A Blessing from the East: Russian Orthodoxy’s Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

An Eastern Orthodox reader of Mark Shea’s blog asked:

Have you ever heard of Met. Hilarion Alfeyev? He’s the No. 2 figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, the church’s chief diplomat. He’s only 44 years old. Super-brilliant guy, and startlingly open to the West. I heard him speak this past weekend in NYC, and let me tell you, this guy really gets it. He doesn’t have that old-school closed-off approach, but he is not a religious liberalizer either. He’s also a classical music composer, and was in NYC for the American premiere on Monday night of his “St. Matthew Passion.” I’ve been listening to it on CD, and it’s breathtaking. Take a look at the fragment below from a speech he gave in 2009, in which he posited a “Catholic-Orthodox Alliance.”

The speech in question is here. In it, Metropolitan Hilarion criticized the lack of missionary zeal within the Orthodox Church, say it was un-Apostolic.  He went on to say:

In this missionary effort, I believe, the Orthodox Church needs allies, and its closest ally and partner is most likely to be the Catholic Church. There are well-known differences between Catholics and Orthodox on a certain number of doctrinal and ecclesiological points, notable on the understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome. All these differences, however, appear to be rather minor in comparison to the fundamental elements of faith which are identical in both traditions. Both Churches have apostolic succession of hierarchy and de facto have mutual recognition of sacraments (while continuing not to have full Eucharistic communion). No less important is the solidarity between the Catholics and the Orthodox on major points of moral teaching, including questions of family ethics, human sexuality, bioethics etc.

It is against this background that I have repeatedly suggested that a Catholic-Orthodox Alliance should be formed. This alliance may enable Catholics and Orthodox to fight together for the preservation of traditional values and to combat against secularism, liberalism and relativism. Such alliance may help Orthodox and catholics to speak with one voice in addressing secular society, may provide for them an ample space where they will discuss modern issues and come to common positions. The two traditions can speak with one voice, and there can be a united Catholic-Orthodox response to the challenges of modern times.

The rationale behind my proposal is the following: our Churches are on their way to unity, but one has to be realistic and understand that it will probably take decades, if not centuries, before this unity is realized. In the meantime we desperately need to address the world with a united voice. Without being one Church, can we act as one Church, can we present ourselves to the outside world as a unified structure, as an alliance? I am convinced that we can, and that by doing so we may become much stronger.

Such an alliance, whatever it shape may be, may well include those representatives of Protestant and Anglican communities who associate themselves with a traditional rather than liberal “wing” of Christianity and who share the essential points of traditional Christian morality. I also believe that the Oriental Orthodox Churches should from the very beginning be a part of the alliance on behalf of the Orthodox family. There is no Eucharistic communion between the Eastern and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but their spirituality and ethos, as well as their social and moral teachings are quite identical. Moreover, in an ecumenical context the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches have already proved to be able to act as one Orthodox family.

The modern battle between traditional Christianity on the one hand and secularism, liberalism and relativism on the other is primarily centred round the question of values. It is not a theological argument, because it is not the existence of God that is debated: it is the existence of an absolute moral norm, on which human life should be founded, that is put into question. The contest has an anthropological character, and it is the present and future of humanity that is at stake. By defending life, marriage and procreation, by struggling against legalization of contraception, abortion and euthanasia, against recognition of homosexual unions as equal to marital ones, against libertinage in all forms, the traditional Christians are engaged in a battle for survival of the Christian civilization and of those peoples who until recently identified themselves with Christianity.

This is exactly right. There are real differences between Catholics and Orthodox, and we shouldn’t pretend that they don’t exist, but if our obsession with our differences blinds us to our need to stand together against secularism, contraception, abortion, sexual immorality, euthanasia, gay marriage, and so on, we’ve really missed the forest for the trees. We should strive for total and absolute unity in the Truth, but there’s no need to wait for the reunification of the Churches to begin working together.  And while this is true in a particular way for Catholics and Orthodox, it’s true as well for all Christians who hold to bedrock Christian morality.  Conservative Christians (be they Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) have ecclesiological and theological disputes amongst ourselves, but we share a common uncompromisable morality.

And Met. Hilarion seems to really practice what he preaches.  Part of this mission of uniting all of Christendom on morality has been chastising those Christians who have taken the wrong side. So when the head of the Anglican church, Rowan Williams, invited him to speak at the Annual Nicean Club Dinner at Lambeth Palace, Met. Hilarion chose to speak about the damage the liberal Episcopalians and Anglicans were doing to Christian unity, and to the word of God:

We [the Orthodox Church] are also extremely concerned and disappointed by other processes that are manifesting themselves in churches of the Anglican Communion. Some Protestant and Anglican churches have repudiated basic Christian moral values by giving a public blessing to same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals as priests and bishops. Many Protestant and Anglican communities refuse to preach Christian moral values in secular society and prefer to adjust to worldly standards. 
Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals. Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture.

It really takes a devotion to the Gospel to not water it down when you’re preaching to a hostile crowd, particularly when you’re invited as a guest. Met. Hilarion’s candor, devotion to spreading the Gospel, and clear-sighted understanding of the problems that the modern world faces make him a really promising rising star within Russian Orthodoxy.  Better still, he’s quite young (he’s yet to reach his forty-fifth birthday), and he’s already the second-highest ranking cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church.


  1. I’ve been a HUGE fan of this guy for some time. His boss, Metropolitan Kirill, is also an impressive cleric, and it is apparent that Kirill trusts Alfeyev and gives him a lot of room to maneuver.

  2. You should first try to read something about Metropolitan Hilarion’s dealings wit the Diocese of Sourozh in London in 2002, and how the Holy Synod removed him after a few months at the insistence of the aged and deeply-respected Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom).

    Yes, there was an analysis of reactions to his speech at Lambeth in The Times of 20 November 2010, by Canon Michael Bourdeaux. To quote just one sentence “Whatever one makes of this confusion, one fact is indelible: that Metropolitan Hilarion caused grave offence by criticising his host, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his church for alleged “liberalism” on an occasion when the speaker was an honoured guest”

    There are not a few matters where serious criticsm can be levelled at the Russian Orthodox Church, especially concerning its submission to the Russian State and its promotion of “ethnic Orthodoxy”. Hilarion of course mentioned none of these issues.

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