Orthodox Church

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Orthodox Church

the collective body of those Eastern Churches that were separated from the western Church in the 11th century and are in communion with the Greek patriarch of Constantinople

Orthodox Church


the religious organization of the adherents of Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox Church developed in the Byzantine Empire during the fourth century, but until the separation of the churches in 1054 it was organizationally tied to the Roman Catholic Church, together with which it constituted a universal Christian church.

Unlike the Catholic Church, which developed as a centralized extragovernmental organization subordinate to a single hierarch (the Roman pontiff), the Orthodox Church was originally a state institution headed by the Byzantine emperor. The church hier-archs were appointed and replaced by the emperors, who also convoked and dismissed church councils, at which either he or one of his officials presided. In addition to the right to affirm council decisions and interpret Orthodox religious doctrine, the emperor possessed other prerogatives in higher church authority. The day-to-day leadership of the Orthodox Church was exercised by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The patriarch of Constantinople received the title of “ecumenical” patriarch, but in relation to the other three patriarchs, he was only “the first among equals.” All administrative matters had to be decided jointly.

As the central authority in Byzantium grew weaker (from the 13th century), the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem won independence, and after the fall of the Byzantine Empire (1453) they became the heads of local, self-governing (autocephalous) Orthodox churches. Other independent Orthodox churches developed later, chiefly in the 19th and 20th centuries, in countries where Orthodox Christianity was widely practiced.

In 1974 there were 15 autocephalous Orthodox churches. According to church tradition, they are listed in order of the “honor” ascribed to their location: the Church of Constantinople, the Church of Alexandria, the Church of Antioch, the Church of Jerusalem, the Church of Russia, the Church of Georgia, the Church of Serbia, the Church of Rumania, the Church of Bulgaria, the Church of Cyprus, the Church of Greece, the Church of Albania, the Church of Poland, the Church of Czechoslovakia, and the Church of America, which separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970. The Finnish and Japanese Orthodox churches have been granted the status of autonomous churches. The Finnish church, which achieved autonomy in 1957, is under the jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople; the Japanese church has been under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1970.

Despite their independence, the autocephalous churches are linked by a common religious doctrine, the basic norms of church life, and the principal Orthodox rituals (see). However, services and worship vary, depending on the nationality. Services are conducted in the language of each country, and there are local saints and local religious holidays.

In their political orientation and their evaluations of the chief phenomena of the times, the autocephalous churches differ greatly, depending on the sociohistorical conditions under which they exist. By maintaining close contacts with each other, the autocephalous churches are able to reach an agreement on decisions of importance to the entire Orthodox Church. For this purpose, convocations of all the Orthodox churches have been held since 1961 (chiefly on the island of Rodhos [Rhodes] in Greece). Preparations are under way for a pan-Orthodox council, whose tentative program provides for the fundamental modernization of Orthodox doctrine and worship. The Orthodox churches have participated in the ecumenical movement. The head of the Church of Serbia is one of the six presidents of the World Council of Churches.

In Russia and the USSR. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the orthodox churches, was established in the tenth century in connection with the adoption of Christianity. As the state religion, Christianity was expected to strengthen and sanctify the feudal system, eliminate paganism, and increase the authority of the grand prince. Both the Byzantine and the Roman church had attempted to introduce Christianity into Rus’. In this rivalry Byzantium, with which Rus’ had maintained close relations, prevailed over Rome. The Christianization of Rus’ (c. 988–989) and the establishment of the Orthodox Church took place under the conditions of a class struggle. In 991 the Nov-gorodians resisted Christianization. Uprisings in Suzdal’ Land in 1024 and 1071, as well as the disturbances of 1068–69 in Kiev, were directed against the church.

At first, the Russian Orthodox Church was heavily dependent on the patriarch of Constantinople. For more than 60 years, Byzantine metropolitans were appointed by the patriarch of Constantinople to serve in Rus’. In 1051, Prince Iaroslav the Wise succeeded in making the Russian metropolitan Ilarion the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, the patriarchs of Constantinople continued to control the Russian Orthodox Church until the mid-15th century.

