world council of churches

New Religious Movements: An OrthodoxPerspective
Vladimir Fedorov

The subject of 'New Religious Movements' is hardly off the pages of Russian newspapers these days. It is discussed in the State Duma and among various voluntary organisations, and is a cause of concern to the Christian Church. Yet this issue is current not only in Russia, but also in Europe, America and Asia. The Orthodox Research Institute of Missiology, Ecumenism and New Religious Movements (PIMEN, affiliated to the Russian Christian Institute, St. Petersburg), has for several years already been studying the religious situation in St. Petersburg and the country at large. We undertake analysis of the results of sociological research and of public opinion, and study diverse documents and propositions concerning the attitude of society and the Church to this phenomenon.

Quite naturally, any researcher's point of view regarding certain manifestations of religious or parareligious activity, depends to a large extent on their own confessional standpoint. Religious and non-religious approaches differ. Therefore, no-one should be surprised at the existence of differing points of view, approaches and even practical recommendations within one confession or Church. Time will tell which positions are the more effective. However, regardless of their effectiveness, the admissibility of any methods used, in terms of correctness, objectivity and moral acceptability, needs to be discussed. In any case, it is important to stress that a scientific, objective nature is expected not just in the arguments and assertions of sociologists of religion, but in those of Church officers and researchers, be they pastors or social commentators. It is even more important for Church academics, for whom the basis of all they do consists in such values as striving for objectivity, moral irreproachability and a tone of Christian love and respect for holders of other beliefs.

The whole question of NRMs is extraordinarily topical for Eastern Europe as a whole, and in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. People in the former Soviet Union are constantly running into not only numerous analogues of western movements, but also the exotic products of the religious creativity of their own compatriots. All this is still more current, as religious problems in Russia have become part of the political agenda and part of mass culture. Lawyers, politicians, journalists and religious leaders, in striving to create new legal norms, conduct pointed discussions on religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Violent debates continue over amendments to the proposed new law on freedom of conscience. It is still not clear to society to what extent religion should be introduced into the curricula of state educational institutions. The subject of 'new religious movements' is important both in its own right, and as a factor in the more serious attitude being taken towards traditional religions and confessions.

The Religious Situation in Russia today
The idea of religion, the religious quest, and religious values already does not grate as hostile on the contemporary Russian consciousness as it did ten or fifteen years ago, when the dominant and normative communist ideology was resolutely atheistic. In the new Russian society, freedom of conscience was victorious. Those religious associations (Churches and communities) which had had the right to exist but were very restricted in their activities and missionary work, found additional opportunities. Movements and communities which had not existed in Russia before, as well as those which had gone underground, appeared openly, officially, and received equal rights to Russians traditional confessions. All this is perfectly natural for a new society committing itself to a democratic model of development.

The situation is seen differently by believers and by those who don't consider themselves such. The majority of believers in Russia are Orthodox. Just like representatives of other religions, they cannot but be happy at the removal of restrictions on the registration of communities and publishing religious literature. They can only welcome the freedom to preach and the opportunity to make use of the mass information media (an opportunity which, unfortunately, is largely theoretical, in as much as its realisation requires substantial finance). Yet at this very time a few (or perhaps many) Orthodox people are suggesting that today's state regime and socio-political atmosphere are very unfavorable to Orthodoxy. Romantic notions of the restoration of the monarchy are popping up. The opinion is becoming popular that Russia's former monarchy guaranteed the pious existence of Holy Russia, which was only shaken in 1917. Today the revival of Orthodoxy (for strictly speaking, Orthodoxy in Russia never died) is accompanied by the revival (both through the growth of communities which existed before and through the appearance of new denominations) of heterodoxy, and of different religions, religious movements and groups. Many link the growth in numbers of communities of such Christian denominations as Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist and others, and likewise of Muslims, Buddhists and so on, simply to political pluralism and the democratic values proclaimed by the new authorities. However, it is evident that the inner resources of each religion and Christian confession played a vital part, having the opportunity to bear fruit, given a suitable atmosphere of freedom.

The appearance of new religious and pseudo-religious movements is often interpreted as 'the pernicious influence of the West'. In our days, exotic eastern teachings have definitely gained in popularity, having arrived, as a rule, from the opposite side to the East. But it's also true that at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth centuries, theosophy, spiritism and different forms of yoga were already well known in Russia, and in Petersburg and Moscow even fashionable. Theosophical and occult literature was already being published in pre-revolutionary Russia.1 There were as many different sects (the Shtundisty, Dukhobory, Molokani, Khlysty (or Flagellants), our Russian Jehovah's Witnesses and many others) as there were persuasions in the Old Believers' schism! However painful it may be for an Orthodox person to recall that episode, such is the reality of life past and present-a socio-political reality which impels us to seek peaceful forms of co-existence, while fully allowing for an intensive polemic.

It is interesting that even in pre-revolutionary times we see a distinct tolerance and openness towards non-Christian religions, for instance, Islam and Buddhism. In St. Petersburg at the beginning of the twentieth century, the largest mosque in Europe was built, as well as a Buddhist temple. In April 1905, a resolution was passed on religious tolerance. Of course, the fact that the Orthodox Church was the state Church, and found itself under state control, created certain difficulties for it. When, on 12 December 1904, the government promised to bring in a law on religious tolerance, Antonio, Metropolitan of St.Petersburg, wrote a note to Emperor Nicholas II in which he pointed out that such a law would place the Orthodox Church in an unequal position. He wrote: 'The other religions will enjoy freedom; only the state Orthodox Church will remain squeezed under the petty-minded control of the state.' 2 Now the situation is altogether different. At least formally, outwardly, the Church is free. It has ceased to be the state Church, been delivered (we like to hope) from every form of control and pressure which was in place during the period of Communist dictatorship.

