Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est: The Church, Reforms and Reformation: Theology and church history section held within the 7th International Congress of Belarusian Studies

Prominent scholars from Europe and America came together to take part in the traditional theology and church history section of the 7th International Congress of Belarusian Studies held in Warsaw, Poland, on September 15-17, 2017. As this year is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, the section’s agenda was framed to embrace the related agenda, starting with its title, Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est: The Church, Reforms and Reformation. The section received support from the Centre Ecumena  and the Belarusian Theologians’ Network outside Belarus. The financial aid came from Brot für die Welt EKD foundation. Coordination task was done by Natallia Vasilevich, Belarusian theologian and the Ecumena Centre director.

Участники богословской секции после заседания
The section participants during a break

We’ve had theological section during the Congress since 2012, and it’s been increasingly thematic. This year we deal with church reforms, approaches to change things, current problems, trying to roadmap our priorities. Real human life, real lives of church communities and of society – that’s the point where any theology ought to start at and come back to.

Natallia Vasilevich, The University of Bonn, Director of the Centre Ecumena

As specialists who spoke at the section worked in different areas of scholarship, their reports formed a multi-perspective view of the church as a part of a broader society that always needs some reform. Ability and willingness to reform itself is a sign of a living church that is always ready to listen to the calling of the Spirit. That calling may come through traditional instruments as the Scripture or church magisterium, but they also may be voiced by some less standard sources both inside and outside the church. In Belarus, which has always been a meeting place of many cultural and religious traditions, the idea of reformation is particularly momentous.

I was a part of the first section in 2012 and I’ve been skeptical about the idea since then. I didn’t actually plan to visit it this year. But I came and heard some interesting reports, and I liked that. As for me, that section was more interesting than some political science sections.

Piotr Rudkoūski, Catholic philosopher, Research Director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Research

The first day of the section’s work started with a report by the IMG_6162Belarusian theologian Anton Gelyasov, MA in Orthodox Theology, from the Greek-Orthodox Metropolis of France. He spoke about the problems of codification of the canon law of the Orthodox Church. According to Mr. Gelyasov, the church had expressed itself in many canons, which formed a discordant set. That state of affairs lead to much abuse as contradictive rules may be invoked in similar situations. Publishing of all existing canons in a single volume with thematic rubricating might be a right step towards a more practicable church law, he said, as in would help evaluate each canon’s judicial value and form right implementation strategies.

The call for clearer rules in the church was backed by Andrey Shishkov, senior fellow of SS. Cyril and Methodius Institute for Postgraduate Studies, Moscow, Russia. He spoke on Neopalamism as an Orthodox Reformation. Mr. Shishkov drew a parallel between the Protestant reformers who sought to bring the church back to sola Scriptura and some adherents of the Orthodox neo-patristic movement with their ideal of turning back to the Fathers. Neopalamism moved the crux of the religious life from moral imperatives and fulfillment of God’s commandments towards ascetic practices aimed and achieving theosis. According to Shishkov, Neopalamism causes religious individualism by taking authority from the hierarchy and giving it to startsi, informal non-hierarchical leaders, which also makes parallels with the Reformation. There were elements of political Palamism in the Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church published in 2000, he said.

The section was very fruitful. It was for many weeks after that I thought back to our discussions about the results of the past reforms and (im)possibilities for them today.

Andrey Shishkov, senior lecturer of SS. Cyril and Methodius Institute for Postgraduate Studies, Moscow

Iryna Balunenka, PhD in Art and Architecture Studies, senior research fellow from Center for Belarusian Culture, Language and Literature Research, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, presented the issue in terms of church architecture. Was it possible for the Orthodoxy to express itself in some architectural forms beyond the currently prevailing tradition, she asked. According the Dr. Balunenka, the most reliable alternative to the white-and-golden pattern might be found in wooden church architecture of Ukraine and North Russia.

Natallia Vasilevich, MA in Political Sciences, MA in Theology and PhD candidate from the University of Bonn and director of the Centre Ecumena, Belarus, spoke about the Holy and Great Council on the Church (2016) as an incomplete aggiornamento project. The Council was far from being the Orthodox church’s Vatican II, she said, but its main outcome was to highlight many problems of today’s Orthodoxy. In doing that the Council was much more success than many experts might think.

The issue of conciliar heritage of the Orthodox church continued in the report of the next speaker, Elena Beliakova, PhD in History, leading research fellow in the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Dr. Belyakova told the audience about Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church (1917–1918) as a failed attempt of church reform. According to popular misconception, the Russian Orthodox Church on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution was a stagnating body hardly able to produce some fresh vision. Dr. Beliakova questioned this view by showing many living needs and new ideas had been submitted to the 1917–1918 Council. According to her, it was the advent of Russia’s Communist regime, not the lack of reforming power within the church that made most of the Council’s propositions dead letter.

