Generally Speaking: From Russia with Hope

The Right Rev. Craig B. Anderson, Dean and President

The General Theological Seminary

In response to an invitation to the Presiding Bishop from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Alexy II, a delegation of fourteen Episcopalians journeyed to St. Petersburg and Moscow for a two-week visit in late June.  The purpose of the trip was to meet with the “Committee of Twenty-Two,” a group of Orthodox clergy and officers from the various branches of the Russian Armed Forces, to discuss how the U.S. military chaplaincy might serve as a model in implementing a chaplaincy to the Russian Armed Services.

Our delegation was made up of three bishops, four priest/military chaplains, four spouses, one representative from the Church Center, one member of the Diocese of New York Russia Committee, and a journalist from the Episcopal News Service.  In addition to official meetings, our group visited numerous churches, monasteries, museums and historical sites.  Our immersion in the history, culture and religion of Russia aided in our understanding of the mixture of despair and hope that characterize the Russian people today.

Such despair and hope is borne of a fourfold reformation following the Cold War.  The first is political, the transition from communism to democracy; the second historical, from a 400-year-old empire to a nation-state; the third economic, from a centrally planned economy to a market system; and fourth, from a state officially designated as “atheist” to the revival of the Orthodox Church and expanded religious pluralism.

The collapse of communism and the “Balkanization” of the U.S.S.R. have been both humiliating and devastating for the Russian people.  Political instability and an ultranationalist threat; economic chaos in the form of high inflation, punitive taxes, a growing mafia outside investors and entrepreneurs exploiting financial opportunities; a welfare system that has collapsed and reduced an older generation to begging, are but a few factors of such devastation.  With the empire gone, with dialectical materialism giving way to consumerist-capitalist materialism, many Russians struggle deeply with questions of identity.  Symbolic of the struggle are vendors outside the entrance to Lenin’s tomb who sell T-shirts denouncing Lenin.

With the restoration of Orthodoxy in Russia comes the daunting task of rebuilding the churches and clergy to include providing the people a most basic theological education that has been almost nonexistent for over seventy years.  At a year-end Council of Bishops meeting last December, the Bishops of the Orthodox Church stated that “everyone must receive a religious education and that appropriate programs must be developed for all social classes and age groups.”  In addition, they called for a new basic plan for theological education for clergy to include a sensitivity to contemporary culture, science, economics and ecology, as well as seeing the Church’s mission to include the promotion of peace-making and involvement in the resolution of political and social disputes.  In visiting the two major seminaries in Russia, which are attempting to respond to this religious revolution both within and without, I sense a cautious openness to such an agenda.

The most lively and penetrating discussion regarding theological education took place in a new “street seminary,” St. Tikon Institute attached to the University of Moscow.  I heard the concerns of students and how these concerns are being addressed as the churches of Russia are being restored and rebuilt.  The Orthodox Church’s task is further complicated by factions in the struggle between openness and reform on the one hand and isolation and ultra-conservatism on the other.

And yet there is hope amidst the despair, some signs of stabilization in the insecurity occasioned by massive transition.  I would like to think that our delegation, in some small way, served as an example of that elusive term, “globalization.”  Globalization is more than awareness, understanding and empathy or sympathy; rather, globalization is an embodied response to explicit need.  Our conversations with Orthodox Church and military leaders resulted not only in a clearer mutual understanding of how we can cooperate and share but also a deepened affection for our Russian brothers and sisters who are struggling to be bearers of hope in the midst of a culture of despair.  Globalization needs a face, the face of the other; the other who may be different in many ways but the other who reveals to us our interdependence and interrelatedness as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Globalization also requires conversation and dialogue and not simply the one-way advice giving of monologue.  During a dinner party in Moscow, a young physician shared with me his disdain for what he termed the new influx of persons from the West who are artificially optimistic and have little sense of the tragic dimension of life.  “Shallow” and “insensitive” are terms that he used to describe them in pointing out that Russia is a defeated nation in the process of regaining its life and dignity and not just another “economic and investment opportunity.”

At General we have been blessed with the presence of visiting clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church as preachers, teachers and students.  Next January, Father Maxim Kozlov, a promising young theologian from the major theological seminary of Russia in Sergiyev Posad will be joining us as a visiting sabbatical professor with his wife and three daughters.  Having met them during our sojourn in Moscow, I know that he will help us better understand the challenges and opportunities faced by our brothers and sisters in Russia as they continue the task of rebuilding their country and Church.

I ask your prayers for the people and clergy of Russia your ongoing support and prayers for our church’s efforts to put a face on globalization as a critical dimension of the church’s mission and ministry.

Craig B. Anderson

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