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Nun Martha (Senina). Review of Protopriest George Edelstein, Notes of a Village Priest (Moscow, 2005)


The book of Fr. George Edelstein, the rector of the Resurrection church in the village of Karabanovo, Kostroma diocese in the ROC MP, is a collection of articles from 1988 to 2000 devoted to the inner life and problems of the Moscow Patriarchate. In the foreword the author recounts how in 1979 the then still Archbishop of Kursk and Belgorod Chrysostom, having ordained him to the priesthood, sent him to a parish, saying in his parting words that a priest must not simply be able "to wave a censer", but "today he must be everything that the Church requires of him". "But is it possible to lie for the benefit of the Church?" asked the newly-ordained [priest], and heard in reply: "It is both possible and necessary." "For twenty-five years," writes the author of the collection, "I have been thinking about these words. Everything that is written in this book is the result of these thoughts."

In the book there are three sections: "In the parish", "Turning to rejected ordinances" and "Through humble prayer, repentance and love..." The author without fear or favour describes the inner life of the ROC MP in the Soviet period - a system of total State control over the Church, universal fear of the authorities, the arbitrariness of officials, obstacles on the path of the organisation of normal Church life in the parish, the lack of desire on the part of the hierarchs to defend the rights of the Church before the powers that be. The author also criticises the membership of the MP in "the conglomerate of Christian tendencies, opinions and sects which is called a 'World Council of Churches': "The Church is the Body of Christ. But how many Churches and Christs do we have now? Why does the "Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate" never use the word "heretic"?" (p. 52). Fr. George also criticises the pusillanimity of contemporary hierarchs of the MP, their inability to be at the head of [a movement of] spiritual regeneration, their isolation not only from the simple people, but also from the rank-and-file clergy. "Even today," he writes, "the Church is in voluntary sweet captivity. It is as much deprived of spiritual freedom today as in any of the past sixty years. Our hierarchs even today are in the position of court flatterers and panegyrists..." (p. 71). Fr. George also criticises the conversion of the church into "a house of trade": "The most terrible thing that we have done in the Orthodox Church is that we have converted every sacrament into a commodity, everything is sold according to a strict price-list" (p. 63). Touching on the opinion that is current in the MP that "preachers from abroad" lure the potential flock of the MP through "hand-outs", Fr. George writes: "The main poverty of the Moscow Patriarchate is not material but spiritual, we have exchanged fraternal kisses with lieutenant-generals of the MB-KGB for too long and too sincerely. Because of this we rely today not on the rock of faith, but on "bird cherry", on the batons of OMON, and on all the new prohibitory articles of the Law on freedom of conscience" (p. 83).

From page to page, from article to article, the power of the critique grows. "The root vice of the Moscow Patriarchate," writes the author, "lies in the fact that we, having assimilated the sergianist doctrine, have inevitably been turned into an integral part of the statehood of the USSR, we have become a little cog and wheel in the diabolic machine... And naturally, having become servers of the Soviets, the functionaries have lost the ability to distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood. Hence the salvation of the Church through shameless lies, hence the false witnesses about the New Martyrs..." (p. 125).

Speaking about ways of overcoming the division between the ROC MP and the ROCOR, he writes: "Ordinary believers suggest the beginning of the overcoming of the schism where the hierarchs see its conclusion - in the restoration of eucharistic unity. Without brotherly love, without prayer and without repentance. Something that is unknown and unthinkable in Orthodoxy: unity not simply without unanimity, but with openly expressed disagreement" (p. 241). Fr. George speaks about the complete absence in the hierarchy of the ROC MP of repentance for earlier evil deeds and lies committed in the Soviet times. Moreover, relying on his own considerable experience of communion with bishops of the MP, he says that these people are in principle incapable of such repentance. And so, summing up his observations of the life of the ROC MP:

"No acts of public repentance have taken place, are taking place or will take place... No purges (he means in the form of cleansing the ROC from unworthy clergy - N.M.) have taken place, are taking place or will take place. Incidentally, there are also no 'real church courts'. Simply because the purge would have to begin from the most highly placed people, with the Holy Synod. It there that the people "who have most defiled themselves morally, politically and spiritually" are sitting.

True sobornost has not been restored, is not being restored, and will not be restored. Sobornost is a sharp knife for our present hierarchs... The role of the rank-and-file clergy and laity in the Moscow Patriarchate has been reduced to nothing. "True Councils, without pomp or deadlines" have not taken place, are not taking place and will not take place... "True Councils" are needed by nobody" (p. 258).

