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Churchgoers practice social distancing while attending Divine Liturgy on Palm Sunday at St. Clement's Church in Moscow on April 12, 2020

‘We’ll end up in church all the same’ With Easter approaching, whole dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church are fighting Moscow’s late effort to close Holy Week services to the public

Source: Meduza
Churchgoers practice social distancing while attending Divine Liturgy on Palm Sunday at St. Clement's Church in Moscow on April 12, 2020
Churchgoers practice social distancing while attending Divine Liturgy on Palm Sunday at St. Clement's Church in Moscow on April 12, 2020
Sergey Karpukhin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Patriarch Kirill has called on Russian Orthodox Christians to pray at home this year during Holy Week and Easter and avoid going to church, to curb the spread of coronavirus. The Moscow Patriarchate also ordered priests and monks throughout the capital to close churches and monasteries to the public, citing a directive from Russia’s surgeon general. But not all bishops and priests support these measures and some clergy members are openly advocating the sabotage of containment efforts by the city’s church and state officials, urging Russian Orthodox Christians to attend services during the denomination’s holiest of weeks. 

Easter without the eggs

It wasn’t until priests made the announcement this past weekend, after their sermons on Palm Sunday, April 12, that many Russian Orthodox Christians in Moscow learned they were attending the last Divine Liturgy before the city’s churches closed, despite the start of Holy Week and coming Easter holiday. The announcement came in a “circular letter” written by Bishop Dionisy (Pyotr Porubai) — one of the top officials in the Russian Orthodox Church — and distributed to Moscow parishes in the dead of night a day earlier and later published on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website.

In a message on behalf of Patriarch Kirill, “with a pained heart,” Dionisy asked parishioners to observe the instructions of “health officials” and stay home, joining in worship services by video link to their churches. The second part of Dionisy’s letter contains specific instructions for the priests who run the churches: announce these directions to parishioners after Mass, “console them with a fatherly word,” and from then on conduct services with the doors locked to the public.

By this time, there were already unprecedented safety measures in place at Moscow parishes based on recommendations published by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod on March 17, 2020. For example, St. Spyridon’s Church in the city’s Koptevo District marked its floor with white dots, 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart, to tell worshippers where to stand during services. (The church stopped admitting people, once the spaces were all occupied.) Parishioners without masks were turned away and clergy made an extra effort to sterilize the implements used to perform communion: after each sacrament, one of the altars dipped the communion spoon into a cup filled with alcohol and the ritual post-Communion drink of wine diluted with water was distributed in disposable cups. 

Even these safety measures were controversial among some Orthodox priests and parishioners. Father Superior Sergy of St. Spyridon’s Church tried to convey the situation’s seriousness to his congregation, saying, “Many of you were unhappy that you were forced to put on a mask when entering this church. People say masks aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Church Charter. Coronavirus isn’t mentioned there, either!”

When explaining the need to observe state officials’ policies and refrain from attending church, Father Sergy urged parishioners to treat it as a unique opportunity to concentrate on Easter’s “true meaning” as the resurrection of Christ without the distraction of worldly things like Easter eggs. He also asked members of the congregation not to confront police officers who have been told to cordon off the entrances into churches.

Not everyone was convinced. Listening to Father Sergy’s plea, one parishioner started yelling, “Who are these people to keep me out of church?”

Palm Sunday rituals at Novosibirsk’s Cathedral of the Ascension of Christ on April 12, 2020
Kirill Kukhmar / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

The Church’s COVID-dissidents

In most other dioceses, bishops have made similar announcements, calling on parishioners to stay home during Holy Week and Easter Sunday. But some clergy members have openly opposed the state’s closure instructions, as well as Patriarch Kirill’s comments about safety measures needed to curb the spread of coronavirus. A handful of religious officials have actually denied that the pandemic is real and some have even advocated sabotaging the state’s containment efforts.

For example, writing on his VKontakte page, Syktyvkar and Komi-Zyryansky Archbishop Pitirim (Pavel Volochkov) has threatened litigation by the region’s Russian Orthodox community against the government for what he calls “unconstitutional” containment measures by local health officials. In the Sverdlovsk region, meanwhile, Bishop Kamyshlovsky Methodius (Mikhail Kondratyev) lamented in his Palm Sunday sermon that his church was “sadly too empty.” “We’ll end up in church [for our funerals] all the same. You might as well come here on your own two feet,” the bishop said.

On his TV show, “Father Andrey: Answers,” Archpriest Andrey Tkachev offered remarks in roughly the same spirit: “We’re not rebels or revolutionaries and we don’t want war with the Church. We must respect the hierarchy. But there are other things. There are the secular authorities who are simply closing us down, and there’s the Ressurection of Christ. It’s hard to imagine how we’re supposed to celebrate this at home.” Tkachev has also cast doubt on the reality of the threat posed by COVID-19. “By the numbers, this isn’t any pandemic!” the archpriest told parishioners on his television show. In late March, he began a sermon in a gas mask to mock public health concerns about coronavirus. If people only turned off their televisions, he said, the disease would disappear. 

