Russian Ortodox Church

By Amna Hussain

Origins- History

Russian Orthodox Church is the largest "autocephalous" or ecclesiastically independent, church in the commonwealth of Eastern Orthodox churches, headed by its own Patriarch. Church membership is estimated at 60 million people.

Christianity as the state religion has been accepted in Russia (Kievan Rus') in the 10th century after the baptism of Olga - regent of Kiev (957) and her grandson Vladimir - prince of Kiev (988).

Initially Russian church was ruled by the metropolitans of Kiev (who after 1328 resided in Moscow) and formed a metropolitanate of the Byzantine patriarchate. In 1448 the Russian bishops elected their own patriarch without recourse to Constantinople, and the Russian church became autonomous (autocephalous). In 1589 the metropolitan of Moscow (Job), has been raised to the position of patriarch with the approval of Constantinople and received the fifth rank in honour after the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

While Russia lay under Mongol rule from the 13th through the 15th century, the Russian church enjoyed a favoured position, obtaining immunity from taxation in 1270. This period saw a remarkable growth of monasticism. The Monastery of the Caves (Pecherska Lavra) in Kiev, founded in the mid-11th century by the ascetics St. Anthony and St. Theodosius, was superseded as the foremost religious centre by the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which was founded in the mid-14th century by St. Sergius of Radonezh (in what is now the city of Sergiev Posad). Sergius, as well as the metropolitans St. Peter (1308-26) and St. Alexius (1354-78), supported the rising power of the principality of Moscow.

In the mid-17th century the Russian patriarch Nikon, pursuing the ideal of a theocratic state, attempted to establish the primacy of the Orthodox church over the state in Russia, and he also undertook a thorough revision of Russian Orthodox texts and rituals to bring them into accord with the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy. Nikon was deposed in 1666 by tsar Alexis, but the Russian church retained his reforms and anathematized those who continued to oppose them; the latter became known as Old Believers and formed a vigorous body of dissenters within the Russian Orthodox church for the next two centuries.

In 1721 Tsar Peter I the Great abolished the patriarchate of Moscow and replaced it with the Holy Governing Synod, which was modeled after the state-controlled synods of the Lutheran church in Sweden and Prussia and was tightly controlled by the state. The chief procurator of the synod, a lay official who obtained ministerial rank in the first half of the 19th century, henceforth exercised effective control over the church's administration until 1917. This control, which was facilitated by the political subservience of most of the higher clergy, was especially marked during the procuratorship (1880-1905) of the archconservative K.P. Pobedonostsev.

In November 1917, following the collapse of the tsarist government, a council of the Russian Orthodox church reestablished the patriarchate and elected the metropolitan Tikhon as patriarch. But the new Soviet government soon declared the separation of church and state and nationalized all church-held lands. These administrative measures were followed by brutal state-sanctioned persecutions that included the wholesale destruction of churches and the arrest and execution of many clerics. The Russian Orthodox church was further weakened in 1922, when the Renovated Church, a reform movement supported by the Soviet government, seceded from Patriarch Tikhon's church, restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful.


The Revolution of 1917 had severed large sections of the Russian church--dioceses in America, Japan, and Manchuria, as well as refugees in Europe--from regular contacts with the mother church. A group of bishops who had left their sees in Russia gathered in Sremski-Karlovci, Yugoslavia, and adopted a clearly political monarchist stand. The group further claimed to speak as a synod for the entire "free" Russian church. This group, which to this day includes a sizable portion of the Russian emigration, was formally dissolved in 1922 by Patriarch Tikhon, who then appointed metropolitans Platon and Evlogy as ruling bishops in America and Europe, respectively. Both of these metropolitans continued intermittently to entertain relations with the synod in Karlovci, but neither of them accepted it as a canonical authority. After World War II the patriarchate of Moscow made unsuccessful attempts to regain control over these groups. In 1970 it finally recognized an autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, thereby renouncing its former canonical claims in the United States and Canada; it also acknowledged an autonomous church established in Japan that same year.

After Tikhon's death (1925) the government forbade patriarchal elections to be held. In 1927, in order to secure the survival of the church, Metropolitan Sergius formally expressed his "loyalty" to the Soviet government and henceforth refrained from criticizing the state in any way. This attitude of loyalty, however, provoked more divisions in the church itself: inside Russia, a number of faithful opposed Sergius, and abroad, the Russian metropolitans of America and western Europe severed their relations with Moscow. Then, in 1943, benefiting from the sudden reversal of Joseph Stalin's policies toward religion, Russian Orthodoxy underwent a resurrection; a new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. Between 1945 and 1959 the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000. A new and widespread persecution of the church was subsequently instituted under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Then, beginning in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local parishioners. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 furthered the spiritual progress.

