The Reform of the Church and the Pre-Revolutionary Russian Episcopate*

by Nicholas Zernov

   The revolution cut the history of the Russian Church in two with a red line. The threat of destruction revealed all that was customary, unavoidable and unshakable in her structure and everyday life. To many people Russian Orthodoxy began to seem either finally smashed to pieces or in any case so essentially changed that an impassable chasm lay now between its past and future. But these feelings were hardly justified. Changes certainly did occur, so essential that they have already laid their ineradicable imprint on the destiny of the Russian Church, but they did not destroy the Church herself, nor even her characteristic features.

   On the contrary, the Russian Church showed her exceptional vitality and her extraordinary capacity for adaptation. She exists under the Communists in Russia, and also in the Russian emigration, in America, in Poland and adjacent countries, submitting to the altered circumstances of her existence, but not losing her distinctive features. Everywhere she is striving to establish her life in exact conformity with those ways which she knew in pre-revolutionary Russia. This faithfulness to the past and all its riches accumulated over the ages is not connected, however, with just the positive elements in our Church's life. Much of what is piously observed and exactly reproduced under the Communists in Russia and in Poland and in the emigration does not conform to the apostolic tradition, nor to the canons of the councils, nor even to the best traditions of Russian Orthodoxy. For the Church of the synodical period not only possessed the spiritual treasures of piety and devotion but also suffered grievously from various diseases.

   One of the surest symptoms of illness in the Church's organism is the growing up around her of sectarian communities. The Russian Church before the revolution was thickly overgrown with them and they grew up steadily in spite of all the persecutions by State authority. Even now these communities are to be seen everywhere around her. Wherever Russian Orthodoxy has existed or come into being, sooner or later a sectarian cell has formed beside it. Moreover if in the past it was mainly the common people who came under sectarian influences, these influences are now carrying away even people who belong to the educated classes. This it an indication that all is not well in the Orthodox Church, that broad circles among her believers do not always find spiritual nourishment within the Church and prefer to seek it outside. However the question of whether the contemporary forms of Church life satisfy or do not satisfy the members of the Russian Church usually does not even enter their minds and hearts. Russians are so accustomed to the absolute immobility of Orthodoxy that they can think of only two solutions to the religious question: either a final break with the Church or an incontrovertible acknowledgement of the immovability and unchangeability of all her contemporary customs and ordinances.

   Faith in the immobility of Orthodoxy has entered so deeply into the Russian mind that we accept this element as the basic proof of the divine institution of the Church. The lack of knowledge of Church history even among educated Russians makes this error inevitable. It is the basic obstacle blocking a Russian religious revival. For the majority of: Russians the doctrine of the Church as a living and constantly growing organism extending its influence into all areas of life seems now to be a dangerous innovation not in accordance with the tradition of the fathers, although in reality it was just this doctrine of the Church which was shared by her best members in the glorious epochs of her development.

   The immobility of Russian Orthodoxy was especially increased as a result of the Petrine reforms - instituted by the Great Reformer of Russia along Protestant lines. From the time of the introduction of the Holy Synod, copied from the West, the Russian Church actually stopped growing and changing. She hardened into a tortured immobility which is now accepted by her members as an essential property present in her from the beginning. [1]

   People who think like this usually do not realize what is concealed beneath this 200-year silence on the part of the Russian clergy, how much suffering and humiliation it had to live through before it finally closed its lips. Russian society rarely knew about those martyrs from the ranks of the episcopate and priesthood who perished, like Bishop Arsenius Matsyevich (1772), in prisons and exile for their attempts to lift up their voices as pastors. For many Russians the bishops and priests of the Church ceased to be living individuals, they were merged into a faceless submissive mass. [2]

   But in reality our clergy were keenly aware of the shortcomings and distortions of Russian ecclesiastical life. And now it is especially interesting for us, who are separated from our recent past by an impassible chasm, to stop and think over the hopes and longings of our pre-revolutionary episcopate, still almost unknown to the people of the Russian Church. Our main source for the study of these opinions is the replies of the Diocesan Bishops to questions addressed to them by the Holy Synod in 1905 on the occasion of a movement for Church reforms.

