Russian Church Council of 1654: Patriarch Nikon introduces new service books
July 19, 2008, 14:50
This is the fourth in a series of RT reports on Christianity’s arrival and 1,200-year-long development in Russia. After a period of strength and unity, by the 17th century the Russian Orthodox Church began to tear apart. In 1652 it had a new patriarch – an uncompromising and bright Nikon. He decided a reform of the service books and rites was needed.
For centuries, church books in Russia were translated from Greek to Old Slavonic and copied by hand. Gradually, mistranslations of the text and mistakes crept in. Nikon wanted to restore everything to conformity with the Greek original. One thing in particular that created much trouble was that the Russians had come to make the sign of the cross with two fingers instead of three (representing the trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit), as the Greeks did.
Nikon’s reforms unleashed a wave of misunderstanding and violent protests across Russia. The church authority was questioned. Traditional believers viewed the changes as the devil’s work. Some burned themselves to death in their homes or churches. Others cut off fingers to spare them the shame of using the Greek sign of the cross. The reforms caused a schism or “raskol” within the Russian Orthodox Church, a split between Nikon’s supporters and the so-called Old Believers - those who wanted the old ways back.
Incredibly strong-willed and powerful, Nikon set about crushing the opposition but his reign was brutally ended as he suddenly fell foul of the Tsar. It’s thought that his active interfering in politics and an ambition to make the Church independent on the state caused the Tsar’s anger. In 1666 Patriarch Nikon was formally deposed, made a simple monk and confined to a remote monastery.
Nikon’s reforms, though, were upheld by his successor. Old Believers were referred to as “raskolniki” or schismatics and endured severe persecution. Over the years many fled Russia altogether while many were sent to villages scattered across Siberia. Out of sight and often regarded with mistrust, they led a secluded life, carefully preserving the traditions of the past.
In 1971 the Moscow Patriarchate revoked the anathemas placed on the Old Believers in the 17th century, but most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with other Orthodox Christians. Many still live in extremely isolated communities respecting ancient traditions.