Of course, we have to give the author his due for his boldness and refusal to flatter. However, on reading his book perplexity gradually increases: why does Fr. George consider this organisation to be a Church? An organisation which, according to his own words, is rotten through and through (especially at the top), in which there is no true repentance, not even a hint of sobornost, nor sign of true spiritual regeneration, and the most important thing - "is not and will not be". After all, he not only considers the ROC MP to be the true Church of Christ, but is even offended by Bishop Agathangel of Simferopol and the Crimea (RTOC), who does not recognise the MP to be such. What logic is the author following when he continues to remain in the ROC MP and considers it to be a Church?

Fr. George notes that we must not be "too strict" toward the MP, insofar as not everything is in order in the other "branches of the Russian Church" - the ROCOR and the catacombniks. "Who is repenting, who is convening genuine Councils, who is listening to the opinion of the laity, where does the principle of sobornost triumph?" (p. 258). He says approximately the same in reply to the reproaches of Bishop Agathangelus: "Every branch of the Russian Orthodox Church has its own sins, its own illnesses, which can be healed in only one way - by repentance and conciliar reasoning. But not one branch wants to repent, not one is striving to resolve the problems of the Church in an All-Russian Local Council... It is difficult to repent, one has to humble oneself, show spiritual strength and fortitude, one has to stand before God. While it is very easy and simple to abuse others. There no humility is needed, but pride. There it is not obligatory at all to be a Christian." (p. 328). The author of the book speaks with approval of those bishops of the ROCOR who are striving for negotiations with the ROC MP and a joint resolution of the problems of the Church.

On the other hand, Fr. George does not at all approve of those who consider that the MP is "graceless" - in particular, the third First Hierarch of the ROCOR, the holy Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky): these people, in the opinion of the author, "have for many years been trying to obtain a declaration that the Moscow Patriarchate is "graceless"... As a proof of such theologoumena, the "theory" of the "gracelessness" of the Catholics is dragged out of naphthalene. The Catholics are "heretics in the same way as the Mohammedans are" (I'm not joking, this is a quotation, the author is a hierarch). Apostolic succession, they say, is just a form, a shell, a pod, while "a true Orthodox hierarch" (for example, a Greek Old Calendarist) must unfailingly fill this shell with content"; this teaching Fr. George calls "sectarianism".

Alas, we have to recognise that in spite of all his criticism of the existing order of things in the ROC MP, in spite of his understanding of why genuine spiritual regeneration has not taken place in Russia under the leadership of the MP, the author of the book remains one flesh with the very system he so ardently criticises. He uses non-ecclesiastical concepts, and understands even repentance, which he speaks so much about, in a quite different way from the Orthodox Church. After all, if, for example, a person is in communion with heresy, his repentance must consist not simply in personal recognition of the fact that "heresy is bad", but in breaking ecclesiastical communion with the heretics. But in the eyes of Fr. George there is no difference between canonical sins or sins on the "ascetic" plane and transgressions in the sphere of dogmatics. It is for that reason that he cannot understand why the True Orthodox consider heretics such as the Catholics and ecumenists to be completely outside the Church, and why they do not wish to sit with them "at the table of negotiations". Fr. George's conceptions of the Church are taken, not from Orthodoxy, but from those same Catholics - this is quite clear from his reasoning with regard to "apostolic succession", which, it turns out, is not lost even with the acceptance of heresy - a teaching completely unknown to the Fathers of the Orthodox Church.

What did Fr. George hope to achieve with his book? Evidently, to force his ecclesiastical brothers to think, to call them to repentance. But the reader can with reason ask: why all these calls to repent when the ROC MP is still a Church? Why all these exposes of hierarchs and the "KGB" patriarch, if the exposers themselves continue to commemorate these hierarchs and consider them to be grace-bearing pastors of "the flock of Christ"? Why all these complaints about the "spiritual infirmity" of the ROC MP, since sacraments, in the opinion of the complainers, are still performed in it? Fr. George bitterly writes that "as time passes, even the call to repentance sounds more and more absurd. From all sides I hear: "We have nothing to repent of" (p. 6). But his own position leads, in essence, to a still more radical conclusion: it is not that the hierarchy and rank-and-file members of the ROC MP "have nothing" to repent of: it is that there is no reason to repent. After all, the Church still remains the Church. What else is needed?.. It is for that reason that books like Fr. George's collection of articles have factual interest as a collection of documents of the epoch, as an illustration of the psychology and faith of the clergy of the contemporary ROC MP - but, unfortunately, have no spiritual value, and can hardly elicit those serious changes in hearts and minds that Fr. George is hoping for.

(Published at Portal-Credo.ru, translation by Vladimir Moss published at Paradosis)


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