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A History of the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Churches In the 19th Century

Introduction | History | Doctrine

Autocephalies in the Balkans | In Greece | In Serbia | In Romania
In Bulgaria | The church in imperial Russia

Autocephalies in the Balkans

The ideas of the French Revolution, the nationalistic movements, and the everliving memory of past Christian empires led to the gradual disintegration of Turkish domination in the Balkans. According to a pattern existing since the late Middle Ages, the birth of national states was followed by the establishment of independent, autocephalous Orthodox churches. Thus the collapse of the Ottoman rule was accompanied by the rapid shrinking of the actual power exercised by the patriarch of Constantinople. Paradoxically, the Greeks, for whom—more than anyone—the patriarchate represented a hope for the future, were the first to organize an independent church in their new state.

In Greece

In 1821 the Greek revolution against the Turks was officially proclaimed by the metropolitan of Old Patras, Germanos. The patriarchate, being the official Turkish-sponsored organ for the administration of the Christians, issued statements condemning and even anathematizing the revolutionaries. These statements, however, failed to convince anyone, least of all the Turkish government, which on Easter Day in 1821 had the ecumenical (Constantinopolitan) patriarch Gregory V hanged from the main gate of the patriarchal residence as a public example. Numerous other Greek clergy were executed in the provinces. After this tragedy, the official loyalty of the patriarchate was, of course, doubly secured. Unable either to communicate with the patriarchate or to recognize its excommunications, the bishops of liberated Greece gathered in Nvplion and established themselves as the synod of an autocephalous church (1833). The eclesiastical regime adopted in Greece was modelled after that of Russia: a collective state body, the Holy Synod, was to govern the church under strict government control. In 1850 the patriarchate was forced to recognize what was by then a fait accompli, and granted a charter of autocephaly (tmos) to the new Church of Greece.

In Serbia

The independence of Serbia led, in 1832, to the recognition of Serbian ecclesiastical autonomy. In 1879 the Serbian Church was recognized by Constantinople as autocephalous under the primacy of the metropolitan of Belgrade. This church, however, covered only the territory of what was called "old Serbia." The small state of Montenegro, always independent from the Turks, had its own metropolitan in Cetinje. This prelate, who was also the civil and military leader of the nation, was consecrated either in Austria, or, as in the case of the famous bishop-poet Pyotr II Negosh, in St. Petersburg (1833).

In the Austro-Hungarian empire, two autocephalous churches, with jurisdiction over Serbs, Romanians, and other Slavs, were in existence during the second half of the century. These were the patriarchate of Sremski-Karlovci (Karlowitz), established in 1848, which governed all the Orthodox in the Kingdom of Hungary; and the metropolitanate of Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy) in Bukovina, which, after 1873, also exercised jurisdiction over two Serbian dioceses (Zara and Kotor) in Dalmatia. The Serbian dioceses of Bosnia and Herzegovina, acquired by Austria in 1878, remained autonomous but were never completely independent from Constantinople.

In Romania

The creation of an independent Romania, after centuries of foreign control by Bulgarians, Turks, Greek-Phanariots, and, more recently, Russians, led in 1865 to the self-proclamation of the Romanian Church as autocephalous, even against the violent protests of the Phanar. As in Greece, the new church was under the strict control of the pro-Western government of Prince Alexandru Cuza. Finally, as in the Greek case, Constantinople recognized the Romanian autocephaly under the metropolitan of Bucharest (1885). The Romanians of Transylvania, still in Austria-Hungary, remained under the autocephalous metropolitan of Sibiu and others under the church of Czernowitz

In Bulgaria

The reestablishment of the Church of Bulgaria eventually was secured, but not without tragedy and even a schism; this happened mainly because the issue of reestablishing the autocephalous church arose at a time when both Greek and Bulgarian populations lived side by side in Macedonia, Thrace, and Constantinople itself, though still within the framework of the Ottoman imperial system. After the Turkish conquest, and especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bulgarians were governed by Greek bishops and were often prevented from worshipping in Slavonic. This enforced policy of Hellenization was rejected in the 19th century when Bulgarians began to claim not only a native clergy but also equal representation on the higher echelons of the Christian millet—i.e., the offices of the patriarchate. These claims were met with firm resistance by the Greeks. The alternative was a national Bulgarian Church, which was created by a sultan's firman (decree) in 1870. The new church was to be governed by its own Bulgarian exarch, who resided in Constantinople itself and governed all the Bulgarians who recognized him. The new situation was uncanonical, because it sanctioned the existence of two separate ecclesiastical structures on the same territory. Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimus VI convened a synod in Constantinople, which also included the Greek patriarchs of Alexandria and Jerusalem (1872). The council condemned "phyletism"—the national or ethnic principle in church organization—and excommunicated the Bulgarians, who were certainly not alone guilty of "phyletism." This schism lasted until 1945, when a reconciliation took place with full recognition of Bulgarian autocephaly within the limits of the Bulgarian state.

