The Russian Church and Its Divisions -

High, Broad or Low?

Like a giant awakening from the cruel heritage of seventy five years of atheistic persecution and infiltration, the Church in Russia is yet to be freed from its nightmares. Waking from a State induced sleep, it finds itself divided into what we might call a 'High Church', a 'Broad Church' and a 'Low Church', and this both inside and outside Russia. At such a time it is therefore important to recall just how these divisions in the Russian Church occurred, thus reminding ourselves both of their forms and consequences, and also of constructive ways in which these divisions might eventually be overcome.


Long before the Revolution of 1917 different tendencies had appeared in the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of them were 'high', nationalist and ritualist, they stressed the links of the Church with the State; others were 'broad', they were political and leaned to the fashions of uprooted liberalising intellectuals and modernists; yet others were 'low', more linked to a fundamentalist peasant culture and, close to Old Ritualism, verged on sectarianism. In a sense it may be said that these tendencies have always existed in every Church, for they correspond to human and sociological realities, which is why they may be termed 'high', 'broad' and 'low'. However, at times when the Church suffers from a lack of spirituality, the glue which holds together human-beings of different backgrounds in the same Church, these human tendencies can become so strong that they cause divisions and even schisms in the Church. This was and still is the case with the Russian Church, for these polarising tendencies were at the root of the divisions which occurred both outside and inside Russia.

Divisions Outside Russia

After the Revolution, expatriate Russians, though initially united, were to split the Church in the emigration into different 'jurisdictions'. From the initially united Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, there appeared: in France, the Paris Russian jurisdiction under the Patriarchate of Constantinople; in the USA, the Russian Metropolia, now called the OCA (the Orthodox Church in America); the Moscow Patriarchate. The former two were and are purely local phenomena, resulting from local dissidence. The Moscow Patriarchate, however, ironically the smallest, claimed and claims universal jurisdiction. How did these divisions come about?

After the Revolution, Russian bishops, cut off from the central Church administration in Moscow by civil war, formed a 'Higher Church Authority'. This Authority was formally recognised by the Russian Patriarch (later Saint) Tikhon and his Synod on 20 November 1920 (Decree No. 362). Then, exiled in Constantinople, it was recognised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople by official act on 29 December 1920. By the time the civil war had ended, not only were no fewer than thirty-four Russian bishops and perhaps some two million émigrés cut off from Moscow, but they were also living scattered abroad all over the world outside Russia. Their only unity was in this Higher Church Authority. Seeing the persecution of the Church inside Russia, by 1922 the Council of Bishops of this Higher Church Authority had become fearful of future Soviet pressure, persecution and interference in Church life outside Russia. Implicitly encouraged by the Church authorities in Russia who were already under vicious persecution, on 31 August 1922 this Council of Bishops, by then guests of the Serbian Church, established the universally recognised Higher Church Authority as a temporary 'Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia'. Temporary, because this Synod was to last only until normal communications could be resumed with a Patriarchate freed from State interference. In fact this Synod, having already moved from Constantinople to Serbia, later moved to Germany and finally the United States, where it still exists, waiting for the day of true Church freedom in Russia.

Unfortunately, certain individuals in the emigration as well as the Soviet authorities were displeased with this situation. Influenced by unchurchly and even anti-churchly elements in the diaspora, directly or indirectly backed by the Soviet State, divisions took place. Thus in France in 1926, Metropolitan Eulogius and his two vicars, under pressure from various lay-people and intellectuals newly arrived from the Soviet Union, broke away from the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. After many tortuous changes, these three breakaway bishops and their flock eventually found themselves in the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, thus cutting all links with the Russian Church. They formed what is known to Church history as 'the Paris jurisdiction'. Meanwhile in North America in the same year, 1926, Metropolitan Platon and his vicars, also under pressure from lay groups, broke away from the Church Outside Russia too. These bishops also cut off links with the Russian Church, forming their own unrecognised Church or 'Metropolia', which eventually received the name of the 'OCA' (Orthodox Church in America). This was a quite uncanonical situation.

