WHEN the new Orthodox Patriarch of Russia was enthroned in Moscow on 1 February, church leaders around the world claimed to see signs of a breakthrough for ecumenism (News, 30 January). But Christian minorities in Russia are sounding a note of caution.
Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, now Kirill I, has long experience of other denominations. But he will not necessarily be friendly to his country’s small and struggling non-Orthodox Churches.
Born into a priest’s family in Leningrad in 1946, Kirill was ordained in 1969, and was personal secretary to Metropolitan Nikodim when he collapsed and died in the arms of Pope John Paul I in 1978. In 1971, he began representing Russian Orthodoxy at the World Council of Churches. In 1976, he was made Bishop of Vyborg in Finland, and the following year, at the age of just 30, he was appointed as an archbishop.
As chairman for almost two decades of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, Kirill was Russian Orthodoxy’s chief ecumenical officer. The Archbishop of Canterbury has lost no time inviting him to England to further the work of the Anglican-Orthodox Doctrinal Commission, while the Pope, who has met Kirill three times, has lauded his contribution to a new Roman Catholic-Orthodox “relationship of friendship, mutual acceptance and sincere dialogue”.
PRIVATELY, however, local Christians are advising circumspection. In April 2006, when a Declaration on Human Rights and Dignity was published by the World Russian People’s Council under his guidance, Kirill said his Church would resist “the invention of such rights to legitimise behaviour condemned by both traditional morality and historical religions”.
In ecumenical affairs, too, Kirill has been a tough negotiator. In October 2007, his delegates walked out of the International Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Theological Dialogue, which had only recently reconvened in Ravenna after a six-year deadlock. In October 2008, they withdrew from the Conference of European Churches, accusing it of “losing its historical mission as an East-West bridge”.
A Roman Catholic-Orthodox joint working group, formed in May 2004 by Kirill and Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican, has met only rarely and achieved little. Barely a year ago, Kirill stated that his Church would “never recognise” Russia’s four Roman Catholic dioceses.
The Moscow Patriarchate has severed contacts with Churches in the United States and Sweden, and threatened to downgrade its WCC participation after disagreements with Protestants and Anglicans.
PROTESTANT and Roman Catholic clergy continue to face serious problems with visas and work permits in Russia, as well as with regaining churches that had been seized by the Communists. They will have found little encouragement in Kirill’s recent statements.
In a speech to his Church’s Local Council on 27 January, he praised Orthodox Russians for resisting “foreign missionaries”, and warned that there would be “no compromise” with non-Orthodox denominations.
Local Christian minorities hope that this was just electioneering — a bid, in the words of the Evangelical Lutheran Archbishop in Russia, the Rt Revd Edmund Ratz, “to win supporters from more conservative candidates”. Yet some Russians have also questioned the propriety of Kirill’s election campaign, arguing that the post of locum tenens should have been entrusted to the Church’s longest-serving metropolitan, and not used as a platform for his own election.
They complain that the early convening of the Local Council, immediately after 40 days of mourning for Patriarch Alexi, allowed no time for other candidates to organise, while the fixing of 1 February for the enthronement put delegates under pressure to elect him.
Whatever the truth, powerful forces were mobilised to ensure Kirill became patriarch. Congratulating him at a Moscow reception two days after the enthronement, Vladimir Putin said the Orthodox Church should continue defending the “national and spiritual identity”, as well as “the Russian state”.
THE new Patriarch’s entourage from the External Church Relations Department includes men such as Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Church’s representative to European institutions, who has called for an Orthodox-Roman Catholic “strategic alliance” to represent “traditional Christianity” against “progressive groups demanding the ordination of women and approving so-called same-sex marriages, abortion, contraception and euthanasia”.
It also includes Kirill’s high-profile deputy chairman, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who spoke glowingly after the Russian parliamentary elections in December 2007 of how “Orthodox civilisation” would “resist a Western democracy whose ultimate fall is drawing ever closer”.
Rhetoric aside, some Christians think the new patriarch could easily persuade Mr Putin and his protégé, President Dmitri Medvedev, to follow a conciliatory policy towards Protestants and Roman Catholics, and that a single phone call from Kirill to officials could resolve many of the practical hardships faced by minority groups. This could be an exaggeration. But many will be hoping that Kirill might make some initial gestures to demonstrate that his long-cultivated ecumenical commitments have survived his latest elevation.
Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance correspondent covering religious news from Oxford and Warsaw, and the co-author of Rethinking Christendom: Europe’s struggle for Christianity (Gracewing, 2005).