The Start Has Been Made
Russia finally has a Presbyterian General Assembly
M o s c o w -- “Our numbers are smaller than we had anticipated, but the start has been made!” That was the opinion of Dr. Vladimir Li, Pastor of “Moscow Presbyterian Church”, following the founding of Russia’s first Presbyterian General Assembly in Moscow on 4 October. Twenty-nine delegates from Presbyterian congregations stretching from Moscow to Sakhalin Island, 6.600 km (4.400 miles) to the east attended the founding of the “General Assembly of the Presbyterian Churches of Russia”. “Everything begins from a small seed”, Li added. “The main thing is that the seed falls into good ground.”
The General Assembly will be meeting every two years. President for the initial two-year period is Vladimir Li, a medical doctor with a Masters degree in theology from California. His deputy is Ahn Soon-Cheol, a long-term Moscow missionary from Korea. “There would be less interest if we only met again in four years”, Li explained. “We chose to meet in two years so that those still on the outside can join sooner.” The next Assembly is to be held in 2014 on oil- and gas-rich Sachalin Island, home to many Korea-founded and –sponsored Presbyterian congregations
One immediate task involves obtaining government registration. This will allow congregations to join a genuine Presbyterian denomination. In order to achieve legality, Presbyterian congregations have been forced over the past 20 years to manage under a variety of interdenominational umbrellas.
Another task involves the development of a faculty of Reformed theology. The start was made in September when five students began their studies under the auspices of “Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary” and its rector, the Baptist Alexander Tsutserov. The initial general courses are attended by all students. Later, special courses will be held by various denominations for their own students. Li explained: “This is an interdenominational seminary, even if it is more Arminian than Calvinist. It will give us a good legal basis for our work.” Other small Presbyterian seminaries include licensed ones in Vladivostok and two more in St. Petersburg. A second one in Moscow is run by the independently-minded Korean businessman Lee Hong Rae.
Other new tasks will involve the development of guidelines for ordination and the training of laypeople. Coordination between the four regional sections of the General Assembly (Central, Siberia, Far East and Sakhalin) will be required. It will allow, among other things, for more substantial children’s camps in the summer.
Membership numbers are non-existent: Rev. Ahn Soon-Cheol claims that over half of Russia’s Presbyterians are already represented by the Assembly. Yet only 70 congregations were represented by the delegates at this initial General Assembly. Li’s own denomination has 20 congregations.
It can be claimed that a General Assembly became possible only after leadership passed into Russian hands. South Korea’s eight million Presbyterians are divided into no less than 112 independent denominations and Li laments that missionaries have exported their many divisions to Russia. The initial Russian conference intending to form a General Assembly was held in 2009 on the 100th anniversary of the Korean Presbyterian presence in the Russian Far East. Yet Rev. Li, a native-born Russian of Korean ancestry, reported with a smile that this initial meeting was organised strictly by expatriate missionaries. “We Russians heard about this gathering last!” When it became apparent that an Assembly would not be forming, “the six-or-so sponsoring denominations in Korea simply lost interest”. The Moscow gathering of May 2011 then gave most head positions to Russians. Now, in October, all voting positions were allotted to Russian citizens – Russian law no longer permits any other option. The President reported: “We have decided that Russians will carry the ball and that Koreans are welcome in a supporting role.” This development is still being resisted by some from Korea.
One of the St. Petersburg groups, the Louisville/Mississippi-based “Slavic Reformation Society”, finds itself on the other end of the spectrum. It relates neither to expatriate Korean missionaries nor to the new General Assembly. Its American head is Blake Purcell, an ordained minister in the “Presbyterian Church of America” and supporter of the “Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches” (CREC). A missionary to Russia since 1990, he is an elder of the “Reformed Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg” and supports its “Biblical Theological Seminary”. This school is known for pushing the “Christian Reconstructionism” of R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001). “Wikipedia” describes it as a movement of the radical right calling for the creation of a Christian state with draconic, Old Testament-style punishment for transgressors. Rushdoony was a founder of America’s homeschooling movement. The Coloradan Scott Davidson, a father of eight, is promoting it in St. Petersburg region.
Pastor Valerian Ten, another Moscow Russian of Korean ethnicity, faults Purcell for introducing the “Federal Vision” to Russia, which is regarded by some as an offshoot of Reconstructionism. One sore point is the Vision’s support of infant communion, which administers communion to infants as soon as they can chew – a practice adhered to by Eastern Orthodoxy. Ten regards Purcell’s Reformed-Presbyterian position as heretical.
A second Presbyterian group in St. Petersburg headed by Viktor Kazansky has demanded that the new General Assembly officially distance itself from the ordination of women – while permitting in writing the usage of alcohol and tobacco. For both of these reasons, his group has not joined the Assembly. “Why mention alcohol and tobacco at all in our documents?” asked Dr. Li. “Mentioning it sounded too much like promotion.”
Presbyterian versus Reformed
Valerian Ten prefers the term “Reformed” and has formed his own “Union of Evangelical-Reformed Churches of Russia” consisting of ten congregations. Though his group has not joined the Assembly, Ten is cooperating fully on the Moscow seminary project. The “Presbyterians” of Russia tend to be Korean and relatively large in number; the “Reformed” are American or European in origin and small.
Ten’s reasons for insisting on the term “Reformed” sound more political than theological – Vladimir Li assures that the theological differences among the Presbyterian and Reformed of Russia are miniscule. Much as the Lutherans, the Reformed can boast of a long tradition on Russian soil. When Czar Peter the Great invited Western European engineers and intellectuals to help modernize Russia, Reformed were among the takers. Russia still has public places named after the Reformed generals Franz Lefort (1655-1699) of Geneva and the Scot James Daniel Bruce (1670-1735). Ten reports in a study that Lefort was a close associate of Peter. In 1717, the first Reformed congregation was founded in St. Petersburg; Odessa (now Ukraine) soon followed. The Petersburg congregation existed until it was closed by the Communists in 1927. By verifying their long history on Russian soil, the small Reformed movement would conceivably qualify along with the Lutherans as one of Russia’s traditional religions.
Contacts with Korea remain strong, yet Rev. Li decries the fact that the General Assembly’s Western connections are limited to Korean groups located there. “We need literature and theological information,” he stated. “Who could help us develop and structure our new theological faculty? We need lecturers willing to come here and teach our students for short periods. That would be a very concrete form of aid.”
Vladimir Li can be contacted in English under the following address:
Rev. Dr. Vladimir Li
Moscow Presbyterian Church
ul. Dm. Ulianov 25-1
007 (495) 126 0910
Fax 126 7758
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 8 November 2012
This is an independent journalistic release funded by “Presbyterian News Service”, Louisville/USA, “www.pcusa.org”. It is informational in character and does not express any official position of PNS. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #12-27, 1.183 words, 7.693 keystrokes and spaces.