July 8th, 2019


News from the field

I pick up on yesterday’s posting Βести с поле (News from the field) by protonko (https://protonko.livejournal.com/) about the church situation in a ‘typical’ Russian village. I spent 10 days there four years back, so let me add my bit:

The priest in question, now in his early fifties, came into the church in the post-1988 wave as a young man, ordained like many of his day without full-time seminary (not necessarily a disadvantage!). He plunged into the task, which in those days meant working one’s butt off getting church buildings and parishes in various stages of disrepair into working order again. Typically for that time, doing his duty and setting a good example by having had several children (5 I think).

A decent, honest man. Somewhere, I suspect, twenty years later, he ran out of steam, in the constant battles against bureaucracy (state and church), wheedling money out of people, with never enough to live comfortably, rebuilding a house owned by himself in the local town to have some sort of security. He’s a rough diamond of a character, not a ‘smoothie’, which means that he did not get one of the choice parishes in the local town, but always in the slightly outlying districts. I didn’t get the impression he had close friends to confide in.

About six years ago he gets sent to look after a string of parishes about 20 km out of the local town, which Protonko describes well.  This would have been enough to tax a man in perfect health and vigour. But with twenty-five years rough slog behind him, it is really more than he can handle. He quickly got himself a bad name with the men who counted in the village for not keeping appointments. Inevitably he falls ill, and the parish situation is near-collapsed.

Major church is a barn of a place, with three altars, already far too large when built in the late 19th century far too large. It passed through Soviet times from 1937 onwards, when the last priest was shot dead by the Bolsheviks outside the front door of the church, in relatively good condition. It is waterproof and wind-proof inside. In winter they shift into one aisle, which is more or less boarded off and more or less heatable. They are not doing the ongoing repairs (like weeding shrubs out of the roof) they should be doing. There is a parish house – the village library during Soviet times – but not the place any priest’s wife would want to raise a family in.

They kept me away from the Muslim part of the village complex. I ended up more with the pious datchniki, for whom having a pretty church in a tolerably pretty village is part of their ‘being ideal Orthodox’ picture. I still remember one of them telling me how one should not use contraception, but let things come as God lets them. From her own family situation (two kids?) I suspect she became pious well past menopause. The sort of people most village priests would secretly like to shoot.

It feels to me a ‘no way out’ situation, too typical of too many Russian villages, and their church communities.

Of course, there is no ‘no way out’ situation with God. But it would require a rethink that the present priest is now totally physically and mentally incapable of. The new bishop (they subdivided the big archbishopric recently, and there is now a mpew, young bishop in hgis early thirties, in the local town), theoretically is. He is energetic and no fool. But whether he wants to give the situation the amount of attention it needs, and to be radical enough I am not certain.