Is Russia Entering An Era Of Modular Christianity?

In order to radically expand the number of Russian Orthodox churches and  to ensure that urban Russians will have a church to go to within  walking distance, the Moscow Patriarchate has launched a program to  build modular churches first in Moscow and hten elsewhere.

But while such prefab churches will allow the Russian Orthodox Church  to expand its physical presence, many Russians are concerned that these  new buildings will compromise the architectural landscape, and others  are convinced that having more churches is no guarantee that there will  be more Christians.

Patriarch Kirill earlier had reached an agreement with former Moscow  Mayor Yury Luzhkov to provide 200 plots of land on which the church  could erect these pre-fabricated churches, and last week the hierarch  appears to have made progress in ensuring that Luzhkov’s successor,  Sergey Sobyanin, will follow through  (www.vremya.ru/2010/208/51/264947.html).

The Moscow Patriarchate currently has 790 churches and chapels in the  Russian capital, although roughly half of them are located inside one or  another institution and thus are not readily accessible to most  Muscovites.  The Patriarchate has insisted it needs almost 600 more to  ensure that every resident can walk to an Orthodox church.

Although the major bottleneck in the city of Moscow to the construction  of new churches is the availability of plots of land on which they can  be constructed, another serious roadblock is the cost of Orthodox  churches, which typically cost far more than do the religious facilities  used by Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and others.

That price differential is not only because the Orthodox Church has  very specific requirements that other faiths do not impose, but also  because the Church and its adherents take great pride in the beauty and  unique character of their church buildings.  And the Patriarchate has  often pointed to these costs as a reason other faiths have build more  religious sites recently.

To overcome those problems, the Patriarchate has come up with the idea  of modular churches, prefabricated, one-size-fits-all religious  facilities that can be thrown up rapidly.  If this program works in  Moscow, it is likely that the church hierarchy will extend it to other  parts of the country.

That will increase the profile of the Church but only at the cost of  standardization, something that the Moscow Patriarchate has  traditionally been opposed.  But it will have other consequences as  well: such rapid church building will certainly cause the leaders of  other faiths, especially Muslims, to step up their demands for equal  treatment.

And this kind of religious construction boom, one intended to ensure  that buildings go up rather than Christianity be promoted, will raise  still more questions about what the Moscow Patriarchate is really about,  a religious organization or a business and political structure  interested more in wealth and influence than in Christianity.

In an interview with the Portal-credo.ru religious affairs portal,  Valeriya Novodvorskaya, the leader of the Democratic Union Party, said  that the expansion in the number of churches provides no guarantee that  there will be a growth in the number of Christian believers – indeed, it  may have the opposite effect  (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=news&id=80856).

Indeed, she said, the church’s current building plans recalled the way  in which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union behaved before 1991: It  constantly build more obkoms and gorkoms but “as things turned out,  happily, there were many fewer” communists than this number of  committees might have suggested.

In Moscow at present, there are “more than enough” churches for the  number of believers. Indeed, if one visits any of them on all but the  most important church festivals, Novodvorskaya continued, they are  typically almost empty.  Until they are full, why should the church  build more?

And as for the argument that most Orthodox churches are in the center  of the city rather than in outlying districts where most residents  actually lived, the outspoken liberal critic said, “there aren’t enough  ‘sleeping’ regions in order to justify the construction of 200 [new  Orthodox] churches.”

She added that she was far more concerned by the absence of European  and Christian values in the Russian Federation than by the lack of  enough church buildings, and she suggested that both the Moscow  Patriarchate and ordinary Russians should want to see that change rather  than simply more into an era of modular Christianity.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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