Russia eText - Chapter XIX - Church And State

Chapter XIX - Church And State

From the curious world of heretics and Dissenters let us pass now to the Russian Orthodox Church, to which the great majority of the Russian people belong. It has played an important part in the national history, and has exercised a powerful influence in the formation of the national character.

Russians are in the habit of patriotically and proudly congratulating themselves on the fact that their forefathers always resisted successfully the aggressive tendencies of the Papacy, but it may be doubted whether, from a worldly point of view, the freedom from Papal authority has been an unmixed blessing for the country. If the Popes failed to realise their grand design of creating a vast European empire based on theocratic principles, they succeeded at least in inspiring with a feeling of brotherhood and a vague consciousness of common interest all the nations which acknowledged their spiritual supremacy. These nations, whilst remaining politically independent and frequently coming into hostile contact with each other, all looked to Rome as the capital of the Christian world, and to the Pope as the highest terrestrial authority. Though the Church did not annihilate nationality, it made a wide breach in the political barriers, and formed a channel for international communication by which the social and intellectual progress of each nation became known to all the other members of the great Christian confederacy. Throughout the length and breadth of the Papal Commonwealth educated men had a common language, a common literature, a common scientific method, and to a certain extent a common jurisprudence. Western Christendom was thus all through the Middle Ages not merely an abstract conception or a geographical expression: if not a political, it was at least a religious and intellectual unit, and all the countries of which it was composed benefited more or less by the connection.

For centuries Russia stood outside of this religious and intellectual confederation, for her Church connected her not with Rome, but with Constantinople, and Papal Europe looked upon her as belonging to the barbarous East. When the Mongol hosts swept over her plains, burnt her towns and villages, and finally incorporated her into the great empire of Genghis khan, the so-called Christian world took no interest in the struggle except in so far as its own safety was threatened. And as time wore on, the barriers which separated the two great sections of Christendom became more and more formidable. The aggressive pretensions and ambitious schemes of the Vatican produced in the Greek Orthodox world a profound antipathy to the Roman Catholic Church and to Western influence of every kind. So strong was this aversion that when the nations of the West awakened in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries from their intellectual lethargy and began to move forward on the path of intellectual and material progress, Russia not only remained unmoved, but looked on the new civilisation with suspicion and fear as a thing heretical and accursed. We have here one of the chief reasons why Russia, at the present day, is in many respects less civilised than the nations of Western Europe.

But it is not merely in this negative way that the acceptance of Christianity from Constantinople has affected the fate of Russia. The Greek Church, whilst excluding Roman Catholic civilisation, exerted at the same time a powerful positive influence on the historical development of the nation.

The Church of the West inherited from old Rome something of that logical, juridical, administrative spirit which had created the Roman law, and something of that ambition and dogged, energetic perseverance that had formed nearly the whole known world into a great centralised empire. The Bishops of Rome early conceived the design of reconstructing that old empire on a new basis, and long strove to create a universal Christian theocratic State, in which kings and other civil authorities should be the subordinates of Christ's Vicar upon earth. The Eastern Church, on the contrary, has remained true to her Byzantine traditions, and has never dreamed of such lofty pretensions. Accustomed to lean on the civil power, she has always been content to play a secondary part, and has never strenuously resisted the formation of national churches.

For about two centuries after the introduction of Christianity-- from 988 to 1240--Russia formed, ecclesiastically speaking, part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The metropolitans and the bishops were Greek by birth and education, and the ecclesiastical administration was guided and controlled by the Byzantine Patriarchs. But from the time of the Mongol invasion, when communication with Constantinople became more difficult and educated native priests had become more numerous, this complete dependence on the Patriarch of Constantinople ceased. The Princes gradually arrogated to themselves the right of choosing the Metropolitan of Kief--who was at that time the chief ecclesiastical dignitary in Russia--and merely sent their nominees to Constantinople for consecration. About 1448 this formality came to be dispensed with, and the Metropolitan was commonly consecrated by a Council of Russian bishops. A further step in the direction of ecclesiastical autonomy was taken in 1589, when the Tsar succeeded in procuring the consecration of a Russian Patriarch, equal in dignity and authority to the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria.

