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A History of the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church Since WWI

Introduction | History | Doctrine

The Russian Revolution and the Soviet period
The Balkans and eastern Europe | The Orthodox Church in the Middle East
Orthodoxy in the United States | The Orthodox diaspora and missions

The almost complete disappearance of Christianity in Asia Minor, the regrouping of the Orthodox churches in the Balkans, the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, and the Orthodox diaspora in the West radically changed the entire structure of the Orthodox world.

The Russian Revolution and the Soviet period

The Church of Russia was less unprepared than generally believed to face the revolutionary turmoil. Projects of necessary reforms had been prepared since 1905, and most clergy did not feel particularly attached to the fallen regime that had deprived the church of its freedom for several centuries. During the rule of the provisional government, in August 1917 a council representing the entire church met in Moscow, including 265 members of the clergy and 299 laymen. The democratic composition and program of the council had been planned by the Pre-Conciliar Commission. It adopted a new constitution of the church that provided for the reestablishment of the patriarchate, the election of bishops by the dioceses, and the representation of laymen on all levels of church administration. It was only in the midst of the new revolutionary turmoil, however, that Tikhon, metropolitan of Moscow, was elected patriarch (October 31, 1917—six days after the Bolshevik takeover). The bloody events into which the country was plunged did not allow all the reforms to be carried out, but the people elected new bishops in several dioceses.

The Bolshevik government, because of its Marxist ideology, considered all religion as the "opium of the people." On January 20, 1918, it published a decree depriving the church of all legal rights, including that of owning property. The stipulations of the decree were difficult to enforce immediately, and the church remained a powerful social force for several years. The patriarch replied to the decree by excommunicating the "open or disguised enemies of Christ," without naming the government specifically. He also made pronouncements on political issues that he considered of moral importance: in March 1918 he condemned the peace of Brest-Litovsk that brought an unsatisfactory armistice between Russia and the Central Powers, and in October he addressed an "admonition" to Lenin, calling on him to proclaim an amnesty. Tikhon was careful, however, not to appear as a counterrevolutionary and in September 1919 called the faithful to refrain from supporting the Whites (anti-Communists) and to obey those decrees of the Soviet government that were not contrary to their Christian conscience.

The independence of the church suffered greatly after 1922. In February of that year, the government decreed the confiscation of all valuable objects preserved in the churches. The patriarch would have agreed to that measure if he had had the means to check on the government contention that all confiscated church property would be used to help the starving population on the Volga. The government refused all guarantees but supported a group of clergy who were ready to cooperate with it and to overthrow the patriarch. While Tikhon was under house arrest, this group took over his office and soon claimed the allegiance of a sizable proportion of bishops and clergy. This became known as the schism of the "Renovated" or "Living" Church, and it broke the internal unity and resistance of the church. Numerous bishops and clergy faithful to the patriarch were tried and executed, including the young and progressive metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd. The "Renovated" Church soon broke the universal discipline of Orthodoxy by admitting married priests to the episcopate and by permitting widowed priests to remarry.

Upon his release, Tikhon condemned the schismatics, and many clergy returned to his obedience. But he also published (presumably against his will) a declaration affirming that he "was not the enemy of the Soviet government" and dropped any public opposition to the authorities. Tikhon's attitude of conformism did not bring immediate results. His designated successors (after he died in 1925) were all arrested. In 1927 the "substitute locum tenens" (holder of the position) of the patriarchate, Metropolitan Sergius, pledged loyalty to the Soviet government. Nevertheless, under the rule of Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and '30s, the church suffered a bloody persecution that claimed thousands of victims. By 1939 only three or four Orthodox bishops and 100 churches could officially function: the church was practically suppressed. The martyrdom of the Russian Church during the Soviet period was probably a most intensive and bloodthirsty persecution of the Church in its whole history.

A spectacular reversal of Stalin's policies occurred, however, during World War II. Sergius was elected patriarch in 1943 and the "Renovated" schism was ended. Under Sergius' successor, Patriarch Alexis (1945-70), the church was able to open 25,000 churches and the number of priests reached 33,000. But a new antireligious move was initiated by Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev in 1959-64, reducing the number of open churches to less than 10,000. Patriarch Pimen was elected in 1971 following Alexis' death, and, although the church still commanded the loyalty of millions, its future remained uncertain.

After 70 years of repression and antireligious propaganda, however, the church experienced greater religious freedom in the late 1980s, culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Balkans and eastern Europe

In bringing about the fall of the Turkish, Austrian, and Russian empires, World War I provoked significant changes in the structures of the Orthodox Church. On the western borders of what was then the Soviet Union, in the newly born republics of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Orthodox minorities established themselves as autonomous churches. The first three joined the jurisdiction of Constantinople, and the Lithuanian diocese remained nominally under Moscow. In Poland, which then included several million Belorussians and Ukrainians, the ecumenical patriarch established an autocephalous church (1924) over the protests of Patriarch Tikhon. After World War II the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian autonomies were again suppressed, and in Poland the Orthodox Church was first reintegrated to the jurisdiction of Moscow and later was declared autocephalous again (1948).