Today in Russia both Orthodoxy and any community which calls itself religious hold equal legal rights. This may yet prove groundless, but the democratisation of society's consciousness is already such that a return to the old ways seems unlikely. This does not mean that in society all Churches, confessions and religious groups have, or will have, equal authority, or be given the same weight in the public's mind. If Orthodoxy is really rooted in society, then citizens professing the faith will make known its position and purposefulness through the appropriate socio-political institutions (parties, parliament, public opinion, mass media and so on). Even if Orthodoxy were to be a religious minority in society, and so of no importance, society would not be able to conduct itself according to Christian values in their Orthodox understanding, or could not live in an Orthodox way. But the Orthodox way of life does not presuppose the assertion of Christian values by force. Moral authority, the examples of moral perfection of individual personalities, which make them models of piety, and the gospel character of service to one's neighbour and sacrifice, can play a much more meaningful role than "crutches" of laws guaranteeing conditions of maximum favourability.

New Religious Movements as a Factor of Social Anxiety
We shall not describe here the phenomenon of the sudden appearance of a multitude of religions, at least, calling themselves religious groups, or the speed of their spread. Let us just mention that in connection with their appearance, it was not the Churches who sounded the alarm, but the parents of children who found themselves drawn into the life of these groups. When children left their families, gave their savings and personal belongings to the community they had joined, when it became obvious that they had lost contact with friends and relations, lost the ability to dialogue, then parents began to turn to every possible level of state or social authority and, it goes without saying, to the Church and above all to the Orthodox Church. Although the families themselves were not religious, many parents brought claims against the Church, accusing it because of the absence of any active anti-sect work. Missionary activity was virtually banned under Soviet power. Today it is permitted, but legal freedom is not the only circumstance necessary for successful mission and Orthodox witness. Of course, Orthodoxy's inherent readiness to help people return to the way to Truth obliges us to enter into polemics with religious groups who are hostile to the Church, accusing it of flaws or errors (this is particularly characteristic of sectarian thinking),3 but concrete anti-sectarian initiatives began to take shape under pressure of public opinion.

Quite naturally, such tragic events as the mass suicides of sects (in Guyana and Switzerland) and criminal acts like those perpetrated in the Tokyo underground got society agitated and forced us to begin to take NRMs seriously. Of course, the culpability of one criminal group must not be transferred onto all the others just because they have some similar characteristics. But obviously, society is obliged to be attentive to the religious preaching and behavior of the adherents of this or that movement, if there is a danger of aberrant behavior. For a long time it seemed that reports about groups of Satanists were myths, or at least exaggerations. But although the nature of crimes is not disclosed, and the involvement of devotees of 'Satanism' with them is difficult to prove, reports about these groups are, alas, all too often being published.4

It is possible to disagree with the findings of individual experts, and dispute their objectivity, but it is a rare person who remains indifferent after a meeting with members of 'The White Brotherhood'. It is hard to remain at ease as you glance over walls and drain-pipes covered with pictures of Marina Tsvigun, who calls herself "Mary the Virgin Christ". There are occurrences and conduct which are not covered by the criminal code, but by their religious tastelessness, spiritual platitudes and inferiority of preaching are corrupting society. Like bad music, they are impossible to prohibit, but society needs examples worthy of imitation, and has begun to be interested in how the dubious can be discouraged. In the case of 'The White Brotherhood', it was perfectly clear what should be done, as its members incited mass unrest and evidence exists of provocation to suicide within the movement. Leaders of the organisation were arrested and after careful study of the evidence, a court set out adequately tough punitive measures.

The Problem of Terminology
There is no single strict and exact definition of 'new religious movements', as there is, however, for the terms sect and cult. Different schools and approaches follow their own definitions. In Russia, it is more common to speak of sects, while in the USA, they prefer the term cults for the same groups. There are groups over which the question arises: can they be called religious at all? So far as we are not concerned with mathematical models but with the reality of our lives, which do not always fit into a pleasing framework of formal systematisation, such terminological vagueness should not be a stumbling block. It is meaningful to call those movements both new and religious which appeared before the Second World War (for example, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Bahai faith and others). All such groups which emerged in the nineteenth century are new enough in comparison with the two thousand years of Christianity. Undoubtedly, it is impossible to consider them as some unified, integrated phenomenon, or further, to level charges brought against one of these groups against all the others, despite the existence of common characteristics among them.

In Russia the term 'sect' is in common usage, and Orthodox theological schools today teach 'sect studies'. The communities and tendencies which came out of the Protestant tradition were once naturally labeled as sects, presuming their principal characteristics to be separation from tradition, condemnation of it as erroneous and self-proclamation as the one true gospel. The term 'sectarian psychology' appeared in this context too. But today in the West, Baptists, for example, are not called a sect in any theological literature, but rather a 'free church'.

All such concepts as Church, confession, denomination, sect, cult, heresy, schism and so on, may be understood differently in different Churches and denominations, and in the non-religious sphere. But in our culture a certain common understanding has been formed. Unfortunately, we cannot permit ourselves a detailed discussion of the problems of terminology. But its necessity should be mentioned. An unfamiliar usage almost always produces hostility. An Orthodox has difficulty in agreeing to acknowledge the right of groups of very vague origin, not succeeding from the Apostles, to call themselves a Church. Orthodox ears are particularly sensitive to the use of this name, attuned as they are to a theological (New Testament) understanding of Church. For the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church to acknowledge an unknown religious group, or a known group that does not adhere to ancient Church Tradition, is impossible. Yet at the same time we do not have the right to prohibit the use of these words. We know that words have multiple meanings. The very word 'Church' may be used in the dogmatic sense as the Body of Christ, and in the canonical sense of the 'Local Church'; as meaning the building or the parish, or in the sense of "the home church" [domashnyaya tserkov', a Russian expression for the family]. All these facets of meaning may be found in the New Testament. We may also recall that the literal meaning of the Greek word ekklesia' (which in Russian is translated by the word tserkov',Church) is 'assembly', so we cannot forbid a group from calling itself a 'Church', even if it is far from Orthodoxy. And when the Orthodox author points out that using the title 'Church' for some group or another has a blasphemous ring, it's a psychological argument, not a dogmatic one. It is necessary to show which doctrine of this group is fundamentally different from the doctrine of the Christian Church. But here straightaway the question arises of narrow confessional and interconnection understandings of the problem of NRMs today.

