History of the Russian Church (Page 7 of 11)

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The Old Believer Schism of the XVII Century

By the seventeenth century the tension between Tsar and Patriarch erupted into overt hostility as Patriarch Nikon appropriated for himself the title of ‘Sovereign’ and all the concomitant imperial pretensions. Nikon loved church ceremony and ritual, yet introduced a number of reforms into the Church’s pattern of worship. The rich Byzantine ritual had been the object of reform at an earlier church council know as the Hundred Chapters, which also laid down rules on iconography. Yet it was not so much reform in itself that provoked the ire of church traditionalists, led by the belligerent Archpriest Avvakuum (1620-1680), author of a autobiographical Vita and a literary masterpiece. The reforms that Nikon wanted to introduce were in themselves relatively minor (making the sign of the Cross with three fingers instead of two, the spelling of the name ‘Jesus’ and how many times to sing ‘alleluia’); it was the fact that they were based on recent Greek liturgical books published in Venice that offended Avvakuum’s party. ‘I am a Russian by birth, but a Greek by faith’, Nikon exclaimed, invoking the anger of the Old Believers or, more accurately, the Old Ritualists, who went in a schism that has not been healed to this day.

Much that was good in the ancient Russian traditions of iconography and hymnography was lost as the official Church succumbed to Western influence in matters of ecclesiastical art. The Old Believers preferred to face death rather than surrender their right to worship as the pre-Nikonian service books prescribed. Today, there are approximately five million Old Believers of various denominations in Russia, some of whom, known as ‘coreligionists’ are in Eucharistic communion with the Russian Orthodox Church. After the schism of 1666, the Old Believers held to the popular belief that the reign of Antichrist had begun in the official Church, which was confirmed in their imagination with the accession to the Russian throne of Peter the Great and the transfer of the capital of the Russian empire to St. Petersburg in the eighteenth century.

The Church in Russia was beset by one further problem in the seventeenth century, that of the so called Unia. The Ukraine, or ‘Little Russia’ as it was known, saw the development on its soil of a Church worshipping according to the Byzantine rites yet owing allegiance to the Pope of Rome. Hierarchs in the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine had concluded a union with the Roman Church under the influence of Polish Latin-rite Jesuits and took with them a large number of their flock. At times proscribed and at times granted freedom under the emperor’s dispensation, the Greek Catholics have experienced a precarious existence within the boundaries of the Russian Empire.

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