The Russian Orthodox Church has been affected by recent events as much as the rest of Russian society has. Now, more than ever, the Church is being asked to support the government and this has had ripple effects on church politics. The biggest story is the unceremonious demotion of Metropolitan Hilarion. Once the Russian Orthodox Church’s ambassador to the West and Ecumenist-in-Chief, Metropolitan Hilarion has now been stripped of his official positions. This is almost certainly because he refused to support the special operation in Ukraine. While we don’t have conclusive proof of this yet, we can piece together the story by looking at recent events in context and then puzzle out the implications that this will have for the Russian Orthodox Church going forward.
The Hilarion Controversy
Metropolitan Hilarion is an outspoken and liberal-minded priest who formerly occupied very high positions in the Church hierarchy.
When he was a much younger man, he was a vocal anti-Soviet activist clergy member. There is an interesting 2020 interview of Hilarion where he shared highlights from his career in the faith. An interesting episode that he brought up was the time he spent serving in Vilnius. He, apparently, personally went on TV to call on the Soviet soldiers to disobey their order to put down the independence protesters in Lithuania. The protestors had decided to seize the TV stations as part of their coup and the Soviet troops stationed at these communication hubs had been given orders to defend them, with deadly force if necessary. Hilarion publicly called on them to stand aside and let the protestors seize the towers and thereby prevent blood being spilt. When asked about this rather interesting display of loyalties in his youth, Hilarion justified his actions by stating that the protestors were anti-Soviet and not anti-Russian and that he was always loyal to Russia, just not the Soviet Union.
In more recent times, Hilarion has vocally come out against Russians’ right to own firearms by claiming that no Christian can use deadly force to defend their lives. I do not know whether or not this is theologically correct, but I find that theology often has very little to do with official Church positions on various social issues. But, the most questionable public position that Metropolitan Hilarion took was when he came out vocally against anti-vaxxers. You may have heard of this:
Now, one individual priest is entitled to his opinions, but Metropolitan Hilarion was serving as the Church’s official PR spokesman at the time. So, when speaking to the press, the question was always whether or not the position being expressed was the Church’s or just Hilarion’s personal opinion. The PR guy is a very important position in the Church and one that was formerly occupied by the current patriarch Kirill. Hilarion and Kirill were always considered to be close and there were persistent rumors that Hilarion would eventually become the new face of the Church. With all that context out of the way, it should become clearer why people kept such a close eye on Hilarion and his various activities. Hilarion was far more important within the Church than, say, the hapless and irrelevant Press Secretary Dimitri Peskov is in the Kremlin hierarchy.
Anyway, Hilarion declared that people who refused to get vaxxed were sinners, or rather, his specific words were, that if someone refused to get vaxxed, and then got someone sick because of that decision, that it would be a sin on the part of the anti-vaxxer. Hilarion also encouraged his congregation to get vaxxed and to not entertain any conspiracy theories about COVID. Knowing what we know about the WEF agenda and the ever-shifting narrative around COVID, it’s hard not to look at Hilarion with suspicion after he so blatantly laid his cards out on the table in favor of Corona-mania.
Finally, Metropolitan Hilarion was constantly being accused of working to promote ecumenism i.e., the merger between the various Christian churches and the project to create a one-world religion. He would often go abroad, most often the Vatican, and talk about the common values of Orthodoxy and other Christian denominations and even other religions. While the Orthodox Church officially cannot even entertain a passing interest in Ecumenism, as it would be an unthinkable, un-canonical and deeply unpopular position to take, the Catholic Church does not seem to be bound by such constraints. Many Catholic websites, including the official Vatican one have an “Ecumenism” page, tab or category where they share stories about meetings with other religious leaders and their progress in promoting interfaith dialogue. During these meetings, they outline points of congruence that Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and the most powerful religion of our time, Liberalism, have in common. If the goal is to create a one world religion to go along with the one world government, as many believe it is, then the final product would resemble the Noahide Laws. After all, if we are to approach the question logically, and ask what both Christianity, Islam and Judaism have in common, the answer would have to be the Old Testament. But that’s a topic for another time.