   These replies were published by the Holy Synod in 1906 in the form of four large volumes entitled, "Findings of the Diocesan Bishops on the problem of Church reform", Volumes I-III, with a separate Supplement; St. Petersburg, Synod Press, 1906. The collecting of the replies came at a moment when the members of the Russian Church were for a minute able to open their lips and freely express their opinion about the position of Orthodoxy in Russia. This was the time of the reformation of the Russian Empire initiated by Count S. Yu. Witte as a result of the ruinous Japanese war. The life of the whole nation underwent reconstruction. Nor was the Church forgotten. The Sovereign promised to call a Council and in preparation a pre-council conference was called. In connection with the rumors and expectations the whole Russian press was inundated with articles on the question of the Church, in which bishops, priests and laymen for the first time in 200 years could openly discuss the questions which were disturbing them. At this same time the Holy Synod sent out questionnaires to all the Dioceses, addressed to the bishops in charge, in which their opinion was invited on a series of long-overdue reforms in the life of the Church. The replies are a genuine memorial in Russian Church history. In them the Russian episcopate, even though selected and controlled by the all-powerful Pobedonostsev, pronounced judgment on the life of the Russian Church, and its voice sounds for us now not only by way of aid and encouragement, but also as a warning and even reproach; since much of what the bishops insisted upon has not yet been accomplished and the things they were fighting continue to poison the Church's life even outside of Russia, in spite of the fact that she is developing here in an atmosphere of freedom and is not chained by the control of secular authority.

   The replies of Diocesan Bishops to the Synod's questionnaire touch on a broad circle of questions, among which the following points are examined in special detail:

1) The membership of the proposed Council.

2) The division of Russia into Church districts.

3) The reform of the Church's administration.

4) The reform of Church courts and a revision of the laws concerning marriage.

5) Diocesan conferences.

6) The participation of the clergy in social institutions.

7) The general structure of the parish.

8) The procedure for acquisition of Church property.

9) Matters of faith: divine worship, unity of faith, fasts, chanting, musical composition, prayer for non-Orthodox Christians.

10) The reform of seminaries and theological academies.

11) Missions.

   Many of these problems have a purely historical interest now, since even the institutions which the episcopate was trying to reform in 1906 have disappeared. On the other hand some replies touch an problems which still face Russian Orthodoxy, and we should therefore concentrate our attention on them.

   They deal first of all with the necessity of reviving parish life and the even more keenly felt need for a renewal of Orthodox worship.

   The almost complete erosion of the independence of the parish in the Russian Church was one of the most pernicious consequences of the introduction of a procuror and Holy Synod. The parish is the basic unit of the Church, the vital spot in the universal organism of the Church; its destruction was a sign of the grievous illness of the whole body and of that terrible immobility which was mentioned earlier in this article. The Russian episcopate was well aware of this and insisted unanimously that the revival of the parish should mark the beginning of the renewal of the Church. Thus for example Stephen, Bishop of Mogilyov, writes in his reply: "We must begin the all important task of reconstructing the Church with the parish, as the basic cell and simplest unit in the life of the Church." (Vol. I, p. 79).

   "All measures must be taken to insure that the parish again becomes a community, a brotherhood, a real and living organism, whose members are all closely bound together", writes Nazarius, Bishop of Nizhni-Novgorod. (1:413).

   "The conciliar principle, lying at the basis of the reformation of the whole structure of the Church, must first of all include the parish," writes Kirion, Bishop of Oryol (II:520).

   The Russian episcopate did not hide the fact that the conciliar principle, this basis for the welfare of the Church's life, was profoundly impaired in Russian Orthodoxy as a result of the destruction of the parishes, and Bishop Anthony of Volhynia, later head of the Karlovtsy Synod, compared the Orthodox parish in Russian with a sick man dying of typhus (I:112).

