The recent Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, held in February 2013, adopted a series of important resolutions. Asked by Pravoslavie.ru to share his impressions of the Council and problems fervently discussed in the Orthodox world is Archbishop Mark (Arndt) of Berlin, Germany and the United Kingdom.
– Vladyka, in your opinion, how did this recent Council of Bishops differ from previous ones?
– It was different in two ways, which were unprecedented. Firstly, there had never been so many participants in a Council of Bishops in the history of the Russian Church. Two years ago, when the last Council convened, there were, if I am not mistaken, about 220 participants, and this time there were 290! This represents a serious growth in the episcopacy. Secondly, the great preparation that was done between the two Councils by the Inter-Council Presence established by the initiative of His Holiness the Patriarch. The committees which are part of this entity reviewed a broad spectrum of matters in the life of the Church. Documents laid down at the foundation of our Council of Bishops were drafted by these committees, so we were reviewing documents which had been developed on the basis of discussions, rechecked and amended. Of course, they were subject to debate and refinement at the Council of Bishops, but had the Inter-Council Presence not done the preliminary work, our efforts would not have been so fruitful.
– A lively discussion continued in Church society regarding many questions resolved at this Council. How have these discussions touched the flock and clergymen of the Russian Church Abroad?
– Our clergymen and laity participated in these discussions to a degree. Party this is because we look upon events in the life of the Church from an entirely different perspective. This is because we have different circumstances than those of believers in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
– What is your attitude towards the Russification of divine services? This topic evoked sharp discussions at the Inter-Council Presence.
– For us this topic is puzzling . In the Church Abroad, we live with the language each of us inherited from our ancestors. Of course, translations of liturgical texts which had been done in previous centuries are in some ways wanting, they rely too much on the original Greek, which can be amended. We do not see this as very important. For us it is far more important to have translations into local European languages—German, English, French, etc., since we have an objective need to use other languages in divine services in addition to Church Slavonic. Church Slavonic is the firm basis upon which we stand, but we sense the need to cleanse it of unnecessary Grecisms. Nonetheless, this is not a question of Russification. We are talking about emancipating the Church Slavonic language from layers which hinder the understanding of the texts. At times one must simply change the order of the words. This sort of work must be done, and we understand why.
– Another topic actively discussed before the Council was the bond between the Mysteries of Confession and Communion. Many participants in these discussions, basing their arguments on the experience of the Greek-language Local Churches, call upon the hierarchy to allow laypersons to partake of Communion at every Liturgy without the obligatory confession, as it is done in the Russian Orthodox Church.
– We who live in the West feel that people should approach the Mystery of Communion as often as possible. If I am asked how often one should preferably go, I assume that the average layperson should go three times a month: maybe two Sundays and some feast day during the week. At the same time, our believers rarely take advantage of the opportunity to approach the Chalice a second time without another Confession, though many can do so. For instance, I will bless me spiritual children to commune without a second confession, and this practice exists in our monasteries: I take the confession of monastics once a week, and they take Communion three times that week. But I am talking about short periods of time. When the time elapsing between participating in the Mystery of the Eucharist reaches two or three weeks, renewed confession is required. There is no person who lives such a life that he could be certain that he spent this time without sin.
During Passion Week I allow people to partake of Communion every day until Bright Monday to those of my spiritual children who made confession on Lazarus Sunday. I suggest the same to my priests . But I can only do this for those whom I know well.
The infrequent confession within the Greek-language Churches is a flawed phenomenon. It arose as a result of the fact that a majority of Orthodox clergymen serving in the 19 th century under the Ottoman yoke were illiterate. Few of them were given a blessing to take confession from the people, and so the connection between the two Mysteries was lost.
We are talking about the spiritual growth of a person, and Communion cannot become an automatic resource. It must be a manifestation of the spiritual maturation of the believer. We understand that a person can grow spiritually if either he regularly opens up his thoughts to his spiritual father, or goes to Confession, because one cannot entirely separate these Mysteries.
The Russian Church has in the past regulated the period of Communion very strictly, and there were reasons for this. We no longer adhere to such strict provisions, but on the other hand, we have not abandoned them entirely. I know that the parishioners of the American Orthodox Church go for months without making confession, but partake of Communion very often. I believe this is a flawed practice that is not justifiable.
– What is your attitude towards the practice in some dioceses of not offering laypersons Communion on Pascha or the Nativity of Christ?
– When I first heard of this, I was stunned. How can one not partake of Communion on such a great holiday? Meanwhile, the sermon of St John Chrysostom is read, where everything is lucidly explained, and yet the people cannot approach the Chalice?! During Soviet times, this was justified, naturally. I heard from old priests that there indeed were unfortunate consequences, so that is what they did. In our day the situation is entirely different. But again, every bishop and priest must act according to his conscience and pastoral experience, and I cannot criticize. I can only speak for myself.
– The agenda of the Council of Bishops included matters pertaining to various aspects of monastic life. We often hear about the rarity of today’s Christians to fully devote themselves to serving God, about the numbers of monastics dropping. Do you agree ?
– Monasteries always reflect the attitudes or the troubles of their local societies. Those who accept monasticism leave their contemporary world, yet they are its product. One must rejoice after many years of Bolshevik oppression, monastic life is once again reborn. One cannot say that there are fewer monastics now. If we talk about numbers, then, yes, there are fewer, but then a very small proportion of people are church-goers. It is not a question of who is baptized and considers himself Orthodox, though it is obvious that many people who consider themselves thus are not even baptized. The question is how much a person is involved in Church life, how ready he is to receive Christ with all his heart, completely.
In monasteries I supervise there is a clear trend towards growth in the number of monastics. There are more now than there were even ten years ago, and these are mostly young people.
– At the Council, His Holiness called upon the Church’s hierarchs not only to be the administrators of their dioceses, but pastors. How do you view your own pastoral service ?
– I think that the main thing is to spend as much time as possible with the people of God. I try to visit the parishes of my dioceses as often as possible, trying to adhere to the practice of serving one Sunday in my cathedral, and the following week somewhere in the country, trying to connect with as many parishes as possible. In addition to sermons during divine services I always speak to parishioners during trapezas and afterwards, sharing with them my guidance, thoughts, my concerns on various topics in Church life, and answer their questions.
– What gives you joy today, as an archpastor, and what brings you sorrow?
– I rejoice that people are drawn to Christ, and I sorrow that we often don’t live a life that would convince others that this is the correct path.
Interviewed by Olga Kiryanova
February 20 , 2013