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The Living Church (Russian: Живая Церковь), also called Renovationist Church (обновленческая церковь) or Renovationism (обновленчество; from обновление ‘renovation, renewal’; official name Orthodox Russian Church, Православная Российская Церковь, later Orthodox Church in USSR, Православная Церковь в СССР) was a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922–1946. Originally begun as a "grass-roots" movement among the Russian clergy for the reformation of the Church, it was quickly corrupted by the support of the Soviet secret services (CheKa, then GPU, NKVD), who had hoped to split and weaken the Russian Church by instigating schismatic movements within it. The beginning of actual schism is usually considered to be in May 1922, when a group of “Renovationist” clergy laid claims to higher ecclesiastical authority in the Russian Church. The movement is considered to have ended with the death of its leader, Alexander Vvedensky, in 1946.
While the entire movement is often known as the Living Church, this was specifically the name of just one of the groups that comprised the larger Renovationist movement. By the time of the “Moscow Council” of 1923, three major groups had formed within the movement, representing different tendencies within Russian Renovationism: 1) The Living Church of Fr. Vladimir Krasnitsky (1880–1936), lobbied for the interests of married clergy; 2) the Union of the Communities of the Ancient Apostolic Church (Союз общин древнеапостольской церкви - SODATs) of Fr. Alexander Vvedensky; and 3) the Union for the Renewal of the Church (Союз церковного возрождения) – the group of bishop Antonin (Granovsky), whose interest was in liturgical reform; and also several minor groups.
History of the Renovationist Church
Beginnings and first period (1920s–1930s)
The origins of Renovationism can be traced to wide debates concerning possible church reforms, among both clergy and laity, of the Russian Orthodox Church in the beginning of the 20th century. These debates obviously stemmed from dissatisfaction with the position of the Church in the Russian Empire, where it was subservient to the interests of the imperial administration. These debates came to fruition only with the overthrow of the monarchy in the Russian Revolution, when, in November 1917, the Great Moscow Council was convened, and the Patriarchate eventually restored.
However, the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917 caused the more left-leaning of the clergy to consider the Great Moscow Council as not being radical enough. They insisted that the Church was to adapt to the realities of the new Communist regime, to revise its attitude toward socialist doctrine, and to make significant changes in its own canonical and liturgical tradition.
In March 1917, before the Bolshevik Revolution, a group of clerics in St. Petersburg formed the Union of the Democratic Clergy and Laity with an essentially Christian Socialist program. After November 1917, the Christian Socialist position had moved many reform-minded clergy to profess full loyalty to the newly established Soviet regime and opposition to Patriarch Tikhon, who had condemned its atheistic activities. Very soon, Soviet authorities, especially its secret services (VChK, later GPU) took interest in these "Renovationist" groups, seeing in them the possibility of splitting and weakening the Russian Orthodox Church. This cooperation between the Renovationists and the Communist regime led to direct schism, largely orchestrated and supported by the Communist authorities, from the patriarchal Church.
At the beginning of the 1920s, Soviet authorities initiated a large campaign of persecution and repression against the Russian Orthodox Church—many priests and bishops were arrested and executed, including St. Veniamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd (+1922). Patriarch Tikhon (Bellavin) was put under house arrest in 1922 and preparations were made for a Bolshevik-style “show trial”. In such a situation, in May 1922, Tikhon commissioned Archbishop Agathangel (Preobrazhensky) of Yaroslavl to carry out patriarchal duties. With Agathangel delayed in Yaroslavl by Soviet authorities, a group of reform-oriented Orthodox clergy seized the chancery offices of the Patriarchate and proclaimed themselves to be the Higher Church Administration (Высшее церковное управление), the highest ecclesiastical authority in the Church. The first President of the HCA was the retired bishop Antonin (Granovsky; 1865–1927) -– a highly learned, but eccentric cleric, soon elevated by the Renovationists to Metropolitan of Moscow. Not surprisingly, the new "administration" had soon received recognition from the Soviet government.