   The question of the selection of clergy was closely tied up with the attempts to revive the parish. It was quite obvious that an inspired and creative Church community must be headed by a pastor chosen by itself and beloved by itself, not a person nominated from outside. In all epochs of flourishing life the Orthodox Church has chosen her own pastors, and the removal of the right of election from the laity was a real sign of the decline and disintegration of a given part of the Church. The Russian Church before Peter possessed an elected clergy, but the bureaucratization of its administration following the Petrine reforms destroyed from the start this manifestation of independence in Church life.

   The restoration of the principle of election was therefore one of the most urgent and at the same time difficult problems facing and still facing the Russian Church. In 1906 only a minority (17) of the bishops insisted on the immediate introduction of the elective principle, while the majority considered it still inapplicable - but even among the opponents of this reform there was a significant group of bishops who felt that the establishment of the elective principle ought to remain as the ideal of Church administration. This was the opinion, for example, of Bishops Anthony of Volhynia and George of Astrakhan.

   However, both the introduction of the elective principle and the revival of parish life in general could be realized only on condition that the spiritual and material level of the clergy be raised, and the majority of the bishops end their consideration of the parish with the problem of the grievous condition of parish priests. Bishop Tikhon of Kostroma writes, for instance: "As long as our seminaries do not send out well trained candidates for the priesthood, zealous and devout, no measures undertaken for the welfare of the parish will succeed." (II:529).

   "But then it is necessary to eliminate the main evil sowing discord in the relations between priest and parishioners - the payments for the administration of religious ceremonies. This supposedly apostolic method of maintaining the clergy is harmful in spiritual relationships: the clergy become ex-loiters in the eyes of the people and antagonism is built up between the people and the clergy. The clergy try to get as much as possible, while the people come off as cheaply as they can," writes Constantine, Bishop of Samara (I:422). "The significance of the sacraments and the Church's ceremonies - which ought to be compensated by a stipend- is diminished in the understanding of the people," writes Innocent, Bishop of Tambov (III:290).

   Individual bishops advanced various projects for replacing the payment for religious ceremonies by other methods of clerical maintenance. However, we need not spend further time on them now, since they have lost their actual significance.

   The following request of Gurius, Bishop of Simbirsk, shows how abnormal the clergy's position was, especially the village clergy, and how far the pastoral office has been replaced by bureaucratic functions. He writes: "It would be desirable to free the pastor from all police duties, from everything that smells of police investigation, thus rooting out of his soul the slavish feeling developed over the ages and in this way it build up in him a consciousness of his pastoral dignity." (II:1).

   The bishops of Kazan and Smolensk urge that priests be freed from transmitting different information and statistical data for various secular institutions. The Bishop of Perm and the Olonets commission propose that the censorship of preaching be abolished. These proposals in themselves show the wretchedness of the position of the Russian priest, without rights, humiliated, oppressed by police and spiritual censorship, and extorting the kopek he has earned out of his peasants in order to provide for his large family of children. The Russian press of 1905-06 contains a series of letters from the village clergy written in blood, bearing witness to the crushing moral situation in which many of the Church's pastors found themselves. Another expression of the same evil was the never ending rioting in the seminaries constantly breaking out in all corners of Russia and often leading to bloodshed.

   The study of the reasons for the dissatisfaction of the white clergy and their sons and wards in the seminaries does not enter into the scope of this article, but it should be pointed out that this problem was aggravated not only by their poverty, or by the domination of the consistory bureaucracy, but also by the requirement that bishops be drawn from the monastic clergy.

   This requirement cut off the best parish clergy from higher service in the Church and not infrequently furthered the development of ambition and careerism in the ranks of the learned monastic clergy. The sharp antagonism between the white and the black clergy grew up on this soil, poisoning the life of the whole Church and in particular the atmosphere of the theological school. This painful question, passionately debated in the press of the time, was passed over in silence in the findings of the Diocesan bishops. Only Vladimir, Bishop of Kishinyov (I:203) directs attention to the desirability of consecrating men to the episcopate without monastic vows. Among the other measures proposed for the revival of the parish and the improvement of the priesthood, the following requests deserve attention:

   Constantine, Bishop of Samara, suggests the waging of a special war against the basic evils undermining the spiritual life and strength of the people: drunkenness and cruelty (I:422). With this goal in mind he urges the restoration of public repentance in the Church.

