Thursday, January 24, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Kirill Moving Russian Church from Feudalism to ‘Enlightened Absolutism,’ Mitrokhin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 24 – Patriarch Kirill over the last two years has been working to transform the administration of the Russian Orthodox Church from that of “the late Middle Ages” into another one resembling “enlightened absolutism,” according to a leading specialist on the Russian church.

            In an article in “Vedomosti” yesterday, Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher at the Center for the  Study of Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen in Germany, argues that these reforms, which he says “on the whole” are “progressive,” are far more significant than many yet appreciate (

            After the collapse of the Soviet system and the freeing of the church from “the oppression of the party-state machine,” he says, the Russian Orthodox Church “quickly became more archaic and converted itself into something analogous to the medieval system of apanage princes,” with the most influential of these “princes of the church” forming the Holy Synod.

            As it operated in the 1990s, Mitrokhin continues, the Synod was “simultaneously a supervisory council and a board of directors with the participation of minority” stock owners. Subordinate to it were the departments of the Patriarchate which “were headed less influential bishops.”

            This meant that “the main part of the Church was handed over to the administration of the numerous bishops” – at that time there were “about 170” – who were “in fact uncontrolled” and “what was most important” to them did not have to pay the “taxes” that the Patriarchate said they owed to itself. A similar arrangement obtained between the parishes and the bishoprics.

            According to Mitrokhin, this not only forced the Patriarchate to seek other forms of income, often with scandalous results, but mean that “in the largest autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” this opened the way to schisms and other divisions.

            In short, the religious scholar says, “the Russian Orthodox Church under Aleksii II from the economic and administrative point of view was a gigantic corporation which united under a single brand tens of thousands of independent economic agents” who could do largely what they wanted – and did as long as they paid modest “franchise” fees.

            The first moves to change that situation began at the end of Aleksii’s reign. In violation of the Church’s own rules, the regular convention of church councils was replaced by a council of the highest clergy which met more frequently and gradually took direct control not only of the bishoprics but even of individual congregations.

            As a result, Mitrokhin says, “not more than half of the working churches” in the city of Moscow are legally “parishes” with their own legal personhood. The others “are no more than points of providing religious services” which are directly subordinate to the Patriarchate which controls their operation and takes their funds for its own use.

            To push his own reform agenda, not much in evidence during the first two years of his Patriarchte, Kirill first of all divided the functions of the Holy Synod which still included the “princes” and those of a Higher Church Council which “united all the chiefs of the synod departments” which increased in number and became more directly Kirill’s agents.

            Then, the incumbent patriarch created a body, parallel to the Social Chamber instituted by Vladimir Putin, to give advice to the synod and prepare recommendations for future councils of the church.

            Then, Mitrokhin notes, Kirill launched a reform of the episcopate and the basic territorial subdivisions of the Moscow Patriachate, the bishoprics. He increased the number of bishoprics within Russia by about 40 and thus ensuring that Russians rather than Ukrainians will have the dominate voice in the Church in the future. And he set up church structures paralleling Putin’s federal districts as monitoring services for himself.

            But the biggest changes have been those Kirill has imposed on individual congregations. Even those who retain the status of legal persons do not in the view of the church “own” their premises or furnishings and thus are not in a position to split from the church or do anything else the Patriarchate itself opposes.

            The imposition of such controls within the Church, Mitrokhin says, resemble the imposition of greater control over simple people as Europe moved from feudalism to “enlightened absolutism,” a transition that in this case represents a clear indication of the direction Kirill wants the Church to go.

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