This move was quickly (18 June 1922) denounced by Agathangel as unlawful and uncanonical. However, for a brief time it seemed that the Renovationists had gotten the upper hand. The Renovationists, with full support of Soviet authorities, seized many church buildings and monasteries, including the famous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. In many dioceses, the "white" (married) clergy was encouraged to take church government into their own hands, without approval of their diocesan bishops. Simultaneously, these bishops were often threatened and pressed to recognize the authority of the HCA. In effect, this resulted in "parallel" church administrations existing in one diocese and one city, one supporting the HCA and the other supporting the canonical bishop.
This campaign of terror had its effects: by the Summer of 1922, more than 20 hierarchs had recognized the canonical authority of HCA, the most notorious of whom was Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) of Nizhny Novgorod, the future Patriarch. In many large cities, all of Orthodox church properties were in the hands of Renovationists. Before convening any general council to discuss their measures, the Renovationists began to implement radical reforms aimed at what they perceived to be the interests of the married clergy. Among the measures, changing the traditional order of ecclesiastic life were:
- Permission for monastics (including bishops) to marry, while retaining their episcopal and clerical ranks;
- Permission for the Clergy to marry after their ordination, to remarry or to marry widows;
- Permission for the married priests to be consecrated as bishops (Russian Orthodox tradition is that only monastics may be Bishops).
The last decision sparked a bonfire of consecrations of the "married bishops" throughout the country, especially in Siberia. As a result of its promulgation, of 67 bishops that arrived to the Second Moscow Council in April 1923, only 20 had been ordained before the schism. The consecration of the "married bishops" without waiting for a conciliar decision on changing appropriate Canons met with opposition even among many Renovationist leaders and those "married bishops" later received a second laying on of hands before the Council opened.
The I Renovationist or "II All-Russian" Council met in Moscow in 29 April – 8 May 1923. It mostly confirmed the decisions concerning changes in the canonical rules of ordinations and clerical marriage, which had already been implemented in many dioceses. Its most controversial and infamous decision was to put Patriarch Tikhon (who was under house arrest, awaiting trial) on ecclesiastic trial in absentia for his opposition to Communism, and to strip him of his episcopacy, priesthood and monastic status. The Council then resolved to abolish the Patriarchate altogether and to return to the "collegial" form of church government. Considering Russian historical practices, this would have made the Church officially a department of the government. Patriarch Tikhon refused to recognize the authority of this Council and the validity of the "court" decision, due to many irregularities in canonical procedure: essentially, the decision had no effect on the life of the Patriarchal or "Tikhonite" Church.
The telling blow against Renovationism was the return of Patriarch Tikhon to active duty in June 1923 when, under international pressure, he was released from house arrest. Already by that time, large passive resistance to the Renovationists, especially in rural areas, had undermined their efforts to “take over” the Russian Church. On 15 July 1923, Patriarch declared all Renovationist decrees, as well as all their sacramental actions (including ordinations) to be without grace, due to the "trickery" by which they tried to seize power in the Church and to their complete disregard for the canons. In August 1923, the council of Russian Orthodox bishops, returned from exile and imprisonment, confirmed Tikhon’s decision, proclaiming the Renovationist hierarchy as "unlawful and without grace". Some of the churches were returned to the "Tikhonites" (as Renovationists called the "Patriarchal" Church at that time), and many bishops and priests who had been pressed to support the schism, repented and were received back into communion.
In August 1923, a power struggle among the factions of the Renovationist Synod resulted in the forced resignation of Metropolitan Antonin Granovsky. Antonin retired to the church in Moscow that was occupied by his group ("Union of Church Renewal") and, reverting to his previous title of "bishop", engaged in a series of radical liturgical experiments: e.g., moving the altar table to the middle of the church, etc. He made one of the first translations of the Divine Liturgy into modern Russian. Eventually, he broke communion with the Renovationist church at large and died unreconciled with both sides of the schism. His group disintegrated after his death in 1927.
In addition to ecclesiological experimentation, the 1920s, the Renovationist Church had some activity in the fields of education and apologetics. Particularly, in 1924 the church was allowed to open two institutions of higher learning: the Moscow Theological Academy and the Theological Institute in Leningrad. Some contacts were made with other portions of the Christian East: thus, the II Renovationist Council (a.k.a. III All-Russian Council), convened in Moscow in 1–9 October 1925, was marked by the presence of the representatives from the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria who concelebrated the eucharist with other members of the Renovationist Synod.
