Russian Church Reform and the Pre-Revolutionary Episcopate

Nicholas Zernov

The revolution cut a red swath trough the history of the Russian Church.

Everything that was customary, inevitable, and unshakeable in its structure and life style became threatened with destruction. Russian Orthodoxy appeared to many either finally shattered or in any case, so transformed in its structure, that there was an impassable chasm between what has been and what the future will bring. However, such feelings are hardly justified. To be sure, changes, substantial ones, did take place, which have placed their indelible stamp upon the fate of the Russian Church but they did not destroy the Church itself or its characteristic particularities.

To the contrary, the Russian Church projected its exceptional vitality and its special ability for accommodation. It exists both under the Communists in Russia, in the Diaspora, in America, in Poland, in border countries, where it confirms to the local existing situations without losing its distinguishing features. Everywhere, it attempts to establish its life in accordance with the forms it has known in pre-Revolutionary Russia. However, this loyalty to the past, with all its treasures accumulated over past centuries, is not connected with a single positive affinity of our Church’s reality. Much of what is reverently preserved and faithfully carried out, whether in Communist Russia, in Poland, in the Diaspora, conforms neither with Apostolic Tradition nor with Conciliar Canons, nor even with the best practices of Russian Orthodoxy. Even though the Church during the Synodal period possessed many examples of spiritual sanctity and piety, it also suffered from any number of various defects.

One of the most obvious signs of illness within the Church’s organism is the proliferation of sectarian communities around it. The pre-Revolutionary Russian Church was thickly surrounded by them and they continuously multiplied notwithstanding all the persecutions on the part of the State authorities. Even today these communities continue to surround its body. No matter where Russian Orthodoxy was present or made its appearance, sectarian nuclei would quickly appear beside it. Even though in the past it was the ordinary people who were attracted to sectarian influences today individuals belonging to the educated class are beginning to be intrigued by them. This shows that all is not well with the Orthodox Church and that diverse groups of the faithful do not always find spiritual sustenance and prefer to seek it elsewhere. On the other hand the question whether the contemporary forms of Church life satisfies members of the Russian Church is hardly ever raised in their minds and hearts. The Russians are so used to the absolute immobility of Orthodoxy, that they can conceive of only two ways of resolving a religious question: either completely leave the Church or accept without question the unshakeable immobility of its entire contemporary customs and institutions.

Faith in the immobility of Orthodoxy is so deeply entrenched in Russian consciousness that we accept this affinity as the basic sign of the Church’s Divine establishment. The lack of knowledge of Church history even among educated Russians makes this delusion inevitable. Thus it becomes the fundamental barrier which stands in the way of Russian religious renaissance. For the majority of Russians the teaching that the Church is a living, constantly growing organism, extending its influence on all spheres of life appears today to be a dangerous novelty incompatible with the patristic tradition whereas in fact it is this teaching which was expressed by its finest members during the glorious epochs of its flowering.

The immobility of Russian Orthodoxy was especially strengthened as a result of the Petrine reforms brought about by the Great Transformer of Russia in accordance with Protestant models. The Russian Church, from the time of the establishment of the Sacred Synod, copied from the West, actually stopped growing and changing. It solidified into an excruciating immobility, which today is accepted by its members as its primordial characteristic.

The deeply rooted conviction that Russian Orthodoxy should not and can not change is usually based on the centuries of silence by our clergy. The average layman usually thinks this way: if changes in the life of the Church had been possible, they would be described to us and implemented by our bishops and priests. Inasmuch as they never raise such questions then obviously, they are incompatible with the nature of Orthodoxy.

People who think in this manner are usually unaware that, beneath this 200 years of silence on the part of Russian clerics there was so much suffering and degradation experienced by them before they finally sealed their lips. Russian society rarely knew about those martyrs among bishops and priests who perished, as did Bishop Arsenii Mitsevich († 1772), in dungeons and in exile for their attempts to raise their pastoral voice. For many Russians, bishops and priests ceased to be living personalities. They melted into a faceless, submissive mass.

But, in reality our clergy were acutely conscious of the deficiencies and the distortions of Russian church life. For us today, being separated from our recent past by an uncrossable chasm, it will be of special interest to stop and think about those aspirations and hopes of our pre-Revolutionary episcopate which even today are almost unknown by the Russian Orthodox community. The main source for learning about this are the responses of the diocesan hierarchs to the questions posed to them by the Sacred Synod in 1905 with respect to the desirability of ecclesiastical re-organization.

