soviet years, the Church�s main effort was to survive. Today the situation is essentially different. Can we compare the situation which was in place at the beginning of the last century with the situation at the beginning of the XXI Century?

      - DVP. Yes and no, if we take into account the preparations for the 1917-1918 Church Council. The Council itself is a living witness that the Church has accumulated enormous intellectual forces by that time. For nearly 200 years, beginning with the Petrine reforms when the Church was deprived of its voice and up to 1903, the time of the beginning of the move for the Church�s renewal, the Church was silent. According to the participants of that movement, the Church needed to stop being the Department of Orthodox confession, as it was officially described at that time.

      The aim of the movement was to summon the Church to become the spiritual leader of the nation. As the well-known historian Anton Kartashev said, the Church asked not for a separation but for a distancing from the State. But one must not disparage the significance of the Synodal period in the Church�s life, notwithstanding that it was the most contradictory time in its history. On the one hand the Church was deprived of its rights of expression, the right to exert influence upon its flock in the full meaning of that word, but on the other hand this was the time of the development of theological studies in Russia. By the end of the XIX Century we already find theological education to be on a very high level.

      The result of this is the preparation for the All-Russian Council of 1917-1918 and the Council itself. Its convocation and its problems demonstrated that the Church understood the need to respond to the expectations of the contemporary person. Preparatory analytical work was carried out. Opinions from ruling bishops were taken into account, the majority of whom submitted some significantly radical proposals. Only two bishops thought that everything should remain as is. If someone would propose similar reforms today he would immediately be deposed or sent to a monastery to do penance. There is a tendency in today�s Church to go back to the XIX Century.

      Some even think that a Father-Tsar could be selected then everything would be just fine, all problems would be solved. We won�t decide that. This is an absurd because when we want to return to the past it is always a regression, a caricature of the past. It is another thing to make use of its positive lessons. In the context of the problem at hand it would be wise to refer to the documents and the decisions of the 1917-1918 Council. This has to do with the problems which are more or less relevant today: the updating of the language, a Russification of Slavonic texts that is, those revisions which would help to make the Divine services understandable for today�s people. In fact, there were responsible and well-thought-through epochal decisions made at the Council. Today there is a dire need for a similar Council, and if today�s Church cannot summon even some small efforts in that direction then it would behoove, at a minimum, to bring to life the
      previous decisions of the Council into today�s Church, to revive those essential parts for which there is a crying need today.

      - Why is there such a protective tendency which is dominant in the Church? Aren�t there people who could implement such reforms?

      -DVP. Yes, unfortunately the Church�s way is essentially protective and conservative. But what is it and from whom are we protecting? To return artificially to what was in the past? In the nineteen-hundreds many theologians wrote that the Church has fallen behind the times. Should we re-establish an identical model of the past, then we will fall behind even further. Then a semi-literate peasant would have a better understanding of the Divine services than today�s intelligent and educated person, except perhaps some specialists in philology. This is just about the language, let alone about the content of the complicated and multifaceted Orthodox Divine services. It is not likely that a newly-converted neophyte would be able to understand its essence and depths.

      It happens very often that the believers, for the most part, simply attend and not participate in Divine services. We can remember our missionaries, Stefan of Perm, Innocent of Alaska, Nicholas of Japan. What was the first thing they did? They studied the local language no matter how primitive it may have been. They adapted the Divine services accordingly, translating the sacred texts into that language. For example, Innocent of Alaska, in translating the Lord�s Prayer into the local languages, did not write �give us this day our daily bread. . .� but �our daily fish. . .� because the local people never laid eyes on bread. The point is, while the Russian-Slavonic language was the State�s official language, it was a living language.

      At the moment when Peter abolished it, Slavonic began to die since no one spoke in it. One should not express something living in a dead language. Many priests understand this and try to Russify Slavonic just a little.. Thus some small reforms in the Church are carried out by daring priests almost by surreptitious methods. It is true that occasionally such initiatives on their part can work against them.

      - In connection with this, I would like to return to the understanding of �church renewal�. Today it is gaining a negative sense in church circles. However, in Vladimir Dal�s Dictionary �to renew� means �to bring it to conformity�. . .

      - DVP I recall the late Metropolitan Nikodim Rotov who said that we do not need renovation but renewal. Today these two concepts are confused. In 1905 there arose the �Union of 32" consisting of Academy-trained priests, who promoted a complete program of radical reforms. The only thing in which their reforms differed from proposals made by such hierarchs as Antonii Vadkovsky, Tikhon Bellavin and Sergii Stragorodsky was that the �Union of 32" proposed the introduction of a married episcopate.

      The lay theologian Nikolai Aksakov specifically mentioned that in the ancient Church the status of a monk was much higher than that of a bishop. Thus when a monk was called to the episcopate, it was a kind of an exception to the rule. In special situations, when there was a need to bring parties together or resolve a conflict, a person was sent who could bring about peace through his sanctity. A monastic vocation is of a different kind and is distinct from that of a bishop. These are opposite gifts. The monk is a man of prayer while a bishop is more of an administrator, a diplomat, a politician. Even Archbishop, later Patriarch Sergii said that it is necessary to make easier the possibility of ordaining �white� clergy to the episcopate. In his opinion, a widowed priest should not have to assume monasticism to assume the office of bishop.
      Very often, in practice, it occurs that one accepts a monastic office simply to enhance one�s career path in the Church. This was the practice among students in the theological academies. In most cases these were not the best and the brightest, but the mediocre ones who aimed for the episcopate as a career and not in response to a call. Archbishop Sergii, at that time the editor of the Petersburg Theological Herald, accepted and published the above-noted proposals of the �32 Priests�. But by 1907 reaction has set in. They were told to be quiet.