The Russian metropolitanate was subdivided into episcopates headed by bishops of the eparchy, an ecclesiastical division basically corresponding to the principality. There were up to 16 episcopates in Rus’ before the Mongol invasion (Novgorod, Chernigov, Pereiaslavl’, Vladimir-Volynskii, Polotsk, and other cities and principalities).

The Russian Orthodox Church received a share of revenues from the prince’s treasury (the church tithe). As monasteries were formed, church landownership developed. Church charters issued by Grand Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich and Grand Prince Iaroslav Vladimirovich established the right of the Orthodox Church to legal jurisdiction over many secular cases, as well as over the clergy. The church played an important role in the strengthening and development of feudal relations. The Mongol Tatar invasion in the early 13th century greatly harmed the church. Assigning considerable importance to the church in their system of ruling Rus’, the Mongol-Tatar conquerors exempted the church from paying tribute, granted it privileges, and established the immunity of its possessions. Founded in 1261, the episcopal see of Sarai was located in the capital of the Golden Horde. Later, when the Russian people rose in a struggle to overthrow the Mongol-Tatar yoke, the church, fearing the loss of its influence among the popular masses, supported the liberation movement. The Muscovite princes, whose policy was designed to unify the Russian lands into a centralized state and overthrow the foreign yoke, made extensive use of the economic and political influence of the Orthodox Church. The alliance between the church and the Muscovite princes began under the metropolitan Peter, with the transfer of the metropolitanate to Moscow.

In the 15th century, when the Byzantine Empire was threatened with conquest by the Turks, the eastern patriarchs concluded the Decree of Union (Florence, 1439). With the support of the Muscovite princes, the Russian Orthodox Church took advantage of this situation to repudiate its subordination to the patriarch of Constantinople. When the metropolitan Isidor, who had taken part in the Council of Florence and had consented to the Decree of Union, returned to Moscow in 1441, he was imprisoned in a monastery by Grand Prince Vasilii II Vasil’evich, who did not approve the decree. A council of bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church deposed Isidor and, acting independently of the patriarch of Constantinople, made lona (Jonas) metropolitan of Moscow and of all Rus’ (1448). Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church achieved de facto independence (auto-cephaly).

The establishment of a patriarchate in 1589 was an important milestone in the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia, because it secured and formulated, within the norms of canon law, the independence of the Russian church from the patriarch of Constantinople. Thus, the church gained de jure as well as de facto autocephaly, and it grew in international importance.

A major conflict between the Orthodox Church and the autocracy took place under Patriarch Nikon, who announced that the “clergy was superior to tsardom.” However, the tendency toward placing the authority of the Orthodox Church above secular authority was cut short by Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, and Patriarch Nikon was deposed.

The raskol (schism) in the Russian Orthodox Church in the second half of the 17th century was superficially a response to a series of reforms introduced by Nikon from 1653 to 1656, with the purpose of strengthening the church’s feudal serf-owning organization and correcting the liturgical books.

Reforms carried out under Peter I the Great made the church subordinate to the autocracy. In 1721, the patriarchate was abolished, and church administration was delegated to a special clerical collegium, the Synod, which was headed by a president. The office of president was eliminated in 1722, and supervision of the Synod’s activities was assigned to the chief procurator (ober-prokuror of the Synod). As a result of Peter I’s church reforms, the Russian Orthodox Church essentially became part of the state apparatus. The secularization of ecclesiastical property in 1764 made the church completely dependent on state power and contributed to its transformation into a cog in the tsarist machinery of state. Under the church reforms of the 18th century, which made the church completely subordinate to the autocracy, Russian Orthodoxy acquired a doctrinal, canonical, and organizational form that remained essentially the same until the fall of tsarism.

