The Russian Orthodox Church won't be silent

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for Relations between the Church and Society: “We won’t be silent; we will be critical.” Source: RIA Novosti / Vladimir Vyatkin

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for Relations between the Church and Society: “We won’t be silent; we will be critical.” Source: RIA Novosti / Vladimir Vyatkin

The Russian Orthodox Church has found itself the center of attention in the international press lately, and not necessarily for all the right reasons.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for Relations between the Church and Society and dean of Moscow’s Church of St. Nicholas on Three Hills, spoke with Marina Darmaros of Russia Beyond the Headlines about ecumenism, his attitude towards contemporary art, the punk band Pussy Riot and liberals.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: How would you describe the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Vsevolod Chaplin: This is a topical issue, with an ongoing spiritual revival in our society. People are beginning to adopt a more conscious approach to faith. In the Soviet Union, there was just a small percentage of active believers, while now about a third of the population know the basics of Orthodoxy, have icons at home, read religious literature and pray regularly.

Over the past 10 years, the sociological situation in churches has changed, too. The percentage of elderly women has dropped significantly and many young families with children come to church. In the 1990s, we did not have this. The church is winning over many active believers, which is giving it new dynamics.”

RBTH: What are your relations with representatives of other religions, both in the country and abroad?

V.C.: Our relations cover a broad range of issues. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism are united by the interreligious councils of Russia and the CIS countries. Apart from our official contacts, we also constantly consult one another on the issues of legislation, relations between religious organizations and the government, and on holding joint celebrations. I attend feasts of Muslims, Jews and Buddhists (though there are few of them in Moscow), and representatives of other religions attend our events. In Russian cities, there is a lot of coexistence in everyday life; there are mixed families and many common practical needs, so our communication is natural. We issue joint statements on nationwide problems (such as inter-ethnic relations) and many of us are members of the Public Chamber.

RBTH: What is the Russian Orthodox Church doing to attract young people?

V.C.: There are different approaches  in this respect and the clergy are advised to be more open towards young people. I am against any sophisticated strategies. There are Orthodox Sunday schools where pupils also do sports, among other things. We even hold competitions among different parishes. There is also a Biblical College, which mostly attracts young people. We organize evenings on the theme of faith and life, which are attended by all kinds of people, from businessmen to beggars; we discuss the Holy Scriptures and pray together. People themselves come forward with such ideas; these are not my initiatives.

RBTH: Would you please tell us about your contemporary art project?

V.C.: This is one of the biggest myths, as I have never called it that. I spoke about a concert and exhibition hall in a church basement, which is used for concerts. If we get interesting proposals from contemporary artists, we will consider them. So far, it is just about there being premises available for such things.

RBTH: You have expressed readiness to cooperate with Marat Guelman, didn’t you?

V.C.: I have known him for about 20 years. He is going to organize an exhibition, which I think is very interesting. I have asked young people to monitor it in order to consider a dialogue with young artists, but we have not made any specific decisions yet. We have argued a lot with Marat and we continue to argue. A dialogue between the church and what they call contemporary art has been going on for more than 25 years already. I remember taking part in the 1988 exhibition devoted to a millennium of Christianization of Rus, where icons from the collection of the late Patriarch Pimen were exhibited alongside works by conceptual painters. Already at that time, there were disputes but there was nothing deliberately insulting or blasphemous in those paintings.

RBTH: Isn’t the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church to the punk band Pussy Riot harmful to the church itself? Doesn’t it contradict the church’s policy of attracting young people?

V.C.: There is an aggressive group of publicly active people in Moscow who do not belong to Orthodoxy or do so only formally. They are trying to change the church to suit their own tastes. That blasphemous performance was just one such attempt to make the church adapt to the world of consumerism and secular morals. This is something the church should not do. For 2,000 years, it has been saying the same things, the things Christ said, and I hope it will remain as it is, not yielding to blackmail or vulgar challenges. Even many members of the intelligentsia are urging us to admit that this was normal behaviour and that we should forgive even when we are not asked to do so, that we should adapt, otherwise we have no future. Well, let history judge who has future.

RBTH: Why does the Russian Orthodox Church have such close ties with the Russian government?

V.C.: They are no closer than in most of contemporary countries, such as the United States or France, to say nothing of Italy or Spain. In any normal society, there is dialogue and cooperation between religious communities and the authorities. I am not speaking here about totalitarian countries pursuing anti-religious policies. At the same time, we often criticize our authorities, especially with regard to the government’s social, cultural and moral policies. I am one of such channels of cooperation and I can confirm that we are arguing a lot about different bills in the areas of culture, health care, and morals on TV. In so doing, we are trying to avoid enmity. In Orthodoxy, there has always been an ideal of unity of the people, the authorities and the church. I argue a lot with politicians and then we go and pray at the same altar, which does not stop us feeling part of a single social organism.”

RBTH: The Moscow Patriarchate has recently issued a circular urging believers to ‘fight against anti-church forces and the false values of aggressive liberalism.' Don’t you think this might only serve to divide society further?

V.C.: This is not a circular; it is a statement from the Supreme Church Council, which says many things, including about the campaign that is under way. You know that society is already divided. People who have declared an information and ideological war against the church are themselves supporting this divide. We will not be silent; we will call on people to come out in defense of faith, the church and its saints and, accordingly, we will criticize those liberal forces that, for some reason, believe they have a monopoly on the social order, legislation and national identity. We have a common public space, a field for discussion. I have nothing against liberals; I have many friends among them. I myself grew up in an anti-Soviet family and the circle of liberal dissenters became my natural way to the church. I am against those liberals who are trying aggressively to tell different parts of the society, including the church, that everyone has to live according to their rules. No, we should develop the rules together. Who said that the law might only be based on a liberal idea? This is a tendency that might lead to a new totalitarian regime.

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