In the Balkans, changes were even more significant. The five groups of Serbian dioceses (Montenegro, patriarchate of Karlovci, Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Old Serbia) were united (1920-22) under one Serbian patriarch, residing in Belgrade, the capital of the new Yugoslavia. Similarly, the Romanian dioceses of Moldavia-Walachia, Transylvania, Bukovina, and Bessarabia formed the new patriarchate of Romania (1925), the largest autocephalous church in the Balkans. Finally, in 1937, after some tension and a temporary schism, the patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Church of Albania.

After World War II, Communist regimes were established in the Balkan states. There were no attempts, however, at liquidating the churches entirely, similar to the persecutions that took place in Russia in the 1920s and '30s. In both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, church and state were legally separated. In Romania, paradoxically, the Orthodox Church remained legally linked to the Communist state. With its solid record of resistance to the Germans, the Serbian Church was able to preserve more independence from the government than its sister churches of Bulgaria and Romania. Generally speaking, however, all the Balkan churches adopted an attitude of loyalty to the new regime, according to the pattern given by the patriarchate of Moscow. At that price, they could keep some theological schools, some publications, and the possibility to worship. This is also the case of the Orthodox minority in Czechoslovakia, which was united and organized into an autocephalous church by the patriarchate of Moscow in 1951. Only in Albania did a Communist government announce the total liquidation of organized religion, following the Cultural Revolution of 1966-68.

Among the national Orthodox churches, the Church of Greece is the only one that preserved the legal status it acquired in the 19th century as the national state church. As such, it was supported by the successive political regimes of Greece. It could also develop an impressive internal mission. The Brotherhood Zoe ("Life"), organized according to the pattern of Western religious orders, was successful in creating a large system of church schools.

The Communist governments throughout eastern Europe collapsed during the late 1980s and early 1990s, effectively dissolving state control over churches and bringing new political and religious freedoms into the region.

The Orthodox Church in the Middle East

As a result of the Greco-Turkish War, the entire Greek population of Asia Minor was transferred to Greece (1922); the Orthodox under the immediate jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople were thus reduced to the Greek population of Constantinople (Istanbul) and its vicinity. This population, rapidly shrinking in recent years, is now reduced to a few thousand. Still recognized as holding an honorary primacy among the Orthodox churches, the ecumenical patriarchate also exercises jurisdiction over several dioceses of the "diaspora" and, by consent of the Greek government, over the Greek islands. The ecumenical patriarchate convened pan-Orthodox conferences in Rhodes, Belgrade, Geneva, and other cities and began preparations for a "Great Council" of the Orthodox Church.

Together with the ecumenical patriarchate, the ancient sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem are remnants of the Byzantine imperial past, but under the present conditions they still possess many opportunities of development: Alexandria, as the centre of emerging African communities (see below The Orthodox diaspora and missions); Antioch, as the largest Arab Christian group, with dioceses in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq; and Jerusalem, as the main custodian of the Christian holy places in that city.

The two ancient churches of Cyprus and Georgia, with their quite peculiar history, continue to play important roles among the Orthodox sister churches. Autocephalous since 431, the Church of Cyprus survived the successive occupations, and often oppressions, by the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Turks, and the English. Following the pattern of all areas where Islam was predominant, the archbishop is traditionally seen as the ethnarch of the Greek Christian Cypriots. Archbishop Makarios also became the first president of the independent Republic of Cyprus in 1960. The Church of Georgia, isolated in the Caucasus in a country that became part of the Russian Empire in 1801, is the witness of one of the most ancient Christian traditions. It received autocephaly from its mother Church of Antioch as early as the 6th century and developed a literary and artistic civilization in its own language. Its head bears the traditional title of "Catholicos-Patriarch." When the Russians annexed the country in 1801, they suppressed Georgia's autocephaly and the church was governed by a Russian "exarch" until 1917 when the Georgians reestablished their ecclesiastical independence. Fiercely persecuted during the 1920s, the Georgian Church survives to the present day as an autocephalous patriarchate.

