Staunton, December 17 – Metropolitan Pavel, the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, has unexpectedly called for his church to be given the same powers of self-administration that the Moscow hierarchy has already extended to Orthodox leaders in Estonia, Latvia, and Moldova.
Not only is the Belarusian Orthodox Church far larger than those churches, he told a meeting of the Orthodox religious in Mensk this week, but failure to give it the same status is inherently offensive to many in Belarus and raises questions that are agitating not only the church but the society and government (churchby.info/rus/974/).
Given that the Moscow Patriarchate has long treated its Belarusian hierarchs in ways little different from those that it does bishops inside the Russian Federation, including imposing the current metropolitan from the outside, this represents a remarkable turn of events which highlights growing Belarusian nationalism and possibly presages larger church shifts ahead.
After delivering his speech and then taking questions, Pavel unexpectedly asked for five more minutes to discuss “the form of effective administration” in the church and whether the Belarusian exarchate should follow the path of Ukraine, Estonia and so on. What followed was truly amazing in the Belarusian context.
“Look,” the metropolitan said, “in Estonia there are two bishops and a self-administered church; in Latvia, the situation is the same; in Moldova there are five bishops and it is self-administered [but] we have 16 bishops and we are not self-administered” but rather run from Moscow.
This is becoming offensive, Pavel continued, and it is time to raise this issue, although he said that he “does not know what the reaction” in Moscow will be or what will come next. According to a report of the meeting by Churhby.info, his words were drowned in an ovation from the audience.
When the applause died down, the metropolitan said “thank you for your support” on something that involves “the honor of the Belarusian Orthodox church.” And he added, “today, the Russian Orthodox Church which is territorially within the borders of the Russian Federation is a powerful church.”
“The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is also a powerful church, but then there is the third, the Belarusian!” It is time, the churchman continued, to raise this question and to gain both equality and dignity.
The metropolitan said that he is “a supporter of the idea that the Belarusian Orthodox church must be powerful and strong, but as you yourselves understand, here none of us intend to leave the supervision of the Russian Orthodox Church, not in any case. We had a patriarch and we have one.”
But nonetheless we have to move forward and raise certain issue, Pavel said. And in a demonstration that his position has the support of Belarusian religious and that his words were no accident, the idea that the Belarusian church should seek self-administrating status from the Moscow Patriarchate was included in the meeting’s summary document.
Under church rules, the Moscow Patriarchate has the final say over whether to offer any of its subordinate parts self-administrative status. But the Belarusian request confronts the Moscow church and Patriarch Kirill personally with a Hobson’s choice in which a decision either way will create problems.
If Moscow goes along, then the Belarusian church will make another step toward independence and even autocephaly whatever Metropolitan Pavel is saying today. The pressure from below and from the Mensk government is clearly moving in that direction. But such a decision will lead to even more pressure on the Russian Church elsewhere for similar or even greater concessions.
But if Moscow refuses the Belarusian request, it may face an even worse outcome from its point of view: the open revolt of one of its parts, something that would affect not only the church itself but the Kremlin’s desire to include Belarus into what Vladimir Putin likes to call the Russian world.