These were published in 1906 in 4 large volumes titled "Responses from the Diocesan Hierarchs on the question of Church reform", v. I-III and a separate volume of addenda. The compilation of these responses relates to that moment when members of the Russian Church could, but for a minute, open their mouths and freely express their views about the conditions of Orthodoxy in Russia. This was a time of reform of the Russian Empire begun by Count S.Yu. Witte following defeat in the Japanese war. The life of the whole State was subject to restructuring. The Church was not forgotten. The Sovereign promised to call a Council and a pre-Conciliar commission was appointed. In connection with these rumors and expectations the whole Russian press was inundated with articles about Church problems which the bishops, priests and laity, could. For the first time in 200 years, freely express their views about problems that concerned them. At the same time the Sacred Synod sent out questionnaires designated for diocesan bishops which asked for their views on a number of critical reforms of Church life. These responses constitute a genuine monument in the history of the Russian Church. In them, the Russian episcopate, even though selected and vetted by the all-powerful Pobedonostsev, expressed its judgement upon the activities of the Russian Church. Today, its voice calls out to us not only in encouragement and help, but as a warning and a lesson; since many of the things upon which the bishops insisted, remained unaccomplished and that, with which they struggled, continues to poison the life of the Church in the Diaspora, even though that life develops in the atmosphere of freedom, unencumbered by controls of secular powers.

The responses of the diocesan bishops to the Synod questionnaire touched upon a wide range of questions among which the following points were examined in detail:

1) Composition of the proposed Council

2) Division of Russia into ecclesiastical regions

3) Restructuring of the Church administration

4) Restructuring of Church courts and a review of laws governing marriage

5) Diocesan assemblies

6) Participation of clergy in social institutions

7) General structure of the parish

8) Procedures for obtaining Church property

9) Subjects of faith: Divine services, Edinoveriye, [authorized Old Ritual groups. Trans.], fasts, church singing, musical compositions, prayers for heterodox Christians.

10) Restructuring of church educational institutions

11) Missions

Many of the above points are today of purely historical interest since the institutions which the Russian episcopate sought to reform in 1906 no longer exist. Other responses, on the other hand, touch upon the problems which to this day, are before Russian Orthodoxy and for this reason deserve our attention.

Of first importance is the need to revivify parish life and even more acutely, the need to renew Orthodox worship.

The almost complete extinguishing of any independent life in parishes in the Russian Church was one of the most destructive heritages of the introduction of the Ober-Procurator and the Sacred Synod system. The parish is the principal unit of the Church, the living cell of the Church’s ecumenical organism and its destruction was a symptom of a serious illness of the whole body and its frightening immobility that was mentioned at the beginning of this article. The Russian episcopate was very conscious of this and unanimously insisted that the beginning of Church renewal was to start with the rebirth of the parish. Thus, for example, replied Bishop Stefan of Mogilev: "All important moves towards the restructuring of our Church must have its beginning in the parish, the basic nucleus and the primary unity of Church life."

"All means should be taken to make the parish once again, a community, a brotherhood, a living and active organism, where all members are closely united with each other," writes Bishop Nazarii of Nizhny Novgorod.

"The beginning of Sobornost’, which is the basis for the restructuring of the whole Church order, must first of all start with the parish," writes Bishop Kyrion of Orel.

The Russian episcopate did not conceal that the beginning of Sobornost’, that foundation of the Church’s grace-giving life has been seriously damaged in Russian Orthodoxy because of the destruction of parishes. Bishop Anthony of Volhyn, presently the head of the Karlovtsy Synod, compared the Orthodox parish in Russia with an ill person infected with typhus.

Closely connected with the attempts to revive the parish was the question of the selection of clergy. It is quite obvious that a vital and creative Church community must be headed by its elected and respected pastor and not by a person assigned from outside. During the times of its flourishing the Orthodox Church elected its pastors and the taking away of the right of election from the laity was a certain sign of the fall and deterioration of an essential part of the Church. Prior to Peter the Russian Church enjoyed the process of electing its clergy but its bureaucratic administration, from the time of the Petrine reforms quickly did away this example of independence of Church life.

The restoration of the elective principle would be one of the most important and yet a most difficult problems which is still facing the Russian Church. In 1906 only a minority (17) of bishops insisted on the immediate implementation of the elective principle. The majority felt that such implementation is incompatible with the present conditions. However, within this opposition there was a significant group of bishops that felt that the implementation of the elective principle must be the ultimate, ideal goal of the Church administration. Such was the opinion of Bishops Anthony of Volhyn and George of Astrakhan.

