As I grow older and approach the end of my life, I feel obliged to record some observations on the Old Ritualist schism and the efforts to heal it, as well as some anecdotes describing my involvement in this effort. I would be remiss if I passed on without first documenting some of my personal dealings with the Old Believer community from 1970 to 2005 in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
I write in part because I believe that the Old Ritualist schism of the mid-17th century can be ended. I hope this record will encourage further efforts at reconciliation with the many thousands of Old Believers in the world today.
I have not done much research on what I am about to commit to paper, largely because I have witnessed so much of it first-hand. I do not claim to having made history, but only to being present when it happened.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley
When I arrived in Portland, Oregon, in June of 1970, I was a 30-year-old Army veteran of the Vietnam war with a wife and two little sons, Stefan and Philip. I needed a job, and I was willing to do just about anything to support my family.
I had completed a six-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, including 18 months studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast (DLIWC) and 18 months in Vietnam. I had a year of Russian literature at American University after my discharge. I could speak and read Russian well enough, but didn’t have much else going for me. Elizabeth and I and our boys moved into her parents’ basement in SW Portland.
I soon heard about the newly arrived Russian immigrants in Woodburn, a half-hour’s drive south on I-5 into the fertile Willamette Valley. So one day I drove down to Woodburn to find employ-ment. Perhaps someone would give me a job because of my ability to speak, read and write Russian.
Woodburn’s base population in 1970 was about 7,100 souls, most of whom were suffering from an acute case of culture shock dealing with the sudden influx of Russians among them.
There were about 3,000 Russian Old Believers living in and around Woodburn. Basically peasants, they were at home in the fields picking beans and berries, and training and harvesting hops. Some worked in local canneries. Others were skilled carpenters and found jobs building houses. A few of them were bricklayers and concrete finishers. Still others bought hard hats, caulk boots and chainsaws, and went to work in Oregon’s forested highlands, doing pre-commercial thinning or reforestation, planting young conifers.
They lived together in sub-standard housing, saved their money, pooled their resources and eventually were able to purchase homes of their own. Some of them bought farmland, which they planted in cane berries, kept pigs, chickens and cows, grew vegetables for the table, and baked their own bread. They fished and hunted for subsistence. At first they didn’t see a need for game laws, but they soon learned it was cheaper to obey them.
Three Groups of Old Believers
There were actually not one, but three groups of Russian Old Believers in Oregon when I arrived; the Sintsiántsy, the Kharbíntsy and the Turchánye.
The Sintsiantsy had moved south from western Siberia into China’s remote Xiyu (western regions) during the Civil War in Russia (1918-1922) following the Bolshevik Revolution. They are called “Sintsiantsy” because they had lived in the Altai Mountains around Gulja in Sinkiang Province.
The Kharbintsy had lived in the Maritime Provinces on Russia’s Pacific coast up until the harsh period of enforced collectivization and dekulakization (разкулачивание) in the 1930s. Fleeing Soviet tyranny, they began crossing the Amur River into Manchuria in 1931. They did not live in Kharbin, the capital, but in villages they themselves built in remote areas, hoping to minimize contacts with other people.
In 1949, victorious Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-tung drove Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang out of China and across the strait into Taiwan. With Communists in control in China, the Old Believers in Sinkiang and Manchuria knew they must find another country in which to live.
With the help of the United Nations and the Tolstoy Foundation, AND the consent of the government in Beijing, the two groups of Old Believers relocated in 1957 and 1958 to Hong Kong, which was then still a British possession.
Over the course of several months the UN helped them move from Hong Kong to Brazil and Argentina. A small handful were admitted to the United States, and a few went to New Zealand, Australia and Canada, but the majority went into Brazil’s interior where they cleared away the jungle, built homes and planted crops on land given them by the Brazilian government.
The Old Believers traveled from Hong Kong to Brazil in several groups, some by ship, and some by air. One group actually made a stop-over in Los Angeles on their way to Brazil. When they arrived in LA, in 1959 or 1960, they were featured on the evening news, and a group of Russian Molokans there made contact with them before they boarded a ship for Brazil. Old Believers and Molokans exchanged names and addresses.
There is a Molokan community near Woodburn, Oregon, and a few Oregon Molokans have relatives in Los Angeles, from whom they obtained contact information about the Russians in Brazil. The Oregon Molokans soon offered to sponsor Russian Old Believers who wanted to relocate to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Tolstoy Foundation got involved, and the reset-tlement effort from South America to Oregon began in earnest in the mid-sixties.
The third group of Old Believers, the Turchanye, came to the United States from Turkey. They are not Turks, but the descendants of Russian Old Believers who had lived on or near the northern shores of the Black or Azov Seas until the late 18th century. Some of their ancestors were Kuban Cossacks.
During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), the celebrated Russian General Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov drove the Ottoman Turks out of the area. And as the Ottoman Empire retreated, several thousand Russian Old Believers moved with it, preferring the protection of the Turkish Sultan to the oppression of the Orthodox Tsarina, who made the sign of the cross with three fingers and reportedly expected all her subjects to do the same.
These Old Believers withdrew with the Turks to the mouth of the Danube River, not far from the modern city of Braila, Romania. In fact, there is a community of Old Believers living in Braila today. This is the Belokrinitsy group. I shall have more to say about them later. But the ancestors of Oregon’s Turkish Old Believers did not remain in Romania. They moved again in 1878 to Asia Minor, as the weakened Ottoman Empire receded a second time in the face of a vigorous Russian onslaught.
In June, 1919, following the end of the First World War, what was left of the once mighty Ottoman Empire was dismembered in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles. Its successor on the world stage was Turkey, a secular republic, comprising Istanbul and East Thrace in Europe and all of Asia Minor.
From an Orthodox perspective, it would have been wonderful if the victorious Entente had restored the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions to the Greeks. Istanbul would have become Constantinople again, and Orthodox Divine Liturgies would once again be celebrated in Hagia Sophia.
But the victorious British and French didn’t want to give the Bolsheviks access to the Mediterranean Sea, so they left the Bosporus totally in the control of Russia’s old enemy, the Turks, thereby containing the Soviet fleet in the Black Sea.
By 1950, the Turchanye had lived in the country around Konya in Asia Minor nearly four generations. All was not well among them. God had – through Moses – told the people of Israel: “None of you shall approach any close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:6). Read also Canons 53 and 54 of the Council of Trullo (Quinisext Council).
What all this means is that if you are an Orthodox Christian, you may marry any other Orthodox Christian of the opposite gender, provided you are not already related by blood, marriage or through sponsorship in Baptism. The Turchanye were a small group of Orthodox Christians living in a predominantly Muslim society. They typically had large families, so if, say, one of Vasily and Ksenia’s six sons were to marry one of Artemy and Anna’s five daughters, then all the other sons and daughters would be related to each other by marriage, precluding any further unions between the two families.
Or if Artemy had sponsored Kondraty at baptism, then he may not marry any of Kondraty’s sisters, nor may Kondraty marry any of Artemy’s daughters or nieces.
These rules make it hard, even impossible, to find a suitable husband or wife in a small, religiously isolated population. But young people must always find someone to marry, and this compelled the Turchanye in Asia Minor to look for mates for their grown children in other lands.
In the late 1950s, a large number of Turchanye left Turkey for the USSR. Less than a decade later, in the mid-1960s, forty more Old Believer families were paroled into the United States by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They settled around Lakewood, NJ.
The Tolstoy Foundation let the Turchanye in New Jersey know about the Old Believers moving to Oregon from Brazil, and contact was soon established between the two groups.
In 1967, a small delegation of Turchanye elders packed up several liturgical books and flew to Oregon to meet with the Sintsiantsy and Kharbintsy com-munities. Their aim was to compare liturgical books and practices, and thereby to determine whether or not they were of the same religion, or sufficiently close to each other in faith and worship to provide suitable mates for each other’s children. They happily concluded that they were indeed of the same faith. So in 1968 and 1969, some twenty-two Turchanye families moved to Oregon and built a village in the countryside between Woodburn and Gervais.
The younger generation of Kharbintsy, Sintsiantsy and Turchanye were happy to meet each other. And there followed intensive intermarrying among the three groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
A Russian First Grade in Oregon
When I arrived on the scene in 1970, the Woodburn School District was badly in need of someone who could communicate with the Old Believer children. Although I initially lacked the basic academic credentials required by law, the District hired me on the spot as an elementary school teacher. I was given an emergency certificate and a classroom full of first graders whose primary language was Russian. My tasks were to teach them the “three R’s” in Russian, and at the same time to introduce English. Not only did I have to learn how to teach in an elementary school setting, I also developed much of my own curricula, visual aids, textbooks, etc., as well.
I recognized early on that Oregon’s Old Believers were not simply immigrants from another country, but also new-comers from another century and a vastly different culture. I intuitively understood that their native culture was unique and had value in and of itself. So, my approach to teaching the Old Believer children was philosophically predicated on a cultural maintenance model incorporating bilingualism and biculturalism. I resolved not to “Americanize” my students, even before I was able to fully appreciate the significance of their culture from an Orthodox perspective.
It should not surprise the reader that most of the District administrators and teachers, as well as most of the school board, didn’t approve of a cultural maintenance model in an American classroom. The consensus in both the District and the community at large was that the Old Believer children should be assimilated into American society as quickly as possible.
But my pupils’ parents understood and approved of my efforts to maintain their traditional culture. The parents were very concerned that their children would be Americanized and forget their faith and traditions. So I enjoyed an easy relationship with them. They were perhaps as curious about me as I was about them, and they welcomed me into their homes. One Old Believer elder, Gavril Alekseievich Kuznetsov, showed particular concern for my salvation, and he encouraged me to seek the true Faith. His exhortations set my family and me on a journey into the Orthodox Church.
