After a generation of very hard work and great sacrifices, today, with over 350 bishops and over 35,000 churches, 900 of them outside the territory of the former Soviet Union, all may seem to be going well in our great, collective task of restoring the Russian Orthodox Church. But the number of churches is still only half as many in the Russian Empire in 1917 and today there is a higher population than then. Although Russian alcoholism has fallen rapidly and rates are now not much higher than in much of Western Europe and abortion is falling rapidly, halving over the last four years, that figure is still much higher than in Western European countries.
So there remains much to do. Corruption, divorce and environmental degradation remain huge problems. Only when there are 100,000 churches and 1,000 bishops and the old atheist-caused ABCDE – alcoholism, abortion, corruption, divorce and environmental degradation – hardly exist, will we begin to think that the situation has really improved. At present, we would say that there are four great pastoral tasks in Church life, the results of three generations of State-imposed atheism, which we think need to be urgently tackled.
Red or White
In this centenary year of the so-called Russian Revolution (in fact a Western coup d’etat), there are those who have created the false problem of whether Church people should be ‘Red’ or ‘White’ and where our sympathies should lie. Obviously, in reality we are neither Red nor White, but Christ’s. True, in Russian history, the Reds were atheists and mercilessly persecuted the Church and the Whites appeared to support the Church. However, in reality, at least some of the Reds, perhaps the naïve ones, had a sense of social justice, and most of the so-called Whites betrayed the Tsar and the cause of the Church.
Thus, such so-called Whites lost the loyalty of the masses by fighting for material goods, behaving much as the Reds, even using bandits as troops against their own people. During the Second World War, when the former Russian Empire was being bled dry by the Nazis, a few so-called ‘Whites’ actually consciously and voluntarily sided with the Slavophobe racist Hitler. Those of the Whites who were truly White were a minority and were always loyal to Russia and her universal mission, but today we have triumphed, as the icons of the Royal Martyrs are venerated all over Russia, for the faithful everywhere were always truly White. Let us waste no more time on this question: All we Russian Orthodox are Christ’s.
The Russian Orthodox Church is today the Church of 140 million converts. Most of our 164 million Orthodox, of all ages, have been baptized within the last 30 years. Many of these masses have often still to be Churched, that is, to be converted inside; they are ‘uncoverted converts’. Thus, some have brought into the Church with themselves certain worldly reflexes, external ritualism, even superstitious attitudes and sometimes a ‘magic’ attitude to Church life. There are some who, for example, will do their utmost to obtain holy water, but are still not married in Church. There are some women who will wear a very modest headscarf, and yet wear the shortest of miniskirts and think nothing of abortion. There are some who attend church, but do not understand the services and make no effort to do so. Sometimes, it is true, this is because the reading and singing are garbled or else done by ‘professionals’, whose Italianate opera repertoire gives no chance to the people to understand and sing.
There are some who appear to believe in the New Testament and yet continually speak of the anthropomorphic, Old Testament, Jewish god, Who continually punishes all and sundry, demanding ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. There are some who seek miracles at shrines and know by heart the dubious prophecies of dubious ‘elders’, but refuse ever to take communion, the greatest miracle of all. There are some who make huge signs of the cross and boast of their fasting and yet reckon that they are not Pharisees. There are some who will not go to church unless a certain priest is present and yet they are supposed to believe in the efficacy of sacraments of all priests. (Sadly some priests fall victim to such personality cults and then introduce their own ‘special’ practices into the services). This reliance on ‘magic’, that is, the concept that we can receive something without making any effort, is ultimately a consumerist attitude towards the sacred. It must be said that although external rites may appeal to some women, they have little appeal to men. This must surely be in part why 80%-90% of those in church are women. This is spiritually unhealthy and abnormal. Where are the men?
In certain capitals, nor least in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, some very rich people, oligarchs, have donated huge sums of money to certain churches. They generally stipulate – and so think that they can obtain power – that this money must be spent on a very baroque style of ornamentation. In a word, there is far too much gold, marble and precious stones in such churches. Why not use gold paint and coloured glass? What is wrong with that? Luxurious vestments and mitres, equally priests and monks driving luxurious, black 4 x 4s, like millionaires, do not impress me at all. Some may drive them out of obedience, but the poison of luxury and then greed for money can get into the soul all too easily.
Beauty, yes, but excess and luxury, no. I think real gold should be banned from church. Let it be sold and money be given to the poor, to orphanages and hospices, to help mothers to give birth to children who can then be adopted, rather than aborted. Perhaps the worse scandal is that 50 kilometres away from Moscow and Saint Petersburg (and in most other places away from the capitals), there are priests who are barely surviving, dependent on parishioners giving them vegetables and eggs so that they can eat and receiving clothes so that they and their families can dress. A Church for the rich and a Church for the poor? This cannot be right.
Lack of Missionary Work
Some among the Church authorities appear to place very little emphasis on missionary work, both internal and external. In a town of 30,000, there may be only one church, attended on average by 200. Why is nothing done to attract the other 28,800? Why is there so little pastoral activity? Surely in a town of 30,000, there should be 30 churches? Why this complacency? Why are these other churches not being built? Where are the youth clubs, the Sunday schools, the brotherhoods and sisterhoods, the temperance societies, the organized visiting of hospitals and clinics? Where is active Orthodox life? Sometimes it is admirable, but more often it is invisible.
The situation is even worse outside the Russian Lands. According to the greatest Russian thinkers and doers, from Patriarch Nikon to Patriarch Tikhon, from Dostoyevsky to Solzhenitsyn Russia has a universal mission and message. So where are the missionaries? One Russian priest visits Taiwan or the Philippines and baptizes a few hundred. Then they are abandoned. There is no continuing pastoral care for them. And why do 200 priests not visit Taiwan and the Philippines and build churches there? Although the Church Outside Russia, with the help of others, has translated all the service books into English (spoken by 1-1.5 billion people worldwide) and most of the service books have been translated into French and German, why are all the service books not translated into the most common languages: Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi-Urdu, Portuguese, Bengali, Punjabi, Javanese, Wu, Malay, Telugu, Vietnamese, Korean, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Turkish, Italian and Cantonese? These eighteen languages are spoken by half of the world’s population. Together with the first three languages, and with languages where translations have existed for a long time (Arabic, Slavonic, Japanese, Romanian etc), translations into these 25 languages would make Orthodox services comprehensible to over 6 billion people worldwide – over 80% of the world’s population. Is that not what we should be doing?
Others would no doubt add other considerations to the above list of four pastoral tasks. True, this is a subjective list, but its considerations would surely figure in any list of the greatest challenges in the ongoing restoration of Church life after the atheist holocaust of the tragic past century. There remains so much to do; we have only just begun.