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Commentary on the Joint Document of the Commissions of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia Entitled "On the Relationship Between Church and State"

One of the most important questions facing Church life in the 20th century was undoubtedly that of the relationship between the Church and state. Both Commissions deemed it necessary to speak out on one of the most tragic phenomena of recent church history, the conciliar recognition of which is necessary for the reestablishment of the unity of the Russian Church. This refers to the Declaration of the Deputy Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne dated July 16/29, 1927, often called the "Declaration," and also to the ecclesiastical policies which followed under conditions of the God-battling totalitarian regime.

1. Although the publication of the "Declaration" was not the only reason for the church divisions arising in the 1920's, it is undoubtedly this document which in fact served to hasten the establishment of an administrative rift between the Church in Russia and its emigre part outside of her borders. It became for many the beginning of a spiritual separation.

2. The "Declaration" was written under unprecedented pressure from the militantly atheistic state, which threatened to completely eliminate all legal forms of church life. His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia said the following as early as 1991:

"Today we can say that there is untruth mixed into... the Declaration. The Declaration placed for itself the goal of placing the Church in the proper relationship with the Soviet state. But this relationship—and in the Declaration it was clearly defined as the subjugation of the Church to the interests of government politics—is incorrect from the point of view of the Church." [1] .

3. The ecclesiastical policies of Metropolitan Sergius were doubtless aimed towards the preservation of the church hierarchy, which was the target of destruction by the militant atheists, and also aimed towards the possibility of administering the Mysteries.

The passage of time showed that communities refusing communion with the church hierarchy headed by Metropolitan Sergius were deprived of the possibility of survival under persecution, and those remnants that did survive could not openly confess Christ's teachings and influence the spiritual life of the people. After the Church Council of 1945, a significant portion of the "non-commemorating" clergy and laity entered the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Among those who remained separated from communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, the danger arose of veering into sectarianism.

4. The policies of Metropolitan Sergius enabled the reestablishment of church life during and after the Second World War.

The patriotic stance expressed in part in the "Declaration" resonated in the hearts of many members of the Russian Orthodox during the years of the Great Patriotic War. Orthodox Christians fought and struggled for the good of their homeland, as did Great Martyr George the Victory-bearer, St Theodore Stratilatos, and many holy warriors in the first centuries of Christianity, who fought to defend their pagan countries, as did St John the Damascene, who labored to benefit his country, then under Muslim control.

The activity of the bishops and pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church during the years of World War II, blessing the people in their self-sacrifice in the battle against fascism, became a shining example of the fulfillment of Christian and patriotic duty. Also recognizing the terrible danger of German Nazism were the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, who also suffered grief from the tragic fate that befell the Russian people. It is known that Archbishop John (Maximovich), who was included among the host of saints by the Russian Church Abroad, while beyond the reach of the godless regime, performed services of supplication for the victory of his Fatherland, and made monetary collections for the needs of the troops in action.

5. The publication of the "Declaration" did not mean that the Church was of one mind with the ideology of the atheist state. An attempt was made in the document to express what the Church had stated since the first centuries of her history, from the time of the Apostles and her apologists: Christians are not enemies of the state. Still, for the godless state, Orthodox Christians remained unreliable and alien even after the publication of the "Declaration."

At the same time, the "Declaration" introduced a sharp rift within the people of the Church. There are known instances when during the interrogation of the "non-commemorating" clergymen, the persecutors of the Church referred to the "Declaration." It was then, and is to this day, a temptation for many children of the Russian Orthodox Church.

6. Over the course of the two-thousand-year history of the Church, such compromises under conditions of persecution are known. But never did those people who made compromises for the sake of preserving the legal existence of the Church, nor, of course, those who disagreed with such a policy, ever deem the path of compromise as normal, as the only path or the as natural path of the Church of Christ.

7. The martyrs and confessors who gave their lives for Christ and His Church were numerous, both among those who accepted the "Declaration" and among those who rejected it. From among one group and another, many are now among the host of saints. The actions of Metropolitan Sergius, which spurred and continue to spur so many arguments, were without a doubt dictated by the search for a way to preserve church life in the coming crucial epoch, in difficult circumstances theretofore unsee.