   Nicholas, Exarch of Georgia, and Stephen, Bishop of Mogilyov, proposed the restoration of the order of deaconesses and the entrusting to it of the work of the Church's charities. The Bishop of Archangel, Ioanniky (I:390), defended the permission of a second marriage for priests and deacons whose first wives have died. Bishop Sergius of Finland concurred in this opinion (III:444).

   But divine worship of the Orthodox Church is rightly considered by her members as her most valuable possession. The Russian services in particular are beautiful, with their harmonious chanting, the gold of the vestments and icons, with the burning candles and many colored lamps. But this treasure, so luxuriously decorated by the loving zeal of the Russian people, is more and more losing its real religious significance. It is becoming the expression of aesthetic emotions, the inviolable decoration of everyday life or even the means of forgetting oneself and resting from the afflictions of earthly life. Contemporary Russian worship can be compared with the ancient images of Russian iconography, which before the revolution were as if chained inside golden frames with precious stones, and the people praying before them had no idea of the face within and its severe beauty. Russians in general have also forgotten the worship which could be a united and immediate expression of their spirit of prayer. Artistic chanting, the solemn and little understood symbolic actions of the priest, the still less understood but melodious Slavonic language-all this has become for them worship itself, while the real face of worship has long ago become hidden in their ecclesiastical consciousness. The pre-revolutionary episcopate sensed the tragedy of our Church, and in their reports they fearlessly proposed to take up the fight against this evil.

   "The people have no true prayers" writes Constantine, Bishop of Samara (I:440). "The people patiently stand [3] for whole hours through the worship in the church, but this is not prayer since the feeling of prayer cannot be sustained for whole hours without an understanding of the words of prayer, and the words of the service in the church are above the understanding of the people. Divine worship is incomprehensible to the people not only because it is celebrated in the Church Slavonic language and with hurried readings, but also simply because a certain measure of theological education is needed to understand it. Orthodox worship is a great treasure if we compare our Church's chants with the rather shallow Lutheran hymns, and if we speak of our enjoyment of this treasure. But nevertheless at present this is still a treasure ‘concealed within the village walls’, while the people are spiritually starving and impoverished, having no prayer within reach of their understanding, except the litanies and to some extent the acathists, which the people love so much just because they are understood. It is necessary to educate the people so that they will consider not just bows and the sign of the cross, not just mechanical readings or the hearing of the incomprehensible words of the psalter, troparia and stikhiras as forms of prayer. It is necessary that the corporate worship in the church, which in Greece was once such a perfect way of satisfying the spiritual needs of prayer, should again be turned into a truly prayerful attitude of worship."

   This excerpt, if we think it over carefully, contains the answer to many very painful questions in the present; perhaps even Communism, sectarianism, the cruelty of the revolution, and the persecution of the Church can be explained by the fact that the treasure of corporate Christian prayer, the immediate communion of God and man, became for Russian members of the Orthodox Church a treasure `concealed within the village walls', a vessel sealed by seven seals. Other bishops speak no less decisively - on the same theme. Gurius, Bishop of Simbirsk, writes (II:20): "While the clergy are lifting up their chants, thanksgivings, petitions and praises, the people remain rather like casual auditors; hence the striking difference in the attitude of laymen attending Orthodox churches on the one hand and those in non-Orthodox churches on the other, a difference that is not to our advantage." Ioanniky, Bishop of Archangel, writes (I:335): "The Church building ought to be a school for the Orthodox layman, and the worship celebrated within it ought to be a series of individual lessons in Christian life, since here a man is taught to live, here he learns not only what he must do but also what he must think and feel. But what can be said for a school that conducts its classes in an incomprehensible language .. . The Orthodox Church in Russia is in this case in a worse situation than all the other schools for the people. Her worship, while it is magnificent in content, remains incomprehensible and as a result does not have the desired effect upon the common people"

