The Russian Orthodox Church is generally portrayed in the West as corrupt, deeply reactionary, and totally subordinate to the state. Yet while there is an anti-clerical element in Russia which shares this point of view, in general Russians regard their Church very favourably. Meanwhile, over the past 25 years the number of Russians self-identifying as Orthodox has increased from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population. How can we explain why Russians have turned in such large numbers towards an institution which is supposedly so rotten?
The obvious explanation is that the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. This, in essence, is the argument of John Burgess’s new book Holy Rus’. Burgess, an American Calvinist theologian, has spent several years examining the Orthodox Church close up and seeing what it is that is actually doing. From this, he concludes that:
When we examine the Russian Orthodox Church only in terms of its compromises with and subservience to the state, we miss the extraordinary religious renaissance that is taking place on the ground far away from official meetings between the president and the patriarch. Major initiatives in education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life are helping the Church reach deeply into Russian society. Whatever the Church’s faults and failures – and they are real – I have seen how Russia is the better for the Church’s efforts to bring its values into society.
To make this point, Burgess begins by outlining the Church’s extraordinary revival following the collapse of the USSR, with the number of Orthodox parishes increasing from 7,000 to 33,000 in the past 25 years. He then details the ‘initiatives in education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life’ mentioned above. As described by Burgess, the Church’s social outreach is particularly striking. He writes:
The Church has developed an impressive number of and range of social ministries. Orthodox hospitals, hospices, orphanages, feeding and housing programs, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers – in these and other initiatives, the Church has taken a leading role in caring for Russia’s poor and needy.
Burgess also describes innovations in Orthodox parish life, as local priests attempt to turn churches from places where people attend services and nothing more into genuine communities. Much of what Burgess describes (such as Sunday schools, or the congregation meeting for tea after services) would be considered completely normal in Western Catholic or Protestant parishes, but for Russian Orthodoxy it is fairly revolutionary.
While making a case for the positive role played by the Church in Russian life, Burgess is careful not to exaggerate the Church’s real power. This is not nearly as great as most people think, he says. The state remains thoroughly secular and the Church actually has little influence on government policy. Its social initiatives also account for only a small percentage of the overall national welfare system.
More significantly, Burgess notes that while most Russians now call themselves Orthodox, very few actually attend services, and most are ignorant of Christian doctrine. The Church’s strategy is one of ‘in-churching’. By surrounding Russians with symbols of Orthodox belief, building churches, and propagating rituals such as the increasingly popular Epiphany swims in icy rivers, it hopes to gradually bring Russians into the bosom of the Church. Burgess is sceptical as to whether this policy is working. Still, he believes that it has positive benefits in the sense of giving Russians a sense of the transcendental which they would otherwise lack. He writes:
Whether Russia has become a more moral nation – or, to put it more sharply, whether, because of the Church and its many new parishes, Russia is becoming more like Holy Rus’ – is impossible to determine. Moreover, the Church will never be able to answer that question with sociological evidence. But the Church does not have to. It is enough that its priests and parishes cultivate, however faintly and imperfectly, a glimpse of what Orthodox believers call a new heaven and earth. Russians cannot fail to notice. Something has changed against the horizon of the city. The Church again beckons; the bells again resound.