However, even the introduction of the elective principle and the revival of parish life could only take place only under the conditions of an improvement of the spiritual and material level of the clergy, and the majority of bishops ended their discussions about parishes with noting the difficult conditions of the parish clergy. Bishop Tikhon of Kostroma for example, writes: "As long as our seminaries fail to produce well-prepared candidates for the priesthood who are zealous and pious, whatever measures are taken for the well-being of the parish will be without any benefit."

"Next, it is essential to do away with the chief evil, which brings about discord in the relations between the clergy and parishioners – fees for the performance of rites. This, seemingly an Apostolic means for the support of clergy is harmful spiritually: the clergy is viewed by the people as their exploiters and antagonism grows between the clergy and the people. The clergy attempts to receive as much as possible and the people want to settle for considerably less," writes Bishop Constantine of Samara. In the minds of the people the significance of the Mysteries and Church rites is diminished, when they must be paid for with a specified amount, writes Bishop Innocent of Tambov.

Individual bishops proposed various schemes for replacing fees for rites by other methods of compensation for the support of clergy that will not be examined at this point.

It will be seen from Bishop Gury of Simbirsk’s expressed wishes how abnormal was the situation of the clergy, particularly in rural areas, and how pastoral service was displaced by bureaucratic functions. He writes: "It is desirable to relieve pastors from all police type obligations, from everything that smacks of detection, to root out of his soul that slavish feeling formed over the centuries and in its place to develop in him a consciousness of his pastoral dignity."

The bishops of Kazan and Smolensk insisted that priests be freed from reporting on all kinds of data and statistical information for various needs of secular institutions. The bishop of Perm and the Olonetz commission proposed the elimination of the censorship of sermons. These proposals themselves paint a cheerless picture of the Russian priest’s condition, powerless, humiliated, pressed down by police and spiritual censorship, forced to extract a penny from peasants, which they have earned by their sweat in order to feed his large family. The press, in 1905-1906, had a number of letters written in blood from rural priests testifying to that debilitating moral condition under which many of the Church’s pastors lived. Another expression of that situation was the continuous riots in the seminaries that constantly arose in all corners of Russia and even resulted in bloodletting.

The analysis of the reasons for dissatisfaction on the part of the white clergy and their student sons in seminaries does not enter into the purpose of this essay but it should be pointed out that they were brought about not only by poverty, abuse by consistorial functionaries, but also by the mandatory monasticism for the episcopate. These conditions cut off the best parish clergy from higher service in the Church and not infrequently resulted in the growth of ambitious careerism among the learned monastics. This brought about the sharp antagonism between the white and black clergy, poisoning the life of the whole Church and particularly the atmosphere in the theological educational establishments. In the responses of the diocesan bishops, this painful subject, passionately debated in the secular press of those days, is passed over in silence. Only Bishop Vladimir of Kishinev mentions the desirability of elevating persons to the episcopate without the requirement of monastic tonsure. The following expressions dealing with other proposals for the revival of parishes deserve our attention:

Bishop Constantine of Samara proposes a campaign against drunkenness and cruelty, which undermine the spiritual lives and strengths of the people. To achieve this, he suggests the restoration of public penance in the Church.

Exarch Nicholas of Georgia and Bishop Stephan of Mogilev proposed to restore the order of deaconesses and to charge them with carrying out the Church’s charitable work. Bishop Joannikii of Archangelsk was in favor of permitting remarriage for widowed priests and deacons. Bishop Sergius of Finland joined him in this.

But the main concern of all hierarchs was divine services. The needs for their improvement were to bring about a better understanding of them and attentiveness. Russian services are especially beautiful, with their harmonized singing, the gold of vestments and icons, lighted candles and multicolored lamps. But this treasure which is magnificently decorated by the loving zeal of Russian people, is losing its true religious meaning. It has turned into an expression of esthetic emotion, an inseparable enhancement of lifestyle or even a means for forgetfulness and an opportunity to rest from the sorrowful earthly life. The present Russian services could be compared with the ancient examples of iconography which, before the Revolution, were encased in an impenetrable armor of gold and precious stones and the people, praying before them, did not even imagine what they originally looked like in their strictly-formed beauty. The Russians in general likewise forgot the divine services, which would have been the conciliar and immediate expression of their prayerful spirit. Artistic singing, the triumphant and little understood symbolic acts of the priests, and even less understood but pleasantly sonorous Slavonic language – all this became the divine service of itself and its real meaning has long ago been erased from their consciousness. The Russian pre-Revolutionary episcopate was aware of the tragedy of our Church and in their responses proposed, without fear, to undertake the struggle with this evil.

