Belief stamped with intolerance and nationalism

Andrew Brown, Religious Affairs Correspondent, on the tradition of religious leaders' subservience to secular rule

Andrew Brown
Tuesday 21 May 1996 23:02

It was characteristic of Orthodox attitudes to authority that the dissident priest Fr Gleb Yakunin was defrocked by the Moscow patriarchate in 1993 - in theory for standing in that year's elections to parliament; in practice for his resolute defence of liberal values in the previous parliament, which was given moral authority by the five years he spent in the gulag under the Soviet system.

Now that President Boris Yeltsin represents the establishment, Patriarch Alexy II proclaims it is the duty of every Christian to vote Yeltsin. Should the communists win the election, then the Orthodox Church will unhesitatingly ally itself with them in a campaign against foreign influence, says Fr Michael Bordeaux who has been studying the Russian Orthodox Church for 30 years.

The tradition of subservience to the state, no matter how despotic, goes back at least as far as the Emperor Constantine, who took the chair at the first council of Nicaea in 325AD, which gathered all the bishops of Christendom to decide a theological point about the relationship of the human and divine elements in Jesus. It was none of the assembled bishops and theologians but the emperor himself who proposed and forced through the formula that the council finally agreed and to which all mainstream Christians still subscribe.

With the fading of the Byzantine Empire, submission to the state took on an increasingly nationalistic flavour. The patriarchate of Constantinople found itself in a difficult position after the Turkish conquest in 1452: according to sympathetic historian Steven Runciman, the story of the patriarchate since that catastrophe "is lacking in heroic bravado. [If] its leaders ... often indulged in intrigue and often in corruption, such is the inevitable fate of second-class citizens under a government in which intrigue and corruption flourish."

In the 16th century the Russian Orthodox Church was reduced to subservience by Ivan the Terrible with his selective execution and exile. But he raised the dignity of the bishop of Moscow to that of Patriarch, and established his independence from the patriarchate of Constantinople. The pattern continues of Orthodox churches independent of one another but subservient politically to whoever is running their country.

There is little room for religious toleration in the thought of the Orthodox churches now. In Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia, post-communist nationalisms have been reflected in increasing religious intolerance and the orthodox have been campaigning against Roman Catholics, and Baptists and other Protestant sects.

To the Orthodox mind, this is justified by the central importance of the Holy Liturgy. It hardly matters what compromises are necessary to keep churches open and allow the liturgy to be celebrated, since it is worship that God is concerned about. Dr Bordeaux says: "It is difficult to know whether people listen to the patriarch telling them how to vote. Orthodox believers are concerned with having an open church and a priest to celebrate the liturgy. They have got that now." Their immediate concerns are with raising funds to repair the damage of the communist years, he said.

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