In all matters of external form the Patriarch of Moscow was a very important personage. He exercised a certain influence in civil as well as ecclesiastical affairs, bore the official title of "Great Lord" (Veliki Gosudar), which had previously been reserved for the civil head of the State, and habitually received from the people scarcely less veneration than the Tsar himself. But in reality he possessed very little independent power. The Tsar was the real ruler in ecclesiastical as well as in civil affairs.*

* As this is frequently denied by Russians, it may be well to quote one authority out of many that might be cited. Bishop Makarii, whose erudition and good faith are alike above suspicion, says of Dmitri of the Don: "He arrogated to himself full, unconditional power over the Head of the Russian Church, and through him over the whole Russian Church itself." ("Istoriya Russkoi Tserkvi," V., p. 101.) This is said of a Grand Prince who had strong rivals and had to treat the Church as an ally. When the Grand Princes became Tsars and had no longer any rivals, their power was certainly not diminished. Any further confirmation that may be required will be found in the Life of the famous Patriarch Nikon.

The Russian Patriarchate came to an end in the time of Peter the Great. Peter wished, among other things, to reform the ecclesiastical administration, and to introduce into his country many novelties which the majority of the clergy and of the people regarded as heretical; and he clearly perceived that a bigoted, energetic Patriarch might throw considerable obstacles in his way, and cause him infinite annoyance. Though such a Patriarch might be deposed without any flagrant violation of the canonical formalities, the operation would necessarily be attended with great trouble and loss of time. Peter was no friend of roundabout, tortuous methods, and preferred to remove the difficulty in his usual thorough, violent fashion. When the Patriarch Adrian died, the customary short interregnum was prolonged for twenty years, and when the people had thus become accustomed to having no Patriarch, it was announced that no more Patriarchs would be elected. Their place was supplied by an ecclesiastical council, or Synod, in which, as a contemporary explained, "the mainspring was Peter's power, and the pendulum his understanding." The great autocrat justly considered that such a council could be much more easily managed than a stubborn Patriarch, and the wisdom of the measure has been duly appreciated by succeeding sovereigns. Though the idea of re-establishing the Patriarchate has more than once been raised, it has never been carried into execution. The Holy Synod remains the highest ecclesiastical authority.

But the Emperor? What is his relation to the Synod and to the Church in general?

This is a question about which zealous Orthodox Russians are extremely sensitive. If a foreigner ventures to hint in their presence that the Emperor seems to have a considerable influence in the Church, he may inadvertently produce a little outburst of patriotic warmth and virtuous indignation. The truth is that many Russians have a pet theory on this subject, and have at the same time a dim consciousness that the theory is not quite in accordance with reality. They hold theoretically that the Orthodox Church has no "Head" but Christ, and is in some peculiar undefined sense entirely independent of all terrestrial authority. In this respect it is often contrasted with the Anglican Church, much to the disadvantage of the latter; and the supposed differences between the two are made a theme for semi-religious, semi-patriotic exultation. Khomiakof, for instance, in one of his most vigorous poems, predicts that God will one day take the destiny of the world out of the hands of England in order to give it to Russia, and he adduces as one of the reasons for this transfer the fact that England "has chained, with sacrilegious hand, the Church of God to the pedestal of the vain earthly power." So far the theory. As to the facts, it is unquestionable that the Tsar exercises a much greater influence in ecclesiastical affairs than the King and Parliament in England. All who know the internal history of Russia are aware that the Government does not draw a clear line of distinction between the temporal and the spiritual, and that it occasionally uses the ecclesiastical organisation for political purposes.

What, then, are the relations between Church and State?

To avoid confusion, we must carefully distinguish between the Eastern Orthodox Church as a whole and that section of it which is known as the Russian Church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church* is, properly speaking, a confederation of independent churches without any central authority--a unity founded on the possession of a common dogma and on the theoretical but now unrealisable possibility of holding Ecumenical Councils. The Russian National Church is one of the members of this ecclesiastical confederation. In matters of faith it is bound by the decisions of the ancient Ecumenical Councils, but in all other respects it enjoys complete independence and autonomy.

* Or Greek Orthodox Church, as it is sometimes called.

