Russia’s constitutional amendments of 2020 augur an ever-enlarging foreign policy role for the Russian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (ROC). Constitutional entrenchment of the Kremlin’s selective understanding of state sovereignty and non-interference; a state-sanctioned vision of historical truth; the muscular protection of compatriot rights abroad; and the propagation of traditional values each tap into areas where the church has steadfastly advocated Russian civilization as a global counterweight to the West’s “ultra-liberalism.” Faced with this emerging reality, policymakers should reassess the nature and substance of their interactions with church officials and take measures to scrutinize ROC activities more closely in their respective jurisdictions.
“The actions of Constantinople in Ukraine are not in accordance with the tradition of the Church. We are on the side of order and canon,” . . . He also added that “Many are going to say that we [the Serbian Orthodox Church] are on the Russian side. But we are on the side of orders and canons.”
Such all-too-common statements ignore the fact “that concerning. . .the manner of establishing the autocephaly of any part of the Church, none of the sacred canons provides direction or inkling.” Statements such as those of the Patriarch beg the questions “Which canons? Whose order?”
On November 19, 2020, The Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society published what many media sources have referred to as a “black list of false clerics.” This list of clerics was added to an already existing list of organizations that were claiming to collect money for charitable and religious purposes but, who upon closer inspection, appear to be swindlers and scams. The Patriarchate created this list to warn believers that some of the religious leaders and figures that they may follow, whether online or off, are not endorsed by the Moscow Patriarchate and should be avoided.
The “black list” reveals the Moscow Patriarchate’s seriousness in confronting independent groups and individuals labeling themselves Orthodox that might lead members of the flock astray. This is a problem that many within the institutional Russian Orthodox Church have looked to deal with in the post-Soviet Period. The Church already combats the publication and distribution of unapproved religious literature though a tiered system of stamps of approval for print materials. The Patriarchate continues this trend with the publication of this list, providing clear guidance on who a faithful believer ought to avoid online. However, in publicizing these names, the Church may have only boosted interest in these clerics.
The late February fraternal gathering of six local Orthodox churches in Amman was instructive and at the same time disheartening. Instructive because the gathering exposed truths in global Orthodoxy; disheartening because it was a sad showcasing of Orthodoxy to the world (for the presumably relatively few outsiders who are still paying attention to us).
The first hard truth it highlighted is the lack of deference local churches have towards the Moscow Patriarchate. It exposed Moscow’s lack of spiritual maturity (phronema) to play a pan-Orthodox role that is divorced from its national self-interest.