Church History 5 – The Church of Russia (1448-1800)

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By: Timothy Ware ( Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)
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The Church of Russia (1448-1800)

Origin of the Muscovite Patriarchate

At the Council of Florence, the Greek “metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia,” Isidore, was one of the major architects of the Union. Having signed the decree, he returned to Moscow in 1441 as a Roman cardinal but was rejected by both church and state, arrested, and then allowed to escape to Lithuania. In 1448, after much hesitation, the Russians received a new primate, Jonas, elected by their own bishops. Their church became autocephalous, administratively independent under a “metropolitan of all Russia,” residing in Moscow. In territories controlled by Poland, Rome (in 1458) appointed another “metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia.” The tendencies toward separation from Moscow that had existed in the Ukraine since the Mongol invasion and that were supported by the kings of Poland thus received official sanction. In 1470, however, this metropolitan broke the union with the Latins and re-entered—nominally—the jurisdiction of Constantinople, by then under Turkish control. After this, the fate of the two churches “of all Russia” became quite distinct. The metropolitanate of Kiev developed under the control of Roman Catholic Poland. Hard pressed by the Polish kings, the majority of its bishops, against the will of the majority of their flock, eventually accepted union with Rome at Brest-Litovsk (1596). In 1620, however, an Orthodox hierarchy was reestablished, and a Romanian nobleman, Peter Mogila, was elected metropolitan of Kiev (1632). He created the first Orthodox theological school of the modern period, the famous Academy of Kiev. Modelled after the Latin seminaries of Poland, with instruction given in Latin, this school served as the theological training centre for almost the entire Russian high clergy in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1686 the Ukraine was finally reunited with Muscovy, and the metropolitanate of Kiev was attached to the patriarchate of Moscow, with approval given by Constantinople.

Muscovite Russia, meanwhile, had acquired the consciousness of being the last bulwark of true Orthodoxy. In 1472 Grand Prince Ivan III (reigned 1462-1505) married Sofia (Zoë), the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. The Muscovite sovereign began to use more and more of the Byzantine imperial ceremonial, and he assumed the double-headed eagle as his state emblem. In 1510 the monk Philotheus of Pskov addressed Vasily III as “tsar” (or emperor), saying: “Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and a fourth there will not be.” The meaning of the sentence was that the first Rome was heretical, the second—Byzantium—was under Turkish control, and the third was Moscow. Ivan IV, the Terrible, was crowned emperor, according to the Byzantine ceremonial, by the metropolitan of Moscow, Makary, on January 16, 1547. In 1551 he solemnly presided in Moscow over a great council of Russian bishops, the Stoglav (“Council of 100 Chapters”), in which various issues of discipline and liturgy were settled and numerous Russian saints were canonized. These obvious efforts to live up to the title of the “third Rome” lacked one final sanction: the head of the Russian Church was lacking the title of “patriarch.” The “tsars” of Bulgaria and Serbia did not hesitate in the past to bestow the title on their own primates, but the Russians wanted an unquestionable authentication and waited for proper opportunity. It occurred in 1589 when the patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II, was on a fund-raising tour of Russia. He could not resist the pressure of his hosts and established the metropolitan Job as “patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.” Confirmed later by the other Eastern patriarchs, the new patriarchate obtained the fifth place in the honorific order of the Oriental sees, after the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

Relations between patriarch and tsar

After the 16th century, the Russian tsars always considered themselves as successors of the Byzantine emperors and the political protectors and financial supporters of Orthodoxy throughout the Balkans and the Middle East. The patriarch of Moscow, however, never pretended to occupy formally the first place among the patriarchs. Within the Muscovite Empire, many traditions of medieval Byzantium were faithfully kept. A flourishing monastic movement spread the practice of Christian asceticism in the northern forests, which were both colonized and Christianized by the monks. St. Sergius of Radonezh (c. 1314-92) was the spiritual father of this monastic revival. His contemporary, St. Stephen of Perm, missionary to the Zyryan tribes, continued the tradition of SS. Cyril and Methodius, the “apostles to the Slavs” in the 9th century, in translating the Scripture and the liturgy into the vernacular. He was followed by numerous other missionaries who promoted Orthodox Christianity throughout Asia and even established themselves on Kodiak Island off the coast of Alaska (1794). The development of church architecture, iconography, and literature also added to the prestige of the “third Rome.”