But more about that later…
I taught first grade in the bilingual program at Nellie Muir Elementary School in Woodburn for two years, ending in June 1972.
Renowned author Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn played a significant role in attempting to reconcile the Old Believers with the Orthodox Church.
Born in Russia in 1918, Solzhenitsyn served as an artillery officer in the Red Army during WWII. Despite his distinguished service (he was decorated twice for valor), he was nevertheless arrested in 1945 for a comment critical of Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin. Tried and convicted under Article 5B, he was sentenced to the GULAG (labor camp) for eight years, followed by permanent internal exile.
Many thousands of political prisoners, Solzhenitsyn among them, were released from the GULAG and rehabilitated after Stalin died (March ’53), and especially after CP General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, in a marathon speech before the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, famously denounced the “cult of the personality” that had surrounded Stalin.
Solzhenitsyn attained international prominence as a writer with his very first book, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. An articulate survivor of the GULAG, Solzhenitsyn wrote a fictional account of a typical day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp. It was published in the literary magazine NOVY MIR in 1962. I had read this book in Russian in 1964 as a soldier/student in the Russian Department of the DLIWC, Presidio of Monterey, California.
Following the phenomenal success of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn wrote Cancer Ward, The First Circle, The Gulag Archipelago and August 1914. Because these books were critical of Soviet rule, the censors denied them approval for publication. But manuscripts of all his works were smuggled out of the USSR and published in Western Europe. They were all well received and sold briskly.
Solzhenitsyn soon became an international celebrity of the first magnitude. There he was, the plucky little mouse, tweaking the bear’s nose. Watchers in the West waited to see if and when the bear would swallow him. But the bear was well aware the West was watching. So the bear bided his time. And the mouse kept on tweaking.
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined to travel to Stockholm to receive it, fearing that, once he was out of the country, the Soviet authorities would not let him return. He was right, of course.
In February 1974, Soviet authorities arrested Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, stripped him of his Soviet citizenship, put him on a plane and exiled him to the West. At first he lived in Switzerland, but then moved to Vermont. In 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn returned to his native land. He died in Moscow on August 3, 2008.
“As if They Had Never Been”
In the summer of 1974, Metropolitan Philaret, then first hierarch of the ROCOR, wrote to the newly-exiled Solzhenitsyn and asked how the Orthodox in the West could best support the persecuted Orthodox Church in Russia. Solzhenitsyn quickly responded that he was poorly qualified to advise ROCOR on ecclesiastical matters, but then he went on to write eleven and a half pages. A copy of his letter, written in August 1974, is attached hereto.
In his letter, Solzhenitsyn brought up the subject of the Old Ritualist Schism, recounted the cruel persecutions the dissenters had endured, and made a strong case for reconciliation.
ROCOR’s Synod of Bishops responded with uncharacteristic dispatch. On 25 September 1974, they issued a decree on the Old Ritual in which they rescinded “the interdicts and anathemas imposed [on the old ritual]…as if they had never been…” and called upon Old Believers everywhere to come forth and be reconciled with the Russian Orthodox Church. A copy of this decree is also attached hereto.
It is appropriate to mention that the ROCOR’s decree was composed entirely by Father Dmitry Alexandrow, later Bishop Daniel, who was born in Odessa in 1930, and died in Erie, PA, in April 2010. Dmitry first encountered Old Believers in Romania as a precocious teenager as he and his mother fled the USSR in the final months of WWII.
Having promulgated this conciliatory decree in 1974, ROCOR settled back to wait for the Old Believer response. But it is not clear to me at this writing what they did to circulate the decree among the Old Believers them-selves. No one among the Old Believers in Oregon ever made mentioned of it. They anticipated that the Old Believers would somehow be aware of the decree and would respond to it.
Old Believers vs. Orthodox
We have come to a point at which my own journey into the Orthodox Church bears on this narrative, so I cannot avoid writing about it.
Inspired by my Old Believer neighbors, I tried to join the Orthodox Church in 1972. Specifically, I joined St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (OCA) on North Mallory Avenue in Portland. The pastor at the time was Father George Afonsky.
Father George received me into the Orthodox Church by a simple profession of Faith; I recited the Nicene Creed before the Royal Doors during the Divine Liturgy. That was all. Father George didn’t require that I be chrismated.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had boarded a ship headed in a very different direction from the one I felt I should be going. The contrast between the liturgical services among the Old Believers and those at St. Nicholas ROC in Portland were striking. For example, liturgical services among the Old Believers are not made shorter in deference to human weakness. There is an understanding among them that truncating the services would be offensive to God, and therefore not acceptable. Old Believers’ services are invari-ably much longer than in OCA and even ROCOR parishes.
Old Believer congregations do not sit or kneel in church. There are no pews, so they must stand. Sitting on the floor is permitted during the reading of the six psalms at the beginning of matins, as well as following the third and sixth odes in the canon, at which time a reader stands at an analoi facing the congregation and reads homilies in Slavonic from “Zlatoust,” a book of homilies by the great St. John Chrysostom – Golden Mouth.
There is a dress code among the Old Believers, and it is enforced. Men wear a black kaftan with no ornamentation. Women wear a sarafan with a hemline well below the knee, and they always cover their heads with a platok (kerchief). Only members of the congregation are permitted in the church itself during services. Sinners and strangers must stand in the narthex.
Old Believers strictly observe the canonical fasts of the Church, while most Orthodox do not fast as rigorously as the Old Believers do, and some don’t bother to fast at all.
The greatest difference was that priestless Old Believers in the Willamette Valley, lacking an ordained clergy, cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy. They have readers’ services for vespers, compline, matins and hours. The obednitsa service is essentially the Liturgy of the Word, which includes psalms, troparia, the Symbol of Faith and readings from the epistles and gospels appointed for the day.
The Old Believers know what the Holy Mysteries are, but they also realize that they cannot receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion because, since the schism 350 years ago, they lack bishops, and without bishops, they can have no ordained priests.
It’s worth noting that the Old Believers’ services in Oregon’s Willamette Valley were much better attended by some multiple than the services at St. Nicholas.
I once asked young Avtonom Gavrilovich Martushev how he managed to get though such lengthy services every week. He simply shrugged and said, “Oh, you get used to it!”
Another young Old Believer, Sava Artemievich Zarkov, smiled at my question, and snapped his fingers in response. “When you participate, it goes by just like that!”
The Gregorian Calendar
In the early 1970s, St. Nicholas parish was contemplating going over to the New (Gregorian) Calendar. I found this troubling because the primary objective in embracing the Gregorian Calendar was to make Orthodoxy more convenient for the faithful living in America.
The idea of making changes in the disciplinary canons or the liturgical services for the sake of convenience sends the wrong message. The Church is obliged to teach us how to live a God-pleasing life. Let’s face it; pleasing God is often inconvenient.
Take martyrdom, for example. Aren’t we Christians supposed to accept martyrdom rather than deny Christ? And yet, if our bishops drop the Julian Calendar and accept the Gregorian because it is more convenient for us, how can they subsequently expect us to freely choose martyrdom? Martyrdom is never convenient. Martyrdom is often terminally inconvenient. Making pierogi or cleaning up in the parish hall following a holupky dinner are admirable, but they are no substitute for martyrdom! If the faithful cannot live and worship on the Julian Calendar because they live here in the United States, how can they be expected to accept martyrdom for the sake of Christ?
For all their shortcomings, the Old Believers have had more experience with inconvenience than the Orthodox.
Once in 1972, I managed to persuade Father George Afonsky to drive down to the Woodburn area with me and pay a social call on some Old Believers. My objective was to show Father George that the Old Believers are solid, decent people, and to let the Old Believers know that Orthodox clergy are approachable. My ultimate hope was to stimulate a dialog that would lead over time to reconciliation and the restoration of the priesthood and Holy Mysteries to the Old Believer community.
The Gostievskykh family were pious Kharbintsy. They were poor and lived modestly. Our visit was brief and went well enough. Father George was polite and amiable while we were in the Gostievkykh home, but afterwards, as we were driving back to my home in Woodburn, he gave vent to a lively, largely uncharitable assessment of the Gostievskykh family.
Dismissing them as ignorant peasants whose world-view was very limited, he made sure I understood that the Old Believers had nothing to teach him. He found no value in their culture and simple way of life. His exclusively pejorative observations seemed to arise from a prerevolutionary elitist mindset, which I had encountered from time to time among Russian émigrés in my youth.
When I was a young soldier studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey in 1963-64, most of the administrators and teachers in the Russian Department had been born in Russia well before the Revolution, and there were even a few former officers of the Russian Imperial Army who had served under Tsar Nicholas II. They had occupied the upper tiers of society in Imperial Russia, and they were very interesting people, colorful, polished and witty. I admired them, but they had nothing good to say about the USSR and the people who ran it. They were used to looking down on workers and peasants, the very people who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the Revolution that had uprooted the old way of life and displaced them.
Father George Afonsky was a decent man and a dedicated servant of the Church, but I was disappointed to hear him express such uncomplimentary views about my Old Believer neighbors. Clearly he was not interested in having a dialog with them about reconciliation. I reproached myself for having suggested to him that we visit the Old Believers. It was plainly a waste of his time – but an education for me.
In May 1973, Father George was consecrated Bishop Gregory and as-signed to Sitka, Alaska. I assume that he eventually read Solzhenitsyn’s letter to Metropolitan Philaret, but I can only imagine what his reaction to it might have been.
In December 1973, I stopped attending St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Portland. It was clear to me by then that any Old Believers visiting the parish would not feel at home there. And I wanted a more traditional form of Orthodoxy for myself.
