Russian Orthodox social ministry embracing lay ethic

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is shifting from a model of social ministry that emphasizes obedience to church authority to a more modern kind of volunteerism stressing personal autonomy, according to an article by Boris Knorre in the journal Religion, State & Society (online February 13). Knorre studied ROC volunteer programs as well as official church documents on volunteering and found that an “authoritarian-mystical” model had in the past been dominant, where social ministry volunteering was viewed in a monastic framework and church members were instructed to engage in some charitable work as a form of spiritual discipline. This model had been coupled with a “band-aid” approach to social ministry focusing on people in poverty and other forms of social distress rather than encouraging preventative programs. As the ROC has become more aligned with the state after 2013, it has sought to take a broader approach, engaging in more comprehensive ministries to the homeless, poor, and unemployed. Special guidelines have been provided on housing assistance, psychiatric and spiritual support, and employment assistance.

But Knorre adds that there is still a lack of support for the implementation of these policies at the Church level. Most grants given by the ROC for social ministry are aimed at projects seeking to strengthen patriotism, with fewer designated to programs directed at the homeless and disabled. It is at the level of volunteering that Knorre sees the major change taking place. Rather than viewing volunteerism as a form of obligation and obedience to one’s priest rather than self-fulfillment, which is closely tied to the Orthodox tradition and monasticism, Knorre found that many volunteers and social ministry organizations are seeing their work as an act of choice and personal freedom. This shift in attitudes has partly come from Russian church organizations coming into greater contact with secular NGOs and foundations, but also with ecumenical and Catholic organizations such as Caritas and Sant’Egidio. This more open type of volunteer organization allows members freedom to choose their type of social ministry and the ability to reach a larger group of people as well as have dialogue with the media and experts in different fields. These volunteers represent a new type of Orthodox believer, more attached to their social ministry than to the parish and choosing their own beliefs and practices. “In the ROC’s attempt to develop a humanitarian-anthropological approach…, we can see a trend towards developing new ethical behavioral attitudes which correspond more closely to lay ethics than to monastic ethics,” Knorre concludes.

(Religion, State & Society: