Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Kirill Seeks to Tighten Control over Church by Dividing Up Existing Bishoprics

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 1 – Patriarch Kirill is continuing to divide up the existing bishoprics within the Russian Orthodox Church in order to strengthen his control of local parishes, some of whom have gone their own way in the much larger sees inherited from the Soviet past, according to a leading Moscow specialist on religious affairs.

In a comment reported by “Kommersant,” Roman Lunkin, the director of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Law, says that Patriarch Kirill’s decision to form new eparchates, in the North Caucasus earlier this year and across the former Soviet space this week is intended to “strengthen” the patriarchate’s powers in localities (

In the larger sees which have now been divided, Lunkin continues, “the parishes often live on their own because the ruling hierarch cannot physically follow what is taking place in all of them.” Consequently, the formation of the new bishoprics will increase the powers of the bishops over parishes and of the patriarch over the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole.

Moreover, because all the new bishops are “people devoted to [Kirill],” Lunkin suggests, this increase in their number will reduce the chance for the formation of any serious opposition group within the church and mean that Kirill will have a power vertical within the church equivalent to the one Vladimir Putin built in the Russian political system.

As Pavel Korobov of “Kommersant” ponts out, “the restructuring of the territorial-administrative structure of the Russian Orthodox Church began … in March … when the Synod took a decision to create several new bishoprics in the North Caucasus” in place of the two – centered in Stavropol and Baku – that had supervised parishes in that region.

This week, Kirill and the Synod took the following additional steps in this direction. First, they divided the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia into two parts, creating a new bishop for Narva and environs and removing this heavily ethnic Russian region from the control of Metropolitan Kornilii of Tallinn and All Estonia.

Second, the patriarch and his advisors divided what had been the Mordovian and Saransk bishopric into two new “church-territorial units, the Krasnoslobodskaya and Ardatskaya bishoprics.” Third, they reorganized the Tobolsk-Tyiumen bishopric, removing from its supervision the territory of Khanty-Mansiisk AO and the Yamarlo-Nenets AO, and forming two new bishoprics, the Khanty-Mansiisk and Sugurtskaya and the Salekhard and Novo-Urengoy.

And fourth, Kirill and the Synod restructured the Krasnoyarskaya and Yeniseyskaya bishopric, forming in its place a Yenisey and Norilsk bishopric and a Krasnoyarsk and Achinsk bishopric. As a result of these changes, the ROC of the Moscow Patriarchate now has 164 bishoprics to supervise some 30,000 parishes, many beyond the borders of Russia itself.

In announcing these changes, Vladimir Vigilyansky, press spokesman for Patriarch Kirill, noted that “in Greece, there is a bishop in every city, but we have a structure inherited from Soviet times when one city of a bishopric was separated from another by a thousand kilometers and when parishioners did not who was their ruling hierarch.”

“The reduction in the size of the bishoprics,” he continued, “will improve administration.” Moreover, by increasing the number of bishoprics and bringing their borders into closer correspondence with those of the state, the ROC may be in an even better position to influence politics.

But such explanation may not be the whole story or even the most important part of it. On the one hand, Lidiya Orlova writes in today’s “NG-Religii,” the church has no shortage of bishops but also no shortage of ambitious priests, many of whom “carry a marshal’s baton” in their cassocks (

And on the other, as Kirill himself a most experienced church apparatchik certainly knows from his own life in Soviet times, there are few better ways to make the power of Moscow beyond challenge than by dividing up larger units on the Russian periphery that might at some point constitute a challenge and staffing the new smaller units with loyalist.

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