The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Old Believers

The Old Believers, also known as Old Ritualists, came into existence as the result of a schism within the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. The Russian Church had adopted certain liturgical usages that differed from those of the Greeks. Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) introduced changes intended to make Russian practices conform to Greek usage. This was offensive to some Russian Orthodox who believed that it was legitimate for the Russian Church to adopt its own traditions. Opposition coalesced around a priest named Avvakum, who was burnt at the stake in 1682. His followers became known as Old Believers, or those who followed the old rituals before the reform.

The Old Believers, who at one time may have composed 10% of the Russian population, were harshly persecuted under the tsars. Many fled into Asia in the 18th century and others were forcefully exiled from European Russia. Many communities lived in almost complete isolation for centuries. Since no Orthodox bishop had joined the Old Believers, the group was deprived of a hierarchy. This, along with the fact that the communities were spread over vast areas, caused them to split into as many as 12 groups, each with its own characteristics. But the Old Believers managed to preserve traditional Russian iconography at a time when the official church supported more modern art forms.

The two most important groups are known as “Popovtsy, ” who have retained priests and sacraments, and “Bezpopovtsy, ” who reject them. The priestless communities are scattered throughout the far north from Karelia to the Urals. In 1847 the former Orthodox Metropolitan Ambrosios of Sarajevo (Bosnia) embraced the Old Believers and consecrated two bishops for those who remained loyal to the priesthood and sacraments. This gave rise to the hierarchy of the largest priestly group.

It was only after May 3, 1905, when Tsar Nicholas II issued the Edict of Toleration, that Old Believers were allowed to function freely in Russia. The situation of this community since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 is poorly known, but there were attempts to overcome the schism. Metropolitan Sergius and the Holy Synod took unsuccessful measures to heal the rift in 1929. Meetings took place in the period following World War II which culminated in the solemn lifting of the anathemas in 1971. So far, however, full communion between Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church has not been restored.

Today the largest priestly group of Old Believers is the Russian Orthodox Old Rite Church, also known as the “Bielaia Krinitsia” Church, a reference to the village in western Ukraine where one of their largest communities is located. The church headquarters was established there in tsarist times because it was then on the Austrian side of the border. They canonized Metropolitan Ambrosios – from whom their ordinations derive – in 1997. The church is currently headed by Metropolitan Kornily (Titov) of Moscow and All Russia (elected 2005), with headquarters in Moscow. In March 2006 Metropolitan Kornily met with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations. They agreed to set up a joint committee to explore new modes of cooperation. The Russian Orthodox Old Rite Church has a total of five bishops and more than 250 parishes in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. A seminary was opened in Moscow in 1996.

The Russian Orthodox Old Rite Church is in full communion with a group of Old Rite Orthodox known as Lipovans, headed by Metropolitan Leonty, with headquarters in Braila, Romania. The community is descended from Old Believers who fled Russia during the 18th century. The Lipovans have three dioceses in Romania and an Archdiocese of the United States of America, Australia and Canada headed by Archbishop Sophrony. He resides in Oregon amidst an Old Believer community of 10,000 faithful. There are five parishes in the United States, two parishes in Australia and about 500 members in Canada, mostly in Alberta. In Australia contact the Russian Old Rite Orthodox Church of the Holy Annunciation and the Assumption at 58 Vaughan Street, Lidcombe, NSW, 2141.

The other significant group of priestly Old Believers is much smaller, called the Russian Old Orthodox Church. It obtained a valid hierarchy during the turmoil of the 1920s and now has five bishops and about 60 parishes. From 1963 to 2000, when he moved to Moscow, the head of the church resided in the city of Novozybkov. The primate has assumed different titles over the years, but since 2002 has been known as the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. The current Patriarch is Alexander (Kalinin), based in Moscow. There are additional bishops in Kamyshin, Kursk, the Urals and Burjatia, as well as in Georgia and Belarus.

The Old Believers are believed to have substantially declined in numbers after the 1917 Soviet revolution. They have now achieved legal recognition, and churches have been reopening at a rapid rate, creating an acute shortage of clergy. Reliable figures concerning membership are not available, but estimates run between 2,000,000 and 2,500,000 faithful worldwide.

Last Modified: 04 September 2021

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