In relation to the Orthodox Church as a whole the Emperor of Russia is nothing more than a simple member, and can no more interfere with its dogmas or ceremonial than a King of Italy or an Emperor of the French could modify Roman Catholic theology; but in relation to the Russian National Church his position is peculiar. He is described in one of the fundamental laws as "the supreme defender and preserver of the dogmas of the dominant faith," and immediately afterwards it is said that "the autocratic power acts in the ecclesiastical administration by means of the most Holy Governing Synod, created by it."* This describes very fairly the relations between the Emperor and the Church. He is merely the defender of the dogmas, and cannot in the least modify them; but he is at the same time the chief administrator, and uses the Synod as an instrument.

* Svod Zakonov I., 42, 43.

Some ingenious people who wish to prove that the creation of the Synod was not an innovation represent the institution as a resuscitation of the ancient local councils; but this view is utterly untenable. The Synod is not a council of deputies from various sections of the Church, but a permanent college, or ecclesiastical senate, the members of which are appointed and dismissed by the Emperor as he thinks fit. It has no independent legislative authority, for its legislative projects do not become law till they have received the Imperial sanction; and they are always published, not in the name of the Church, but in the name of the Supreme Power. Even in matters of simple administration it is not independent, for all its resolutions require the consent of the Procureur, a layman nominated by his Majesty. In theory this functionary protests only against those resolutions which are not in accordance with the civil law of the country; but as he alone has the right to address the Emperor directly on ecclesiastical concerns, and as all communications between the Emperor and the Synod pass through his hands, he possesses in reality considerable power. Besides this, he can always influence the individual members by holding out prospects of advancement and decorations, and if this device fails, he can make refractory members retire, and fill up their places with men of more pliant disposition. A Council constituted in this way cannot, of course, display much independence of thought or action, especially in a country like Russia, where no one ventures to oppose openly the Imperial will.

It must not, however, be supposed that the Russian ecclesiastics regard the Imperial authority with jealousy or dislike. They are all most loyal subjects, and warm adherents of autocracy. Those ideas of ecclesiastical independence which are so common in Western Europe, and that spirit of opposition to the civil power which animates the Roman Catholic clergy, are entirely foreign to their minds. If a bishop sometimes complains to an intimate friend that he has been brought to St. Petersburg and made a member of the Synod merely to append his signature to official papers and to give his consent to foregone conclusions, his displeasure is directed, not against the Emperor, but against the Procureur. He is full of loyalty and devotion to the Tsar, and has no desire to see his Majesty excluded from all influence in ecclesiastical affairs; but he feels saddened and humiliated when he finds that the whole government of the Church is in the hands of a lay functionary, who may be a military man, and who looks at all matters from a layman's point of view.

This close connection between Church and State and the thoroughly national character of the Russian Church is well illustrated by the history of the local ecclesiastical administration. The civil and the ecclesiastical administration have always had the same character and have always been modified by the same influences. The terrorism which was largely used by the Muscovite Tsars and brought to a climax by Peter the Great appeared equally in both. In the episcopal circulars, as in the Imperial ukazes, we find frequent mention of "most cruel corporal punishment," "cruel punishment with whips, so that the delinquent and others may not acquire the habit of practising such insolence," and much more of the same kind. And these terribly severe measures were sometimes directed against very venial offences. The Bishop of Vologda, for instance, in 1748 decrees "cruel corporal punishment" against priests who wear coarse and ragged clothes,* and the records of the Consistorial courts contain abundant proof that such decrees were rigorously executed. When Catherine II. introduced a more humane spirit into the civil administration, corporal punishment was at once abolished in the Consistorial courts, and the procedure was modified according to the accepted maxims of civil jurisprudence. But I must not weary the reader with tiresome historical details. Suffice it to say that, from the time of Peter the Great downwards, the character of all the more energetic sovereigns is reflected in the history of the ecclesiastical administration.

* Znamenski, "Prikhodskoe Dukhovenstvo v Rossii so vremeni reformy Petra," Kazan, 1873.

