Staunton, May 27 – It is easy to make fun of Patriarch Kirill, his pursuit of wealth and his attacks on his opponents. It is especially easy to make fun of him now that he is celebrating what he claims is his record of building three new churches every day, a figure that is almost certainly false and is clearly offensive at a time when hospitals and schools are being shut down.
But attention to these things distracts attention from something more fundamental: Patriarch Kirill had no choice but to build more parish churches in order to support his radical increase in the number of bishoprics, a strategy he adopted a decade ago but has only expanded upon since his church’s losses in Ukraine.
As the Orthodox but anti-patriarch Ahilla portal notes, Kirill justified this approach by saying that more but smaller bishoprics would be closer to the people. Bishops would oversee fewer churches and thus would interact more regularly with them (ahilla.ru/rezultaty-razukrupneniya-eparhij-zasedaniya-vmesto-blizosti-k-narodu/).
Even if that had been Kirill’s actual goal – and there is good reason to think it wasn’t – the plan has backfired on him, the portal continues. With fewer parishes in each of the smaller bishoprics, the financial burden on individual parishes has increased because they must still support the typically elaborate church establishment.
In some cases, that has driven people out of the church. If one has to pay even more because of the hierarchy’s decisions, it is better to keep one’s distance. And so Kirill has been driven to try to open more churches so that the burden will be more fully divided and fall less heavily on any one parish.
There is little evidence that this fallback strategy is working, but what is more important is that such concerns were clearly far from Patriarch Kirill’s calculation. Instead, he has expanded the number of bishoprics in order to ensure that those churchmen who have a vote on key issues are his people and no one else’s.
That has become especially important as the loss of the numerous bishoprics he created in Ukraine looms. And this could have immediate consequences: If the Kremlin decides that for its own reasons, Kirill has to be helped to do less, as Putin suggested, and that the only way for that to happen is for the current patriarch to be ousted, controlling the bishoprics is critical.
Opening new parishes is thus not just a special case of the giantism that has long characterized Russian leaders, let alone a desire to promote religion, but rather a sensible, from Kirill’s point of view, defense mechanism against the possibility that he will be challenged. It probably won’t save him if Putin wants him gone, but it may delay that eventuality.