By Paul Goble
Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov), long identified as Vladimir Putin’s spiritual advisor and noted for his numerous outspoken comments on a wide range of subjects (portal-credo.ru/site/?act=topic&id=902), has been appointed to head the metropolitanate of Pskv and Porkhovsky by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.
He will presumably be elevated to the rank of metropolitan, thus putting him in a position to play a far greater role in church affairs than hitherto — he has had the relatively minor role of head of the Patriarcahte’s council on culture, a position he supposedly will retain – and puts him in a position to run for the position of patriarch once Kirill passes from the scene.
That possibility has been the subject of almost all commentary on the bishop’s elevation (e.g., kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5AFA8C21760A2, svoboda.org/a/29226589.html, forum-msk.org/material/news/14638502.html, bbc.com/russian/news-44089827, ruskline.ru/news_rl/2018/05/14/v_etih_pomeweniyah_reshalas_sudba_russkoj_pravoslavnoj_cerkvi1/, diak-kuraev.livejournal.com/2026704.html and sobkorr.ru/news/5AFA8C21760A2.html).
And it is certainly not impossible or even improbable. If Tikhon eventually becomes patriarch, he could be expected to put his and thus Putin’s mark on the church. But such a further elevation is some time in the future. The more interesting question is what does Tikhon’s latest rise say about relations between the Kremlin and the Patriarchate and Patriarch Kirill.
First and most obvious, it shows that Putin already has effective control of the church hierarchy. Kirill has often gone off the reservation as far as the Kremlin is concerned, on issues having to do with Ukraine and Abkhazia, for example. But Tikhon was elevated by the hierarchs, a signal to Kirill that he doesn’t control the church as much as he may think.
Second, it gives Putin yet another lever to ensure that the Patriarchate and the Patriarch do what the Kremlin wants, especially as issues surrounding autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodoxy highlight the weakness of Moscow within the Orthodox world. Kirill now knows there is someone the Kremlin would be only too happy to see replace him.
And third, Tikhon’s elevation likely puts the Orthodox Church on track to support an even more traditional caesaro-papist traditionalism than even Kirill has been willing to champion. The stronger Tikhon becomes, the more the Orthodox church can be counted on to promote the Russian regime’s portion of archaic and obscurantist anti-Westernism.
Those three things, even more than the distant possibility that Tikhon will one day be patriarch, are the most important consequences of his elevation this week