The “Famine” Cannot Last
M o s c o w – According to Bishop Dr. Eduard Khegay, the Biblical Joseph’s seven years of plenty are over for Russia’s “United Methodist Church” (UMC). The euphoric years after 1992 are only a distant memory. “Our overall statistics are declining gradually,” the Bishop conceded recently. Eight years ago, Khegay had spoken of 2.400 members in 100 congregations; the numbers now are 80 congregations with a membership of nearly 2.000. (See our release from 1 March 2013.) The “Eurasian Episcopal Area”, for which he is responsible, includes virtually all of the former Soviet Union outside of the three Baltic states, which are historically and currently oriented towards Scandinavia.
Those numbers could be shrinking further: The 14 congregations in Ukraine are considering departure. “It’s painful for me that the Methodists of Ukraine prefer to be associated with Western Europe,” the Bishop laments. He attributes that preference to present geopolitical tendencies; their departure from the Eurasian Episcopate may only be a matter of time.
During the last 10 years, three Methodist churches have been destroyed by fire – arson cannot be ruled out. The congregation near Moscow’s Vnukovo airport long pastored by Valentina Biryukova had strong ties with Russia’s “Evangelical Alliance”. Its expansive, newly-constructed church building was then destroyed by fire several years ago and the congregation no longer exists.
The ownership of the Eurasian Methodist church and seminary headquarters at Khamovnichesky Val 24 in south-western Moscow has been contested in court. They will though remain in church hands unless a future ruling would deem otherwise.
A number of church leaders have fallen short of their calling. During the years of church bounty, many buildings purchased with Western funds for use as church sanctuaries were registered as private property. That was a very convenient means of circumventing bureaucratic hurdles. Yet in time, the official owners began to regard the real estate as indeed their very own property. They in the end sold the property perfectly legally, pocketed the profit and took their leave of the church.
My comment: Older Russian Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans, Mennonites and Baptists established themselves through organic growth over the course of decades or centuries. The new “boys-on-the-block” after 1990 were more artificial and owed their sudden existence to an influx of foreign investments in capital and personnel. When those two sources dried up, so did significant segments of the new denominations. (Methodist congregations have existed intermittently in Russia proper since 1882.)
Last-but-not-least: The UMC’s next global assembly is to take place in Minneapolis/USA in September 2022. It is anticipated that the UMC will then split into two or three separate denominations. If that indeed does occur, the “Eurasian Episcopal Area” intends to join a planned, more-conservative “Global Methodist Church”. Khegay notes that at the last world convention in 2019, the disciplinary codes regarding sexuality had become more stringent. Nevertheless, “some clergy and congregations have intentionally broken the rules, marrying or ordaining homosexuals”. He adds: “I have not wanted to take sides, for the issue of homosexuality does not confront us in Eurasia. It is not our struggle.”
The separation is intended to be amicable. The Bishop describes his position as: “Let’s agree that you have a liberal view and that we have a conservative one. But let us separate as friends.” Some major US-congregations will likely leave the UMC, but the more conservative ones tend to be located in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
Thankfully, a church rarely exhibits strictly negative tendencies. The congregations at Satka near Chelyabinsk in the Urals and “Raduga” (Rainbow) in Moscow are currently known for the vibrant and successful ministries. South Koreans have funded the building of a not-yet-christened Methodist chapel in Vladivostok. The Bishop is optimistic that three Methodist congregations in that vicinity as well as ones in Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-na-Amure will become symbols of a growing Methodist presence in the Russian Far East.
Korean believers tend to be very independent in their dealings with other Christian groups, but a Korean-Russian cooperation within a Moscow congregation has done well. Khegay intends to reach out to a new Korean-sponsored seminary in Bishkek, the capital of heavily-Muslim Kyrgyzstan.
The small seminary at Eurasian headquarters in Moscow has adapted well to the current pandemic. Most instruction is on-line, which permits a larger circle of persons to participate. It has branched beyond the training strictly of pastors to include interested lay leaders.
Eduard Khegay cares deeply about the young. For one, the youth leaders of 30 years ago are no longer young. “We must be open to the young,” he insists. “We now have a new generation of people who never knew the communist era. They are wired differently than we are: free, creative and largely Western in their thought and orientation. They need the freedom to experiment, to govern and get involved.”
Yet the Bishop does not yet see an end to the current “seven (relative) years of famine”: “The situation on religious freedom for ex. is not improving.” It will need to be the young and the parishioners’ faith in God which will need to carry the church through the immediate future.
Born in 1970, Khegay first became a bishop in 2013. The UMC’s constitution would require him to step down no later than 2025.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 7 May 2021
A journalistic release for which only the author is responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #21-12, 870 words.