      In 1917 there was another surge of renewal which we now refer to as �renovationism�. It was accepted to think of this as a continuation of the trend for renewal which began in 1905. In fact, only one or two of the 32 priests attached themselves to the�renovationists�. The others did not do so because they saw this as a provocation coming from the atheistic Soviet government. In fact, the �renovationist schism� was an act by Trotsky and the Politburo which moved through the Cheka. In 1922 the Politburo undertook Trotsky�s project by which it would support the movement of those who were looking to change things, and to convince them to break with the Patriarchate, fomenting a schism and, when the time was ripe, to convene a Council and confound all movements. Then, according to Trotsky, the Church would collapse. Up to now he thought, the Church still maintained a tradition of discipline and while the Patriarch and the Metropolitans remained
      free, it wouldn�t be possible to break the Church.

      - In the forties of the XX Century Stalin legalizes the activity of the Orthodox Church in the USSR, meeting with the Metropolitans after which the Patriarchate was re-established. What in your opinion, was more dangerous for the Church: an open resistance or the situation which was established?

      -DVP. It is not for us to judge this. Today it is accepted to lay all the blame for mistakes on Patriarch Sergii. But all things considered, Sergii continued the politics of Patriarch Tikhon when, in the twenties, there were statements made that the Church was not persecuted. When Sergii was arrested for the fourth time he was given an ultimatum to write a penitential declaration of loyalty to the Soviet regime. This �lie unto salvation� was continued by Patriarch Aleksei Simansky. As for Stalin�s meeting with the Metropolitans, there are many legends about it. The popular view is not quite correct, that this was brought on by the circumstances of the war. If this was so, then Stalin would have decided to meet in 1941 and not in 1943, following the battles of Kursk and Stalingrad. Victory was already assured. Why was there a need for such a meeting?

      In the first place, a conference in Teheran was scheduled where Stalin needed to convince Roosevelt and Churchill that there is freedom of religion in the USSR. The Allies insisted on this, as well as the public opinion in England and the USA Thus Stalin quickly agreed for a visit of an Anglican Church delegation to Moscow led by the Archbishop of York, and which the Anglican Church unsuccessfully attempted to bring about for a number of years. The Englishmen were impressed with what they saw: the solemn services, a full church. They were not aware that in all of Moscow there remained only fifteen working churches. And it was spread abroad that there is freedom of religion in the USSR. This was just what Stalin wanted.

      Secondly, the Red Army was advancing towards the West where, during the time of the German occupation, 7500 Orthodox churches were opened. It was necessary to calm the people who lived in the territories occupied by the enemy and assure them that there will be no more persecutions of religion.

      - We now are seeing Russian politicians demonstrating their religious practices. Does not this threaten the Church to become once again one of the gears within the government�s machine?

      -DVP With respect to personal religion, I don�t know. Faith is a private matter and no one is entitled to pass judgement about this. As to the question�s second part, of course this is a threat. Especially since the Church has so few resources. It seems to me that the most reasonable approach (it is practiced in a number nations in Europe) is for the Church to exist on private donations or be supported by a tax that is, yours and mine. A convinced atheist has the right in those countries to refuse to participate in such a tax by declaring that he does not want his money to go for the needs of any religious organizations. He can earmark his contribution to social organizations, for assistance to orphans, hospitals, etc.

      Another material support for the Church comes from offerings � the tithes which the people bring to the Church. But in Russia, in spite of the opening of many churches, there are almost no parishes where the people�s contributions could become sufficient for their material support. One can count only a handful of churches where there is enough support from the parishioners for maintaining the parish as well as helping orphanages, hospitals and the poor. In most churches people simply drop in and quickly leave. Such people are not parishioners but casual drop-ins.

      - How can this situation be changed?

      -DVP One of the methods would be to shift into Russian, have meaningful catechization, a team ministry. This is what happened: after 1988 churches began to be opened at such a high tempo that there were not enough priests. Priests with little or no training began to be appointed to parishes. I was in Belarus last year. There 80% of the priests have no theological formation.

      I don�t know exactly what the situation is in Russia but I don�t think it is any better. Because of their low level of training many priests have an inner feeling of inadequacy which is manifested externally through ritualism and an artificially assumed authority. I heard conversations among priests that if Divine services are changed over to Russian then the laity would stop respecting them � they will began to understand the services by themselves. This is what happens: if there is nothing except a less than adequate acquisition of Church Slavonic, everything becomes based on the language. There are too many intolerant and narrow-minded people. What is most noticeable is that there is very little love in the churches and this is what�s frightening.

      - What do you think are the lessons we could learn from our recent past. What could be important for us today?

      -DVP We should not repeat past mistakes. A �de-ideologising� of the Church is necessary. The Church was on that dangerous path before the revolution. This danger is being repeated today. Why did it happen that such a great number of Russians turned away from the Church, why did we experience such a massive persecution which for the most part was supported by a significant part of the population.

      A small example. This Spring I was working in the Zaostrov parish in a village near the city of Archangelsk. . There is a church in the village which was never closed even during the cruelest persecutions. This church was defended by the local peasant coast-dwellers. They defended it with their blood. Many of them were shot or sent to Siberia. The parish remained the only one open out of 400 pre-revolutionary parishes in the whole Archangelsk region, along with a Patriarchal jurisdiction parish in Archangelsk.

      We like to live by myths. Both before the revolution as well as during Soviet times. We try to create myths even today. If we are not to repeat past catastrophes, we must learn to live without myths but in real time especially since there are some signs and portents in sight. It is important to note that the Russian people are neither indifferent nor ambivalent. This then, becomes the great potential for the enlightenment of Russia.

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