In the history of European nations, the church has played an important, if not key role, in the creation of nations, their identities, and their states. For example, The Anglican Church of England, The Church of Scotland or The Lutheran Churches of Norway, Iceland, Denmark, or the Swedish church until 2000, are legally recognised as state churches.
While the political importance of these churches, particularly in the Protestant or Lutheran part of the continent, has noticeably decreased over time, in the Orthodox World, the Church is today as politically relevant and linked to politics and state power as ever.
This takes on new meaning if we pose the questions: Who controls the Church and what is the role of the Church when it comes to politics?
Among Orthodox peoples, the Church is the most trusted institution. Recent surveys confirm that: 1) The proportion of Orthodox Christians has risen sharply in Eastern Europe since 1991; 2) In Orthodox countries, there is a strong association between religion and national identity; 3) More people in Orthodox-majority countries than Catholic-majority countries support church-state ties.
Furthermore, in the Orthodox world, the symbiosis or symphony of authorities means the state supports the Church, while the Church affirms the government’s policies. It is why it is politically opportune for political elites to play the Church card to influence people’s orientation and, finally, the way they vote.
At the same time, for the clergy it is appropriate to support the Government and its policies. The Russian Orthodox Church often lavishes praise on President Vladimir Putin, while the Serbian Patriarch behaves as a political cheerleader for President Aleksandar Vucic.
Russia is an example of how the Church and the state work together – the state supports the Church’s ambition to become the global Orthodox Church on account of the Patriarch of Constantinople, while the Church affirms the Russian state’s ambitions to hegemonic power in that world. The Balkan region has experienced something similar with the Serbian state and the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church is not only seen as an instrument of “soft power” that can be utilised for political purposes. It can also be used as an effective, powerful, political tool to interfere with the domestic affairs of the host since it often enjoys a privileged status, operating in a grey zone, outside the legal system of the host state.
When Church lacks state backing
However, the Church is strong as long as it has a state behind it. The problem arises, as in Montenegro, when it is not backed by the state authority, and the state has the Church against it. The history of Orthodox Christianity proves that states are the stronger actor in this equation.
The most exemplary case can be found in Russian history, from the 17th and the 18th centuries when the Church underwent state-initiated reforms.
A plan to purify the Russian Orthodox faith of Greek influence, and satisfy Russia’s political ambition to become the Third Rome, led to the split within the Church, or Raskol. The ensuing Raskol was marked by pogroms and murders of Old Believers, including the massacre of almost a few hundred monks from the Solovetsky Monastery who opposed the controversial reform.
The reform process ended up with Peter the Great putting the Church under state control. During the 18th century, the Church gradually lost its land, wealth and autonomy. The decision of Catherine the Great to nationalise monastic assets and lands with more than a million serfs made the Church subject to the state.
Yet, the Montenegrin “religious dispute” is more than a tug-of-war between the Church and the state. The case becomes even more intricate as the Church is a staunch advocate of external interests (Serbian or Russian).
Serbia’s position may be crucial