History of the Russian Church

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The Church in Imperial Russia: the XVIII Century

By the eighteenth century the Muscovite period of Russian history had waned and had been eclipsed by the spectacular reign of Peter I the Great. Peter was fully aware of the Church's potential political influence and acted as befits a secularizing statesman: he abolished the institution of Patriarch and replaced it with an Ecclesiastical College (later called the Holy Synod) headed by a Procurator on the German Lutheran model and who was answerable to the emperor alone. The Procurator, a lay man, had the power to appoint and transfer bishops at will. In effect, the Russian Orthodox Church, in its outward administration at least, had been turned into an imperial 'ministry of religion' and her voice in society could be heard but faintly. Perhaps the most disastrous consequence of this new arrangement was the confiscation of monastic land-holdings during the reign of Catherine II the Great and the severe restrictions placed upon those wishing to pursue a monastic vocation.

However, to characterize this period of the Church's history (often referred to as the 'Synodal period') that existed until the 1917 Revolution as one of decline or stagnation would be a mistake. It is true that the Church existed under an uncanonical dispensation, even though it was recognized by the other Eastern Orthodox Churches. Church education, formally begun with the academies set up on a Western model in the seventeenth century, became so detached from the true tradition of Orthodoxy that by the beginning of the nineteenth century all teaching was conducted in Latin with Protestant theology being learnt by rote to combat Catholic propaganda and Latin theology being learnt in the same manner to combat the Protestants! Iconography became naturalized religious portrait painting, while hymnography betrayed the influence of European baroque music or even secular opera. Yet behind this facade of decline and compliance, the spiritual life of the Church continued uninterrupted.

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