In both the United States and France the motivations for cutting links with the Russian Church came from political, financial and ideological pressures from outside the Church Tradition. Pressures came from the Protestant-run YMCA, from newly-converted bourgeois modernists and thinkers, who had lost all Orthodox roots and whose ideal was to 'renew' the Church after their own fashion, and from groups of unchurched people who had financial and political power. Their disincarnate ideologies, heavily influenced by various extra-ecclesial philosophies as well as personal interests, were opposed to the incarnational links of Church with State, opposed to Church Tradition. They were also often violently anti-monastic, with the result that to this day there are no traditional monasteries of monks in either the OCA in North America or in the Paris jurisdiction. These ideologies wished for a modernisation of the Church on the Western model and were strongly under the influence of Protestant (in the United States) and Catholic (in France) modernism. The ideal in France was the reconciliation of Orthodoxy with the liberal, humanistic culture of twentieth century Europe. And in the United States the same ideal, in the cruder but perhaps humbler forms of compromise with popular American culture, similarly influenced those bishops who broke with the Russian Church Outside Russia. At worst this eventually led parishes of the so-called Paris jurisdiction to resemble branches of the Roman Catholic Church with an exotic ritual, to become in fact Russian Catholics. And in the United States the OCA has long been thought of as 'Eastern-rite Protestantism'. Collectively, these tendencies in the United States and France may be called those of a 'Broad Church', for they brought together all those whose interest in the Orthodox Church was much more cultural than spiritual. For to put secular culture above spirituality is the very definition of a 'Broad' Church. And it was this fundamental spiritual deficiency that led to their adaptionism to the local French and North American cultures, with the loss not just of Russian cultural customs, but above all of the essential spirit of Orthodoxy.

What were the reactions of the Church authorities outside Western Europe and North America?

The Soviet State, having helped to create this dissidence, rejoiced at it. It was not long before the Moscow Patriarchate, so closely controlled by the Soviet State, opened its own parishes both in Western Europe and in North America, thus creating yet another grouping in the previously united emigration. Thus the original Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, descended from the 'Higher Church Authority', lost up to a third of its strength to the three groups which had broken away from it. Worse still, in France the 'Broad Church' tendencies of bourgeois Orthodoxy were encouraged by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The latter was only too glad to see the Russian Church weakening and thus its own long eclipsed, almost negligible, influence growing. This sad story of the divisions in the Russian emigration is completed by a similarly sad story of the divisions in Russia.

Divisions inside Russia

As soon as the Bolsheviks came to power, the Russian Church came under fierce persecution. Altogether some 250 bishops were to be martyred or die as confessors for the Faith. This included, in 1925, Patriarch Tikhon himself, with tens of thousands of faithful priests, monks, nuns and millions of faithful lay-people. In other words, the best of Russian Orthodoxy and Russian culture was slaughtered in the greatest martyrdom ever seen in history, far outmatching even that managed by the Roman Empire in the first three centuries after Christ. Given that the very best of Russian Orthodoxy in Russia had disappeared, it was clear that the three polarising tendencies, 'high', 'broad' and 'low', present in the Church even before persecution, as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, were to be considerably strengthened. The spirituality and genuine faith of the Church, that divine glue which holds the Church together, had been so much weakened. What were the tendencies that developed?

Firstly, there was the tendency of the Moscow Patriarchate. With the appointment of Metropolitan (later Patriarch) Sergius, who replaced the holy Patriarch Tikhon, the Patriarchate became increasingly erastian, State-worshipping. Indeed its attitude of Church collaboration with a militant atheist State, on the pretext of 'saving the Church', was to become known as 'Sergianism'. Its ethos was ritualistic, with emphasis on elaborate Italianate choral singing and ornate decoration, pomp and glory. Formally this Church was Orthodox, but, subservient to an atheist State, it was becoming an empty, ritualistic shell, forbidden to preach and spread Orthodoxy, forbidden to take part in social life, to preach on personal morality and against social, State-imposed iniquities. It could not speak against the huge Gulag of concentration-camps, the quasi-disappearance of stable marriage and family life, abortion by the hundreds of millions, mass drunkenness and amorality, the eco-crimes of widespread industrial and nuclear pollution, let alone its own persecution. And all who tried to live Orthodoxy were cruelly persecuted and massacred in that Gulag in their millions, sometimes with the connivance of venal, State-appointed pseudo-bishops, themselves members of the secret services of the world's then only atheist State. Generally, given the emphasis on formalistic ritualism, we may call these tendencies of the Moscow Patriarchate a 'High Church'. (As we have already mentioned, the Moscow Patriarchate also took over certain parishes in the emigration outside Russia, though on a relatively small scale - most Russian émigrés completely rejected Patriarchal authority. These parishes tended to express a mixture of the Statist 'High Church' attitudes found in Russia, sometimes together with the strong, liberalising 'Broad Church' attitudes found in France and North America, and also in Russia itself, as we shall see below).

In Russia then a second tendency appeared, that of the 'Renovationists', who wanted to 'modernise' the Church, abolishing for example the liturgical language and monastic bishops. This tendency was strongly backed for political reasons by the Soviet State, and a renovationist 'Living Church' was founded. It represented the same Westernising, intellectual 'Broad Church' tendency as in France and the United States. It was similarly backed, and in 1924 formally recognised, by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This tendency, however, lost the backing of the Soviets and was discredited, officially disappearing, being absorbed into the Moscow Patriarchate. In fact, it was never really absorbed, and has regularly resurfaced and resurfaces among uprooted intellectuals and modernisers in the Moscow Patriarchate, at first outside Russia but then, especially today, inside Russia.

