The following question was recently posed to me on my personal Facebook page, by a Ukrainian friend of mine, who is a college professor.
Dear Anastasios… Just what do you think about the current status of, and what do you think about, this “Russian Orthodox Church?” You see, I’ve known you “virtually,” in “cyber space,” and what not, for are a number of years… But now, what do you think, really?
Dear Dr. X______,
Thank you for your question!
I have long avoided answering such questions on my Facebook page, because I have a mixed group of friends and hate engaging in polemics and controversy. That’s not to say that I would change my actual beliefs based on whom I am speaking with—that would be duplicitous—but rather, that I tend to avoid such discussions altogether, because the work that has to put in to crafting an honest but dispassionate and sufficiently polite response borders on onerous. I don’t like offending people, or upsetting them—to a fault, perhaps. I prefer to write about what the GOC (Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians/”Old Calendarist Church”) stands for, versus what it is against, especially since there are so many people already doing the latter; but since you pose the question, I feel obligated to answer openly and forthrightly, despite my aversion to polemic and debate.
With that loquacious disclaimer out of the way, let me try to answer your question. I have to make a distinction between the “Russian Orthodox Church” on the one hand, and the “Moscow Patriarchate” on the other. The Russian Orthodox Church is a mostly venerable institution; after the conversion of St. Vladimir in 988, it was a regional organization of bishops in Kiev and later, after the Mongol destruction of such, Moscow, subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. By the 16th century, it was independent and self-governing, taking its place alongside the four ancient patriarchates (using as a precedent the independent ecclesiastical administrations in Serbia and Bulgaria). It grew and expanded across the East, to Siberia and then beyond, and established itself even in the far East and Central Asia, through the endeavors of such saints as Macarius of Altai, Innocent and Herman of Alaska, and Nikolai of Japan.
With these positive achievements, however, came certain downsides. The suppression of the Georgian Patriarchate (1811) is illustrative; where the Russian Empire expanded, the Moscow-controlled church administration expanded (as opposed to the Orthodox faith per se). After the fall of the empire, brief attempts at creating autocephalous churches in the newly-freed areas such as Ukraine were crushed when the Red Army retook these areas.
I have to say that I am against ethnic-based churches on principle, so the idea that there has to be a national church in each country is something I dislike; I would prefer to see exarchates, dioceses, or metropolitanates based on territory and tied to one of the original patriarchates. The Georgian Church is a good example of the way it could have been: the Georgian patriarch was originally called a Catholicos, and he was sort of a junior patriarch to the patriarch of Antioch, and his election had to be confirmed by him and his synod. I would have preferred to have seen the national churches that developed in Europe have been catholicosates under the Patriarchate of Constantinople instead of full-fledged patriarchates; unfortunately, nationalism being what it was, this was impossible to deal with from an ideological standpoint, and political and practical considerations ruled. Now, we even have the abhorrent, uncanonical, and disastrous practice of each national church even setting up exarchates for its members in other countries, such that there is now a Serbian administration in Romania and a Romanian institution in Serbia. The attempted Romanian incursion into Jerusalem was stopped, however, when the Jerusalem Patriarchate broke communion with the Romanian Patriarchate until they backed down. This sort of behavior leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Given that each national church was made autocephalous as it became independent, however, means that a precedent has been set (even though the Canonical Tradition does not technically take precedent into account as it is not based on Common Law, people are still human and cite prior examples). As such, I don’t see how it’s really fair for Ukraine to not be autocephalous by this point, and I think it will eventually happen, no matter what Moscow says.
Now that I’ve addressed the question of the Russian Orthodox Church from the perspective of history and the development of national churches, I will turn to the point of how I see the Moscow Patriarchate as an institution and its relationship to the Russian Orthodox Church. We Old Calendarist Greeks view the Moscow Patriarchate as an invention of Joseph Stalin in 1942, the product of his decision to change tactics: to stop trying to stamp out the Church completely, which only resulted in the growth of an underground, unregistered church, and to instead attempt to create a state-sponsored church which he could use to rally the people against the Nazis in World War II, and then use as an effective spy agency going forward.
