[Paleopsych] TLS: Priests and peasants

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Priests and peasants
    Hugh Wybrew
    16 July 2004
    Oxford University Press. £30 (US $49.95). - 0 19 515465 7.

    Since the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union there has
    been a revival of interest both in the Russian Orthodox Church, and in
    its immediate pre- Revolutionary history. Vera Shevzov, an assistant
    professor in the Department of Religion and Biblical Literature at
    Smith College, has written a fascinating study of Orthodoxy as it was
    experienced by ordinary Russians in the decades between the great
    reforms of the 1860s - beginning with the liberation of the serfs in
    1861 - and the Revolution of 1917. Drawing largely on archival
    material only recently easily accessible, she examines what it meant
    to belong to the Orthodox community at a time when the Russian Empire
    was fast approaching its fatal crisis.

    Reforms in the governance of the Empire initiated a new era in the
    life of the State Church. The peasants were now free to lead their
    lives by themselves. The educational efforts of both Church and State
    improved their religious knowledge, and encouraged them to play a less
    passive part in church life. In particular the Revolution of 1905,
    which gave other faith communities legal rights, initiated a period of
    intense self-examination in the Church. It culminated in the
    All-Russian Church Council of 1917-18, which restored the Moscow
    Patriarchate and reformed Church structures.

    Hotly debated in those years was the definition of "Church" itself.
    Two principal views emerged. Some, in line with the reorganization of
    the Church imposed by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century,
    began with the nationwide institution. They emphasized the role of the
    bishops and clergy, and, under the influence of Roman Catholic
    teaching, often distinguished them as teachers from the laity who were
    taught. Others, influenced by the ecclesiology of sobornost
    ("catholicity" or "togetherness") advocated by Khomiakov, began with
    the parish, the local community, and emphasized the unity of clergy
    and laity in one community of faith. This debate remained unresolved
    by 1917.

    In the life of ordinary Orthodox believers, most of whom in the late
    nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived in villages, the church
    building was central.

    It was the sacred space around which was constituted the worshipping
    community, whose members were responsible for building and maintaining
    it. Churches played a key role in the celebration of village feasts,
    some of which celebrated major festivals in the ecclesiastical
    calendar, while others were local in character.

    Chapels, too, were significant. They were constructed by individuals
    or local communities in places sanctified by a miracle or by the
    appearance of an icon.

    Icons were omnipresent in Orthodox life and devotion. Many were
    considered miracle-working, and were the objects of special
    veneration. Among the most popular were icons of Mary the Mother of
    God. Shevzov illustrates these aspects of Russian Orthodox life with
    abundant instances drawn from the material she has studied. Her book
    reveals the crisis in self- understanding faced by Orthodoxy on the
    eve of the Revolution in 1917. Unable to agree even about the
    character and nature of the Church itself and the role of the laity
    within it, churchmen disagreed about whether to concentrate on the
    renewal of the parish or the restoration of the Patriarchate.
    Meanwhile believers lived their lives as members of the Orthodox
    community in the framework of a complex Christian narrative in which
    Scripture, liturgical tradition, and local and personal experience
    were interwoven. They were aware of the institutional aspects of
    Orthodoxy: the Holy Synod in St Petersburg and the local bishop rather
    closer at hand. But alongside the bishop's authority believers often
    set that of Mary, experienced more intimately through her icons.

    If Russian Orthodoxy was passing through an internal crisis, it was
    also faced with external problems. Modernization in Russia, as
    elsewhere, brought many difficulties for the Church. Religious faith
    was questioned, and often rejected, by the intelligentsia, even if at
    the beginning of the twentieth century some of its members began to
    take a renewed interest in Orthodoxy. A still greater crisis loomed.
    Hardly had the Church succeeded in calling the long-awaited Local
    (that is, Russian) Council than it was confronted by the militant
    atheism of the Soviet Union. Its internal debates were forcibly
    suspended, to be resumed only after the collapse of the Soviet Empire
    and its Communist regime. Vera Shevzov's book is not only of immense
    interest as a historical study, but contributes to an understanding of
    the Russian Orthodox Church today, which despite the immense changes
    of the Communist period has still to resolve some of the issues of the
    immediate pre-Revolutionary period, including those of the parish and
    the role of the laity.

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