Homemade Autocephaly 

Homemade Autocephaly
Photo: church.by

On June 8, a meeting of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) was held, the main outcome of which was the forcible removal of one of the most famous bishops of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Artemy (Kishchenko), from the leadership of the Grodno diocese with the comment that it was «for health reasons.»

The next day, June 9, members of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Synod gathered for an emergency online meeting with the aim of quickly ratifying the decision of the Minsk church authorities sending Archbishop Artemy into retirement, and in his place appointing Bishop Anthony (Doronin), who is more loyal to the current political regime.

This event reflects a change in the balance of relations in both the «Belarusian Exarchate – Lukashenko’s regime» and that of the «Belarusian Exarchate – Moscow Patriarchate.»

Belarusian Exarchate – Lukashenko’s regime

The decision to remove Archbishop Artemy means increasing the authorities’ pressure on the church; that is, the external dependence of the church on the state. It also demonstrates an increase in the internal dependence of the church on the regime and a clearer self-determination of the hierarchy regarding political preferences. Now, instead of maintaining its declared neutrality, the Belarusian Orthodox Church leadership has moved to openly support the regime. This, in turn, has necessitated political consolidation and discipline within the organization.

State pressure on church leaders and the church organization generally has made each of the bishops of the Belarusian Orthodox Church more vulnerable and more manageable and has narrowed their potential range of action. At the same time, Metropolitan Benjamin’s role has strengthened within the organization. Since the fall of 2020, purges of employees disloyal to the regime have taken place along an intra-diocesan line, with each bishop dealing directly with his subordinates.

Metropolitan Benjamin himself was engaged in the removal of disloyal employees or those who did not fit into the policy of unconditional support for the regime within the framework of his diocese or within the framework of the Exarchate as a whole. Here are two examples.

A complete overhaul of personnel shook the Synodal Information Department in November following the incident with Archpriest Sergiy Lepin, who commented on the destruction of the people’s memorial dedicated to the deceased Roman Bondarenko.

The press secretary of the BOC attempted to create a positive image of the Belarusian Orthodox Church in society, or at least reduce negativity towards it, by monitoring public sentiment and responding effectively to requests from the public. At the same time, for many years he managed to balance this task with remaining loyal to the existing political regime. However, the intensification of confrontation between a broad stratum of society and the regime and the growth of social confrontation made such a task practically impossible, since the regime became much more sensitive, and any criticism or even insufficient loyalty began to be felt much more acutely.

In January, purges affected the Synodal Missionary Department and Archpriest Sergey Timoshenkov was removed from office. During the events of the political crisis, he repeatedly spoke critically about violence, about the silence of the church, and about those actions of the hierarchy that undermined the authority of the church across broad circles of Belarusian society. He was compelled to assert not only his personal position, but also his professional competence, which requires a missionary perspective, the fundamental need to be in dialogue with society and culture and to respond to important public demands and personal appeals from individuals related to their community life.

In addition to Timoshenkov, another well-known missionary priest and popular blogger, Alexander Kukhta, was also removed from office. Kukhta was one of the priests active in the volunteer camp at Okrestsin. He was involved in assisting victims, administrative prisoners and their families, and volunteers.

In the context of the new socio-political strategy of the leadership of the Belarusian Exarchate, which is oriented towards serving the interests of the regime and neglecting public demands and sentiments, certain capacities have ceased to be in demand. Moreover, they have begun to bear more risks than advantages for the leadership.

The «cleansing» at the level of his own diocese and throughout the Exarchate broadly did not solve the problem of full consolidation of church officials for Metropolitan Benjamin. The Grodno diocese remained, headed by the Archbishop. Artemy became a prominent figure against the background of the socio-political crisis and a point of reference for those Orthodox Christians advocating an end to violence and repression, the restoring of the rule of law, and who saw a way out of the crisis through the conducting of a just dialogue among different political forces and groups in society.

In addition, Archbishop Artemy protected his clergy from pressure both from the state and from church authorities; supported solidarity among them and their activities in the public sphere and regarding their compassion towards political prisoners and those administratively detained; and stood by the courageous statements made by the clergy on social networks or media. While in many dioceses church authorities prevented priests from providing pastoral and spiritual assistance to prisoners, priests from the Grodno diocese willingly responded to requests from relatives to organize pastoral visits, even if this required traveling to the other end of the country.

Previously, the position of Archbishop Artemy in the Grodno diocese was quite stable, despite the regime and local authorities’ dissatisfaction with him, and despite the intrigues of Abbess Gabriela (Glukhova), influential in Grodno and not subordinate to the local bishop. The maximum that the church authorities in Minsk were capable of was distancing themselves from the statements of Archbishop Artemy, as happened back in August when the Synodal Department of the Belarusian Orthodox Church needed an explanation for the relationship between the Church and society in the document «On the participation of believers in social and political life.» In this text, the authors referred to some supposed “numerous appeals and bewildered questions on the essence of the content of the sermon of His Grace Archbishop Artemy of Grodno and Volkovysk, delivered by him in the Intercession Cathedral of the city of Grodno on Sunday, August 16, 2020,» in connection with they noted that «Any statements linked to the current difficult situation in the Republic of Belarus made by individual representatives of the Belarusian Orthodox Church are a form of expression of their personal civic position and reflect exclusively the personal view of the author(s) on what is happening.»