The Orthodox and General Christian Understanding of the Problem of NRMs
The Orthodox approach to NRMs must take into account that the problem is not just one for the Orthodox Church, but equally for the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and other Christian confessions. It is no accident that in the West they have been concerned with the problem for some time. In the majority of Churches, every diocese has a priest (who is both a pastor and a theologian) who deals with the issue of NRMs both academically and practically. (What is more, as a rule, they have no other duties and can concentrate fully on the subject.) Theological faculties have Chairs in New Religious Movements, and the issue fills a huge number of articles, books and pamphlets. Such experience is extremely instructive and we must familiarise ourselves with it. There seems to be a genuine common Christian consensus regarding the majority of NRMs, which means there is an opportunity for co-operation. If we are to look at the question in greater detail, then interconnection co-operation is vital. When an Orthodox priest is trying to tell people who sympathize with some pseudo-Christian group what it is that makes it un-Christian, he frequently receives the reply, "For you Orthodox even Catholics and Protestants aren't Christians!" Of course, people who say this are not correct-they haven't studied comparative theology-but it is being acknowledged that such a perception is held by many. In this situation, only the combined answer of Orthodox, Catholics and Lutherans (at least, these are the three most widespread confessions in Russia) may perhaps be accepted as an authoritative, shared Christian response.

The experience of other countries in the area of legislation, and of other Churches in subduing the influence of such groups as 'Scientology' ('Church of Scientology', 'Dianetics Centre') is also vital for us (and the Orthodox are far from alone in being disturbed by the Scientologists). So it won't do to put the question, as do so many journalists: "Freedom of conscience for all-or just for the Orthodox?" The author of an article with this title asserts that 'Orthodoxy must not be the state religion, so we must secure fully equal status for all religious and pseudo-religious groups in society'.5 Firstly, the Russian Orthodox Church is not seeking to become the state Church, and His Holiness Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, has pronounced officially and with complete clarity on the subject.6 Secondly, in the Federal Republic of Germany for example, it is not so much the Church as the state which is more worried about Scientology. It is maintaining a harsh position, refusing to acknowledge it as a religion, and thus considers it expedient not to permit Scientologists posts within the organs of administration, as directors of banks and the like. Such a position has already evoked protests from many citizens of the USA, and in our view, accusations arose in Germany completely without basis in what seemed like a return to the totalitarianism of the Nazi period.7

Because many NRMs are widespread in the US, and organizers of similar groups in Russia came from there, it is considered that they are all the fruit of the americanisation of Europe. But let us remember that the first anti-sect and cult books to appear in Russia also came from the USA,8 and were advertised and read on St. Petersburg Radio Teos not by Orthodox, but by evangelicals.

Experience of interconnection co-operation already exists, and of course it is positive. There is the INFORM Centre (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements), in the U.K., the Dialog Center in Aarhus, Denmark, and centers in Oxford and Berlin. All these are open to interconnection,co-operation and support it in every way. Just as one can't imagine any area of knowledge being restricted to one confession (e.g. Orthodox mathematics!), neither can one assert Christian values in today's world by setting oneself up as the tradition, the confession, the Church against all other Christian Churches, following a sectarian mentality of uniqueness and sightlessness.9 The opportunity for exchange of information on NRMs (provided by current means of electronic communication such as the Internet) is important but it is not the only worthwhile aspect of this co-operation. It would be strange if the Orthodox alone could solve a problem which troubles the whole world. That is not just ineffective, it is not the Christian way.

Unfortunately, there is another position taken within Orthodoxy. The director of the Holy Martyr Irenei Lionsky Information Analysis Center in Moscow, Alexander L. Dvorkin, reflecting on this subject, recalls the counsel of the dying emperor Alexander III to his successor Nicholas II: 'Russia has no allies. Or she has only two: her army and her fleet.'10 It is strange to make this association in the context of the debate on NRMs, although several contemporary Orthodox 'missionaries' are hoping for a great deal from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It is interesting that the Irenei Lionsky Centre depends on just such co-operation with heterodoxy, in the form of articles and books published in the West, in order to maintain its activity. In particular, this Centre translated and published a book on the Moonies by Thomas Gandau, a Lutheran pastor from Berlin.11

It is important to know that the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church considers that co-operation in the area of subduing the influence of NRMs is both possible and necessary, even with those Churches with whom we have real difficulties in theological dialogue.12

NRMs and Freedom of Conscience
Today new religious movements have proved to be the prime motivation for serious reflection and debate on religious freedom and over guarantees of securing freedom of conscience. The missionary task of the Church is plain and obvious, as is the apologetical verve of its representatives, both clergy and lay, in the discussion of this subject with people who have nothing to do with the Church. But this does not mean that the Orthodox Church in Russia should accomplish its missionary task by relying on the power structures of the state or enthusiasts using ways and means that are improper and unacceptable to a democratic society.

Surveying the current legal situation in Russia regarding religion, I would like to stress that proclaiming freedom of conscience is extremely important, but no less so is the need to secure the realisation of this freedom. Although, carrying seventy years of repression of freedom on our shoulders, we are, alas, still far off its full implementation. So, for example, it is worth noting that Article 8 of the Freedom of Religious Confession Act of 25 October 1990 says: 'Voluntary social organisations, formed for the mutual study and dissemination of atheistic convictions are separate from the state. The state will not give them assistance of a material or ideological nature and will not entrust to them the fulfilment of any state functions'. One can say that this law is observed but the role of atheists in society is still very significant. Several Departments of Atheism at Higher Educational establishments have changed their names but still teach exactly the same.

The particular problem today is the legal status of non-Orthodox Churches, religious communities, groups and movements. According to Article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation (ratified on 12 December 1993), 'every person is guaranteed freedom of conscience, freedom of confession, including the right to confess any religion, individually or together with others, or to confess none, to freely choose, hold and propagate religious or other convictions and to act in accordance with them'. Yet prolonged discussions went on in the Duma, in several political parties, and in Church circles and those close to them, about the need to formulate a law on 'Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations'-which recently had its first reading in the Duma-in order to restrict the activity of numerous sects and cults which are consolidating their position in Russia today. It is proposed that this will be done by the division of religious groups into 'traditional' and 'non-traditional'.13

However, at times, representatives of the authorities, journalists, and many Orthodox authors do not distinguish between the heterodox Churches with whom the Russian Orthodox Church is in dialogue and brotherly relationship, and other denominations (churches, sects or cults). Some priests presume to call even the Anglican Church a sect. In such a situation, we should approach with the utmost caution formulations of legislation, the establishment of formal criteria, the organisation of the appropriate controlling channels and bureaucratic appointments to key posts. Often such posts are held by people remote from the issues in question. But unfortunately, those closer to them may not be objective, whether they are atheists or representatives of recognised confessions. The lack of clear criteria produces inevitable arbitrariness, and there seems to be no opportunity to properly work out strict and exact criteria.