Each province, or "government," forms a diocese, and the bishop, like the civil governor, has a Council which theoretically controls his power, but practically has no controlling influence whatever. The Consistorial Council, which has in the theory of ecclesiastical procedure a very imposing appearance, is in reality the bishop's chancellerie, and its members are little more than secretaries, whose chief object is to make themselves agreeable to their superior. And it must be confessed that, so long as they remain what they are, the less power they possess the better it will be for those who have the misfortune to be under their jurisdiction. The higher dignitaries have at least larger aims and a certain consciousness of the dignity of their position; but the lower officials, who have no such healthy restraints and receive ridiculously small salaries, grossly misuse the little authority which they possess, and habitually pilfer and extort in the most shameless manner. The Consistories are, in fact, what the public offices were in the time of Nicholas I.

The higher ecclesiastical administration has always been in the hands of the monks, or "Black Clergy," as they are commonly termed, who form a large and influential class. The monks who first settled in Russia were, like those who first visited north-western Europe, men of the earnest, ascetic, missionary type. Filled with zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, they took little or no thought for the morrow, and devoutly believed that their Heavenly Father, without whose knowledge no sparrow falls to the ground, would provide for their humble wants. Poor, clad in rags, eating the most simple fare, and ever ready to share what they had with any one poorer than themselves, they performed faithfully and earnestly the work which their Master had given them to do. But this ideal of monastic life soon gave way in Russia, as in the West, to practices less simple and austere. By the liberal donations and bequests of the faithful the monasteries became rich in gold, in silver, in precious stones, and above all in land and serfs. Troitsa, for instance, possessed at one time 120,000 serfs and a proportionate amount of land, and it is said that at the beginning of the eighteenth century more than a fourth of the entire population had fallen under the jurisdiction of the Church. Many of the monasteries engaged in commerce, and the monks were, if we may credit Fletcher, who visited Russia in 1588, the most intelligent merchants of the country.

During the eighteenth century the Church lands were secularised, and the serfs of the Church became serfs of the State. This was a severe blow for the monasteries, but it did not prove fatal, as many people predicted. Some monasteries were abolished and others were reduced to extreme poverty, but many survived and prospered. These could no longer possess serfs, but they had still three sources of revenue: a limited amount of real property, Government subsidies, and the voluntary offerings of the faithful. At present there are about 500 monastic establishments, and the great majority of them, though not wealthy, have revenues more than sufficient to satisfy all the requirements of an ascetic life.

Thus in Russia, as in Western Europe, the history of monastic institutions is composed of three chapters, which may be briefly entitled: asceticism and missionary enterprise; wealth, luxury, and corruption; secularisation of property and decline. But between Eastern and Western monasticism there is at least one marked difference. The monasticism of the West made at various epochs of its history a vigorous, spontaneous effort at self-regeneration, which found expression in the foundation of separate Orders, each of which proposed to itself some special aim--some special sphere of usefulness. In Russia we find no similar phenomenon. Here the monasteries never deviated from the rules of St. Basil, which restrict the members to religious ceremonies, prayer, and contemplation. From time to time a solitary individual raised his voice against the prevailing abuses, or retired from his monastery to spend the remainder of his days in ascetic solitude; but neither in the monastic population as a whole, nor in any particular monastery, do we find at any time a spontaneous, vigorous movement towards reform. During the last two hundred years reforms have certainly been effected, but they have all been the work of the civil power, and in the realisation of them the monks have shown little more than the virtue of resignation. Here, as elsewhere, we have evidence of that inertness, apathy, and want of spontaneous vigour which form one of the most characteristic traits of Russian national life. In this, as in other departments of national activity, the spring of action has lain not in the people, but in the Government.

It is only fair to the monks to state that in their dislike to progress and change of every kind they merely reflect the traditional spirit of the Church to which they belong. The Russian Church, like the Eastern Orthodox Church generally, is essentially conservative. Anything in the nature of a religious revival is foreign to her traditions and character. Quieta non movere is her fundamental principle of conduct. She prides herself as being above terrestrial influences.

