The Episcopal Church As Canary In The Coal Mine

According to the former editor of the official journal of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, “the church has become an instrument of the Russian state. It is used to extend and legitimize the interests of the Kremlin.”

And the Russian Orthodox Archbishop of Maldova “has warned worshipers that new biometric passports, required by the European Union in return for visa-free access to Europe, were ‘satanic’ because they contained a 13-digit number. He also tried to torpedo legislation extending protection against the discrimination in the workplace to gay people, warning that this would draw God’s wrath and sunder relations with ‘Mother Russia.'” (The New York Times, September 14)

This sad state of affairs is not news to those of us deeply involved in ecumenical relations and certainly not Episcopalians so involved. In the 1980s and 90s our church had extremely good relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, when the Soviet Union dissolved and, along with it, the officially atheistic stance of the Russian government, we were contacted to have our Bishop of the Armed Forces and Federal Chaplaincies assist in advising the Russian government about how a military chaplaincy might work in their new context. The Episcopal Church happily complied.

About midway through my time as ecumenical officer for our church, I assembled a small delegation to continue our warm relations  by engaging in informal dialogue in Moscow with the Russian branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and — while we were there — to check on the status of an ambulance provided by Episcopal Relief and Development for one of their medical facilities. We had pictures taken with “our” ambulance and conversation in formal meetings and over festival meals with lots of ice-cold vodka!

We had always known that the Russian Church had been largely silent and complicit in the days of Communist rule. But we had cut them some slack, knowing just how risky resistance and protest might have been and realizing that, sometimes, under such circumstances, the best Christians can do under oppression is to hunker down, go underground, and preserve the Faith until better days arrive.

That appeared to have been a successful strategy in the early days of their relative freedom. When we were there, the churches were full as were monasteries and theological seminaries. However, with the rise of Vladimir Putin, the dark underbelly of such cozy relations between church and state began to be made clear. It used to be an embarrassment to Russian Orthodox Christians that some of their bishops were actually members of the KGB. Today, that appears to be more and more accepted.

The all-but-dictator Putin has embraced the ultra-conservative moral posturing of his church and made life extremely difficult if not dangerous for the LGBT community in Russia and wherever their church makes its witness. “A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community, or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights.” (today’s Times article)

The Episcopal Church may well have served as the canary in the coal mine, had anyone been paying attention. Our embrace of women’s ordination and equal rights for gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church and world led to our “fall” from a most-favored-status in ecumenical relations with the Russian church to a pariah! I once witnessed one of their leading ecumenical voices, one Father Chaplin, on the floor of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches question whether or not the Episcopal Church could even be considered Christian anymore because of our decisions on these issues of human sexuality.

This kind of ignorance and bias is tragic enough when the field of play is within one faith community and involves their relationships one with another. When such intolerance becomes the official policy of a re-emerging world power, wrapping itself in the gorgeous vestments of its puppet-like state church, everyone has something not only to regret…but to fear.

2 Responses to “The Episcopal Church As Canary In The Coal Mine”

  1. Scott Elliott Says:

    I think your points are spot on, but I note with anxiety that canaries in coal mines don’t warn of the buildup of toxic gases by chirping, but by chirping and falling dead.

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