Saturday, 17 July 2010


This painting (by Vasily Perov) depicts an Old Ritualist priest Nikita Pustosviat disputing with Patriarch Joachim the Confession of Faith.

I was thinking this morning what the use of authority is when authority so obviously departs from ancient norms and liturgical tradition. In the above painting, it is a poor lonely priest (whose attire is clearly in stark contrast to that of the Partiarch's retinue) who questions the liturgical changes brought about by Patriarch Nikon, which history shows was not wanted by anyone in the first place and the Greek liturgical forms, which Nikon sought to emulate, were in fact the newer ones. I have written about the Old Believers before, and while such things as using three instead of two fingers to make the Sign of the Cross, or the direction of a liturgical procession, might seem to Western eyes, long accustomed to arbitrary change, as rather trivial, to the Orthodox such changes are of fundamental importance, and could mean the difference between the profession of heresy, or even complete apostasy from the Faith, or not. It's the little things, as much as the whole, that constitute the Liturgy, and thereby also the Faith.

The Old Ritualists in Russia were harshly persecuted. It was the age of Cuius Regio, eius Religio (which had disastrous consequences for the Church of England - how ironic that this same principle was fundamental to the conversion of the English people to the Faith in the first place!), and anyone who dared question the changes was either driven as an exile into Siberia to wander hopelessly, or was burned at the stake, which was probably the fate of the aforesaid priest. Aren't we in the West lucky that the changes brought about under 20th century Popes were not enforced on pain of death - but it is certainly interesting to wonder that if they were brought about 450 years ago whether there'd be such a furor about them now, and what a ''traditionalist'' might be like. Would they still exist? The Old Believers, sundered from the Moscow Patriarchate (the ''authority''), went into schism and eventually splintered into many sects (many of them downright heretical), some don't (because of the ''apostasy'' of the Orthodox hierarchy) have priests or bishops of their own and merely hold prayer meetings led by some sort of elder, others still have a hierarchy of a sort and retain the ante-Nikonian liturgical tradition. Would the old Western traditionalists have a hierarchy? Would they be as fanatical as their Russian equivalents? That I think no one will ever know...

The history of the Old Ritualists just goes to show the fine balance which ought to exist between authority and tradition. Authority should conform to Tradition not the other way around. If only juridical hermeneutics of ecclesiology could be shaken off by Catholics and we could return to the simplicity of St Ignatius of Antioch's famous, and self-evidently liturgical, formula: Where the Bishop is there let the multitude of believers be, even as where Jesus is there is the Catholic Church. I don't see why we should accept, as Catholics, what the Church does with the Sacred Liturgy as acceptable when it so obviously is not acceptable. This is why I hate the liturgical books of 1962 and think that Summorum Pontificum is not so great as people make it out to be. Summorum Pontificum only exists because of a false understanding of the Petrine ministry. Pope Benedict has just as little authority to create a distinction between the so-called ''extraordinary'' and ''ordinary'' forms of the Roman Rite as Pius XII had to do away with folded chasubles. That authority simply does not exist. Popes are the guardians of Tradition, not the lords thereof, and 20th century Popes have failed, failed spectacularly, at their jobs. In 1957 (in the immediate aftermath of the new ''restored'' Holy Week) Tolkien wrote to his grandson Michael, and said quite rightly that God ''won't be dictated to by high ecclesiastics whom he himself has appointed.'' Of course he said this in the context of his translation of Jonah, who fled into Ninevah from the face of the Lord.

Of course, there is also an inherent danger in separating oneself from the Church (you only have to look at the various Protestant sects - Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses - which in a certain sense resemble some of the most extreme Old Ritualists of the Russian Church) completely. Schism heals nothing. I perceive the providence of God, then, in the fact that Pius XII was born in 1876 rather than 1576...


  1. Thanks John. I thought I'd have received more comments than this though...

  2. I find this post most curious. From my understanding, the real issue with Patriarch Nikon was that he was only trying to realign the Russian service books with the Greek originals. True, maybe some of the proposed reforms were tendentious just because the problem with historical scholarship is that it can change on a dime, but isn't that what this blog doing in regards of the liturgy anyway? "X isn't authentic because it can't be found in Y service book in the original. Let's go back to the authetic way. X practice is really an abuse." My understanding of the issues was that he wanted to restore the authenticity of the Byzantine liturgy from the Slavic corruptions. Not sure how this is different from your approach. Sure you may disagree with Nikon's methods, but I don't see how you disagree with his goals.

