THERE'S not much visible sign of change inside the dowdy building that houses the Leningrad Theological Academy. At tables in the seminary's diminutive library, a handful of black-robed young men peek from their books at a troop of visitors. In the empty chapel, a few candles flicker against painted icons. In the refectory, the stale smell of cabbage lingers. Outside these walls, however, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms have caught the Russian Orthodox Church in a swirl of change unprecedented in the 70 years it has endured Communist rule. So far, the Kremlin has:
Allowed the church to engage in a year-long millennial celebration, launched last summer and just completed.
Televised pictures of a smiling Gorbachev assuring church leaders that the church could ``carry out its activity without any outside interference.''
Relaxed postal censorship, allowing thousands of Bibles and packets of religious literature to be mailed to Soviet citizens.
Returned nearly 1,000 church buildings to the Russian Orthodox Church and authorized more than 1,600 new religious associations.
Repealed a series of decrees that, contradicting constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience, severely limited religious activity. The long-awaited move, announced by the State Council of Religious Affairs in early April, included removal of a 1929 ban on charitable work by religious organizations and a 1960 edict prohibiting bell ringing.
All of which, says Archpriest Vladimir Sorokin, rector of the Theological Academy, has plunged the entire church into what he calls its own ``process of renewal, or perestroika.''
Speaking in English in an interview with a group of American visitors, Archpriest Sorokin notes that ``this word [perestroika] means, for believers, that something changes in our situation, in our activity, and sometimes in our minds. It means that we must practice more-Christian views.''
Dressed in the traditional robe and cross - and fiddling with a key-ring bearing the Russian words ``throne hall'' - Sorokin notes that one of the first challenges to this ``practice'' is to find enough priests.
``In the Soviet Union we have three seminaries - Moscow, Odessa, and here. Together, we have about 300 students - 300 priests who will be ready for service.'' Despite a doubling in size in the last 10 years, that output will hardly be enough to staff the churches already returned and those expected to be returned in the future.
Behind this concern, however, lies a deeper question: Is the church ready to move forward as rapidly as the social changes - especially the provision for reengaging in charitable work - would permit?
``Now we have the possibility to make more wide our activities in this field,'' says Sorokin. ``But it is going slowly, because we are - in religion especially, the same as in secular activities - a conservative people.''
Over the decades of Communist rule, that conservatism was enforced by repression. Until perestroika, he says, ``it was possible to be a Christian, and to be a good man - but as a person, not as a member of the church or religious structure.''
The result is that ``many believers are very quiet, very passive.'' Now ``everybody understands that this [attitude] is very bad,'' Sorokin says, and that ``we must do something, not sleep. We must go to the hospitals, we must go to the schools, we must go to the young people.''
Sorokin himself, hardly a radical, is moving cautiously. He sees the church's role as ``not to be in contradiction but in coexistence'' with communism. ``Up until now, it was a platform of the Communist Party to be against religion. But now they change. They, too, want coexistence.''
And that, he says, fits well with his church's 1,000-year history. ``Christianity is not a power of confrontation. Christianity is an element of transfiguration of the world - not the method of opposition, of contradiction. And especially for our country, for our situation.''
After the 1917 revolution, he explains, ``the church made an attempt to be in opposition against the new government, against the new social structure. And it was a tragedy for us: We lost very many people, churches, books. The situation is more constructive now. The church wants to put into this society the Christian element, the leaven.''
One way to do this, he says, is gradually to reengage in charitable work - especially in hospitals. For years, he notes, that was nearly impossible: The state, forbidding religious charities, set itself up as the provider of everything needed by Soviet citizens, and doctors found it was ``not prestigious'' to welcome religious workers into hospitals.
Now shortages in hospital workers are increasingly being acknowledged. ``In my office today was the chairman of one of the great hospitals in Leningrad, saying, `Please, take our hospital on your account and send us Christian people.''' He even offered to set aside a ``special place for prayer'' in the hospital.
Five years ago, says Sorokin, there could have been no such conversation with this man, who is a Communist. ``But now he asks me, `Please, do something, because we are in a very difficult situation.'''
So far, the academy has arranged to put about 40 volunteers into Leningrad hospitals - helping to feed patients, change linens, and talk to those who are lonely. If they find ``believers,'' they can arrange visits by priests.
Can the church find enough volunteers for this work? As Sorokin points out, the very question of numbers is complicated. ``We don't count our believers - it is forbidden by state law,'' he says. Anyone can come to church, he explains, but individual churches don't have members in the tradition of Western congregations.
Yet the impulse toward Christianity, he feels, is strong and growing. ``I know that the majority of babies are baptized - about 80 percent of the population. And now we have many people who are adults who go to church and are baptized.'' He estimates that ``half the population of Leningrad,'' while not ``active'' in churchgoing, is religious.
The problem, he says, is to continue to involve young people in the church. So far there are no church schools, and no possibility of entering state schools to teach religion. So the central vehicle for religious instruction, he says, remains the preaching in churches.
He sees progress in using radio and television - where, after years of invisibility, churchmen can now appear dressed in their robes and wearing their crosses. At present, they are allowed ``only to answer questions from journalists. But in future I think there are possibilities to have our own time on radio and television.''