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From our archives: How the Russian Church reacts to its critics (2 September 1966)

01 April 2021

The founder of Keston College, Michael Bourdeaux, who has died, spent much of his life informing Western Christians about the conditions under which Christians lived in the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe. In this Church Times article from 1966, he responded to high-level criticism from Moscow

WHEN I published my book, Opium of the People, just over a year ago (serialised in the Church Times in June, 1965), I realised that some of what I had to say would not be popular with the Soviet authorities. One cannot expose the injustices of a totalitarian system without incurring the displeasure of those responsible for maintaining it.

The recoil from Moscow has now been felt in London, but there are four most surprising features in it. Firstly, I have had to wait a year for it. Secondly, it has come from the Church arid not the State. Thirdly, it was expressed on the highest possible level — from head of Church to head of Church. Fourthly, the Editor of this newspaper has come in for even harsher criticism than I have.

The first three points may be taken together. On 15th March this year (nine and a half months after the first serialised extract was published), Patriarch Alexei wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has just been published in the June number of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.

“These excerpts,” wrote the Patriarch, “containing accounts of the author’s conversations with chance acquaintances made while he was in our country, give a distorted impression of our attitude to freedom of conscience; the author falsifies and misinterprets Church life and the religious situation in the USSR.” There is no further criticism of me or my opinions.

The time-lag is most significant. I regularly receive Pravda and Izvestia in London on the day after they are published, so it did not take the offending copies of the Church Times several months to reach the Moscow Patriarchate. It suggests to me that there has been here a slow grinding of the wheels of state, with pressure eventually being applied to the Church at the highest level to react against a criticism which the secular authorities had found uncomfortable.

The Patriarch could hardly have expressed his criticisms of me in vaguer terminology, but I am flattered that he found my book worthy of notice. He knows, in his heart of hearts, that, far from being a slanderer of his Church, I love the history, culture and people of his country; I have finer friends in the Soviet Union than anywhere else, and the concept of “Christian Russia”, as expressed in the lives and beliefs of the ordinary Russian believer today, is for me a sacred one.

Some men are called to serve God in Africa or the Far East, others in Manchester or Chelsea. It so happens that my “spiritual parish” is the Soviet Union, and it is the greatest deprivation to be separated physically from it. Since reading the Patriarch’s letter I have given him and his advisers even more fervent attention in my prayers.

The Patriarch continued: “I imagine that Your Grace must understand the surprise which we felt when we saw so serious a journal as we consider the Church Times to be using its pages to make these offensive statements about our Church. Our surprise became concern at the irresponsibility of such actions on the part of the directors of this journal, for their behaviour is unworthy of people who serve the Church — and it is they who are the representatives of the religious Press; they have acted in opposition to the traditionally fraternal spirit which characterises relations between the Church of England and the Russian Orthodox Church, and they are not helping the development of ecumenical co-operation between our Churches.

”I would be very grateful to Your Grace if you would inform the Editor and publishers of the Church Times of the contents of my letter, in the hope that they will not repeat such an action in the future.”

I do not know what reply the Archbishop has made to the Patriarch, but perhaps it will be published in the next issue of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. This is unlikely, however, if the Archbishop sees fit to state that the Church Times is not an official organ of Anglican policy; that, even if it were, the Archbishop would not choose to act the role of censor (the implication that he should, casts an interesting light on Soviet conditions); that ecumenical relations between our two Churches can be improved only by a deeper knowledge of the real Christian situation in our respective countries, and not any bland acceptance of official dogma which bears no relation to actuality!

There has never been a time at which it was more essential to study the conditions in which our fellow Christians in Eastern Europe are living. A failure to do so is bound to result in a serious ecumenical blockage. After all, has not a great deal of initiative in this direction come from Eastern Europe itself?

Despite what they may say officially, have not Eastern Church leaders shown us by their very action of coming frequently among us that they do want us to know about their Churches?

My main fear is that we, through inbred torpor or bureaucratic inability to push our thinking in new directions (backed by time, linguistic ability and finance), will let the chance slip. I sometimes think that what we Churchmen ought to fear is not the Cold War — but the end of it.

This might suddenly confront us with the task of finding, for example, six theological students who could take full advantage of an extended exchange in a Russian seminary.

Already more is known about the situation of the Churches in the Soviet Union now than at any time in the past. Apart from the new ecumenical contacts which I have mentioned, this is due to an increasing determination of ordinary Russian Christians to make their voices heard in the world, and to the first signs in the West that a truly systematic study is to be undertaken.

The new “Centre de Recherches et des Etudes des Institutions Religieuses ” (C.R.E.) in Geneva has just initiated a documentary study of the religious situation in Eastern Europe, confining itself at all points to hard fact and objectivity. This is just the sort of knowledge we have been lacking, though there have been many prepared to base a judgment on a two-week visit.

C.R.E. is already supplying information to the Vatican, the National Council of Churches in New York, the World Council of Churches and various other interested bodies. One hopes that a means will be found of distributing the results of its researches in this country, too, but so far progress has been slow on this front.

It was fortunate that my book appeared just at the time when Dr William Fletcher, the Director, was setting up the organization, because on the strength of it he invited me to undertake, on a part-time basis, the gathering of information on the Soviet Union. The Patriarch seemed to be very worried that much of my information was based on conversations with “chance acquaintances”. Whether or not this is an adequate description of my friends in the Soviet Union, subsequent research has since convinced me that I could have reached the same conclusions from a systematic study of the Soviet Press, which over the last few years has published an amazing amount of information about the Church because of the compulsive need to attack it.

I chose my method simply because I wanted to write an introduction for the general reader. In future I shall have perforce to be less personal, but I trust therefore that my methods will be more acceptable to His Beatitude, as well as to the world of scholarship in the West.

“Insults, violence and the forcible closing down of churches not only fail to reduce the number of believers,” wrote G. Kelt, an atheist lecturer, in the youth newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pray da, on 15th August, 1965, “but they actually tend to raise the number of believers, to spread clandestine religious groups, and to antagonize believers against the State.” So, despite what Russian Church leaders have been saying so vigorously on their visits abroad, the fact of crude religious
persecution is admitted by Soviet atheists themselves.

Moreover, these methods are now widely admitted to have been bankrupt, for they have produced the exact opposite effects to what had been intended. Christians have not only multiplied: they have gone underground, where they can be much less easily combated; and in many instances a loyal Soviet citizen, even though a Christian, has been forced into an attitude of opposition to the State because of the inhuman way in which he has been treated (in a country where the law prescribes the right to profess any religious faith or none).

This is what I intended to convey in the “offending” portions of Opium of the People, but I doubt whether I did so with such force as G. Kelt has done for me.

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