Voices from Russia

Saturday, 22 November 2008

A Wide-Ranging Discussion of the Problems in Contemporary Church Life shall Take Place in Moscow


St John of Kronshtadt (Fr Ivan Sergiyev, 1829-1908)

Unknown artist

late 20th century



Editor’s Foreword:

This is by no means an official document of the conference. It’s a compendium of the answers given by participants to a reporter. With that caveat, it’s safe to say that the respondents are being freer than they’d be if they were speaking in an official capacity. Therefore, you pays your money and you takes your choice. My personal favourite is Fr Daniil Sysoyev, and the one I find some questions with is Hegumen Feognost. However, this is something on which honest people can differ.



We are on the threshold of the all-MP church conference Pastorality: In Tradition and In the Present, which shall be held as a part of the exhibition-forum Pravoslavnaya Rus (Orthodox Russia). This event is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the death of St John of Kronshtadt. Olga Kurova, our Interfax-Religion correspondent, posed questions to well-known clergymen, asking what, in their view, are the most pressing problems in contemporary church life and which ones require the most immediate attention.




Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, rector of eight parishes in Moscow and Moscow oblast, head of the MP Division for Cooperation with the Armed Forces and Police

Today, the most pressing problem is that the Church can face the people only from the pulpit. Sadly, there’s a shocking lack of parishes in the larger cities. In Moscow, we need ten times as many churches as we have at present. On major feastdays, they’re so full that all who wish to come in can’t enter. The majority of the faithful have to worship “beyond the fence”. We need church media on all the available channels, and we need more church radio stations broadcasting on the FM band. We need both church-run media and Orthodox divisions in the existing popular secular media. We need to build more churches in residential neighbourhoods. Of necessity, this must be a state programme. Who decides where are the tram stops? Who decides where the stores go? Who decides where the street-crossings are? City hall. For churches… it’s the same thing! It’d be too difficult for the church to undertake this task alone. It’s necessary for us to involve the municipal authorities in the effort to  build new churches rapidly. In each neighbourhood, we need no less than one or two churches. We must have, at least, one church per 10,000 people. This is the minimum of the minimorum (“smallest”: Latin) we need. I mean a church per 10,000 of the general population, not believers only. If, today, a brick fell on my head and made me a believer, and I went to church, I wouldn’t be able to get in the door.




Archpriest Vladislav Sveshnikov, rector of Three Holy Hierarchs parish in Kulishkakh, the head of the spiritual council of the Union of Orthodox Citizens

Personally, I agree with the position of Vladyki Hilarion Alfeyev in his book An Orthodox Witness to the Contemporary World (Православное свидетельство в современном мире). His thesis, as laid down there, is very sensible and serious. It seems to me that if his ideas were more known in the majority of parishes, then, things would go well. Then, on the one hand, we wouldn’t be burdened with formal coldness, and, on the other hand, we’d be spared excessive liberalism, where traditional limits on behaviour have been erased. Many of the questions surrounding the preparation for the reception of the Holy Sacrament of Holy Communion depend not only on the traditions of parochial life, but on the individual who approaches the Holy Chalice. Absolute and ironclad standards are impossible in this matter. Some people are more church-minded, some less so, as some are physically healthy and others are sickly. One should consider all the circumstances; there’s no one general measure for everyone. Unfortunately, in Orthodoxy in Russia over a period of centuries, an idea was formed that personal piety was sufficient for salvation, this was considered more important than what one believed. People grew up with these ideas, these ideas are well-known. As Nikolai Leshkov said, “Russia was baptised, it wasn’t taught”. Of course, this piety isn’t always flamboyant and hypocritical; it can be very serious and sincere. However, no one directly states that they consider a morally-correct life and adherence to traditions more important than the holding of the true faith. Priests must preach and explain the teachings of the Orthodox Church to their parishioners. This is the only way to solve this problem, although I admit that it’s very difficult to realise in practise.




