Overview and Context
Even before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the emergence of Islamic caliphates in the Middle East barred Orthodox missionaries from the Mediterranean area from extending their activities eastwards or into Africa. Some Eastern Orthodox Churches in the Middle East1 (the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and the Balkans (the Churches of the South Slavs of Bulgaria and Serbia) had by then already been under Arab or Ottoman rule for a greater or lesser period of time. The Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, which secured their autonomy by tributes paid to the Sublime Porte, did from time to time (beginning in the 15th century) provide active material and political support to key Orthodox sites under Ottoman rule, including the ancient patriarchal institutions of Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch, as well as such centres of monasticism as Mount Athos or St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. Yet the oppressive conditions under which the Ottoman oikumene subsisted gradually wore down the energy of all these individual Churches. The reordering of eastern Europe in the 19th century and the emergence of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania as nation states precluded outwardly directed missionary activity both before the First World War and, later, when power was seized by socialist and avowedly atheist regimes on Soviet lines.
The baptism of Vladimir, Grand Duke of Kyiv (956–1015), marked the emergence of a Christian culture to the north of the Black Sea which was to develop into a major centre of Orthodox influence. After the fall of the Tatar khanates on the Volga – Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1554), the last major European territories under Mongol rule – there was nothing to stop the tsars from extending their empire eastwards. From Russia, Orthodox Christianity spread into the Caucasus and through central Asia and Siberia towards the Pacific, which was reached in 1636. Alaska and the islands of the Bering Strait in the North Pacific were the site of intense missionary efforts from the early 19th century. A mission departing from eastern Siberia began to operate in the Altai Mountains. Even where Russian expansion came up against the boundaries of other powers, diplomatic relations initially obtained access for Orthodox clergy, as was the case in China in the early 18th century, Japan in 1860 and Korea in 1900.
A surprising turn towards Orthodoxy can be observed in Africa. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Greek Orthodox diaspora communities sprang up in a number of major African cities. Although their effect on the Orthodox mission remained limited, by the 1920s various movements in Africa found themselves drawn towards Orthodoxy – not as a result of missionary activity, but as part of a project of "self-conversion". This was enough to secure a lasting presence for Eastern Christianity across much of the continent.
The Russian Orthodox Mission
The periodization of the history of the Russian Orthodox mission2 broadly follows the ecclesiastical and political developments described here. In its earliest days, mission consisted in the spontaneous activities of individual monasteries, which ministered to local populations both Christian and non-Christian. Since monastic communities tended to establish themselves in remote retreats on the fringes of civilization, they often acted as outposts of the Orthodox faith in the course of Russian expansion – without "monastic colonisation"3 yet being a systematically pursued strategy. The conquest of the Tatar khanates on the Volga in the mid-16th century, however, meant that mission to the Muslim population and other missionary endeavours gained political support or even took place at the ruler's behest. In the early 18th century Peter the Great (1672–1725) was a systematic promoter of mission work. In doing so, however, he tied the Church so closely to the state that it slowly came to appear as another branch of government. By the mid-18th century, this presented a serious impediment to mission – all the more so since Catherine II (reigned 1762–1796) brought to the throne Enlightenment ideas which including curtailing the social role of the Orthodox Church. In some cases, this even meant an outright ban on missionary activity. In early 19th century, the missionary fervour of individual actors did much to strengthen the mission as a whole, with effects felt across the entire Church. An official missionary society was finally established by the Russian Church in 1865/70, but activities again largely ceased following the October Revolution of 1917.
The Mission to Islam
From the early Middle Ages, contact between Russian Orthodoxy and Islam was dominated by the military and political clash between Slavs and various Turkic peoples in the Volga basin and in Central Asia. This tension was further charged by an enduring religious conflict, which began when two Muslim rulers – first Berke (1205–1267) and later Özbeg (Uzbek) (1313–1341) – acceded to the throne of the Golden Horde, thereby accelerating the process of Islamization among the Mongols.4 Russian principalities remained vassals of the Golden Horde until the rule of Ivan III (1440–1505).5 The conquest of the khanates of Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1554) by Ivan IV (1530–1584) put an end to the political legacy of Mongol rule in a region that had served as a bulwark of Islam. This reciprocity between rule and vassalage continued to characterise relations between Russian Orthodoxy and Islam until the end of tsarist rule in 1917.
