The Orthodox Church in Post-Communist Eastern Europe

By Bria, Ion | The Ecumenical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Orthodox Church in Post-Communist Eastern Europe

Bria, Ion, The Ecumenical Review

An hermeneutical imperative

It is difficult for Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe to grasp the relevance of the theme of the WCC's eighth assembly, "Turn to God -- Rejoice in Hope", because the post-communist context in which they live is not yet well or deeply understood. Historians and politicians still speak of it only in terms of what is no more: the collapse of Soviet communism, the end of the cold war, the failure of state-socialism. While Central Europe begins to claim a new identity as a distinctive political power regrouping former communist countries close to Germany, the countries of Eastern Europe still face tremendous problems in coming to terms with their existence as nation-states and their transition to a neo-liberal market economy.

While the churches are searching for responses to the emerging challenges of the post-1989 situation, this effort is not yet undergirded by ecclesiological reflection taking account of a serious pastoral and cultural analysis. Meanwhile, conservative and nationalistic factions in these churches seek to treat the communist era as an historical parenthesis, and call for the restoration of the traditional values of the "true church" (that is, as it existed before the communist revolution). This prevents them from taking account of the serious consequences, institutional and cultural, of the communist experience. The political order, culture and civilization of the "post-communist world" cannot be defined by ignoring the factors that determined the profile of the churches at the end of the communist period. For example, the ecclesiastical geography of the Orthodox church in Eastern Europe is completely changed by the emergence of new independent states (in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) and new claims to be autonomous and autocephalous by churches in such places as Ukraine, Moldavia, Macedonia, Estonia and Albania. Each local church has its own language, tradition, synod, experience, history as a "national church". The recomposition of pan-Orthodox unity and fellowship, which is based on the "polyphony" of local churches, must take all these situations, diversities and styles of witness into consideration. In this conciliar fellowship of interdependent sister churches, no local church may claim to be the centre of Orthodoxy or primus inter pares. The voice of the next Orthodox synod is polyphonic.

In every church, the ecclesiastical authorities, especially the Holy Synod, have been publicly criticized from within their own ranks because they bypassed the critical issues raised by their own people during the communist regime. In many instances, the churches realized the danger of becoming clerical institutions out of touch with their people, but they were afraid to deal with this serious crisis. After 1989, the authorities have continued to give the impression of being unable to judge the positive and negative developments in the recent history of their churches -- the continuities and discontinuities, personal resistance and collective perversion, all challenging conventional patterns. Today, the churches realize that they cannot go on postponing an honest dialogue and reconciliation with nation and society, but must prepare and educate their people to understand and to live in this post-communist world.

The results of fifty to seventy years of restrictions on evangelization and teaching and sometimes persecution are obvious: the secularization of former "Christian" societies, the ignorance of religion, the growth of a secular and alien culture. However, the current searching for God and spirituality -- the so-called "return to religion" -- does not mean a return to the church's discipline. It would be pretentious to speak of an Orthodox way of life and Orthodox social teaching when the churches are trying to recover their identity in a condition of post-modernity. The struggle for identity and the desire for faithfulness to the tradition must not blind the churches to their responsibility to maintain pastoral relations with people through every kind of disturbance and disagreement. …

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