The audience

Fr. Alexender Shramko, Belarusian Orthodox Church, also representing the Ecumena Centre, share his vision on the possibilities and obstacles to reforms in the contemporary Orthodox Christianity. According to him, the main obstacle for reform was not somebody’s effort to prevent it. It was rather an extra wide range of sometimes mutually exclusive view on the church that coexist inside the church. And no one is capable to tell which view has more weight or authority to vector the church further on. Many people come to church with little understanding of its nature and those who are theologically informed are hardly heard. In this situation we shouldn’t place our hope on the hierarchs but rather work to form a church parallel of civil society.

The second day of the section was inaugurated by Anastacia Wooden, the American-Belarusian theologian and teaching fellow from the Catholic University of America. She continued the theme of conciliarity as a vehicle for church reforms. Ms. Wooden shared her view of Vatican II and its many reforms and told the audience about some of its reforms, which may inform a wider Christian context. According to her, the Vatican II reforms were based on faithfulness to church tradition. Yet in order to stay faithful, the church may and should lead some change in its life and worship. Ms. Wooden explained how this principle was implemented in liturgical change in order to offer laity a more active and concerned role in the liturgy that would accord the Eucharistic nature of the church.

In our section’s work I was astonished by high scientific level of reports, but also by their mutual interconnectedness through the section’s main theme, possibilities for reform in the church. The reports dealt with many churches’ experience of reform from that viewpoint of various scholarly areas, as history theology, arts, etc. I’m sure my coming from over the ocean fully met all my expectations. I look forward to the next year meeting to have even more fruitful communication of ideas with my collegues.

Anastacia Wooden, Catholic University of America

Her many ideas echoed in the paper presented by the research fellow of the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Raisa Zianiuk, PhD in History. Dr. Zianiuk read out to the audience a number of recently declassified reports of the Soviet Belarus’ KGB officers who worked to collect information about how the Vatican II decrees were to be implemented by the Roman Catholic Church in Soviet dominions. The document she presented revealed an amusing incompetence of the Soviet secret police, which could be disastrous if one keeps in mind the ill-controlled punitive power they possessed.

Dr. Elena Beliakova, Dr. Raisa Zianiuk, Natallia Vasilevich, Anastacia Wooden, Natallia Harkovich

Vasily Chernov, PhD in Theology, editor-in-chief of Nikolin Den Publishers, Moscow, Russia, gave a presentation, in which he expressed how the liturgical issue impacted and fostered wider changes in the Church of England during the 20th century. According to Dr. Chernov, the Church of England as a “typical” established church, proved that reforms of the church’s liturgy or other ways of self-expression were only possible in the context of broader changes aiming to make the church a free and interdependent body able to hear voices of all of its members.

Another local example of how reforms might occur was set by Mykola Krokosh, D.Theol., translator, theologian and analyst from the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. In his paper he shared the story of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (1921–1930) as an example of a reform effort made by an Orthodox church, which found itself in complicated relations with the rest of the Eastern Orthodox communion. Though the reforms in that context were driven by the idea of a Ukrainian autocephaly, they couldn’t avoid facing a need for an Orthodox Aggiornamento.

Kateryna Lytvyn, PhD in History, teacher of Chernihiv Regional Pedagogical Lyceum for Rural Gifted Youth of Chernihiv Regional Council spoke on the issue of cultural heritage preservation by the clergy of Chernihiv and Minsk dioceses (late 19th – early 20th centuries). Her interactive presentation was very instrumental to see how the religious artifacts reflected formation of Ukrainian and Belarusian identity on the grassroot level.

Natallia Harkovich, MA in Humanities, from the Ecumena Centre, Belarus, told the audience about Stephen Zizanius, a 17th century East Slavic Orthodox writer. Zizanius had long been accused of being a Protestant sympathizer, almost a Non-Trinitarian. Harkovich presented an almost unknown letter from Patriarch Meletius Pigas to Zizanius (1599), in which Zizanius’ work and theological views receive approval from the church leaders. The letter was a mark of close relations between the Orthodox in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the ancient Orthodox Patriarchates. Also, the letter was another prove that Zizanius’s heretical repute among the Moscow Orthodox authorities is based on misinterpretation of his ideas and non-theological factors and not on his lack of orthodoxy.

The section’s full schedule and themes are here (pdf).

All papers are going to be published in the first issue of the Belarusian theology journal Zbožžа.


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