I was then praying fervently with prostrations for some sort of direction. I began going to readers’ services with the Old Believers, but although they welcomed me, they were not certain how to deal with me and my family. My Elizabeth had no interest in becoming an Old Believer culturally, and the distinction between culture and religion was blurred. There arose too many barriers to integration into their way of life.
By far the greatest problem for us was their attitude toward the minutia of ritual. They ascribed an efficacy to the most obscure details of ritual which the ancient fathers of the Church had not anticipated, and against which Jesus Christ had inveighed in His public ministry.
At last, in August 1975 my prayers were answered. I received a letter from Alexey Young, a convert to Orthodoxy living with his wife and two children in Etna, in northern California’s Scott Valley. Young and his family were doing reader’s services in a chapel they had erected in their back-yard. Young taught in the Etna elementary school.
The Youngs were receiving encouragement and guidance from two monks on a mountaintop near Platina, California, Fathers Herman and Seraphim, who had been Gleb Podmoshensky and Eugene Rose, respectively, while they were still living in the world. Gleb Podmoshensky had been one of my instructors at the Defense Language Institute a dozen years earlier.
Alexey Young and I carried on an intense correspondence about Orthodoxy for several months. He encouraged me to join the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). But the closest ROCOR parish at that time was St. Nicholas ROC in Seattle, a good four-hour drive north of Woodburn on I-5. Still, Young’s suggestion made sense. ROCOR appeared to be so much more traditional than the OCA, and therefore more acceptable from an Old Believer perspective.
I first visited Platina in December 1975 with my son, Stefan. I saw Father Herman again after several years, and met Father Seraphim for the first time. Neither one of them had been ordained then.
Going to San Francisco
In February 1976, I decided to go to San Francisco and personally ask Archbishop Anthony to receive me and my family into ROCOR. Silvestre Feodorovich Valihov and Fedot Semyonovich Kalugin, both Kharbintsy Old Believers, were interested in making the trip with me. In those days I was driving a 1969 VW van, which can get you from Woodburn to San Francisco in about 18 hours on I-5. I was glad to have the Kharbintsy aboard for their company on the road.
Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich are just a little older than I am. They had no particular reason for going to San Francisco; they just wanted to visit the big city by the bay of which they had heard so much.
We arrived in San Francisco Friday evening, February 13th. The feast of the Presentation was to fall on Sunday.
We needed a place to stay. Someone suggested we contact the nuns on Fell Street, so we did. They were surprised to see us, but they gamely put us up in the basement of a building next to their convent. We slept on the floor that night. This was definitely a low-budget operation.
On Saturday morning we drove from Fell Street over to the Joy of All Who Sorrow, ROCOR’s great cathedral on Geary Blvd. I immediately set about trying to locate Arch-bishop Anthony.
I soon learned where he was living; his apartment was right around the corner from the cathedral. I also learned that he was scheduled to meet with a group of students in the cathedral basement in ten minutes. I was told to wait for him on the side-walk between his apartment and the cathedral.
Sure enough, he emerged from his apartment in less than ten minutes. He was a slight, intense man with large, kindly brown eyes and a flowing white beard. He was startled at first as I approached him and took his blessing. I introduced myself and told him I had come all the way from Woodburn, Oregon, hoping that my family and I could be received into the Orthodox Church.
At the mention of Woodburn, he immediately asked if I were an Old Believer. I replied that, no, I was not an Old Believer, that I was neither fish nor fowl, but then I added that two Old Believers had come down with me from Woodburn to see the big city.
“Oh, is that so?” he asked. “Where are they?”
“They’re somewhere around here, Vladyko. I can’t tell you exactly just now. They’re looking over the city.” At that moment I didn’t understand why he was so interested in the Old Believers.
“Will they be at vigil this evening?” he asked.
“Yes, Vladyko, I think so.” I replied.
“Ah, khorosho, khorosho! We’ll talk after vigil!” And then he scurried off to class.
The cathedral on Geary Blvd. is the sparkling hub of a thriving, émigré Russian presence in San Francisco. There were clergy and laity, young and old, mostly Russians, coming and going. Some were distant, others were friendly.
Someone suggested I attend a panikhida that very evening before vigil at the tomb of Archbishop John Maximovich in the crypt chapel beneath the cathedral. That’s where I first met Nektary, Bishop of Seattle. He came up to me right after the panikhida and urged me to attend the vigil with my friends. It was obvious that someone had told him there were Old Believers in town.
The vigil was well attended. Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich stood against the back wall of the cathedral, while I stood near the center of the nave. The service lasted a bit longer than a “normal” vigil, probably because there were two hierarchs serving.
Bishop Nektary had told me to wait for him right there in the church. And so that’s what I did. After the vigil was over, the congregation left. But I stayed in my place, waiting.
At last the starosta came ’round and asked Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich to leave, too. I wasn’t aware of that or I would have intervened, because I knew the hierarchs wanted to speak with them. For some reason the starosta did not ask me to leave, probably because he had seen Bishop Nektary speak to me directly during the service and assumed that I had some business with him.
The starosta started turning off the lights. The great cathedral grew darker and darker. After several minutes Bishop Nektary came out of the altar through the north deacon’s door. He approached me and asked about my Old Believer friends. I turned to call them over to meet Bishop Nektary, and that’s when I first realized they weren’t in the back of the cathedral anymore. I told Bishop Nektary they were probably outside the church, waiting for me. He sighed and motioned me to the back of the church, near the southwestern corner. The cathedral faces north. Bishop Nektary had me sit down on a bench along the south wall, while he took a seat on a bench nearby on the western wall.
Several more minutes passed. At last Archbishop Anthony came out through the north deacon’s door. By this time it was dark in the great cathedral, but Archbishop Anthony came directly over to the corner where Bishop Nektary and I were seated. He carried a notebook and a pen. But he had no sooner settled himself onto the bench next to Bishop Nektary when the starosta, unaware that we were still in the cathedral, turned off the last light. Suddenly the three of us were sitting there in the great cathedral in total darkness.
Archbishop Anthony immediately rose, muttered something about getting a light, and made his way back toward the iconostas. I couldn’t see him, of course, but I was able to follow the sound of his gentle footfalls across the hardwood floor. In less than two minutes he returned, holding a tall candle stand with a single taper. The light was indeed feeble, but as he drew closer to us and set it down, it provided enough illumination for our conversation.
The hierarchs were very gentle in their demeanor. They could not be described as imperious. And they had a number of questions. First, they wanted to know something about me. I volunteered little information, but answered their questions about my background and my family.
Archbishop Anthony recorded whatever seemed important to him in the notebook he carried.
Then they asked about the Old Believers in Oregon. It soon became clear to me that they already had some information about the Woodburn community. And as they asked questions of me, it appeared that they were testing what information they had, while trying to fill in the gaps.
One of their questions came as a surprise. They asked me to describe the Old Believers’ reaction to the ROCOR’s 1974 DECISION CONCERNING THE OLD RITUAL.
I had been aware of the 1974 Decision, and I might even have seen a copy of it somewhere. I told the hierarchs that most of the Old Believers were marginally literate, that they were essentially hard-working, seventeenth-century muzhiki, that they didn’t subscribe to newspapers, and that they were usually unaware of events outside their community. I added, as gently as I could, that the Old Believers had a mostly negative view of the Russian Orthodox Church because of the persecutions of three centuries past, and therefore they don’t follow activities and events in that quarter. It seemed to me at the time that neither Archbishop Anthony nor Bishop Nektary had considered this possibility.
Presently Archbishop Anthony excused himself and disappeared through the iconostas. Bishop Nektary and I rose together and left the cathedral through the front door onto Geary Blvd. Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich were waiting there for me, and I introduced them to Bishop Nektary. After a few pleasantries, we took our leave of him and went back to our accommodations on Fell Street.
The very next morning, we went to the great cathedral for the Divine Liturgy. It was, of course, a magnificent service with two hierarchs celebrating. Following the Liturgy, Bishop Nektary invited the three of us up to Archbishop Anthony’s apartment for tea.
Over tea, cakes and fruit, Bishop Nektary turned to Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich and said in Russian:
“I have a lot of respect for you. What happened three hundred years ago was a grave mistake, but what can we do about all that now? We are experiencing a general spiritual deterioration here. But you are still struggling, still observing the pious customs and traditions. Many times I have passed Woodburn on the highway. And every time I passed by, I have wanted to stop by and visit your community, but I have always been afraid to impose myself on you. Still, I’d like very much to come by and visit you, to see how you live, how you pray, and to learn from you.”
I had not expected to hear such sentiments from an Orthodox bishop. Much less had Silvestre Feodorovich or Fedot Semyonovich. They responded very positively to Bishop Nektary’s kind remarks, but at the same time I could tell they were wondering how they were going to relate all this to their friends and relatives back home.
At the close of this historical meeting in his apartment, Archbishop Anthony invited us to return to the cathedral to observe a wedding ceremony, which we did from the choir loft. It was indeed a beautiful ritual, followed by a few cordial comments in Russian by Father Ioann. The young couple joined in holy matrimony that day has been married 37 years as I write this. I pray that their marriage has been as beautiful as the ceremony by which God had joined them together.
As we left San Francisco that bright Sunday after-noon, I had the distinct feeling that something significant had occurred, but I wasn’t able to give it a name. Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich seemed to feel something, too. Even as we were driving north across the Golden Gate Bridge, a lively conversation ensued. Fedot Semyonovich was particularly agitated. At one point he turned to me and vehemently declared:
“Do you think we don’t want the services with priests? Yes, we love the priestly services, too. But we don’t have priests now. They tormented our priests. They destroyed them!”
And at this he gestured back over his shoulder with his thumb, back in the direction of Geary Blvd. and the bishops. But he also seemed to remember the hierarchs’ kind words, and his mood softened.
Nevertheless there were some issues remaining, issues which had to be addressed. The conversation took a more positive turn, exploring ways to bring about reconciliation and the restoration of the priesthood without compromising anything. Despite harsh rhetoric about persecutions and injustices suffered in the past at the hands of the “Nikonians”, I sensed that Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich recognized that Archbishop Anthony, Bishop Nektary and the other hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church are the legitimate successors to the Apostles.
When we arrived home safely in Woodburn, I composed and sent Bishop Nektary a letter in which I summarized the comments Silvestre Feodorovich and Fedot Semyonovich had made during the drive up from San Francisco. I went on to write that Old Believer resentment toward Nikonians might be assuaged by formally asking their forgiveness.
To be precise, I suggested that Metropolitan Philaret visit the Willamette Valley and make a prostration before the elders of the Old Believer community. The Old Believers would then have a moral obligation to forgive the Russian Orthodox Church. After all, Jesus had told His disciples to forgive everyone as often as forgiveness is asked, even if it pencils out to 490 times per day.
NB: 70 x 7 = 490.
After all these years, I can’t get over my audacity in writing this letter. But I was still dreaming large in those days, excited by the possibilities. I hope I may be forgiven.
When Bishop Nektary visited the Willamette Valley in June 1976, I took him to the village where the Turchanye live. He had a brief but pleasant visit with the nastoyateľ, Vasily Yakovlevich Yakis, and his wife, Maria. Soon afterwards Bishop Nektary wrote a general letter to all the nastoyatelya in the Valley. His praised them for their faith in God and faithfulness to the pious traditions of the past, lamented that they are without the Holy Mysteries, and ended with a prayer for unity.
Copies of both my letter to Bishop Nektary and his letter to the nastoyatelya are attached hereto.
Vasily Yakovlevich, actually responded to Bishop Nektary’s letter. He summoned me to his home and dictated a brief note to me, which I subsequently printed and returned to him for his signature on September 1, 1976. A translation follows:
Esteemed Vladyko Nektary,
We have received your letter in which you expressed concern for us. We thank you, that you have not forgotten us, and are concerned about us..
Many thanks for your kind words. If you will have an opportunity, then please visit us again. If you would like to see our services, you are welcome.
On this we end this letter. I wish you happiness and a peaceful life, and much success.
We await your reply,
Metropolitan Philaret never did come visit the Willamette Valley, but Bishop Nektary came again in the fall of 1977 and asked forgiveness of the Old Believers for the persecutions of bygone years. He called to tell me he would be coming,and he asked me to arrange a meeting with the nastoyatelya of the Old Believer community.
I initially approached the mild-mannered nastoyateľ, Abram Antipovich Semerikov. I told him Bishop Nektary wanted to visit him and the other nastoyatelya on a given date, and I asked if it would be alright if they were to gather at his home. He agreed to the meeting, but without much enthusiasm.
Next, I personally contacted all the other nastoyatelya and invited them all to assemble at Abram Antipovich’s home at the appropriate hour and date. There were seven of them, and all said they would come to meet Bishop Nektary.
When Bishop Nektary arrived on the appointed day, we drove over to the Semerikov home. But only Abram Antipovich and his wife were there. No one else showed up. I was disappointed and embarrassed.
Nevertheless Bishop Nektary set about doing what he had come to do. We entered Abram Antipovich’s home and sat down together in the large, sparsely furnished living room.
Bishop Nektary spoke quietly of the persecutions visited upon the Old Believers in the 17th and 18th centuries, and he mentioned in some detail the tribulations suffered in the 20th century by all believers in the Soviet Union. Abram Antipovich, essentially a meek, self-effacing man, listened intently. Expressing regret over the intolerance and oppression of the past, Bishop Nektary suddenly rose to his feet and turned toward Abram Antipovich.
Abram Antipovich hesitated for a moment, and then he, too, stood up. The Orthodox bishop and the Old Believer pastor stood facing each other for a moment. Bishop Nektary took a step backward and then fell to his knees. In another instant, he placed his hands, palms down, on the floor in front of Abram Antipovich’s feet. Then he quickly lowered his forehead to the floor between his hands.
Abram Antipovich, visibly moved, opened his arms, bent forward, grasped Bishop Nektary by the shoulders and helped him to his feet. The two men exchanged the kiss of peace and embraced. I was suddenly aware that I was the sole witness of this truly historical, truly Christian event.
Bishop Nektary was downcast as we left Abram Antipovich’s home. He remarked that he had not accomplished anything worthwhile, but he was mis-taken. In subsequent conversations with my Old Believer friends over the next several weeks, I noticed a significant change in their attitude.
Several Old Believers opined that Bishop Nektary had never injured or offended them, so it wasn’t necessary for him to make a prostration and beg their forgiveness. But there was less emphasis on the pain and injustices their ancestors had endured at the hands of the Nikonians in centuries past.
Yet there was no spontaneous movement of Old Believers to contact Bishop Nektary and join the Orthodox Church.
Silvestre Feodorovich later gave me the Old Believers’ answer to Bishop Nektary’s efforts at reconciliation. Of course he spoke only in Russian. Essentially he said:
“Some of us have visited your churches. Your services are so much shorter than ours, so you must be leaving out some prayers. Most of your men have no beards, and even some of your priests shave their beards. Most of the women do not cover their heads in church. And in the summer they wear short skirts and their arms are bare. We have also noticed that many people come late to the services, and they wander about lighting candles and venerating icons while the rest of the congregation is worshiping. Bishop Nektary is a good man, but if we were to receive the priesthood from him, then we would be in communion with these people. We would have to let them into our churches. How could we do that?
It isn’t as if Silvestre Feodorovich had been appointed to pass on these sentiments to me. But I do not doubt the observations and concerns he articulated represented those of most Old Believers in Oregon, Alaska and Canada. There is a clear consensus among them that our people have not been taught how to conduct themselves properly in church.
When I mentioned Silvestre Feodorovich’s observations to Bishop Nektary, he remarked that any Old Believer congregations in communion with ROCOR would be permitted to worship separately, and with the understanding that they could set the standards for order and decorum in their own assemblies. Indeed this has been the case with the Old Believer parish in Erie, PA.
And there the matter rests.
Bishop Nektary had never anticipated that three hundred years of antipathy could be overcome with an apology and a single prostration. But I believe he was discouraged to see that there were no scholars among the Oregon Old Believers who could assess the basic antecedents of the Schism and enter into an informed dialog with the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church. An Orthodox presence in the Willamette Valley was needed, and that responsibility fell to me.
As events have shown, I was not equal to this responsibility.
Toward the end of Dormition Fast in 1976, Elizabeth and I, and both our sons, were baptized by three immersions in a slough on the left bank of the Willamette River, just a few hundred yards downstream from the Wheatland ferry. Our beloved Bishop Nektary was there to immerse us, one-by-one. He stepped into the slough, mantia, klobuk and all, and actually stood with us, chest-deep in the waters of the Willamette as he immersed us three times. Father George Macris immediately chrismated us at an altar set up on the bank. A few days later, Elizabeth and I were married before the Royal Doors in Fr. George’s house chapel in NE Portland.
In June 1977, Bishop Nektary brought the wonder-working Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God to our modest home in Woodburn. A handful of Old Believers came to see the Icon, although they did not venerate it.
Inspired by the Kursk-Root Icon’s visit in June, I secured blessings from Bishop Nektary, Hieromonk Seraphim and Father George Macris in July, and began construction of a modest chapel in my backyard. The chapel rose very slowly, because I had never before attempted to build any-thing so ambitious. In May 1978, with God’s help, the work was done, and I was able to invite Bishop Nektary to come bless the little building. He asked me to identify the chapel’s patron, and I replied, “The Kursk-Root Mother of God.” This seemed appropriate to Bishop Nektary, and so the chapel, just 14-feet wide and 24-feet long, was so named.
Our Lady of Kursk Chapel
We began doing readers’ services in Our Lady of Kursk Chapel (OLKC), mostly in English. It was my hope that eventually we would have a small Orthodox presence in Woodburn, giving glory to God and providing an outreach to our Old Believer neighbors.
A daughter was born to us on April 13, 1978, and we named her Maria, after St. Mary of Egypt. When Maria was baptized in our chapel the following August, Bishop Nektary returned, bringing the Kursk-Root Icon. Hieromonk Seraphim came up from Platina to baptize Maria, the first infant he brought into the Church since his ordination.
Several local Old Believers were present in OLKC, as well, to see how the “Nikonians” baptize infants. I never heard any complaints.
Ivan and Ludmilla Assur joined us from Mulino, and we invited the Platina fathers to come one weekend every other month, absolve us of our sins and celebrate vespers, matins and the Divine Liturgy. We added a large dining room to our home so there would be room for trapeza after Liturgy on Sunday morning.
The Platina fathers did start visiting us regularly, beginning with Father Seraphim’s visit in September 1978. Another family, the Serdtsevs, came up from Salem. So we had a community, and all seemed well. Unfortunately the Platina fathers showed no interest in outreach to the Old Believers. Father Herman said simply, “I don’t have a common language with them.”
Over time I learned that the Assurs had moved up from the San Francisco Bay area with the intention to establish a ROCOR mission in Oregon. They were surprised to discover we had already built a chapel behind our home. Our Lady of Kursk Chapel presented something of a barrier to the realization of their intentions. How could they justify building a mission when one already existed?
They overcame this barrier by building a much better mission. They owned several acres of land in the country near Mulino. They deeded an acre of their land to ROCOR and on it they built a beautiful log church dedicated to the New Martyrs of Russia. In 1981, the Platina fathers stopped coming to Woodburn and began visiting Mulino instead. We were invited to come join them, of course, but we never really felt welcome there.
We also felt we could not simply abandon Our Lady of Kursk Chapel, so we resolved to continue readers’ services there. And I still had plenty of interaction with my Old Believer neighbors.
Searching for the Priesthood
Once, in the summer of 1982, I was talking with lively old Gerasim Stepanovich Kuzmin, a Russian Army veteran who was captured by the Austro-Hun-garian Army and held as a POW somewhere in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia during the Great War (World War I).
According to Gerasim Stepanovich, “the Church once had priests, but long ago it lost the priesthood because of our sins.”
In reply, I asked him if Jesus Christ is God or man. The old soldier immediately answered, “Jesus Christ is God Who became man.”
I continued, “If Jesus is God, is He all-powerful?”
“Yes, He can do anything!”
“Can He lie?”
Gerasim Stepanovich frowned and hesitated. At length he answered emphatically, “God does not lie!”
“Well then, when Jesus told Peter, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I shall build My Church, and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it,’ was He telling the Truth?”
Gerasim Stepanovich silently nodded.
I went on, “If the Church Jesus established once had bishops and priests, and then lost the priesthood because of our sinfulness, then the Gates of Hell did indeed prevail against His Church.”
I concluded, “The Church Jesus Christ established still exists on this earth, and it still has bishops and priests because the Gates of Hell cannot prevail against it. So if you say you’re a Christian, then you should be searching the world until you find His Church and join it.”
Dyedushka Gerasim sighed and nodded. Lively but frail, he no longer had the strength or the material resources to travel the world, searching for the Church Jesus Christ had established.
But the following year (1983), a delegation of three Old Believer pilgrims left Oregon and traveled to ancient St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. The pilgrims were Timofey Ioakimovich Toran (Busurkin), Martin Gerasimovich Kuzmin and Grigory Antonovich Melkomukov, a Turchanin and two Kharbintsy.
Timofey Ioakimovich later told me that a bishop, most likely Archbishop Damianos, had met with them at St. Catherine’s Monastery. After listening to their story and perceiving their simplicity, the Archbishop told them, “Whatever comes, you must not continue as you are. In another generation, there will be nothing left of your community in America. You must find a hierarchy that you can accept. Do not trouble yourselves about whether or not it is canonical. Just find it, and join yourselves to it!”
From St. Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai, the delegation traveled to Braila, near the mouth of the Danube River in Romania. There they visited the Belokrinitsy Synod, the very Orthodox hierarchy they were seeking.
It is appropriate to mention that the Kharbintsy first had contacts with the Belokrinitsy through a small community, including a priest, while they were still living in Manchuria.
But that’s another story.
The Belokrinitsy Synod consists almost entirely of Old Believers whose ancestors fled westward at the end of the 18th century as Tsarina Catherine’s able General Suvorov drove the Ottoman Turks off the Black and Azov Seas’ northern shores. They are related to Oregon’s Turchanye, whose ancestors had lived at the mouth of the Danube from the 1790s until 1878 (See page 3, above). Their hierarchy was created by Ambrose, a Bosnian Serb and the deposed Metropolitan of Sarajevo, who was living in penury in Istanbul in 1845. That’s when an earlier delegation of priestless Old Believers came down from Romania and invited him to travel secretly with them back to their home on the Danube’s Black Sea delta, ordain several worthy men to the priesthood, and then to consecrate a handful of these newly ordained priests to the episcopacy.
An Orthodox hierarch does not perform any sacerdotal ceremonies or functions outside his specific eparchy, or without the blessing of his ecclesiastical superior(s). A deposed metropolitan, Ambrose had no eparchy, and it is not likely he sought the blessing of the Patriarch of Constantinople to travel to Romania.
Metropolitan Ambrose must have known that Canon I of the Council of Jerusalem requires three hierarchs to consecrate a bishop, so he was aware that the bishops he would consecrate by himself would not be accepted as hierarchs in any canonical Orthodox synod. But what-ever his reservations, the Romanian Old Believers offered him several hundred ducats to provide them with clergy, and ultimately he agreed. We shall not judge him as avaricious, but he did have a son for whom he wished to provide.
Personally, I prefer to think, as Archbishop Damianos did thirty years ago, that Metropolitan Ambrose sincerely believed the Old Believers in Romania would be better off with an uncanonical clergy than with no clergy at all. So he stole away by night to Romania, quickly learned to do the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church according to the Old Rite, ordained the candidates presented to him to the priesthood, consecrated a few of them as bishops, and then disappeared into the fog of history. But the hierarchy he created, whether canonical or not, endures to this day.
Just before Great Lent in 1984, Timofey Ioakimovich, one of the delegates who visited St. Catherine’s and Romania the year before, was ordained to the priesthood in Braila and returned to Oregon. A mixed community of Turchanye, Kharbíntsy and Sintsiantsy gathered around him and built a church in honor of the Transfiguration on Bethlehem Road in Gervais, OR.
If anyone wishes to see how our forebears in the faith worshiped four hundred years ago, let him go to Gervais and stand in the narthex on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning. But let him wear comfortable shoes; the Old Believers do not shorten the services in deference to human frailty. They always do a full typikon.
As might be expected, the introduction of an Old Rite community with clergy among the priestless Old Believers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley caused a scandal at first. But in time antipathy yielded to grudging acceptance, which then gave way to accommodation. In time practical considerations prevailed over the ecclesiastical. People work together, drink together, bury the dead together, greet each other on the street and in the marketplace, and young people still fall in love, marry and start families. Life changes, but goes on.
Two Hierarchs Together
On 18 July 1985, Archbishop Anthony arrived from San Francisco with the wonder-working Kursk-Root Icon. On that very day, Belokrinitsy Bishop Iosif (Basargin) from Sydney, Australia, was also in Woodburn for a visit. I happened to know where he was staying, so I sent a car for him.
Bishop Iosif came and was present in Our Lady of Kursk Chapel while we sang an akathist to the Mother of God. After the service, Archbishop Anthony and Bishop Iosif venerated the Icon, and then we all sat and broke bread together. The two hierarchs chatted amicably, and then took leave of each other and us, and went about their business.
One of my pupils at Nellie Muir Elementary School was Silvestre Feodorovich’s son, Mihei, a bright, beautiful, perpetually cheerful boy who could not have been born on any day but Sunday, if we can believe the nursery rhyme from Mother Goose:
Monday’s child is fair of face.
Tuesday’s child is full of grace.
Wednesday’s child is full of woe.
Thursday’s child has far to go.
Friday’s child is loving and giving.
Saturday’s child works hard for his living.
But the child that’s born on the Sabbath day is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.
Mihei was indeed bonny, blithe, good and gay, and even more than all that. Before he had reached his tenth birth- day, Mihei manifested an extraordinary talent for drawing. His father was aware of Mihei’s special gift and, to his credit, he resolved to encourage and develop it.
Silvestre Feodorovich understood that with the proper training and preparation, Mihei could become and accomplished iconographer, an honorable vocation that would provide him with the means to earn his daily bread for as long as he lived.
Although he had never been there, Silvestre Feodorovich had heard of the able iconographers who lived and worked at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. So one day early in 1979, he called on me to ask how he might send Mihei to Jordanville to learn from the monks who toiled there.
I immediately rang up Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion and explained the matter to him. Vladyka Hilarion in turn made some inquiries of his own and then got back to me. Arrangements were made, and soon after Pascha, when Mihei was just 13 years old, Silvestre Feodorovich took him to Portland and put him on an airplane for Syracuse. One of the monks met him at the airport there and took him to the Monastery.
Mihei Valihov evidently spent four very full months in Jordanville before returning to his family in Oregon. He immediately set about “writing” icons, which demonstrated how much he had learned from the masters at Holy Trinity Monastery. The Icon of the Holy Napkin on the cover page of this narrative is among the icons that flowed effortlessly from his inspired brush.
Unfortunately this torrent of talent abruptly ran dry when Mihei died tragically in a traffic accident in the summer of 1980.
He would be close to fifty now if he had lived. May his memory be eternal!
A Positive Assessment
Late in the summer of 2004, several months before we moved to Scranton, PA, I ran into Abram Antipovich in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Woodburn. We had not seen each other in a few years, so we passed several minutes catching each other up on our respective activities and families. At one point Abram Antipovich asked about the man I had brought to his home. Nearly three decades had passed since Bishop Nektary’s visit and prostration. Abram Antipovich did not remember his name, but I understood he was inquiring after Bishop Nektary.
When he learned from me that Bishop Nektary had died more than twenty years earlier, Abram Antipovich drew a breath, bowed his head and fell silent. At length he smiled, looked straight at me and said with conviction: “Such a good man. Surely he dwells now among the just.”
When one considers that, after 350 years of antipathy and persecution, a respected elder of the Old Believer community in Oregon was able to unequivocally make so positive an assessment of a Russian Orthodox hierarch, it is clear just how much Bishop Nektary had accomplished with his humble act, his prostration.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”
Brother Ambrose Moorman, OSB
No narrative on the Old Believers in Oregon would be complete without some mention of Brother Ambrose (Moorman), a Benedictine monk who lived at the Benedictine Abbey in Mount Angel, Oregon, until his death on April 28, 2012.
Shortly after I arrived in the Willamette Valley, Brother Ambrose informed me that it was his mission to bring the Old Believers into communion with Rome, citing modest efforts the Catholic Church had made to this end in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
He added that he himself had been to Rome where Cardinal Tisserant (+ 1972), Secretary of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches, blessed him to “create” an Old Ritualist Rite within the Catholic Church in Oregon.
We were still Catholics then, and Brother Ambrose no doubt presumed we would be in favor of such a plan. But after Elizabeth and I joined the Orthodox Church in 1976, he regret-ted taking me into his confidence. He later denied he had ever intended to make Catholic Uniates out of Oregon’s Old Believers.
