An educated Russian friend of my wife and I visited us recently from Moscow. We are both deeply involved in the Russian Church, I in the diaspora, she in Russia, and discussion inevitably turned to church news. We spoke of situations where church bodies are clumsily managed by authoritarian and incompetent people.
What struck me was the difference in our reactions: mine was to be horrified, ‘one more nail in the coffin’, one more reason to withdraw from the Russian Church sooner or later. Hers was a sense of inevitability and a willingness to continue and to give of herself sacrificially in the situation, regardless.
For me our different reaction points to a fundamentally different approach: Russians expect any organization of any size, including the Church, to be corrupt and/or incompetent, to be led by second-class people, co-opted into an inner circle of power by those already enjoying it, in return for loyalty to this circle. This is unacceptable to us English. Competence and a clean style are essential for public life (even if not always achieved), along with at least a degree of real choice in who leads us and speaks on our behalf. And this includes the Church. Indeed to English ears, very use of the word ‘power’ in a Church setting sounds wrong and anti-Gospel, whereas in the Russian Church, the episcopacy – an unelected, self-perpetuating body, drawn from a very small pool (celibate monastics) and very difficult indeed to call to order when it misbehaves or underperforms – is still viewed largely in terms of power, both inside the Church and outside. Russians survive this situation with a sort of inner barrier, by creating an inner area, sometimes shared with a few close friends, but many times going no further than the boundaries of their inner souls, where they are honest and clear-sighted. For many, outside these boundaries, it is legitimate to lie and cheat and do dirty deals. For them, honesty and integrity, as we English understand it, is reserved for a much smaller and more intimate group. Englishmen, thrown into the Russian situation, are lost: we have been taught that integrity and honesty are essential social virtues in every situation, and lack this second inner line of defence. A Russian churchman will pick up on and accept a situation when a senior cleric is overtly lying – in particular painting a situation as much better than it really is – because the situation seems to demand it, while to an Englishman such lying is abhorrent. My classic example of this is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s angry remark to Metropolitan Nikodim Rotov during an official visit of Patriarch Alexis I to England during the Brezhnev era: “I can understand, Metropolitan, that you may have to be sparing with the truth, but I refuse to accept downright lying”, following which the Metropolitan was severely downgraded in the seating arrangements at the official banquet. All my deepest English instincts side with the Archbishop.
I am cautious to say that either system is right or wrong. The Russian system has certainly produced good saints. But it has a number of consequences.
At the church level I see two: the first is the conclusion, that however attractive its spirituality, however saintly its saints, the Russian Church in its official form is unable to “sell’ Orthodoxy in the United Kingdom and in much of Western Europe. Orthodox spirituality is salable, but not with “Moscow” as the medium. I am struck here by the way Western Christians have gained an often quality understanding of Orthodoxy with near-zero contact with its official representatives.
In both Russia and the Russian diaspora, I think I see a second phenomenon, which I call the ‘Galilee effect’. Let me explain: Christ did most of his teaching up in Galilee: a little over 100 kilometres, or 3 or 4 days on foot, from Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the power was, and whenever Jesus came there, there was confrontation and trouble. Today, I think I am seeing a ‘flight from Jerusalem’ among competent church people at various levels. For clergy the name of the game becomes to keep the bishop at the greatest distance possible, either physically - happy the priest who has made himself irreplaceable in a medium-sized city (decent schools and amenities) at least four hours’ drive from his bishop – or emotionally with expensive gifts or lavish (and expensive) feasts every time he visits. For lay people it can mean withdrawing from the parish structure and concentrating one’s spiritual fellowship with like-minded Christian friends (especially over the internet, and in the diaspora, largely outside Orthodoxy) and using the official structures only when necessary (essentially for the Eucharist). I am not sure that anyone is really served by this situation, not least bishops (to be ordained bishop in one’s 30s and spend the rest of one’s life being sucked up to will poison all but the strongest). How this will pan out in the next 10 to 20 years I do not know. Patterns of organizational power and real spiritual power may find themselves running in increasingly different – and novel – directions. Quite a bit will depend on whether the “Putin-imperial” style to which the Church appears to have trimmed its sails, will continue indefinitely. I doubt it, but am placing no bets.