Russian Orthodox Church: A Chance for Unification after Long Dissent Period

For the first time in the post-Soviet history of Russia, an official delegation of "dissenters" from Russian Orthodox Church abroad visited Russia. They were invited by the Head of Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Alexi II. The long-standing problem of the church "tragic separation" seems to be solved…
The history of Russian Orthodox Church was not peaceful. From the time of the first rulers of Russia – Norman princes invited by Russians, to the contemporary period there has been the struggle inside Russia and its church between the influence of Europe and Eastern countries. The struggle occurred inside the spiritual sphere of Russians and influenced, both directly and indirectly, the choice of the way for the country development. In the course of the struggle Russian Orthodox Church had several critical points which radically changed its history – namely, the church dissents into several branches. They resulted from the struggle within Russian society.  This was the time when Europe started influencing Russia, and the church wanted to stop this influence.
      The first church dissent happened during the rule of the czar Alexei Mikhailovich at the end of 17th century.  According to the official version, the dissent resulted from the innovations introduced by Russian Orthodox Church Head Patriarch Nikon.  Meanwhile, Old Believers had the same religious postulates and beliefs as Nikon's reform proponents. Meanwhile, Old Believers were indignant with the new details of the church procedure.  Certainly, the changes in religious texts and procedures were an important thing for priests and church-goers, but they could hardly cause the dissent. There has been the need of the church reform for a long time, and the reform was inevitable. Foreign invaders caused disasters for Byzantine and Russia and separated Russian Orthodox Church which lost much of its communication with Orthodox churches in Eastern countries.
The temptations the Western society and its religions could have for Russians alarmed the Russian church leaders who decided to strengthen their positions through interaction with other Orthodox communities and this requested establishing closer contacts with them. This caused arising the idea of universal Orthodox Church. Patriarch Nikon’s efforts to implement this idea had a lack of support. As the key issue of the dispute in Russian Orthodox Church was changing from the church ceremony to church canons, the problem aroused: parishioners being distracted by the church innovations could stop attending the church. There could be a dilemma for Bishops: to preach in the church with no parishioners or to preach the believers outside the church. Nikon's personal ambitions were defeated. His attempt to have the church as the supreme authority in the country failed. However, it was the defeat for the church clergymen ambitions, not for the church key postulates. Its canons and ceremonies renewed at that time are practiced even nowadays. At the same time, the church's defeat destroyed the obstacles for European influence which was brought through the reforms of Peter the Great czar at the beginning of 18th century. The church did not lose its spiritual meaning, but stopped being political force.
For several centuries Russian Orthodox Church and the state authorities had relatively peaceful relations which were broken by the revolution at the beginning of 20th century. New Soviet authorities opposed the clergymen's opinion on the role of the church during the time of establishing new society. Soviet authorities demanded absolute obedience from the church and made no compromise offered by Senior Prelate of Russian Orthodox Church, Holy Patriarch Tikhon. At the same time, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was being established outside Russia in accordance with the edict # 362 issued by Patriarch Tikhon on November 20, 1920. The edict recommended all Orthodox believers outside Russia to unite and live separately from Russian Mother-Church until it has freedom and order again. After Patriarch Tikhon's arrest, Metropolitan Sergy Nizhegorodski was appointed the Head of Russian Orthodox Church. In 1926 Sergy issued his famous declaration telling Orthodox believers "to be glad" about the successes of the Russian theomacist authorities.  Patriarch told believers nation-wide to thank the authorities for their attention to the needs of Orthodox believers.  The declaration issuing started the second and biggest dissent inside Russian Orthodox Church.
The dissent divided Russian society.  Official Russian "Sergyan" church stopped being recognized outside the Soviet Union. The underground catacomb church appeared in the country.  In addition, the number of parishioners and believers reduced. This resulted in weakening the authority of the church. Nevertheless, the church still existed and was of big assistance for the country during the Great Patriotic war in 1941- 1945, inspiring believers to withstand the fascist invasion.
There has always been tension in the relations between Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The situation started changing only recently. For 12 years of his tenure as Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Alexi II constantly called for stopping the division within the church because there are no more reasons for it. He said Russian Orthodox Church is willing to cooperate on any terms.
In October 2003 Archbishops of Russian Orthodox Church Abroad had Synod meeting where they accepted the resignation of the Church Head – Metropolitan Vitaly. Archbishop Lavr was appointed for this position. This was a principal change, because the new Church Head has more positive attitude to the Orthodox Church in Moscow than his predecessor opposed any cooperation.
For some reasons, currently Moscow Patriarchy of Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church Abroad have a need of each other.
In recent years Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has lost "iron curtain" around the Soviet Union. Therefore the Church Bishops are ready for a dialog with Moscow.
Moscow Patriarchy will also have some benefits if the churches unification takes place.  First, this step will strengthen the authority of Moscow Russian Orthodox Church which may gain 22 monasteries  and 250 parishes Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has all over the world and in this way will improve its positions in the everlasting competition with Catholic Church. Russian orthodox Church needs stronger positions to be able to solve its domestic problems. Although the number of believers in Russia is increasing, not all of them attend Russian Orthodox Church. Alternative religions of sectarian type are popular. People who want to practice religion and do not know much about it, are often misled by "soul hunters" like "White Brothers", Adventists of 7th  Day, Witnesses of Iegova, "Scientologists" and others. Protestant Church is winning popularity in Russia, driving Russian people away from the culture of Orthodox Church they were raised with, replacing it with Western outlook and culture which denies Motherland and such an important state institution as Russian Orthodox Church. This Church's desire of strengthening its positions is supported by President Putin who on his visit to the USA personally invited Metropolitan Lavr to visit Russia on behalf of Patriarch Alexi II. The two churches will inevitably come to an agreement soon.
However, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has opponents of the churches unification. Therefore a dissent can happen inside this church. Its 14 priests from East American Eparchy sent a letter to Metropolitan Lavr and the Church Assembly Members where they expressed their concern with "the lightning speed" of the establishing contacts between the two churches. The clergymen put forward a version that the leaders of Russian Orthodox Church Abroad are being used for political purposes. Shortly before visiting Moscow by the delegation of Russian orthodox Church Abroad, its Bishop Daniil Iriisky's letter was put in the Internet. The Bishop is Vicar of Archbishop Synod Chairman in charge of relations with Old Believers. He writes: "If we united with Moscow Patriarchy, we would have to recognize American Autokefal Church, which is extremely modernist and has nothing common with us. We would have to be closer to Greek New Style Church, and this will disappoint the churches of old style (Greek and others) we currently deal with. Parishioners of Russian Orthodox Church Abroad do not need this unification".
The two churches may have disagreement on the issues of participation in the ecumenic movement and condemning "Sergyan" church. The issue of the official unification registration will arise. However, all this will be in the second stage of the relations between the two churches. Currently the key issue is whether the idea of the churches unification will be accepted or rejected. Current situation reminds the one during Patriarch Nikon's reforms which cause a dissent. There are arguments about modernizing of the church language and ceremonies to make them more understandable by common public. There is the issue of some priests misbehavior and some other important problems. In a word, currently Russian Orthodox Church is experiencing a critical period and the future development of the Orthodox religion is at stake.

Igor Kulagin