For the history of such, I agree mostly with the analysis of polemical older works such as The Truth About the Russian Church Abroad by M. Rodzianko (http://rocorhistory.blogspot.com/2008/07/truth-about-russian-church-abroad-by-m.html) and the witness of the saints who refused to submit to the Moscow Patriarchate as it was formed, chronicled in the work, Russia’s Catacomb Saints which is now out-of-print and will never be reprinted, as it contains quite damning information that the present publisher would like to forget (digital copies are available from time to time; let me know if you are interested). I won’t go through all the arguments from a historical standpoint, but suffice it to say, I believe that the submission of Met. Sergius to Stalin and the creation of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1942 were wrong, schismatic, and associated with heresies (such as modernist movements in the diaspora, liberation-theology-inspired theological treatments glorifying the Soviet state, and later Ecumenism, which the Moscow Patriarchate used as a means to further the Soviet diplomatic effort and its intelligence services. A succinct summary of the problem of Sergianism can be found in the document The True Orthodox Church in Opposition to the Heresy of Ecumenism (http://www.hsir.org/pdfs/2014/03/22/E20140322aCommonEcclesiology15/E20140322aCommonEcclesiology15.pdf):
1. Another phenomenon and movement akin to ecumenism, likewise possessing an ecclesiological dimension, is so-called Sergianism, which, in the unprecedented circumstances of the persecution of the Church in the former Soviet Union, through the agency of the fallen and compromised Sergius Stragorodsky (†1944), originally Metropolitan, and later Patriarch, of Moscow, surrendered to the atheistic Bolsheviks and their struggle against God an outwardly proper Church organization, so that, in the hands of the revolutionaries, it could become an unwitting tool in their unrelenting warfare against the very Church Herself, as the Bearer of the fullness of Truth in Christ.
2. Sergianism is not simply a Soviet phenomenon, for it caused severe damage to the local Orthodox Churches in the countries of Eastern Europe, where, after the Second World War, atheistic and anti-Christian Communist régimes were established.
3. The quintessence of Sergianism is the adoption of the delusion that deception could be used as a means to preserve the Тruth and, likewise, that collaboration with the enemies and persecutors of the Church was the way to ensure Her survival; in practice, however, the exact opposite occurred: the Sergianist Bishops became tools of the atheistic Communists for the purpose of exercising control over the Church, to the end of Her moral and spiritual enfeeblement and with a view to Her ultimate dismantlement and annihilation.
4. At the level of ecclesiology, Sergianism completely distorted the concept of Orthodox ecclesiastical canonicity, since in the realm of Sergianism, canonicity was essentially torn away from the spirit and the Truth of the authentic canonical tradition of the Church, assuming thereby a formal adherence to legitimacy, which could be used to justify any act of lawlessness committed by the ruling Hierarchy; in fact, ultimately, such a veneer of canonicity degenerated into an administrative technique for the subordination of the people of the Church to the Sergianist Hierarchy, regardless of the direction in which it led the faithful.
Such a corrupt institution was not the Church of Christ. Some argue that the Greek Church under the Ottoman Empire was in a similar situation, but that’s not really true. It is true that the Ottoman authorities interfered with the selection of patriarchs and bishops, but they left the faith itself alone; they even helped the Orthodox bishops expel Roman Catholic infiltrators among the clergy from the Greek islands after they were conquered in the 16th and 17th centuries, whereas the Soviet State pushed the Moscow Patriarchate to reach out to non-Orthodox, which even culminated in the Moscow Patriarchate communing Roman Catholics officially for some years in the 1960s.
The question then becomes, given that communism has fallen, does this stuff still matter? There are those who claim the Moscow Patriarchate has repented of its past, but this is hardly true. I’ve read the “apologies” issued in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1990s, and they are quite general, non-specific apologies for past mistakes and but nothing more. There is no repentance for collaboration, for reporting on confessions, or for Ecumenical obsesses. All of the top people in power in the Moscow Patriarchate are still people who grew up under communism. Those who did not were trained by those who were, propagating a culture of corruption. Quoting again from The True Orthodox Church in Opposition to the Heresy of Ecumenism:
5. After the collapse of the anti-Christian régimes around the end of the preceding twentieth century, the very grave ecclesiological deviation of Sergianism, under the new conditions of political freedom, was preserved as a legacy of the past and, at the same time,changed its form.