It is instructive to turn our attention to the fact that, when on 12 February 1997 St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly passed, in its entirety and more than a year after it made its first appearance, a bill on the 'Accreditation of Organisations and Citizens carrying out Missionary Activity in St. Petersburg',14 the Governor rejected it as unconstitutional.15 According to the text of the bill, all organisations and persons intending to carry out missionary activity in the city, would have been required to be accredited by the secretariat of the St. Petersburg administration. In order to decide whose faith teaching was safe for those around them, there was to have been a consultative expert body, including representatives of religious and voluntary organisations, and of state authorities, specialists in the field of freedom of conscience and religion, lawyers and medics. It was intended to issue the accreditation for a period of one year. For an extension it would have been necessary to submit another application.16

It is hard to predict how this decree would have been implemented. Of whom and how would the expert body have been constituted? Would they have paid equal attention or inattention when examining the activity of the Franciscan missionaries and some Far-Eastern meditation group, founded upon a revelation received by their leader during a trance? But in any case, how strange, and even dangerous it would be to introduce into a law criteria requiring theological, ecclesiastical understanding, criteria which are supposed to guide bureaucrats who are a long way off such understanding. There is a definite tendency in certain circles towards creating some sort of State Committee for Spiritual Security that would decide what was spiritually beneficial to the Russian citizen and what was not.

NRMs, 'traditional religions' and 'totalitarian sects'
Such new concepts as 'traditional religions' and 'totalitarian sects' deserve particular attention. As far as 'traditional religions' are concerned, the very term requires detailed discussion. During the debate over the new Freedom of Conscience law, numerous proposals were made to include a definition of 'traditional religions'. In reality it is impossible to define the term sufficiently clearly for legal purposes. Where would the chronological boundaries lie? A thousand years ago, or a hundred? As has already been mentioned, theosophy existed in Russia a hundred years ago. But at the same time the state could not fail to see the differences, could not treat in exactly the same way the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Churches, Islam and other faiths on the one hand, and such NRMs as 'The White Brotherhood' and Satanism on the other. It would be appropriate to note that the word 'tradition' is in principle not only important for Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Even in ancient Rome the pagan authorities treated foreign, but traditional, cults with respect.

There is one more important aspect of the concept of 'tradition'-the influence of national culture on religious life and on the development of traditions, and the influence of religion on culture. Traditional religion has always been firmly implanted in the culture. Even when there was no open preaching it was not alien to the people, and at times culture plays a significant missionary role. This situation is not set in law, but such is the way in which culture bears influence. It is not a constitutional norm but a nourishing environment, shaping our values. Where there is a cultural deficit, surrogates may be adopted in new forms of exotic eastern meditative practices with a western face, in aspects of popular culture, and in rectilinear (and thus attractive) preaching of moral heroism and purity in the sentimental setting of primitive ditties or exalted charismaticism (over excitement) against a background of dull reality. Today all this has the full legal right to exist, but that does not mean that society has the right to forget its own culture. More and more, people are not finding spiritual food readily available and are consuming the "spirituality" of new initiatives which offer peace and fulfilment in life, just like the numerous healers and magicians who promise to solve all problems and to cure all illnesses, even via photographs. It is quite clear that this situation needs study, analysis and conclusions drawing, according to the requirements of the Churches, society and specific interested organisations.

As for the concept of 'totalitarian sects', it is neither scientific nor theological. The concept of 'totalitarianism' is perfectly well understood and doesn't need particular clarification. But to discern in religious associations the extent to which an element of totalitarianism is being cultivated is very difficult. It is not chance that those who are opposed to doing this point to elements of totalitarianism in the Church life of various confessions, particularly Orthodoxy. And the practice of monasticism, where devotion to God requires obedience to the appropriate Church authority, and the principles of obedience and humility-which are important even for the laity-appear to be grounds for similar reproaches.

On the other hand, if society is on the path of democratic development, it would be strange for it to support anti-democratic structures. Undoubtedly, many sects, cults, movements and groups may be caught cultivating anti-democratic principles. But unfortunately, the interest in a monarchic state system awoken in many Orthodox does not serve the cause of creating a democratic society. Therefore, to construct an Orthodox polemic with representatives of NRMs, words must be chosen with competence and care, so as not to project onto others our own inadequacies and problems. Apart from that, in seeking to subdue the influence of NRMs, the Orthodox must in no way rely on anti-democratic methods, or take on the sort already well known to us from our totalitarian Soviet past, supported by the authorities and powerful structures. That would be obvious totalitarian recidivism.

Dangerous Tendencies in Anti-Sectarian Activity
In Russia today, as everywhere, in the sphere of study of new religious movements everything is sharply polarised. Secular religious studies has taken on the duty of "defending democratic values". It affirms and supports the rights of any and all new religious formations. As for the Church, someone who has no knowledge of the Russian Orthodox Church may have formed the mistaken impression that it does not welcome democracy in real life and that the concept of conciliarism is only an abstract idea. Such an impression will be strengthened when that person comes into contact with another approach to NRMs (in contrast to the position of secular religious studies), a different direction.

