Vienna, September 17 –The Moscow Patriarchate’s new statement on missionary activity, approved last spring but only now attracting attention as it is presented around Russia, reflects the thinking of moderate leaders in the Orthodox hierarchy, people who seldom attract as much attention as do the more nationalist and reactionary ones.
In an article posted on the Portal-Credo.ru site today, a site often extremely critical of the Russian Orthodox Church, Roman Lunkin, the site’s editor suggests that the new concept paper is “one of the most democratic church documents of recent times” (http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=comment&id=1294).
The new statement, which replaces one the Church issues in 1995, is largely the work of Archbishop Ioan, who heads the Patriarchate’s Missionary Department and whose writings have won him the reputation as one of the most dispassionate and moderate of Russian churchmen.
Not only does the new paper broaden the definition of what missionary activity should be by suggesting that social work is part of what missionaries should be doing, Lunkin points out, but it stakes out a series of positions both by direct statement and omission very much at odds with other church leaders.
Among the most significant of these differences, Lunkin continues, are the following:
First, the paper sharply distinguished between missionary activity and proselytism, between reaching out to those who have no specific faith and trying to convert those who follow a different tradition. The first, the paper says, is what the church should be doing; the second is something it should avoid.
Second, the document makes no reference to Russia as “the canonical territory” of Orthodoxy, an area from which all other religions should be excluded. Instead, it uses the far softer expression, “territory of pastoral responsibility,” a term less likely to infuriate Roman Catholics and Muslims.
Third, there is no suggestion that ethnic Russians are Orthodox by birth, something many Russian churchmen and even more Russian politicians regularly suggest and virtually the only way that it is possible for them to insist that Russia today is truly Orthodox as opposed to Orthodox in aspiration.
Fourth, the paper suggests that the church should use the languages of national minorities to bring them into Orthodoxy rather than insisting that members of such groups come to the faith through Russian – as almost all Russian Orthodox hierarchs have insisted in the past.
And fifth, the paper, while making an obligatory nod toward fighting “sects,” defines them in a remarkably narrow way and pointedly does not include any reference to Islamists, charismatics, or Pentecostals. Indeed, the paper makes clear that there can be Orthodox sects as well.
Indeed, in a passage that is especially likely to infuriate both many Orthodox churchmen and even more radical Orthodox lay politicians, the document specifically suggests that there is now a very real threat in Russia that “pseudo-Orthodox politicizing” is undermining genuine Orthodox belief.
Archbishop Ioan has long had a reputation as one of the Orthodoxy’s leading moderates, Lunkin notes. His 2005 book “The Spiritual Security of Russia,” for example, was much more liberal and democratic minded than its title suggested, for which Ioan was much criticized by Orthodox radicals.
But this latest document, even though approved by the Holy Synod on March 27th, seems certain to generate far more controversy than any of his earlier work. Indeed, many people are likely to read it as a direct challenge by Ioan to Metropolitan Kirill, the odds on favorite to succeed Aleksii II as patriarch, and radical Orthodox lay groups.
Neither Kirill and his powerful staff in the External Affairs Department of the Patriarchate nor Orthodox political groups are going to be happy with these ideas: They may even seek to employ Lunkin’s praise of the document as representing a kind of kiss of death for Ioan and those who think as he does.
But fortunately for the vitality of both the church and Russia, there is some evidence that some other church leaders in some of the eparchates share Ioan’s views: Archbishop Anastasii of Kazan, for example, told an interviewer recently that he favored similar ideas (http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=authority&id=829).
Specifically, Anastasii said, he believed that the church should conduct its missionary activities both among Russians and others who have fallen away from Orthodoxy and among the groups not traditional to Russia but that with regard to Muslims, the Russian Orthodox Church should “simply” try to remain on a friendly basis.