The Bishop of Kaluga writes (I:42-43): "Our books of worship and in part our Bible are translated into a language in which no Slavic person has ever spoken or written . . . Many troparia and stikhiras are still incomprehensible even for people who have graduated from a higher theological school, for instance the Irmos: `So we must love that which is fortunate with fear' /lyubiti ubo nam yako bezbednoye strakhom/; other examples of the same sort of unsuccessful translation are such well used hymns as the Cherubikon /Izhe kheruvimy/ or the beginning of the petitions in the litanies in the words `In that so...' /vo ezhe/." "The language of our books of divine worship completely hides and often even distorts into heresy the sense and content of our prayer, liturgical readings and chants," says Kirion, Bishop of Oryol (I:520).

   "Russian protestant sectarianism succeeds among the common people largely because it knows how to give the people a vital, conscious share in worship," writes Stephen, Bishop of Mogilyov. "In our Church divine worship is celebrated by the clergy, while the people, if they are praying at all during this time, are offering only private and not corporate prayer at the gatherings of sectarians everyone feels that he himself immediately as well as with all the others together is participating in common prayer."

   This is also supported by Serafim, Bishop of Polotsk (I:176).

   Many other passages could be quoted expressing the same thoughts and feelings. But perhaps now we are interested not so much in a criticism of the shortcomings of our divine worship as in the measures which the bishops proposed to take to fight this evil.

   The primary and basic step of course is the immediate correction of the texts of our liturgical books. The bishops of Astrakhan and Nizhni-Novgorod point out what systematic work was done in this connection in the Russian Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, only stopping at the time of the Petrine reform.

   The Bishop of Nizhni-Novgorod writes: "It is necessary to organize at once the task of correcting the Church's liturgical hooks, establishing the task on broad and free scientific principles, the work being verified by trained professors and pastors of the Church, and by educated and devout laymen. The main goal of this correcting ought to be to make the Church's 1liturgical books fully understandable for the contemporary Orthodox Russian people." (II: 462).

   The majority of bishops concurred in the preservation of the Church Slavonic language, but a minority urged that it be in Russian (Bishop Sergius of Finland, Tikhon of Irkutsk, Vladimir of Kishinyov, Ioanniky of Archangel; Bishop Eulogius of Kholm permitted the reading of the Russian psalter only). But of course the mere alteration of the language of the liturgical books was not enough, and the bishops' reports contain a series of other very interesting suggestions. One which deserves special attention is the proposal to replace the now operative liturgical rubrics, intended for the monasteries, by new ones having in view the needs of the parish church. (The Bishops of Archangel, Astrakhan, Nizhni-Novgorod, Kaluga, Riga, Kholm, and many others write in detail on this point). The Bishops of Oryol, Kaluga and Riga point out the necessity of shortening the services, of freeing them from "tiresome length and frequent, monotonous repetitions" (I:529). The Bishop of Smolensk notes that the "rubric; now in effect are not the norm for laymen, they were designed especially for those in monastic orders … for the sole purpose of providing the least possible time free from prayer …in this way guarding against the temptations of thought, desire and idleness." (III:44).

   Among other abbreviations one deserving attention is the proposal of the Bishop of Poltava to eliminate from the liturgy the litanies of the catechumens and what follows, according to the example of the Greek Church. His opinion was shared by the Bishops of Kostroma (II:544), Nizhni-Novgorod (II:461), Samara (I:444) and Kholm. Archbishop Tikhon of the Aleutians (the future Patriarch), the Bishop of Nizhni-Novgorod (55: 461) and Sergius of Finland (III:444) speak on behalf of the reading aloud of the secret Eucharistic prayers which, in spite of all their significance, remain completely unknown by the members of the Church.