Nevertheless, we know the Benedictines at Mount Angel supported Brother Ambrose and gave him the sole use of a handsome masonry building in which he lived, had an office and maintained a museum and a modest chapel appointed in the Old Ritualist tradition, and dedicated to Our Lady of Tikhvin.
Brother Ambrose had printed up certificates of baptism under an “Our Lady of Tikhvin” logo. Whenever local Old Believers needed an official-looking document to establish a date of birth with a governmental agency, e.g., like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Social Security Administration, they could get it from Brother Ambrose. He would sit down with them and fill out the certificate right there in his office.
But the information entered onto Brother Ambrose’s “certificates” was never taken from the parish archives of Our Lady of Tikhvin Old Rite Catholic Church in Mt. Angel, nor from any other church, but simply transcribed from the imperfect memories of the Old Believers themselves.
While patently fraudulent, Brother Ambrose’s baptismal certificates were an expedient which made life easier for both the bureaucracies and the Old Believers. But it cannot be denied that two and three hundred years from now, the Catholic Church will be able to show documentary evidence proving Our Lady of Tikhvin Old Rite Catholic Church in Mount Angel had a goodly number of parishioners from the local Old Believer com-munity, whereas in reality not a single Old Believer regularly attended services there.
It is also a fact that Brother Ambrose himself went to Romania in the mid-1970s where he was received into the Belokrinitsy Synod through baptism by three immersions, but that after his return to Oregon he continued to live at Mount Angel Abbey, and was supported by the Benedictine monastic community there.
In 1977 Brother Ambrose told the Woodburn city government that I had built Our Lady of Kursk Chapel in my backyard, presumably in violation of zoning codes. The municipal authorities looked into his complaint, and then informed him by letter that zoning codes didn’t preclude building a chapel on my lot, and they sent me a courtesy copy. His objective was, of course, to have the Woodburn authorities order me to remove the chapel.
When he died in April 2012, the Benedictine monks at Mount Angel Abbey brought his body to Father Porfiri Toran, the current pastor of the Belokrinitsy parish in Gervais. The Belokrinitsy interred his remains in their cemetery with services appropriate for one of their own.
Brother Ambrose lived and died a Catholic, but his body was committed to the earth among the Old Believers. For all practical purposes, his life’s labors identify him as a 20th-century champion of the Unia. Only God knows what was in his heart at the end.
Moving to Pennsylvania
After the repose of Bishop Nektary in 1983, and several futile attempts to organize a community around Our Lady of Kursk Chapel, Elizabeth and I decided to move to Scranton, PA, after I retired. Neither ROCOR, nor the OCA appeared interested in reconciliation with the Old Believers in Oregon, and my own efforts to advance that cause had proved to be woefully inadequate. Discouraged, we hoped to end our days as ordinary members in an established Orthodox parish in NEPA.
I retired in July 2001, but Elizabeth continued working until February 2005. We closed the chapel in November 2004, distributed the few sticks of furniture we had, listed our house in Woodburn, and bought another house in Scranton. A Mexican family bought our house in Woodburn, and we moved across the United States to Pennsylvania in March 2005. Five years later we relocated again to our cottage in Carbondale, where we reside as I write this narrative.
Valikhovs Visit NE Pennsylvania
Although we currently live in NE Pennsylvania, we have maintained contacts with relatives and friends in Oregon. Among the Old Believers, our closest friends were Silvestre Feodorovich Valihov and his wife, Olga Gavrilovna (neè Martusheva), who had moved to Erskine, MN, even before we relocated to the Keystone State.
Silvestre Feodorovich called me from Minnesota late in 2010. Olga Gavrilovna, he explained, had a respiratory problem which was causing her great difficulty breathing during the extremely cold winter in Erskine, which is in northern Minnesota. I immediately invited them to come to our home in Carbondale for the winter, which is mild when compared with the frigid weather up by the Canadian border.
Early in February 2011, AMTRAK brought them to the station in Harrisburg, PA. Elizabeth and I were there waiting for them when the train pulled in. It was good to see our old friends again. Olga Gavrilovna soon found it easier to breathe in NEPA. She was even up for some sightseeing in New York City, Baltimore and Washington, DC.
Silvestre Feodorovich had been dealing with a smoldering scandal in the greater priestless Old Believer community. Some people in Oregon were troubled by the arrangement of fingers (перстосложение) on the right hands of Jesus Christ and several saints in the pre-schism icons handed down from generation to gene-ration over three and a half centuries. Many Russians were making the sign of the Cross with two fingers as early as the 13th century, but the two-fingered sign of the Cross became the standard Russian practice after 1552 when the Council of the One Hundred Chapters (Cтоглав) in Moscow proclaimed this to be the only Orthodox way to cross oneself.
The Stoglav Council anathematized the three-fingered sign of the Cross, because that’s the way the Greeks did it. After Byzantine bishops had capitulated to Rome at the Council of Florence in 1439, Russians took pains to distance themselves from the Greeks. Perhaps it was just their way to repudiate the Council of Florence through ritual.
Oregon’s Old Believers know little-to-nothing about the Council of Florence, but Russians historically ascribe too much importance to the minutiae of ritual, and nowhere was this tendency more evident than in the controversy over the arrangement of fingers in the ancient icons.
Contemporary Orthodox know that liturgical practices will vary from parish to parish, and from one culture to another, but some misguided Old Believers in the United States and Canada began rejecting all icons, including pre-schism icons, in which the fingers on the right hands of Christ or the saints depicted were arranged in any configuration other than the two-fingered sign of the Cross.
These modern icon-fighters advocated altering, or even destroying “incorrect” icons, and they heaped vilification upon anyone who did not see it their way. Vilification was often followed by excommunication, and Sylvestre Feodorovich was among those both vilified and excommunicated.
Although Russian is his first language, Silvestre Feodorovich has never had any formal schooling. So he asked me to help him compose a reasonable, comprehensive and grammatically correct answer to the rambling diatribes sent out by the icon-fighters.
We discussed at great length the contents of his response, and continued this discussion after he and Olga Gavrilovna returned to Minnesota in March. But it wasn’t until May that we completed a final draft of his manifesto. I sent him six or seven copies of it, which he signed and sent off to leaders in the Old Believer community.
A copy of his manifesto in Russian, with an English translation is included in this book.
Silvestre Feodorovich begins his response by describing the current controversy, followed by an explanation – supported by copious quotations from Scripture – of his reluctance to reject the old icons. He acknowledges what Archpriest Avvakum could not have acknowledged 350 years ago, i.e., that the Russians back then really did not know about variations in ritual in other lands. He goes on to urge his contemporaries to cease their bickering, and ends with a call to seek the Church Jesus established, and there to par-take of His precious Body and Blood.
In the fall of 2011, I asked him how the recipients of his manifesto reacted to its contents. Silvestre Feodorovich replied that he had received no response at all. But then when he personally visited and spoke with some of these recipients, they told him they agreed with everything he had written, but now they do not know what they should do next.
Perhaps the next move is up to us. The Old Believers have never seemed so close to reconciliation as they are now. They might respond positively if someone with authority and gravitas were to approach them again. It’s worth a try. Such an effort would cost us little, and could yield a great harvest of love after generations of antipathy and neglect.
I see no significant role for myself going forward. But I do think it would be well for our hierarchs to approach the priestless Old Believer settlements, wherever they may be in Oregon, Minnesota, Montana, Alberta and on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, to assess their attitudes and receptivity to reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church, and to take whatever measures they deem appropriate to bring peace and harmony to the Body of Christ, the community of believers.
Grant it, O Lord!
The Russian Old Believer Schism
Most people have never heard of the Old Believers, and those that have most generally have heard something negative: Old Believers are “raskol’niki” or schismatics. People say they are uneducated. They are superstitious. They are stubborn. They are xenophobic and unapproachable. Some people have even said they aren’t really Orthodox.
To some extent, many of the negative things they say about them are true. But they are not the whole truth. There are some very positive things about Old Believers that one never hears.
I have had the great good fortune to have lived among them for 35 years in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I taught their children in a public school. I have served as an advocate for them in a number of venues, and I have interpreted for them at public meetings, depositions, in courtrooms and in emergency rooms. I have been there as an interpreter when they have been arrested – usually for hunting violations. And I have posted bail for a few of them. Shovel in hand, I have even helped bury a few of them. I have laughed with them, fought with them, got drunk with them. Over the years I have learned a lot from them. And it is no exaggeration to say that my association with them has profoundly changed my life.
Greeks and Russians
One cannot possibly understand and appreciate the Russian Old Believers without a comparison with the Orthodox Greeks.
The enormous cultural disparity between Greeks and Russians was an antecedent to the Old Believer schism in the mid-seventeenth century.
We have all heard of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Archimedes, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, and so on. In contrast, very few Old Believers are familiar with any of these famous Greeks.
There’s no shame in that, of course, but the point is that hundreds of years before Christ, the Greeks had a highly sophisticated culture. They had a written language with a phonetic alphabet. They had philosophers, scientists, poets, statesmen and playwrights. They analyzed the world in which they lived, asked questions, and attempted to find answers to their questions. And in the process, they developed a rich vocabulary that enabled them to argue about abstract concepts in a very animated fashion in the agora. Many English words have Greek roots. And even today people study and draw inspiration from classical Hellenic culture.
In contrast, centuries after Christ, the Russians were hunters and gatherers with no written language and no vocabulary to support philosophical debates such as the ones in which the Greeks had engaged more than a millennium earlier.
The first Christians among the Greeks were contemporaries of Jesus Christ and His disciples. We know that St. Paul traveled extensively throughout the Hellenic world, and he brought many Greeks into the early Church. And when Greeks embraced Christianity, they examined and analyzed it through the prism of Hellenic culture – as only Greeks can.
They asked questions about the nature of God, about relationships within the Trinity. They asked whether Jesus had a Divine nature, a human nature – or both. Then they asked whether Jesus had a Divine will, a human will – or both. They asked about Jesus’ relationship with His mother. They asked about sacraments, about appropriate forms of worship, and so on. And for each question they raised, there were answers – most often multiple answers. And there would be intense, animated arguments about these conflicting answers.
Whenever public disputations over theological questions threatened the peace and stability of the Byzantine Empire, someone would convene a council of bishops to resolve the issues under discussion. The assembled bishops would begin by asking the Holy Spirit to guide their deliberations. Then they would systematically address each question before them, articulate the correct answer – and anathematize all the rest.
The next step was to write the correct, i.e., the Orthodox answer in prose form and then to weave it into the tapestry of the Church’s liturgical services so that the people might learn it. That’s why there is so much theology in the services: in the stikheri in Lord, I call upon Thee, in the apostichal verses in vespers, and in the troparia in the matins canons. A priest in Massachusetts once observed that the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church are a course in theology that you get to review every year.
Brothers from Thessaloniki
By the middle of the ninth century, German missionaries from Passau and Salzburg were working among the Slavs in Great Moravia. The Germans were teaching the Moravian Slavs to pray in Latin, but Moravian Prince Rastislav wanted his people to learn about Christ and to worship in their own language. So around 860 he wrote to Byzantine Emperor Michael III in Constantinople, asking the latter to send someone who could teach his people about Jesus Christ and how properly to worship God in their own language.
Emperor Michael consulted with Patriarch Photios, and Photios decided to send two brothers from Thessaloníki, Cyril and Methodius. The two missionaries to the Slavs arrived in Nitra and presented themselves to Prince Rastislav in 863. They soon set about translating Scripture and the service books into Old Slavonic.
The difficulties were:
(1), the Moravians had no written language, and (2), Greek was so much richer than Old Slavonic, especially in theological vocabulary, that, in order to accurately translate the liturgical services into Slavonic, Cyril and Methodius had to coin words – using Slavonic roots – which the Moravians could not comprehend, because the concepts behind those words were so alien to their culture. So newly coined words like собезначальность (co-begininglessness), единосущность (oneness in essence) and Богородица (Theotokos) had no more meaning to unlettered, 9th-century Slavs in Great Moravia than did their counterparts in Greek.
I do not mean to imply that the Slavs were intellectually inferior to the Greeks. Slavs are not stupid. But in the days of Cyril and Methodius, the cultural differences between Greeks and Slavs were so many and so great that the Slavs were unable to understand the Orthodox Faith in the same way the Greeks did.
Cyril and Methodius soon encountered stiff opposition from the German missionaries who had been in Moravia for around two decades. The Germans insisted that the only appropriate languages in which to worship God were Hebrew, Greek and Latin, that Slavonic was not suitable as a liturgical language. Cyril and Methodius felt they should go to Rome, discuss this matter with Pope Nicholas, and get his support. However, Pope Nicholas died before they arrived in the Eternal City. His successor, Pope Hadrian, readily blessed their efforts to “create” a liturgical language for the Slavic nations.
It must be noted here that Cyril and Methodius never went to Russia. Cyril died in Rome in 867, and Methodius died somewhere in what is now Slovakia in 885.
Shortly after Methodius’ repose, a palace revolution in Great Moravia removed Prince Rastislav from the throne and scattered Methodius’ surviving co-workers. Naum, Clement and others went to the shores of Lake Okhrid where they continued to translate the service books. They established a university at Okhrid early in the 10th century. It was the first university in the world wherein Slavonic was used as a language of instruction.
It wasn’t until 988 that Kievan Rus’ embraced Christianity, during the reign of Grand Prince Vladimir. When the Byzantine Greeks brought Christianity to the Russians, most of the service books had already been translated into Slavonic, thanks to the labors of Cyril and Methodius and their followers.
Russians Embrace Orthodoxy
– Sort of
Viewing Christianity through the prism of their own culture, just as the Greeks had done several centuries earlier, most Russians understood the totality of the liturgical services as one vast, elaborate, magical incantation, which had the power – if all the prayers were pronounced correctly and completely, and in the proper order – to actually compel the deity to protect you from harm and bring you peace and prosperity.
In other words, if your house burned down, your goats died, the river rose and flooded your home, or the Pechenegi raided, it was your fault, because obviously you hadn’t done the services right.
You might say, “That’s not what the Orthodox Church teaches. That’s ritualism!” And you’d be right! But historically this was a very common mind-set among Russian Orthodox Christians. It lingered up into the 18th century, according to stories from that era. One such story has it that a highwayman often went to church and lit a candle in front of the icon of St. Nicholas before setting out to waylay travelers on the open road. He was essentially asking the saint to abet and protect him in violating the 7th Commandment. Another story has an entrepreneur ordering a molebin to ensure the success of a brothel she was about to open.
I hasten to add that, while this mind-set was common among the Russians, it was by no means universal. There were a number of Russians who correctly grasped the significance of Jesus, the incarnate God, and embraced His teachings. Among these we have St. Sergei Radonezhsky as the most prominent example.
Another important difference between Greeks and Russians was that Greek clergy were usually better educated than their Russian brothers right up through the 16th century. One of the chronicles from the 15th century records the comments of a Russian bishop who was seeking to fill a vacancy in one of his parishes. The parish community recommended a pious candidate for ordination, but upon examining him, the bishop discovered that the candidate was illiterate. However, despite his illiteracy, he knew the entire psalter by heart. The bishop reluctantly ordained the man, largely because he knew how to conduct the services, and there were no other suitable candidates to fill the vacancy.
It should be noted that there were relatively few books in Russia before the 17th century. And that is one reason why the literacy level was so low.
As Christianity grew and spread in Russia, the demand for service books grew along with it. This demand was met primarily by the monasteries. Russian monks slowly and laboriously copied books by hand. But they also penned a number of original compositions.
In Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov, we find the venerable, old Hieromonk Pimen sitting in his cell at night, writing a chronicle (летопись) by the flickering light of a lampada. He interrupts his labor to sing an aria in a rich bass voice about the misdeeds of Tsar Boris.
This scene gives us some insight into how Russia produced liturgical service books from the 10th to the 17th century. Semi-literate monks labored for hours on end by the dim light from their lampadas. It isn’t surprising that the conditions under which they toiled caused them to make errors in transcription. And the low level of literacy in Russia made it unlikely that all their errors would be caught by the clergy ad laity in the parishes. So, after a few decades of use, when the books they copied were worn out, they were used as models for a new generation of books, and many of the errors were transcribed into the new books along with good text. Of course, the next generation of monk-transcribers added errors of their own. And so it went from generation to generation.
In some monasteries, the hegumen might even compose an excursus on some point and cause it to be inserted into the text. As a result, by the time we get to the fifth and sixth generation of liturgical books, there were marked differences in the various texts which had been copied and recopied from a tenth-century prototype. These differences played a role in the Old Believer schism in the 17th century, as we shall see.
Four factors in the 15th century set Russia on the path leading to the Old Believer Schism, to wit: the infamous Council of Florence in 1439, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1452, the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the royal marriage between the Byzantine and Muscovite dynasties 1472.
1. The Council of Florence
In 1438, Pope Eugene IV responded favorably, but his price for military assistance was very high indeed. He insisted that the Great Schism of 1054 be resolved by the Greek Orthodox Church’s submission to the Roman Catholic Church. This historic capitulation was to be accomplished at the Council of Florence in 1439.
The Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople headed a delegation of Orthodox hierarchs and clergy at the Council of Florence with the intent to cooperate with the Pope in every way, just as long as he proclaimed a crusade to deliver Constantinople from the Ottoman Turks.
Among the Orthodox hierarchs at the Council of Florence was the Metropolitan Archbishop of Moscow, a Greek named Isidore, who favored accommodation with Rome. He returned to Moscow in 1441 with a Latin cross and a prayer for the Pope.
Grand Prince Vasily II (1425-62), also known as Vasily Tyomniy (the Blind), was definitely opposed to any accommodation with Rome. He had Metropolitan Isidore arrested, but then let him escape to Italy, leaving the office of Metropolitan of Moscow vacant.
The Russians had a dilemma; they knew the Greeks had apostasized at Florence, so where were they to go for a new Metropolitan? After agonizing over this matter for seven years, Vasily Tyomniy permitted the investiture of Bishop Jonah of Moscow, but this time the Russians declined to send him to Constantinople for a Patriarchal blessing, which amounted to de facto autocephaly. The Russians were not comfortable with this arrangement, and from this time forth they felt they had to justify it by trashing the Greeks, usually by emphasizing the enormity of the Florentine capitulation.
2. Johannes Gutenberg’s Printing Press
About the time the Ottoman Turks were defeating the Byzantine Empire, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Mainz, Rhineland-Palatinate (Germany). Gutenberg had actually invented movable type cast from a lead-based metal alloy, and a hand mould. He combined these with an oil-based ink and a screw-driven press, such as the wooden olive press. As primitive as Gutenberg’s press was, it was a major technological improvement over copying page after page by hand, or carving a page full of letters backwards out of a block of wood.
The first book off Gutenberg’s press was the 42-line Gutenberg Bible in 1455, shortly after the inventor had made a lot of money printing indulgences for the Catholic Church.
3. The Fall of Constantinople
On 29 May 1453, Turkish troops entered Constantinople through an unguarded portal in the great wall, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Mehmet II entered the city in triumph the next day. One of Mehmet’s first acts was to find George Scholarios, also known as Hieromonk Gennadios, a prominent theologian, a voluminous writer, and an outspoken opponent of capitulation to Rome. The wily Mehmet caused Gennadios to be installed as Patriarch of Constantinople, fully expecting that Patriarch Gennadios would formally repudiate the Union of Florence. Sultan Mehmet was not disappointed. Patriarch Gennadios quickly denounced the Florentine Union. The Sultan knew the likelihood of another crusade to retake Constantinople would be diminished if the Greeks themselves closed the book on the Union of Florence. And once again, he was right.