    And the real reason that the Old Believers didn't want to change was that they didn't want to become Greek, because the Greeks were a cursed nation dominated by the heathen Turk. (Moscow as the Third Rome, and whatnot.) I'm not sure how much they would have opposed the reforms because of their devotion to the liturgy itself. Nor can I see your Orthodox readers defend the Old Believers who have themselves accepted these "diabolical" changes. (Yes, they did think that the Czar was the Antichrist for his liturgical meddling.)

    I tend to agree with you regarding the relationship between authority and tradition, which is why I opposed any real reform of the liturgy, even for "the better". The Low Mass is the tradition. Solemn High Mass with Gregorian chant in your average parish is not. Heck, maybe even tambourines are the tradition at this point, beats me. That's why I tend not to think about liturgy outside of this blog. But for me, at least, you seem to be hoisted on your own petard with this post.

  3. Arturo, my point (and the point of the Old Believers) is that the Greek ''originals'' were not original at all. They contained many accretions whereas the Russian liturgical books were in accord with the faith brought to the pagan Slavs by Cyril and Methodius. My sympathies are entirely with the Old Believers - although the danger of schism is clearly shown in the many dangerous sects which sprang from this movement.

  4. The other problem of course is that the Byzantine liturgy was not at all uniform to begin with: the cathedral liturgy was not the same as the monastic liturgy, and the liturgy in one church in Byzantium was not the same as another, etc. So some sort of recourse to a "purer" Byzantine liturgy when no such thing was clearly codified is in itself tendentious.

  5. Very interesting thoughts, I guess, we in the west have not kept the faith of our holy fathers.
    The Catholic church( I am catholic) did not understand that the faith of our holy fathers must be kept intact, and being given to following generations by making the faith and doctrines more precise(instead of adding new things under the modernistic motto of dynamic tradition). What happened was a development of doctrine, which was more an alteration of the Catholic faith and its traditions, than a safeguarding of the faith of our Church fathers. Poor we, who are living in an age and abyss of spiritual desolation!

  6. Indeed, the Byzantine Rite knows several Typika-yet it was codified and the divergences are not as enormous as some might be led to think. Most of those 'codifications' after the Fall of 'Tsargrad' being published in Venice.

    Heller, who treats succinctly of the Old Believer question in his History of Russia, quotes Solzhenitsyn: 'The persecution and subjugation of the Russian national spirit began with the soulless reforms of Nikon and Peter.'

    I also think that the liturgical reforms had ideological ends in view. Arnold Toynbee considered Alexis's and Peter's reforms as the beginnning of a process culminating in the 1917 revolution. Besides a desire to attain uniformity with the rest of Orthodoxy there was also, on the part of the russian hierarchy, the need to establish a suitable challenge to the missionary pretensions of the papally dispatched Jesuits hosted in Poland(eg 'st' Andrew Bobola) and teeming at the borders. Hence the 'manualist' approach which also arose in Greece/Servia, in the face of the Hapsburg missionary zeal. All this to appear modern, and not 'backward', 'obscurantist' wrt to the Church of Rome considered as particularly 'enlightened', not so much with the Light of the Holy Spirit as with that of Aristotle & co.

    The Roman Church created modernity, tried to encompass it, on failing to do so, condemned it, and ultimately succumbed to it. She's got only herself to blame for the Avignon Schism, the Reformation, Jansenism, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

    Orthodoxy, at least a certain number of hierarchs, were seduced by the need for a systematic exposition of the Faith and for this they had recourse to Roman models. Yet, the Orthodox Faith never came to be reduced to a universally-binding system in spite of the great Russian dogmatic texts of the 17-19th cents.

  7. Er, o.k., so Nikon is guilty of an abuse for trying to conform Russian liturgical practice to the Byzantine standards, when in fact the original Russian practice is closer to the "original." Is that the story?

