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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • Moscow and Petersburg
      • The schism of the Old Believers
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The schism of the Old Believers

  The seventeenth century in Russia opened with a period of confusion and disaster, known as

the Time of Troubles, when the land was divided against itself and fell a victim to outside ene-

mies. But after 1613 Russia made a sudden recovery, and the next forty years were a time of re-

construction and reform in many branches of the nation.s life. In this work of reconstruction the

Church played a large part. The reforming movement in the Church was led at first by the Abbot

Dionysius  of  the  Trinity-Saint  Sergius  Monastery  and  by  PhilaretPatriarch  of  Moscow  from


1619 to 1633 (he was the father of the Tsar); after 1633 the leadership passed to a group of mar-

ried parish clergy, and in particular to the Archpriests John Neronov and Avvakum Petrovitch.

The work of correcting service books, begun in the previous century by Maximus the Greek, was

now cautiously resumed; a Patriarchal Press was set up at Moscow, and more accurate Church

books were issued, although the authorities did not venture to make too many drastic alterations.

On  the  parish  level,  the  reformers  did  all  they  could  to  raise moral  standards  alike  among  the

clergy and the laity. They fought against drunkenness; they insisted that the fasts be observed;

they demanded that the Liturgy  and other services in the parish  churches should be sung  with

reverence and without omissions; they encouraged frequent preaching.

  The reforming group represented much of what was best in the tradition of Saint Joseph of

Volokalamsk. Like Joseph they believed in authority and discipline, and saw the Christian life in

terms of ascetic rules and liturgical prayer. They expected not only monks but parish priests and

laity . husband, wife, children . to keep the fasts and to spend long periods at prayer each day,

either in church or before the icons in their own homes. Those who would appreciate the severity

and self-discipline of the reforming circle should read the vivid and extraordinary autobiography

of the Archpriest Avvakum (1620-1682). In one of his letters Avvakum records how each eve-

ning, after he and his family had recited the usual evening prayers together, the lights would be

put out: then he recited 600 prayers to Jesus and 100 to the Mother of God, accompanied by 300

prostrations (at each prostration he would lay his forehead on the ground, and then rise once

more to a standing position). His wife, when with child (as she usually  was), recited only 400

prayers with 200 prostrations. This gives some idea of the exacting standards observed by devout

Russians in the seventeenth century.

  The reformers. program made few concessions to human weakness, and was too ambitious

ever to be completely realized. Nevertheless Muscovy around 1650 went far to justify the title

.Holy Russia.. Orthodox from the Turkish Empire who visited Moscow were amazed (and often

filled with dismay) by the austerity of the fasts, by the length and magnificence of the services.

The whole nation appeared to live as .one vast religious house. (N. Zernov, Moscow the Third Rome,

p. 51). Archdeacon Paul of Aleppo, who stayed in Russia from 1654 to 1656, found that banquets

at Court were accompanied not by music but by readings from the  Lives of the Saints, as at

meals in a monastery. Services lasting seven hours or more were  attended by the Tsar  and the

whole Court: .Now what shall we say of these duties, severe enough to turn children.s hair grey,

so strictly observed by the Emperor, Patriarch, grandees, princesses, and ladies, standing upright

on their legs from morning to evening? Who would believe that they should thus go beyond the

devout anchorites of the desert?. (.The  Travels  of  Macarius,.  in WPalmer, The  Patriarch  and  the  Tsar,

London1873volIIp107). The children were not excluded from these  rigorous observances:

.What surprised us most was to see the boys and little children... standing bareheaded and mo-

tionless, without betraying the smallest gesture of impatience. (The Travels  of Macariusedited Rid-

ding, p. 68). Paul found Russian strictness not entirely to his taste. He complains that they permit

no .mirth, laughter, and jokes,. no drunkenness, no .opium eating,. and no smoking: .For the

special crime of drinking tobacco they even put men to death. (ibid., p. 21). It is an impressive pic-

ture which Paul and other visitors to Russia present, but there is perhaps too much emphasis on

externals.  One  Greek  remarked  on  his  return  home  that  Muscovite  religion  seemed  to  consist

largely in bell-ringing.

