Icon (Close Menu)

The Russian Church in Transition and Reflection

The Moscow Council (1917-1918)
The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church
By Hyacinthe Destivelle, OP
University of Notre Dame Press. Pp. xiv + 472. $36

The Way
Religious Thinkers of the Russian Emigration in Paris and Their Journal, 1925-1940
By Antoine Arjakovsky
University of Notre Dame Press. Pp. xiv + 766. $65

Review by Richard J. Mammana

On the centennial of the Russian Revolution, two important new books do much to illuminate the ecclesiastical and theological environment in which Russian Orthodox Christians began their long 20th century.

One examines the church’s internal attempts to address the changing nature of Russian society and religious life in the Moscow Council of 1917-18. The second offers the most in-depth account of the work of a distinct school of émigrés and refugees whose journal, The Way, is a treasure trove of modern Russian theology and spirituality. Both are translated masterfully from the French by Jerry Ryan.

Dominican friar Hyacinthe Destivelle of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity narrates the story of the Russian Church’s reassertion of its conciliar identity and the restoration of the Patriarch of Moscow. Both had been in abeyance since Peter the Great suppressed government by church council in 1667 and abolished the patriarchal office in 1721.

Officially called the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, the council involved 12 years of preparation and began its work in 1917 during the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky. The council ended in September the next year, two months after the assassination of the czar and his family.

It thus straddled a crucial period in which the church not only lost its official status and sponsorship, but also entered a time of active persecution and manipulation by the new government that would not end completely until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The Moscow Council went into overdrive to embark on a program of reform responsive to several new situations. The four volumes of its decrees (a translation of which forms the last 160 pages of appendices in Destivelle’s work) examine a vast array of practical matters: the restoration of the patriarch and reconciliation with the 17th-century Old Believer schism; the importance of preaching in parish life; the new legal status of the church; new structures for catechesis and theological education; the reform of marriage canons and provincial structures; the protection of church possessions from profanation; the establishment of a Diocese of Warsaw; the status of the Russian Church in the Ukraine; and financial management and policies.

In a remarkable paradox, the end of state control over the church freed it to attend to a creative campaign of housekeeping that had been delayed for almost three centuries, and this is a magisterial account of that work.

The revolution soon sent a wide array of Russians abroad, sometimes as refugees driven by self-preservation and sometimes in outright legal exile. The church followed them wherever they went: to Shanghai, Berlin, New York, and Prague, but especially to Paris, where the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute was founded in 1925 to provide a center for theological education in the diaspora.

Here, refugees who studied in pre-revolutionary seminaries developed a distinct school of thought, writing in Russian, French, English, and German. Many names are familiar to Anglicans today: Maria Skobtsova, Nicholas Afanasiev, Nicholas Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky, Nicholas and Vladimir Lossky, Alexander Schmemann.

In The Way, Antoine Arjakovsky writes the first sustained history of their theological periodical, called Put’ in Russian. Arjakovsky is adept in situating the intellectual-theological milieu of The Way against the background of contemporary Francophone thought, and he makes the important case that French thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, Jean Daniélou, and Henri de Lubac were inspired in part by the institute and its journal to encourage the patristic study, liturgical reforms, and ecumenical initiatives of the Second Vatican Council.

Many of its authors also met regularly with members of the Church of England in summer schools organized by the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, giving the institute a wide remit in the nascent 20th-century ecumenical movement. The Way provided a forum for Orthodox scholars to use book reviews, poetry, and pure theological investigation to examine political theory, to articulate Orthodox spirituality for a Western European audience, and to speculate on the peculiar vein of Russian Sophiology that caused a major 20th-century theological controversy.

Rowan Williams writes in a foreword that the contributors to The Way were not monochromatic in their political attitudes or their conceptions of Orthodoxy, but he praises their effort to provide a space for theological reflection in responsive, creative, authentic ways: “They rightly saw the direct relevance of theology to all of the most basic issues around the definition of the human, and, whatever their personal commitment to the Church, they were prepared to involve theology in these discussions and to take it with complete critical seriousness.”

Williams (whose doctoral work was on Lossky) cites this “story of extraordinary intellectual adventure in the most challenging of circumstances” as a model today for possibilities within Russia, as well as now for English-speakers for whom the original periodical would have been inaccessible.

Both books highlight a crucial dimension of the Russian church’s character throughout its history, which is the ability to foster a robust and creative theological response from the depths of its tradition. As that old church takes its place with new changes and changes in a new Russia, these movements in its recent past are all the more important for observers to understand.

Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Deep, Deep Love of Jesus

What you think of our current political leaders depends mostly on which TV news channel you choose to...

Church Camp, Ministry Conferences, & VBS 100 Years Ago

July 1924 brought the Diocese of Georgia’s first summer camp, a vocations conference for 200 boys in New Hampshire, and 47,000 children in New York City’s vacation Bible schools.

Preaching the Transfiguration with Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Episode 128 • 18th July 2024 • The Living Church Podcast • The Living Church Ever run out of preaching...

CEEC Commissions Overseers, Not Bishops

Just as the Church of England has created blessings for same-sex couples that are not wedding rites, the Church of England Evangelical Council has created “spiritual overseers.”