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How ‘gunboat theology’ prevailed

14 June 2013

A dispute in 1913 about the Name of Jesus provoked a brutal response, Nicholas Turner recalls

THIS month is the centenary of an extraordinary incident of gunboat theology. On 13 June 1913, 120 marines arrived from Imperial Russia and stormed the Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos, to enforce orthodoxy against those who believed that the invocation of the Name of Jesus in prayer makes him truly present. This new mystical movement of the Russian Orthodox Church was proving popular among the monks there, but opposed by others as being pantheistic. Both sides were battling for supremacy in the monasteries.

The political situation was delicate. The peninsula of Mount Athos, in the north of what is now Greece, had been settled by monks and hermits for well over 1000 years, and at that time there were about 6000 of them. Under the Ottoman Empire, in exchange for heavy taxation, Mount Athos had enjoyed considerable autonomy. In 1912, facing pressure from Greece and Bulgaria, both of whom were fighting over their possessions in Thrace, the Ottomans withdrew, and the future of the whole of the peninsula as a semi-independent territory was in the balance.

Greek troops were ready to move in and annex the territory, and a bitter theological dispute among the Russian monks threatened to give them the excuse they were waiting for. Tsar Nicholas II felt bound to sort out the Russian problem himself, put an end to the dispute, and so maintain the national influence. A blockade of the recalcitrant monks in early 1913 had failed, and so in the late spring, a gunboat and two troop ships were dispatched from the Black Sea.

The marines entered the monastery from the sea, set up machine guns and water cannons, and set about enforcing a surrender. The monks resisted as best they could, and many were severely wounded in the struggle. Once captured by the marines, an archbishop lectured the soaking wet monks and demanded that they renounce their heresy. Of course, they refused. In the end, each monk was questioned individually: 700 complied; 900 still refused to do so. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring Andreevsky Monastery, further rebels were rooted out.

In early July, two adapted prison ships set sail for Russia with 1000 monks, leaving some 40 still in hospital. Once in Odessa, those who remained obdurate were imprisoned, and then unfrocked and dispersed far and wide. It was a brutal solution, and bitterly opposed in the wider Orthodox world, but, within a year, the Great War had begun, and other priorities took centre stage.


THE heresy that provoked so fierce a response was, in essence, about the presence of God in one who prays. In this case, it concerned the Jesus prayer, and those who believed, to cite the most well-known summary, that "The name of the Lord Jesus is as it were he himself." This was later summarised to the still more striking, "The name of God is God himself."

The Imyaslavtsy, or "Name-Worshippers" as they were disparagingly called, used the Jesus Prayer with great devotion - "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" - understanding that the proper praying of these words, within the orthodoxy and practice of Christ's Church, would indeed make present Jesus himself. This was not magic: there was no mechanical recitation; they remained aware of the need for faith, discipline, and moral behaviour.

The Anti-Name-Worshippers saw all this as a misunderstanding, of, for example, the nature of a sacrament. If prayer alone could make Christ present, there would be no need of sacraments. Surely they are correct; but the fury of their response belies a clericalist bias, as if they feared that the Jesus Prayer would circumvent the Church and the clergy.

And yet, when Jesus said, "When two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them," did he not intend to be present, as the Name-Worshippers suggested?

NO ONE can read the Hebrew scriptures without an awareness of the Jews' more-than-reverence of the name. On the other hand, as one of the Russian hierarchy put it in 1914: "The name of God, by itself, is only a holy symbol created by man." As it was fought out by theologians, I cannot help feeling that the heart of the matter was being missed, and that there was and is no simple solution.

Criticism of the Rus-sian Orthodox Church's heavy-handed treatment led to calls for a reassessment of the charge of heresy. A synod that was convened in 1917 to decide whether Name-Worshippers should be allowed to remain in the Church failed to reach a decision, and within months the Communists came to power.

Initially, this crisis gave support to their cause. Already persecuted within their Church, and alienated from its buildings and structures, their secret practice of faith made them better prepared to face persecution than the orthodox majority.

In the end, the dispute faded, as events overtook the participants. Looking back now, one would judge that they were, strictly speaking, wrong (led on perhaps by an excess of enthusiasm), but that their opponents were more wrong, in their opposition to the sacramental power of the Name of Jesus, and his presence in the hearts and minds of those who pray with true devotion. It is not the task of theologians or the Church to limit the gift of prayer.

Thanks to the 19th-century Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim, and J. D. Salinger's 1961 novel Franny and Zooey, the Jesus Prayer has wide popularity. Rem-embrance of those stubborn monks, washed out of their barricaded cells by marines wielding water cannons, may encourage a more orthodox appreciation of this great Christian treasure - bringing the Name of Jesus into the heart and mind of the believer. 

Canon Nicholas Turner is Rector of Broughton, Marton, and Thornton, in Bradford diocese.

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