Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Remaining Oneself in a Changing World: The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Remaining Oneself in a Changing World: The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church

Article excerpt

The number of significant decisions and documents adopted at the jubilee Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in August 2000 made it unique among the other councils of the past decades. Among the council's decisions, the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (BSC), which was unanimously approved by the Council (the full English text is available on http://www.russian-orthodox-church.org.ru/sd00e.htm), hold a distinct position. For the first time--not only in the history of the Moscow Patriarchate, but indeed of all local Orthodox churches--a document codifies the Orthodox point of view on numerous aspects of church-state and church-society relations, as well as on pertinent contemporary issues.

For approximately three and a half years, a special synodal task force had worked on the composition of the draft document under the direction of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, head of the Moscow Patriarchate external relations department. It included members of the clergy as well as laypersons (professors and teachers of institutes of higher theological education and staff of various synodal institutions). I was given the opportunity to act as its secretary. Both in public and in private, many issues were discussed with lay experts, public officials and various voluntary organizations. Only church persons were, however, involved in the actual compilation and adoption of the text--something which did not go without arousing a certain envy in political circles.

The initial decision to develop the Bases of the Social Concept had already been taken at the 1994 Bishops' Council. The need for such a document had been felt for a long time within the Russian Orthodox Church. From the late 1980s onward, bishops' councils, the patriarch and the holy synod had made a vast number of statements on different issues of social significance, such as conflict situations in Russia and around the world, land ownership, economic and social concerns in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, attitudes towards war and military service, aspects of bio-ethics, the development of global governance and many more. The point of view of the Moscow Patriarchate on these issues, however, remained scattered over dozens of documents, many of which were not widely known.

As a result, certain priests and laymen of the Russian Orthodox Church occasionally permitted themselves to make contradictory statements and actions based on their individual understanding of social issues. This concerned particularly such complex areas as relations with political parties and their eligible candidates, pastoral care regarding modern reproductive technologies, and so on. In some cases, this led to absolutist understandings of rules and conceptions adopted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (one should not forget that between the 1920s and 1970s, the church could express itself publicly only on a limited number of issues, which were little familiar to Soviet society). Even more significant difficulties arose in fields related to modern technology. It is obvious that pre-revolutionary literature, let alone patristic writings, say nothing about cloning, sex changes or artificial fertilization.

Another urgent problem that created the need to codify the position of the church on social issues was the attempts of worldly forces, primarily politicians, journalists and leaders of civil society groups to present their own opinions--often based on a simplified, neophyte understanding of Orthodoxy, popular myths about church doctrine or simply their own political positions--as those of the church. Some, for instance, claimed non-monarchic forms of government administration to be an unorthodox phenomenon to be condemned by the church. Others, on the contrary, drew an equation sign between Orthodoxy and communism. Still others insisted that the church must necessarily preach the "sacred values of private property and the free market". …

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