In direct opposition to the first, this latter tendency became stronger on Orthodox ground. Its essence amounts to the need to protect traditional religions (very often this simply refers to Orthodoxy) from any competitors who are rated not just as heretics but as active enemies and destroyers of society. Any group may be categorised as pregnant with Satanism, ritual murders and so on. Such a tendency cannot be called missionary, though it aspires to the name. However much we, as Orthodox, want to protect ourselves from the influence of heterodoxy, of other beliefs, counterfeit religion and in general from the surrounding world, which isn't paradise on earth, it is impermissible to achieve this by unfit means, by deceit, "distortions" or "exaggerations". For the question really is this: are we striving to partition ourselves off from the world, or do we really want to incorporate into our lives our preaching of love? Sometimes tone and style are important. At first glance, if we are talking about spiritual, moral ways of going about mission, then mission is always a good thing. Yet just how are these methods understood in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, which affirms the following word for word: 'We need to employ specialised moral and spiritual methods against sectarians in exactly the same way as we employ other measures against moths, rust and bacilli'?17

The court case which began recently in Moscow of the above-mentioned director of the Irenei Lionsky Centre, Alexander Dvorkin, is very revealing. Unfortunately, for many enthusiasts today of an anti-sectarian movement characterised by an unscientific approach (inaccuracies and distortions, unmeasured generalisations which misinform readers) "zeal knows no reason" and there is an evident inclination towards forceful methods, with the polemical accent on the gathering of compromising material and so on. The parents' organisations are very different-they didn't have the necessary training, but created them through determination, obsessed by the desire to bring home the children who had left to join NRMs. The pain of their loss is understood. But on the other hand Church theologians should be dealing with the phenomenon of NRMs. Their first question should be: why did the members of NRMs not come to the Church, or, why did they leave it? All too often alas, criticism of NRMs is built upon the search for compromising evidence (non-payment of taxes, immoral behavior of members or leaders). We have become used to this principle, but no argument of this sort can demonstrate the deception (from the Christian point of view) of their teaching. If anyone points to the moral imperfection of individual Orthodox lay people, or even of clerics or members of the hierarchy, is there really a basis (apart from the purely emotional) to doubt the truth of Orthodoxy? To blame Orthodoxy for schisms organised by the Foreign Church or the so-called Free Russian Orthodox Church, to attribute the defects of one of the schismatic communities to the whole of Orthodoxy is not only unscientific, it is also immoral.

Accusing all NRMs of the same sin is both groundless and rash. If a representative of some sect commits suicide, or a crime or immoral act, we do not have the right to maintain that they did this as a consequence of their membership of the given group (apart from the circumstances where specific acts appear to be programmed actions of sects as, for instance, mass suicides or acts of terrorism). As an example of incorrect, or rather, inadmissible Orthodox polemic, it may serve to quote an article by deacon Andrei Kuraev. It begins with the statement that, 'A monstrous crime was committed by a twenty-four year old resident of Kirzhatch in Vladimirskaya Oblast' - a member of one of today's totalitarian sects.'18 What is more, apart from the description of the crime, nothing is said about the criminal's membership of the sect (it's not even known which one). If there is no explanation of proof that the crime was certainly a consequence of the sect's influence on the man, or not to negate that, that he was already mentally ill or violent when he came to the sect which didn't change him, we do not have the right to use such an argument. Otherwise, following a similar blunder, we would have to state that all deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church write in an unscientific manner, using the methods of gutter journalism to incite terror.

Incorrectness in polemics has come to the point where representatives of NRMs have brought around thirty legal actions against A.L. Dvorkin.19 The very first, at the Khoroshevsky Intermunicipal Court, was a suit 'in defense of the honour, dignity and working reputation of a number of religious movements, and in denial of most vicious reports made about them', brought by the Public Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Conscience, whose chairman is Gleb Yakunin. This was done on faulty legal grounds and so members of the relevant movements had to set about correcting Yakunin's mistake. If we are not going to employ Mr. Dvorkin's methods,20 we must not mention Gleb Yakunin and then pull apart his moral qualities. While an Orthodox Church member is hardly likely to sympathize with him or trust him,21 it does not make the problem any less topical, or Mr. Dvorkin's position any more correct.

From Mr. Dvorkin's side, and that of several representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, the proceedings were not seen as the examination of an individual but rather as being the trial of Dvorkin and the Russian Orthodox Church.22 This is an example of how a lack of legal understanding on the part of individual representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church can damage the reputation of the whole Church. If an Orthodox person infringes the rules of the road, the fault does not lie with the Church. The Church is not guilty when someone lies, or does not speak the pure truth, or conceals the truth. The Church must not encourage this approach, but must in every way underline that its respect for the law is the same as its respect for Church law, which is of fundamental importance in Orthodoxy (and not in Orthodoxy alone).

Of course, this is not just about representatives of NRMs being offended. From the missionary point of view, it is important to note that secular academics, politicians and public officials, whose honour and dignity have not been wounded, will not be going to court over slander or inaccuracy, but may turn their backs not just on one individual "apologist" or one "exaggeration" too many, but also on the Church for encouraging missionaries of this sort. And Alexander Dvorkin is not the only one. All those who on the pretext of the missionary task, for the sake of Orthodox witness, unleash discord and enmity between Christians, grew up in an era of a deficit of legal awareness (in the history of Russia, it is true, it is hard to name a period without such a deficit). These people do not genuinely feel the Christian call to affirm freedom of conscience. Nevertheless, we have no moral or legal right to cultivate enmity or to launch campaigns of denunciation, not just against heterodoxy, moreover, but within Orthodoxy itself.23 According to Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, 'Propaganda and agitation inciting...religious hatred and enmity is not permitted. The propaganda...of religious superiority is forbidden'. It is strange to be pointing out this law to Christians. Hasn't the Bible revealed to us once and for all the commandment to love? How often we criticise Western Christianity, but evidently we have still to overcome the kind of medieval sickness which manifest itself in the institution of the Inquisition (natural for those times, but not for ours).

An Orthodox-Missiological Analysis of NRMs
Study of NRMs by Orthodox theologians and, in the first instance, missiologists presupposes an analysis of NRM activity, the evaluation and analysis of the reasons for their successes or errors, and a critical look at our own weaknesses, which are the cause of shortcomings in missionary activity. The very brief analysis proposed below may be useful both to the Orthodox believer and to the non-Orthodox researcher. It shows that the process of surmounting the influence of NRMs requires detailed study of the situation, observation of the dynamics of the process, and painstaking analysis of the interaction of a multitude of factors.