Bishop Constantine of Samara writes: "The people do not experience a true prayer. They patiently stand through hours of Church worship, but this is not prayer since one cannot maintain that feeling for hours without understanding the prayer’s words and the words of the Church’s divine services are beyond people’s understanding. The services are not understood by the people not only because they are celebrated in Church-Slavonic and because the chant is so rapid, but to understand the services demands a certain level of theological education. Orthodox worship is a great treasure, if we compare our Church hymnography with the shallowness of Lutheran hymns, and the time will come for using that treasure properly. Especially now, since that treasure is "hidden in the village" and the people are impoverished and is spiritually starving, lacking prayers within the grasp of their understanding. Perhaps only the litanies and to a certain extent the akathist services, are understood somewhat by the people – and this is why the latter are so popular. People should be educated so they would not consider prostrations and signs of the cross, or the mechanical reading or hearing of incomprehensible words of the Psalter, Tropari or Stikhiri, as prayer. It is necessary that public prayer in Church as it was in a distant past, would again be of such a nature and means for satisfying the spiritual needs in prayer, that it would once again serve the truly prayerful mood."

If one thinks seriously about this extract, it may answer some of the painful questions of our time. Perhaps communism, sectarianism and the cruelty of the revolution and the persecution of the Church could be explained by the fact that the treasure of Christian prayer in common and a direct communion between God and man became for Russian members of the orthodox Church, a hidden and an inaccessible treasure, a vessel sealed with seven seals. Other bishops speak about the same subject in no lesser terms. Bishop Gury of Simbirsk writes: "At the moment when the clergy raise their voices in songs, thanksgiving, petitions and praise, the people remain as if they were outside observers. Here is an amazing difference between the laity present in Orthodox Churches on the one hand and in heterodox ones on the other. The contrast is not in our favor."

Bishop Joannikii of Arkhangelsk writes: "The temple, for an Orthodox individual must be a school and the services in it -- lessons of Christian life, since it is here that the person can learn how to live. He can learn not only what he must do, but also how to think and how to feel. What can be said about a school where instruction takes place in an incomprehensible language? The Orthodox Church in Russia is in this respect, in a worse situation than any of the public schools. The services, as magnificent as they may be in their content, remain incomprehensible and as a result of this, without any desirable influence upon the ordinary people."

The Bishop of Kaluga writes: "Our service books and to a certain extent, the Bible, are translated into such a language, which has never been spoken or written by a single Slav. Many Tropari and Stikhiri remain incomprehensible even to persons who completed higher theological education, for example the hymn, "That we should love what is comfortable with fear." Other examples of unsuccessful translations are the Cherubic hymn or certain litanies.

"The language of our service books completely obscures and at times heretically distorts the meaning and content of prayers, readings and hymns," writes Bishop Kyrion of Orel.

"The Russian Protestant sectarianism is successful among the ordinary people to a significant degree because it is capable of giving them a living, conscious participation in divine services," writes Bishop Stephan of Mogilev. "The prayer of the clergy and the people at our divine services remains private and not corporate. In sectarian gatherings everyone feels that he is praying directly and participates with everyone there in a common prayer."

This is also affirmed by Bishop Seraphim of Polotsk.

One can cite many other examples that express the same thought and feeling. But for us, today, it should not be the criticism of deficiencies in divine services that draw our attention, but the suggestions proposed by the bishops in their fight against evil.

The first and primary task should be the immediate correction of the texts of our service books. The bishops of Astrakhan and Nizhny Novgorod note that such work had been systematically carried out in the Russian Church in the XVI and XVII centuries and ceased only from the times of Peter’s reforms.

The bishop of Nizhny Novgorod writes: "It is necessary to speedily organize a project for the correction of service books, to base this on broad and scholarly principles, entrusting this to learned professors, pastors of churches and to well-informed devout laity. These corrections must have as its main purpose that the Church’s service books become fully comprehensible for the contemporary Orthodox population."

