http://www.mosnews.com/feature/2005/02/01/orthoweb.shtmlFather, Please Press “Reply”! Orthodox Progressives Go Online
Created: 01.02.2005 19:14 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 15:44 MSK
People tend to view religion and the church as rather conservative, providing a steady mumble against society’s evil technological progress and general degradation of morals. Historically, the church in Russia has not been an exception, holding back progressive czars like Peter the Great. Surprisingly then today’s Russian Orthodox Church is an institution with an active and creative internet presence, and one of the strongest voices against Internet censorship.
The first orthodox websites appeared in 1996, two years after the historical birth of the .ru domain. One year later, the Moscow Patriarchy opened their official website with a welcome to the internet congregation from the patriarch and the hope that the new resource would be used with a good conscience.
Maybe my views of what the Orthodox Church is are utterly outdated, but hearing priests arguing against censorship on the web, excitedly praising the Internet as a great resource, and keeping LiveJournals somehow does not fit with traditional images of Orthodox silent vows, hermit monks, and ascetic desert elders. Generally, Orthodox Christianity has always been more concerned about communicating with God than about community service, and during soviet years, the community would rather have sent you to Siberia than be serviced, anyway. The USSR’s official atheism has had more than one effect on the church and its relationship with the Internet.
Firstly, with relations as tense as those between church and state in the USSR, there was no tradition of religious media in the country, nor an established way of disseminating official information pertaining to church business. Many priests kept in touch with their parishes from prison via letters and the rest preferred verbal discussion with only a few trustees to avoid unnecessary problems.
As a result, even today informational printed religious magazines are few and far between. Finding out about this or that icon, a new book or a heartfelt sermon is done by word of mouth: traditional media like television and printed press are neither capable nor interested in covering this information in a way that the church wants. There are no established channels for the church to reach a wider audience, so the internet is becoming a useful alternative, and Orthodox writers often seek to be published on leading websites, rather than in the printed press, while magazines frequently reprint online material.
Another consequence of state atheism is the Orthodox Church’s fragmentation. To an outside observer, it’s identical everywhere: the rituals are the same, the priests’ outfits are the same, the doctrine is the same. Almost everything is uniform, except politics. Here is a necessary historic side note: after the revolution, a new patriarch had to write a declaration of loyalty to the Communist Party. People who did not recognize this new patriarch were either shot or fled abroad, so the church separated into the Moscow Patriarchy, which remained in Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, that positioned itself as the true church and a self-proclaimed martyr. For decades these two churches and their respective followers were at war with one another, and today their skirmishes have gone on to the Internet as well.
This side note sheds light on the Orthodox Internet phenomenon: if the Church were uniform, there would hardly be as many Orthodox websites, each marching to the drum of their respective jurisdiction. So the fragmentation in part explains why the Internet became so popular with priests and parishes. One of the most interesting trends is the number of different priests on LiveJournal.com, the giant blog community, who each have their virtual congregation in the “friend of” section.
“The Internet is, of course, one way of initiating people into religion,” says Nune Barsegyan, a writer who is working on a book about Orthodox priests and the Church’s inner politics. “Before you had preachers that went to bazaars to reach a wider audience, now the Internet is like a giant bazaar, limitless for missionary work.”
The bazaar-like atmosphere is sometimes recognizable at internet forums, where people of different confessions and branches of orthodoxy are trying to come to terms with one another, not always successfully. But these forums also serve another purpose: they provide information about orthodoxy to people who are scared of actually physically going to churches.
The hardest audience for the church to attract — young people — is generally not enthusiastic about going to mass. “There is usually an atmosphere in our churches that isn’t entirely hospitable to newcomers,” says Marina, a university student. “I get reprimanded by these old ladies when I don’t do something correctly, like wear a head scarf. But how am I supposed to know about all details if I am in church for the very first time? And after you get yelled at, you don’t want to come backGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª”
The Internet is one way of reading more on religious topics thus bypassing the inhospitable old ladies, and then maybe coming back to church with the ability to ignore them altogether. In any case, having a conversation with a priest is often easier online (many websites have the so-called ’question-answer’ sections), than trying to catch him by the frock after mass along with dozens of other parishioners. So, the Internet provides a variety of different religious resources: from huge web portals to parish websites, and web magazines.
Deacon Andrei Kuraev, a well-known professor at the Moscow Theological Academy said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio station that the Internet teaches people how to live in a pluralistic society. “The more opinions you see, the fewer stones you have in your pockets,” he opined, adding that censorship turns citizens into “reality show participants”. The forum on Kuraev’s website is one of the biggest Russian religious forums, numbering over 7000 registered participants and discussions on anything from fixing a printer and fighting bedevillers to the historical dating of the Book of Daniel.
Other examples: a website with a large library of religious texts, where one can listen to choral audio recordings simultaneously glancing at the notes, or the chance to see a live broadcast from the Christ the Savior Cathedral. There are even websites where you can request a special prayer or a burial service. And if you live in Moscow and prefer actually going to church, you can consult the city map and service schedule.
Although there are numerous progressive Orthodox priests like Deacon Kuraev, there are also people like Anatoliy Berestov, a priest who wrote a book about the dangers in the twenty-first century, when technology alienates people from church, and the Internet is a “garden of delights more suitable for demons than God”. But let’s face it, if he stays offline, his book will only be read by those who purchase the printed version.
One Russian saint, Theophanus the Recluse, spent the last twenty years of his life secluded from the outside world, keeping in touch with his pupils through letters. Today he is being considered as potential patron saint for the Russian Internet. Many Orthodox monasteries today have computers with Internet access: my friend Ivan, who helped one monk install a computer in a Mount Afon monastery cell, says, “A monk with a laptop is as natural as a monk with a book.” With technology’s advances, maybe a modern recluse would keep in touch over LiveJournal.