    If so, then does that mean that St. John Chrysostom was guilty of an abuse? After all, before he was called to Constantinople to serve as its Patriarch, the liturgy in use in that city was St. Basil's. St. John Chrysostom imposed his own liturgical reforms (drawn from the liturgy of his native Antioch) on the Constantinopolitans. It seems to me you should have the same sort of scorn for the Byzantine liturgy that you have for the Tridentine rite.

    Of course, I consider that conclusion absurd, but that is simply as much as to say that I think that your initial premises are off base. Your distinction between "the guardians of Tradition, not the lords thereof" is fine up to a point, but I think that you are taking it too far. Much of the liturgy is tradition, not Tradition, and our Lord's grant of authority to bind and loose should be understood as making room for the insertion or removal of a genuflection or a "kyrie" here or there. At least such is my view of the matter.

  8. The Slavonic service books undoubtedly contained numerous errors, which certainly required correction. On the other hand "Greek" clerical attire, which was part of the reform, came in only with the Turkokratia: the cylindrical hat and the raisa are Ottoman magistrate's garb - even the episcopal sakkos and crown (adopted from the emperors) were assumed as a consequence of the bishops having to function as exarchs in Ottoman territory; the same goes for the removal of the episcopal throne from the apse to the nave, the double-headed eagle rug and so on - things formerly proper to the Emperor, but assumed by the bishops under the Turks.

    The Old Believers simply saw everything, good bad or indifferent, as issuing from those benighted Greeks, whom God had punished for the wicked false union with Rome, etc, etc. They were, I'm afraid, very much like the Trads - charging myopically to the bottom of the wrong tree and barking up it, till their bark was all they were capable of hearing. Like the Trads, they were, yes, a tragic example of what happens when authority is abused - when jurisdiction is everything, and love comes nowhere.

  9. Sorry, that should have read "ethnarchs".

    There's such a thing as a touch on the tiller, which is not the same thing as blowing great holes in the hull. Sanity is the ability to distinguish the one from the other. Sometimes injustice and tyranny make people insane.

  10. Moretben,

    Are you being a bit hard on the Old Believers? They have always struck me as far more liturgically cogent than Roman Traddies - although, sadly, some Old Believers were burned - a fate yet to happen to Traddies.

  11. I hope not! I can perfectly understand why they didn't want their priests tricked out as turkish judges, or their bishops as Byzantine Emperors. I can perfectly understand their objection to having innovations of all sorts pointlessly imposed upon them. The blame for the schism rests entirely with the tyrants, whose modus operandi renders them repulsive, vitiating whatever was genuinely worthwhile in the reform. However, the sky did not fall in. Orthodoxy did not fail in Russia but survived even the depredations of Peter the Great and his successors, under whom some of the greatest saints of modern times arose. I believe there exist today canonical "Old Ritualist" Orthodox, though it's not something I know very much about. Good luck to them.

  12. ...some of the sects that developed in the "raskol" though, were certainly as mad as anything, were they not?

  13. A lot of this analysis is correct, but I think it misses the complexity of what was happening in Russia in the 16th/17th C. It also oversimplifies some elements of the Russian liturgical tradition while needlessly complicating others.

    First, the liturgical practice of the Old Believers is not identical to the liturgical practice Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought to the Western Slavs. For the first several centuries of Orthodoxy in Russia, the Typicon would have changed in line with the alterations going on in the Byzantine Empire at the time. There was also a heavy "Middle Eastern" influence in Russia in the early centuries, which seems to be where practices such as the two-finger Sign of the Cross, double Alleluia, clockwise processions, etc. came from. After the Tartar invasion of Russia and the fall of Constantinople, there was considerable isolation in Russia from "Greek practices" (though those practices eventually became normative throughout the rest of Orthodoxy, including the Slavic lands outside of Russia).

    Second, it's incorrect to speak of there being a "Byzantine Rite" and an "(Old) Russian Rite." They are both Byzantine Rite with nuances. But any frank investigation of Old Ritualist liturgical books will reveal far less differences than you would find between any of the so-called "Western Rite" Orthodox traditions and the contemporary Greek and Russian practices. Probably one of the biggest differences you will see--and it has nothing to do with rites--is the tendency of Old Ritualits to not abbreviate their services. Contemporary Russian parish practice contains a great deal of abbreviations and Greek practice has even more. More often than not, however, the Old Ritualist parishes are "maximalist" and more akin to what you would find in the larger Russian monasteries today.

