What Christian Faith in Russia Means by Brian Stiller

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After brief instructions from the Lutheran Archbishop Dietrich Brauer, we processed up the center aisle of the St. Peter-and-St. Paul Lutheran Cathedral in Moscow, launching the 500th Anniversary observance of the Protestant Reformation.

Robed in gowns and hats of all colors and shapes, leaders of various Christian groups gathered in this important Moscow celebration: Lutherans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, but there were no Russian Orthodox representative in the procession. As we passed the front row moving toward the raised platform, I saw an Orthodox priest standing.

Even as we gathered around the altar for prayer, he remained apart. Later, I learned that while he would attend the service, he would not join in procession or prayer: according to the ancient Orthodox rule, a priest who prayed with heretics would lose his priesthood.

This is Russia. A country in curious shifts and alterations more mysterious than the Trump/Putin insults and bravados. I live with memory of a state, the Soviet Union, ruled by atheists insisting that the Communist and Marxist dictum of “no God” be their country’s mantra.

But it is wrong to assume that atheism rules, indeed, if it ever did. Make no mistake, this is a religious and, in fact, a Christian country, if one were to define a country by what its people believe. The Pew Foundation noted that 74 percent of Russians identify as Christian. However, even with this remarkable percentage of self-confessed Christians, Russia is dynamically secular, with a definite separation of Christian witness from its civil life, apart from official Orthodox ceremonies.

Its Varied History

To catch up on recent moves by Putin, a quick review of the role of faith in this grand country is helpful. In the tenth-century AD, the Greek Orthodox Church, invited by Kiev’s Prince Vladimer, went to Russia evangelizing its people. Over the next centuries Christians were primarily members of the Russian Orthodox, a church that sounds, smells, and looks like the Greek Orthodox, its spiritual parent.

Following the fall of the Czars and rise of the Communist Party, the church was repressed, driven into servitude. Those who refused to bow paid the price. In 1925, Patriarch Tichon was deposed by the Marxist regime and a more compliant Sergius was enthroned as Patriarch until 1944. It was the first time the Orthodox Church had lost support of the state.

Lenin in time made the country officially atheistic, and religion was severely restricted. But like all such places and repressions, in the underground away from the centers of political power, people carried on in faith. We must not forget that this is a land with enormous Christian affection: its landscapes are dotted by churches and monasteries, its story books filled with pictures and stories of saints and martyrs, its music and literature made rich by Christian composers, artists, and writers.

It was, however, Gorbachev in 1985 who allowed faith to publicly revive through perestroika and glasnost. Following the fall of the Soviets, thousands of Evangelicals from the West rushed in, leading to extraordinary mission activity. Many Russians were converted, churches were established, and various initiatives in camping, media and music grew.

That lasted for about a decade. What ensued was a letdown among Russians after many of their enthusiastic and resource-generous Western friends picked up and went home.

In time, Putin, a lifetime KGB officer, branded himself as a believer. The church which had lost its status under Lenin was now seen as an essential Russian entity. The return of the church to national status was part of the exercise in reviving Russian nationalism. The hope was that the former greatness of its people and culture would be recognized again, not only in Russia but among the countries and leaders in their sphere of influence.

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Source: Christianity Today