Now, the relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church to the ecumenist, one-world religion project is complicated. The Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to join the World Council of Churches, the premiere ecumenism-promoting organization, by the Soviet authorities. The WCC was reliably left-wing and there was an interest on the part of the Soviets in using it to promote their interests. This story is difficult to summarize and explain, as it has to do with various spook agendas and scheming on the part of everyone involved in the project. But, recently, the WCC threatened to expel the Russian Orthodox Church from its organization because of the operation in Ukraine. This is welcome news. It is unclear why the Russian Orthodox Church is still involved with the organization; for one thing, it leads to conspiracy-minded people asking uncomfortable questions.
In summary: Metropolitan Hilarion’s pro-protester, anti-gun, pro-vax and pro-ecumenist views put him squarely in the Liberal wing of the Russian Orthodox Church. But he has now been stripped of his positions and sent to Hungary, where he won’t be able to cause any trouble in Russia, which is welcome news indeed.
The Ukrainian Church Crisis in Orthodoxy
The Orthodox world is in turmoil over Ukraine. But, to understand what is going on, some more background on Church tradition is necessary.
The Church is divided along canonical territories in most of the territories of the Soviet Union, or, if you prefer, the Russian Empire before it. These demarcations are not built around national boundaries, but they approximate them. There has always been a canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church that historically fell under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. They were granted semi-autonomy following the collapse of the USSR, but still remained part of the overarching Russian structure. In other words, the two Churches remained in communion and that meant that one could take part in the services of both interchangeably at no mortal risk to one’s soul.
As a result of the war, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church hierarchy has decided to break with the Russian Orthodox Church and has declared autonomy. Autonomy is a complicated topic. For example, there is a Russian Orthodox canonical territory in North America, but the Russian Church granted them autonomy a long time ago. In Ukraine, the situation is more complicated because there were already several major splits within the Church leading up to this moment. According to the rules of Russian Orthodoxy, autonomy can be granted, as was the case with North America, but it cannot be declared on the part of the secessionists. The Russian Orthodox Church has not called this an official split as of yet, because it’s considered a grave sin for the Ukrainians to act as they have, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has, essentially, condemned the souls of the people under it. Also, on account of the current crisis in Ukraine, allowance is being made to Metropolitan Onufriy considering that there might be SBU agents breaking priests’ thumbs and forcing the split.
Metropolitan Onufriy, however, is an interesting personality. There are people in his congregation in Ukraine who consider him a living saint. This is a problem because Russian Orthodoxy generally frowns on the concept of living saints. This is in stark contrast to Catholicism, or at least this used to be one of the main points of contention between the East and the West centuries ago. The case of St. Francis of Assisi is a good example. The Orthodox Church considers him to be a fake saint because he acted like a rock star during his day and basically overdid his whole act. Naturally, the Catholics beg to disagree. But even extremely popular and influential Orthodox monks and priests like Father Seraphim (the American) who basically introduced America to Russian Orthodoxy with his popular books have to spend decades in clerical purgatory before the Church decides whether or not to grant them saint status.
Following the news from Ukraine, there was a gathering of higher-ups in the Church who demanded that Metropolitan Onufriy and his Church be declared schismatics and therefore no longer saved by the light of the canonical Church. Although, even here, there is some nuance. Officially, in the end, God decides who goes to Heaven or not, not the Church. So, basically, there is some wiggle room, but not much and being considered a schismatic is a big deal in the Orthodox world.
After the aforementioned council in which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church decided to go its own way, and at the meeting gathered by the Russian Orthodox Church to discuss the situation, Metropolitan Hilarion decided to defend Metropolitan Onufriy. In other words, he claimed that Onufriy and his people weren’t schismatics and he counter-signaled the position of other bishops who stated that Onufriy and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were as good as damned. This may have been the final strike against Hilarion.
Church Politicking in the Orthodox World
Here, we should say a few words about the other schismatics in Ukraine. Before the very recent split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, there was already a splinter organization that calls themselves the Orthodox Ukrainian Church (the order of the words is reversed) and they are led by Filaret Denisenko.
Back in the 90s, Denisenko wanted to become the Patriarch in Moscow, but he lost his bid for power to the now reigning Patriarch. After that, he decided to go his own way and created his own autonomous Church. He was supported in this endeavor by the Ukrainian government, and the West, naturally. He and his church were always considered schismatics by the Russian Orthodox Church.