  In 1652-1653 there began a fatal quarrel between the reforming group and the new Patri-

arch, Nicon (1605-1681). A peasant by origin, Nicon was probably the most brilliant and gifted

man ever to become head of the Russian Church; but he suffered from an overbearing and au-


thoritarian temper. Nicon was a strong admirer of things Greek: .I am a Russian and the son of a

Russian,. he used to say, .but my faith and my religion are Greek. (ibid., p. 37). He demanded

that Russian practices should be made to conform at every point to the standard of the four an-

cient Patriarchates, and that the Russian service books should be altered wherever they differed

from the Greek.

  This policy was bound to provoke opposition among those who belonged to the Josephite

tradition. They regarded Moscow as the Third Rome, and Russia as the stronghold and norm of

Orthodoxy; and now Nicon told them that they must in all respects copy the Greeks. But was not

Russia an independent Church, a fully grown member of the Orthodox family, entitled to hold to

her own national  customs  and  traditions? The  Russians  certainly  respected  the memory  of  the

Mother Church of Byzantium from which they had received the faith, but they did not feel the

same reverence for contemporary Greeks. They  remembered the .apostasy. of the Greeks  at

Florence, and they knew something of the corruption and disorders within the Patriarchate of

Constantinople under Turkish rule.

  Had Nicon proceeded gently and tactfully, all might yet have been well: Patriarch Philaret

had already made some corrections in the service books without arousing opposition. Nicon,

however, was not a gentle or a tactful man, but pressed on with his program regardless of the

feelings of others.  In particular he insisted that the sign of the Cross, at that time made by the

Russians with two forgers, should now be made in the Greek fashion with three. This may seem

a trivial matter; but it must be remembered how great an importance Orthodox in general  and

Russians in particular have always attached to ritual actions, to the symbolic gestures whereby

the inner belief of a Christian is expressed. In the eyes of simple believers a change in the sym-

bol  constituted  a  change  in  the  faith.  The  divergence  over  the  sign  of  the  Cross  also  raised  in

concrete form the whole question of Greek  versus Russian Orthodoxy.  The Greek form with

three fingers was more  recent than the Russian form with two: why should the Russians, who

remained loyal to the ancient ways, be forced to accept a .modern. Greek innovation?

  Neronov and Avvakum, together with many other clergy, monks, and lay people, defended

the old Russian practices and refused to accept Nicon.s changes or to use the new service books

which he issued. Nicon was not a man to tolerate any disagreement, and he had his opponents

exiled and imprisoned: in some cases they were eventually put to death. Yet despite persecution,

the opposition continued; although Neronov finally submitted, Avvakum refused to  give way,

and after ten years of exile and twenty-two years of imprisonment (twelve of them spent in an

underground hut) he was finally burnt at the stake. His supporters regarded him as a saint and

martyr for the faith. Those who like Avvakum defied the official Church with its Niconian ser-

vice books eventually formed a separate sect (raskol) known as the Old Believers (it would be

more exact to call them Old Ritualists). Thus there arose in seventeenth-century Russia a move-

ment of Dissent; but if we compare it with English Dissent of the same period, we notice two

great differences. First, the Old Believers . the Russian Dissenters . differed from the official

Church solely in ritual, not in doctrine; and secondly, while English Dissent was radical . a pro-

test against the official Church for not carrying reform far enough . Russian Dissent was the

protest of conservatives against an official Church which in their eyes had carried reform too far.

  The schism of the Old Believers has continued to the present day. Before 1917 their num-

bers were officially  assessed at two million, but the true  figure may well have been over five

times as great. They  are divided into two  main  groups, the  Popovtsy, who have retained the

priesthood and who since 1846 have also possessed their own succession of bishops; and the

Bezpopovtsy, who have no priests.


  There is much to admire in the Raskolniki. They numbered in their ranks the finest elements

among the parish clergy and the laity of seventeenth-century Russia. Historians in the past have

done them a serious injustice by regarding the whole dispute merely as a quarrel over the posi-

tion of a finger, over texts, syllables, and false letters. The true cause of the schism lay else-

where, and was concerned with something far more profound. The Old Believers fought for the

two-finger sign of the Cross, for the old texts and customs, not simply as ends in themselves, but

because of the matter of principle which was herein involved: they saw these things as embody-

ing the ancient tradition of the Church, and this ancient tradition, so they  held, had been pre-

served in its full purity by Russia and Russia alone. Can we say that they were entirely wrong?

