The Russian Orthodox Church and Coronavirus

by Regina Elsner | ελληνικά | ру́сский

Assumption Cathedral, Moscow

In some respects, the global coronavirus crisis has brought to light ruptures that in normal times were often dismissed as marginal problems of small groups. Unresolved and underestimated social injustices became obvious and were recognized as threatening more than just the existence of the respective groups. A similar effect of the coronavirus crisis can also be observed for the Churches. Many conflict issues of the past years were dismissed as opinions of small groups or of particularly liberal or conservative individuals. Accordingly, solution processes were postponed. For the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), this is true especially of the question of how to relate to modern society in the 21st century. The Church—despite growing requests—felt secure in its symphonic interaction with the political elite and in its role as moral authority in an increasingly complicated, globalized world. In this respect, the ROC was able to see itself as unquestionably relevant to the system.

In conflicts, the Church’s leadership often reacted incomprehensibly, even irreconcilably and hard-heartedly. This attitude was particularly justified by the alleged and yet so-difficult-to-prove existence of a fundamentalist wing within the ROC. Arch-conservative circles could cause a split within the Church, and the patriarch would only try to keep all currents together and prevent a split. The same happened in view of the spread of Covid-19: the indecision of the Church leaders in Russia and Belarus, but also in other Orthodox countries like Georgia or Serbia, was justified among other things by possible tensions within the Churches.

The line of conflict between the conservative and progressive currents runs mostly along the question of whether and how much change is permissible. The coronavirus crisis has intensified this tension and made its existential challenge obvious. Worldwide, the great danger of infection with the new virus leads to massive restrictions of personal contacts. Community worship, the usual form of receiving the Eucharist with a common spoon, the veneration of the cross and icons through kiss and touch are directly affected by these restrictions. But can these central acts of Christian life be changed? In contrast to the most discussed questions about a Russian—language liturgy or the new calendar, the danger of the highly contagious virus leaves no time for months or years of theological debate—both the virus and state regulations demand an immediate response from the Church.

The fact that for decades decisions on liturgical change have been shirked now becomes explosive, because the pressure for change now comes from outside the Church. It is no longer just about the needs of individual believers, but actually about thousands, who measure by the words and deeds of the Church how much human life is worth to that Church. How can the sinful world demand something from the Holy Church? Is it secularization to implement medical and hygienic requirements within the Churches? If one gives in to secular logics when closing Churches to prevent infection, is it therefore an act of small faith? Can a virus really breach the Church walls that otherwise protect against the evil of the world? To what extent do the findings of natural sciences, but also of psychology and anthropology, apply to the Churches, to believers?

Confronted with these questions, the Church is facing the consequences of the fact that for decades the voice of the fundamentalists has been the only audible voice providing answers to such “worldly” questions. There is almost no theological bio- or social ethics capable of speaking either to the secular dealings with the virus or to broader questions of social justice in times of pandemic. The principles of cooperation between state and Church described in the Social Concept of 2000 are clueless in front of the current state restrictions on religious freedom. Wherever representatives of the Church demand the continuation of Church services and processions with reference to the “non-violent resistance against anti-Christian state action,” they question the Church’s solidarity with the endangered people. Of course, prayer and liturgy are central Christian instruments of God’s action in the world and for people. Moreover, in most statements, the call to support those people affected and in risk groups is at the forefront. But there is simply no concept of Church solidarity with society. For decades, society has always been nothing but an opponent, the sinful environment in which believers have to prove themselves, a place of liberal seduction and moral degradation.

In more quiet times, the systemic relevance of the ROC was based on saving the Russian world from the dangers of the sinful liberal society. Now, however, she finds herself in a crisis, which, for once, can be blamed on Western liberalism only to a very limited extent. What is it what the Church can offer to the system now? Until today, it could offer the model of ascetic life of hermits like Saint Mary of Egypt, who spent years without community liturgy and Eucharist, and round trips or flights of hierarchs with icons to protect cities and regions with God’s blessing. Both measures testify to the fact that the Church positions herself beside and not in the world. Thus, they are on the same level as continued worship, a magical understanding of the Eucharist, the ignoring of hygiene rules, self-sacrifice and apocalyptic expectations – they testify to an insurmountable dualism between the world and the Church, between “there” and “here,” “they” and “we.” Thereby, obscurantism and fundamentalism become officially possible options—and are, in view of the missing engagement with the social-ethical dimensions, the only visible Church answer to the coronavirus pandemic.

Against the background of the growing social distrust in media, medicine, and state structures in Russia, the idea of a saving or at least explanatory parallel world is certainly attractive. Up to now, it was this idea that granted the Church a certain relevance to the system, because it legitimized the political elites and secured a social consensus. The hesitation of the state to enforce in churches the anti-pandemic ban on assembly shows that this relevance of the Church carries considerable weight in the political system. Yet, in times of a pandemic, on the other side of the scales are not just ecclesial or political dissenters, but human lives. It seems to be a crucial moment for the ROC to rethink where its relevance lies.

Regina Elsner is a Catholic theologian and research fellow at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS).