The problem of “young elders” is not limited to the Post-Soviet Church. There, the problem was partly a consequence of the need to provide priests to serve all the new parishes etc. as the Russian Orthodox Church recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the combination of a hierarchical system with a strong mythology (I am using this in a non-pejorative way) and expectation of spiritual eldership is ready-made for exploitation by narcissists and other predators. Please note that the existence of false elders does not mean that true ones don’t exist, but it does mean that every believer must be on guard and “test every spirit” (1 John 4:1) …. as clergy, this applies especially to testing our own.
INFORMATION FOR THE PRESS FROM DIOCESAN COUNCIL OF MOSCOW
Today, 23 December 1998, at the conference hall of the St. Daniel’s hotel complex the annual diocesan meeting of the city of Moscow was held. The patriarch of Moscow and all-Rus [his holiness, Patriarch Alexis II, of blessed memory – ed.] serves immediately as ruling bishop of the capital city. The meeting’s participants included assistant bishops, representatives of the parish clergy and parish councils, stauropigial monasteries, central administrative agencies of the Russian Orthodox church, and guests.
[The following quotes are part of Patriarch Alexis II’s presentation. – ed.]
“… For several years now the Russian Orthodox church has been living in conditions of freedom from state pressure that are new and unusual for it. Its divine-human organism consists of living members, people who expect from their pastors instruction on the way to the heavenly kingdom which sometimes disappears from view in the briars of the current, most troublesome times. In a brief space of time the Russian clergy has learned a great deal not only in the newly opened church schools but also in life itself. All over the place monasteries and churches are being restored and a multitude of young Christians are aspiring to the monastic life. Thousands of young, zealous, and innocent young people are coming to serve Mother Church as clergy. But we must consider with regret that the level of spiritual education and the depth of churchmanship and grounding in Orthodox tradition are obviously insufficient in the case of many…”
“… Even some clerics of our church, who maintain in words their submission to its hierarchy, are behaving like schismatics, aspiring to the role of some kind of ‘elders.’ In criticizing the hierarchy they, in contrast to the spiritual fathers of the past and present, are trying by their criticism to draw attention to themselves and thus to inspire authority for themselves. As a rule, as the unalterable and sole condition for salvation they stipulate complete submission to themselves of those who accept their leadership, and they transform them into some kind of robots who are unable to do anything, however simple, without the permission of their ‘elder.’ In this way a person is deprived of the freedom of choice which God has bestowed. To confirm their righteousness they misuse citations from the works of the holy fathers, profaning their great deeds and distorting the notion of eldership. The genuine elder, owing primarily to high spirituality, treats every individual with care. By virtue of his experience and gracious gift he reveals the image of God in the individual by means which promote spiritual growth. But these contemporary ‘elders’ (it would be more accurate to call them ‘youngsters’) who lack spiritual discernment are placing unbearable burdens on those who are coming to the church (Lk 11.46) and are applying in their pastoral actions requirements that are destructive of spiritual life which laity cannot endure because for the most part they are appropriate only for monastics. . . .”
“The unhealthy dependence of neophytes upon the personalities of these ‘youngsters’ has given rise to distorted forms of parish life. People are going to church in order to meet ‘their father,’ and not Christ, and in order to talk with acquaintances and not to engage in prayerful communion with the fullness of the church. Characteristically such converts have a damaged church consciousness in which there is no room for the notions of conciliarity and universality of the church, which is maintained by their pastors who induce in their flocks ideas that salvation is possible only inside the bounds of their congregation and contempt for other priests whereby they entice their flocks away from them. This leads to the self-isolation of such congregations from other parishes and from the bishop and ultimately from the church. This self-isolation often has the consequence of an impermissible politicizing of these congregations, when a ‘left’ or ‘right’ political orientation becomes the only one that accords with an Orthodox point of view. In such congregations there easily arises the criticism of the hierarchy that is destructive of church unity of which we already have spoken. It is not surprising that the unhealthy forms of congregational life in these parishes seems more like the sectarian tendencies of schismatic societies or protestant groups.”