Orthodoxy in the United States

The first Orthodox communities in what is today the continental United States were established in Alaska and on the West Coast, as the extreme end of the Russian missionary expansion through Siberia (see above The church in imperial Russia). Russian monks settled on Kodiak Island in 1794. Among them was St. Herman (died 1837, canonized 1970), an ascetic and a defender of the natives' rights against their exploitation by ruthless Russian traders. After the sale of Alaska to the United States, a separate diocese "of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska" was created by the Holy Synod (1870). After the transfer of the diocesan centre to San Francisco and its renaming as the diocese "of the Aleutian Islands and North America" (1900), the original church establishment exercised its jurisdiction on the entire North American continent. In the 1880s, it accepted back into Orthodoxy hundreds of "Uniate" parishes of immigrants from Galicia and Carpatho-Russia, particularly numerous in the northern industrial states and in Canada. It also served the needs of immigrants from Serbia, Greece, Syria, Albania, and other countries. Some Greek and Romanian communities, however, invited priests directly from the mother country without official contact with the American bishop. In 1905 the American archbishop Tikhon (future patriarch of Moscow) presented to the Russian synod the project of an autonomous, or autocephalous, church of America, whose structure would reflect the ethnic pluralism of its membership. He also foresaw the inevitable Americanization of his flock and encouraged the translation of the liturgy into English.

These projects, however, were hampered by the tragedies that befell the Russian Church following the Russian Revolution. The administrative system of the Russian Church collapsed. The non-Russian groups of immigrants sought and obtained their affiliation with mother churches abroad. In 1921 a "Greek Archdiocese of North and South America" was established by the ecumenical patriarch Meletios IV Metaxakis. Further divisions within each national group occurred repeatedly, and several independent jurisdictions added to the confusion.

A reaction against this chaotic pluralism manifested itself in the 1950s. More cooperation between the jurisdictions and a more systematic theological education contributed to an increased desire for unity. A Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) was established in 1960. In 1970 the patriarch of Moscow, reviving Tikhon's project of 1905, formally proclaimed its diocese in America (which had been in conflict with Moscow since 1931 on the issue of "loyalty" to the Soviet Union) as the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America OCA, totally independent from administrative connections abroad. The ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, however, protested this move, turned down a request for autonomy presented by the Greek archdiocese (the largest single Orthodox body in the United States), and reiterated its opposition to the use of English in the liturgy (1970). This latest crisis of American Orthodoxy involves the very understanding of the Orthodox presence in the Western world, centring on the question of the utility of preserving the ethnic ties of the past.

The Orthodox diaspora, the calendar change and missions

Since World War I, millions of east Europeans were dispersed in various areas where Orthodox communities had never existed before. The Russian Revolution provoked a massive political emigration, predominantly to western Europe and particularly France. It included eminent churchmen, theologians, and Christian intellectuals, such as Bulgakov, Berdyayev, and V.V. Zenkovsky, who were able not only to establish in Paris a theological school of great repute but also to contribute significantly to the ecumenical movement. In 1922 Patriarch Tikhon appointed Metropolitan Evlogy to head the émigré churches, with residence in Paris. The authority of the metropolitan was challenged, however, by a group of bishops who had left their sees in Russia, retreating with the White armies, and who had found refuge in Sremski-Karlovci as guests of the Serbian Church. Despite several attempts at reconciliation, the "Synod" of Karlovci, refused to recognize any measure taken by the reestablished patriarchate of Moscow accusing the Moscow hierarchs of collaboration with the communists and the betrayal of the Church. This Church transferred its headquarters to New York and is also known as the "Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia." It is very well known for its missionary work, traditional piety and its firm stand against ecumenism and modernism. However this Church has no canonical relation with the official Orthodox patriarchates and churches. Recently ROCA has gathered certain moderate traditionalist, Old Calendarist Churches making thus a front against the ecumenism. A "Ukrainian Orthodox Church in exile" finds itself in a similarly irregular canonical situation. Other émigré groups found refuge under the canonical auspices of the ecumenical patriarchate.

The change of traditional Julian ecclesiastical calendar in 1924 and adoption of the so called "improved Gregorian calendar" by the ecumenical patriarchate and soon by a number of other local Orthodox churches has produced very painful schisms in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. In the meanwhile the Old Calendarist groups in Greece were even more divided over the question of the validity of the official Church sacraments. A rather uncontrolled reaction of the official Church of Greece only deepened the existing schism. The Old Calendarist movement which started as an opposition to the calendar change has gradually grown into a movement which strongly rejects any kind of ecumenical activity. In their opinion the change of the calendar only opened the door of the Church for further modernisation and secularisation. The radical ecclesiology of certain extremist Old Calendarist has finally isolated their groups from the communion with other Orthodox Churches. On the other hand the moderate Old Calendarists while recognizing the validity of the official Church sacraments still abstain from communion with other Churches waiting for their return to the traditional course.

After World War II, a very numerous Greek emigration took place to western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. In East Africa, without much initial effort on their part, these Greek-speaking emigrants have attracted a sizable number of black Christians, who have discovered in the Orthodox liturgy and sacramental worship a form of Christianity more acceptable to them than the more dogmatic institutions of Western Christianity. Also, in their eyes, Orthodoxy has the advantage of having no connection with the colonial regimes of the past. Orthodox communities, with an ever increasing number of native clergy, are spreading in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Less professionally planned than the former Russian missions in Alaska and Japan, these young churches constitute an interesting development in African Christianity.

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.