Staunton, November 30 – The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is losing its hold on many Orthodox believers who are put up by the bureaucratized hierarchy, its obsession with wealth and property for the leadership, and its overly close links “with an unpopular government,’ according to a Russian analyst.
The fashion for supporting the church regardless of the way its leaders behave has passed, Semyon Reznichenko says, and ever more Orthodox are choosing either to become members of other denominations, a choice that accounts for much of the growth of the latter, or organizing new independent Orthodox groups (www.apn.ru/publications/article23380.htm).
“The upper hierarchy is solving its own problems,” Reznichenko says, “but it is not giving an answer that is acceptable for the majority of believers.” They are simply too diverse socially, ideologically, educationally, and generationally. And that “sometimes creates the impression that a single ROC exists only on paper.”
That daunting diversity, which has been exacerbated by the lack of “genuine parish life,” is causing some Orthodox faithful to seek to unify themselves “’from below.’” Such a pattern is nothing new, Reznichenko writes. Instead, this pattern has long been characteristic for religions of the East like Sufism and Buddhism.
The Russian commentator suggests that the best way to describe these Orthodox parallels is to use the terms “ashram” and “guru” for the groups and their leaders. Among those he points to are the late Father Daniil Sysoyev, who advocated “a radical internationalism” and “active missionary work.”
After his murder, his followers experienced some difficulties. But they have kept hteir unity. More than that, “in the ashram are today such bright personalities as the widow of the leader, publicist and writer Yuliya Sysoyeva and the specialist on anti-Protestant polemics, Father Oleg Stenyayev.
Another “guru” is Deacon Andrey Kurayev, whose relations with the hierarchy have been complicated at best but who has attracted a following through his writing and speaking. Still a third involves followers of the Archpriest Kucher who deifies the last tsar, Nicholas II, and condemns all those responsible for the destruction of the monarchy.
One of the largest “ashrams” is that consisting of the followers of former Bishop Diomid of Chukotka. Although denounced as a splitter by the Moscow Patriarchate, Diomid and his fundamentalist followers who oppose any opening to other confessions continue to attract many Russian Orthodox believers to their services and activities.
And still other “ashrams” are focused on cures or fighting social ills like drugs. Among these are the followers of Archpriest Borisov in Moscow who provides free meals to the poor and the interest clubs organized by Father Sergii Rybko to encourage discussion about religious and political issues.
This “ashramization” of Russian Orthodoxy is already having an impact, although it is below the radar screen of most commentators. It is contributing to a radical decentralization, “above all a decentralization in minds and souls” because the authority of “the guru” and his “ashram” is higher than that of the official church.
As the Patriarchate has been at pains to point out, this trend can lead to the rise of “totalitarian sects” like the one at Bogolyubov monastery near Vladimir. But more often, ashrams provide believers precisely that religious life that they seek and that is often absent in the official hierarchy.
According to Reznichenko, “the empire in Russia is receding into the past. And together with that is receding a unified imperial church.” Consequently, he argues, “the real future of Russian Orthodoxy lies with the ashrams” rather than with the Moscow Patriarchate and its power obsessions.
Indeed, the religious affairs commentator concludes, “the appearance of the Orthodox ashram is one of the indicators that Russians are trying to restore their collective way of living. Those collectives which can really help [Russians] survive. To survive in ever more difficult conditions.”