Orthodox America

  Is Orthodoxy Archaic?

by Sergei Sazhin

In an article by Vladimir Zelinskii "Pastors and their flock" (Religion in Communist Lands, 1989, v. 17(4), pp. 343-8) many aspects of the life of the Orthodox Church in the USSR were bitterly criticized. He claims that Orthodox services attract mainly babushki (elderly ladies), while most of the young people remain outside the Church. He is convinced that large parts of the liturgy need to be changed so that it can be made more acceptable to the younger generation who, in his opinion, are normally more interested in 'educational' elements of Christianity than in Solemn Liturgies and Akathists. Similar criticisms of the Orthodox Church can be found in many other articles, letters and interviews. It is often claimed that the Orthodox Church underestimates the role of women, is obedient to any authority---even a communist one---by its very nature, etc. etc.. I do not want to idealize Orthodox church life and I agree with many of the criticisms. However, the problem of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union lies not in its teaching and not in its ancient Liturgy, but in the specific conditions in which it has had to work since the coup d'etat of 1917. In what follows I hope to explain what I mean, briefly commenting on some typical criticisms of the Orthodox Church in the USSR.


"The Orthodox Liturgy is too archaic and boring to attract young people".

It is true that the Orthodox Church has, as a rule, never attracted young people, or anybody else, by earthly methods, e.g. modem music or interesting lectures. The Orthodox Church never forgets that it is a temple of God, not a social club or a popular Sunday school. Surely this is a strong point, not a weakness. The word of God should be brought to people in their own language. It is important, however, to distinguish between the Church proper, where we come to worship God, and Christian clubs and societies where we can, for example, discuss Christianity on an intellectual level or seek to apply it to our social life in various ways. In the ideal situation, liturgical and social life should complement each other, with liturgical life being always at the center. This is clearly understood by most young Orthodox believers in the USSR. Very often their Christian social life has had to be transferred from the church buildings into private dwellings because of the specific conditions prevailing in the USSR. But the same young people almost never undervalue the Liturgy. Moreover, the Divine Liturgy has always been one of the most common themes of the underground Christian seminars, and I do not remember the question of its possible reform ever being discussed.


"Orthodox prayers are too formal and hinder personal contact with God"

It is true that prayer is primarily our live conversation with God and it should be pronounced by our heart rather than by our tongue. However, like our body, our spirit needs food, and one of the ways of receiving this food is to use prayers written by the saints and teachers of the Church. These prayers help us at a subconscious level to direct our spirit to our Lord. They do not contradict, but rather complement, our internal personal prayer.


"The Orthodox Church endorses extreme Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism."

      It is true that some members of the organization "Pamyats" and similar anti-Semitic organizations are Orthodox. However, it is important to distinguish between their attitude to the Orthodox Church as the Church of God and their attitude to it as a convenient rallying point for extreme Russian nationalism. One of the leaders of "Pamyats", Vasiliev, confessed in one of his talks that he doubted whether God exists, but he still supported the Orthodox Church for practical purposes. In fact, the extreme right wing of "Pamyats", the Emel'anontzy, consider Christianity to be a Judeo-masonic heresy! On the other hand many Jews are active members of the Orthodox Church in the USSR (e.g. the Rev. Alexander Men, Zoya Krakhmalnikova).


The Orthodox Church underestimates the role of women.

      I doubt if one could find a single Orthodox woman who would endorse the idea of female priests in the Orthodox Church. However, this is by no means to underestimate the important role played by women in the Church. The Mother of God is the most venerable human being; women were the first to meet our risen Lord; Russian women, Orthodox saints like St. Olga and St. Xenia are well known and highly respected. During the persecutions of Christianity in the USSR, babushki risked their lives hiding precious icons from the Bolsheviks, and sometimes hiding even persecuted priests. Their work is remembered on earth and, most importantly, rewarded in Heaven.


"The Orthodox Church is obedient to all authorities including anti-Christian ones."

Often I have come across the opinion that the current state of the Orthodox Church in the USSR has its roots in the Byzantine tradition of "symphony" (consonance). However, it is a gross oversimplification lo consider "symphony" as submission of the Church to the will of emperors. The aim of "symphony" was to complement the civic power of emperors with the spiritual power of the Church and vice versa. So the Church was in principle submissive to emperors just as emperors were submissive to the Church, although in practice this ideal consonance was often disrupted in Byzantium and later also in Russia.

      The main difference between Byzantine emperors and Soviet rulers is that the former were Christian (at least nominally) while the latter were supposed to be anti-Christian. From this point of view it is senseless to speak of any 'symphony' in the Soviet Union, even in the epoch of perestroika. This has been best of all illustrated by the well known persecution of Orthodox Christians. Individual Christians and even leaders of the Church may apparently be obedient to anti-Christian authorities, but the Orthodox Church is ultimately obedient only to Christ.