Staunton, April 22 – Two close observers of the Russian religious scene, Sergey Chaplin and Konstantin von Eggert, say that Patriarch Kirill has suffered such a loss of reputation and control during the pandemic that his future as head of the Russian Orthodox Church is in doubt. Even if he survives in office, he will be increasingly irrelevant to the rest of the church.
Chaplin devotes his attention to the coronavirus deniers who are found among the Orthodox fundamentalists who have always viewed Kirill as a dangerous liberal. They have challenged the head of the church by holding services even after the patriarch told them not to lest the virus spread (theins.ru/opinions/215270).
According to the specialist on religions, “the spontaneous movement of the coronavirus dissidents has become the embodiment of the deep internal crisis in the Russian Orthodox Church,” a crisis that touches on all the most sensitive aspects of church administration and church-state relations.
“In fact,” Chaplin, these dissidents “have come out of their subordination to Patriarch Kirill who more than once albeit with delays, called on parishioners to remain at home and not visit churches during the period of the harsh restrictions connected with the pandemic.” The dissidents “completely ignored” him and held well-attended services.
“The life of the ROC under Patriarch Kirill has become so ideologized that all scenarios of the resistance to the Moscow Patriarchate must bear a clearly expressed political and ideological character,” as was the case in the dispute about autocephaly for the Orthodox in Ukraine.
“But the uniqueness of the current situation is that resistance to the patriarch does not bear in pure form an ideological character and thus it is unclear how anyone can fight against it.” Moreover, it arose spontaneously and unexpectedly. And worst of all, it came from the right, the direction Kirill has always feared the most.
That has always been true, “but judging from everything, the main problems of the patriarch in his relations with the fundamentalists are still ahead.” The conservatives can’t forgive Kirill for his deference to the state on closing churches and his violation of what they see as the sacred traditions of church life.
A source of strength of the conservatives is that many of their attitudes reflect “not a Christian but a factually magical approach” to church practices, something that attracts many parishioners as well. Kirill has only one resource he might use – the power of the state – but that could be dangerous to him and the church.
If he asked the state to help purge the church dissidents, the state might do so; but would it stop where he wanted it to? And even if it didn’t, would any church leader who made that choice be able to maintain his legitimacy and authority? And at present, there are many bishops who aren’t on his side but behave as rulers of their own domains.
To put it bluntly, Chaplin says, “Kirill is in an extremely weak position.” Whether someone in the church will challenge him for his job is uncertain. The Kremlin, however, might be looking for someone to replace Kirill because it views him as a weak manager who has lost control of those he is supposed to rule.
Konstantin von Eggert, a journalist who covers social and religious issues, is even more direct. He says that during the pandemic, Kirill has lost his authority “forever.” Putin may face challenges, but Kirill has few defenses to the challenges that are already confronting him (dw.com/ru/комментарий-эпоха-патриарха-кирилла-подходит-к-концу/a-53207402).
According to von Eggert, “the Patriarch has turned out to be alien for all: for the powers who see in him a weak and incompetent manager, for active believers in whose eyes he has betrayed ‘true Orthodoxy,’ and for a significant portion of the urban middle class, for whom the churchman is a rich member of the corrupt ruling elite and the enemy of science and progress.”
“Patriarch Kirill has suffered a defeat, as an administrator, as a de facto politician, and as a public figure. If the current regime possibly survives the pandemic, there are great doubts about the head of the ROC” after the coronavirus passes.” There are simply too many enemies who have too many reasons to oppose him to have confidence that he will survive.
“But even if purely formally, he keeps the patriarchal throne, the authority of the present ruler has taken such a shock over the last spring weeks that he will hardly be able to rule” as the occupant of that position is supposed to, von Eggert concludes.
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