To describe the whole spectrum of NRMs is not simple - it is a very broad one, and there is not sufficient reliable sociological data. But even a primary, superficial analysis of the situation which has developed, for example, in St. Petersburg leads us to the following conclusions:

a) The success of the preachers and "missionaries" of NRMs is directly proportional to the insufficient activity and absence of enthusiasm (and above all, of love) on the part of missionaries of the traditional Churches, of Orthodoxy in particular. (Of course, the absence of missionary activity for seventy years, the impossibility of having the appropriate educational establishments or even a department of Missiology, and other objective reasons explain a lot.)

b) This success became possible through the almost total religious illiteracy of society. In Church circles it is often plain to see a lack of active study of the Bible by lay people (that is one of the charges the Jehovah's Witnesses make against the Orthodox). And in the secular world until now, both in schools and in Higher Education institutions, there has not been a knowledge of religion that was of any value. (There are attempts made in private and even in state schools, but not systematically, and they are in need of a serious critique.) State institutions, government structures and local administrative bodies do not have the appropriate specialists, but nevertheless are appointing bureaucrats, responsible for the regulation of relations between religious communities and the state, who are people with no religious or Church-historical education whatever.

c) The absence of religious education in society and of catechisation in the necessary quantities in parishes explains somewhat the alienation of potential parishioners from the traditional Churches. For traditional Church culture presents itself as a special world, requiring familiarity with it, understanding, gradual entry and careful supervision of that entry.

d) A significant proportion of the success of NRMs is due to the effect of immersing the new recruit in a world of warmth and care, a close community, a "family"-into that atmosphere of which, as a rule, they are deprived (by being misunderstood by their own family; inter-generational conflict and tough housing conditions; the absence of informal social structures, with the exception, if you like, of pop culture's fan groupings; a lack, or absence, of close Church communities with an accent on youth, teenagers', women's and other groups). In the Russian Orthodox Church today, 'Bratstvo' ("Brotherhood", special men's groups) has appeared, which is an important experiment in this direction, but there are problems here too, which need special discussion.

e) Many reasons for enthusiasm in NRMs are the same in both the East and the West. In particular, a craving for the exotic, dissatisfaction with real life, an inability to find one's own place in life, and the hope of new opportunities in a new culture-a kind of emigration to the exotic.

f) One reason specific to Russia is a sharp reaction against the state ideological materialism of past years and society's bourgeois materialism today. Escape from this is often spiritualistic (a kind of 'Monophysitism').

g) The need to bring actual Church life into correspondence with the ideals of the faith, that striving towards the renewal of life, is not always realised by the hierarchy as much as it is by the clerics and laity. The search for ways towards a cleansing of flaws and inadequacies, self-criticism and openness to the experience of other traditions are often considered innovations and are therefore not taken up. In the Russian Orthodox Church the very notion of "renewal" provokes bitter controversies. The Russian word obnovleniya' also translates as "renovation". The "Renovationist Church" was the subject of a bitter schism in the 1920.

h) In the consciousness of certain people far from the Church, the Russian Orthodox Church was discredited by accusations of co-operation with powerful state structures (the KGB). These demagogical accusations were used, for example, by leaders of the 'Our Lady Centre' sect, to undermine confidence in the Church.

i) Many people, without any kind of religious upbringing, instinctively take to heart the idea of Christian unity. Intelligent people (by which I don't just mean those with a higher education) and the young are, as a rule, inwardly inclined to tolerance. Division and, particularly, increased tension between different Churches and traditions confuses them and puts them on their guard. Many fall under the influence of the Moonies with their "principle of unification", the Baha'i faith or Krishna Consciousness, which proclaim their acceptance of all religions.

j) The parareligious groups (of the Scientology type) are attractive because of their interest in the practical questions of psychology, sociology, physical health and other subjects which in the traditional Churches are not held to throw any light on the Christian position. The achievements of science are presented in these groups as the insights of their leaders and it is assumed that only they (the leaders) possess true knowledge (a variation of Gnosticism). For many the pedagogical principles and methods of such groups as the anthroposophists are equally attractive. Today, as many Russian schools are looking for a new system, several NRMs are making use of this and are finding support among directors of state education.

k) The success of new religious movements should not only worry the traditional Churches, but also society and the state. A lack of socio-political activity in traditional communities is turning into Christianity as a whole being perceived as false, and the appropriate new religious movements cite misinterpreted Christian ideals (such as monasticism, asceticism). To help society understand this- each individual as well as political leaders-is the missionary task, in as much as the Church's mission should be understood not as political, nor as recruiting activity, but as helping each person to find their spiritual sight, to progress on the path of spiritual maturity, of being made perfect. This spiritual growth, the Church believes, assists the hearing and acceptance of Good News, and consequently, coming into the Church. But we are already speaking of the result of mission, which is far from being always achieved in short periods of time.

l) Undoubtedly, economic reasons also exist. The disintegration of the economy has led to Western money, to which many NRMs have access, being able to open certain administrative doors (I would like to believe not all), permitting them to rent halls, print their literature, and tempt new members with various trips, seminars, free meals etc.

m) Neopaganism occupies a special place among NRMs. In Russia, for example, a nationalistically oriented pagan movement has existed for long enough. Today the oddest of its variations have appeared, religious and pseudo-religious. The subject of 'national culture', and respect and care for it, is acquiring an additional missionary significance.

n) A common concern for the East and West is 'neognosticism'. Many NRMs fall into this category, but we can also include here all kinds of healing and astrology. This area is sometimes spoken of as "negative spirituality" (Satanism). In this category too are various aspects of witchcraft, magic, UFO mythology and other of today's popular enthusiasms. The phenomenon which has come to be called the New Age needs special analysis, in so far as its name has been applied to the most diverse range of movements, initiatives, groups, practices, psychological methods, i.e. not only groups in the sense of NRMs, but also groups practising areas of science (e.g. psychotherapy), which are preoccupied with physical or spiritual health.

