Baku, May 16 – The Moscow Patriarchate has signaled its plans to discipline Russian Orthodox priests who use the Internet to advance views at variance with those of the hierarchy or to challenge the church’s leadership in other ways, according to a report in a Moscow newspaper this week.
On Tuesday, Novyye izvestiya reported that participants in a roundtable organized by the Patriarchate’s Publications Council agreed that those priests and bishops who “violate the rules” will be subject to discipline by a Church Court according to rules to be adopted by the Church Council (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-05-13/89822/).
The proximate cause of this decision appears to be the actions of the supporters of dissident Bishop Diomid of Anadyr and Chukotka, who opposes ecumenism and the lack of democracy in the church, and those priests and hierarchs who seek the canonization of Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin, steps the Patriarchate opposes.
But in fact, this measure has been a long time coming. The first Russian Orthodox website appeared in 1996. The following year, Patriarch Aleksii II gave his official blessing to priests who used the web to spread the faith. And today, there are more than 2500 Russian Orthodox sites, representing all eparchates and many individual parishes.
Indeed, Father Vladimir Vigilyansky, the head of the Patriarchate’s press service, told the roundtable there are “a minimum” of 500 individual priests with their own sites, many of which are driven by “love for themselves and to particular authors but not love for the Church” and its inviolable teachings.
Throughout this period, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the head of the Patriarchate’s powerful External Relations Department and until recently the odds’ on favorite to succeed Aleksii as patriarch, had pushed this effort. Consequently, some will read this shift as an indication that his power is on the wane.
But a more likely explanation is that the Church’s leaders are simply following the lead of the Russian state in trying to “take under its control” what has been one of the freest and most dynamic parts of the church media, something that many church leaders have long feared but have been uncertain that they can do much apart.
Another reason for this shift or at least its timing is the success that church leaders have had in Belarus in silencing Father Aleksandr Shramko, “the most prominent Orthodox blogger” in that country” with a following of approximately 700, more than most priests have in the real world. His superiors told him to “focus his efforts” on real believers rather than virtual ones.
In the past, many Church leaders have preferred to view the actions of priests on the world wide web are a private matter and that the hierarchs should not get involved lest they violate the personal rights of the clergy or unintentionally call attention to or even make martyrs of priests who say things the Patriarchate does not approve.
But that is apparently changing fast. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the deputy chief of the External Affairs Department, announced the new line: The Church in its pursuit of genuine community must not follow the slogan of “all power to the laity” but rather “all power to the Church in the persons of its bishops.”
In short, the Russian Church like the Russian state is now engaged in strengthening the “power vertical,” a measure that in the church at least promises to reduce the amount of debate among the clergy and make the church ever less attractive to the increasing number of younger Russians who are now used to and enjoy the freer flow of ideas that the Internet has offered.