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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in modern religions ministers of a religion usually (although not always) organized in a hierarchical body.

Believers revere clergymen as persons who have been endowed with supernatural power to act as intermediaries between man and god. Clergy may be divided into higher and lower groups according to position and function in the church. In certain religions the representatives of the higher clergy are respected as the deputies of god on earth (the Roman pope in Catholicism) or as the incarnation of divinity (the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama in Lamaism and the head of the Ismailite sect). In a number of religions the clergy are divided into black (monks who take upon themselves special obligations, including a retreat “from the world”) and white (who live “in the world”) clergy. In Buddhism all the members of the clergy are monks.

In an antagonistic class society the mass of the clergy have been and still are a bulwark of the ruling exploiting classes. “All oppressing classes stand in need of two social functions to safeguard their rule: the function of the hangman and the function of the priest. The hangman is required to quell the protests and the indignation of the oppressed; the priest is required to console the oppressed, to depict for them the prospects of their sufferings and sacrifices being mitigated while preserving class rule, and thereby to reconcile them to class rule, win them away from revolutionary action, undermine their revolutionary spirit, and destroy their revolutionary determination” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, p. 237).

The clergy is generally linked with monotheistic religions. Its direct predecessor was the pagan priesthood, which was typical for polytheism (an earlier stage in the development of religion). There is no difference in principle between the clergy and the pagan priesthood. One of the principal functions of the pagan priesthood of the states of the ancient world was the performance of religious worship; the pagan priesthood represented a privileged stratum that was part of the ruling class.

The process of the formation of the clergy and the beginning of the setting up of a church hierarchy may be traced by studying the example of Christianity. In the early Christian communities, which were organized democratically, the clergy did not yet exist. With the growth in the number of the adherents of Christianity a division occurred in the communities between the clerics (clergy) and the laymen. Approximately from the middle of the second century leadership in the communities passed to the bishops, to whom the priests were subordinate; monasticism arose at the beginning of the fourth century. Subsequently the bishops of the most influential dioceses came to be called patriarchs, and on the basis of the diocese of Rome the papacy was formed (fifth century).

In the feudal states the clergy formed a special privileged class, guarding the interests of the feudal lords and giving sanction to the feudal exploitation of the people. The members of the higher clerical hierarchy (the archbishops, bishops, priors of monasteries, etc.) were large landowners; masses of feudally dependent peasants were cruelly oppressed on their lands. Although the clergy during the Middle Ages was the “only educated class” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 495) and facilitated to a certain extent the spread of literacy and knowledge (founding schools, copying books in monasteries, compiling chronicles, etc.), nevertheless at the same time it hindered the development of any science apart from theology. It held a monopoly on education and brought the entire spiritual life of society under its influence. Individual representatives of the clergy who raised themselves above their own circle and acted as the bearers of progressive thought (G. Bruno) were subjected to persecution.

The lower clergy, who were recruited from the milieu of the burghers, peasants, and plebeians, had standards of living that were closer to those of the popular masses. Those who came from their ranks were often participants or leaders in popular movements (J. Ball, Dolcino, Jan Hus); at times they were critical of religion, the church, and the social order (J. Meslier and J. Roux).

Under capitalism the former political and economic ties of the higher clergy with the landowning aristocracy gradually gave way to links with the big bourgeoisie and with the monopolies, whose interests the clergy (for the most part) defended, proclaiming the sanctity of private property, justifying the class division of society, and condemning revolutionary class struggle.

During the epoch of imperialism the clergy came to play an active part in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the socialist workers’ movement. After the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, which, as a rule, was greeted with hostility by the clergy in Russia as well as abroad, anti-Sovietism and anticommunism became one of the constant motifs in the social and religious activity of the greater part of the clergy (especially the higher clergy) in the capitalist countries. The clergy of bourgeois countries is largely occupied with the propaganda of religious doctrines among the population; moreover, it makes use of various political parties and organizations for its own purposes. The strengthening of the world socialist system, the successes of the national liberation movement, and the popularity of the ideas of socialism have led many members of the clergy of various countries to a realization of the need to reexamine their own positions on the most important questions of modern times—that is, to a rejection of the unconditional justification of capitalism. A part of the clergy has come to support the movement for peace and peaceful coexistence. Within the socialist countries the consolidation of the socialist order has caused the great majority of the clergy to take a loyal position with regard to the socialist state.