Fr Georgi Ryabykh, Secretary of Church/Society Relations in the MP DECR

I find there are several standing problems in church life. Firstly, ordinary believers have a very low level of knowledge of the sacramental life of the Church, on Church history, and on the Church’s outlook on life. This is a task for extensive catechesis, both of those already in the Church and of those who are preparing for baptism. Many people become the followers of those immature in the faith; we see that the knowledge of church life leaves much to be desired. We see many people coming to church to be married without having any knowledge of the meaning of the sacrament. People come to church, they have their own ideas of what’s happening, but their expectations aren’t based on an understanding of the essence of what they’re seeking.  To solve this problem, we need to educate people on the matters of faith, and this shall require serious effort on the part of both clergy and grounded believers.

Another problem is the organisation of church life, above all, the local community. In our situation here in Russia, it’s rarely possible for us to interact with the community and be an integral part of society’s life. People are simply parishioners, and this word has acquired a new meaning today. It’s come to mean a person who comes to the church in order to obtain certain desired services, and, then, one leaves. However, communal life assumes that the people who participate in the liturgy associate not only when they are at prayer, but also in ordinary life beyond the church gates. The community and the parish are a form of family. Of course, there are objective reasons for the situation I just described. For instance, in Moscow, most of the churches are small and there are just so many people. It’s impossible to create a lasting and good community under such conditions. There’s still good done in such a situation. Nevertheless, in the majority of cases, the building of communal life doesn’t occur. Indeed, the relationships that arise between believers are very valuable, it enables them to come together, help each other, and support one another in their ordinary lives. There isn’t enough of this today.

There’s an additional problem that I’d like to speak of in detail. This is the vital task of building an internal communications system within our church bodies. In contemporary Russia, the Orthodox Church is the largest social organisation in the country, comprising many parishes, communities, monasteries, and dioceses. All too often, today, these parts live out their lives independently, without serious intra-church contact. There’s little knowledge of or acquaintance with the other parts of the church. The absence of timely communications means that some communities become embroiled in their own problems, with no knowledge of what’s happening in other dioceses and in the church at large. As a result, alienation occurs. In some radical cases, some communities simply drop out of the church. I’d say that one of the most urgent tasks in our church life is the establishment of intra-church contacts and communication.




Fr Daniil Sysoyev, rector of the parish of the Holy Apostle Thomas in Kantemirovskaya, Candidate of Theology {a Kandidatura is equivalent to a PhD, but somewhat more rigorous: editor}

I think that one of the most important problems facing the Orthodox Church in Russia, and even beyond its borders, is the ideological rigor mortis of the Church. The Church is considered as a kind of dead body, it’s thought to be frozen. According to some, nothing should be changed in it. It’s understandable that we shouldn’t change dogma and Church Tradition; no one argues with that. However, the problem is that people try to preserve superstitions and false ideology, and, what’s worse, they try to hang on to bad remnants of the Soviet period. I’ve travelled throughout the canonical territory of the MP, and I see one and the same picture everywhere. People don’t know God, they think that their salvation is complete; and all of their time is taken with completely-unimportant matters such as the minutiae of this-or-that rite, the details of this-or-that church policy, or one regional view or another.

In my opinion, it’s an enormous misfortune that people have lost their consciousness of Christianity. People have forgotten about the fact that we are, first of all, Christians, the children of God the Father, and that we must go to Christ for holiness and salvation. As a part of this, one sees a controversy over the frequent reception of Holy Communion, which connects us with the Lord. Some people do not consider Communion to be as important as it is to act in such a way as to “earn” one’s salvation. However, they don’t realise that this is the heresy of Pelagius, that one can earn one’s salvation by one’s own efforts.

In other words, the standard of church life that they expound is sinful, pure and simple; it’s a distortion of the real Church Tradition. For instance, one hears that Russians, because they are Russian, are already Orthodox. In one article that I read, I saw the assertion that even atheists are truly Orthodox, if they’re part of the Russian culture. This is nothing less than the displacing of faith with culture. Orthodoxy is God’s revelation, preserved for us in all purity from the times of the Apostles. One now sees efforts by some to replace the New Testament with national myths, including old ones that the Church has always fought against. They propagate heathen fables about the “mothers of the black soil” instead of seeing Christ as the basis of all culture.