6. Anti-Ecclesiastical Sergianism, having long ago incorporated within itself a worldly spirit, unscrupulousness, deception, and a pathological servility towards the powerful of this world, continues to betray the Church, now no longer for fear of reprisals from atheistic rulers, but for the sake of self-serving and secularist motives and under the cloak of supposed canonicity, still peddling the freedom of the Church in exchange for gaining the friendship of the powerful of this world, with all of the concomitant material benefits and, to be sure, prestigious social status.
7. Today, the virus of Sergianism, in this modified form, as neo-Sergianism or post-Sergianism, and also in other forms of state control over the Churches, affects to some degree a large part of the Episcopate of the official local Orthodox Churches around the world, thereby contributing to the promotion of an equally secularist and syncretistic ecumenism, under the cover of a false canonicity.
Duplicity is rampant; on the one hand, the Moscow Patriarchate issues soft “condemnations” of Ecumenism, but on the other sends Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfayev) around the world trying to better position the Moscow Patrairchate’s role in the Ecumenical Movement. Respect for other religions is preached, but then more strict restrictions are placed on Eastern Rite Catholics, Latin Catholics, Baptists, and groups deemed “schismatic” by the Moscow Patriarchate (i.e. those who consider themselves Russian Orthodox, but refuse to commune with the Moscow Patriarchate due to its corruption and compromise of the faith).
Especially under Putin, the alliance between the Moscow Patriarchate and the State has grown; the Moscow Patriarchate now functions as a virtual arm of the Russian State Department. The reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) under Metropolitan Laurus in 2007 occurred with the active participation of Vladimir Putin, and the ROCOR’s role in maintaining Russian culture abroad has superseded its previous role as a beacon of Orthodoxy in places where Orthodoxy was being compromised (c.f. the “Sorrowful Epistles” of Metropolitan Philaret http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/sorrow.aspx). In fact, when a Moscow Patriarchate bishop, Diomid, attempted to do something about Ecumenism, he was censured by the Moscow Patriarchate, and Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR went along with it.
We hear stories of the so-called resurgence of Orthodoxy in Russia. I don’t deny that in some local instances, there are some nice things happening in the sense of parishes being constructed, charities operating, people rejecting atheism and embracing Christianity, etc. However, quantitatively, it is a tiny dent on an otherwise unaffected culture. Russia is not a beacon of Orthodoxy; many of the churches outside of the capital are empty even on major feast days, and even with all the construction of churches and religious education being put into schools, statistics I have seen point to only about 1% of Russians attending church regularly. This contrasts greatly with Roman Catholic Poland, where 80-90% of people attend church regularly, Slovakia, where 60% do, and even the Czech Republic, where 30% of people attend church regularly. Abortion is rampant in Russia, as are drug abuse, prostitution, and many other vices (c.f. Russia, Putin, and Christian Values by Vladimir Moss http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/535/russia,-putin-christian-values/). Russia is against gays, though, so that somehow makes everything ok, and Putin a modern-day beacon of morality…
In essence, an institution which is the creation of communists, which compromised the faith of its adherents and the witness of the Church, which never repented once it became “free” and then went right back in to bed with its former master, and which serves as a tool of the Russian State and intelligence services, all the while participating in Ecumenical joint prayers and other excesses, is not the Russian Orthodox Church.
Rather than the Moscow Patriarchate, I recommend that those who are Russian Orthodox attend a parish under the Russian Church Abroad under Metropolitan Agafangel, who lives in Odessa, Ukraine, and has bishops and clergy there, in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and in Russia itself. This Synod, deemed “uncanonical” and “schismatic” by the Moscow Patriarchate, is free from the corruption of that institution, and many of its members suffer greatly for being opposed to Putin and his State Church. The confession of faith of these bishops is Orthodox. It must be noted that they have had some internal disputes over the question of Russia versus Ukraine as of late, but seem to have come to an understanding recently at a council.
Those are my thoughts on the Russian Orthodox Church.