Orthodox America

  “Round-Table” in Moscow

      As a representative of "Voice of America," Archpriest Victor Potapov was in the Soviet Union in June to attend the official Millennium celebrations. At the same time Fr. Victor, who is rector of the Synodal cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington D.C., took this opportunity to bring together a number of unofficial Orthodox Church activists for a round-table discussion dedicated to this notable jubilee. Participating in this discussion were three priests: Fr. Gleb Yakunin (Moscow), Fr. Georgi Edelstein (Kostroma), Fr. Valery Lapkovsky (Kerch); writers and editors of unofficial religious publications-Victor Aksiuchits and Gleb Anishchenko of the magazine Vybor ("Choice"), Victor Antonov of 'Neysky's Spiritual Herald" (Leningrad), Zoya Krakhmalnikova, compiler of the anthologies of Christian readings, Nadezhda ("Hope"), and her husband, writer Felix Svetov; Lev Timofeev, editor of "Referendum"; publicist Vladimir Zelinsky; and Orthodox laymen Andret Bessmertni, Valery Borshchov, Victor Popkov and Vladimir Keidan.

      The candid opinions expressed here--and there are differing points of view--give valuable insight into the real situation of the Church in the Soviet Union today, am insight which can balance the rosy pronouncements of the Church's official spokesmen. The entire discussion was recorded and later prefaced by Fr. Victor.


      Fr. Victor: I asked the participants several questions concerning the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the period of glasnost and perestroika. In their answers they voiced criticism, sometimes sharp criticism, dictated by a feeling of genuine concern over the future of the Church and society. And for this reason, in my opinion, this criticism bears a constructive character.

      Recognizing the historic import of the present, the participants of the round-table discussion expressed the fear that the hierarchs of the Russian Church will not use to advantage those opportunities favorable to the Church, which are available to them in this period of perestroika.

      Among other topics touched upon during this discussion dedicated to the Millennium, were the following: the role of laity in the Church's work of enlightenment; how the Millennium should be celebrated; the glorification of the New Martyrs: was it a political or spiritual act; religious literature; the catechization of believers as conditioned by the Church's lack of freedom; what has perestroika given the Church; and how can Christians in the West help believers in the USSR.

      Participants in the round-table discussion answered spontaneously, In preparing this text I made only minor adjustments for the sake of readability...

      I opened the discussion with the following question:

      What are the principal theological and organizational problems with which the Russian Orthodox Church greets her millennial jubilee?


      Fr. Georgi Edelshtein: I think that the main theological problem which faces the Russian Orthodox Church--the main theological problem of this 20th century-- is the problem of the Church. I would suggest that if an Ecumenical Council were to be held today, this would be the central issue. The fact is that today we have a lot of people who say they believe in God, that they totally reject the philosophy of materialism, but for them the Church is too narrow. These are broad-minded people; they fit neither into Orthodoxy nor into Catholicism. They can't accept the Church. And this, in my opinion, is why so many people are wavering. The question of the Church. I think that this is a big problem not only for individuals but for our entire Russian Orthodox Church. I think that the World Council of Churches-of which the Russian Church is a member--is not a religious but rather some kind of administrative organization. The way in which it was organized was, I'm afraid, not religious. Ecumenical prayer services with heretics is an extremely dubious business.                    

      Victor Aksiuchits: I agree with Fr. Georgi that the main problem is the Church. We Christians must grapple with a totally unique experience in which mankind finds itself, in which we find ourselves; what's more, not only is this theological problem not understood, it is not even posed as a problem, Namely: the life and existence of the Church in an atheist world, in the face of a ruling atheist ideology. This demands a great deal from us. First of all, a new concept in understanding the Church. A conception of the role and mission of Christians in an atheist world. I think that whatever problems we would discuss, ultimately they would all lead to this central dilemma.


      Andret Bessmertni: /.../ The second important question is the question of Christian anthropology. Over the past 70 years the Orthodox Church simply has not been able to develop a conception of man, above all, a conception of the layman. We know there exists a sizeable movement, not only in Moscow and Leningrad, but throughout the country in general--a movement of apostleship among active laymen. All these people--and among them those sitting here--are ready to help our Church. But to help the real Church, not the government which will use the Church for its own ends. 

