This year’s Easter celebrations have revealed deep tensions in church-state relations throughout the world. On what Christians regard as the most holy of days, when worship momentarily lifts us above the cares of this world, earthly power struggles were also taking place. In Russia, Orthodox believers insisted on their right to attend church and receive the sacrament.
While 1-2 percent of the population attends church on a regular Sunday, the Pascha celebrations typically bring out ten times this number. The people’s central concern is to receive the Eucharist, the bread and wine that they regard as the very body and blood of Christ. For them, the sacrament is essential to their spiritual well-being and they commune as often as possible—especially during Lent. John Zizioulas is a prominent Orthodox theologian in Greece. When asked what churches should do during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “The Church without the holy Eucharist is no longer the Church.” He added that in Orthodoxy there is no such thing as a “private” liturgy; a community must gather in person.
In many parts of Europe and North America, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches nevertheless cancelled Easter services. In early March, Russian Orthodox leaders debated what to do about the Church’s upcoming Pascha celebrations. A working group of the Patriarchate negotiated with state officials. The government was prepared to allow priests to livestream or record services from their churches, but only if parishioners were not present. Patriarch Kirill succeeded in getting a better deal. On March 17, he announced that churches would remain open, but with strict hygienic measures in place. He instructed priests to continuously disinfect icons and the spoon used for serving the Eucharist.
Reactions on conservative Orthodox social media sites were overwhelmingly negative, with many claiming Kirill had capitulated to the government. On March 25, President Putin addressed the nation for the first time about the pandemic. That same day, a Moscow priest involved in the negotiations published a vigorous defense of the Church’s position, but debate only intensified. Some believers asserted that, according to Church teaching, the Eucharist is only life-giving and cannot transmit disease. Other believers said that they accepted the risk of disease, because as Christians they should always be ready to die for their faith, as had the Church’s martyrs during the years of Stalinist repression. Leading hierarchs and priests refuted these arguments, and many of the faithful agreed, even while continuing to press for access to their churches.
On March 26, the governor of St. Petersburg ordered the city’s churches to close. The metropolitan (regional bishop over several diocesan bishops) protested that this action violated the nation’s constitutional separation of church and state. He promised to take the city to court and ordered that his parishes remain open in defiance of the governor’s mandate. The governor had no immediate response.
The Patriarch quickly struck a more conciliatory note. In a sermon from Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral on March 29, Kirill called on believers to spend the remainder of Lent at home. Just as great ascetics had gone into isolation in the wilderness, people today could make their homes a “little desert” in which to pray and fast. That same day, state authorities announced strict limitations on citizen movement in Moscow and the surrounding oblast. People were ordered to remain home except to buy groceries or to walk their dogs within 100 meters of their apartment building. The city began working out a system of electronic passes for people who needed to get to jobs deemed “essential,” presumably (the Church hoped) including church personnel.
On April 2, Putin called for citizens to isolate themselves at home, although he stated that regional authorities would determine precise guidelines. Patriarch Kirill followed suit, allowing regional bishops to establish rules for their dioceses. Churches in Moscow and St. Petersburg were still open, but few people were attending services. In several cases, police officers had stopped church workers on their way to church and threatened them with fines because they did not have official passes. Church attendance in other parts of the country also fell. On April 5, the Church acknowledged the first infections of priests in Moscow and closed their parishes.
The next week, April 13–19, proved decisive, as believers observed the Passion of Christ. With infection rates soaring, bishops in Moscow and St. Petersburg finally complied with state authorities and closed all parishes to the public. Police appeared outside some churches to enforce the ban. A number of provincial governors, such as in the Nizhnenovogorod oblast, also ordered church closures. But in other provinces, bishops and governors worked together to keep churches open. Metropolitan Tikhon of the Pskov diocese, often regarded as a political rival to Patriarch Kirill, announced that services would take place out of doors, with worshippers strictly distanced from one another. In the Yaroslavl and Tver dioceses, worshippers were allowed into churches, but markings on the floor indicated where they were to station themselves.
The Belgorod diocese adopted yet a different position. The metropolitan asked believers to stay home but added qualifications: especially if one were 65 or older, or had already received communion during Lent. The metropolitan seemed to be discouraging people from coming to church while implying that they would not be turned away if they did. Most parishes remained open. In one church, seventy-five people received communion, a third of last year’s total.
In the Komi province, one of the areas hardest hit by the virus, the bishop initially defied the governor’s orders to close churches. Tensions were also high in the Urals. In early April, the governors of the Sredlovsk (Yekaterinburg) and Perm oblasts began pressuring for church closures. Nevertheless, the bishop of the Solikamsk diocese, within the Perm oblast, announced two days before Pascha that services in the seven churches and two monasteries of his diocese would take place.
Events took a different turn in the Sredlovsk oblast. On April 5, one of the bishops in the oblast preached a sermon in which he scolded parishioners for staying away. He agreed that people should act “reasonably” and take appropriate hygienic measures, but he noted that there were still very few cases of COVID-19 in his diocese. Besides, he declared, “For believers, there is no need to fear death.” Things came to a head on April 12. The governor ordered all churches in the oblast to close. The bishops refused. On April 15, however, the metropolitan and the governor reached an agreement. Rather than closing churches, they asked believers to stay home. Even then, some nevertheless attended Easter services. They wore masks, bowed, and declared “Christ is risen,” while church security guards enforced social distancing rules.
In the end, churches in 42 of Russia’s 85 regions remained officially open, and even in Moscow and St. Petersburg, people who were determined to commune on Easter could often find a parish that would serve them—and where police simply looked the other way. One parishioner said that she and others went to church but stood out of sight of the cameras streaming the service. At the St. Sergius-Holy Trinity Lavra in the Moscow oblast, Russia’s most renowned monastery, several dozen secret attendees were less careful. In Moscow, a journalist videotaped sixty people entering a prominent church near the Kremlin. The resulting media frenzy forced the Patriarchate to distance itself from parishes that had held Easter services for the “elect.”
Political observers often accuse the Russian Orthodox Church of unfailingly supporting Putin’s repressive regime. But developments around Pascha this year reveal a much more complex picture of church-state relations. The Church’s stance toward the state is not monolithic, and the Church does more than merely exercise a religious version of the president’s political authoritarianism. Regional differences are significant. Most important, the faithful play a key role in determining how bishops respond to government mandates. This year, many insisted on receiving the Eucharist. If that is foolishness, there is nevertheless something holy and right about it.
John P. Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.