"The tragedy of Metropolitan Sergius lies in the fact that he attempted in earnest to reach an agreement with criminals who had wrested power." [2]

8. Both in the part of the Russian Church found abroad, and, what is very important, inside Russia as well, the "Declaration" was viewed by the people of the Church as a morbid, tragic compromise, but not as the free voice of the Church of Christ.

9. Certain chapters of a document adopted at the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (August 2000), formulated in complete agreement with the teachings of the Church and the Holy Fathers on the relationship of the Church and the civil authorities, were soon afterwards given a positive evaluation by the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (October 2000).

"The Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church," in a series of theses [3] , clearly defines the principles of the ecclesiastical approach to the relationship of the Church and state. In part, it says that the Church under certain circumstances must call for civil disobedience. The "Concept" contains ideas which differ in principle from those expressed in the "Declaration."

In comparing the "Declaration" and the "Basic Social Concept," Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad noted at the Council of Bishops of October 2004:

"The free voice of the Church, speaking with particular clarity in this conciliar document ['Concept'], gives us the opportunity to look upon the 'Declaration' in a new way. While understanding that the path chosen in 1927 on the relationship towards the state was motivated by the desire to preserve the possibility for the Church to exist legally, this path was authoritatively deemed inconsistent with the genuine norms of Church-state relations by the Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. The epoch of the imprisonment of the Church has come to an end."

In this way, the "Declaration" was seen as a coerced document which did not express the free will of the Church.

At the same time, a critical view of the above document does not equate to a condemnation of His Holiness Patriarch Sergius, and does not express an effort to besmirch his person and mitigate his First-Hierarchical service in the difficult years of the Church's life in the Soviet Union.

As His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II said in 1991, "The Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius has departed into the past, and we are not guided by it." [4] .

The rejection of the course of the Russian Church in her relations with the state as reflected in the "Declaration" opens the path to the fullness of brotherly communion.

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[1] His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, "I Take Upon Myself the Responsibility for All That Happened," Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, 1991, No 10, pp. 5-6.

[2] Ibid, p. 6.

[3] See, in part:

"III.V. [T]he persecuted Church is also called to endure the persecution with patience, without refusing to be loyal to the state persecuting her. Legal sovereignty in the territory of a state belongs to its authorities. Therefore, it is they who determine the legal status of a Local Church or her part, either giving her an opportunity for the unhampered fulfilment of church mission or restricting this opportunity. Thus, state power makes judgement on itself and eventually foretells its fate. The Church remains loyal to the state, but God's commandment to fulfil the task of salvation in any situation and under any circumstances is above this loyalty.

If the authority forces Orthodox believers to apostatise from Christ and His Church and to commit sinful and spiritually harmful actions, the Church should refuse to obey the state."

"III.6. ...The Church... should point out to the state that it is inadmissible to propagate such convictions or actions which may result in total control over a person's life, convictions and relations with other people, as well as erosion in personal, family or public morality, insult of religious feelings, damage to the cultural and spiritual identity of the people and threats to the sacred gift of life."

"III.8. ...[T]here are areas in which the clergy and canonical church structures cannot support the state or cooperate with it. They are as follows: a) political struggle, election agitation, campaigns in support of particular political parties and public and political leaders; b) waging civil war or aggressive external war; c) direct participation in intelligence and any other activity that demands secrecy by law even in making one's confession or reporting to the church authorities."

"IV.3. ...[I]n the cases where the human law completely rejects the absolute divine norm, replacing it by an opposite one, it ceases to be law and becomes lawlessness, in whatever legal garments it may dress itself."

"IV.9. [W]hen compliance with legal requirements threatens his eternal salvation and involves an apostasy or commitment of another doubtless sin before God and his neighbor, the Christian is called to perform the feat of confession for the sake of God's truth and the salvation of his soul for eternal life. He must speak out lawfully against an indisputable violation committed by society or state against the statutes and commandments of God. If this lawful action is impossible or ineffective, he must take up the position of civil disobedience."

V.2. "[T]he Church preaches peace and co-operation among people holding various political views. She also acknowledges the presence of various political convictions among her episcopate, clergy and laity, except for such as to lead clearly to actions contradicting the faith and moral norms of the church Tradition." [ http://www.mospat.ru ]

[4] His Holiness Patriarch Alexy I, "I Take Upon Myself the Responsibility for All That Happened," Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, 1991, No 10, p 6.