The Russian Orthodox Church was one of the most important state institutions. As a major property owner and exploiter, it faithfully served the ruling classes of tsarist Russia. The clergy indoctrinated the working people with the notion of the “divine ordination” of tsarist power, helped the autocracy to suppress peasant uprisings, protests by gentry revolutionaries and the movement of the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class), and worked against the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. In all three Russian revolutions, the Russian Orthodox Church was in the camp of the antipopular forces. The church hindered social, scientific and technological, and cultural progress. It opposed the abolition of serfdom in Russia, favored corporal punishment, condemned women’s aspirations for equal rights, and used every possible means to hamper the spread of knowledge among the masses. Moreover, the church persecuted progressive scientific and cultural figures and endeavored to discredit the ideas of scientific socialism among the working people. After the fall of the autocracy, the Russian Orthodox Church became the ally of the bourgeois Provisional Government, which sanctioned the convocation in August 1917 of a local council of the Russian Orthodox Church—the first local council since the patriarchate had been replaced by the Synod. In November 1917 the council reestablished the patriarchate, electing the reactionary Tikhon (Belavin) to head the Russian Orthodox Church.

Most of the clergy reacted toward the Great October Socialist Revolution with open hostility. Patriarch Tikhon, supported by the local council, anathematized Soviet power. During the Civil War of 1918–20 many representatives of the Russian Orthodox clergy actively collaborated with the White Guards and interventionists, hoping for a restoration of the prerevolutionary regime.

In 1922 the church attempted to stop the expropriation of certain church valuables, which were to be used to purchase grain abroad for the starving population of the Volga and other regions. The clergy’s counterrevolutionary activities isolated them from most of the believers. To preserve the church’s influence, the more farsighted members of the clergy advocated a “renovation” of Orthodoxy: recognition of the socialist state, modernization of the church’s socioethical teachings, and changes in doctrine and in church life to conform with the spirit of the times. Reformist groups emerged, including the Living Church, the League of Congregations of the Ancient Apostolic Church, and the League of Regeneration of the Church, which merged to form the renovationist church. The successes of socialist construction compelled Tikhon and his supporters to abandon their struggle with Soviet power and gradually switch to a loyal relationship with the state. Tikhon’s successor, Metropolitan Sergii (Strogorodskii; elected patriarch in 1943), confirmed the new political orientation of the Russian Orthodox Church in a declaration issued on July 29, 1927, condemning the church’s counterrevolutionary activity and calling on the clergy and believers to support the domestic and foreign policies of the Soviet state.

In 1945 a local council of the Russian Orthodox Church completed the post-October reorganization of the Moscow patriarchate and oriented the church toward a search for ways to adapt to socialism. The council elected a new patriarch, Aleksii (Simanskii), and adopted the Regulations for the Governance of the Russian Orthodox Church, which are still in effect. (Amendments proposed by the archbishops’ council in 1961 were approved by the local council of 1971.)

Having changed its political orientation, the Russian Orthodox Church began to review its traditional socioethical positions. From a religious standpoint, it approved of the successes of socialist and communist construction, and it called on believers to participate in the international peace movement. Modernist tendencies began to grow stronger, even in the purely religious aspects of Russian Orthodox ideology and practice. The church acknowledged that it was possible to reformulate not only Christian dogmas, which had previously been considered sacrosanct, but also the conclusions to be drawn from them. In particular, the church no longer glorifies senseless suffering, which was once regarded as the direct road to “personal salvation”; the idea of a “retreat from the world” is not propagandized in its previous form; and labor is described not as a “punishment from the lord” but as an “act pleasing to god.” Furthermore, the traditional interpretation of many biblical tenets is being revised, and in a number of instances the literal understanding of biblical texts is giving way to an allegorical interpretation.

Orthodox worship, as well as the entire structure and style of church life, is gradually being modernized. A number of rituals have been discarded because they are not relevant to modern life: the consecration of new installations and wells, the blessing of cattle before they are pastured for the first time, pilgrimages to the “holy places,” and prayers in the fields. Among the innovations in divine services of worship are the administration of the funeral service in the absence of the body and group confessions. Believers are pardoned for not observing fasts, for attending church irregularly, for habitual tardiness for services, and for early departure from services. New prayers and liturgy have been introduced, including the “week of prayer for Christian unity.”

In a sense, the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church to adapt to new conditions were summed up by the local council of 1971, which oriented the Moscow patriarchate toward further reform of Russian Orthodoxy, more active measures to strengthen the position of the church in a secularized society, and expansion of contacts with other Christian churches and associations. In a separate resolution the council lifted the church’s anathema upon the Old Believers. Pimen (Izvekov) was elected patriarch.

