Church Council

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In the Orthodox Church, councils (in Greek, synodos ; in Russian, sobor ) are the highest form of ecclesiastical authority, the most important of which are the seven ecumenical councils that were held between the years 325 and 787. Since 1500 the Russian Church has convened several "local" or national councils (pomestnye sobory ), which apply specifically to the Russian Church itself. Ultimate authority for decision-making at these councils has rested in the hands of the bishops, although, in the twentieth century, clergy and laity have participated in a consultative role with varying degrees of power. Since the rise of Muscovite Russia, the local councils have taken place in Moscow or just northeast of it at the Trinity Monastery in Sergiev Posad (known as Zagorsk during the Soviet period).

The Council of 1503 confronted the conflicting positions of two monastics who were subsequently both glorified by the Church as saints. Joseph of Volotsk advocated the establishment of cenobitic monasteries (in which monks lived in common, sharing everything), church landholdings, and the active involvement of monks in the world. Nil Sorsky promoted a monasticism that separated itself from the world; monks, he thought, should live as hermits and earn income from their own labor. Although the debates between the possessors and nonpossessors, as their two points of view are known respectively, amounted to a difference in emphasis, not of absolute opposition, the Council of 1503 rejected Nil's positions. As a result, sixteenth-century monastic landholding and wealth increased. The assembly also condemned the Judaizer movement as a heresy.

The Council of 16661667 was convened amidst Tsar Alexei's efforts to deal with the reforms of the outspoken Patriarch Nikon. With Patriarchs Paissy of Alexandria and Macarius of Antioch in attendance, the assembly endorsed Nikon's reforms of ritual and service books, yet deposed Nikon himself for his attempts to attain supreme authority over the tsar. The Council called for increasing the number of bishops, closing the state's Monastery Office, and restoring the bishops' authority over the clergy; the state resisted such changes in order to preserve its own power. The Council sought to curtail the unregulated recognition of saints and of miracle-working relics, reduced the number of saints' days that were national feasts, and called for a skeptical attitude when considering the validity of "holy fools."

The Council of 1682, convened during the reign of Tsar Theodore, considered questions and proposals that had been raised at the Council of 16661667, including the addition of ten dioceses to the existing thirteen. Since only one new diocese had been added, the expansion of ecclesiastical administration still remained an issue. Other decisions concerned the behavior of clergy and the regulation of church services and veneration of relics.

The Council of 19171918 represented the culmination of an early-twentieth-century church reform movement. After the February Revolution, it attempted to reconstruct church-state relations in cooperation with and anticipation of the proposed political transformation of Russia through the Constituent Assembly. It also contended with the rise of nationalist movements and Soviet power. The Council had been much anticipated in 1906 but, due to fears of political unrest, had been postponed by Tsar Nicholas II. Its delegates consisted of 265 clerics (bishops, priests, and monks) and 299 laymen; although the assembly's plenary sessions were thereby dominated numerically by nonepiscopal members (a departure from tradition), no decree was made official until approved by the Council's episcopal conference, which met in secret session. The Council restored the Moscow Patriarchate to replace the Synodal higher church administration instituted by Peter the Great; decentralized authority in diocesan administration to create an ecclesiastical system more responsive to the needs of clergy and laity; and reformed the parish, which became a legal entity empowered to carry out many decisions on its own. The Council also considered a host of issues concerning church discipline. The Bolsheviks' disestablishment of the institutional church made it difficult or impossible to carry out the Council's decrees. In 1918 the delegates focused increasingly on preserving the church rather than reforming it.

The Council of January 31February 2, 1945, was convened at the behest of the Soviet government and broke with church tradition and the decrees of the 19171918 Council in many ways. Held primarily to elect a new patriarch to succeed Patriarch Sergius, the Council selected Alexei, the sole candidate proposed for the position. Consisting of 46 bishops, 87 priests, and 37 laymen, the Council created a centralized authority in the hands of the patriarch, at the expense of Synodal, diocesan, and parish authority.

The Council of May 30June 2, 1971, was attended by 236 delegates, including a bishop, priest, and layman from each diocese and guests from outside Russia. The Council elected Metropolitan Pimen as patriarch to replace Alexei, who had died in April 1970, and lifted the seventeenth-century excommunication of the Old Believers. It confirmed the parish reforms of the 1961 Council of Bishops, which had given power to executive committees to control finances, thereby undermining the authority of priests and bishops. The Council also approved the granting of autocephaly (independence) to Orthodox Churches in America, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, as well as autonomy (self-rule) to Churches in Japan and Finland.

The Church convened the Council of June 69, 1988, during the millennium anniversary of the baptism of Rus in 988. The assembly glorified (canonized) nine saints: Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoy, Andrei Rublev, Maximus the Greek, Metropolitan of Moscow Macarius (14821563), Paissy Velichkovsky, Xenia of Petersburg, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Amvrosy of Optina, and Bishop Theofan the Recluse. The Council promulgated a new statute on church administration, which called for a local council to be convened every five years and a bishops' council every two years. It also over-turned the parish decrees of the 1961 Bishops' Council by strengthening the position of the priest in the parish, making his signature necessary for all parish council documents and establishing him as chairman of the parish council.

See also: holy synod; patriarchate; russian orthodox church; saints


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George T. Kosar

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Church Council

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