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The Bishops’ Council: Diversity, not Disunity

The 2008 Bishops’ Council in Moscow has ended, as it began, with calls to Unity within the multinational and multilingual Russian Orthodox Church. This is especially relevant on the fringes of Russian Church territory, outside the political borders of the Russian Federation and its 104 nationalities. For Church Unity is under secular, political and nationalist threat in the Ukraine, in Estonia, in Moldova and elsewhere. However, other issues were also discussed by the bishops.

First of all, there was the question of ecumenism, with Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) sounding a note of caution, which will be popular among monastics and ordinary parish clergy and people both inside and outside Russia. Thanks to such calls as his, the politically-inspired excesses of the past are now over. Thus, the branch theory was condemned in 2000 and previous canonical abuses are now ancient history. Nevertheless, the Russian Orthodox Church will continue to have a presence in inter-faith organisations, otherwise the Patriarchate of Constantinople will be able to make out that its previously unknown and novel politically-conditioned positions actually represent those of the Orthodox Church.

As for the question of the attempts by the Patriarchate of Constantinople to include representatives of the uncanonical so-called ‘Church of Estonia’ in its interfaith dialogues, which led to the recent breakdown of talks in Ravenna and Rhodes, decisions seem to be near. At long last some in the Russian Church are saying that the only solution is for the Church to introduce delegates from the canonical, self-governing Metropolias of ROCOR, Moldova and Estonia and the Autonomous Church of Japan to such dialogues. This would effectively call Constantinople’s bluff.

Secondly, the Council has now at last established a Christian position on the question of ‘human rights’. This purely secular concept, adopted wholesale and uncritically by Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, from which mindset it originally sprang, has now been put into the Orthodox Christian context of responsibilities and duties. Without an understanding of the Fall and sin and therefore the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, the concept of ‘human rights’ is simply anti-Christian pride and arrogance. For example, it is understood that the secularist ‘right’ to murder others (through abortion or euthanasia) is not a right at all, but simply heinous sin.

Thirdly, the Council universally glorified the previously locally glorified St John of Shanghai. At the same time, the Commission for Canonisation will look at other local canonisations. These include those of St Jonah of Manchuria and the few New Martyrs and Confessors canonised by ROCOR, but not yet universally recognised by the rest of the Patriarchate. Here it should be understood that the list of those canonised by ROCOR during the Cold War was just over 8,000, whereas the Patriarchate, which naturally today has far better access to archives, has already glorified 31,000 New Martyrs and Confessors and has details of another 70,000 whose lives are still to be examined. Outstanding is the coming universal canonisation of the widely-venerated Metropolitan Joseph of St Petersburg and also the royal servants of the Grand Princes. Although some of these were not members of the Orthodox Church at the time of their martyrdom, the ROCOR Synod in 1981 considered that they had been baptised by their blood, like so many unbaptised martyrs of the early centuries. In the face of death, where there is no time to baptise, the Church has always accepted baptism by blood.

The conclusion of the Council for Unity was that although diversity is quite acceptable and natural, disunity is not. Thus, on Friday 27 June, the Bishops unanimously gave warning to the eccentric Bishop Diomid of Chukotka, the 21st century Archpriest Avvakum, that he had overstepped the bounds and that without repentance, he will be defrocked. Known for his peculiarities such as the condemnation of mobile phones and other modern technology, his nationalist and isolationist anti-missionary views even led him to support those who this winter buried themselves alive in a cave near the city of Penza, because they had mistakenly thought that the end of the world was coming. Bishop Diomid’s encouragement of such sectarian extremes, and the deaths of two women in that group, was seen as sheer irresponsibility by his brother-bishops. He and his sometimes violent supporters have now been issued with the final warning. We can suppose that any who in the future direct themselves to the opposite extreme of liberalism will also face the same threat. Diversity, yes. Disunity, no.

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