The growth of a sectarian mentality can be observed when any once healthy faith community declines and degenerates into a sect through spiritual decadence. Here we deal specifically with that decline in the Russian Orthodox emigration.
After 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church fell captive to the persecutions of militant atheism. With the Centre captive, divisions took place in the Russian Church everywhere outside Russia. As ever, as a result of those divisions, the spirit of sectarianism appeared. All my adult life I have fought against that sectarianism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the emigration. Our struggle was to help create unity within the Church and unity with it, once it was free, so that then we could move towards the even greater project of creating new Local Churches. Therefore, from close observation of unhealthy psychology and pathologies over the last nearly fifty years, I have been able to identify ten steps in the formation of sects. This identification comes from observing the process of what specifically has happened to multiple fractions of the Russian Orthodox Church in the emigration, especially since 1986, when it had clearly started dying out.
As a result, a whole series of tiny but almost routine schisms began from it. These fractions have above all appeared as a result of the inherently sectarian and puritanical Protestant culture of North America or contact with it. (It is no coincidence that the first of those schisms took place in Puritan Boston in New England). The apostasy in North America of mainstream Non-Orthodox religion, mainly Protestantism, but also highly Protestantised Roman Catholicism, seems to have been the cause. The strict and rigid Protestant moralism of the American Puritan past has in the last sixty years broken down into today’s total amoralism. As a result, insecure and unstable individuals searching for certainties outside that amoralism have come to the Russian Orthodox Church, However, this was already riven and destabilised by divisions stemming from attitudes to the Church inside Russia. These divisions had grown deeper inasmuch as links with the Mother-Church had been lost.
The Ten Steps
- Ignorance and a corresponding lack of any historical sense provides a fertile ground for the development of sectarianism. Ignorance to the point of obscurantism has been encouraged, educatedness being a common reproach in the Russian Orthodox emigration, where after the first generation illiteracy in Russian was common. Knowledge of the language was generally limited to kitchen Russian. For instance, we used to joke in the 1980s that for the mainly elderly members of the then Russian Church in the emigration in Western Europe there were only two besetting sins – youth and education. Both were despised and most churches were childless. They were dying out, turning into rather depressing museums of cultural nostalgia.
- The development of parochialism through isolationism, not frequenting and even despising other Orthodox parishes, deepens this ignorance. Indeed, the refusal to frequent others and even the censorious and judgemental condemnation of others for doing so is approved of. Contact with others is seen as disloyalty to the growing sectarian mentality. For example, home-schooling becomes common at this stage. Now begins the suspicion and condemnation of even the slightest contact with ‘impure’ Non-Orthodox, then of fellowship with Orthodox from other (also ‘impure’) Local Churches, and finally with Russian Orthodox from other (also ‘impure’) dioceses. They say of them: ‘They are not like us’. This tribalism means for them: ‘They are our enemies because they are different from us’.
- The next step is the exaggeration of the differences with others. ‘They don’t do things like we do’. ‘Our way is the only correct way’. Thus begins the judgementalism and censoriousness of the pharisees. Here we clearly see the priggish self-righteousness that comes from pride, from a superiority complex. ‘The others are sinful’, they say in condemnation, and their hearts swell with vain self-admiration. This exaggeration includes a great emphasis on tiny ritual differences. ‘Only we do that properly’. Generalisations are made on the basis of the behaviour of only one or a few others. ‘We can have nothing to do with any of them because so and so is one of them and he said or did that’. Thus: ‘The whole of the Moscow Patriarchate is corrupt because their bishop X said that. Thus, tens of millions of others were instantly condemned on the basis of the words of a bishop held hostage and speaking in a specific context. Here is the self-justification that stems from and then, in a spiral, creates, pride. Here begins the ‘we are the One True Church’ syndrome and ideology.
- It is at this point that cultish leaders, gurus, may appear. Sometimes they appear almost all by themselves, especially if inexperienced and uninstructed neophytes, who are out of touch with reality, are given positions of authority. At other times such gurus may be created by neophytes, who from instability and insecurity desperately want a ‘spiritual father’, even though they have no idea what that is. Their insecurity demands ‘a leader’. Through flattering the weak, they can manufacture such gurus. The gurus soon become increasingly tyrannical, confusing authority with authoritarianism and capricious despotism, and claim papal infallibility.
- Now inward-lookingness, introversion, reaches a degree which leads to a de facto lack of communion with others and the formation of a ghetto, headed by a ruling clique of ideologues, who are to be blindly obeyed. Indeed, they insist on blind obedience. Initially, the lack of communion will be selective and informal. In other words, communion will be retained with a select few elsewhere, a few contacts kept for form’s sake. They will claim these contacts as ‘theirs’. This is self-justification: ‘Look, we’re not a sect because we are in communion with so and so’. This stage does not last very long.
