Last month, 29 delegates from across Russia met here to form the country’s first Presbyterian General Assembly.
“Our numbers are smaller than we had anticipated, but the start has been made,” said Dr. Valdimir Li, pastor of Moscow Presbyterian Church. “Everything begins from a small seed. The main thing is that the seed falls into good ground.”
Li, a physician with a master’s degree in theology, will serve a two-year term as the biennial assembly’s first president. Ahn Soon-Cheol, a long-term Moscow missionary from Korea is his deputy.
The next assembly will be held in 2014 on oil- and gas-rich Sachalin Island, home to many Presbyterian congregations founded and sponsored by Koreans.
An immediate task for the assembly is to obtain government registration, which will allow congregations to join a genuine Presbyterian denomination. For the past 20 years, Presbyterian congregations have been forced to exist under a variety of interdenominational umbrellas in order to be considered legal.
The assembly will also work to develop a faculty of Reformed theology. In September, five students began studying at the Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary, which offers general courses. In the future, the seminary hopes to offer courses specialized for different denominations.
“This is an interdenominational seminary,” Li said. “It will give us a good legal basis for our work.”
Other new tasks will involve the development of guidelines for ordination and the training of laypeople. Coordination between the four regional sections of the General Assembly (Central, Siberia, Far East and Sakhalin) will be required and will allow for more summer children’s camps.
Russian Presbyterians first attempted to form a General Assembly in 2009, on the 100th anniversary of the Korean Presbyterian presence in the Russian Far East. But Li, a native-born Russian of Korean ancestry, reported that that meeting was organized by expatriate missionaries, whom he claims have exported their many divisions to Russia.
“We Russians heard about this gathering last,” he said. When it became apparent that an assembly would not be forming, “the six or so sponsoring denominations in Korea simply lost interest.”
At the October meeting, all voting positions were held by Russian citizens.
“We have decided that Russians will carry the ball and that Koreans are welcome in a supporting role,” Li said, noting that this development is still resisted by some.
Contacts with Korea remain strong, but Li decries the fact that the General Assembly’s Western connections are limited to Korean groups located there.
“We need literature and theological information,” he said. “Who could help us develop and structure our new theological faculty? We need lecturers willing to come here and teach our students for short periods. That would be a very concrete form of aid.”
William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.