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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church and State

This month the Keston Institute posted on its web site ( two of the most unjustly neglected documents of the Russian Orthodox Church under Soviet rule. Dating from the first decade of the Bolshevik regime, these documents are manifestos from bishops imprisoned at the Solovki monastery. They explode the oft-heard myth that religious freedom is contrary to the fundamentals of Orthodox Christianity. Though written in 1927, these texts pose a direct challenge to today?s Moscow Patriarchate as it struggles with its lingering Soviet mentality of servility to the state. We can only hope that someday a truly awakened and renewed Russian Church will reprint these classic texts and distribute them.

The two appeals from the so-called "Solovki bishops" came from an island monastery in Russia?s remote northern White Sea that the Soviets had turned into a labor camp. The captive bishops set themselves humbly but resolutely against the collaborationist policy that was soon to become the hallmark of the Moscow Patriarchate. To use the formula offered decades later by writer and dissident ? and fellow gulag prisoner ? Alexander Solzhenitsyn, they refused to "live by lies."

Unlike the collaborationists, the Solovki bishops publicly called on the new Soviet regime to abandon its systematic persecution of religious believers. They refused to whitewash the Soviet program of trying to eradicate religion. They insisted on calling things by their proper names, condemning the state?s violation of its own laws by its constant meddling in the Church?s internal life. They rejected the argument often advanced by collaborationists within the Church that the Soviet state?s goals and interests were identical with those of the Church. Instead, the Solovki bishops pointed out that all governments sometimes commit unjust acts and that such extremely close identification between the Church and the state would be wrong with any type of government.

They refused to paper over the fundamental disagreement between the Church?s and the Soviet state?s world views, making clear that the deep divergence between the two precluded any kind of internal reconciliation.

At the same time, the bishops made it clear they would not lend their support to counter-revolutionaries, but would simply be neutral on politics. They insisted this was the only true means of preserving the Church?s internal spiritual freedom and preventing it from becoming merely "a servant of the State."

In dramatic contrast to the collaborationists, the Solovki bishops spoke out against sacrificing the Church?s conscience and fundamental principles merely for the sake of preserving its external administrative structures. Their coda resoundingly proclaimed that "if its petition is rejected, the Church will be ready for the material deprivations to which it could be subjected and will face this calmly, remembering that its strength does not depend on the existence of an undamaged external structure, but on the unity of faith and love of its faithful children. It will rely all the more on its Divine Founder, over Whom nothing hath dominion, and on His promise that nothing can prevail against His Creation."

The bishops? 1927 appeals are also interesting for their rejection of "renovationism" ? an early form of "liberation theology" the Soviet state supported in the 1920s as a means of fomenting schism within the Orthodox Church.

The Solovki bishops? words have direct implications for today?s issues of religious politics. Essentially they called for mutual renunciation, a genuine rather than a dishonest separation of church and state. They declared that "every believer must use his own mind and conscience to find out how best to organize the State."

"In view of such an irreconcilable ideological disagreement between Church and State, the only way to avoid the two clashing in their day-to-day activity involves meticulously implementing the law separating Church and State, according to which the Church must not interfere in the civil government?s work for the benefit of the people and the State must not restrict the Church in its religious and moral activity." The bishops implicitly rejected "old political theories which viewed the religious unity of citizens as essential for strengthening all political associations."

If today?s Moscow Patriarchate took this view seriously, for instance, it could never have demanded the 1997 law restoring state control over religious life. As the bishops wrote, "the Church must state with complete justification that it cannot recognize as just and welcome either laws that limit it in the fulfillment of its religious duties or administrative measures that greatly increase the restrictive burden of these laws."

Fortunately, the Patriarchate now seems to be moving slowly toward giving the Solovki bishops their due recognition. The Patriarchate?s recent canonizations included some bishops who signed the Solovki appeals. I hope this is an encouraging sign that, at long last, the Patriarchate is beginning to come to terms with its tainted past. Like the Roman Catholic declaration on religious liberty from the Second Vatican Council, the Solovki texts should be studied by all Christians ? Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox alike ? interested in church-state relations. We can only hope the Church itself will take these still-relevant echoes of the past as seriously as they deserve to be.

Lawrence Uzzell is director of the Keston Institute of Oxford, which monitors religious freedom in China, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He wrote this comment for the Keston News Service.