Organization - Structure of the Church

Catholics in every country look to the Pope in Rome for spiritual guidance and leadership. But the Orthodox Church is comprised of a number of autocephalous (self -governing) national churches. Thus there is the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and so on.  Each of these is headed by a patriarch, the equivalent of a "national pope".

The word "orthodox" (Russian pravoslavny) means "true to the word." This is because Orthodoxy emphasizes the preservation of ritual and practice in the church with as little change as possible. This differs from the more innovative approach to ritual often found in Western churches.

The Orthodox church structure also differs in many ways from that of Catholics and Protestants. There is a division between the white clergy, the parish priests (pop), who could marry;  and the black clergy, the monks and nuns, who were supposed to remaine chaste.  Only members of the black clergy could attain the highest ranks in the church (which included the patriarch, as well as the various bishops, archbishops, metropolitans which head various diocese, or church districts).

Russians did not always have a patriarch. From 988 until 1037, Kievan Rus was considered part of the diocese of Constantinople and did not have its own patriarch. In 1037 Kiev came to be ruled by its own metropolitan, or bishop, but the Russians still looked to Byzantium for spiritual guidance. Only in the14th century did the Russian church became truly autocephalous, an independent national church ruled by its own Patriarch. And in the 18th century Peter the Great replaced the patriarch with a church council called the Holy Synod. The Communist government reinstated the office of Patriarch in 1925 and used the position to control church dealings with Orthodox Christians beyond the borders of Russia. Today the patriarch resides in Moscow and has become much more independent of the Russian government.


Central Beliefs - Worship

By its theological richness, spiritual significance, and variety, the worship of the Church represents one of the most significant factors in this church's continuity and identity. It helps to account for the survival of Christianity during the many centuries of Muslim rule in the Middle East and the Balkans when the liturgy was the only source of religious knowledge or experience. Since liturgical practice was practically the only religious expression legally authorized in the former Soviet Union, the continuous existence of Orthodox communities in the region was also centered almost exclusively around the liturgy.

The church is a basic expression of Eastern Christian experience and without that concept it is impossible to understand the fundamentals of church structure in Orthodoxy. Similarly, the personal experience of man's participation in divine life is understood in the framework of the continuous liturgical action of the community.

According to many authorities one of the reasons that explain why the Eastern liturgy has made stronger impact on the Christian Church than has its Western counterpart is that it has always been viewed as a total experience. It appeals to the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic facilities of man.

The liturgy includes a variety of models, or symbols, using formal theological statements as well as bodily perceptions and gestures (e.g., music, incense, prostrations) or the visual arts. All are meant to convey the content of the Christian faith to the educated and the no educated alike. Participation in the liturgy implies familiarity with its models, and many of them are conditioned by the historical and cultural past of the church. Thus, the use of such an elaborate and ancient liturgy presupposes catechetical preparation. It may require an updating of the liturgical forms themselves. The Orthodox Church recognizes that liturgical forms are changeable and that, since the early church admitted a variety of liturgical traditions, such a variety is also possible today. Thus, Orthodox communities with Western rites now exist in western Europe and in the Americas.

The Orthodox Church, however, has always been conservative in liturgical matters. The orthodox churches would not make changes because there was none over them to tell them what they could and couldn't do. Changing the liturgy is often said to be as equally bad as changing fundamental Christian beliefs.. However inconvenient this conservatism may be, the Orthodox liturgy has preserved many essential Christian values transmitted directly from the experience of the early church.

Throughout the centuries, the Orthodox liturgy has been richly embellished with cycles of hymns from a wide variety of sources. Byzantium (where the present Orthodox liturgical rite took shape), while keeping many biblical and early Christian elements, used the lavish resources of patristic theology and Greek poetry, as well as some gestures of imperial court ceremonial, in order to convey the realities of God's kingdom.

Normally, the content of the liturgy is directly accessible to the faithful, because the Byzantine tradition is committed to the use of any vernacular language in the liturgy. Translation of both Scriptures and liturgy into various languages was undertaken by the medieval Byzantines, as well as by modern Russian missionaries. Liturgical conservatism, however, leads de facto to the preservation of antiquated languages. The Byzantine Greek used in church services by the modern Greeks and the Old Slavonic still preserved by all the Slavs are at least as distant from the spoken languages as is the language of the King James Version--used in many Protestant Churches--from modern English.

An iconostasis: 

Let us Begin the Time of Fasting in Light