The Yekaterinburg Archdiocese has openly clashed with local state officials. The clergy here was particularly enraged when Governor Evgeny Kuivashev appealed to churchgoers in an Instagram post, asking them to observe social distancing measures and pray at home, instead of attending services. “It is sad to observe this special desire precisely in our region to close churches under the pretext of the outbreak,” the Yekaterinburg Archdiocese said in a statement on its website. 

Some in the Russian Orthodox community have seized on another argument in favor of keeping churches open for Easter: After all, many non-religious institutions haven’t been subjected to the same strict quarantine measures imposed on houses of worship. For example, after his sermon on Palm Sunday, Father Superior Vladimir Vigilyansky of St. Tatiana’s Church at Moscow State University said in an interview, “The day before yesterday, my friend was at an ‘Auchan’ [a retail superstore] and he sat there and counted more than a thousand people running around. A third of them had masks. There wasn’t a single health official because it’s the economy. But here [in church], the biggest event you’ve seen during Lent has had 25 people.”

Unlike in other Orthodox countries, where state officials immediately closed churches after the first cases of coronavirus (for example, the authorities in Cyprus banned mass events, including public services at houses of worship, back in early March 2020), the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church waited before introducing such radical measures. In Russia, the first to call on churchgoers to avoid services and pray at home were state officials, which provoked an outcry among the Russian Orthodox community and top clergy. When St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov issued an executive order on March 26 banning people from attending religious services until April 30, the Moscow Patriarchate initially disputed Belgov’s authority to impose such restrictions on “the freedom of conscience and religion,” arguing in a public statement that only federal lawmakers could do this.

It wasn’t until March 29 that Patriarch Kirill finally urged Russian Orthodox Christians to avoid services and pray at home instead. “The Church today calls on your strict observance of the requirements proposed now by Russia’s health officials. I call on you, my dears, to refrain from visiting churches in the coming days until there is a special patriarchal blessing,” he said in a public address.

“High” and “low” motives

Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev says “bad education” is partly to blame for bishops and priests urging parishioners to come to church despite the pandemic. “A priest today is a psychotherapist for the poor. A couple of common passages from the Scriptures is enough to answer most questions. We’re dealing with an old woman’s grasp of things here, where the loftiest act of faith is going to church, lighting a candle, and leaving some money,” Kuraev explains.

Andrey Desnitsky, a philologist, biblical scholar, and professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Meduza that “going to church is one of the main values” for many Russian Orthodox believers and clergy members. “They’ve been told this for decades. No matter the question, the answer is always to come to church. ‘Having problems? Come to church! Don’t understand Old Church Slavonic? Come to church!’ And now suddenly they’re hearing: ‘Don’t come to church!’ For them, you might as well be shouting, ‘There is no God!’ Say what you will, but attending church is as sacred as it gets for a lot of people,” says Desnitsky. 

Andrey Kuraev doesn’t support this approach to Russian Orthodoxy, which he calls “church-centric.” “God is in your bones, not the beams,” he says. “There are other ways to demonstrate your Christian identity.” For Kuraev, this “mental rigidity” is still fueled by good intentions, but he says the clergy is also guided by a more practical “low motive”: all churches rely on profits earned during major holiday attendance to pay their diocesan contributions that make up the Russian Orthodox Church’s general budget. So far, only Bishop Tikhon (Georgy Shevkunov) has lifted this burden on churches in his diocese in the Pskov region.

“In Moscow, the patriarch hasn’t removed this headache,” says Kuraev, adding that he doesn’t expect the church to punish priests who urge parishioners to continue attending worship during Russia’s coronavirus outbreak. The only way this would change, Kuraev says, is if state officials get angry. “We need to be able to give in when it’s needed, to make sacrifices — and not the kind of sacrifices like ‘here, it’s all yours, I’m done with it,’ but abandoning what is really important. Bishops are starting to use this language, but they should have done it two months ago. We didn’t hear a word about a sacrifice of love from the lips of the patriarch. In yesterday’s sermon, he repeated the word ‘power’ several times, but he never once uttered the word ‘love.’ It sounded more like a response to health officials: we still have the power,” says Kuraev.

Not everyone thinks the church’s COVID-dissidents will get off scot-free. Andrey Desnitsky doesn’t rule out that certain consequences might await the bishops and priests who disobey the Moscow Patriarchate’s general line. “But it depends on specific individuals and their relationships with the senior clergy. A letter from the priesthood in defense of the opposition protesters arrested last summer in Moscow had different consequences for those who signed. For some, nothing really happened. For others, the results were negligible. For others still, the fallout was severe. But apparently the system is out of control now and there will be more episodes like this down the road, with local clergies more often ignoring instructions from the Patriarchate,” says Desnitsky.

At the time of this writing, Meduza was unable to get a response from representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate about what penalties might be expected against clergy members who refuse to close churches for Easter, as instructed by state health officials and Patriarch Kirill.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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