"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Authority in the Russian Church (2)

I noted before Christmas the advent of a new book treating authority in the Russian Church, a topic which I spent some time on in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. Where my treatment is necessarily relatively brief, and also includes many other Orthodox structures, Vitali Petrenko is able to analyze the Russian Church alone in great depth: The Development of Authority Within the Russian Orthodox Church: A Theological and Historical Inquiry (Peter Lang, 2011), xii+310pp.

I have now had a chance to read it in conjunction with the lecture I am putting together to give at the Huffington Institute's 2012 symposium "Pan-Orthodoxy in North America: Towards a Local Church."

Petrenko's is a very impressive book that takes a much wider sweep than I was expecting, and is all the more rewarding for it. It started off as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Durham under the formidable Orthodox scholar Andrew Louth. But the transformation from dissertation to book has been smoothly and professionally accomplished, and this is a finely written and edited book that deserves to be read by all those interested in the history of Russian Orthodoxy in general, as well as by those interested in ecclesiological questions.

The first two chapters, treating authority very widely in the ante-Nicene and Constantinian eras, initially appeared as rather superfluous--the sort of belabored detail that doctoral students have to put in so that their jury knows how widely read they are. But once you get to the third, and especially fourth, chapters, you realize how smartly Petrenko has woven key themes from those first two chapters into later ones. Certain themes thus recur throughout the history told here, especially those of "caesaro-papism," symphonia in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods, and the role of various forms of apocalyptic literature--most famously in Filofei's letter at the start of the sixteenth century proclaiming Moscow the "third Rome" after the fall of Rome and Constantinople--in giving the nascent Muscovite state a sense of its role in the world and in shaping what we would later call Russian nationalism.

That apocalyptic plays a role earlier than I had realized, and Petrenko argues that we can already find hints of it as early as the life of Feodosii Pecherskii in the eleventh century and the composition of The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery. 
That apocalyptic also expresses a certain de haut en bas attitude towards "the Greeks" which recurs over a long period and intensifies as we get towards the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Two events really bring this attitude out in egregious ways. First, prior to leaving for the Council of Florence, Metropolitan Isidore is instructed by the Tsar Basil II basically to sabotage any move towards union with the Latins whom many East-Slavs had disdained from the ninth century onward: "you are going to the Eighth Council, which should never take place according to the rules of the holy fathers; when you return from it, bring us back our ancient Orthodoxy" (120-21).

With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in May 1453, Russian churchmen increasingly argued that they should have nothing to do with a church whose subjugation to Islam was as a result (as many Byzantine Greeks themselves readily conceded) of Greek weakness, sinfulness, and general infidelity to the Lord. How could Russia receive bishops or even general direction from a patriarch now living in captivity to a heathen religion? This issue increasingly motivates an independent streak in the Church, leading ultimately to severing relations with Constantinople in the 1589 elevation of the metropolitan of Moscow to the status of patriarch.

But Russian assertion of its autonomy increasingly leads the church and country to attempt to assume a role of "universal apostolic" (136) leadership over all Orthodox Christians throughout the entire world--a concern which, though Petrenko does not discuss it, would remain prominent in Russian foreign policy through the Crimean War and in the lead-up to World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. 

Russia, according to this mindset, is now both the "third Rome" and a "chosen nation succeeding the nation of Israel in its vocation to the rest of the world..., [an] understanding...promoted...by Filofei" (137). But there is a problem with the assertion of "apostolicity" and this, of course, leads to the famous attempt to "prove" that the apostle Andrew (the first-called, let us not forget) visited Kievan Rus', a legend famously analyzed by Francis Dvornik in his landmark book The Idea Of Apostolicity In Byzantium And The Legend Of Apostle Andrew.

Petrenko's analysis of the infamous raskol of Patriarch Nikon is a lucid treatment that does not, as he notes more than once, cover everything. But that is not a problem insofar as this territory has already been previously covered in first-class studies, including Paul Meyendorff's Russia, Ritual, and Reform: The Liturgical Reforms of Nikon in the 17th Century to say nothing of the multi-volume series from Cambridge University Press and William Palmer's pen, starting with History of the Condemnation of the Patriarch Nicon by a Plenary Council of the Orthodox Catholic Eastern Church Held at Moscow A.D. 1666-1667.

When we get to the twentieth century, and the twilight of the Romanovs, the book starts to run out of steam a bit, but not before disclosing something I had not heard before: Tsar Nicholas II forbade the convocation of a council in 1905 and 1907 and said that the solution to a lack of patriarch was simple: he "nominated himself," a move he would fulfill by abdicating in favor of his son, taking monastic vows, and then being ordained (201, f.n.11).

Only towards the end, and briefly, does Petrenko undertake a closer analysis of some of the modern statutes governing ecclesiastical life in the Russian Church in the twentieth century. Here he argues even more strongly than I did in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity that the Russian Church, especially since 1945, has been structured and governed in a heavily centralized fashion. 
Petrenko quotes Bulgakov here: the Russian Church suffers "from 'actual and psychological papalism'" (213). The reasons for this, in part, have to do with the fact that Stalin wanted to continue using the Church for his own purposes, and so wanted control over its patriarch and, through a super-strong patriarch, over all other bishops and clergy. Stalin's vision, in fact, was, according to Petrenko, to create  a "Moscow Vatican" (219) in a fight for ideological control and global domination of all other Christians and many others besides. Stalin also supported the calling, in 1948, of an "eighth ecumenical council" as a means of asserting Russian supremacy in global Orthodoxy.

Petrenko seems to take a dim view--or at least quotes several others who do--of the revised statutes of 2000. My own analysis of them was that they were not nearly as centralized as the 1945 statutes and returned to some limited degree to a greater practice of synodality or sobornicity. But others do not share that view, and instead see the revised statutes as backwards steps that have "suppressed the principle of sobornost" (248) and in so doing have "transferred 'the fullness of authority within the Russian Orthodox Church from the Local Sobor to the Arkhiereiskii Sobor. Effectively this established a Church which in its main outlook is opposed to Orthodox canons'" and to the decrees and decisions of the 1917-18 council (249, quoting G. Yakunin, "Podlinnyi lik Moskovskoi Patriarkhii," 2002).

One final note: Petrenko's book is very useful in helping us to understand the long history of mutual mistrust between Moscow and Constantinople, a serious problem still bedeviling relations between them today and causing problems and delays in the lead-up to the much-promised but much-delayed "great and holy council." These problems go back, as we saw, to the fourteenth century and earlier, but were especially pronounced in the twentieth century's fights over the granting of autocephaly to various churches, not least the OCA.

Missteps are few in this book: there is only one noteworthy typo when, on p.114, he dates the East-West schism to 1053 instead of the more conventional 1054. I would quibble somewhat with the sub-title of Petrenko's book insofar as it is heavy on the history, but light on the theology.

But two other more substantial questions arise in reading this book: first, Petrenko virtually ignores the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods and the rise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in which the Union of Brest took place. These are not small events at all, and have loomed large in at least contemporary Russian views of, and relations with, the West so it is odd that they pass by without comment.

And this points to the second omission in this book: several authors whose works are not noted at all, including Boris Gudziak (in treating not just the Union of Brest, but also the creation of the Moscow patriarchate as such); Sophia Senyk's work on the history of Kievan Christianity; and perhaps especially Hyacinthe Destivelle's very important work Le Concile de Moscou (1917-1918).

All in all, however, The Development of Authority Within the Russian Orthodox Church: A Theological and Historical Inquiry is a fine history lucidly narrated and abundantly sourced. It should be on every bibliography in Russian Orthodox history and theology, especially ecclesiology.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...