Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, better known as Patriarch Kirill, is in a position most of his predecessors over the last 100 years would have envied. He presides over a Russian Orthodox Church freed from the shadow of the gulag, and under his tenure it has gone from strength to strength. Descendants of the Soviet-era unchurched are flocking to be baptised, and Orthodoxy is not only asserting itself once more as the foundation of Russian national identity but also enjoying the official favour of the Kremlin.
If any in the Russian Church are aware of the irony of former KGB chief Vladimir Putin assuming the role of Orthodox tsar, few permit themselves to remark on it publicly. A state seeking to re-establish central control after the chaos of the 1990s will naturally seek advantages from a strongly centralised Church, and Kirill seems as energetic an opponent of centrifugal tendencies in his flock as Putin is in his own, secular domain.
It has for some time been a commonplace among observers of Orthodoxy to speculate that Kirill nurtures hegemonic designs for his Church. He seems to believe that the authority of the patriarchal office must be unchallenged if Orthodoxy in Russia is to fulfil his dream of being the spiritual backbone of a resurgent nation. By increasing the prestige and influence of the Russian Church, the largest group of Orthodox believers in the world, he hopes to position himself as effective leader of the self-governing churches which have inherited the faith of Byzantium.
That ambition, of course, is not meekly accepted by all Orthodox. In particular, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, as the acknowledged holder of a primacy of honour in world Orthodoxy, has no intention of vacating the field in favour of Kirill. In practical terms, that primacy is as distant a memory as Byzantium itself. Nevertheless, Bartholomew has been an astute player on the international scene, and his personal prestige has in some measure made up for the weakness of his hand.
But Kirill has some aces to play. His decision not to attend last year’s Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete showed that he can effectively hinder Bartholomew’s ambitions. Orthodox Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians will side with Moscow when it suits them. The Arab churches, long dominated by overbearing Greek expatriates, also look increasingly to Russia as a potential saviour from Islamism. Even many churchmen in Greece, who see Bartholomew as dangerously liberal and pro-ecumenical, will also cosy up to Kirill.
Their tactical collusion does not mean they will happily make themselves permanent vassals of Moscow. The truth is that, although many Orthodox in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have no nostalgia for their former Greek overlords, they have no desire either to replace them with Russians. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where the Moscow Patriarchate is haemorrhaging adherents because of its aggressive pro-Kremlin stance, has shown that Kirill can over-reach himself.
So, do not expect the Moscow patriarchate to establish itself as a sort of Orthodox papacy, despite its longstanding and hyperbolic self-description as “the Third Rome”. Orthodox ecclesiology is based on the notion of conciliarity, seeing itself as a communion of churches of equal honour and authority, and has no place for a church which exercises effective jurisdiction over the others.
The position of Moscow within the Russian Church is a different matter. The patriarchate has probably always enjoyed a degree of internal dominance which could only exist in the dreams of the patriarchs and ruling archbishops of other autocephalous churches, where infighting is often as fierce and as public as in the most fractious of political parties. Its closeness to the centralised political power doubtless accounts in large part for that, and the institutional weakness of a church all but destroyed by communist persecution gave full scope to its primacy.
So it is not entirely surprising that Kirill seems to think his position sufficiently secure to tell critics recently that there was no place for them in the Russian Church. His voice, he proclaimed, was that of the episcopate as a whole. There are many, of course, who will point out that this is not a very collegial way of talking – that it is more redolent of a papalist than a synodal, Orthodox view of the Church. But while voices abroad were raised in protest, in Russia they did not exceed a whisper. My guess is that for the foreseeable future the patriarch, or his chosen successor, will be as unchallenged in their dominance as the strongman in the Kremlin.
And there’s the rub. It can be tempting for churchmen to tie their fortunes to the coat-tails of rulers who easily usurp the privileges of divinity. But earthly rulers pass. There are surely dangers for the Russian Church in becoming associated with a leader who might not be judged kindly by history, even eventually in Russia itself.
On the international stage, ironically, Kirill’s reliance on political clout may be impeding his ambitions for leadership rather than favouring them. The Russian Church can boast not merely of its enormous size, but also of a hugely impressive cultural and spiritual patrimony. It is these, rather than brute force, power politics and material wealth, which could make it a true world leader – within Orthodoxy and beyond.
Fr Mark Drew is the parish priest of Hedon and Withernsea in Middlesbrough diocese
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