Orthodox America

  In the Balance….Patriarch Alexis

      On June 7, less than forty days after the death of the feeble Patriarch Pimen, a Local Council assembled at Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and elected as his successor Metropolitan Alexis (Ridiger) of Leningrad and Tallin.

      The new patriarch was born in 1929 in Estonia, the son of a future priest of German descent. He graduated from Leningrad Theological Academy in 1949 and the following year was ordained deacon, then priest. He served as senior priest in Tartu (Estonia) and also rural dean (blagochinny) for the area, before being tonsured a monk in March 1961. Six months later, at the age of only 32, he was consecrated bishop of Tallin. Shortly thereafter he moved to Moscow as chancellor of the Patriarchate. He was made archbishop in 1964 and metropolitan in 1968. When appointed to the Leningrad diocese in 1986, he retained jurisdiction over Tallin and Estonia. Patriarch Alexis is widely traveled. He has served on numerous international and domestic councils: from 1961-68 he was a member of the central committee of the World Council of Churches, since 1987 he has been acting chairman of the Conference of European Churches, and in 1989 he was one of three hierarchs elected to the Congress of People's Deputies. He also serves on the board of the Soviet Charity Fund.

      Already the new patriarch has a more active profile than his predecessor. But one must look deeper than this curriculum vitae for an indication of what his election means for the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox faithful in the months and years ahead.


     The Good... Alexis was first among the hierarchs to publicly declare himself in favor of perestroika and Gorbachev's reforms. Two years ago he openly admitted that in the past believers have been treated as second-class citizens, and last month in Valaam, a monastery returned to the Church at the new patriarch's initiative, he "lamented communism's mass murder of clergy and destruction of churches" (Time 6/8/90). He has called for optional religious education to replace official atheism in Soviet schools and has said that the draft law on freedom of conscience does not go far enough. At the same time he praised some parts of the legislation that "would allow the Church to bring about its traditional function of social services which unfortunately was lacking across the decades" (New York Times 6/12/90). Patriarch Alexis is regarded as a good administrator, and was one of the first to initiate publication of a diocesan newspaper.

       Addressing a gathering of Moscow clergy soon after his election, Patriarch Alexis said that attention should be directed primarily at the reestablishment of a church community: 'The time has come to make a definite break with the past, when a priest was little more than a functionary, when parishioners barely knew their pastor. This can be remedied by improving the services and sermons, by a comprehensive catechization of parishioners, by drawing them into parish life, by actively participating in helping the suffering and homeless, in hospitals and old-age homes... There's a lack of available quarters for parish libraries and activities outside services; there still isn't enough religious literature and what there is is expensive..." He concluded by saying, "I think that the process of the collective development of Church life will continue. This is ensured by the continuing democratization of our society. A reversal is impossible. 


    ...and the Bad. In the Brezhnev era of "stagnation", Alexis spoke publicly in support of state policy and is on record as having said, in 1980 "Soviet citizens are never arrested for their religious or ideological convictions." In analyzing the Moscow hierarchy, Keston College senior researcher Jane Ellis wrote four years ago that Alexis "is said to be one of the most pro-state of all the bishops and to maintain this line even in private conversations; and he is also reported to have a bad reputation among lay people in Moscow who regard him as over-willing to implement decisions which are against the Church (The Russian Otthodox Church: a Contemporary History)

    The accuracy of such an assessment is borne out by the Furov Report, a confidential document prepared in 1974 for the Central Committee of the Communist Party by the Deputy Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA) which rated all bishops according to their "trustworthiness" in the eyes of the state. Alexis is ranked second after the late Patriarch Pimen in the first category--those bishops completely subordinated to state atheism who, writes Furov, "realistically recognize that our state is not interested in elevating the role of religion and of the Church in society, and understanding this, they do not display any particular energy in spreading the influence of Orthodoxy among the population." The new patriarch is further discredited in secret documents relating to the late 60s (published in the December 1987 issue of the independent journal Glasnost), which testify to his close relationship with the CRA and his willingness to denounce his fellow bishops, well beyond the call of "duty". His score card also shows him to be a committed ecumenist, a point in his favor with most Western analysts, but not with traditional Orthodox.

       Also significant is the patriarch's opposition to the separation of Church and State, which he claims would severely limit the Church's role in society Church activists, however, consider such a separation absolutely necessary if the Church is to see any real reform and liberate itself from the manipulation by what is still an avowedly atheistic state.

       One may argue about whether or not Patriarch Alexis was freely elected. What is clear is that he is surely Gorbachev's man: reform-minded--to a degree well within the limits of what is "acceptable" by the state, committed to issues of ecology, to encouraging charity work and raising morality--precisely those areas in which the state would like the Church's cooperation; a non-Russian--a surprise to some but politically judicious given the rising nationalist sentiment, particularly in the Baltics.

     It is interesting that with all its problems, the Russian Church---according to a public opinion poll taken in Moscow this spring--is the most trusted institution in the country. This places a great responsibility upon her leaders. It is perhaps too much to hope that Patriarch Alexis would want to "decontaminate'' himself by following the example of Romania's Patriarch Theoctiste in publicly repenting of his past complicity. But whatever his personal merits and demerits, it is certain that the Church, motivated not so much from above as from below, by rank and file clergy and laity, will continue to have a growing influence on society. May God grant the Church in Russia a brighter future, which the millions of long-suffering believers surely deserve.