In Moscow next week, it’s all about Kirill

January 23, 2009

The Russian Orthodox Church election of a new patriarch next week is shaping up as a vote for or against Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.  Already the acting head of the Church since the death of Patriarch Alexiy II last month, Kirill is the clear frontrunner and the man who other churches — especially the Roman Catholic Church — would like to see take the top post. Those two factors, though, could work against him when the Council of Bishops and the Local Council — the two bodies that conduct the election — meet.

(Photo: Metropolitan Kirill, 6 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

Dmitry Solovyov in our Moscow bureau has provided a rundown of the leading candidates in the election, which begins with the meeting of the Council of Bishops on Jan. 25-26, and a rundown of the leading candidates. The bishops will propose three candidates, who will then be voted on by the Local Council of 711 representatives of clergy and laity during its Jan. 27-29 session. The new patriarch will be installed on Feb. 1.

This will be the first patriarchal election since the end of the Soviet Union (the last one was in 1990, a year before communism collapsed there) and since the spectacular revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. One effect very visible abroad was the higher profile the Church has taken in ecumenical exchanges. Less visible to those outside Russia are the different currents in the Church, such as nationalists, anti-westerners, critics of ecumenism and others, who oppose that new openness and activism. If they can close ranks, they could block Kirill’s ascension.

The vote will largely be for or against Kirill,” Antoine Nivière, editor of the Service orthodoxe de presse in Paris, told a meeting of religion journalists in the French capital this week. “If he cannot impose himself, a third man may emerge from among the older metropolitans with long experience.”

If Kirill is the candidate for a more modern and outward-looking Church, Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk is the conservative standard bearer. “Kliment is the candidate of the Russian state,” Jean-François Colossimo, a theologian at the Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, told the same meeting. “Kliment gives the impression of being conservative and dependable. Kliment represents continuity in the tradition of an Russian Orthodox Church subservient to the state.”

(Photo: Funeral of Patriarch Alexiy II in Moscow, 9 Dec 2008/Sergei Karpukhin)

Colossimo’s conclusion was clear: “This is a critical choice. If the choice is between Kirill and Kliment, it’s about meeting these challenges or hibernating.

“Kirill is aware of these challenges,” he added, turning to ecumenical questions. “It will be good news for Rome to have a patriarch who knows there is a whole world out there… Rome focuses on Moscow. It’s more than half of the Orthodox world. They think, if they don’t have Moscow, they only have bits and pieces. The rest of the Orthodox world has great people, such as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and vibrant churches like Romania. But none of them have the numbers or the resources of the Moscow Patriarchate. So this election is decisive for the Orthodox world and decisive for Orthodox relations with the West. The personality of the next patriarch, the margins of manoeuvre he has, the way he deals with Orthodox liturgy or relations with the diaspora, the links he can make with the outside world and the way he deals with questions of order within the Church will determine how the Orthodox world deals with Rome and with the Protestants. It will determine the place of the Orthodox in interreligious relations and in the globalised world.

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