The members of the clergy continue to be preachers of an antiscientific idealist ideology. In order to counteract the influence of the ideas of communism and the decline in religious feeling, the clergy has begun to seek out new ways of influencing the masses. One of these ways, for example, is the Catholic Church’s organization of the so-called secular apostolate—the establishment of lay assistants to the clergy. In order to strengthen the positions of religion, which have been shaken by scientific developments, the members of the clergy attempt to interpret scientific discoveries in an idealist manner. In striving to retain its influence on the masses, the clergy declares itself to be the guardian of national distinctiveness and culture; it disavows the dark pages of its own distant and recent past and exalts its role in history.


The clergy in Russia. There have existed many forms of religious worship and many denominations in the Russian state and later in the Russian Empire. The most important of these were, among the Christian religion, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, Lutheran churches, and the Old Believers; there was also Islam, with followers of the Sunni and Shii sects; Judaism, divided into Talmudists and Karaites: Buddhism, the followers of which are of the Lamaist variety; and a profusion of sects, including the Molokans, Dukhobors, Mormons, Stundists, Khlysty, Baptists, Evangelical Christians, and Adventists. In many religions in Russia the clergy is an enclosed stratum with a strict hierarchy. From top to bottom this hierarchy presents the following appearance: the Orthodox Church has three degrees of the priesthood—the episcopacy (patriarch, metropolitan, archbishop, and bishop); the presbytery (protopope presbyter, archpriest, and priest), including those in a monastic order (archimandrite, hegumen, and hieromonk); and the deaconate (the protodeacon, deacon), including those in a monastic order (the archdeacon and the heirodeacon). The Old Believers’ Church of the Belaia Krinitsa and the Beglopopovtsy (fugitive priests) groups have the ranks of archbishop (the head of the church), bishop, archpriest, priest, protodeacon, and deacon; the Old Believers’ Church of the priestless group has the office of preceptor. The Catholic Church has the ranks of archbishop, bishop, dean, provost (prior), priest, deacon, and subdeacon. In those Protestant religious groups that have no church hierarchy the clergy is elected by the believers and in the Lutheran Church consists of archbishops, bishops, provosts, senior pastors, and pastors. Religious sects have senior presbyters, evangelists, presbyters, preachers, and deacons. The Jewish religion has rabbis; the Buddhists have Khambo-lamas and lamas.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church is the patriarch, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church is the supreme patriarch, the catholicos, of all the Armenians, and the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church is the patriarch, the catholicos. The Lutherans reject a complex ecclesiastical hierarchy and monasticism. The Estonian and Latvian churches are each headed by their own archbishop, who is elected by the communities of believers. At the head of each church community is a pastor whom the community has invited; he is regarded not as a mediator between God and the believers but merely as an interpreter of the Holy Scriptures. In the Jewish religion approximately this same role is played by the rabbis, who are the scholars and interpreters of the sacred texts and the leaders of the religious community. In Islam the mufti stands above the ordinary ministers of the religion (mullahs). The head of the Transbaikal Buddhists is the Bandida-khambo-lama.

The dominant church in Russia was the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1897 there were about 80 million Orthodox out of Russia’s total population of 126,368,000. Both types of clergy—the black (monks) and the white (priests, arch-priests, deacons, and protodeacons)—appeared in Rus’ after Christianity was adopted (988-989). Since Christianity was taken from Byzantium, the priests, as a rule, were Greeks at the beginning. It was at this time that a church hierarchy was established. The head of the Russian church—the metropolitan—was appointed by the patriarch of Constantinople. At the head of the individual eparchies (ecclesiastical districts) were bishops and archbishops, chosen from among the black clergy by the metropolitan and the assembly of Russian bishops with considerable participation by the secular authority (the princes).

In 1448 the Russian church was freed from subordination to the patriarch of Constantinople, and it became independent. The metropolitan was elected by the assembly of Russian bishops, and in 1589 the head of the Russian church was accorded the title patriarch of Moscow and of all Rus’. But at the same time the church became more and more subordinate to the power of the tsar. From the very beginning archpriests and monasteries received awards of land from the princes; these landholdings grew because of contributions “for the memory of the soul,” purchases of lands from secular feudal lords, seizure of lands from the peasants, and so forth. Gradually monasteries and archpriests became very big landowners; they enjoyed feudal privileges, as well as immunity from taxes and the law. Thus a part of the ruling class of feudal lords consisted of the higher clergy. Hence the popular antifeudal movements, directed as they were against the clerical feudal lords as well as against the church, which gave sanction to the feudal system, frequently took the form of heresies.