Fr. Victor: The other day I asked a Moscow priest: Can laymen help priests in catechetical work. His response was negative. It seems to me that among some priests there is perhaps a feeling of insecurity, of fear that laymen will take the upper hand, a fear that they will lose their authority somehow... 

      Andret Bessmertni: I disagree absolutely with this priest. No layman would in any way lake the upper hand. This has no place in our aims, nor in the Orthodox canons, nor in the resolutions of the 1917 Council. There in particular it is noted that active laity must be drawn in [to the work of the Church]; lay brotherhoods must be formed, missions; and, with the blessing of the bishop and the consent of the local priest, pious laymen should even be allowed to give sermons if they are gifted in this area. All three levels--bishops, priests, and laity--should be united, a genuine union, not disconnected as they are now. And , of course, the Church should function according to the Declaration of the Solovki bishops. She must be loyal and independent. 

      Valeri Borshchoy: It seems to me that one of the sicknesses, of our contemporary Russian Orthodox Church is ritualism, faith in ritual. Many Christians today understand the essential part of their lives to lie in going to church and fulfilling certain rituals--and their souls are at peace. They consider their Christian duty fulfilled. What's more, any effort to do something, any attempt to actively undertake some kind of work--not social but simply Christian--is looked upon as aggression. There's a popular saying among clergy as soon as someone tries to interfere in their lives: "That's politics; it shouldn't be done." Now charitable groups are actively functioning. But when people were sitting in 'camps, in exile, many Christians sent parcels... And, alas, this was done primarily by laymen; very few of the clergy took part in this. Even though this is, of course, a purely Christian mission. And it is this attitude, this focus upon ritualism which generates double mindedness, corrosion of the soul, and instability of Christian ecclesiastical understanding.

            Fr. Victor: Does anyone else wish to address the first question concerning theological and organizational problems facing the Russian Church in this millennial year?

                 Zoya Krakhmalnikova: I think that one of the most serious spiritual problems which our Church faces today is the problem of overcoming so-called spiritual Sergianism. What do I mean by this? This is that very phenomenon which denies the Church the martyric exploit of confession, that mission which Christ commanded His followers to undertake in the world, that mission which Christians are called to fulfill most especially in periods of atheist domination. The fact is that Sergianism, which arose as a political phenomenon in our Church, regrettably bore also spiritual fruit. Because any political activity involving Christians necessarily generates spiritual consequences. These spiritual consequences have become that very faith in ritualism which Valery Borshchev spoke about just now. The Church has become spiritually anemic because there has occurred a spiritual rupture with Orthodoxy. This is a grave ecclesiological problem.

      What is this spiritual rupture with Orthodoxy? How do I understand it? It is a rupture in the spirit with the Heavenly Church. For if the earthly Church is cut off from her own martyrs and confessors who fulfilled Christ's commandment, who sanctified the earth with their blood, who sanctified the world with their blood, this means that the Church, according to the teachings of the Holy Fathers, cannot be in complete communion with the Heavenly Church. This is what the Fathers teach. If we do not recognize the most recent saints, who are glorified by their martyrdom, their confession or their righteousness, then we find ourselves cut off from those saints who have gone before them. If we do not recognize Metropolitan Benjamin, Metropolitan Vladimir, and all the saints which shed their blood on our land, then we cannot have any communion with St. Nicholas--no matter how many akathists we may read to him. Because it is an offense against the entire Heavenly Church, it is an offense against Orthodoxy. And this is the heaviest guilt, which today must be washed away by repentance, namely today, on the occasion of the millennial jubilee of the Baptism of Rus', when we have seen the triumph of the Cross, the Cross which Rus' ascended, on which she preserved her Faith. Today we must await repentance from those people who not only brought about but who perpetuate today this separation from the Heavenly Church. At the Council this most crucial ecclesiological problem was not raised.

(To be Continued)

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