Necessary practical steps, wishes and recommendations for the Orthodox missionary.
The analysis presented above brings us to the point of formulating a basic direction for Orthodox Church activity as regards subduing the influence of NRMs on the individual and society. In particular it is necessary, in our view (that of the Orthodox Institute of Missiology), for the Russian Orthodox Church to take the following steps:

a) Create research and educational structures (chairs, departments, institutes) for missiology.24

b) Orient these structures primarily to the study of culturological themes (including nationality & culture) and the question of inculturation. At the same time we must pay especial attention to the preaching of a nationalistic understanding of the concept of 'election' of a given people (in our case, the Russian).

c) Set up, under the auspices of these structures, analytical groups or centers which could provide Church leaders and state and social structures with relevant analysis (sociological, socio-psychological, political and so on) of current religious, religious-social and Church-political life.

d) Develop practical interconnection activities, because only in Christian unity can we witness to the fact that many NRMs which link themselves to Christianity are fake Christianity and contradictory to it.

e) Propose courses in all educational establishments, at all levels, along the lines of 'Religions, Traditions, Cultures', which would destroy the mendacious stereotypes presented of religious and Church life, familiarise students with the Christian understanding of topical issues and with the most important religions, traditions and Churches in their region.

f) Devote particular attention to knowledge of other religions-not just providing information about them, but also familiarising ourselves with the spiritual life, current and historical models of piety in these religious traditions.

g) Devote special attention to the subject of 'Renewal and Tradition', to show what dangers lie in wait for the Church in fundamentalism, conservatism and liberalism. In the body of the Church-which is an incarnational organism-changes are inevitably occurring as a result of interaction with its surroundings and with the life of society. These changes are linked above all to changes in society, which is living, developing or degrading, whose creative powers are here awakening and there dying out. There are almost always topical issues requiring a Christian response-complex questions arising from international politics, national conflicts, economic crises, interreligious and interconnection tensions, armed conflicts and in general, the use of force to achieve justice. The answers to these questions are based upon the unshakable tradition of the Church, the foundation of which is Revelation, but each answer is shaped in response to a certain situation, and based on the whole experience of the Church, including that of the very recent past.

h) Focus maximum attention on the issue of real parish community, on creating all the necessary conditions for its active life, and searching out new forms (not just liturgical ones) for its continued existence. We should study the positive experience of the Church in the Orthodox and heterodox traditions (in youth work, various forms of lay activity, church movements, their activities and spirituality).

i) It is fundamentally important today to realise that millions of people reached toward the Church as the last hope and final appeal in the search for truth. Many of them quite sincerely shared the illusion of communist ideology and, having lost it, were deprived of their supporting world view. Therefore, they naturally expected the Church, in the persons of priests and theologians, Christian political specialists and academics, to be able to answer all their confused questions. Of course, there is a Christian (and in particular an Orthodox) understanding of social problems, culture, science and global issues. Undoubtedly, with the erosion of moral values, people are looking to Christian moral preaching to find support for the individual and society. As a result of this, the missionary task today is much broader than a simply catechising one; it goes beyond the borders of explaining basic Christianity.

j) Another extremely important missionary topic is that of 'the Church and the intelligentsia'. This subject first appeared well before the twentieth century. Society's awareness of the Church's preaching, the interrelation of Church and society, and relations with the political world are determined to a significant extent by the intelligentsia (although preaching is addressed to the whole of society)- the most reflective section of society. If the intelligentsia is unchurched, does not hold to Christian ideals and is alien to the idea of the Church, then society does not have a future in the Christian sense. Apostolic preaching-the preaching of simple fishermen-was what educated and cultivated the Church intelligentsia (the Church fathers), and through them influenced educated society, and thus a Christian society became a possibility. This influence was not always direct and obvious, but in any case, many ideals of social development (for example, the principle of freedom of conscience, the ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty) were a product of the impact of Christian preaching on the intelligentsia. An understanding of the Church's life in society for today requires above all a discussion of the intelligentsia and its relation to the Church (and the Church's relation to it).

k) For the Orthodox missionary engaged in polemics with NRMs it is vitally important to acknowledge that missionary preaching is not just, perhaps not even, preaching from the pulpit, as much as preaching outside of the Church building in words and actions, in seeking to implement an authentic Christian-Orthodox understanding of real problems, from the economic and social to individual moral concerns.

l) The successfulness and effectiveness of missionary preaching is determined by how much a missionary has command of their situation: if they know just who to turn to; how deeply they feel, in Christian terms, the subjects they talk about; how much they understand the reality surrounding them, and how well they speak the language of the person to whom they are relating.

It is clear that an analysis of the religious and socio-religious situation in the country is necessary both for society as a whole and for individual confessions, all the more so today in this period of "religious renaissance". At times, such an analysis is offered by specialists (sociologists, political scientists, journalists and others), openly declaring their independence of any form or tradition of religious life whatever. This very circumstance permits them to suppose that their analysis is objective. Undoubtedly, a view from the wings is interesting and useful for society and even for the Church, but can the opinion about religion of an unreligious person be called objective? The science of religion, i.e. religious studies, should have its say concerning religion and its place in society and culture, in particular such a field as sociology of religion. However, until now the majority of religious studies centers and departments in Higher Educational establishments have been headed up by specialists in atheism who were themselves atheists. It is difficult waiting for an objective or adequate analysis from them.

Without doubt, Russian society (people, state, culture as a whole, educational programmes) is in need of a knowledge of religion in all its many forms. It needs an understanding of religion, its place in the system of moral and aesthetic values, and has at least the right to that knowledge.

There is no experience in Russia of how to effect the presentation of such knowledge to the extent that society today needs. The situation before 1917 is not an ideal model for a number of reasons: there is a different political system, different requirements in relations between Church and state (there is no more state Church), the break-up an ruin of the traditional system of religious education.

What is needed is a new legal vision of the task (in relation both to the nineteenth century and to the Soviet period), a new conception of the subject and subjects taught in state educational institutions (both secondary and higher), guaranteeing a real knowledge (objective, scientific and experimental) of religion and its study.

The question is whether religious studies today appears to be a subject much in demand. It hangs in mid-air until such time as anyone can decide what it really means. In mass consciousness at present, the name 'religious studies' is a euphemism for 'scientific atheism'. In practice, the specialism has been usurped by those very specialists in scientific atheism and various aspects of Marxism. One would not, as a rule, expect to find theologians or Church historians from religious schools in programmes of 'religious studies'. Evidently, in former times it was presupposed that a conflict existed between 'faith' and 'knowledge', and specialists in religious studies are on the whole considered to be so-called 'free-thinking' specialists (more exactly "specialists in free thinking").