While Russian Orthodox dioceses and parishes had existed in these and other territories even under Mongol rule, an organised mission to the Tatars could begin only after the conquest of Kazan. Its main agents were Ivan IV and Gury, the first metropolitan of the newly founded seat of Kazan. In 1555, the tsar issued Gury with guidelines of a sort for his missionary work,6 in which the goal of converting the Tatars was explicitly stated. Gury was enjoined to proceed with "goodness and love" and to devote himself personally to potential converts among the social elites. In the furtherance of his mission, he was also granted enhanced rights vis-à-vis the secular authorities, for instance in offering asylum to fugitives and acting as an instance of appeal regardless of their supposed misdemeanours.
By contrast, the task of educating the mass of ordinary people fell to monasteries and the schools they operated. How important they were is evident from the fact that thirty-one new monastic communities were founded in the dioceses over the following decades. The various demands and expectations – economic, political and pastoral – they faced were reminiscent of the role monasteries and ecclesiastical territories had come to play in the West by the time of Charlemagne (747–814). Yet these tasks meant that they had few resources to spare for missionary activity. The work gradually passed to specific instances – individual monastic communities7 or missionaries – who, however, were overwhelmed by the complexity and range of the task.8
Especially once a monk named Cyril had founded a monastery there, the city of Astrakhan, conquered in 1554, became a centre of missionary activity. Its example shows that the mission was more likely to be successful in urban centres. Other such success stories are hard to find, although it seems that some 20,000 Muslim Tatars were baptised under Gury's episcopate.
The mission strategy, which bore pronounced hallmarks of a state enterprise, mixed religious elements with economic incentives, such as exemption from certain taxes, obligatory labour and conscription as well as favourable treatment in the distribution of government offices and the use of land. That aside, the mission for a long time continued to operate in a context of tension between the conquerors and their new subjects. Though typical of such situations, the problem was made worse by the lack of personnel with suitable qualifications for missionary work. Many converts lacked permanent pastoral care following their baptism, and the new religion was often adopted only at a superficial level.
In this respect, a new phase was heralded by the accession of Peter the Great, who had a strong interest in the mission and was aware of the need for reform. He made efforts to improve educational standards, including at the Kyiv Theological Academy (Kyiv-Mohyla Academy), which produced a number of dedicated missionaries and bishops. Tikhon III, metropolitan of Kazan (in office 1699–1724), founded a seminary9 in 1724 for the purpose of training a native missionary clergy. Under Tikhon's successor Silvester (in office 1725–1731) the seminary did indeed produce its first Tatar priest, Ivan Dimitriev.10 Yet these successes proved to be short-lived, especially once Empress Anna Ivanovna (1693–1740) ordered this and other monastic schools to be closed.
However, the reforms of Peter the Great also entailed a loss of freedom on the part of the Church. Impediments to missionary work – largely put in place by Catherine II (1762–1796) – were also to prove consequential in the long term. In an effort to promote Enlightenment ideas and curtail clerical influence, her government cut all financial support for the mission and tried to prevent all missionary activity by secret orders or open measures. In 1764, for instance, Catherine dissolved the so-called "Office of the Newly Baptised", thereby depriving the mission of the central instance coordinating between the Russian synod and the various dioceses and missions and supporting their activities.11
The mission to Islam also slowed down during Catherine II's reign, and the efforts of individual missions or centres, such as Filaret Amfiteatrov (1779–1857), archbishop of Kazan, were not enough to reverse this trend. News spread of open Muslim recruitment (which was formally prohibited) and the reconversion of certain communities. Only when police and administrative measures proved unable to stem this tide did the state rediscover its interest in the mission. The Kazan seminary was reopened with a focus on missionary work. To support these efforts, new chairs were created for instruction in eastern and oriental languages as well as in the culture and religion of the peoples among which the missionaries would work. These efforts proved beneficial to missionary work as well as laying the foundations for Russian oriental studies, which soon began to produce important scholarly work, for instance that of Nikolaĭ Ilʹminskīĭ (1822–1891), an expert on Islam who did missionary work among the Tatars.
Although himself a layman, Ilminsky produced a translation of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom into Tatar, which he presented to the archbishop of Kazan, Grigorij Postnikov (in office 1848–1856). This led to the establishment of a permanent translation commission, which published the Liturgy in 1850, followed by other liturgical and scriptural texts. From 1854, the Kazan seminary built up a mission institute with three branches – Tatar,12 Mongolian and Chuvash-Cheremis – dedicated to studying the language and culture of these peoples. The Gury Fraternity was founded in 1867 to support the mission – not only financially, but also by ensuring that the peoples concerned should have better access to education. By 1899, nearly 1.6 million copies had been printed of a variety of religious texts. In 1904 the Fraternity ran 150 schools for boys and girls of Tatar, Chuvash, Cheremis (Mari), Votyak (Udmurt) and Mordvin ethnicity.
The mission among the Tatars in the Volga Basin, the Crimea and the Caucasus was nonetheless at best a qualified success. Moreover, during the Crimean War (1853–1856) against France, Britain and the Ottoman Turks, the Russian government thought it unwise to offend the religious sensibilities of the Muslim Crimean Tatars.
Only in the later 19th century did the Russian Orthodox mission to Islam begin to make considerable progress. Advances were made in training missionaries and a native clergy, in setting up schools among the people to be missionised, in translating and publishing texts in many languages, and the academic study of the language, culture and religion of the peoples concerned. Yet still the results were not always commensurate with the effort made. Islam put up active opposition, while the Orthodox church often found its attempts to adapt its strategy hampered by the state. As far as the state was concerned, the decree of toleration issued in April 1905 did away with any justification for the mission to Islam, and the Church's freedom to continue the mission was increasingly curtailed. The state was now looking to involve the Church in missionary activity of a different kind: in the struggle against socialism, which was inimical to religion and to the regime alike. After 1917, there was to be no more mission to Islam in its late-19th-century form till the end of the 20th century.
The Mission in Siberia
Beginning in the 16th century, the exploration of Siberia opened up a vast new space of activity for the Russian Church. The lands between the Urals and the Pacific, between the Artic Circle and the borders with Mongolia and China were inhabited by a variety of peoples, many of them semi- or fully nomadic.
The Orthodox mission received an important boost from a ukase or decree issued by Peter the Great in June 1700. In it, the tsar declared that the mission was to prepare the ground "for the strengthening and spread of the Orthodox Christian faith and for the proclamation of the Holy Gospel among the idolatrous peoples; furthermore, in order to lead the tributary tribes around Tobolsk and the other cities of Siberia to the Christian faith and to Holy Baptism …".13 Although the reasons given in this document are primarily religious, other motivating factors may have included a desire to stabilise the empire both inwardly and – in this case, with a view to the Chinese border – outwardly.
The foremost missionary of this time was Filofej Leščinskij, metropolitan of Tobolsk (in office 1702–1712 and 1715–1720), who kept the tsar personally abreast of developments in his vast diocese. His proposals included measures to stem Muslim influence and to offer material and social incentives for converting to Christianity. He also suggested that evangelisation among the Siberian tribes be intensified and that joint ecclesiastical and diplomatic missions be sent to China.14 During his tenure, the number of churches in his diocese rose from 160 to 448, and some 40,000 new Christians were baptised. Yet such successes, which were largely due to the efforts of a few missionaries, did not provide a stable foundation for further growth. A lack of manpower (although one school was opened in Tobolsk), chaotic administration, haphazard implementation of benefits for the newly baptised by local authorities, a strengthened sense of mission on the part of Islam, and a lack of missionary and catechetical activity in Siberia prevented Leshchinskiy's efforts from bearing fruit in the long term.15
A particular difficulty facing the mission was that converts usually remained in their communities alongside their unbaptised compatriots. Given the fast-track approach to Christianisation, this made it all the more likely that converts would sooner or later revert to their earlier religious allegiance. Preventing this from happening required adequate pastoral and catechetical care, which was not available everywhere. The alternative was the (usually state-mandates) resettlement of converts – which, however, made baptism seem much less attractive. How difficult this strategy was can be seen in the Kalmyk mission. In the early 17th century the Kalmyks, a Buddhist people, migrated from Mongolia through Central Asia and south of the Urals, eventually reaching Kazan and Astrakhan. The first attempt at their collective Christianisation was made by baptising a tribal chieftain in the 1720s. In keeping with his people's nomadic lifestyle, the synod even equipped him with a mobile camp church. In 1738 the Russian government resettled some 2,000 Kalmyks who, however, depended on state aid for their new sedentary existence.16 Later, when Russians were settled there in order to facilitate knowledge transfer regarding a sedentary lifestyle, a parish was set up specifically for the Kalmyks. Nonetheless, a Christian-Buddhist "double life" could not be wholly prevented.
One feature of this early mission in Siberia and the Pacific seaboard was the lack of missionaries and parish priests. Even where missionary efforts were successful in the short term, a dearth of personnel and material meant that they did not usually take hold. In consequence, repeated efforts had to be made in many places.17
After conditions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries made it seem unlikely that the Russian mission would ever take a successful turn,18 a new era began only a few decades later. Two examples in particular are worth discussing in this context: the mission to the Altai Mountains led by Makarii Glukharev and the mission to the Aleutian Islands led by Innocent Veniaminov.
Makarii Glukharev (1792–1847), a monk, decided to lead a mission to Altai Mountains.19 Together with a small band of companions, Makarii (Macarius) planned not only to perform missionary services among the region's tribes – using, for instance, mobile camp churches – but also, in the longer term, to study the local languages and produce20 translations.21 Makarii believed that baptism was only the beginning of Christianisation and accordingly sought to ensure that the newly baptised received continuous catechetical instruction. This was most likely to succeed where converts adopted a sedentary lifestyle and schools could operate effectively.
Another innovative idea was to involve women in the mission, primarily in the education of girls and the care of the sick. From this idea ultimately arose an institute of female mission auxiliaries. The systematic organisation of his missionary activities meant that Makarii's work continued even after his death. The Altai mission continued to grow until the early 20th century and exerted a positive influence on developments throughout the Orthodox Church.
A representative example of how the Russian Orthodox mission is perceived within missionary studies is the case of Innocent (Ivan) Veniaminov (1797–1879), who took the name of Innocent when he became a monk. Innocent ranks among the most successful missionaries of modern times. His activities as a missionary and organizer of missions as well as his work as a linguist and naturalist22 situate him alongside such figures as St Francis Xavier (1506–1552), Robert Morrison (1782–1834) or David Livingstone (1813–1873). Yet his name is less familiar even to scholars in the field of mission studies. Having grown up in humble circumstances, the son of a church server who died when Ivan was a boy, he was trained at the Irkutsk seminary before marrying and becoming a parish priest in that city. When, in 1823, he saw that a priest was wanted for a posting to the Aleutian Islands, Veniaminov applied after some initial hesitation. Soon afterwards, he travelled to Unalaska with his wife and infant child as well as his mother and brother.
Although the Aleuts were considered nominally Christian, their Christianity was thought to be little more than skin deep – all the more so because their parish (like many others in the area) had been vacant for about thirty years.23 In the approximately ten years of his work on Unalaska and the neighbouring islands, Veniaminov tried to conduct his mission in the Aleut language, which he learnt with the help of Ivan Pankov. He gave it written form and produced its first grammar, translated the Gospel of St Matthew and a catechism, and produced instructional material for schools. At the same time, he observed the islanders as well as the flora and fauna to produce several volumes of Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District.24 In 1834 he was posted to Novoarkhangelsk (now known as Sitka) on Sitka Island. His flock consisted of Russians and people of mixed race, but Veniaminov also sought to bring relief to the native Tlingit people (known in Russian as Koloshi) during a smallpox epidemic. Although the Tlingit were considered rebellious and had previously put up staunch resistance to Russian domination, Veniaminov's efforts during the epidemic won their trust and drew them to his mission.
With this experience in mind Veniaminov formulated a missionary vision25 that over the next two decades would see him travel between Yakutsk in eastern Siberia (part of his diocese since 1852), Anadyr in northern Siberia, and Russia's southern border with China, which continued into Mongolia, the river Amur and towards Alaska. By moving his residence to Yakutsk and the port of Ayan, he emphasised the importance of the mission to Siberia. He divided his transcontinental diocese into mission districts. The mission to North America continued, with mission centres being established first on Kodiak Island and later even as far south as San Francisco. The earliest Orthodox presence on the west coast of the United States goes back to this mission, predating any large-scale Russian or other Orthodox migration to the area.
In 1869 Veniaminov was appointed metropolitan of Moscow, the highest office in the Russian Church. In this capacity, he launched a root-and-branch reform of the Orthodox Mission Society, which had been founded in 1865. Among his missionary principles were the following.
- Missionaries must learn the local language in order to proclaim the faith directly.
- Baptism must be the result of free decision and reflection on the part of the convert.
- There must be no incentives for adopting Christianity, nor must any pressure be applied.
- Scripture, liturgies and catechetical writings must be translated into local languages.
- The wider community of the faithful must be made aware of mission and its calling.
The area around Vladivostok was organised as a mission district in the late 19th century.26 Of the eleven mission stations set up there, nine were aimed at missionising Korean immigrants, and the missionary clergy included a Korean priest. Figures compiled in 1904 show that of approximately 15,000 Koreans living in the region, over 8,000 were Orthodox.27 Many of the Koreans who later returned to their home country took the idea of the mission with them, and by the 1920s thriving missions were operating in Seoul and Heijo (Pyongyang). The mission in Seoul continued to operate after the Second World War, while nothing is known of the fate of that in Pyongyang.28
The first major Russian Orthodox Presence in China sprang up after the two countries came into conflict in the course of their respective expansions in Central and East Asia. A contingent of approximately one hundred Russian prisoners had been settled in the northern districts of Beijing after the Manchus conquered the frontier settlement of Albazin on the river Amur in 1685. Their pastoral care was in the hands of the priest Maxim Leontieff, who had been among those taken prisoner. The Treaty of Kyakhta (1727) gave Russia the right, under the pretext of ensuring the pastoral care of the Albazinians, their descendants and other Russian visitors, to open a mission station29 of sorts in Beijing. This mission was to be staffed by four clergy and offer places for up to six language students. The mission reached mainly Albazinian families; its impact beyond that community remained limited by the restrictions placed on the movements and contacts of Russians working in China. Only in the 19th century did the Orthodox mission offer a counterweight to the sometimes influential Roman Catholic (particularly Jesuit) mission and become a pillar of cultural transfer between Europe and China in its own right.
After 1800, Chinese studies in Russia began to make advances and meet with international recognition. In the Treaty of Tientsin (1 June 1858), Russian missionaries were granted full freedom of movement and preaching. The Holy Synod now looked closely after the fulfilment of missionary duties and encouraged learning the Chinese language and training local helpers. In the 1860s the hieromonk Isaiah (Ivan) Polikin established a Chinese parish in the village of Dundinan near Beijing. He translated the Horologion and (in 1866) the liturgy into Chinese, though the Synod continued to uphold the Church Slavonic version. This changed only in the 1880s, when certain chants for the congregation were authorised in Chinese. At this time, the mission counted some 400 (more or less close) adherents. The first Chinese priest, Mitrophan Yang, was ordained in 1883.
Missionary activity received a new impetus in 1896, when Innocent (Ivan) Figurovsky (1863–1931) was appointed as its head. Within only two years, he oversaw the construction of two new chapels, a third school, an orphanage, a rest home and a printing press, which published a Russian-Chinese dictionary as its first book. The number of adherents and pupils grew rapidly. The Boxer Uprising of 1900/01 severely affected the mission – approximately 220 Orthodox Christians were killed and many facilities were burnt down – but did not lastingly halt its growth. The Holy Synod did much to support reconstruction, and soon afterwards thirty-four persons were employed at the mission under Innocent, who had been consecrated as bishop in 1902. In 1914 the mission counted more than five thousand Chinese Christians. Beyond Beijing, both Shanghai and Manchuria witnessed a growing Orthodox presence. Manchuria in particular saw in influx of Russian refugees following the October Revolution. Harbin was declared an episcopal see and dozens of new parishes were formed in the region. However, the Japanese occupation (1931–1945) and the arrival of the Red Army in Manchuria in 1945, followed by the Maoist revolution across China in the 1950s, made life for Russians in China and the Orthodox Mission very difficult. In 1950 Symeon Du (1866–1965) was consecrated bishop of the Chinese Orthodox Church by the canonical authority of the Moscow Patriarchate and recognised as such by the regime of Mao Zedong (1893–1976). This marked the end of the Russian Orthodox mission to China and the emergence of an autonomous Orthodox Church in China.
Following the opening of Japan30 in 1853, Russian ships were granted access to the ports of Shimoda and Nagasaki in 1855 and soon afterwards to Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido, where a Russian consulate was established in due course. In 1861 Nikolaĭ (Ivan) Kasatkin (1836–1912), a recent graduate of the Theological Academy in Saint Petersburg, was appointed chaplain to the consulate.31 Despite the consulate's relative isolation, Kasatkin gradually made contacts among the local population. This process had begun with a dispute with Takuma (later Paul) Sawabe (1834–1913), a samurai, overseer of a local Shinto temple and strong opponent of western influence in Japan. Kasatkin debated Sawabe, with the surprising result that the latter and two of his friends ultimately converted to Christianity. Assuming Christian names, Paul Sawabe, the physician John Sakai and Jacobus Urano were secretly received into the Church in 1869, becoming the first Japanese to adopt the Orthodox faith. They were followed by other interested listeners and candidates for baptism. Instead of the foreign priest, who remained a social outsider, the local converts became effective proselytisers, arousing the interest of several samurai in the Sendai region. In 1871 Kasatkin's plea for an official Orthodox mission to Japan bore fruit.32 His missionary principles included an obligation on the part of missionaries to learn Japanese, the recruitment of catechists from among the local population, and that there should be no baptism without prior instruction and a firm commitment to the faith. This procedure was to ensure that, given further catechetical instruction, the converts themselves could become missionaries.33 In 1872 the mission counted 500 candidates for baptism and approximately 100 Japanese Christians. The state did not at first look kindly on such activities – the mission was still officially subject to restrictive laws – and some high-profile Christians were imprisoned but soon released. All this only contributed to public awareness of Orthodoxy in Japan.
In 1872 Kasatkin moved to Tokyo, where he established the mission headquarters. In 1875 a seminary was opened for the instruction of catechists and prospective clergy. This instruction was soon given by former pupils. Several schools for boys and girls were set up in various locations, and Russian students and seminarians from eastern Siberia came to Tokyo to learn Japanese and further their theological studies. The first Japanese Orthodox clergy were ordained in the same year, with Sawabe, the former samurai, becoming a priest and Sakai, the physician, a deacon. Five more catechists were sent to be ordained in Vladivostok in 1878.
One of Kasatkin's most important measures was to give his Church a decidedly synodal constitution. Without dispensing with Orthodoxy's traditionally hierarchical structure, he made sure that laymen, catechists and clergy were involved in the work of the synod. The same principles applied at the regional and parish levels, very soon leading to a considerable level of local involvement in the shaping of Church life. This made work easier for Kasatkin, who for a long time was the only Orthodox missionary in Japan and who could only occasionally rely on the support of a handful of Russian aides. His approach, implemented consistently but with due caution and patience, was that the ratio of local priests, catechists and adherents to foreign missionaries far exceeded that of any other western mission in Japan. Within only a few decades of its founding, the Japanese Orthodox Church was largely an affair of Japanese Christians. Figures compiled in 1907 show there to have been a single foreign missionary (Kasatkin himself) alongside thirty-seven Japanese priests, 129 non-ordained assistants and some 30,000 adherents. In comparison, the Roman Catholic mission had 124 foreign missionaries, thirty-three local priests and 303 non-ordained assistants for 61,000 adherents.34
Even during the crisis of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Kasatkin judged wisely by keeping a low public profile within the Church and handing over responsibility to the synod. He also recognised that Japanese Christians had obligations towards their country, and prayers for a Japanese victory were said in Orthodox churches. Yet the Orthodox Church also fulfilled in important mediating role with regard to the more than 70,000 Russian prisoners of war, whose pastoral care was placed in the hands of twenty-three Japanese priests and catechists with a knowledge of Russian. Officers were even permitted to attend local parish churches.
Following Kasatkin's death in 1912, the Church was led through difficult times by his successor Sergius Tikhomirov (1817–1945). Poor material circumstances in Russia meant scant funding for missionary activities, and after the October Revolution the Japanese Church was left largely to its own devices. During the Second World War Bishop Sergius, like all Russian citizens in Japan, was interned. A new Church constitution promulgated in 1941 stipulated that all Church offices should be held by Japanese, whereupon Ivan Ono (1872–1956), dean of the parish in the capital, was consecrated bishop by the Russian synod in exile at Sremski Karlovci (Karlowitz). In the aftermath of the war, the Church split: while Bishop Ono returned to the canonical jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, a group led by the priest Samuil Uzawa placed itself under the jurisdiction of the American Metropolia.
The Russian Orthodox Mission and Russification
One of the most hotly fought debates over the mission of Russian Orthodoxy concerns the question of "Russification", a term understood to comprise two main elements. The first is the supposed appropriation of the mission for the ends of the state in the process of colonial expansion; the second is the alleged displacement and destruction of local cultures by Russian Orthodox culture and religion.
In spite of the many ways in which Church and state were interwoven, particularly in the context of the expansion and consolidation of Russian power in new territories, the mission was not originally a political project and was never guided by political considerations alone. Instead, the Church initiated missionary activities which caught the attention of state organs with an interest in appropriating them for their own purposes. Further evidence against blanket charges of the Church following the lead of the state can be found in successful missions beyond Russian borders, as in Alaska after 1867 or in Japan. By contrast, the mission was less or not lastingly successful in places where it made itself too dependent on the state, as in China or in the mission to Islam. In the long run, the state too was aware that a weak mission was of no use to anybody.
As for the attitude of the Russian mission to local cultures, the image is less clear-cut than might be expected. Russian Orthodoxy mostly used the Russian language (and, for liturgical purposes, Church Slavonic). By virtue of their language, education and socialisation, Russian missionaries were often perceived as bearers and representatives of Russian civilisation. Other languages and cultures were long neglected by the mission.35 The successes of the Russian mission in the 19th century are attributable in large part to a change of strategy ushered in by Makarii Glukharev and Innocent Veniaminov. The principal concern of these two missionaries was to embed Orthodoxy in the cultures they encountered, ultimately producing local forms of the Orthodox Faith.36 This approach informed the so-called Ilminsky System, which built the mission on two pillars: on schooling and catechising in the local language (including the provision of exhaustive catechetical material and the translation of ritual texts and the liturgy) and on training a local clergy. These measures were duly declared official missionary policy of the Russian Orthodox Church, though they were not always fully implemented. But the emergence of a local form of Orthodoxy from the Russian mission was certainly permitted and sometimes encouraged.37 These long-term developments suggest a more complex relationship between Russian Orthodoxy and local cultures in the process of Christianisation.
It cannot, however, be denied that the Russian Orthodox Mission frequently paralleled Russia's colonial expansion, in time as well as in space. In doing so, it provided the colonial project – whether knowingly or not – with a strong ideological foundation, including all the elements familiar from the discourse of postcolonialism.
Africa: Orthodoxy as an Anti-Colonial Strategy
Besides the long history of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, the spread of Eastern Orthodoxy in sub-Saharan Africa is associated with a movement for "self-conversion" that predates any missionary attempts from the centres of Orthodoxy. The so-called African-Orthodox Church (AOC) was founded in the United States in 1921 in protest at the paternalism of the white Churches.38 Its founders and adherents were African-Americans, most of whom had been raised in the Anglican/Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions. Although they knew little of Orthodoxy, their Church resembled the Catholic and Anglican/Episcopal ones but with the important distinction that it lacked any association with Western imperialism, colonialism or paternalism. The idea of an "African" Church claiming apostolic succession39 held considerable appeal. Its supposed apostolic authority derived from the consecration of the Church's first bishop, George Alexander McGuire (1866–1934), by Joseph René Vilatte (1854–1929), who, in turn, seems to have been consecrated decades before with the approval of the Patriarchate of Antioch.
The formation of such a Church made an impression on Christians outside the United States, notably in South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Kenya and (particularly) Uganda. They felt that such a non-colonial Church would combine religious decolonisation with the promise of an authentic form of Christianity in the shape of Orthodoxy. Following these surprising beginnings and a gradual rapprochement with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, several groups within the AOC entered into communion with it and hence with the other Eastern Orthodox Churches.
This example is particularly interesting when compared with the Russian Orthodox mission. While its mission took place at least in part under conditions of a (proto-)colonial system, in the United States and Africa Eastern Orthodoxy was taken to be a non-colonial form of Christianity and hence a harbinger of decolonisation. How powerfully this idea appealed to actors in Africa is evident from the fact that African Orthodox groups in Uganda cooperated with the proto-nationalist movements in Kenya even before the Second World War and later with the anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s.40
The Orthodox Concept of Mission
Given the long interruption to missionary activity enforced by historical circumstances, the quest for a genuinely Orthodox concept of mission in the 20th century could not build on practical experience, but instead had to begin as a theological undertaking.41 For instance, Anastasios Yannoulatos (b. 1929), Archbishop of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania and one of the most experienced authorities on Orthodox missionary theology, draws upon and agrees with many Orthodox theologians in drawing detailed attention to the trinitarian, ecclesiological, communal etc. aspects of mission:
Mission, as everything in Orthodox life, is not only realized 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit', but mainly, it is a participation in the life of the Holy Trinity, an expression of this love with all the power of existence …. Mission is an essential expression of Orthodox self-conscience, a cry in action for the fulfilment of God's will 'on earth as it is in heaven'. … indifference to mission is a denial of Orthodoxy. Orthodox mission, internal or external, is through its nature 'ecclesiastic'. It cannot be understood as an individual or a group activity, separated from the body of Christ. … Mission is the extension of the love of the trinitarian God, for the transformation of the whole world42 … to become the Church of Christ, in order to become after the end of centuries the heavenly Kingdom of God.43
Beyond such theoretical considerations, Yannoulatos also describes mission in concrete terms, setting it apart to a degree from the other tasks of the Church:
It [mission] is not synonymous with pastoral care, though it is closely linked to it. It is not right to call every spiritual effort 'mission', and to reassure ourselves that our missionary duty ends with church activities. Mission is principally the binding of 'non-believers' to the Church; those who have become indifferent or hostile to the faith; those who refuse, in theory or in practice, the teaching and principles of that faith. The type of sensitivity needed is one that leads the bishops, priests and frequent church-goers to another attitude towards those outside the faith. Not an attitude of antipathy or of crossing swords with them, but an effort to understand their language, problems, reservations, temptations, questionings, sinfulness, even their enmity. It leads, finally, to an attempt to overcome existing barriers through the strength of truth, prayer and love.44
Difficulties in putting this concept of mission into practice were due, according to the archbishop, not least to the still "excessive nationalism of the local churches"45 and a failure to come to terms with certain aspects of post-modern societies. Also lacking was a concrete awareness throughout the entire Church of mission's importance.
That the Orthodox mission has been all but ignored in Western mission studies is due in part to its absence from the usual areas of (Western) mission. Conversely, few other missions ventured into the areas it was operating in – at least not simultaneously. The language barrier was a further impediment to obtaining information on the Orthodox mission. Moreover, political circumstances meant that many Orthodox were long forced to abstain from missionary activity, thereby adding to the perception of its obscurity. To outsiders, the Orthodox mission was scarcely any less exotic than the peoples it sought to reach.
And yet the mission can point to lasting results in Asian territories historically within the Russian sphere of interest or influence. Orthodox missions also left traces in China, Japan, the Korean peninsula and Alaska. The distinctive features of the Orthodox mission in the worldwide concert of Christian missions derive from its peculiar combination of elements. On the one hand, and particularly in the 19th century, it availed itself of all the modern techniques – education, medicine, philological studies, printing, recent technological developments etc. – likely to give it an advantage. On the other hand, and largely in the absence of competition from other Christian denominations, it pursued its own tradition and ethos. In some places, including Alaska and Siberia, synthesis with local cultures produced indigenous forms of Christianity not perceived as alien by the local population. Where external conditions were dominated by colonialism, the usual problems of the time obtained. Yet the example of Africa also shows Orthodoxy's potential in that context.
Today, the Orthodox communion reaches out across the globe. However, the primary factor in its global spread was not mission but the migration of large numbers of Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Most of these Christians left their native lands in the course of the last century or so, beginning in 1917 with the October Revolution and continuing in recent years as a result of ongoing conflicts in Muslim-majority countries. In many places, these migrations have led to the establishment of diaspora communities that have grown over decades. The diaspora situation presented new challenges to Orthodox communities. It contributed to a dynamic process of self-discovery and to some extent re-discovery, a process necessitated by their existence in an environment that was often radically different from that of their origin.