The Russian Orthodox Church could sever ties with the Evangelical Church in Germany, which represents some 24 million Protestants, after the German church elected a woman as its leader.
Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion has condemned the election and pulled out of a Berlin meeting meant to celebrate 50 years of dialogue between the Orthodox church and the Evangelical Church in Germany, known as the EKD.
The EKD elected Margot Kässmann, a 51-year-old bishop and divorcee with four daughters, as its first female leader late last month.
“It’s unacceptable for us according to church traditions. We can’t recognize a woman as the head of a church,” said Priest Georgy Zavershinsky, spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for external church relations.
Zavershinsky said this was the first time that such a problem had arisen in the Orthodox church’s interdenominational relations.
“But this doesn’t mean that the dialogue will be completely closed. But it should be changed into a new form,” Zavershinsky told The Moscow Times, without elaborating.
Hilarion, however, told reporters last week that the Orthodox church could not maintain a dialog with a church headed by a woman. Kässmann was elected to a six-year term.
EKD spokesman Reinhard Mawick said the Russian church had not directly informed his church about Hilarion’s discontent.
“We learned about it from the Russian press and were very surprised. It happens after so many years of relations between the churches,” Mawick said by telephone Monday.
The EKD, which unites more than 20 Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany, has sent a letter to Orthodox Patriarch Kirill expressing “surprise and great incomprehension” over Hilarion’s comments.
“Until now, differing points of view on the service of women in the Christian church didn’t cause any difficulties in interchurch relations on the bilateral and multilateral level,” the letter said.
The Russian church has not replied to the letter, said Johann Schneider, an expert on Orthodox relations in the EKD.
The German and Russian churches were to meet in Berlin on Nov. 30.
Schneider, however, said he doubted that the Russians would completely sever ties.
“I don’t think it will become a complete and official interruption of relations between the churches. It’s not something new. Hilarion is very pointed man and has given similar comments before,” Schneider said.
He defended Kässmannan’s election and noted that “she has no episcopal function.”
“She acts as representative of the church in public relations,” he said.
Hilarion succeeded Kirill as head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department of external church relations in March, after the election of Kirill as the patriarch in two months earlier.
Konstantin Bendas, a senior official with the Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, said the Russian Orthodox Church’s reaction to Kässmannan’s election was understandable.
“Over the past decade, our relations with the Protestant churches have become colder because Russian evangelists are more conservative and are against the liberalism that is happening in Western churches,” Bendas said.