In the second half of the 1920s, the canonical Russian Orthodox Church started making steps toward some form of rapprochement with the Soviet regime. Significantly, in 1927, the Deputy Patriarchal Locum Tenens, Metropolitan Sergius Stragorodsky issued a "Declaration" proclaiming absolute loyalty of the Church to the Soviet government and its interests. Subsequently, a Synod formed by Sergius, received recognition from the Soviets. This had effectively put the Renovationist Synod out of place as the chief spokesman for the alliance between the Church and the Soviet state, and it was then that the Renovationist movement began its rapid decline.
Second period (1930s–1940s)
By the mid-1930s the general failure of the movement had become evident. Having failed to attract the majority of the faithful, the movement ceased to be useful for the Soviet regime and, consequently, both the “Patriarchal” Church and the Renovationists suffered fierce persecution at the hands of Soviet secret services: church buildings were closed down and often destroyed; active clergy and laity were imprisoned and sometimes executed. At the same time, trying to “win back” more traditional Russian Orthodox, the church had abandoned all attempts at ecclesiastical or liturgical reform, with the exception of the concessions previously made to married clergy. Instead, the Renovationist Church made attempts at imitating external liturgical and organizational forms of their opponents from the “Patriarchal” Church.
In 1934, the Renovationist Synod issued an infamous decision declaring the “allegiance to the old church” (староцерковничество), i.e., the Patriarchal Church, to be a “heresy” and a “schism”. The mastermind behind that “ingenious” decision, Metropolitan Nikolai (Platonov) of Leningrad resigned from episcopacy in 1938, publicly denounced the faith and became an infamous propagator of atheism. The Renovationist church continued to dwindle in numbers, the process which had intensified since 1939 when the Synod forbade the diocesan bishops to do any priestly ordinations without its approval.
The final blow to the movement came with the beginning of the Second World War in 1941. The Metropolitan’s residence had to be relocated due to evacuation. Therefore, the Synod had difficulties contacting and controlling its clergy in the parishes. More importantly, in its efforts to seek moral and financial support from the Eastern Orthodox Church, Joseph Stalin decided to turn to the more popular and traditional Russian Orthodox Church led by Sergius, rather than to its largely unsuccessful rivals. On 8 September 1943, Stalin met with three chief hierarchs of the “Patriarchal” Church and promised to make concessions to the Church and religion in general in exchange for its allegiance and support.
One of the effects of this unlikely concordat was that the days of the Renovationist movement were numbered. What followed was a deluge of Renovationist clerics seeking reconciliation with Sergius. As a general rule, the Patriarchal Church considered all sacraments celebrated by Renovationists “null and void”, hence these receiving clergy were received in those orders in which they happened to be upon the moment when they joined the schism (i.e. 1922). The only exception was made for Metropolitan Alexander Vvedensky, who was regarded as the ‘father-founder’ of the schism. Vvedensky refused to come into the Moscow Patriarchy as a layman and died unreconciled.
In 1943, the Renovationist church had 13 active hierarchs and 10 more bishops, retired or in exile. By 1945, there were only 3 bishops left, one of whom was retired. In Moscow, only one church remained under Renovationist control – the rest of the church properties had been returned by the Soviet government to the Moscow Patriarchy while Vvedensky was in evacuation. Vvedensky died of stroke on July 8, 1946, with his church in complete disarray. This date is generally considered to be the end of the Renovationist schism.
Leadership and administration
The central administrative body of the Renovationist Church, as well as its entire administration, was in a state of constant flux and changed names several times in the 28-year period of its existence. Initially it was called the Higher Church Administration (Высшее церковное управление), then Higher Church Council (1922–23). Thereafter it assumed a more traditional style: The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in the USSR (1923–1933). Its President was usually considered a chief hierarch of the church, regardless of the see which he occupied.
