Fr. Georgy Kochetkov’s Speech at “Christian movements and communities. Together for Europe” International Congress
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Translated by: Alina Patrakova, Georgia Williams (English), Olga Manzura, Sebastian Hagn (German), Elena Maisil, Daria-Dina Eremina, PIERANGELO Torricelli (Italian)
Our Transfiguration Brotherhood (The Transfiguration Fellowship of Minor Orthodox Brotherhoods) was founded 26 years ago. Building dialogue with Christians of other confessions and the goal of achieving unity has always been a priority for us.
To a large extent, we could look to the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 19th century, when a number of major initiatives for unity were launched with the Oriental churches (Armenian and Nestorian), with Anglicans and with Old Catholics. These efforts were real moves toward unity, and not only attempts at dialogue. After the atheist revolution of 1917, these initiatives collapsed, although some trace of them remained in people’s minds.
I want to add that the issue of Christian unity in our country was essentially resolved at the time of the GULAG, during which our country endured particularly brutal persecution of the church by the Soviet authorities. In Soviet concentration camps, prisoners suffered to such an extent that the question of denomination became insignificant. Evidently in those conditions, the very dialogue of life for the sake of life itself enabled mutual reconciliation and brotherhood, also between people of different confessions. Those who survived Stalinist camps often spoke of this later.
Today, many people in our country and in our church either don’t know about this or feign lack of knowledge, because admitting knowledge would be a political act and, to that extent, is a very difficult move. Such a move requires much – both of the church and of society – and only the rare few are ready to assume this responsibility.
Our Brotherhood did not directly inherit this experience of reconciliation; in many respects, we had to rediscover it. We had no way of inheriting it directly, because this living tradition was cut off by the authorities, including those church authorities left in place by the soviet government, especially from 1943, when for purely political reasons Stalin partially re-opened churches and granted amnesty to some bishops and priests. Far from everyone in our church recognizes the experience about which I am speaking, and many think of it as some sort of dissident movement. But this is an indispensable part of the heritage of our Brotherhood.
The experience of brotherly love, communication, and Christian unity never completely disappeared from our church. On the other hand, the living tradition of Christian brotherhood was born anew out of life experience and in search of answers to questions which arise as a result of the times in which we live and have lived. And this has also led us to dialogue and reconciliation, albeit only partially.
When I came to faith in God in the second half of the 1960s, I was forced to think about this personally – not in a theoretical manner, but in a purely practical way – as I had to choose what Christian church to join. So when I was in my last year of school, and later in college, my friends and I visited churches of various denominations – every single denomination that we could find in Moscow. I chose Orthodoxy because of various inner criteria which were important to me, though since that time I have not lost my respect and great interest and affection for Christians of all confessions; I continue to recognise their great worth. We all believe in one Church, una sancta, but it has been clear since the very beginning that this one church of Christ could never be contained by her administrative, or even by her canonical boundaries.
Not less important – and perhaps of even greater import – was the search for unity within the Orthodox Church during the Soviet period. Under harsh ideological pressure and in times when the unspoken law against “gathering more than two or three together” was fully active, brotherhood and community nevertheless sometimes arose when people overcame their fear and division to meet together in Christ. This is how our movement arose out of a circle of believing friends in Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s. People who have grown up in an atmosphere of militant atheism became very open to each other when they enter the church – I know this because it was true of all of my friends. We did not gather or select people who were similar to us; we were just together with all those who had themselves come to Christ. Because of this, it was always easy for us to forge relationship with Orthodox and non-Orthodox, alike. We engaged in informal dialogue and learnt from each other. And it was wonderful!
I, personally, was particularly lucky. Almost from the very outset of my life in Christ, I was acquainted with people from the old community movement founded by the saintly Moscow priests Alexius and Sergius Mechyov. Fr. Alexius was Nikolay Berdyayev’s spiritual father. Fr. Sergius, his son, is a new martyr. Today, this circle of people would certainly have been called ecumenical, i.e. open towards friendly communication with Christians of other denominations. We never discussed this directly, but we followed the example of our spiritual mentors, from whom we also inherited our tradition of openness, including toward those of other confessions. Questions concerning the church, the quality of its life and, above all, of its unity in love, grace, faith, hope, service and communion – all these issues came up naturally and by themselves. Because we came to faith consciously, we were able to overcome all our fears and discover the depth and fullness of the Church for ourselves. There was no other way to seriously become a Christian during the Soviet era.
One of our teachers during that time was Archimandrite Tavrion (Batozsky), a great saint and elder of our church, who spent over 20 years in exile and in prison camps. He was a simple Ukrainian, without any theological education, though he had suffered greatly in the GULAG. Up until the very end of his life, he was committed to building relationship in love both amongst the Orthodox, who came to him at the monastery in Latvia where he spent the last years of his life, and among the non-Orthodox. It was no coincidence that a present he had received – a Catholic statue of the sacred heart of Jesus – was openly displayed in his parish. At the same time, he never promoted any ecumenical ideas, though he embraced everything genuine from Christians of other denominations and was always happy to share the treasures of the Orthodox Church with others. He was not the only “confessionally open” priest of those times.
