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No longer a fringe group

The movement of Alexander Men today

January 4, 2013

MOSCOW

Following the murder of Alexander Men, the great Orthodox reformer, in September 1990, Western Christendom placed great hopes in his leading followers.

One such follower was Alexander Ilyich Borisov, a Ph.D. in genetics. The soft-spoken and modest Borisov had been appointed a deacon in 1970; in 1991 he was named pastor of the newly resuscitated Church of the Saints Cosmas and Damian. It stands at a central location just across from the Moscow courthouse and 100 meters from Hotel Lux, the legendary refuge of foreign communists during the 1930s and ’40s. This church structure made visible the transition of Alexander Men’s movement from a village chapel into the very center of Moscow life. Today, this church is still active in preserving and promoting his heritage.

Borisov responds quickly to any question regarding the martyr’s specific contribution: “He always stressed the importance of the Bible. It was very clear to him that Christian renewal was impossible without knowledge of the Bible.”

Borisov adds: “We Orthodox possess a rich history of stories, culture, icons and music — but we also need a joint reading of Scripture. And to concern oneself with Scripture is by no means un-Orthodox.”

Borisov is uncomfortable with the asceticism and plainness of Protestant life. Russian Protestants tend to do without impressive church buildings and beautiful music — its expression is largely limited to the spoken word. But, he says, “We lack the incredible variety of Protestants. They have more freedom than we do. Yet actually we have everything Protestants also have — plus our culture.”

He concedes that he has learned about the importance of fellowship, dialogue and joint prayer from Pentecostals. Only in this fashion can relationships between individual believers develop. The congregation at Cosmas and Damian is known today for its dozens of Bible study groups.

Borisov wrote a book titled Pobelevishe Nivy (Fields White Already to Harvest, as stated in John 4:35). The book points to the urgency of mission and the fact that a closed and relatively uneducated clergy was in no way up to the task of evangelization. The book’s Christ-centered orientation was apparent in the warning that icons may “distract us from the fact that Christ and his Gospel stand in the center of church life.” The book, which was never translated, was so unconventional that Patriarch Alexy II inquired in jest as to whether Borisov’s wife, Nonna, might have written it. (Nonna Borisova belonged to a Pentecostal congregation for several years.)

Yet the course of history has dispelled Borisov’s fears.

“In the ’80s we fantasized that the working class would become Protestant and the intelligentsia Catholic. Only the grandmas would remain in the Orthodox fold. But now we see that, despite all of its shortcomings, the great majority has opted for Orthodoxy,” he says.

Protestants and Catholics make up only 1 percent of Moscow’s population, with 70 percent identifying themselves as Orthodox. Borisov says conceded that only 10 percent of professed Orthodox practice their faith.

Though Borisov supports ecumenism, he interprets the increasing distance between the Moscow Patriarchate and other churches since the middle of the 1990s as an unavoidable process.

“It’s a matter of identity and self-understanding,” he says. “The securer we become in our self-understanding, the more open we can become to other confessions.”

Citing the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes of New Testament fame, he explains that inter-confessional cooperation will never become a concern of the entire church. Even the discussion groups in his own congregation possess few non-Orthodox participants.

Borisov the issue of rebaptism as a deep divide between Orthodox and Baptist circles. He interprets the non-recognition of sacraments as denial of the other side’s Christianity — a death knell for any hopes of inter-confessional progress.

“We recognise a Baptist baptism if it occurs in the name of the triune God,” he says. “Among Roman Catholics we even recognize a priest’s ordination if and when he transfers to us.”

The archpriest is not optimistic regarding the future of the worldwide ecumenical movement. He views the efforts aimed at halting the recognition of homosexuality as on par with anti-Semitism as a major offense to the conservative, Christian majority.

“In this matter, Western churches have crossed over the boundary of acceptable tolerability,” he says. “They will cause great damage in their relations with Eastern churches — as well as among themselves. Here they are pushing an unbiblical position.”

Borisov sees the ordination of women as a second issue reaching beyond the boundaries of “acceptable tolerability.”

Yet in global East-West politics, Borisov sees no reason for undue pessimism. While decrying their activities, the priest also condemns the sentencing of two members of the female punk group “P*Riot” (or “Kitty Riot”) to multi-year imprisonment. He compares this to a youngster having his arm hacked off for stealing a loaf of bread.

Borisov cannot imagine a renewed cold war in the foreseeable future.

“Many of our leading politicians are oriented towards the West — their families and money already reside there,” he says.

Despite the moral vacuum of present-day Russian society, he remains assured regarding the future of Alexander Men’s movement.

“Our acceptance within church circles is still increasing,” Borisov says. “It would be very incorrect to describe us as an Orthodox fringe group.”

William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

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