Churches shuffle lines of force

Eesti Apostlik-Õigeusu Kiriku metropoliit Stefanus (esiplaanil paremal) allkirjastas tänavu suvel Kreetal toimunud suurkogul Eesti jaoks olulise otsuse – ühes riigis ei saa olla kahte õigeusu kirikut olla.


The clergy is humming as Estonia's two orthodox churches – Russian and Estonian – could be looking at a merger. Metropolitan Stefanus of the Orthodox Church of Estonia has made it his mission to turn Estonia into the first country to merge its orthodox churches.

The effect of such a development would be nothing short of an earthquake among local churches. The change is estimated to affect 200,000 members of the orthodox churches. Two different churches would not only merge their assets but also leadership.

The situation is sharp for several reasons. Even though the Estonian Orthodox Church (EAÕK), operating under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (MPEÕK) serve the same God, the relationship between the two churches has been left sour over the years.

Heads of the two autonomous churches – metropolitans Stefanus and Kornelius – have not conversed for years. Attempts to meet have ended in the metropolitans refusing to acknowledge each other to the bafflement of bystanders. The financial situation of the churches is also different. While the Estonian Orthodox Church is barely making ends meet, its ten times bigger counterpart is collecting hefty donations from members and building new churches.

The until recently utopian merger plan nevertheless took a turn for the realistic in the middle of June this year.

It was when the global Orthodox Council, meeting on the island of Crete, approved a document that, among other things, finds it is unethical and contrary to church rules for two orthodox churches to operate in the same country.

That is currently the situation for example in Estonia, Moldova, and Ukraine. All three countries should now put down a road map for merging the churches to maintain the unity of the global orthodox diaspora.

Stefanus to head new church

The document was signed on Estonia's part by EAÕK Metropolitan Stefanus. The 76-year-old metropolitan of the church's 27,000 members is rumored to be among the closest advisers to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew.

The latter fact is noteworthy because the merger will have to be approved by Bartholomew and his Moscow counterpart Patriarch Kirill. The keys to the merger lie in Constantinople and Moscow.

Metropolitan Stefanus told Postimees that he has begun preparations for the merger, but added it will be a long process. Stefanus is prepared to become the metropolitan of the joined church.

«Yes, I am ready. I have a plan that respects the two languages of the two communities equally. It is a very humane plan; we must not sever Russian roots and culture. Everyone deserves equal respect,» Stefanus said.

The metropolitan's vision would have MPEÕK and EAÕK initially merge into a single autonomous Estonian orthodox church under the protection of the patriarch of Constantinople.

This would require Patriarch Kirill to recognize the superiority of Patriarch Bartholomew in the clerical hierarchy and relinquish control of MPEÕK to Constantinople. The ultimate goal is to unite local orthodox believers.

«The church must unite people, not separate them. We need to turn over a new leaf. We need to give the Russian community the opportunity to integrate in full because they want to be the same kind of active citizens. That must be the task of the orthodox church,» Stefanus explained.

«Russian youths are ready – the new generation wants to come to the church for spiritual ceremonies, they are tired of political messages and church involvement in politics.»

Stefanus could not say whether the church in Estonia could ever become fully independent or autocephalous and have its own patriarch.

The metropolitan said that EAÕK's holy synod has agreed to the merger. Other members of the synod, Bishop of Tartu Elijah and Bishop of Pärnu and Saare Alexander, would see MPEÕK Bishop of Narva and Peipsiveere Lazarus join the synod of the merged church. Information available to Postimees suggests the leadership of the new church might also come to include MPEÕK's Tallinn bishop.

The corresponding merger plan has not been presented to Constantinople yet.

Game played over the heads of metropolitans

Stefanus said that the next step after the Crete council meeting would be for Patriarch Bartholomew to make a proposal to Kirill to align the situation in Estonia with church rules.

«Constantinople has launched the discussion and wants Moscow to come along and accept the decision – the church must be united in Estonia. If Moscow respects the decision, we have a solution,» the EAÕK metropolitan said.

Stefanus said he does not know the opinion of MPEÕK Metropolitan Kornelius as the clergy of the two churches virtually do not communicate.

He added, however, that it will be impossible for the Moscow patriarch to ignore a decision coming from so high up. «Russia must accept the decision made in Crete and respect the orthodox church's ecclesiology (theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church – ed). Our churches cannot continue as such.»

Stefanus said it remains unclear when the patriarchs will be able to solve the question of the two churches in Estonia.

The decision caused a split

Information available to Postimees suggests Stefanus' situation is far from uncomplicated, however, as attempts to merge the two churches have split the secular and religious leadership of EAÕK.

In-house opponents say that a unified orthodox church could lead to autocephaly in which case recent relatively democratic management organs like the church council could be taken over and the church government replaced with a synod of lifetime bishops.

That could in turn lead to the vertical of power leaning towards Moscow instead of Constantinople as a large part of the new church's members would be former MPEÕK clergymen. The majority of donations come from wealthy businessmen on Moscow's wing.

Should the united church continue to use money from Russian funds to erect new houses of God, as was done regarding the Lasnamäe Orthodox Church, sooner or later the temptation to move the entire church back under the Moscow Patriarchy could develop.

«Russia is not interested in the liturgical network; it is interested in setting up an FSB network in Estonia,» said one member of EAÕK who asked to remain anonymous.

While the scenario is hypothetical, fear of its realization is serious. Information available to Postimees suggests Metropolitan Stefanus has has warned both Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas and Minister of Internal Affairs Hanno Pevkur that if EAÕK's financial situation does not improve, he might be forced to launch merger talks with MPEÕK.

Stefanus told Postimees that people's concern and reservations are understandable, and that the plenary assembly of the church is an Estonian tradition he does not plan to abolish.

The fear that MPEÕK will simply swallow tiny EAÕK has been in the air for decades, Stefanus said. It has not happened so far. «Of our members, 40 percent are Russian, and we are living in harmony. Why would the merger constitute problems?» Stefanus asked.

Who would control the direction and aims of financial support for the new church?

«If a country wants to financially support a church, it will have to talk to the head of that church who can then decline,” the EAÕK metropolitan said. “It is a burden of great responsibility; however, I must accept in the name of God, my people, society, and peace.»

Moscow's position still rigid

Member of the Riigikogu Orthodox group Priit Sibul (IRL) said he is keeping a worried eye on the merger discussion. Sibul finds that the churches need to remain separate as the level of connectedness between the Russian orthodox church and state power remains unclear.

«I would like the two churches to be sufficiently removed from each other, which is best ensured by the situation today,» Sibul said.

Experts told Postimees that chances Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Metropolitan Kornelius would be willing to merge the churches in Estonia are minute.

The Patriarchy of Moscow that has 150 million orthodox followers has repeatedly described itself as the new religious center of the world or a so-called third Rome, in which light Moscow is probably not inclined to accept even should Patriarch Bartholomew make a corresponding request.

Allowing the exception in Estonia would mean letting go of far larger and more important orthodox churches such as the one in Ukraine that applied to join the Patriarchy of Kiev this summer.

Another sign is that Kirill was one of four patriarchs who did not attend the signing of the document in Crete in June.

Postimees was unable to get a comment on the potential merger from Metropolitan Kornelius of MPEÕK.