The Muscovite Empire, however, was quite different from Byzantium both in its political system and in its cultural self-understanding. The Byzantine “symphony” (harmonious relationship) between the emperor and the patriarch was never really applied in Russia. The secular goals of the Muscovite state and the will of the monarch always superseded canonical or religious considerations, which were still binding on the medieval emperors of Byzantium. Muscovite political ideology was always influenced more by the beginnings of western European secularism and by Asiatic despotism than by Roman or Byzantine law. Though strong patriarchs of Constantinople were generally able to oppose open violations of dogma and canon law by the emperors, their Russian successors were quite powerless; a single metropolitan of Moscow, St. Philip (metropolitan 1566-68), who dared to condemn the excesses of Ivan IV, was deposed and murdered.

A crisis of the “third Rome” ideology occurred in the middle of the 17th century. Nikon (reigned 1652-58), a strong patriarch, decided to restore the power and prestige of the church by declaring that the patriarchal office was superior to that of the tsar. He forced the tsar Alexis Romanov to repent for the crime of his predecessor against St. Philip and to swear obedience to the church. Simultaneously, Nikon attempted to settle a perennial issue of Russian church life: the problem of the liturgical books. Originally translated from the Greek, the books suffered many corruptions through the centuries and contained numerous mistakes. In addition, the different historical developments in Russia and in the Middle East had led to differences between the liturgical practices of the Russians and the Greeks. Nikon’s solution was to order the exact compliance of all the Russian practices with the contemporary Greek equivalents. His liturgical reform led to a major schism in the church. The Russian masses had taken seriously the idea that Moscow was the last refuge of Orthodoxy. They wondered why Russia had to accept the practices of the Greeks, who had betrayed Orthodoxy in Florence and had been justly punished by God, in their view, by becoming captives of the infidel Turks. The reformist decrees of the patriarch were rejected by millions of lower clergy and laity who constituted the Raskol, or schism of the “Old Believers.” Nikon was ultimately deposed for his opposition to the tsar, but his liturgical reforms were confirmed by a great council of the church that met in the presence of two Eastern patriarchs (1666-67).

The reforms of Peter the Great (reigned 1682-1725)

The son of Tsar Alexis, Peter the Great, changed the historical fate of Russia by radically turning away from the Byzantine heritage and reforming the state according to the model of Protestant Europe. Humiliated by his father’s temporary submission to Patriarch Nikon, Peter prevented new patriarchal elections after the death of Patriarch Adrian in 1700. After a long vacancy of the see, he abolished the patriarchate altogether (1721) and transformed the central administration of the church into a department of the state, which adopted the title of “Holy Governing Synod.” An imperial high commissioner (Oberprokuror) was to be present at all meetings and, in fact, to act as the administrator of church affairs. Peter also issued a lengthy Spiritual Regulation (Dukhovny Reglament) that served as bylaws for all religious activities in Russia. Weakened by the schism of the “Old Believers,” the church found no spokesman to defend its rights and passively accepted the reforms. With the actions of Peter, the Church of Russia entered a new period of its history that lasted until 1917. The immediate consequences were not all negative. Peter’s ecclesiastical advisers were Ukrainian prelates, graduates of the Kievan academy, who introduced in Russia a Western system of theological education; the most famous among them was Peter’s friend, Feofan Prokopovich, archbishop of Pskov. Throughout the 18th century, the Russian Church also continued its missionary work in Asia and produced several spiritual writers and saints: St. Mitrofan of Voronezh (died 1703), St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (died 1783)—an admirer of the German Lutheran Johann Arndt and of German Pietism—as well as other eminent prelates and scholars such as Platon Levshin, metropolitan of Moscow (died 1803). All attempts at challenging the power of the tsar over the church, however, always met with failure. The metropolitan of Rostov, Arseny Matsiyevich, who opposed the secularization of church property by the empress Catherine the Great, was deposed and died in prison (1772). The atmosphere of secularistic officialdom that prevailed in Russia was not favourable for a revival of monasticism, but such a revival did take place through the efforts of a young Kievan scholar, Paissy Velichkovsky (1722-94), who became the abbot of the monastery of Neamts in Romania. His Slavonic edition of the Philocalia contributed to the revival of Hesychast traditions in Russia in the 19th century.


 From the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Now  Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)