The evolution of Russian Orthodoxy can never make it acceptable as a world view to the builders of communism. Despite modernization, the church is still a propagandist of antiscientific religious ideology and a champion of Christian moral ideals, which contradict the norms of communist morality. Not even the most radical modifications of religious faith can eliminate the profound contradiction between science and religion.

The primary link in the Russian Orthodox Church is the parish, a religious association headed by an executive body made up of laymen. The functions of the clergy, who do not interfere in the everyday administrative affairs of the parish, are limited to performing church services and satisfying the religious needs of believers. Church buildings and maintenance personnel are paid for by voluntary contributions from believers, revenue from ceremonies (baptisms, funerals, and weddings, for example), and funds raised by the sale of candles and other ritual objects. The parishes allocate part of their income to a common church fund, which is used to maintain the entire Russian Orthodox Church. The parishes are combined into blagochiniia (deaneries) and the latter into 76 eparchies and four exarchates. The eparchies are headed by eparchial bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans subordinate to the patriarch. The episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church includes more than 70 head pastors.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church is the patriarch, who governs jointly with the Synod. The Synod includes the patriarch (its chairman) and eight eparchial bishops. Five of its members are permanent and three are temporary (summoned in order of seniority to participate in the semiannual sessions). The synodal institutions—departments (higher church affairs and publications), committees (education and pensions), and economic administration—supervise and regulate various aspects of church affairs. An important role has been assigned to the Synod Committee on Matters of Christian Unity and Interchurch Relations. In 1974 there were about 7,500 Russian Orthodox churches and houses of prayer in the Soviet Union.

Church personnel are trained in three seminaries (Moscow, Leningrad, and Odessa) and two theological academies (Moscow and Leningrad). Between 1945 and 1973 about 1,000 doctors, masters, and candidates of theology graduated from the theological schools of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are 16 monasteries in operation in the USSR, as well as two abroad (the St. Panteleimon Monastery on the Ayion Oros peninsula in Greece and the Gornii Convent near Jerusalem). Russian Orthodox parishes abroad are organized into two blagochiniia (deaneries)—the Hungarian and the Finnish—and three exarchates (the Western European, the Central European, and the Latin American). The parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USA and Canada belong to a separate deanery. In Jerusalem there is a Russian religious mission founded in the prerevolutionary period. The church has representatives in Damascus, Geneva, and Prague and conventual churches and houses in Beirut, Belgrade, and Sofia.

The Russian Orthodox Church publishes religious and liturgical literature. The Zhurnal Moskovskoi patriarkhii (Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate) has been published on a monthly basis since September 1943. (Part of its circulation has been in English since 1971.) Pravoslavnyi visnyk (Orthodox Herald) has been published in L’vov since 1946. The yearbook Bogoslovskie trudy (Theological Works) has been published since 1960. Other periodicals are published abroad. Wall and desk calendars are issued regularly. Church publications also include the Bible (1956 and 1968); a four-volume set of the sermons, speeches, and epistles of Patriarch Aleksei; a four-volume set of the works of Metropolitan Nikolai (Iarushevich); and the collections The Truth About Religion in Russia, Patriarch Sergii and His Spiritual Legacy, and The Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church issues a number of periodicals abroad, including One Church (New York and London) in English, Vestnik Russkogo zapadno-evropeiskogo patriarshego ek-zarkhata/Messager de l’Exarchat de la Patriarchie Orthodoxe Russe en Europe Occidentale (Paris) in French and Russian, Stimme der Orthodoxie (Berlin) in German, Egyháztörtenet (Budapest) in Hungarian, and Pravoslavnyi visnyk (Canada) in Ukrainian.

The Russian Orthodox Church functions normally under Soviet legislation on religious cults, thus graphically and convincingly repudiating hostile fabrications to the effect that the believing citizens of the Soviet Union have no opportunity to satisfy their religious needs.

The Georgian Orthodox Church, which has its own organization and structure, is headed by a catholicos-patriarch (David V [Devdariani]). It includes four eparchies. Members of the clergy are trained at the seminary in Mtskheta. (See alsoHERESIES IN RUSSIA, JOSEPHITES, NESTIAZHATELI, BREST UNION OF 1596, AND .)


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