Thirdly, there were and are in Russia catacomb Orthodox. In order to remain faithful to Orthodoxy, many believers felt that they had to go underground. Such people were much attached to the simplified fundamentals of Orthodoxy. Although often uneducated and of peasant origin, these people witnessed to the Faith through their extraordinarily heroic sufferings. Unfortunately, with time, these catacomb Orthodox were no longer able to find canonically consecrated bishops to ordain priests. They lost contact with more sophisticated and spiritually subtle Orthodox traditions. In some cases they tended to become censorious, intolerant and sectarian, seeing everything in terms of black and white, categorically denying the presence of grace in the Moscow Patriarchate. (Similar situations have developed elsewhere in Church history, for example, among the Donatists in North Africa in the fourth century. They, having suffered for the faith, could not forgive those who had so cruelly betrayed them, escaping persecution by collaborating with the persecutors). Today there are, apparently, nine different and separate groups of catacomb Orthodox in Russia in all. We may call the fundamentalising tendencies of the simple and sincere in Russia those of the 'Low Church'.


The question that arises today is what is the spiritual glue which could link these different tendencies, 'High', 'Broad' and 'Low', together, thus reuniting the Russian Church, both inside and outside Russia? This is an essential task, given the need for Russian Orthodoxy to defend itself against its common enemies, represented by the world and all those who love and serve worldly values. How can this fragmentation be overcome? How can we not belong to some High Church or Broad Church or Low Church, but be above this, and simply belong to the Church? How can we relegate our secular, human and sinful characters to second place behind our need for the authentic Church, the Body of Christ?

It is our suggestion that if the Orthodox Church in Russia is to be restored, Russian Orthodox must undo themselves of all that has been done against the Church. The episcopate and senior clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate must renounce those compromises made in the past, and too often become bad habits. We speak here not of compromise born of human weakness, of which we are all capable, but compromise raised up into a system, into an 'ism', far worse than the original weakness. The Patriarchate's present subservience to that 'ism', to the State, its formalistic ritualism, its stagnation, its silence on moral issues and social iniquities must come to an end. In other words, it must reject its 'high-ness'. Otherwise it will never be acceptable to the 'low-ness' of those in the catacombs in Russia who cannot forget the ugly and scandalous compromises of the past.

The only way to do this would be to reject, once and for all, Sergianism, which is compromise raised up into a system, made systematic. At the same time, the Moscow Patriarchate would recover its lost freedom. And as a result of recovering its lost freedom, it would firstly be able to recognise all the New Martyrs and Confessors, whom the present, for the moment, ex-Communist, pseudo-democratic State and their servants do not want the Church to recognise. The effects of a whole Church, calling in repentance on the prayers of the millions of New Martyrs and Confessors of the Soviet Yoke would be unimaginable. Secondly, the Moscow Patriarchate could then reject the State-imposed and sometimes scandalous canonical laxity, caused by its unprincipled adaptionism to the things of this world. Were the Moscow Patriarchate to do this, it would thus gain the recognition firstly of all the New Martyrs and Confessors, that new part of the Church Triumphant. So far it has officially refused to recognise them, thus depriving itself of the most immense spiritual gift. But secondly the Patriarchate would also gain the recognition of all those of goodwill among the catacomb Orthodox and all tendencies of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, in other words of the whole of the emigration and its missions which remain attached to the Russian Church. The alliance of a reformed Patriarchate together with the new spiritual strength of the Church in Heaven, together with the dissident catacombs and the Church which represents Russian Orthodox and their missions outside Russia would be a most powerful spiritual force. Such an alliance would isolate the 'Broad Church' of disincarnate intellectuals and their allies elsewhere who encourage them, all those who attack Church Tradition both outside and, increasingly, inside Russia.

In order to survive, a nightmarishly crippled Russia has to free itself from atheism and indifference, from spiritual emptiness and the ensuing tide of moral and criminal corruption. In order to do so, the whole of the Russian Church, which in fact represents the majority of the Orthodox world, must restore its heart, its spiritual integrity. The two different parts of the Russian Church, that inside Russia and that outside Russia must put aside low polemics and turn to positive, constructive dialogue. And this will be through a return to the authentic spirituality of the Orthodox Tradition, a return with sincere repentance, love, humility and mutual forgiveness for past mistakes committed on all sides. And only then shall we see Orthodox Russia, for whose Resurrection we have waited and prayed so long, rise up once more. And only then shall we see the dependent miracle of the Resurrection of the whole Orthodox world, which has all sunk so low since the fateful Revolution of 1917. Lord have mercy on us all.

May 1996

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