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The ‘Vatican II manqué’ of the Russian Orthodox Church

10 March 2017

The revolution that toppled the Tsar began a century ago this week. Xenia Dennen reflects on its lasting ecclesiastical consequences


Holy Synod: the Sobor of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917, after the election of Patriarch Tikhon (third from right)

Holy Synod: the Sobor of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917, after the election of Patriarch Tikhon (third from right)

THE year 1917 was momentous for Russia and for its Church. Since the reign of Peter the Great, the Russian Orthodox Church had had no Patriarch, and was run like any government de­­partment with a secular Chief Procurator in charge. Soon after the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917, amid violence on the streets of Moscow and a threatened artillery bombardment of the Kremlin, a church council, or Sobor — which had opened on 15 August, in the presence of Kerensky, the Prime Minister — decided, after much deliberation, that a stable central point was needed by the Church, and that a Patriarch should be chosen.

Sergei Bulgakov (a convert from Marxism to Orthodoxy, who would be ordained in 1918) described the spiritual transformation of the Sobor: “Something came to pass in the actual atmosphere; there was a new spiritual birth; deep within the conciliar consciousness of the Church the idea of the Patriarchate was born.”

Three bishops were elected as candidates, and their names were placed in a small casket tied with cord, which, on 5 Novem­ber 1917, was placed in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow.

Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, the senior of the Metropolitans, who had celebrated the liturgy when the Sobor opened, was again officiating on 5 November. Prince Vasilchikov, a member of the Sobor, described the scene: “At the end of the liturgy the Metropolitan brought out from the sanctuary a small casket which he placed on a small table before the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God, to the left of the Royal Doors. . .

”Fr Alexei, a starets, in a black monastic habit emerged from the sanctuary and went up to the icon of the Mother of God and began to pray, bowing to the ground many times. There was total silence in the cathedral and you felt the general nervous tension growing.

”For a long time the starets prayed. Then he got up from his knees, took a piece of paper from the casket and gave it to the Metro­politan who read it and handed it to the deacon. With his powerful vel­vety bass voice, famous through­out Moscow, the deacon slowly began to intone, ‘Long life to. . .’ — the tension in the cathedral was intense: whom would he name? — ‘. . . the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Tikhon,’ rang out through the cathedral.”

Thus began Patriarch Tikhon’s complex and painful leadership of his Church — an experience per­haps better described as a living martyrdom.

THE Sobor represented the whole Church, and has been called by some the Vatican II of the Russian Orthodox Church. There were 564 voting members, made up of bishops, clergy, and laity. The Sobor, defined as “the supreme legislative, administrative, judicial, and auditing authority”, returned the Church to its ancient traditions, re-establishing canonical conciliar structures. The Patriarch was to be only the first among equals, and bishops were now to be elected by councils of laity and clergy.

The Sobor was concerned to bond a bishop with his diocese, which he should govern “with the conciliar collaboration of its clergy and laity”. It set up a Synod of Bishops, and a Supreme Church Council: the for­mer would deal with theology, discipline, and church administra­tion; the latter would handle secular juridical matters, the Church’s cha­ritable work, and questions of social policy.

The Synod and the Supreme Church Council were invested with the power to call a council of all the bishops, which had the authority to remove the Patriarch. The 1917 Sobor restored autonomy and inter­nal democracy to monasteries; gave new statutes to the parishes, which now had more autonomy and the right to put forward candidates for the priesthood; emphasised the im­­portance of lay preachers, and of sermons that were comprehensible and used the local language; and it debated the part played by women in the Church, and the part that the Church should play in education.


THE Sobor continued meeting until September 1918, when its funds ran out; all church bank accounts had been frozen by the Bolsheviks on 28 January that year.

This followed the Church’s loss of all its land, and the decree of 23 January 1918, when Church and State were separated: church prop­erty was nationalised, church insti­tutions lost their right to legal per­sonality, and all schools were separated from the Church, leaving only a small aperture for teaching the Christian faith in private; church buildings in future would be leased to parish councils.

The Bolshevik onslaught against the Church made any enactment of the Sobor’s decisions impossible: it was, sadly, a Vatican II manqué.

Like many at the time, Patriarch Tikhon assumed that the Bolsheviks would soon be defeated, and con­demned them on 19 January 1918: “Come to your senses, you madmen, cease your bloodthirsty attacks. What you are doing is not only cruel, it is truly satanic, and for this you will burn in the fires of Hell. . . I call all you believers, faithful mem­bers of the Church, to defend our persecuted and insulted Mother Church.”

In August 1918, calling the Russian people to repentance, he declared: “Sin has darkened our people’s minds, we are feeling our way through the dark, swaying like drunkards. . . We wanted to create heaven on earth but without God.” Over the next two years, at least 28 bishops were murdered, and thou­sands of priests and members of the laity were imprisoned or killed.


THE collapse of the economy and agriculture, plus drought, led in 1920-21 to famine. The Church responded by offering to sell its valuables to raise money to help the starving; only the sacred vessels used for communion should not be sold, Patriarch Tikhon said. This gave the Bolshevik leader, Lenin, his chance: in a secret letter (3 March 1922) he wrote: “It is precisely now that we must wage a merciless battle against the reactionary clergy and suppress their resistance with such cruelty that they will remember it for several decades. . .”

