Church History

By Kenworthy, Scott M. | Church History, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Church History


Kenworthy, Scott M., Church History


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Seventeenth-century Russia witnessed a major schism within the Russian Orthodox Church that has never been healed. The schism erupted when Patriarch Nikon, seeking to reconcile conflicting practices and publish standardized liturgical books, imposed reforms that followed Greek usage over Russian. Much of the dispute was over minor differences, most notoriously epitomized by whether one crossed oneself with two fingers or with three, but what was really at stake was a clash of two different visions of Russian Orthodoxy. The so-called "Old Believers," those who rejected Nikon's reforms, believed that the Greeks had betrayed Orthodoxy at the Council of Florence and that only the Russians preserved Orthodoxy in its uncorrupted purity--and therefore to exchange Russian for Greek practices was tantamount to apostasy. Nikon, by contrast, had a more universal vision of Orthodoxy and sought to place Russian Orthodoxy alongside--and perhaps at the head--of world Orthodoxy. Neither side had an awareness of historical change, so both assumed that one set of practices simply had to be wrong and the other right.

Old Believers in a Changing World is a collection of essays by Robert Crummey spanning two decades. Crummey, a prominent historian of Russia, wrote his first monograph on the Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 1694-1855 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970), before turning to other aspects of early modern Russian history. He returned to research on the Old Belief in the late 1980s, which corresponded with the collapse of the Soviet Union and an upsurge of interest and scholarly research into the Old Belief both in Russia and abroad. These essays therefore represent the culmination of the career of a leading, and deeply respected, scholar and pioneer in the field.

Most factions of Old Believers ended up without clergy (because no bishops but only priests joined the movement, there was no possibility of ordaining new clergy), and therefore had to develop forms of worship without most of the sacraments (a situation necessitated by the onset of the "End of Time"). However, Crummey argues that they should not be regarded as Russian "Protestants" because their sole aim and desire was to remain Orthodox--indeed, far from rejecting Orthodoxy, they considered themselves the "true" Orthodox. They were not "reformers," but anti-reformers. Nevertheless, it is highly paradoxical that a movement which began by rejecting any change in Muscovite liturgical usage ended up being forced to make radical departures from standard liturgical practice. Indeed, the Old Believers split into numerous factions precisely over how to adapt to new circumstances, all the while refusing to admit they had adapted anything.

In these essays, Crummey situates his new research (and that of others he discusses) on the Old Belief in historiographical context. Since the nineteenth century there has been a divide in the interpretations of Old Belief between the "ecclesiastical" and "populist" schools. The former took religious protest at face value and examined the movement from the vantage of its religious polemics about history, liturgy, and canonicity. …

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