    Third, the Russian liturgical books--no matter what your view of "purity" is--were in terrible shape in large parts of Russia during the 16th and 17th C. There was a definite need for correction, but an obvious disagreement over what the standard of that correct should be. Peter Moghila's efforts--which can still be seen today in Russian practice--were a response to missionary incursions from Catholics and Protestants into West Russia/Ukraine at that time. Moghila was in a better position than most to undertake these efforts given that he knew Latin and Greek on top of Slavonic. However, his theological training was decidedly Latin, which is understandable given the paucity of theological training in Russia or any other Orthodox land at that time. While we can sit here and criticize his changes now, I think we need to understand that they were undertaken in the hope of defending Orthodoxy from other confessions.

    Fourth, while Nikon's reforms or, at least, the manner of reform was ill advised, they never accomplished what he set out to do, namely, cohere Russian and Greek practice. In the decades after Nikon's repose, numerous other corrections were made to the Slavonic texts to correct a lot of silly mistakes which were made during the reforms. Even so, you still didn't have perfectly uniformity. For instance, if you look at the Psalter produced by the Kiev Caves (which Jordanville reproduced during the 20th C.), you will see marginal corrections. Also, there are slight (and I do mean slight) differences in the text from the Psalter you can purchase today from the Moscow Patriarchate's press.

    Fifth, as for the motivations behind the reforms and the choice of the Old Ritualists to go into schism, there's a lot more to be said. I have to cut this short, however. Needless to say, monochromic explanations are inadequate.

  14. I have tagged you via Mac.

  15. Isn't the invention of printing and the subsequent spread of uniform 'mass produced' typical editions (be they Roman or Muscovite) initmately tied up with the question of authority?

  16. Thanks all for your interesting comments. I have been isolated from my desktop since Saturday, and while I can easily publish comments on my iPhone, I find typing out long responses rather laborious on the tiny keyboard, so I thought I'd wait.

    I must apologize first for the very poor grammar and syntax in the post (which I have now corrected), due to poor editing. I hope it was interesting enough for you all to overlook that!

    I know little, beyond my copy of Russia, Ritual and Reform, of Russian church history, so any analysis I have attempted here has been aimed at a Western audience who know little of the changes to illustrate a point - namely how different the attitude of the Orthodox is to even minor liturgical changes - an attitude I think worthy of emulation; (one wonders, however, how many Trads would bother clinging to the Old Rite if they were threatened with fire and torture) also some Catholics confuse Magisterium with Tradition, and so this post serves to illustrate the subordinate relationship of ''teaching authority'' to Tradition, which is eternal.

    Liturgical uniformity down to the last detail has never been an ideal in Christendom, even in the centralized Roman Rite (although you'd be surprised), and so whether or not the Slavic books were inaccurate on one or two points was Nikon's decision to make them unison with the Greeks really necessary, even pastorally? The Russian fashion of making the Sign of the Cross is the more ancient - this is, incidentally, how I make the Sign of the Cross - two fingers expressing the Two Natures in Christ, and so the whole thing is both a christological and trinitarian formula and a sacramental. Most Westerners don't know how to make the Sign of the Cross, and even make it look ''sloppy'', which is something that grates on my nerves.

    As regards printing - I think that this was another side-swipe at the Liturgy. Printing served merely to make the Liturgy ''easier'', and so gone were the days when some monk somewhere wrote out whole liturgical books and they were so valuable that they were chained to the lecturn in choir when not in use. Manuscript ''missals'' (I'd prefer real liturgical books but this is besides the point here) are of a far more worth and serve to express that liturgical books are just as valuable as the Chalice and Paten. I have seen all too many printed Missals (even old ones, one I perused in the library dating from 1828 was among the ugliest I ever saw, although interesting Propers-wise) that are simply not worthy of Liturgy...

  17. Meyendorff’s book is a good distillation of scholarship on the reforms for an English-speaking audience, but it’s incomplete in many ways. His purpose was to demonstrate Nikon’s dependency on then-contemporary Greek liturgical texts rather than the “most ancient” texts he claimed to be using as the standard for correction. It’s not entirely clear that Nikon or his intellectually ill-equipped “correctors” knew the difference. They assumed, quite wrongly, that whatever the Greeks were doing in the 17th C. is what the Greeks were doing during the preceding millennia. It’s possible they could have figured out that this wasn’t the case, but it would have required scholars much more capable in the Greek tongue and certainly a wider selection of manuscripts. Neither was available at the time and the rest, as they say, is history.

