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United Methodists note passing of Russian patriarch

UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Dec. 8, 2008

The head of the world’s largest Orthodox Christian church is being remembered by United Methodist ecumenists as a strong leader committed to both the universal church and the re-establishment of his own denomination in post-communist Russia.

Patriarch Alexy II

His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia, who had led the Russian Orthodox Church since 1990, died Dec. 5 at the age of 79. As its leader following the fall of communist Russia, Alexy was instrumental in restoring both the church’s buildings and its status as an important part of Russian life.

To church leaders outside Russia, he was widely known for his ecumenical involvement. Bishop William Oden, who retired in August as ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, worked with the patriarch on several matters. "He was a very strong and committed leader of the universal church and we will miss him greatly," Oden said.

But while there was appreciation for Alexy’s ecumenical gifts, it was noted that tensions have occurred in recent years with the Russian Orthodox Church because of United Methodist church presence in Russia.

"Patriarch Alexy II led the Russian Orthodox Church through difficult times, tough transitions and remarkable opportunities for the church to witness anew to resurrection faith," said Jan Love, who worked with the Russian church through her long involvement with the World Council of Churches.

"After the fall of communism, under Alexy's leadership, the Russian Orthodox Church intensified its efforts to assert its leadership among all Orthodox churches and to be recognized as the one true church for Russia, policies that strained local and global ecumenical relations," added Love, now dean of the United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta and also a Professor of Christianity and World Politics.

Love was among 60 members of the WCC’s Special Commission on Orthodox Participation, created at the end of 1998 to respond to Orthodox complaints that Protestant views on theology dominated the WCC. In 2002, the commission presented its final report, which focused on themes such as common prayer and consensus decision-making.

Time of tension

Jan Love

In a 2001 interview with United Methodist News Service on the commission’s work, Love said the Russian Orthodox were "absolutely distressed" at the time to emerge from one of the most difficult periods in their history and, in their viewpoint, discover other denominations competing with them in Russia "rather than helping them reconstruct their own life and identity within their place."

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, pastor of Hennipin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, led the denomination’s ecumenical agency when he took part in United Methodist delegations to Russia in 1992 and 1993. The placement of a bishop in Moscow by the 1992 United Methodist General Conference "deeply angered the Russian Orthodox Church," he explained, and the delegation meetings with Orthodox officials were an attempt at dialogue.

"In that time of tension, he (Alexy) received us and was gracious and hospitable," Robbins recalled. "He heard our concerns and listened to us … despite the vast differences of understanding that we shared about what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ."

Officers of the World Council of Churches—including the Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya and the council’s top executive—praised Alexy’s commitment, pastoral sensitivity and courage.

"On behalf of the fellowship of the WCC, in deep sadness we join our voices to those of the Russian and worldwide Orthodox faithful and pray, together with them, for Patriarch Alexy II of blessed memory," said a Dec. 5 letter of condolence to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bishop William B. Oden

"The WCC and the ecumenical movement have lost today a leading figure, a powerful voice that knew how and when to be supportive and constructive but also how and when to be vigilant and critical."

Lois Dauway, a United Methodist member of the WCC Central Committee, also recognized the passing of a significant ecumenical figure. "We’re losing our icons," she said.

Dauway believes the timing of Alexy’s death highlights "the challenges that are still there in regard to the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the reality of the new Russia."

Love agreed that it could be a crucial time for that denomination. "While Christians all over the world will appropriately mourn the loss of one of the world's most recognized ecclesial leaders, many will also be watching to see what if any impact his death will have on the future direction of the Russian Orthodox Church," she said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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