The modifications that have been made in her administrative organisation have not affected her inner nature. In spirit and character she is now what she was under the Patriarchs in the time of the Muscovite Tsars, holding fast to the promise that no jot or tittle shall pass from the law till all be fulfilled. To those who talk about the requirements of modern life and modern science she turns a deaf ear. Partly from the predominance which she gives to the ceremonial element, partly from the fact that her chief aim is to preserve unmodified the doctrine and ceremonial as determined by the early Ecumenical Councils, and partly from the low state of general culture among the clergy, she has ever remained outside of the intellectual movements. The attempts of the Roman Catholic Church to develop the traditional dogmas by definition and deduction, and the efforts of Protestants to reconcile their creeds with progressive science and the ever-varying intellectual currents of the time, are alike foreign to her nature. Hence she has produced no profound theological treatises conceived in a philosophical spirit, and has made no attempt to combat the spirit of infidelity in its modern forms. Profoundly convinced that her position is impregnable, she has "let the nations rave," and scarcely deigned to cast a glance at their intellectual and religious struggles. In a word, she is "in the world, but not of it."

If we wish to see represented in a visible form the peculiar characteristics of the Russian Church, we have only to glance at Russian religious art, and compare it with that of Western Europe. In the West, from the time of the Renaissance downwards, religious art has kept pace with artistic progress. Gradually it emancipated itself from archaic forms and childish symbolism, converted the lifeless typical figures into living individuals, lit up their dull eyes and expressionless faces with human intelligence and human feeling, and finally aimed at archaeological accuracy in costume and other details. Thus in the West the Icon grew slowly into the naturalistic portrait, and the rude symbolical groups developed gradually into highly-finished historical pictures. In Russia the history of religious art has been entirely different. Instead of distinctive schools of painting and great religious artists, there has been merely an anonymous traditional craft, destitute of any artistic individuality. In all the productions of this craft the old Byzantine forms have been faithfully and rigorously preserved, and we can see reflected in the modern Icons--stiff, archaic, expressionless--the immobility of the Eastern Church in general, and of the Russian Church in particular.

To the Roman Catholic, who struggles against science as soon as it contradicts traditional conceptions, and to the Protestant, who strives to bring his religious beliefs into accordance with his scientific knowledge, the Russian Church may seem to resemble an antediluvian petrifaction, or a cumbrous line-of-battle ship that has been long stranded. It must be confessed, however, that the serene inactivity for which she is distinguished has had very valuable practical consequences. The Russian clergy have neither that haughty, aggressive intolerance which characterises their Roman Catholic brethren, nor that bitter, uncharitable, sectarian spirit which is too often to be found among Protestants. They allow not only to heretics, but also to members of their own communion, the most complete intellectual freedom, and never think of anathematising any one for his scientific or unscientific opinions. All that they demand is that those who have been born within the pale of Orthodoxy should show the Church a certain nominal allegiance; and in this matter of allegiance they are by no mean very exacting. So long as a member refrains from openly attacking the Church and from going over to another confession, he may entirely neglect all religious ordinances and publicly profess scientific theories logically inconsistent with any kind of dogmatic religious belief without the slightest danger of incurring ecclesiastical censure.

This apathetic tolerance may be partly explained by the national character, but it is also to some extent due to the peculiar relations between Church and State. The government vigilantly protects the Church from attack, and at the same time prevents her from attacking her enemies. Hence religious questions are never discussed in the Press, and the ecclesiastical literature is all historical, homiletic, or devotional. The authorities allow public oral discussions to be held during Lent in the Kremlin of Moscow between members of the State Church and Old Ritualists; but these debates are not theological in our sense of the term. They turn exclusively on details of Church history, and on the minutiae of ceremonial observance.

A few years ago there was a good deal of vague talk about a possible union of the Russian and Anglican Churches. If by "union" is meant simply union in the bonds of brotherly love, there can be, of course, no objection to any amount of such pia desideria; but if anything more real and practical is intended, the project is an absurdity. A real union of the Russian and Anglican Churches would be as difficult of realisation, and is as undesirable, as a union of the Russian Council of State and the British House of Commons.*

* I suppose that the more serious partisans of the union scheme mean union with the Eastern Orthodox, and not with the Russian, Church. To them the above remarks are not addressed. Their scheme is, in my opinion, unrealisable and undesirable, but it contains nothing absurd.