Paganism often disguises itself in the Church under the mask of Christianity, and it’s hidden under a façade of pietism rather than in overt exterior manifestations. People forget that their goal is to reach sanctity. Some of them believe it is a sin even to think of such a possibility, that they could reach sanctity, even though it’s the fulfilment of a direct commandment of the Lord. We should spare no effort to overcome this problem. To overcome this, we must issue a new call for the people to return to holiness. For this, it’s necessary for us to revive catechesis throughout the entire Church. Even those who’re already baptised should study the faith. People must know in Whom they believe, in what they should do in order to approach Him. People coming to church see it as an assembly-line of spiritual services. They’re not offered any spiritual growth; therefore, they go to the sectarians.

People think, in error, that the sects are easier than the Orthodox. Recently, I had a chance to associate with Pentecostals. I learned that it is their practise to pray five hours during the day. What Orthodox Christian prays for five hours a day? Sectarianism is the consequence of the Church not informing people of the commandments of the Lord, commandments that our Lord Christ expects us to fulfil. The Gospel’s seen as nothing but a collection of pious sayings; it isn’t seen as a means of real contact with God. We so fear being seduced by the world that we end by doing nothing. This is a terrible spiritual problem. If we don’t overcome it, very many Christians shall be ruined. It is an ideology of rigor mortis. It isn’t conservatism; rather, it’s the murder of the Church.




Igumen Feognost Pushkov, Candidate of Theology, Ukrainian Orthodox Church/MP

There are a number of urgent pastoral questions that require our immediate and serious attention. First of all, we should attend to the daily cycle of divine services. Long ago, the Orthodox Church in Greece applied itself to this problem, so, now, all of the divine services there are done at the proper times of the day. Unfortunately, amongst us, we’ve confused the very concept of the daily services. Vespers, which is an evening service, is often done in the morning, as we so often see during the Great Lent. Conversely, Matins, which is a morning service, is often performed in the evening, especially on the eves of Christmas and the Epiphany. The canonical hours are squashed together. Because of this deformation, the services are treated as though they were some sort of theatrical production. We’ve forgotten that all our prayers were laid down in a daily cycle. What’s Matins, in any case? This is our morning thanksgiving to Almighty God and we ask His blessings on the forthcoming day. Then, what is Vespers? This is our gratitude to God at the end of the day. In order to return these services to their place and to return to them their ancient sense, it is necessary for us to enact serious liturgical reform. However, we aren’t talking of “seriously abridging” the services, of which there are still a few proponents left. It’d suffice to transfer some elements of the Matins to the Vespers (the polyeleos, the reading of the Gospel, and the canon), which would make it easier to connect the Matins to the Liturgy.

The following question is also very urgent, that is, we must do the Liturgy in accordance with its theology. On the one hand, we have the ancient Eucharistic prayers of the Holy Fathers and their expressed theology. We know how the Fathers explained the actions of the Liturgy, and the various rites and gestures that accompany it. On the other hand, we have the contemporary “practical Ustav {a book of church rules and rubrics: editor}”, which doesn’t go back to the Holy Fathers. Over the course of history, different local traditions arose that changed outward rites, which led to a change in the structure of the Liturgy. Mainly, this concerns two things, the open reading of prayers and the opening of the Royal Gates of the iconostas. In the times of the Holy Fathers, the Liturgy was served with the Gates open. One can read that in St John Chrysostom (Commentary on Ephesians and Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles). However, in his time, there was no iconostas, only a curtain. He wrote that there should be no obstacle between the faithful and the altar during the Liturgy.

St Maximos the Confessor, who lived at a time when the iconostas was in use, wrote in his Mystagogia (essay on the interpretation of the Liturgy) that the Royal Gates remained open during the Liturgy so that the space of the nave and the altar would be united during the time of the service. St Nicholas Cabasilas wrote about the great significance of the contemplation of the actions of the Liturgy by ordinary Christians, for instance when the priest raises the Holy Gifts and exclaims, “Holy things for the Holy”. In our time, the Royal Gates and curtain are closed; therefore, the people can’t see this action. St Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that the laity couldn’t say “Amen” to a prayer of the priest unless they’d heard the entire prayer. The people must participate in the Liturgy and say, “Yes, under this sign, my faith is expressed in this sacrament”. Certainly, one won’t fall into the Protestant heresy about that if “one does it with the full mind of the Church”. The priest does fulfil the ceremonial. However, God doesn’t have closed doors against the angels and the Church shouldn’t have secrets from the faithful. There are a few other awkward moments in the contemporary Liturgy. For example, “Pray unto the Lord, ye catechumens”. It’s answered by a chorus of baptised people, this is theatrical and a distortion of the prayer offered, which is for those to be baptised at a future date. Reform is necessary here, however, it should be one based on solid theology, not mere aesthetics.




