News from Moscow over the last two weeks has brought word that two figures who have figured quite prominently in Church life in Russia over the last generation have effectively been sacked from their posts. One of them is Sergei Chapnin and the other, bearing almost the same surname, is Fr Vsevolod Chaplin. As one of the few – I hesitate to say the only person – in England who knew them both, perhaps I should express some view on what lies behind their dismissal.
Sergei Chapnin was a Church journalist, the editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, an official publication of the Patriarch. When I first met him, in 1997, he was a young convert, zealous but not yet stable in the Faith. Meeting him a second time, ten years later, he had come to prominence, but his Faith, as that of some intellectual converts can do, had already by then taken, to put it mildly, a liberal turn, putting him at the margins of the Church.
Sadly, in the last few years, he had become quite notorious and there had been at least one petition asking for his removal on account of personal views which less and less represented the views of the Church. His increasing modernism and ecumenism and finally, his views expressed only weeks ago in a forum sponsored by the US Embassy, notorious for its attempts to undermine and protestantize the Russian Orthodox Church, were the last straw. He now has time for repentance and so the opportunity to reintegrate the mainstream of the Church, returning from his errors.
Fr Vsevolod Chaplin
Fr Vsevolod was for a generation more or less a spokesman for the Church and a prominent member of a host of committees where he represented the Church’s views on political affairs. Obviously, such a sensitive position brought temptations and dangers, particularly the risk of secularization, seen for example, in his smoking, never a good sign in a priest. Speaking to Fr Vsevolod eight years ago, I became aware of a strong, indeed, militant personality. It is this that has been his downfall.
His lack of sensitivity on problems in the Ukraine and in Syria upset many in the Church. Priests in Belarus called for his dismissal, as he was upsetting the faithful there and he also disturbed many in both the Ministry of the Interior and the Foreign Ministry with his description of Russian military action in Syria as a ‘sacred war’. The fact is that Fr Vsevolod was more and more becoming a Russian nationalist, forgetting that the Russian Church, unlike the other, much smaller Local Orthodox Churches, represents over 60 different nationalities. Russia is an Imperial Power, not a nationalist Power.
In the dismissal of both these figures we see the growing maturity of Church life inside Russia, the awareness that marginal views, expressed freely in the 1990s and early 2000s, have now been outgrown. A generation has now passed since the collapse of atheism as a State ideology in Russia. The Church has moved on there in the same way as outside Russia Russian Church life has matured since the battles between 1965 and 2005, when there were disputes between sectarian old calendarists and equally sectarian new calendarists. The extremes fell away and where they have not, they are falling away. Maturity has come; the growing pains are over.
Outside Russia, in the emigration, the old generation of marginals and fringe figures began dying out in the 1980s. Today, those who are left are very elderly, in their 80s and 90s. Some of these were figures compromised in some way with Western Establishments and their baggage. Some were even connected with Western spy services, or at least, they swallowed Western propaganda whole and parroted it without any kind of critical intelligence. In England they made themselves beloved of Establishment institutions like the Church of England, The Times and the BBC, for example.
A second, ‘spiritual’, group was composed of fantasists, linked with perennialism, theosophy, Hinduism, Sufism. All these wore the Emperor’s New Clothes and few had the honesty to criticize their wayward books, which were often unreadable. A third group was notorious for its corruption, either financial or else sexual. I remember one naïve convert proposing the canonization of one such individual. He was dumbfounded when I asked him if we should canonize his mistresses as well. Homosexual mafias abounded in certain small jurisdictions and, sadly, there were two pedophile bishops among them – both converts from Anglicanism, where pedophilia abounds.
We feel that 2016 is bringing a new generation. A new time is coming. Those who have been frustrated for decades by those who held on to power for too long are now coming to the fore, whether in the Russian Church or in the small Local Churches. Those formed by the modernism of the 1950s and 1960s and have failed to adapt have missed the boat. This is now becoming apparent as the Local Churches prepare for some sort of Inter-Orthodox consultation in the coming years. Billed as ‘The 2016 Council’, no-one is sure if, when or where it will take place, since there has been no agreement even on the agenda. At long last the new generation is having its word to say and we shall not fall silent. The time for the extremists is over; the time for the mainstream is here.
Is it perhaps apt that the 500th article on this blog should concern the passing of the old and the coming of the new?