Pussy Riot in Trouble

Early in the year the members of a feminist punk group, Pussy Riot, entered the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow where they ‘prayed’ to the Virgin for the end of the government of Vladimir Putin and uttered a number of profanities.  They have been detained in harsh conditions and charged with hooliganism. Their behaviour was certainly objectionable, and I believe those who have brought charges against them are acting without vindictiveness or self-righteousness. Nevertheless, it is possible to feel uneasy at these developments.

The proper relationship between church and state has been an issue since the time of the New Testament, in which St Paul appears more complaisant in the face of Roman authority than the author of the book of Revelation. But in the modern West, while the situation has worked itself out differently in Britain, France and the United States, a separation between the two is largely taken for granted. (It has sometimes seemed to me that there must be at least some very broad similarities between the national jurisdictions in Orthodoxy and the post-Reformation Churches of England and Scotland.) The situation in the East has been very different. From the time of Constantine, civil and ecclesiastical power in Byzantium operated together, in what Justinian called a ‘symphonia’, and this degree of closeness has sometimes existed elsewhere, as in Tsarist Russia. On the other hand, the Christian East is far more familiar than the West with living under non- or explicitly anti-Christian governments. Three of the five ancient patriarchates came under Islamic governance in the seventh century, and in the fifteenth this became true of a fourth, although given that by then the church of Rome was no longer walking with the others it might be better to say ‘the fourth’. The experiences of the Russian church during the twentieth century bring to mind Tertullian’s observation that blood is seed, and while Vladimir Lossky writes luminously of aspects of church life under the Soviets its harshness was something completely beyond the experience of the West. Hence, in terms of relations between the church and state, the West came to occupy a kind of via media, whereas in the East they have either been warmer or cooler.

The attack on the members of Pussy Riot reflects a world view in which Orthodoxy and the state are close, one doubtless more attractive after the recent historical experience of the Russian church. But this may be a position from which it is time to move on. And didn’t someone once say something about forgiveness?

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