It is natural and desirable that knowledge of religion (as with any other area of the human spirit) should be communicated by a bearer of religious tradition, someone who thinks in its language. If we take music, poetry or any area of spiritual culture, we recognise an obvious desire that whoever teaches these subjects, if not a musician or a poet, will in any case be someone who lives for music and poetry, someone who considers them of essential importance for him or herself. Not every religious person has the ability to communicate their experience, to share it, but among all those who do have this experience one should be able to find suitable teachers. After all, in the same way, teaching of 'free-thinking', or more exactly atheism, is naturally entrusted to atheists and not to believing theologians.

The state would naturally take responsibility for training specialists, guaranteeing society a knowledge of religion, and in this rely on professionally and specially trained people open to religious creativity and religious self-awareness. This is exactly why the interaction of academic and Church structures is necessary today. Here too, interconnection and co-operation is both possible and necessary.

The author, Archpriest Vladimir Fedorov, is Vice-Rector of the Russian Christian Institute of Humanities in St. Petersburg, and Director of the Orthodox Research Institute of Missiology, Ecumenism and New Religious Movements.


  1. For example, the journal Theosophy Bulletin; but critical exposes were also published such as V.S.Solov'ev's book on Blavatskaya, Priestess of Isida.
  2. See Pospelovsky, D.V. The Orthodox Church in the History of Rus', Russia and the USSR (Moscow: BBI, 1996), p. 207.
  3. Though the "struggle for pure Orthodoxy" frequently inspired the same enthusiasm among the Orthodox themselves, it was burdened by exactly the same sectarian psychology as well.
  4. See Metafrazis, No.1, 1997.
  5. Andrei Bogen, "Freedom of Conscience for all - or just for the Orthodox?", Chas Pik, No. 43 (772), 26 March 1997.
  6. The most holy Patriarch has made repeated pronouncements about this. See, for example, his interview with the editor of the newspaper Pravoslavny Sankt-Petersburg (Orthodox St. Petersburg), No. 3(57), 1997, p. 1.
  7. See, for example, the open letter of Hollywood stars to the Chancellor of the FRG, Helmut Kohl, in the International Herald Tribune, 9 January 1997, p. 7.
  8. MacDowell, D., Stewart, D. Obmanshchiki (Deceivers) (Moscow, 1993); Martin, W.Tsarstvo kul'tov (The Kingdom of the Cults) (St. Petersburg, 1992).
  9. There is an outstanding polemical article on this subject by the Orthodox Archpastor Ioann Shakovsky: "Sectarianism in Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy in Sectarianism" in the journal Khristianos, No. 5 (Riga, 1996).
  10. Report to the All-Russian Missionary Congress, "A Typology of Sectarianism" (Belgorod, 1996),p. 13.
  11. Gandau, T. The Empire of "Saint" Moon (Moscow-Klein, 1995).
  12. See the communique of the December 1996 meeting between the Chairman of OVTsS, Kiril, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, and a Roman Catholic Cardinal, published in Informatsionnyi byulleten' OVTsS, No. 1, 1997.
  13. There are many articles on this subject; in particular N.Babasyan, "The Battle for Traditional Status" in Church & Society Bulletin, No. 8, p. 3, supplement to Russkaya Mysl', 30 January 1997.
  14. BLAGOVEST-INFO, Byulleten' religioznoi informatsii (Moscow) 18-24 February 1997.
  15. Andrei Bogen, "Freedom of Conscience for all - or just for the Orthodox?", Chas Pik, No. 43 (772), 26 March 1997.
  16. "The following could serve as reasons for a refusal to issue a licence to carry out religious activities: absence of any necessary papers (copies of the constitutional documents of the organization, copies of the certificate of registration with tax authorities in the place where the mission started, permission for the creation of a representation in St. Petersburg, and others); discrepancy between documents presented and current legislation in the Russian Federation and St. Petersburg; any trace in the organisation's activity of forms and methods of mission connected with incitement of national, racial or religious discord, or the causing of harm to the physical and mental health of citizens, or encroachments upon their personal and property rights. In case of refusal of a further accreditation, another application cannot be made for six months."
  17. Bishop Benjamin of Vladivostok in the newspaper Rus' pravoslavnaya, supplement to Sovietskaya Rossiya, quoted by senior priest G.Kochetkov, "Church and State in Contemporary Russia", in the journal Kontinent, No. 89, p. 227.
  18. Deacon Andrei Kuraev, "Sects in Russia: a Problem for Society", in the newspaper Russkii vestnik, Nos. 23-25, 1996.
  19. See M.Sitnikov, "New Religions and Orthodox Anti-Cultists Sort Out their Relations in Court", Church & Society Bulletin No. 8, Russkaya mysl', 30 January 1997, p. 8.
  20. See Dvorkin's article in the newspaper Radonezh, No. 1(45), 1997, "Shouldn't the Church have an Opinion about Sects?", where he makes a detailed dissection of Yakunin's personal shortcomings.
  21. Especially after Yakunin, having been removed from the priesthood, went to former Metropolitan Filaret Denisenko, "returned" himself to holy orders, and was excommunicated from the Church.
  22. There is a multitude of publications connected with the start of these proceedings. See e.g. Dvorkin's own views (see note 25, pp. 12-13) as well as the response of the author M.Shterin, "Two Approaches to New Religious Movements", Church & Society Bulletin No. 9, supplement to Russkaya mysl', 13 February 1997.
  23. Unfortunately, in recent years a good many publications have appeared of a Bolshevistic nature, in which Orthodox selflessly unmask "the enemies of Orthodoxy" within Orthodoxy itself ("renewalists", "ecumenists" etc.). Lay people with no theological education and a brief "post-perestroika" experience of Church life, in a devil-may-care manner unmask bishops, those churched from childhood, graduates from seminaries and academies with theology degrees.
  24. Happily, the Missionary Dept. of Holy Synod has become actively engaged in this, and there is already a Missionary Seminary in Belgorod. It is very important to regain the spirit of Orthodox missionaries of past centuries, of whom the Russian Orthodox Church may be proud - a spirit of respect for national cultures, and of respect and love for the individual.

Return to Current Dialogue (31)
Return to Interreligious Relations homepage

copy right 1998 World Council
of Churches. Remarks to: webeditor