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by Michael Gallo
With nationalism on the rise in Russia, those who seek reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church face strong opposition from both the Church and groups outside the Church, including death threats from ultranationalist groups. Such was experienced by Fr. George Kochetkov, who earlier this year was removed by the patriarch of Moscow from his post as pastor of a large, successful Moscow parish, known as the “Meeting of the Ikon of the Vladimir Theotokos.” Although Fr. Kochetkov’s situation is now partially resolved because he has been given permission to continue his ministry in another building, his story and that of his parish illustrate the tensions between conservative and progressive elements within the Church and tensions with the Russian nationalist movement.
Fr. Kochetkov began an illegal ministry as a lay catechist in the days before perestroika, reaching thousands of unchurched Russians with the light of the gospel. Out of this he founded an institute now known as the Moscow Higher Orthodox School, which serves 1,000 to 1,500 students and offers instruction from Christian basics to university-level courses. Fr. Kochetkov also founded a fellowship of Christians who lead a common life and help in the work of the institute. In addition to the fellowship, and the institute, a parish was formed, and all three ministries made use of a centuries-old monastic facility that had formerly been confiscated by the Soviet government for secular purposes. The Moscow patriarchate gave its approval to the establishment of Fr. Kochetkov’s work.
With the verbal approval of his bishop, Fr. Kochetkov began to employ some liturgical reforms at his parish, a congregation of 1,000, primarily new converts to the faith. The reforms, none of which would be considered even daring in the West, included reading the Eucharistic prayers aloud, translating parts of the liturgy into vernacular Russian, and using a modern Russian translation of the Scriptures. In most Russian churches, the entire liturgy is spoken in Church Slavonic, a language about one third of which is the same as Russian, one third different but similar to, and the rest entirely different from Russian. Fr. Kochetkov changed some of the most difficult Slavonic phrases spoken by the priest, but he left all the congregational responses in Slavonic since the people were used to singing them along with the choir.
For 2 years the parish continued without disturbance, until last January when Fr. Kochetkov received a letter from the patriarch ordering him to leave the parish by March 1. The exact reasons for his dismissal are not publicly available, but what is certain is that Fr. Kochetkov’s ministry was fiercely opposed by conservative elements in the Russian Church. This was evident when 17 Moscow area priests issued a joint letter accusing Fr. Kochetkov of being under foreign influence and denouncing him as a threat to Russia.
Tensions began to build in February when the conservative monk-priest who was assigned to replace Fr. Kochetkov at the parish beginning March 1, showed up 2 weeks early. This new priest openly criticized the people and their former pastor and dropped all of the liturgical revisions that had been instituted by Fr. Kochetkov. In addition, responding to a call from a nationalist radio broadcast, paramilitaries and others surrounded the church to intimidate the parishioners. Around this time, Fr. Kochetkov received serious death threats. Before the end of the month, he decided to leave the city to allow the situation to die down.
Why such strong opposition to a seemingly successful priest? Fr. Lysack, an advisor on Eastern Europe for the pan-Orthodox Mission Board, said that all this attention is especially ironic since the 43-year-old priest is far from being a fiery rabble rouser. “He is gentle and quiet,” notes Lysack, “and because of a severe diabetic condition, is quite weakened . . . he can barely make it through a liturgical service.”
According to Lysack, it is perhaps the accusation of “being under foreign influence” that Fr. Kochetkov’s enemies were most upset by. He had, in fact, been traveling frequently to Western countries, including France, where he received a master’s degree from the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. Some of the friends and contacts he made abroad, which included Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians, later visited him and his parish in Moscow. In addition, he used some non-Orthodox sources, such as C. S. Lewis, in his teaching.
Relocating to a new building, where virtually all of the original parish members eventually rejoined him, Fr. Kochetkov has obeyed orders to use only Church Slavonic in liturgical services. With the permission of the patriarch, they have reclaimed an old church that had been converted into a naval museum by the Soviet government, which when all the exhibits were removed turned out to be slightly larger than their former church! Ironically, the new facility is only 100 yards away from their former church.
Considering that the Ukrainian Orthodox have used modern Ukrainian for years, and the Serbian Orthodox have been using a mixture of Serbian and Slavonic in their liturgies, one may question why the Russian hierarchy is so opposed to even a moderate use of Russian. Fr. Lysack noted that other Moscow-area parishes have also recently received orders to discontinue using modern Russian translations of the Scriptures, even though an approved modern Russian Bible has been widely available for over a century.
It would seem that there is some connection between the conservative faction of the Orthodox Church and the Russian nationalist groups—such as the paramilitaries that intimidated Fr. Kochetkov’s parish. Fr. Lysack suggested that certain reforms, however sound, may be stigmatized by their association with the Communist Party. Just after the Revolution of 1917, a renewal movement known as the Living Church grew up which advocated among other things the use of Russian in church worship. The Communist Party used the movement, however, in an attempt to break the Church. Consequently, anything associated with the Living Church movement is anathema to the current nationalist movement which has thrown off the Communist yoke.
Recently, Fr. Kochetkov and his parishioners were visited by Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Church in America, who concelebrated with Fr. Kochetkov at their new facility. This show of support from an outside Orthodox hierarch did much to encourage this parish, which has felt wounded by its experiences this year. Metropolitan Theodosius encouraged the parish to remain in contact with the Moscow patriarchate and to foster reconciliation. Another foreign hierarch, Metropolitan Anthony of the United Kingdom, has publicly expressed his disapproval of the treatment of Fr. Kochetkov.