Orthodox-Protestant Conversations Intensify

2009: The Most Intensive Dialogue Ever with Protestants


Reasons behind the present confusion




M o s c o w -- Our readers must surely be confused – perhaps we are also. On 22 October, our department published a report on the protest of our “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB) against new draft legislation greatly limiting the freedom of Christian mission. Yet on 16 October, we had published a report on a very hopeful meeting of the Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant “Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee for the CIS-Countries and Baltics” (CIAC). The Protestant delegate on that committee, the Baptist Vitaly Vlasenko, had reported: “The atmosphere was very open. A spirit of Christian love and acceptance prevailed.” The very restrictive new law proposals had been published by the Ministry of Justice on 12 October; the CIAC-meeting took place three days later.


The confusion stems from the fact that the “Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate” (ROC) is moving in two directions at once. Last March, the nationalist Orthodox cult specialist Alexander Dvorkin was brought into the Department of Justice to head up its “Commission for the Implementation of State Expertise on Religious Science”. Many of the recent altercations with Protestants throughout Russia can be attributed to the efforts of his followers in church and government. And the new draft legislation on proselytisation is definitely a child of his Ministry of Justice.


Yet Roman Lunkin of Moscow’s “Slavic Centre for Law and Justice” points out that Archbishop Ilarion, Metropolitan Kirill’s successor as head of the ROC’s external relations, has pulled off five significant meetings with Protestant leaders in the last six months. Lunkin concludes: “This is the most intensive dialogue with Protestants in the history of the ROC’s Department of External Church Relations.” Orthodox hard-liners recently attacked Ilarion for addressing the leadership of Samara’s embattled “New Life” Charismatic church as “brethren in Christ”. Vlasenko, the RUECB’s Director of External Church Relations, reported on his first-ever meeting with Ilarion on 15 May: I believe he is “a very wise and godly man. He is highly-educated and knows the history of Baptists well. I really enjoyed meeting with him and believe we could have a wonderful relationship in the future.”


In a meeting at the “Slavic Centre” on 22 September, the Moscow Patriarchy’s official spokesman, the centrist priest Vsevolod Chaplin conceded: “In Russia we often overlook the interests of religious minorities. Our church will attempt to help rectify the situation. An Orthodox priest should help any believer find the path to his – or her – pastor.” The mere fact of Chaplin’s appearance at the Centre invoked the ire of Orthodox hardliners.


Very recently, the website of Moscow’s “Agape Unlimited” medical ministry, which was founded by the US-physician Bill Bucknell in 1993, reported on a “refocus” within Russian Orthodoxy. The mission’s Russian attorney wrote: “In the 1990s there was a negative image of the church - it was viewed as being owned by the KGB. Now there are thousands of believing priests. Now the church is doing charity work. The new patriarch is very open-minded and is preaching the Gospel. Lots of changes are happening within the church. Not working with the Orthodox church is a missed opportunity for evangelicals. Evangelicalism in this country is a closed system (must mean: “not going anywhere”), but the Russian Orthodox Church is spreading.” This description may be simplistic – but nevertheless worthy of attention. Another of the ministry’s publications continues: “If you love kids, we have news for you! Summer 2010 we are offering two camps. During one camp, we will be partnering with a Russian Orthodox priest north of Moscow, who has a heart for the Lord and for children.”


Roman Lunkin reports on a mighty struggle between tradition and modernity within Orthodoxy. “In view of the conflicts throughout the country during 2009, it is obvious that the contradictions between the true social role of ‘dissident believers’ and the ignorance of Dvorkin’s followers have become irreconcilable.” He continues: “Nationalist rhetoric is most clearly apparent during periods of crisis. It is only natural that those radically opposing the ‘sects’ will ally themselves with nationalists.”


But Lunkin is not without hope: “The ROC’s relationship with religious minorities finds itself in a process of self-definition. Its complexity arises from the fact that Orthodoxy is the symbol and core of Russian history and culture. The church never has dialogued with other confessions on an equal plane; it never did develop relationships with others in the context of a democratic society. But now Orthodoxy has the unique opportunity to become the initiator of inter-Christian dialogue and the guarantor or inter-religious peace.”


Crying “Wolf!”

Our department cried “Wolf!” by publishing its release of 22 October. We dare not do so unthinkingly, for we know what happened to the shepherd boy when he cried “Wolf!” for the third and final time. But RUECB-leadership feels deeply that the draft legislation of 12 October is a cause for real concern. We asked for help, so we must answer the question as to how our friends in the West can best aid us:


1. We can use the advice and cues of experts on Orthodoxy. Where and how have Protestant church representatives achieved understanding and dialogue with Orthodox circles? German Lutherans have broud experience in dialogue with the Russian Orthodox. Particularly helpful might be the council of other Protestants living in Orthodox-majority settings.


How can we demonstrate to the Orthodox that we take their accusations of proselytisation seriously without giving up our own mandate to evangelise? The Catholics of Russia have been accused of “converting the potentially Orthodox”. Should we Protestants offer ethnic-Russian seekers a clear opportunity to find their way with Christ within Orthodoxy? If yes, could we in time hope for a similar favour in return? Can evangelisation occur jointly with Orthodox circles? Such attempts during the Volga River campaign of 1992 were obviously premature – for both sides.


2. Legal experts could help us point out discrepancies between the Russian Constitution and the practice of many of its official government defenders. Of course, Western barristers will need a good English translation of the recent draft laws in order to be able to help. For a good start see: http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/0910a.html#07. But experts could also aid us by knowing how best to convince Russian officials of the necessity to abide by their own legislation – that doing so would be in their own interest.


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 28 October 2009


A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. Release #09-33, 1.042 words, 6.691 keystrokes and spaces.