The third problem is that, at present, there is not a unified scheme for educating people in how to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Until now, this aspect of the spiritual life of believers has been left to the individual whims of each particular clergyman. This has led to extremes. On the one hand, people come forward and receive Communion almost “straight off the street”, they don’t repent, so, people with a heavy load of sin take the sacrament. On the other hand, there are so-called “church people” who live externally-correct lives, they observe all the fasts, but they’re no better-prepared than someone “straight off the street”. One should remember that that the written standard is the minimum expectation for Communion, and that the most important step is to desire to be in Communion with Our Lord Christ Himself, to have faith in His Resurrection and sacraments. Secondly, one should make prayer a constant habit; one must do it frequently. You aren’t supposed to neglect your prayer for weeks, then, read through the entire prayer book from cover to cover in one day. Such a one thinks that their “debt is now carried out”, they can take communion, and forget about prayer again until the next time.

As for fasting, one should fast, but, not to the excess standard of “three days and more”. We should keep the weekly fasts of Wednesday and Friday, so that we can recall Christ’s sufferings. This shall enable us to receive His Body and Blood on Sunday in all Easter joy. It’s important to remember that, according to the canons, the Eucharistic fast (that is, abstention from all food and liquid) begins from midnight before communion (Timothy of Alexandria, canon 16). Furthermore, I emphasise that the rule isn’t stricter for monastics. Thus, the second chapter of the Typikon stipulates that bread is blessed in the first part of the all-night vigil, so, all the monks receive bread and wine at the end of vespers. “After this, no one tastes of bread or drinks anything before taking part in the Communion of Christ’s Holy Body”. Holy Communion on Sunday, therefore, isn’t a private whim of the monk; it is the common duty of the entire community. However, before the all-night vigil on Saturday there’s a meal. The 35th chapter of the Typikon gives all the fasting regulations, and there’s no fast whatsoever on Saturday. Frequently, the laity is forced to fast on Saturday if they wish to receive Communion on Sunday. This is an absurdity and an insult to reason. If the laity observe all the Church fasts, or, at the minimum, the Wednesday and Friday fasts and the Great Lent, in proportion to their health, then, it’s possible to boldly allow them to come forward to the Chalice.

There is a last problem, that of the liturgical language. Unfortunately, the comprehension of the services is complicated by the fact that we do not have adequate translations available. St Justin Popovich translated the Liturgy into contemporary, living, literary Serbian. In Serbia, there’s no conflict between priests who serve the Liturgy in the translation of St Justin and those who serve in Church Slavonic. I think that we can avoid such problems if we create a healthy, normal, and sober attitude around any translation. Why can we serve in native languages amongst the Koryaks, in Chukotka, and in China, but are allegedly unable to do so in Russia? Indeed, Ss Cyril and Methodios originally created two versions of the Church Slavonic language, one for the Moravian Slavs and the other for the Bulgarians. It’s important to remember that, for the Holy Fathers, the language of theology and the language of prayer were the same. We have a language for theology, Russian, and we have a language for the services, Church Slavonic. This makes for a separation between theology (which is isolated from the Liturgy) and prayer. It’s still possible for us to create a normal Russian liturgical language.




Archpriest Andrei Novikov, Secretary of the Diocese of Odessa, instructor in the UOC/MP

The greatest problem for us is the danger posed by autocephalist elements. In the face of this, all other problems fade into insignificance. This threat is fuelled by government policy, and it remains a constant factor in our church life. In fact, we need cooperation from the entire hierarchy of the MP to aid in the situation in the Ukraine. Propaganda for a “Ukrainian Local Church” issues forth from both state agencies and church websites. We don’t reply to this propaganda on the highest level, but it does have its effect. We also need the laity to be involved in political activism. It isn’t against the social concept of the Church and it’s to the benefit of the Church. We must not only welcome such activism, we must encourage and develop it. We said as much in the conclusions of the last Archpastoral Council.

7 November 2008



Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: