Living Church

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

A cornerstone of the Bolshevik strategy against the Orthodox church was a plan to split the clergy. Schisms within the church were already evident before the revolution. They had formed along the predictable lines of liberal and conservative, young and old when debate on the reinstatement of the patriarchate took place in the months before the October Revolution, and continued when younger clergy did not share the hierarchy’s hostility toward the Bolsheviks. The fiasco of the famine relief effort exacerbated dissension, which finally came out in the open with the creation of new, or “Living Church” in the late summer of 1922.

Needed though such reforms might have been, they came at a moment of crisis, which deepened in October 1922, when the OGPU arrested and put the Patriarch Tikhon in prison, where he was to remain until June 26, 1923. The charges, described in a pamphlet by Andrei Vyshinskii (the future purge trial prosecutor), accused the Patriarch of being the focus of all religious opposition to the Bolsheviks, and of being the agent of foreign organizations, namely Russian Orthodox congregations abroad. With Tikhon absent and the church administration in disarray, the government pressed ahead with a number of laws and decrees directed against it, meanwhile pursuing a program of vicious anti-religious propaganda. Most damaging to the church was the instruction passed in April for the registration of all religious societies having more than fifty members. Effectively deprived of the right to congregate without registration, which could be denied at the discretion of the authorities, the church was placed fully under the power of the state.

The church was under attack on all fronts. Property confiscated, Tikhon imprisoned, his appointed deputy Metropolitan Agafangel of Yaroslavl exiled, and its administration in chaos, the church was taken under control by the adherents of the Living Church. They convened an All-Russian Church Council from April 29 to May 9, 1923, and began removing traditional clergy from posts of power. Eventually Tikhon was stripped of his office, undermining him completely, and leaving him to abjectly confess his sins against the revolution, referred to contemptuously now as “Citizen Belavin.” Anti-religious propagandists made hay from the chaos in the church. They mocked traditionalists for their refusal to change with the times, and mocked clergy of the Living Church when they tried to heal the wounds of the congregation in an August 1923 congress. When Tikhon died in 1924, the church was not allowed elect a new patriarch, and remained split throughout the 1920s and 1930s, precisely when it was facing its most brutal onslaught. Oddly though, the injustices reinvigorated the once mighty Orthodox Church. Distant from its flock (a weakness that had led to the Living Church reforms) the battered clergy had to re-forge ties with its congregants, who rallied to resist to confiscations in many places, including the village of Shuia. The Living Church fared worse, deeply discredited by its collaboration in the state campaign. It limped along for decades, finally put to rest in 1946. Most unfortunately, all reforms, including many that were desperately needed in the conservative church, were forever discredited.

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