Often the active participants in the heretical movements were members of the white clergy, the ranks of which were filled with persons of peasant and tradesman origins. Despite the fact that the lower white clergy were close in their status to the toilers, they did not merge with them, since the clergy was fed by the flock and was the conveyor of the official church ideology, which justified exploitation and called for submission to the authorities.

Prior to the 18th century candidates for positions as priests were chosen by the believers themselves; within the patrimonies the landowners played an enormous role in this matter. Since the end of the 17th century a hereditary system was established for filling vacancies in the priesthood. This facilitated the transformation of the white clergy into a closed class, which during the 18th century gradually advanced into the ranks of the privileged classes: it was freed from paying dues to the archpriest, and its personal rights increased. The first census (1718-27) in Russia noted that 97,413 males belonged to the Orthodox clergy. More and more the white clergy was being formed into an isolated caste.

Peter I abolished the patriarchate, and the administration of the church was transferred to the Synod, established in 1721 and headed by a state official—the chief procurator. This signified the complete subordination of the church to state authority and its transformation into a part of the state apparatus. The autocracy allocated huge sums for the maintenance of the clergy. By the end of the 19th century the Synod alone was spending 7 million rubles a year to maintain the Orthodox clergy, and the state treasury was spending 18 million a year, not including offerings to the parish clergy, incomes from church lands, properties, and interest on capital investments. All the Catholic clergy were maintained at state expense (from the treasury); the clergy of other religious faiths was maintained on funds from the parishes. The clergy faithfully served the autocracy. Certain obligations of an administrative and police character were laid upon it, including civil registration and surveillance of the political reliability of the parishioners. The teaching of Scripture was compulsory in all schools, and a considerable number of the elementary schools were controlled by the Synod.

The church had its own educational institutions, including seminaries, which had begun to appear in the 18th century, and religious academies. By the beginning of the 20th century Russia had four religious academies and 58 seminaries, in which 19,900 students were enrolled and destined to occupy positions in the Russian Orthodox Church. The clergy of other religious faiths had similar educational institutions. In the Russian Empire before 1917 there were six Catholic seminaries, six seminaries of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and other such educational institutions.

The clergy kept up a continuous attack on science, and it fought against progressive social ideas; the press was under the yoke of religious censorship. The clergy was a buttress for the autocracy in its struggle against the revolutionary movement. During the years of the Revolution of 1905-07 in various types of social organizations, such as the League of the Russian People or the League of the Archangel Michael, it sowed national hostility and incited Jewish pogroms. Church institutions owned lands, trading establishments, and industrial enterprises; many monasteries had more than 1 million rubles. In 1912 the Russian Orthodox Church had 110,434 members of the white clergy and 91,654 members of the black clergy. The overwhelming majority of the clergy had a hostile attitude toward the October Socialist Revolution of 1917.

The All-Russian Local Assembly of the Orthodox Church (August 1917-September 1918) restored the patriarchate. The patriarchate and the clergy became one of the forces struggling against Soviet power and socialist transformation. A hostile position with regard to the Great October Socialist Revolution was also taken by the clergy of all the other religious faiths, including Islam and the Old Believers. Under the circumstances of the strengthening of Soviet power and the nationwide support for its measures, part of the clergy recognized the danger of remaining in complete isolation.

During the 1920’s a reform movement, which had already originated before the revolution, developed to a great extent within the Orthodox Church. The reformers condemned the anti-Soviet activity of Patriarch Tikhon and declared their loyalty to Soviet power. They also stood for certain innovations in church structure and in the daily life of the clergy, without affecting doctrinal principles. This movement played a decisive role in the church’s reexamination of its attitude toward Soviet power. The church ceased its open conflict with Soviet power. Nevertheless, even in the succeeding years, especially during the period of collectivization, many members of the clergy continued to carry on anti-Soviet activity. Only the victory of socialism compelled the Orthodox clergy, as well as the clergy of other religious faiths, to enter upon the path of a loyal attitude with regard to Soviet power.


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Grekulov, E. F. Pravoslavnaia inkvizitsiia v Rossii. Moscow, 1964.
Samsonov, A. M. Antifeocdal’nye narodnye vosstaniia v Rossii i tserkov’. Moscow, 1955.
Skvortsov-Stepanov, I. I. Izbrannye ateisticheskie proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1959.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the collective body of men and women ordained as religious ministers, esp of the Christian Church
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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