In its later years, the Renovationist administration started to lean more toward more “traditionalist” titles. In 1933, the position of the First Hierarch (Первоиерарх) was introduced, in opposition to the “Tikhonite” Church, which was not to have a Patriarch until 1943. The position was given to the then-President of Synod Vitaly Vvedensky, however since mid-1920s all power in the Renovationist Church had consolidated in the hands of its actual leader, Metropolitan Alexander Vvedensky. Toward the latter part of the 1930s, A. Vvedensky bore a very peculiar conglomerate of titles, invented specially for him: Metropolitan - Apologete- Evangelizer and Deputy First Hierarch. In the fall of 1941 he himself assumed the title of the First Hierarch and made an abortive attempt to declare himself a Patriarch of all Orthodox Churches in the USSR. The attempt was not received well by his fellow clergy and in December 1941 he reverted to his previous titles.
The Chief Hierarchs of the Renovationist Church
The hierarchs in the position of official leaders of the Renovationist Church in 1922–1946 were:
Metropolitan Antonin (Granovsky) of Moscow - 15 May 1922 – 25 June 1923 (+ 1927)
Metropolitan Yevdokim (Meschersky) of Odessa - 26 June 1923 – February 1925 (+ 1935)
Metropolitan Veniamin (Muratovsky) of Moscow and Kolomna - February 1925 – 6 May 1930
Metropolitan Vitaly (Vvedensky) of Tula - President of the Synod 10 May 1930 – 1933; First Hierarch 5 May 1933- 6 October 1941 (+ 1950)
Metropolitan Alexander (Vvedensky) - Deputy First Hierarch April 1940 – October 1941; First Hierarch 10 October 1941 – 8 August 1946; "Patriarch" (?) October–December 1941
While it had among its ranks many sincere and faithful clerics, the Renovationist movement from the very start revealed its major weaknesses, which effectively undermined its entire appeal for the church “renovation”. Its support by the Soviet government did not help advancing its cause. On the contrary, Renovationists met with the massive “grass-roots” resistance from “Tikhonite” churchmen and laity, who regarded the “Living Church” as agents of Soviet secret services. Likewise, relaxation of canonical restrictions with respect to clerical marriage led many to regard the entire movement as driven mainly by the unsatisfied ambition of married priests. The dubious moral stature of many Renovationist leaders – such as Vvedensky (thrice married, with many extramarital affairs) or Platonov (a GPU agent and, eventually, an apostate) – certainly tarnished the image of the “Renovationist Church” in the eyes of the faithful.
Modern church historians generally regard the Renovationist movement as a deviation from more sincere and well-founded attempts at ecclesiastical reforms in the beginning of the 20th century. While initially the reforms were indeed at the heart of at least some Renovationism, later it was the issue of unending loyalty “at all cost” to the Soviet regime which became the major point of separation. When, eventually, the Patriarchal Church had found ways for some rapprochement with the Soviet power, the raison-d’être for the schism ceased to exist and it went into decline.
- A. Levitin-Krasnov and V. Shavrov. Ocherki po istorii russkoi cerkovnoi smuty [Essays from the History of Russian Church Turmoils]. First edition - Zürich: Institut Glaube in der 2. Welt, 1977; Second ed. - Materially po istorii Cerkvi (= MPIC) 9. Moscow - Künsnacht, 1996. Online .
- A. Levitin-Krasnov. Likhie gody, 1925- 1941 [Turbulent Years, 1925-1941]. Paris: YMCA-Press, 1977; available online . Anatoly Levitin (1915–1991) was a former Renovationist deacon and a friend of Vvedensky; in the 1970s he became a well-known Soviet human rights activist.
- M. V. Shkarovsky. Obnovlencheskoe dvizhenie v Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Cerkvi XX veka [The Renovationist Movement in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th century]. St. Petersburg, 1999.
- I. V. Soloviev, ed. Obnovlencheskii Raskol: Materially dlia tserkovno-istoricheskoi i kanonicheskoi kharakteristiki [The Renovationist Schism: the materials for its religious, historical and canonical characterization] MPIC 27. Moscow, 2002.
- L.Regelson. Tragedy of Russian Church. 1917-1953