Archbishop Artemy’s resilience was due to several personal and institutional factors.

Personal factors include the following:

First, the Archbishop is a strong individual with the ability and willingness to defend his principles and protect his priests and laity even at the cost of violent conflicts and confrontations.

Secondly, he is an authoritative individual. Artemy leads a modest and ascetic life, was never embroiled in scandals related to immoral behavior, does not engage in plots or schemes, and, therefore, it was almost impossible to find «compromising evidence» on him or discredit him. In addition to having authority among his own clergy, he wields influence among a wide circle of active Orthodox Christians. Archbishop Artemy, as head of the BOC Youth Association for ten years, taught for many years in the theological faculty of the European Humanities University and later at the Institute of Theology at Belarusian State University. Among the subjects he taught were the establishing of trusting pastoral relationships with students. He is the only one from the organization of BOC bishops who came to church administration from the ordinary priesthood with rich parish experience, and not church-administrative or only monastic experience. It was this experience that allowed him to build a system of relations within the diocese that is unique for Belarus, and for almost the entire hierarchy of the ROC. There is a wide circle of those church people who are emotionally attached to Archbishop Artemy and treat him with deep respect and even love. Moreover, Archbishop Artemy enjoys a well-deserved authority among other confessions, primarily Roman Catholic, that is connected to his ecumenical openness and willingness to cooperate. In this sense, he continues the tradition laid down in modern Belarusian Orthodoxy by Metropolitan Filaret.

Thirdly, he is one of the most educated bishops in the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. He has a real academic degree from a foreign university and enjoys prestige among Orthodox intellectuals.

The authority of Archbishop Artemy is evidenced by the fact that in August about 300 church leaders and intellectuals sent him a letter of thanks. Since he was removed from the pulpit, he has been supported by a video message from lay people, including his students, with graduates from the Institute of Theology sending a letter of support and Orthodox believers creating petitions and forwarding them to the Synod of the BOC and the Synod of the ROC.

Institutional reasons for his resilience were as follows:

First, there is the impossibility of the Minsk Metropolitan’s interference in the affairs of another diocese. The office of the Patriarchal Exarch does not provide for this and any directives from the Metropolitan would be perceived by the rest of the bishops as wishes and recommendations that may be considered, but not necessarily followed. This was the case with the singing of the anthem «Magutna Bozha» in the Grodno diocese, which Metropolitan Benjamin opposed in October. His recommendation, however, was ignored. The forcible resignation of Archbishop Artemy became possible because Metropolitan Benjamin managed to concentrate power of the Belarusian Orthodox Church in his hands with the support of the state, and this is inevitably associated with the weakening of the role of each of the other bishops. Such a process, to a certain extent, fits into a general trend in the Russian Orthodox Church, where the influence of individual bishops declined due to the fragmentation of dioceses and an increase in the number of episcopal organizations. Apparently, it was precisely a consideration of preserving the guarantees of the Minsk Metropolitan’s own institutional immunity that that one of the bishops of the «old generation,» Archbishop Stefan of Pinsk, was guided by when he refused to participate in the forcible removal of Archbishop Artemy from the cathedra, so as not to create precedents that would inevitably lead to that any of the bishops falling victim to such canonical «violence.»

Belarusian Exarchate – Moscow Patriarchate

Second, the configuration of relations between the Belarusian Exarchate and the Moscow Patriarchate was a guarantee of stability for Archbishop Artemy in the cathedra, which is a second thread of the general balance. The previous Metropolitan Pavel (Ponomorev) was viewed as the Patriarchal Exarch. His main task in this capacity was to implement the interests and priorities of the Moscow Patriarchate within the BOC and to maintain stability within the Belarusian Exarchate, even at the cost of confrontation with state authorities. Despite several mistakes at the beginning of his mission in Belarus, Metropolitan Pavel managed to maintain such stability, including through the creation of spaces where groups of different ideological orientation and vision of church life could exist. Under him, the range of opportunities for Belarusian-speaking services expanded and the Minsk Theological Academy was created, under which a missionary laboratory operated. The Grodno diocese has become one such space. Accordingly, this reduced the degree of tension between different groups and reduced the relevance of autocephalous sentiments, since people oriented towards Belarus or missionary activity could find their niche within the existing system. Metropolitan Pavel himself was more of a «lack of ideology» leader or a functionary; he was guided not by the promotion of ideology, but by the bureaucratic criteria of the effectiveness of the structure he governed.

The situation changed because of the socio-political crisis, within which the strategy «both ours and yours» could no longer work. In this context, the neutral statements and steps taken by Metropolitan Pavel, such as visiting protesters who had been beaten and tortured or calls for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, aroused strong opposition from the regime, and under pressure from the Belarusian authorities the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to appoint a Metropolitan more suitable for the regime. This was Benjamin, who until then had not been distinguished by any special authority or influence. His only means for promotion to this position was the support of the Belarusian regime, for which Metropolitan Benjamin turned out to be a very convenient candidate and was able to be completely controlled.

Thus, the leadership of the Belarusian Exarchate shifted its priorities and became headed by one whose position can be defined more as «Presidential Exarch» than as «Patriarchal Exarch.» With it, administrative dependence on the Moscow Patriarchate was replaced by a strong dependence on the authoritarian regime. This is what the priest Alexander Shramko calls «autocephaly in the bad sense of the word.»

In general, if there is no confrontation between the Lukashenko regime and the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Benjamin’s «autocephalousness» from Moscow will not be very conspicuous. Moreover, the change in balance that has occurred is compensated by several factors.

The strong ideological orientation of Metropolitan Benjamin towards Russia, the ideas of an all-Russian civilization, the severe rejection of Belarusian national revival and this kind of rhetoric provide him with the sympathy of certain forces in Russia and the appearance of loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate. This loyalty of Benjamin is more ideological than administrative or functional; that is, it is loyalty to the idea of a single Russian Church rather than the realization of specific interests.

The same process taking place in the church environment is taking place in the public space, as Nikolai Khalezin characterizes it: «The main thing is that today we have an ideal situation at a turning point where Russians do not understand the essence of what is happening in Belarus… Now our biggest helpers are Russian and invited Belarusian «experts» from crappy political talk shows who create a picture distorted beyond recognition of not only what is happening in Belarus, but also around the world.» The main problem here is the flawed transfer of the realities of the Ukrainian situation to Belarus, both in politics in general and in church life. For the ROC, the «button» that clouds the mind is the theme of «autocephaly» or «the invasion of the Patriarchate of Constantinople into the canonical territory» of the Ukrainian model. As soon as the signal of «autocephaly» is triggered, instead of sober analysis, ideological alarmism enters the scene, which dictates the need to simply produce moral panic without allowing for rational assessment of risks and results.

It was these two factors that played into the hands of Metropolitan Benjamin in his desire to get rid of Archbishop Artemy – a disloyal and dangerous church leader for the Belarusian regime. The latter began to create the image of an «autocephalist» while the Metropolitan Benjamin fashioned himself a «defender of the canonical church.»

What are the consequences of an increase in the dependence of the Belarusian Orthodox Church on the political regime, the legitimacy of which is close to collapsing, due to a decrease in the dependence of the Belarusian Exarchate on the Moscow Patriarchate?

First, as researchers note, there is a growing rift between the hierarchy and believers within the Orthodox Church. Among believers who share the agenda of the protests, including active parishioners, employees of church organizations, priests and clergy members, there is a lack of trust in the hierarchy and disillusionment with it. In the absence of at least one bishop who shares this position the situation is significantly worsening. The narrow ideological orientation of Metropolitan Benjamin and his focus on maintaining strict discipline destroys the space for all forces and groups of a different orientation, forcing them to act independently and without regard to church hierarchy. Apparently, Metropolitan Benjamin is doing his best together with the state apparatus (Natalya Kochanova even organizes a whole tour of dioceses to campaign to priests on behalf of the authorities) in working to resolve the common problem of trying to maintain discipline and loyalty towards the Lukashenko regime that has shaken the BOC.

This «witch hunt» is leading to the destruction of the resources and potential of the Belarusian Orthodox Church itself, including the devastation of ongoing projects, such as the Minsk Theological Academy or the missionary laboratory, and the demotivation of priests and church activists.

The Belarusian Orthodox Church will become less and less attractive for highly qualified, talented, and experienced professionals who will look for other ways for self-actualization. We should expect an outflow of such professionals from the BOC, as well as an outflow of clergy, theological students, and members of various church fraternities and sisterhoods. On the one hand, this will contribute to the growth of non-professionalism, fundamentalism, and the concentration of detestable individuals in certain positions who will determine church «policy.» On the other hand, the emergence of an environment independent of the hierarchy, parallel to the church and built on horizontal ties, is possible. Instead of discipline, the hierarchy could become an independent church community, with the resignation of Archbishop Artemy playing the role of a «black swan.»

Secondly, in the context of the failure of the legitimacy of the Lukashenko regime, active cooperation with him undermines the credibility of the Belarusian Orthodox Church in society generally. On the one hand, the support of the authorities becomes the main resource for maintaining the viability and vital activity of this institution, leading to its even greater coalescence with the state apparatus and its interests. Now even prayer themes come down «from above.» (The All-Belarusian prayer «For Belarus!» is slated for governmental decree for July 2 – noted by reform.by.) On the other hand, this leads to an even greater separation of the church bureaucratic elite from the life of a broad cross section of society.


Natalya Vasilevich,
theologian, political scientist, moderator of the Christian Vision group of the Coordination Council. Expert in the field of the confessional situation in Belarus.


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