But the situation is even more complicated by the existence of yet another key player in the world of Orthodoxy.
Enter Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, an ambitious man, and a priest who clearly wants to become the Pope of Orthodoxy:
The Constantinople Church claims that it is the first among equals among the Churches because of historical reasons. Bartholomew supported Denisenko and his schismatics back in the day. But, more recently, in 2018, he officially granted autonomy (autocephaly) to the Orthodox Ukrainian Church and this led to a final, formal split between Moscow and Constantinople. In other words, the faithful are no longer allowed to take communion in each other’s Churches — it is considered a grave sin. Bartholomew believes that the Constantinople Church has the right to grant autonomy to other Churches and this was his justification for acting as he did. However, he also refuses to recognize the separateness of the Greek Orthodox Church.
In other words, he pursues his own politics and acts as he sees fit in his own interests and the interest of his Church. Another example: in Macedonia, there used to be a Serbian Orthodox Church that was the official canonical church in the region. But then, a split occurred in the aftermath of Yugoslavia — a move that was supported by the Macedonian government, of course. After negotiations, the Macedonians agreed to rejoin the Serbian Orthodox Church with the understanding that they would then be granted autonomy, making the split canonical. Bartholomew, claiming the exclusive right to grant autonomy, encouraged them to declare themselves autonomous without the blessing of the Serbian Church. In this instance, he failed to cause an even deeper split between the two Churches.
More than any other Patriarch, Bartholomew is very enthusiastic about the ecumenical effort and always rushes to support The Current Thing™. Nowadays, he supports mass migration into Europe, the Kiev government and the Green Agenda, which earns him fawning praise from the world press.
The Agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church
In the 90s, the Church was concerned with returning its stolen property from the government. It was only under Putin that the Church started receiving support from the government. Most recently, the famous St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg was returned to the Church. It used to be a museum and large revenue generator for the city, and so the decision was protested. But the problem of property restitution has largely been solved in Russia at this point and the situation for the Church has stabilized.
Within Russia, there are schismatic Orthodox movements, but they do not have an organized structure. Mostly, it’s individual priests who have pulled away from the canonical Church for one reason or another and taken their congregations with them. Russia’s Old Believers, who refused to go along with the Nikonian reforms back in the 17th century, were partially brought back into the fold in the 90s. They struck a deal whereby they could keep their traditional pre-Nikonian rites in exchange for recognizing the official Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy. These Old Believers are called Единаверы (United Faith). Solzhenitsyn praised them and supported their recognition and reintegration into the Church, critiquing the original genocide and persecution that was unleashed on them by Church authorities centuries ago. Also Dugin, who used to be more interested in right-wing esotericism, now attends an Old Believer Church in Moscow.
Also, the position of the Church is, officially, against blood-letting in general. But, this year, an official decision was made to re-institute the official chaplain role in the military. In other words, military units will now have a priest assigned to them. This is an old Russian tradition from pre-Soviet times that has been restored and it is a very promising sign that Russia is moving past its Soviet legacy, at least in the military, where Orthodoxy is taken seriously by many soldiers and officers. Patriarch Kirill recently stated that “the Russian military in Ukraine is driven by an inner moral sense based on the Orthodox faith.”
Other than the effort to strengthen Orthodoxy’s place in Russian society, the Church is also deeply involved with the politics of the Orthodox world, which we briefly touched upon above. Much time is spent debating and discussing the development in Ukraine and the larger Orthodox world. For obvious reasons, the Russian Orthodox Church believes that it should take a leading role in the Orthodox world. This puts them at loggerheads with the various schismatic movements and competing centers of influence.
The war has only exacerbated the political struggle between the various Church’s, which is not good news for the Russian Orthodox Church’s ambitions.
But, for conservative-minded people who were concerned about the course that the Church would take in the coming years, the recent developments are cause to rejoice. The Russian Orthodox Church will be forced to harden-up, turn away from cooperating with the West and clamp down on liberal-minded clergy like Metropolitan Hilarion. As I have stressed before in previous essays, the sanctions and the aggression of the West against Russia have led to improvements across the board in various institutions and an embrace of patriotic ideas by society at large.