The two-finger sign of the Cross was in fact more ancient than the three-finger form; it was the

Greeks who were the innovators, the Russians who remained loyal to the old ways. Why then

should the Russians be forced to adopt the modern Greek practice? Certainly, in the heat of con-

troversy  the  Old  Believers  pushed  their  case  to  extremes,  and  their  legitimate  reverence  for

.Holy Russia. degenerated into a fanatical nationalism; but Nicon also  went too far in his un-

critical admiration for all things Greek.

  .We have no reason to be ashamed of our Raskol,. wrote Khomiakov. ..It is worthy of a

great people, and could inspire respect in a stranger; but it is far from embracing all the richness

of Russian thought. (See A. Gratieux, A.S. Khomiakov et le mouvement slavophile, Paris, 1939, vol. II, p. 165).

It does not embrace the richness of Russian thought because it represents but a single aspect of

Russian Christianity . the tradition of the Possessors. The defects of the Old Believers are the

Josephite defects writ large: too narrow a nationalism, too great an emphasis on the externals of

worship. Nicon too, despite his Hellenism, is in the end a Josephite: he demanded an  absolute

uniformity in the externals of worship, and like the Possessors he freely invoked the help of the

civil arm in order to suppress all religious opponents. More than anything else, it was his readi-

ness to resort to persecution which made the schism definitive. Had the development of Church

life in Russia between 1550 and 1650 been less  one-sided, perhaps a lasting separation would

have been avoided. If men had thought more (as Nilus did) of tolerance and freedom instead of

using persecution, then a reconciliation might have been effected; and if they had attended more

to mystical prayer, they might have argued less bitterly about ritual. Behind the division of the

seventeenth century lie the disputes of the sixteenth.

  As well as establishing Greek practices in Russia, Nicon pursued a second aim: to make the

Church supreme over the State. In the past the theory governing relations between Church and

State had been the same in Russia as in Byzantium . a dyarchy or symphony of two coordi-

nated powerssacerdotium and imperium, each  supreme in its own sphere.  In the Assumption

Cathedral of the Kremlin there were placed two equal thrones, one for the Patriarch and one for

the Tsar. In practice the Church had enjoyed a wide measure of independence and influence in

the Kievan and Mongol periods. But under the  Moscow Tsardom, although the theory of two

equal powers remained the same, in practice the  civil power came to control the Church more

and more;  the Josephite policy  naturally  encouraged  this  tendency. Nicon  attempted  to  reverse

the situation. Not only did he demand that the Patriarch.s authority be absolute in religious mat-

ters, but he also claimed the right to intervene in civil affairs, and assumed the title .Great Lord,.

hitherto reserved to the Tsar alone. Tsar Alexis had a deep respect for Nicon, and at first submit-

ted  to  his  control.  .The  Patriarch.s  authority  is  so  great,.  wrote  Oleariusvisiting  Moscow  in

1654, .that he in a manner divides the sovereignty with the Grand Duke. (Palmer, The Patriarch and

the Tsar, vol. II, p. 407).

  But after a time Alexis began to resent Nicon.s interference in secular affairs. In 1658 Ni-

con, perhaps in hopes of restoring his influence, decided upon a curious step: he withdrew into


semi-retirement, but did  not resign the office of  Patriarch. For  eight  years the Russian Church

remained without an effective head, until at the Tsar.s request a great Council was held at Mos-

cow in 1666-1667 over which the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch presided. The Council

decided in favor of Nicon.s reforms, but against his person: Nicon.s changes in the service books

and above all his ruling on the sign of the Cross were confirmed, but Nicon himself was deposed

and exiled, a new Patriarch being appointed in his place. The Council was therefore a triumph for

Nicon.s policy of imposing Greek practices on the Russian Church, but a defeat for his attempt

to set the Patriarch above the Tsar. The Council reasserted the Byzantine theory of a harmony of

equal powers.

  But the decisions of the  Moscow Council upon the relations ref Church and State did not

remain long in force. The pendu1um which  Nicon had pushed too far  in one direction soon

swung back in the other with redoubled violence. Peter the Great (reigned 1682-1725) altogether

suppressed the office of patriarch, whose powers Nicon had so ambitiously striven to aggrandize.


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