- From here adepts, led by the ruling clique, will start making more and more extreme accusations that others are ‘not Orthodox’ or ‘mentally ill’ etc. They slander and demonise in self-justification. Such is the pride of narcissistic self-love that gnaws away at their souls. They are pure and all others are impure. Thus, one of them said to me: ‘We are a glass of clean water. They are a glass of dirty water. Surely you do not expect us to mix the two glasses together by entering into communion with them?’ He was so blinded that he could not even see his own phariseeism and so ignorant that he could not even see the dirt in his own water.
- Now begins cloning. The cult adepts start dressing in the same way and adopting the same hairstyles or, for men, beardstyles, as those in the ruling clique. Any diversity is definitely forbidden at this stage of manipulation, indoctrination and brainwashing. Uniforms become the norm, the personality is repressed and depressed. Those who refuse to conform are coldly shut out. All the adepts look alike and relationships become almost incestuous, in the sense that there is no mixing with others, with ‘the impure’, outside the cult.
- This is now the stage when the group cuts off completely i.e. it finally becomes a sect, having cut off from others, that is, having performed a first schism. The word ‘sect’ means precisely ‘cutting’, as in the word ‘secateurs’. The sect now becomes ever more extreme and excommunicates (!) and ‘defrocks (!) others, even those in completely different dioceses (!), commonly declaring that the others have ‘no grace’. Indeed, the question of who has grace and who does not have ‘grace’ assumes great importance because the sect adepts have to justify their self-isolation and infallibility as the only ones who ‘have grace’. This is a kind of papism. ‘Either you are with us, or else you are against us’. All is black and white and those who oppose the sect are promised ‘hell’, for they will ‘not save their souls’ as they are ‘uncanonical’. Their god is the god of hatred. (We know what his real name is). So the sect becomes not only evil and nasty, but also absurd and makes itself into a laughing-stock. (The devil always mocks his own). Here we witness aggressiveness, harsh bullying, persecuting attempts to humiliate, intimidate and punish. These are all founded on the sect’s essential lack of love, because sects are never founded on Love, but on unhealthy and prideful psychology, which always requires heartless, ruthless and persecuting ideologies.
- Now the sect becomes ever smaller, as any last ‘impure’ are witch-hunted and cast out. From this point on, the already small sect grows no further and contracts. However, though the sect is tiny, it will have a large internet, that is, virtual, presence, as virtuality makes up for reality. Indeed, it can be noticed that large groups generally have a weak internet presence. This is because they are too busy with reality to bother. Sects are also desperate to obtain money and property. They need finance. This is because they are already by definition small (they have cut themselves off from the mainstream) and are limited to temporary rented premises and decorated garden sheds for their tabernacles. Expansion is only possibly through stealing the property or income of others.
- Soon infighting within the sect starts and further splits about extremely petty or abstract matters sooner or later follow. Introversion is such that such matters become vital dogmas. All is dogmatised. This infighting becomes ever more bitter and unloving and creates ever more tiny and more irrelevant splinter groups. These disputes often lead to expensive court cases about scarce resources, both resulting from and leading to moral and financial scandals.
Over the last two generations I have often seen all of the above among fringe groups, both on the left and on the right. Whether secularist liberalism or secularist conservatism, it makes no difference, both are secularism, that is, they are the abandonment of the Tradition of the Holy Spirit and Love. Such abandonment of the Holy Spirit always leads to the fringes or margins and from there on to the exit from the Church altogether. All this seems to have developed as a result of the instability of the 1960s, and the search for gurus, cults and the exotic, especially then in the USA, but not only. Such gurus prey particularly on the weak, the young, the ignorant and neophytes, as gurus manipulate the zeal and ignorance (‘zeal not according to knowledge’, as the Apostle writes) of converts.
In countries like Russia the Orthodox faith is not at all exotic and is a mass phenomenon. Mass phenomena prevent or greatly limit sectarian nonsense, unless politics or nationalism intervene, as for example in the Ukraine today. However, in the emigration it is possible for sects to be formed, unchallenged by the masses because the masses are not present. Today, the delusions thirsted for by the lonely, such as incels, mean that gurus have an ever greater field to recruit from, using their podcasts and zooms to build their largely virtual sects. Gurus always end up outside the Church, but so, sadly, do their followers, who eventually see through the gurus’ nonsense and become disillusioned and embittered. The straitjackets that the gurus try to impose are always shaken off, sooner by the aware and the strong, later by the naïve and the weak, and they always come to naught.
Sects always dissolve, sect-leaders are always defeated and those who should have supervised and controlled their activities are shamed and die out as they too become spiritually irrelevant. This is the spiritual law. May they hear it and repent before it is too late. They cannot get away with it, for our God is not mocked.