   Other measures proposed by the bishops were the introduction of corporate chanting, private instruction carried out inside the church building, the organization of special meetings which would allow people to listen more carefully to the Church's instruction, the lengthening of the Gospel and Epistle readings, which at present are so short that they often consist of not more than a few verses. It was proposed that the reading of the Gospel and certain prayers be moved to the middle of the church and that they be read in an especially clear voice according to the example of the ancient Church, so that those praying might hear the teaching being offered to them. Euthymius, Bishop of Yeniseysk, insisted on an increase in the number of churches and advised that one should not be discouraged by the possibility of their modest decoration, "since the Holy Spirit did not descend upon the apostles in a magnificent church, but in a poorly furnished upper room," he writes (III:498). In particular the bishops vigorously recommended introducing corporate chanting everywhere and furnishing the people with inexpensive editions of the liturgical services with explanations of everything that takes place in the church.

   Such were the conclusions and suggestions, in general outline, of the pre-revolutionary Russian episcopate. At the present time we can only say that their fears were justified and their proposals reasonable. Perhaps much would have been averted in the tragic fate of the Russian Church if only even part of these reforms had been carried forward into life, but Imperial Russia did not decide to give freedom to the Church until the last moment of its existence. Instead of the expected renewal - of Russian Orthodoxy, the last years before the revolution brought only new trials and humiliations.

   On the basis of the materials studied the following brief summary may be made of the general condition of Orthodoxy in Russia on the eve of the world war and the Communist revolution:

  1. The Russian Church in the person of her episcopate clearly recognized the need for renewal and reforms. Her members, however, were deprived of the opportunity of realizing them, since the administration of the Church was taken out of the hands of the clergy and laity and placed at the disposal of bureaucrats headed by the ober-procuror of the Holy Synod.
  2. The diseases with which the Church's organism has been stricken did not touch secondary questions, in the opinion of the bishops, but the very foundations of the Church's life. The corporate prayer of the Church was impaired, the spiritual bond and trust between pastors and their flocks was destroyed, parish life was to a large extent brought to nothing.
  3. The direct consequence of all these wounds was the falling away of the Church's members into schism and sectarianism, the religious ignorance and superstition of broad circles of believers, and the general weakening of the Church.

   But in spite of all this Russian Orthodoxy did not lose its sacred power and it has showed that it is capable of fulfilling its mission even in the circumstances of a persecution which, in its determination and intensity, exceeds anything that the earthly Church has ever had to suffer. This persecution again raises with special force the problems touched on in the replies of the pre-revolutionary Russian episcopate, and it lays a special responsibility on those of us who are members of the Church living outside the sphere of immediate struggle. Of course we are deprived of the opportunity of deciding any question whatever which concerns the whole Russian Church, but in the conditions of freedom and security which have been granted to us we are able to think over and work out ways of reviving the conciliar principle in Russian Orthodoxy.

   This is the task which has been set before us by life itself, and the whole glorious and at the same time tragic history of our Russian Orthodox Church summons us to its fulfillment.


[1] We are now accustomed to think of the long hair of the clergy, introduced after Peter the Great contrary to the Church's canons, as an apostolic injunction. At the same time the 42nd canon of the Council in Trullo (Sixth Ecumenical) forbade the growing of long hair even for monks. Before Peter the Great the Russian clergy cut their hair, following the instructions of the Council, just as the Old Believers do even now.

[2] There is a story about the remarkable ober-Procuror K. Pobedonostsev (1880-1905) which is a good illustration of this attitude toward the episcopate. When a certain highly placed person, in a conversation with Pobedonostsev, remarked on the "unanimous silence of the Bishops" during his administration of the Church, Pobedonostsev said sarcastically: "No, they are disturbing this unanimity with their signatures on the protocols of Synod’s meetings, each one in his own handwriting." (Vograde Tserkvi, No. 3, Warsaw, 1933).

[3] Such popular expressions as "to stand through" / otstoyat the liturgy, vespers, etc. are characteristic in this sense. Standing has replaced prayer in the mind of the people.


* From Put: organ russkoy religioznoy mysli, a publication of the Religious Philosophical Academy, Paris, No. 45, October-December 1934, pp. 3-15.

This translation from Russian, by the Rev. A.E. Moorhouse, was first published in St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 6:3/1962, pp. 128-138.




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