4. A Royal Marriage
In 1472, Ivan III married Zoe Paleologa a niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor, who died defending Constantinople from the Turks on 29 May 1453. To emphasize Moscow’s new role as capital of the Orthodox commonwealth, Ivan III adopted the Imperial Byzantine double-headed eagle as his family crest
Five more factors in the 16th century pushed the Russian Orthodox Church further along the path toward Schism, to wit: the rise of Moscow as the Third Rome, the Council of the One Hundred Chapters in 1551, the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in Moscow in 1563, the establishment, by Polish Jesuits, of a theological academy in Kiev, and the elevation of the Metropolitan Archbishop of Moscow to Patriarchal rank in 1589.
1. Moscow, The Third Rome
The monk Filofey of Pskov observed in a letter to Grand Prince Vasily III (1505-1533), that the first Rome on the Tiber had succumbed to heresy, the second Rome on the Bosporus, i.e., Constantinople, had apostasized, that Moscow was to be the third Rome, and that there would not be a fourth.
Father Filofey’s letter provided a justification for the independence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which set the stage for the Old Believer schism.
2. The Council of the One Hundred Chapters (Stoglav)
In 1551, during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV, AKA, the Terrible, a local council of Russian bishops met in Moscow at the Council of the One Hundred Chapters (Stoglav). Among other things, the assembled bishops (1) anathematized the three-fingered Sign of the Cross, (2) denied a Christian burial to any man who trimmed or shaved his beard, and (3) insisted that the stases dividing the psalms must have two alleluias,rather than three:
“Alleluia, alleluia, Glory to Thee,O God.”
The Stoglav raised Russian liturgical practices to the level of dogma, reflecting their cultural predisposition to ritualism. This predisposition was amplified by a need the Russians felt to distance themselves from the Greeks – who had apostatized at the Council of Florence in 1439.
3. The Printing Press Comes to Moscow
Ivan Feodorov set up a printing press in Moscow in 1463, 108 years after the the Gutenberg Bible appeared in Mainz. This turned out to be another remote cause of the Old Believer Schism.
The xenophobic Russians initially rejected this new device coming from the West: “What good have the Germans ever done?” Ivan Feodorov had to flee to avoid being killed by an angry mob. But the advantages of printing books in quantity over copying books by hand, a page at a time, couldn’t be ignored indefinitely. The Russians soon put aside their misgivings and accepted this new technology . By the end of the century, there were several printing presses operating in Moscow.
Now the Russian Orthodox Church had to decide which set of liturgical books was to be the standard for the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Nikon’s response to this question in the 1650s precipitated the schism that lingers to this day.
4. A Theological Academy in Kiev
The Poles had occupied a major portion of the Ukraine since the late 14th century, and set about converting the local Orthodox to Catholicism. They succeeded in establishing the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church, i.e., the Unia, at the Union of Brest in 1596. But even before that, Polish Jesuits opened a theological academy in Kiev, and made Latin and Greek mandatory courses in the curriculum. That’s what Jesuits do.
The importance of these mandatory courses cannot be overstated. For the first time, Russians were able to access the Patristic literature of the early Church. It was a whole new universe opening up for them. Their understanding of the Faith was immeasurably deepened through reading the ancient fathers in Greek and Latin, and it followed that the “culture gap” between Greeks and Russians began to close. But there was a down side to this epiphany.
As graduates of the theological academy in Kiev took their places among the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, it became apparent that their perception of Orthodoxy was different in some respects from that of their fellow-bishops who had not had the benefit of a formal, theological education. One analyst of this period is pleased to call graduates of the theological academy “southerners,” because Kiev is so far to the south of Moscow. And those Russian bishops who hadn’t gone to school in Kiev he calls “northerners” by default.
Now – and this is an oversimplification – among the main differences between northerners and southerners was their attitude toward the Greeks. The northerners were inclined to say, “Too bad about the Greeks. You really can’t trust them. They apostatized at Florence.” Whereas the southerners would likely respond, “Ah, yes, but the Greeks have the fullness of the Faith!”
Most of the northern bishops were pious, reasonable men. Many of them were able to grasp that the Greeks had not irretrievably abandoned the Orthodox Faith at Florence in 1439. But the lower clergy and laity remained suspicious of foreigners in general, and of Greeks in particular.
5. Patriarch of Moscow
In 1589, during the reign of the pious Tsar Feodor Ivanovich, the Patriarch of Constantinople consented to the elevation of the Metropolitan Archbishop of Moscow to the rank of Patriarch, fifth in honor after Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
We come at last to the tumultuous 17th century, full of events and personalities which cast a long shadow, even down to our own times.
1. Controversy Over Printed Liturgical Books
The most proximate cause of the Schism was the unresolved controversy over printed books. The manuscripts for the psalter, apostle, gospel, chasoslov, etc., in each of the Russian towns differed in a few particulars from manuscripts used in other towns. The question was: Which version was to be taken as the most correct, and therefore the standard for the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole? More specifically, which version was to be printed in quantity for distribution throughout the country?
No one wanted to yield on this point. Every city and town had advocates for its own version of the liturgical books, pointing proudly to homegrown saints who had worshiped with the local books and found favor in God’s eyes.
But behind all these arguments ran the old current of ritualism: “if we change any aspect of the liturgical books, they will lose their magical power to make God bless us and keep us from harm.”
2. Patriarch Nikon
Patriarch Nikon ascended the throne in 1652. It was his fate to decide on a standard for the Russian liturgical books.
Although not a graduate of the theological academy in Kiev, Nikon nevertheless appreciated the Greeks as much as those who had studied in Kiev. As he himself put it, “I am a Russian and the son of a Russian, but my faith and my religion are Greek.”
Patriarch Nikon remains a controversial figure. Some historians describe him as authoritarian, egotistical, ambitious and irascible, while others point out that he was a gifted, larger-than-life visionary, articulate and capable of accomplishing great things. Both his admirers and his detractors appear to be correct in their assessment of the man.
Among other things, Nikon wanted to set aside the Council of the One Hundred Chapters and bring Russian liturgical practices into harmony with those of the Greeks. Since there was no consensus among the Russian hierarchs about establishing a standard for Russian Orthodox liturgical books, Patriarch Nikon boldly ordered new translations from the Greeks.
When the new books arrived in Moscow, Patriarch Nikon’s commission examined and approved them, whereupon Nikon publicly burned a large number of the old liturgical books. Then he called a local church council in 1656, which banned the Old Ritual, including the two-fingered Sign of the Cross. By his action, the dissenters were officially deemed schismatics. It seems obvious today that Patriarch Nikon should have behaved with more charity and patience, but let’s not judge him.
In my own dealings with Russian peasants, I have seen how intransigent they can be. The fact that their opinions, which they often advance at the top of their voices, sometimes have little or no basis in fact, makes it very hard to reason with them. Perhaps Patriarch Nikon had run out of patience and concluded that the only way to deal with Old Believers was to meet their intransigence with vigorous repression.
At this point it is worth noting that the very term “Old Believer” is misleading. It implies that the Russian Orthodox Church’s confession of faith was substantially different under Patriarch Nikon, and that the Old Believers were holding on to the Faith that their fathers had passed on to them. The fact is that Patriarch Nikon standardized the rituals, but made no changes in the dogmas of the Orthodox Church. Therefore it would be more correct to refer to the Russians who rejected Patriarch Nikon’s liturgical reforms as “Old Ritualists,” rather than as Old Believers.
Patriarch Nikon’s actions precipitated a firestorm of protest. He withdrew into semi-retirement in 1658, and for the next eight years, Russia was without an active Patriarch. At last Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich stepped in and convened another Church Council in 1666-67. The Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch came to Moscow and presided. The Council endorsed Patriarch Nikon’s reforms but deposed and exiled him to the monastery at White Lake (Byelozersk), and elevated a new Patriarch in his place.
The Crown, rather than the Orthodox Church, then set about actively persecuting Old Ritualists. Soldiers were sent to arrest them and compel them to make the Sign of the Cross with three fingers. Of course the Old Believers themselves fervently believed that if any of them were to make the Sign of the Cross with three fingers, even under extreme duress, he would be damned for eternity. So when soldiers appeared in their villages to arrest them, the Old Believers responded by barricading themselves inside their churches and setting them on fire, reasoning that it is preferable to perish by self-immolation, rather than to make the three-fingered Sign of the Cross under torture, and thereby lose any hope of salvation.
One historian has reckoned that some 20,000 Old Believers died in this way by the end of the first quarter of the 18th century.
These is a growing awareness among contemporary Russian Orthodox Christians, clergy and laity alike, that the Schism could have been anticipated and avoided, if only the principal players in this historic tragedy had been more compassionate and patient, and not so opinionated and judgmental.
Christians today can see the errors made three and a half centuries ago more clearly than those who actually made those errors, and even than those who were victimized by them.
It remains for us, the living, to bind up the wounds inflicted on our brothers and sisters in Christ so long ago. We must approach this sacred obligation humbly and prayerfully, in patience and charity and above all avoiding all judgment. Let us reach out to our brothers and sisters with a greater measure of love, to compensate for the love that was so conspicuously missing in the 17th and 18th and 18th centuries.
This present document bears witness to the sincere efforts made by the Orthodox Church, both in Russia and throughout the world, at reconciliation with our Old Ritualist brothers in Christ.
May our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, bless these efforts, that they may bring forth fruit in abundance.
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