    The more complex question is why so many in Russia joined the Old Believers. The simpleminded explanation is that many Russians were ignorant of the Faith and equated ritual with belief. There may be some of that, but it’s too incomplete an explanation—especially since changes in the ritual had occurred before in Russian history and nothing approaching the split with the Old Believers followed. The more convincing arguments (though they are variegated) focus on the cultural and social climate at the time and the manner in which the reforms were instituted. Nikon pushed the reforms through at a time when the Russian Church was trying to correct a number of other problems, all of which were far more serious than potential errors in the liturgical texts (e.g., alcoholic priests; cacophonic singing in churches; pagan superstitions blended with decayed Christian theology; no formal training for priests; moral decline; etc.). Some of the strongest opponents of the reform (e.g., Archpriest Avvakum) spearheaded the “moral reform” campaign in the Russian Church. It’s not a surprise that he would have seen the Nikonian corrections as an example of further decline in the Church. Once the Tsar was involved, the matter took on apocalyptic meaning.

    There are several good cases out there for the point that the Old Believer population grew in the 50 or so years after the reforms were instituted. Once Peter the Great ascended the throne and instituted even more sweeping reforms to the governing structure of the Church, the Old Believer argument that mainline Orthodoxy had fallen into heresy gained more purchase. Then you also have the socio-cultural experiences of outlying groups in the Russian Empire who, despite their poverty and harsh living conditions, had very little oversight with respect to their liturgical practices and beliefs. It’s not difficult to see why these people would have latched on to the Old Belief, especially since it offered—arguably more than the mainline Church—a “rhythm” to an otherwise hard and trying existence.

  18. With all of that said, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Russian Church today—both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad (which rejoined the MP in 2007)—have lifted the anathemas against the Old Rite (which, I should note, is distinct from the “Old Belief”—which represents not just a liturgical form, but a set of (varying) views on the Church, Christianity, the world, etc.). While this lifting has only drawn a handful of Old Ritualists back into the mainline Church, it’s evidence that the Church knows the reforms were poorly instituted and that the old Russian practice was neither heretical nor innovative; rather, it constituted one more part in the large tapestry of Orthodox liturgical practice. Additionally, there is a lot more movement in contemporary Russian Orthodoxy toward reclaiming the whole of its past. Ancient Russian hymnography (including Znamenny Chant—which the Old Ritualists use exclusively) has taken its place alongside the newer (and more familiar) melodies; Russian iconography is increasingly done in line with the form and style of medieval Russia; there are movements away from heavy abbreviations of the services and a closer eye on what the Typicon, not personal fiat, orders; etc. This isn’t to say there is some “perfect blend” of Old and New Rites in Russian Orthodoxy; but to the extent that the Old Rite represents a part of Russia’s spiritual history, it is find an increasingly important place in the life of the contemporary Church. For that alone, I think all Orthodox Christians should be very thankful.

  19. Printing also made Liturgy very easy to control from a centralised authority. Before printing the changes that occurred between 1600 t0 1970 in the Roman rite would have been impossible.

    Should we be blaming Caxton for the malaise? Having said that the Orthodox have printed books yet organic development somehow circumnavigates them. The rather (IMHO) impressive mimetic burial processions in Holy Week don't appear in the Typicon as far as I am aware.

  20. "I believe there exist today canonical "Old Ritualist" Orthodox, though it's not something I know very much about."

    They are the Edinoverie.

    Around 20 parishes before Kirill became Patriarch. Now they have about 30 parishes and are said to be registering impressive growth. One parish in Moscow is known for holding real all night vigils (8 pm to 8 am) on the Twelve Great Feasts. There is talk that the Holy Synod might elect an "Edinoverie" bishop to serve them.

  21. Gabriel - many thanks for taking the trouble to post all of this.

  22. Many thanks all for your comments. All your contributions have been welcome here, and edifying - in fact it seems that I know the least here...