What the Church wants is the return of that property which has for centuries constituted the wealth of the faithful and which was expropriated in 1918. Today the Bolshevik decree has been dissolved, and the Church's right to ownership of buildings, religious objects and of productive social, cultural and educational facilities has been laid down in the law. Hence, a museum, a library or an exhibition complex can, with the full backing of the law, become the property of Church establishments. Furthermore, under the law, the State must provide material aid in the restoration of Church buildings which are of historical and cultural value. The maintenance of these facilities should be carried out in accordance with the set rules laid out in Church regulations.
Patriarch Aleksey II strongly disagrees with the attempts of a number of art critics and museum workers to prevent the return of old monastery complexes and places of worship which are also outstanding architectural monuments to the Church, or in some way to limit their normal use by the Church. He emphasises that these places are above all places of worship, and only second are they museums.
He sees nothing wrong with putting icons or other liturgical art in museum exhibitions, so long as they are treated with reverence and perform the role of spiritual enlightenment of the nation. In fact Church organisations have themselves started to set up such collections and exhibitions in their religious and archaeological units.
He believes that the Russian Orthodox Church should have its own network of museums. However, when it is a matter of an icon which has been the focus of a place of worship for centuries being removed and put into a museum, this cannot be regarded as anything but an affront to the religious sensitivities of millions of believers.
Commenting on the current conflicts with the many restoration organisations formerly housed in Church accommodation, Patriarch Aleksey II considers that this is the State's problem. It is the State that should take care of finding new accommodation for these bodies. The legal transfer to the Church of that which legally belongs to it, according to the Patriarch, should in no way exclude such cultural wealth from scientific conservation, use and study. It is currently the Church's intention to create a council of scholars of the Russian Orthodox Church's cultural heritage to be attached to the Holy Synod; its members will include representatives from the hierarchy and church organisations as well as restorers, art experts, archaeologists, specialists on early texts and museum curators.
This council will work out recommendations to protect and restore church art, and plan a programme of scholarly and educational work to do with the Church's spiritual and cultural heritage. The conflict between the Church and cultural establishments has been artificially exaggerated, says the Patriarch. The worst complications at present are related to the interference of the current political situation in the fate of the nation's culture.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Patriarch Aleksey II of Moscow and All Russia: "Places of worship first, museums second"'