Archimandrite Tavrion’s experience has not been understood and adopted within our church. Moreover, some people regard it as suspicious or harmful. They are afraid of it and prefer not to notice it.
Another one of our teachers from the 1970s was Archpriest Vsevolod Schpiller, from Moscow, who in his youth had fought in the White Army against the Bolsheviks. I remember the way he received a group of young Baptists who had started attending his church when they became interested in Orthodoxy. Fr. Vsevolod said to them: “Come in and pray together with us, if you wish.” And we would also get together with them outside of church to meet and share our experiences with each other. Once I asked Fr. Vsevolod whether I could pray for them during Divine Liturgy, during the Proskomidia – whether I could cut commemorative particles and include them in our prayers for the living. His answer was, “Well, it isn’t really general practice in our church, but I give you my blessing to do so.” And I have now been faithfully honouring Fr. Vsevolod’s blessing for more than 40 years.
During the 1970s, annual days of prayer for Christian unity were held in the Russian Orthodox Church. I, also, had occasion to participate in these prayers. Later this practice ceased. This was the result of a retrogressive move in the internal life of our church which is notable from the late 1980s, when the church experienced an influx of many spiritually uneducated people, who were wholly unprepared for spiritual and church life. It is no coincidence that our Brotherhood was formed in those very years, at the time when the Soviet Union was collapsing. Suddenly it became possible to openly do many things – both in church and society – which had previously been absolutely impossible; it was now possible to preach openly and to create parishes, communities, theological schools and Christian charity organisations at one’s own initiative. Life experience has shown, however, that it is much harder to revive the very reality of the Church itself – the reality of the royal priesthood of God’s people.
Today we are still witnesses to the terrifying ruins of our country, people, culture and society. But having come through the GULAG and the destruction of all people and of everything – of all values, human relationships, and traditions (first and foremost Christian and church traditions) – our church has accumulated a unique experience of living by God’s grace and, together with this, the ability to appreciate the main point of spiritual life. This main point is what leads us to dialogue and reconciliation.
Building an attitude of openness towards other Orthodox believers and Christians of other denominations and pursuing Christian unity have been among the fundamental life principles of the Transfiguration Brotherhood since its inception. This principle is as follows: “While recognising the unity of all Christians as a command of the Saviour, the Brotherhood strives to overcome the common sin of confessional division which undermines the mission of the church in the world. Members of the Brotherhood do not attempt to gloss over confessional differences. They are open to personal fellowship in the spirit of love with representatives of other Christian confessions, as with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Members of the Brotherhood regard with respect and love all manifestations of truth beyond the canonical juridical boundaries of the church”.
We believe Christians should cooperate and do together everything that is possible to do together. So we do this. We have a very warm relationship with various Catholic movements (ACLI, Focolare, the Community of Sant'Egidio and the Charles de Foucauld Brotherhood) as well as with the Baptists and Evangelical Christians in Moscow and other regions of our country. Just one example is our recent joint publication with the ACLI movement – a bilingual book entitled Contemporary Paths of Holiness, in which both partners present their leading teachers.
One of the main services of our Brotherhood within the church is the consistent, holistic and – what is more – long-term catechesis of adults. We have been serving in this way for more than 40 years, and sometimes people from other denominations come to us as catechumens. We never try to lure them over to Orthodoxy. In the process of catechesis we bring them only up to the point at which teaching about sacraments, the ascetic life, and dogma is introduced. This is because of the fact that different confessions have their own essential peculiarities, and we do not want people to feel in any way pressured by us. We bring people up to the point where they have the possibility of personal participation in the sacraments and in church life. From that point on, each one of them can continue with education in his or her own church.
In addition, both in our Brotherhood and at St. Philaret’s Theological Institute in Moscow, we have the unique experience of joint prayers with Christians of other denominations. At our vespers service we can pray together with both a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest while their parishioners can read or sing Orthodox prayers. It is of vital importance that this is not a special ecumenical prayer but rather occurs within the context of regular Orthodox worship. We seek fellowship through points of commonality, and especially through the Lord’s Prayer. Christians of different denominations can also participate in our reading and discussion of the Holy Scripture as well as in our agape meals (feasts of love) after the Eucharist.
Today evil is no less aggressive than it was in the terrible 20th century. This aggression must be opposed through the very means which are traditional for Christians: an abundance of love, faith, and trust. There will never be any other viable alternative in practice or in our hearts – this is the only real way of togetherness, because people unite in love in opening their hearts, in hope, in spiritual freedom, as they enter into the divine Light.
Therefore, if our churches increased the purity of their spiritual lives, it would be much easier to solve these problems. Quite simply, we ought to feel more acutely the pain from the lack of unity among Christians, as indeed from any lack or incompleteness in church life, not only as it relates to interfaith issues. It is often said that we must return to a pre-schism church, but no such return is possible. We must all move not backward, but onward and upward – to God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit!
Father Georgy Kochetkov
M.A. in Theology. Editor in Chief of The Quarterly Journal of St. Philaret’s Institute