An Ecumenical Academic Endeavor

A rare and daring dialogue advanced by the theology department of Sts. Methodius and Cyril in Minsk

by Rev. Robert F. Slesinski

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A spiritual renaissance behind the Iron Curtain was set in motion when the Soviet Union collapsed, releasing its stranglehold on religious activity and expression.

Yet complex rifts – some as passionate as the very idea of competing distinct national identities – are weighing down the newfound liberty that is flourishing throughout the region. While any easy resolution to these longstanding and historic antagonisms seems unlikely, there are a handful of emerging ecumenical efforts aimed at forging a common good.

One such effort, little known in the Christian West but increasingly receiving praise for its innovative approach to religious studies, is the Orthodox theology department of Sts. Methodius and Cyril at the European Humanities University in Minsk, Belarus.

The department, supported in part by CNEWA and founded in 1993, educates religion teachers and specialists in theology, following a liberal arts tradition. It is accredited through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus. And although an Orthodox institution, the theology department is ecumenical in the broadest sense.

Currently, 10 percent of the 100-strong student body is Catholic, a remarkable figure given the tense relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in the former Soviet Union.

The theology department is the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Exarch of Belarus, Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk and Slutsk. The Metropolitan, who holds a doctorate in theology, also serves as the department’s dean.

“The existence of a theology department in a lay, nonstate-run university testifies to the great changes in our society,” the Metropolitan said.

“In the years of Soviet power, church educational institutions [three seminaries and two theological academies] provided for the formation of priests, but we did not have a school of theological education for the laity.”

Set to celebrate its first decade, which might not seem like much of a milestone by Western standards, the theology department is without parallel in the lands of the former Soviet Union. The immediate and long-term aims of the department include the restoration of ties between Christian tradition and contemporary culture, the creation of a Christian educational system for Belarus and the reintegration of a Christian worldview in scholarly circles.

Students of the department can choose from a two-tiered course system. One study course that is specifically theological concentrates on church history, Scripture and moral theology. Another tier of study is similar to a Western general humanities curriculum degree with courses on Belarussian culture and history, philosophy, economics and modern and ancient languages. The six-year course is full-time; students graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

The Metropolitan said the idea for a lay theology department in a private European-style university came about during a meeting of philosophers and academicians.

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Tags: Christianity Unity Ecumenism Soviet Union Belarus