Guidelines for Western Assistance to Russian Orthodox:
A Mainline Protestant Perspective
Edward E. Roslof
Can the Orthodox Church be a force for renewal in Russia? If so, can the West help? The answer to both these questions is yes. Religious renewal is taking place today as millions of Russians experience the spiritual richness of the Orthodox Church for the first time. At the same time, the institutional church faces an enormous challenge. The clergy complain that people are becoming only superficially involved in parish life. They use churches for weddings, baptisms, and funerals, but otherwise never set foot in the church. Orthodoxy suffers from a shortage of priests, who are preoccupied with the time-consuming tasks of raising money and rebuilding newly returned churches. Indifference and hostility toward religion are still strong, especially in the countryside.
I propose a new model for Western interaction with the Orthodox Church based on three guiding principles:
1. Do not try to change Russian Orthodox into Western Protestants. They fought, suffered, and died to preserve the essentials of Orthodoxy in the liturgy and hierarchy. It would be counterproductive, if not foolish, to undermine the Russian [Orthodox] Church in these areas now. If we persist in our naive view that the solution to all Russia's problems is a Protestant-style Reformation within the Orthodox Church, we will lose any chance for constructive engagement with that church. Anti-Western sentiment is growing in Russia, and it is possible to envision a scenario for the near future where all Western Protestant missionaries are banned from the country.
2. Do not give money indiscriminately. There are two major flaws in this approach. First, the Orthodox hierarchy is unwilling to follow strict standards of financial accountability. When pressed on this issue, church leaders answer like Soviet-era bureaucrats: "You give us the money, we will use it as we see fit. You have no right to question our decisions." Second, funding major projects that consume large amounts of resources is a Soviet approach to the Church's needs. Only a small number of people are directly helped, while the Church as a whole is not assisted in the new challenge of how to become engaged with post-Communist Russian society. Require accountability for all funds given and teach Orthodox officials basic bookkeeping. Western churches will not continue to give money for the revitalization of Christianity in Russia if that money simply disappears without a trace into the Orthodox Church's coffers.
3. Work at the parish level, with priests and congregations in local Orthodox parishes, to rebuild their larger community through Christian action. We should challenge parishes to identify a need they wish to address within their communities and then invite them to submit a proposal for funding to meet that need. Western churches would fund these projects with modest annual grants that could be renewed and expanded, based on the project's success. The types of projects to be funded might include child-care centers, meals for retirees, free clinics, community health programs, or any other type of community service that has stopped with the disintegration of the Soviet state.
This new model for Western interaction with Russian Orthodox would specifically not be to support any programs connected with liturgical services, evangelism, or Christian education. These are areas in which Russian church leaders would suspect Protestant subversion of Orthodoxy. Not being involved in the Church's internal religious affairs would defuse the potential for conflict. Nor should Westerners fund church restoration projects. Admittedly, there is a crying need for rehabilitating the neglected and ruined buildings now being returned to the Patriarch's jurisdiction. If allowed, the Orthodox would use every cent for such work, not to mention every ruble they could raise themselves. The Russians will find the money to do such work on their own, as witnessed by the current plan to spend $500 million rebuilding the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
Western Christians should be more supportive of programs that target the social reintegration of the Orthodox Church within Russian civil society. The Orthodox-run social programs we support should be carefully monitored. In this area, we should enlist people who know the Russian language, have studied Russian culture, and have personal experience living in Russian society. In the past, Western denominations have not utilized people with real knowledge of Russia, and this led to charges from some opponents that mainline Protestants were deceived by the Soviet government. Now, many Western college students, both undergraduate and graduate, are able and willing to spend extended periods living in Russia as part of their studies. In exchange for reasonable financial support, these students would be willing to visit the parish projects described above and write objective evaluations of their effectiveness.
The goal of this new model is to assist the Orthodox Church in building a strong congregational structure without challenging the Orthodox sense of religious identity. It would share the strengths of Western denominations--toleration, effective organization, and social outreach--with the Russians. It would help them revitalize parish life through Christian action for others and simultaneously teach toleration for foreigners by personal interaction.
The Russian Orthodox Church cannot go back to the 19th century. The image of "Holy Russia" under a God-fearing and Orthodox tsar will not become reality. This does not mean, however, that the Orthodox Church cannot be a positive force for social change in Russia's future. It will be, and if Westerners seize the opportunity, we can play a constructive role in strengthening Orthodoxy at its roots.
Reprinted with permission from Harvard Divinity Bulletin 24 (no. 2, 1995), 22.
Edward E. Roslof is associate professor of church history at United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH. He is an ordained member of the United Methodist clergy.
Recent Russian Orthodox Church Growth
The Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate recently released new statistics concerning Russian Orthodox Church life.
Source: Orthodox Press Service, No. 74, 6 December 1995.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies