Banning Uminsky as an Orthodox "papism" temptation
Is it permissible to ban a priest from ministry for refusing to read a newly created prayer for the "victory" that is not found in any liturgical book?
Priest Alexiy Uminsky from Moscow was dismissed from his position as the rector of the Trinity Church, banned from the priesthood, and summoned to a church trial for ignoring the "Prayer for Holy Russia" during the liturgy, commonly known as the "Victory Prayer". This prayer was distributed to Russian dioceses in September 2022 through a special circular from the patriarchate.
The situation surrounding Uminsky is not new. There have been bans on other priests related to this prayer, such as Fr. Ioann Koval, who changed the word "victory" to "peace" in it. But the question is, can a priest be banned for refusing to read a specific prayer? And if so, in what cases? Let's figure it out.
What is the prayer about?
Let's provide the full text of this prayer:
"O Lord God of Hosts, God of our salvation, look with mercy upon Your humble servants, hear and have mercy on us: for those desiring to defeat Holy Russia have gathered to divide and destroy its one people.
Arise, O God, to help Your people and grant us victory by Your strength.
Hasten to grant strength and deliverance from calamities to Your faithful children, zealously devoted to the unity of the Russian Church, in the spirit of brotherly love. Forbid those who tear apart in the darkness of their minds and hardening of hearts the robe that is Your Church, the Church of the Living God, and overthrow their intentions. Lead the rulers holding power to every good, instruct them with wisdom and enrich them with Your grace!
Establish warriors and all defenders of our Homeland in Your commandments, bestow fortitude upon them, preserve them from death, wounds, and captivity!
Lead those deprived of home and in exile into houses, nourish the hungry, strengthen and heal the sick and suffering, give good hope and consolation to those in confusion and sorrow! In these days, forgive the sins and grant blessed repose to those who have been killed and have died from wounds and illnesses!
Fulfill us with faith, hope, and love in You, renew peace and unity among all the lands of Holy Russia, and restore love to one another in Your people, so that with one mouth and one heart we may confess to You, the Only God, glorified in the Trinity."
As we can see, this prayer is a plea to God for victory. Over whom? Over the devil? No. Over those who resist the "warriors and defenders of our Homeland," who can cause them "death, wounds, or captivity." Undoubtedly, the defenders mentioned here refer to the Russian military. And who is the Russian military currently fighting against? They are fighting against Ukrainians on the territory of Ukraine. The plain logic leads us to the conclusion that this prayer is about the victory of Russia over Ukraine. And it is precisely for refusing such a prayer that Father Alexiy Uminsky is currently being judged.
Who is the author of the prayer?
Most commonly accepted and established prayer texts in the Church are attributed to specific authors: the Liturgy of John Chrysostom, the Liturgy of Basil the Great, the Morning Prayer of Macarius the Great, the Evening Prayer of Peter of Studios, and so on. Even if a prayer lacks a specified author, it may have become so deeply rooted in the Church tradition that it is considered an integral part of the prayer life of every Christian. These prayers are recited by all of us, and altering their texts, notably liturgical texts, is strictly prohibited.
For instance, in the ordination vow (priestly oath) recited by candidates for the priesthood, it is stated: "I promise to perform the services and sacraments with diligence and reverence according to the church order, not changing anything arbitrarily."
In Church practice, it is established that if a particular text appears in the liturgical order of the service (even temporarily), it must be approved by the Holy Synod. Naturally, even in this case, prayer texts should avoid contentious issues, not provoke disagreements, and not exacerbate divisions within society. For example, the Synod may decide on the recitation of a special prayer during droughts, plagues, and so on. However, if a prayer is recited about victory in war against fellow believers, especially as declared by the Russian Orthodox Church, "members of the single Church," then extreme caution is required.
Usually, we do not know the author of "new" prayers approved during sessions of the Holy Synod. We simply reassure ourselves – if these texts are collectively approved, then they can be recited. However, we do not hear about the obligation to recite them.
Nor do we know the name of the author of the prayer for which Father Alexiy Uminsky has been banned from the priesthood. But there are indirect signs that Patriarch Kirill himself might be the author.
On September 12, 2022, he "drew the attention of parishioners to the importance of regularly offering prayers for the defense of the native land."
There are already quite a few prayers for the defense of the homeland "against enemies and adversaries," as we have previously mentioned. But Patriarch Kirill decided that another one should be added. Okay.
Who approved the text of the "special" prayer?
By logic, the text of this "additional" prayer should have originated from the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), been coordinated with the Synodal members, received their (even formal) approval, and only then reached the desks of the bishops, from whom it could be distributed to ordinary priests. Synod - Bishop - Priest. The scheme is simple and understandable. However, this was not the case with the "special" prayer, which the Synod did not approve. It first sounded from the lips of Patriarch Kirill during his service in his Peredelkino residence.
It is essential to emphasize that this is not a prayer composed by a saint and firmly integrated into the liturgical practice. It is not a prayer from the Service Book that priests must read. It is a prayer from Peredelkino.
In essence, any priest is entitled not to recite anything during the liturgy that is not in the Service Book. This is because the Church, in its wisdom, has established liturgical texts that are entirely sufficient to meet any needs. All these texts are in the Service Books: prayers for multiplying love, for travelers, for every need, and so on.
In this sense, Father Alexiy Uminsky, like any other priest, had the full right not to recite the "special" prayer for several reasons: it is not in the Service Book, it lacks conciliar origin, it is not approved by the Holy Synod, and it is one person's desire.
But this person is the Patriarch, you may say. And here arises the next question:
Is a clergyman obliged to fulfill every wish of the Patriarch?
If the author of this prayer is Patriarch Kirill, does that change anything? Does it become obligatory for everyone? Even if orders, circulars, and the like were distributed on this matter. In other words,
Does Patriarch, who constantly opposes the papism of the Phanar and emphasizes the conciliar nature of the Church, have the right to impose his will on the Church and ban those who disagree with this will from the priesthood?
In our opinion, no, he does not. Because the duties and powers of the Patriarch are clearly outlined in the Charter on the Administration of the ROC.
According to this document, the Patriarch "has the precedence of honor among the episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church and is accountable to the Local and Hierarchical Councils <…> takes care of the internal and external well-being of the Russian Orthodox Church and governs it jointly with the Synod, being its chairman." He is responsible for maintaining the unity of the hierarchy of the ROC, issuing (jointly with the Synod) decrees on the election and appointment of diocesan bishops, and exercising control over the activities of the hierarchs.
But he does not have the right to arbitrarily remove something from liturgical texts or introduce something into them that was not there before. For instance, he cannot say, "From now on, we do not read the Gospel" or skip some ektenia. Similarly, he cannot order everyone to recite a prayer that is not in included in the Service Book.
The Patriarch is a bishop elected by God and the people to a very high ministry. He is not infallible. This is precisely why history knows many patriarchs who were mistaken, erred, and fell into heresies.
History also knows cases when Orthodox believers refused to recite a prayer if its text, in their opinion, contradicted gospel values, conscience, or ethical considerations. But did they have the right to do so? In other words, can a priest refuse to recite the Patriarch's prayer?
To answer this question, let's turn to history.
In 1854, during the Russo-Turkish War, Patriarch Anthimos VI of Constantinople published a prayer text that literally said the following:
"Lord our God... Look now, Holy King of glory, accept from us, your humble and sinful servants, the prayer offered to You for the sovereign, most serene, and merciful Tsar and autocrat, Sultan Abdul-Mejid, our ruler... Strengthen his army, grant victories and trophies everywhere, destroy the enemies risen against his reign, and arrange everything for his benefit, so that we may live a quiet and peaceful life."
Let's set aside for now the similarity between Patriarch Anthimos' request for the Sultan's victory over the enemies of the Ottoman Empire and Patriarch Kirill's plea for victory over those who "oppose Holy Rus." Instead, let's focus on another parallel – the prayer composed on the Phanar was distributed to all churches of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but not everyone recited it.
For example, it was not recited at Mount Athos – neither in the cells nor in the monasteries.
And what happened? Did Patriarch Anthimos prohibit anyone from ministry? Deprived of his rank, brought to court? No. Because he understood that there was no canonical offense in not reciting a prayer that was not in the Service Book.
So why does Patriarch Kirill act differently?
To answer this question, let's recount a story from the past that may help understand the root of the problem.
Russian historian Mikhail Voslensky, in his book "Nomenklatura", writes that during an interview in his Kremlin office with correspondents from the German magazine "Stern", "Brezhnev could not resist and showed them a phone with red buttons for direct communication with the first secretaries of the Central Committees of socialist countries. You press a button, inquire about their health, send greetings to their families – and give 'advice.' And then you lean back in the somewhat stiff leather chair and, with a well-fed pleasure, think about how, in a foreign capital, they are starting to hurriedly implement the 'advice.'"
So, it seems to us that something similar is happening with many hierarchs of our Church. For a person whose wishes and "advice" are immediately implemented, it may seem that he possesses immense power. In these cases, it does not matter where, how, or from whom a particular "archpastoral" thought originated – it must be implemented immediately. Therefore, any refusal is considered an "encroachment" on the bishop's authority, undermining his status, which, in the ecclesiastical-nomenclature language, is called "disobedience". As a result, such "nonconformists" are banned from the ministry.
Why did we choose to broach this matter? Not to merely criticize the Patriarch or take a jab at him. No. Because the roots of the described problem go deeper and further. Identical issues occur within many dioceses. They often originate where bishops begin to believe that their authority extends to all aspects of the lives of clergy and laity. It happens where a hierarch allows one of the three temptations, with which Satan tempted Christ, to enter his heart – the temptation of power.
Secondly, we would like to draw the attention of His Holiness to the fact that while fighting against the papism of the Patriarch of Constantinople, he seems to overlook that he is showing signs of the same ailment. It's like in Nietzsche's famous saying: "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
Thirdly – as we constantly underscore: the Church is a space of love, freedom, and Truth in Christ, rather than an administrative, bureaucratic, and punitive apparatus. The main thing is to preserve peace and unity with the Lord and with each other, to strive for the Kingdom of Heaven, and then "all the rest will be added."
Banning a priest from ministry just because he refuses to recite a prayer that contradicts his ethical or perhaps even political views has nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven and, therefore, brings great harm to the Church. Because politics changes, but Christ remains the same forever.