Dark Ecclesiology: What We Do in the Shadows

by Andrey Shishkov | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Српски

dark church interior

Speaking about human rights in Orthodoxy, we must clearly understand why we need this discourse and how it will influence theology and religious consciousness. In my opinion, it has two primary purposes: protection of the weak and inclusion. Today, the debate about human rights increasingly affects Orthodox political theology and anthropology but does not affect ecclesiology. Clerical power structures colonized the Orthodox ecclesiological consciousness and control the vision of ​​the church norm, church structure, and the church’s boundaries. Incorporation into the church rests in the hands of a privileged group and depends on that group’s arbitrary power, which impedes the development of inclusion.

Clericocentricity is a distinctive feature of most ecclesiologies. Through them, the rest of the church views clerics as a chosen part of the church people, whose priesthood gives them advantages not only of a practical nature but also, in some interpretations, of an ontological nature (ordination changes the nature of a person). Ecclesiologies describe the church so that clerical structures inevitably become their focal points and replace the church’s image. When we talk about the church in everyday life, we immediately imagine a clergyman, worship, or church building. These ecclesiologies contain the message that if a person belongs to the right jurisdiction, participates rightly in the right style of worship and sacraments, follows the right practices, and correlates his faith with Orthodoxy—the content of which is also controlled by the clerics—then he will be saved. Such ecclesiological concepts as schism, heresy, Eucharistic communion, etc., become instruments of power control. Even the place of women in the church is discussed mainly in a clerical manner as the topic of female priesthood.

By ecclesiology, church authorities set a variant of the norm in the “church organism” that some ecclesial actors are oppressed or even excluded from the church by them. At the same time, despite the “normative violence,” the excluded do not disappear from the church. They continue to exist in the shadow of the church as something strange, undesirable, or simply inconvenient. Women, homosexuals, transgender people and other queer people, unbaptized babies, human embryos, animals and other non-human beings, sacred objects and things, and cultural heritage are in the ecclesial shadow. It is hard to find them in ecclesiological descriptions, but their impact on church life is significant. It could be compared to dark matter in the universe.

The dark frightens with its incomprehensibility and uncertainty, and thus encourages us to get rid of it, to expel from the church, and not get to know it better and let it in. For example, Russian Orthodox thinker Sergei Fudel’ (1900-1977) proposed the concept of the church’s dark twin to describe this phenomenon. In his book At the Walls of the Church (written in the Soviet Union in the 1970s), Fudel’ tells a story about a priest who announced to his congregation that he was leaving the ministry: “I have deceived you for twenty years, and now I am taking off these vestments.” The reaction of the people was “scream[ing], noise, cry[ing].” However, one young man went up to the ambon and said: “After all, it has always been. Remember that Judas was also sitting at the Last Supper.” Then Fudel’ concludes: “These words reminiscent of the existence of a dark twin of the church in history somehow calmed many or explained something. Moreover, attending the Supper, Judas did not break the sacrament. “

We see that the priest’s behavior, abnormal and frankly strange from the flock’s point of view, leads to confusion and anxiety. The main fear is “violation of the sacrament,” undermining the clerical guarantee to salvation. For the church consciousness colonized by clerical ecclesiologies, the “integrity” of the clerical structure (the sacrament performed in the assembly of the people) is more important than a person (priest) who dared to act honestly. The restoration of balance occurs through the stigmatization of a strange Other, which “calms many.” The priest becomes a Judas who betrayed Christ. Fudel’s dark twin is a side of church life that must be fought and condemned. The feeling of a dark twin gives rise to horror. And the fight against it certainly has clerical features: according to Fudel’, a person excommunicates him/herself from the church through involvement in the dark twin, and s/he is reunited with it through confession after the cleric reads the prayer of permission.

Finally, Fudel’ concludes that everything distorted, unclean, and wrong that we see in the church fence is not a church. This approach does not distinguish between the ethically unacceptable and the simply strange. Both belong to the dark twin. There is also no distinction between sinner and sin, which makes this concept ethically doubtful. Nothing is surprising in Fudel’s approach. The concept of the “dark twin of the church” can be included in the group of ecclesiologies that arose under the influence of the ideas of romanticism. This group includes almost all the modern Orthodox ecclesiological thought from Alexei Khomyakov to Cyril Hovorun and Aristotle Papanikolaou. For such ecclesiologies, it is typical to regard the church as an integral whole where everything “dark” (in the above negative sense) either dry up, dies and falls away, or is defined as a disease that must be fought and ultimately destroyed.

Fudel’s dark twin is not an approach to describing the abnormal and the strange but a way of excluding it from the church. The mechanism of exclusion (and inclusion) is under the control of clerical structures, and no one can feel protected from their arbitrariness. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh said that he was once surprised by the words of Nikolai Zernov that the ecumenical councils became a tragedy for the church: they formalized what was supposed to be flexible. “I think he was right,” concluded the Metropolitan Anthony.

Fudel’s example shows that there is no language of description for the strange and abnormal in the church, except the negative. Therefore, contemporary ecclesiology is faced with the task of finding such a theological language. First, it should describe actors and phenomena that fall into the area of ​​the church shadow, giving them a voice. Second, it should do it in a non-violent way. And, third, it should offer a general metaphysical framework for such descriptions. The approach that combines all three tasks, I call “dark ecclesiology.” It is intended to show the ambiguity, strangeness, and contingency of our ideas about the church by considering phenomena that do not fall into the “illuminated” area described by clerical ecclesiologies.

Those who live in the church’s shadow should receive their voice, but this does not mean that they should be forcibly dragged out into the light. If we compare a church with a building, then the church walls are like clerical structures. They cast a shadow. We can illuminate everyone either by pulling them out to the sunny side or leveling the walls to the ground. Both are associated with violence. To include shadow actors in ecclesiological descriptions non-violently, we need a special epistemology of the dark, which will be discussed in my next essay on this theme.


Andrey Shishkov is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Theological Studies in Moscow, Russia and co-author of the Telegram channel “Orthodoxy and Zombies.”

This publication was prepared as part of the research project “Orthodoxy and Solidarity” of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Tartu, Estonia with the support of the Estonian Research Council (grant PRG 1274).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.