The majority of bishops favored the retention of the Church-Slavonic language but a minority insisted on Russian (Bishops Sergius of Finland, Tikhon of Irkutsk, Vladimir of Kishinev, Joannikii of Arkhangelsk; Bishop Evlogii of Kholm favored the reading of the Psalter in Russian). However, the mere changing of the language in the service books was not sufficient and the responses of the bishops contain many other interesting proposals. Among these, of special interest are the proposals to change the presently used order of services, designed for monasteries with a new one based on the needs of a parish church. (The bishops of Arkhangelsk, Astrakhan, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, Riga, Kholm and many others go into great detail about this.) The bishops of Orel, Kaluga, and Riga point out that services must be shortened and that the "tedious lengths and multiple repetitions" be removed. The bishop of Smolensk notes that "the present Order [Ustav] is not the norm for the laity. It was created strictly for monastics . . . with the sole purpose of providing for less time away from prayer . . . and in this way to shield them from tempting thoughts, desires and pride."

Among the other proposed abridgements, the proposal of the Bishop of Poltava deserves attention. He proposed that the litanies for catechumens and those following be eliminated in accordance with the Greek practice. The bishops of Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, and Kholm share his views. Archbishop Tikhon of the Aleutian Isles (future Patriarch), the bishops of Nizhny Novgorod and Finland proposed that the secret Eucharistic prayers, that in spite of all their significance remain completely unknown to members of the Church, be read aloud.

Other proposals by the bishops included the introduction of congregational singing, more frequent preaching made from the center of the church, introduction of seats which would serve to allow more attentive listening to the Church’s teaching, an expansion of the Gospel and Epistle lectionaries, which at the present time are so brief that not infrequently they consist of just a few verses. It was proposed that the Gospel be read from the center of the church and, in following the practice of the ancient Church, from a raised platform, which would enable the listeners to hear these teachings better. Bishop Evfimii of Yeniseisk proposed an increase in the number of churches and suggested that there is no need to be embarrassed by their modest appointments, "since the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles not in a magnificent temple but in a humble Upper Room." The bishops especially stressed the need for the introduction of congregational singing everywhere and the need to provide the people with inexpensive editions of church services with an explanation of everything that takes place in the Church.

Such were the conclusions and desires of the Russian pre-Revolutionary episcopate. Today we can only affirm the justification of their concerns and witness to the wisdom of their proposals. Perhaps much could have been avoided in the tragic fate of the Russian Church if only but a part of these reforms were implemented. However, Imperial Russia, until the final moments of its existence, would not decide to give freedom to the Church. The last years before the Revolution, instead of the anticipated revival, the Orthodox Church was faced with new indignities and ordeals.

Based on the above material, one can come to a brief conclusion about the general condition of Orthodoxy in Russia on the eve of World War One and the Communist Revolution:

1) The Russian Church, on the testimony of its episcopate, was clearly aware of the need in a renaissance and reforms. Its members however, were deprived of the possibility of implementing them, since the administration of the Church was taken out of the hands of the clergy and laity, and given over to bureaucratic functionaries headed by Chief Procurators of the Sacred Synod.

2) The diseases that infected the church organism, according to the bishops’ evaluations, didn’t affect just the secondary problems but the very foundations of Church life. The corporate prayer of the Church was damaged. The spiritual ties and trust between pastors and parishioners were violated. the canonical principles of Church governance were destroyed. Parish life was, to a considerable degree, reduced to naught.

3) The direct result of all these damages was the falling away of Church members into schism or sectarianism, religious ignorance and superstition among a considerable number of the faithful and an overall impotence of the Church.

But, in spite of all this, Russian Orthodoxy did not lose its grace-abiding strength and it proved to be capable of carrying out its mission even under the conditions of persecution, which, in its thoroughness and intensity, exceeded anything that, the earthly Church ever faced.

This persecution once again raises the questions touched upon in the responses of the pre-Revolutionary Russian episcopate, and it places a special responsibility upon us, members of the Church, who find ourselves outside of the sphere of the unprecedented struggle. To be sure we are deprived of the opportunity to decide whatever problems which affect the whole Russian Church but we can, under the conditions of freedom and safety which we enjoy, think and work towards the rebirth of the principles of Sobornost’ in Russian Orthodoxy.

This is the task that is placed before us by life itself and we are called to carry it out by all of the glorious and at the same tragic history of our Russian Orthodox Church.


N. Zernov


Put’ #45, 1934, pp. 3-15

Translation © Copyright 1999 by Alvian N. Smirensky