On 6 May 1922, Patriarch Tikhon was placed under house arrest, accused of resisting the confiscation of church valuables. Under the pressure of foreign public opinion (a telegram dated 31 May 1922 was sent to Lenin by the leaders of all the Churches in the UK, and published in The Times on 1 June), Patriarch Tikhon was eventually released in June 1923, but only after he had “repented” before the Supreme Court, and stated: “From now on, I am no enemy of Soviet power.”

He died in April 1925 while in hospital; a respected Moscow priest said that this had been hastened by the secret police. He was canonised by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1989.


TO THIS day, the 1917 Sobor remains the measuring rod against which are judged the governance, practice, and policies of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the Khrushchev period when the Communist Party un­­leashed an­­other anti-religious cam­paign (1959-64), many thousands of churches were closed and priests removed.

A humble provincial maths tea­cher in a town north-east of Mos­cow, Boris Talantov, saw through the party’s promises about a future Communist utopia, and came to the defence of the Russian Orthodox Church. From 1958, he began planning books and writing articles on the nature of the Soviet system, and on the inevitable ideological conflict between it and religious believers. In a long document dated November 1966, he described in detail how 53 per cent of churches that had been open in 1959 in his diocese were now closed.

In 1965, he worked out a reform plan for the Russian Orthodox Church, aimed at its renewal and democratisation, based on decisions taken at the 1917 Sobor. To root out bureaucratic domination, and to renew a spirit of freedom, love, and unity, the governance of the Church from top to bottom should be based on the principle of election.

Clergy should be encouraged to focus on pastoral care. They should teach Orthodox Christians to relate to Christians of other denomina­tions, not only with tolerance, but also in a spirit of Christian love, so as to promote Christian unity. In every diocese there should be a good seminary, and Talantov emphasised the need to encourage women to be admitted, since, as he noted, it was women who had kept the Church going during periods of persecution. He also suggested creating an order of deaconesses.

As a teacher in higher education, Talantov worked out an interesting balance for a seminary’s curriculum: only one third should be devoted to theology, and two-thirds should include the study of secular subjects, especially scientific disciplines, so that students were equipped to counter anti-Christian arguments.

As a result of his activity, Talan­tov began to be regularly vilified in the local press. Eventually, in 1969, he was arrested, and sentenced to two years in prison. He died in the prison hospital on (Orthodox) Christ­­mas Eve 1971.


MORE recently, Fr Pavel Adelheim, a Russian Orthodox priest who, in 2013, would be tragically murdered by a deranged young man in his own kitchen, criticised his Church’s current governance, arguing that it was becoming increasingly central­ised, thus infringing the principles laid down at the 1917 Sobor.

The structure of church govern­ance, Fr Pavel argued, was crucial, because in its present form it undermined Christian unity: the Church had become an adminis­trative system rather than a living organism inspired by the Holy Spirit; it was being built on founda­tions of obedience and discipline, of fear and compulsion, rather than on love. He diagnosed the Church’s main tragedy as its loss of sobornost — conciliarity — which had been emptied of its dogmatic content and turned into a purely geographical concept about jurisdiction.

Fr Pavel analysed his Church’s statutes, and pointed out that the latest version, adopted in 2000, had taken power away from the Church as a whole — from the laity and clergy, and away from its repre­sentative institution, the Sobor. The 2000 statutes gave legislative and judicial power to the Council of Bishops, and executive power to the Patriarch and Holy Synod.

All these powers, he insisted, should be vested in the Sobor, whereas, in actual fact, the latter now dealt with only canon law and matters of faith, and met only to elect a Patriarch. All power was in the hands of the bishops. Were the decisions of the 1917 Sobor ob­­served, Fr Pavel argued, these princes of the Church would be elected by the clergy and laity of each diocese.


THE 1917 Sobor became im­­portant, too, in the UK. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Sourozh was formed in 1962, with Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in charge; in due course, at its first diocesan conference, the principles of lay participation in the running of the diocese began to be discussed.

By 1977, a diocesan assembly met; from this body grew a com­mittee that began work on a new set of statutes. On Metropolitan An­­thony’s insistence, these were intended to reflect the principles of the 1917 Sobor on governance. Thanks to these statutes, the laity were able to contribute to decision-making with the clergy at every level within the diocese.

Another important aspect of the diocese of Sourozh was its identi­fication with the culture of the country in which it developed; it did not try to use the Russian Orthodox Church as a vehicle for preserving Russian national identity. This prin­ciple of acculturation was, however, condemned by implication by Metropolitan Kirill (now Patriarch) when, in October 2006, he said that the Russian Orthodox Church should seek to prevent assimilation, and to preserve a separate cultural and religious identity for Russians abroad.

Sadly, after Metropolitan An­­thony’s death in 2003, a battle de­­veloped between Moscow and London — between the Moscow Pat­­riarchate and supporters of Met­ro­­politan Anthony’s successor, all of whom moved over to the juris­diction of the Ecumenical Patriarch­ate.

Although the statutes of the dio­cese of Sourozh were not accepted by the Moscow Patriarchate, they nevertheless continue to be highly valued by many Orthodox believers within Russia, who look on the dio­cese of Sourozh under Metropolitan Anthony as an ideal structure. Such people hanker after a less author­itarian Church — and that, after all, was the vision of the 1917 Sobor.


Xenia Dennen is the chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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