After their liberation from the Turkish yoke, the Balkan churches freely developed both their national identities and their religious life. Theological faculties, generally following German models, were created in Athens, Belgrade (in Yugoslavia), Sofia (in Bulgaria), and Bucharest (in Romania). The Romanian Church introduced the full cycle of the liturgical offices in vernacular Romanian. But these positive developments were often marred by nationalistic rivalries. In condemning "phyletism," the synod of Constantinople (1872) had, in fact, defined a basic problem of modern Orthodoxy.

The church in imperial Russia

The Spiritual Regulation of Peter the Great remained in force until the very end of the Russian Empire (1917). Many Russian churchmen consistently complained against the submission of the church to the state, but there was little they could do except to lay plans for future reforms. This they did not fail to do, and in the 20th century the necessary changes were rapidly enacted. Though Peter himself and his first successors tended to deal personally and directly with church affairs, the tsars of the 19th century delegated much authority to the Oberprokurors, who received a cabinet rank in the government and were the real heads of the entire administration of the church. One of the most debilitating aspects of the regime was the legal division of Russian society by a rigid caste system. The clergy was one of the castes with its own school system, and there was little possibility for its children to choose another career.

In spite of these obvious defects, the church kept its self-awareness, and among the episcopate such eminent figures as Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867) promoted education, theological research, biblical translations, and missionary work. In each of its 67 dioceses, the Russian Church created a seminary for the training of priests and teachers. In addition, four theological academies, or graduate schools, were established in major cities (Moscow, 1769; St. Petersburg, 1809; Kiev, 1819; Kazan, 1842). They provided a generally excellent theological training for both Russians and foreigners. The rigid caste system and the strictly professional character of these schools, however, were obstacles to their seriously influencing society at large. It was, rather, through the monasteries and their spirituality that the church began to reach the intellectual class. More influential than the rigid discipline of the large monastic communities, the prophetic ministry of the "elders" (startsy), who acted as living examples of the standards of the spiritual life or as advisers and confessors, attracted large masses of the common people, and also intellectuals. St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), for example, lived according to the standards of the ancient Hesychast tradition that had been revived in the Russian forests. The startsy of Optino—Leonid (1768-1841), Makarius (1788-1860), and Ambrose (1812-91)—were visited not only by thousands of ordinary Christians but also by the writers Nikolay Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The latter was inspired by the startsy when he described in his novels monastic figures such as Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. From the ranks of an emerging group of Orthodox lay intellectuals, the production of a living theology—if less scholarly than in the academies—was taking shape. The great influence of a lay theologian like Aleksey Khomyakov (1804-60), who belonged to the Slavophile (pro-Slavic) circle before it acquired a political flavour, eventually helped in the conversion to Orthodoxy at the end of the century of such leading Marxists as Sergey Bulgakov (1871-1944) and Nikolay Berdyayev (1874-1948). Missionary expansion also continued, particularly in western Asia, Japan, and Alaska (see below, Missions: Ancient and modern).

Disproportionately larger and richer than its sister churches of the Balkans and the Middle East, the Church of Russia included, in 1914, more than 50,000 priests, 21,000 monks, and 73,000 nuns. It supported thousands of schools and missions. It cooperated with the Russian government in exercising great influence in Mid-Eastern affairs. Thus, with Russian help, an Arab (Meletios Doumani) rather than a Greek was elected for the first time as patriarch of Antioch (1899). With the successive partitions of Poland and the reunions with Russia of Belorussian and Ukrainian territories, many Eastern Catholic descendants of those who had joined the Roman communion in Brest-Litovsk (1596) returned to Orthodoxy.

After 1905, Tsar Nicholas II gave his approval for the establishment of a preconciliar commission charged with the preparation of an all-Russian Church Council. The avowed goal of the planned assembly was to reestablish the church's independence, lost since Peter the Great, and eventually to restore the patriarchate. This assembly, however, was fated to meet only after the fall of the empire.

Webmaster Note: This page was retrieved from www.archive.org after decani.yunet.com went defunct following the Kosovo conflict. This page was originally created by monks at Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on this site. Abridged, from Callistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 12-16.