By Paul Goble
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.