A Society of High Prices and Low Values
Russia’s National Prayer Breakfast gathers for the 13th time
M o s c o w -- Upholding moral values is the rallying cry of Russia’s National Prayer Breakfast movement. That was again the case at this year´s gathering of roughly 200 leaders in Moscow on 12 March. This was the 13th breakfast in the course of its 18-year history.
First-time guest Yaroslav Nilov addressed the morality theme immediately and concluded in his speech that Russia is “a society of high prices and low values”, adding that his country features “sturdy homes housing fragile families”. Nilov, the 31-year-old Vice-Chairman of the Liberal-Democratic Party’s (LDPR) parliamentary group in the Duma, also offered a vital definition: “True spirituality is not measured by the number of candles lit and the amount of money donated. Spirituality is located within the person and transforms one’s life.” Nilov’s party is headed by the controversial nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Alexander Torshin, First Deputy Chairman of the Council in Russia’s Upper House and member of Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party, decried the “absence of trust” between the people and its rulers as well as among each other. “Spiritual unity will not occur without human unity.”
Andrey Tumanov, a politician and well-known television personality, described himself as non-religious. He applauded the beginnings of a civil society as demonstrated by the Prayer Breakfast and decried the persecution of religious minorities. “In difficult times, we always attempt to make a small people or confession the villain. Once it may be the Jews, another time the Baptists. This is worldwide practice.” He also rejected the insincerity of religious ritual and claimed: “I know outright bandits who have been presented with church medals. True faith is something else.”
Par-for-the-course for Russia’s Prayer Breakfast is its moderate distancing from the West. That function was taken over on this occasion by Eduard Grabovenko, head bishop of the traditional-Pentecostal “Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith”. He thanked his country’s rulers for not taking the country “down the road of liberal principles, but instead retaining straight-forward, conservative values”. He added: “Perhaps we are more conservative than the Americans - their liberal values are less popular here. But much still unifies us in the face of a multitude of common problems.”
Yaroslav Nilov cited the brief, burlesque “punk prayer” of a now world-famous female band in Moscow’s “Christ the Saviour” cathedral on 21 February 2012 as one example of Russian moral decline.
The lowest common denominator
Appealing for a moral movement on the widest possible front demands that the Prayer Breakfast movement restrict itself to the lowest common denominators. The movement is therefore no longer strictly Christian in orientation and propagates a kind of civil religion. Jews have been on the Moscow speakers list for years; Muslims, for the past three years. Indeed, this year’s list even included a speaker from outside the faith community: the non-believer Andrey Tumanov. This assumes that atheists too can play a role in Russia’s moral revival.
Yet the religious borders are not limitless. The movement in its present form would not place a Mormon on the speakers list. But they would nevertheless be welcome to attend as guests. The Breakfast is essentially intended for Protestants and the traditional historical faiths of Russia – including a scattering of atheists.
The first try at a new, more political format in 2011 meant that speeches by clergy were nearly non-existent. But its leadership has backpedalled and this year’s programme featured the old, proven mix of lay and clerical speakers. Outside of Moscow, the movement remains in the initial stages essentially a gathering of Protestant laity and clergy.
The Baptist Vitaly Vlasenko, co-ordinator of the Russian Prayer Breakfast movement outside of Moscow, exclaimed in an interview: “The Moscow Breakfast is a great platform for us to meet government officials. The movement makes no concrete political demands or requests – it’s a good way for evangelicals to show their patriotism and concern for the common good.” The Breakfast is an expression of the Protestant desire to leave the fringes and find its role within the mainstream of society. Appearances matter: The fact that the Moscow Breakfast takes place in the highly-exclusive “President-Hotel” is an expression of the Protestant longing for acceptance by society and government
Vlasenko reports that regional Breakfasts have formed in St. Petersburg, Krasnoyarsk (Central Siberia), Omsk (Western Siberia), Perm (Ural), Nizhny Novgorod (Volga), Vorkuta (Arctic Europe) and Tambov (Southern Russia). Breakfast gatherings in Khabarovsk on the Chinese border and Krasnodar near the Caucasus appear in the offing. The Perm event makes waves, for it is held in close cooperation with Bishop Grabovenko’s 3.500-member “Church of the New Testament”. Six years ago it was able to purchase a House of Culture from the city – the largest such building in the entire Ural region. Its Breakfast met for the second time last November.
Internationally, the Ukraine appears to offer optimal conditions for the development of a flourishing Prayer Breakfast movement. In contrast to Russia, the country has no one confession capable of monopolising the whole. The several evangelicals in parliament have already begun with initial gatherings. Ukrainian delegations much larger than the Russian ones have visited the annual Washington event. Belarus still has no Prayer Breakfast, but the Russians are more than willing to offer support.
Despite its growth in Russia, real resistance to the movement remains. The Orthodox Alexander Torshin, a perennial visitor of the Breakfast in both Moscow and Washington, complained at the event on 12 March: “I have been trying for six years to install a prayer gathering within our Federation Council (Upper House). But certain forces are resisting it actively. They are not against prayer, they say, but one should go to a church if one wants to pray. That would avoid any competition (with other worldviews).” That opposition stems from humanists, Communists and some Orthodox.
Vlasenko admits that his movement remains “80-90% Protestant”. A prayer breakfast – a gathering of laity in a secular setting – also happens to be ill-suited to the Orthodox format. The Moscow Patriarchy expects that only a clergyman pray in public and that prayer with non-Orthodox Christians not be practiced. Yet representatives of the Patriarchy did officially visit and speak at the Moscow gathering until three years ago.
Chairman of the Board of the Trustees for the National Prayer Breakfast is the Baptist businessman Vyacheslav Kolesnikov.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 18 March 2013
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