Russia’s Baptist Union has a New “Number Two”
34th Russian Baptist congress held in St. Petersburg
M o s c o w -- The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists has a new senior vice-president: Sergey Sipko. At the every-fourth-year congress, which took place this time in St. Petersburg from 28 to 30 May, Alexey Smirnov was also elected for an additional four years as the Union’s president. According to the bylaws, Smirnov will be retiring as president in 2018.
After completing theological studies in Moscow, Sipko (born 1974) spent the next 15 years as a pastor in Omsk/Western Siberia. He also served for the last nine years as senior pastor – also called “bishop” – for Omsk region, a relative hotbed of Russian evangelical activity. Sergey Sipko, the second child and oldest son of Yuri Sipko, is reputed to be a solid manager and counsellor with the gift of a listening ear. He lacks the folksy-popular preaching style of his well-known father. Yuri Sipko had served as president of the RUECB from 2002 until 2010. Cries of nepotism can be heard, but Sergey Sipko was not the initial person recommended by the Union’s council for this position.
Blessed with the gift of self-effacement, Sergey Sipko assured in a conversation that he understands “very well all Americans who address me in Russian”. But his wife, Yevgenia Sipko, protested that he possesses a strong passive understanding of English. He and his spouse have four children, the oldest of which is a 14-year-old daughter.
Sergey Sipko replaces another Siberian after four years in this
position: Yevgeny Bakhmutsky, one-time head of the RUECB’s youth department. In this Union, the senior vice-president is not automatically regarded as a
crown prince being groomed to take over the presidential chair. Bakhmutsky’s predecessor as senior vice-president, Moscow Seminary Rector Peter Mitskevich, has also never served in the highest
office. Bakhmutsky’s future role has not yet been determined. Whether the Union will continue to have additional vice-presidents also remains to be seen. Sipko is scheduled to begin working from
the Moscow office in
Further developments at the 34th Congress
The larger, neighbouring “All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” was represented by Vice-President Igor Bandura of Odessa. Delegates accepted his presence warmly and matter-of-factly. Pastor Bandura was one of a small team of leaders asked to lay hands on Sipko and Smirnov as they were ceremonially ushered into their offices.
A Baptist delegation from Crimea was also present. It was claimed privately that only 20 of the peninsula’s 68 Baptist Union congregations have initially expressed interested in joining the Moscow-led Union. But Vitaly Vlasenko, the RUECB’s Director for External Church Affairs, has stressed repeatedly that his union is placing “no pressure” on the Crimea’s congregations to join up with Moscow. Yet in the longer term, separation from Kiev’s Baptist Union may be the only legal option open to Crimea’s congregations.
There was sentiment afoot in St. Petersburg hoping for a gradual return to the old “status quo ante”. There is hope that the present geopolitical crisis will “blow over” and allow the Baptists of Russia and Ukraine to return to business-as-usual in an atmosphere of mutual friendship and understanding.
Akos Bukovszky, Director of External Affairs for the Hungarian Baptist Union, stressed in his greeting that his denomination does not support attempts to isolate the Russian churches from global Christendom. “We believers have dual citizenship,” he added. “Our primary task is the kingdom of God.”
In private conversations Bukovszky insisted that he felt comfortable with the present and past roles of his country: “We are now in a number of ways the black sheep of the European Union just as we once were the same within the Warsaw Pact.” He applauded the centre-right administration of Viktor Orbán for its pro-life stance, its promotion of family and other Christian values. “Our new Hungarian Constitution mentions God – the EU’s constitution does not.” The present government looks to the churches in Hungary as partners in the propagation of spiritual values. This has made it possible for the 11.000-member Baptist Union to take over the running of 50 state-funded kindergartens, primary and secondary schools with 20.000 pupils and a staff of 2.000. These public schools now carry the Baptist name and permit open evangelisation. One of these schools focuses on the Russian language and is seeking teaching support from Russian Baptists. Bukovszky’s conclusion: “The harvest is great, but the labourers are few.”
The relatively small crowd of official guests from the West included Tony Peck, general-secretary of the Prague-based European Baptist Federation, Michael Rohde, professor at the German Union’s seminary in Elstal near Berlin, and Charles Jones from the Pennsylvania-based American Baptist Churches.
An “anti-European” slant was also evident in Pastor Bakhmutsky’s keynote, 50-minute sermon on opening night, in which he warned that “liberalism has already reached the Russian-speaking realm”. Such a statement is confusing, for the classic, liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher or Adolf von Harnack has existed in Russia - within pockets of Lutheranism - for roughly as long as the Baptist movement (150 years) itself. Only making the comparative “more liberal” synonymous with “liberalism” – that a “more liberal” person is automatically a “liberal” - permits conservatives to decry Russia’s mainstream evangelicals as “liberals”. A venue where this discourse is now taking place is RUECB-run Moscow Theological Seminary.
The Petersburg congress held mostly at the Baptist “Dom Molitva na Poklonnoi Gorye” was more modest in size and duration than the last congress in Moscow’s expansive Izmailovo hotel complex four years ago. Yet this shrinkage does not necessarily reflect lessening influence and numbers. The location on the fringe of Russia and greater fiscal caution might be the primary causes for this development. In both instances, up to 800 voting delegates from throughout Russia were present. The RUECB currently has roughly 72-76,000 adult members; its Ukrainian counterpart has over 125.000.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 04 June 2014
Journalistic release #14-07, 952 words