Living Church Movement

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Also known as the Renovationist Movement, the Living Church Movement, a coalition of clergy and laity, sought to combine Orthodox Christianity with the social and political goals of the Soviet government between 1922 and 1946. The movement's names reflected fears that Orthodoxy faced extinction after the Bolshevik Revolution. Renovationists hoped to renew their church through reforms in liturgy, practice, and the rules on clergy marriage.

The movement began in response to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Parish priests in Petro-grad formed the Group of Thirty-Two in 1905 and proposed a liberal program for church administration that would allow married parish priests, not just celibate monastic priests, to become bishops. This group joined advocates of Christian socialism in a Union for Church Regeneration that advocated the separation of church and state, greater democracy within the church, and the use of modern Russian instead of medieval Old Church Slavonic in the Divine Liturgy. Repressed after 1905, the reform movement reappeared in 1917 only to wither from lack of widespread Orthodox support.

The Living Church Movement appeared during the famine of 19211922, thanks in large part to Bolshevik suspicions that Orthodox bishops were plotting counterrevolution. The Politburo approved a plan for splitting the church through a public campaign to seize church treasures for famine relief. Bolshevik leaders secretly wanted to strip the church of valuables that might be used to finance political opposition. Patriarch Tikhon Bellavin and other bishops opposed the government's plan to seize sacred icons, chalices, and patens. A small group of clergy led by Alexander Vvedensky, Vladimir Krasnitsky, and Antonin Granovsky used covert government aid to set up a rival national Orthodox organization that supported confiscation of church valuables, expressed loyalty to the Soviet regime, and promoted internal church reforms.

When Patriarch Tikhon unexpectedly abdicated in May 1922, Living Church leaders formed a Supreme Church Administration and pushed for revolution in the church by imitating the successful tactics of the Bolsheviks. Renovationists tried to force the church to accept radical reforms in liturgy, administration, leadership, and doctrine. Parish clergy responded favorably to proposed changes; bishops and laity overwhelmingly rejected them. Government authorities threatened, arrested, and exiled opponents to the Living Church, thereby further eroding popular support for reform.

Internal divisions within the Supreme Church Administration also weakened the movement. Three competing renovationist parties emerged. The Living Church Group of Archpriest Krasnitsky promoted church revolution led by parish priests. This group was more interested in giving greater power to parish priests by allowing them to remarry and to become bishops than in changing canons and dogma. Bishop Granovskii organized a League for Church Regeneration that espoused democracy in the church. The league appealed to conservative lay believers because it promised them a greater voice in church affairs and defended traditional Orthodox beliefs and practices. A third renovationist party, the League of Communities of the Ancient Apostolic Church led by Archpriest Vvedensky, combined Granovsky's democratic principles and Krasnitsky's reform proposals with Vvedensky's passion for Christian socialism.

Infighting among renovationist groups threatened to destroy the movement, so the Soviet government forced them to reconcile. The reunified Living Church gained control over nearly 70 percent of Russian Orthodox parish churches by the time their national church council convened in May 1923. The council defrocked Patriarch Tikhon and condemned his anti-Soviet activity. It also approved limited church reforms, including the abolition of the patriarchate and the ordination of married bishops, and proclaimed the church's loyalty to the regime.

By June 1923 the Soviet government became worried over the strength of renovationism. The Politburo decided to release Tikhon from jail after he agreed in writing to acknowledge his crimes and to promise loyalty to the government. Orthodox believers and clergy immediately rallied to him. The reformers reorganized in order to stop defections to the patriarchate. All renovationist parties were banned, most reforms were abandoned, and the Supreme Church Administration became the Holy Synod led by monastic bishops. Granovsky and Krasnitsky refused to accept these changes and were pushed aside. Vvedensky joined the Holy Synod in a reduced role.

The Renovationist Movement lost support throughout the 1920s, despite this reorganization and an attempt to reunite the church by calling a second renovationist national church council in October 1925. Most Orthodox believers saw everyone in the Living Church Movement as traitors who had sold out to the Communists. The movement declined dramatically throughout the 1930s as did the Orthodox church in general. The Living Church Movement experienced a short lived revival during the first years of World War II, when Soviet persecution of religion eased and Vvedensky became leader of the movement. In September 1943 Josef Stalin permitted senior patriarchal bishops to reinstate a national church administration. A month later, he approved a plan to merge renovationist parishes with the Moscow patriarchate. Vvedensky opposed this decision, but his death in July 1946 officially ended the Living Church Movement. For decades afterward, however, Orthodox believers used "Living Church" and "Renovationist" as synonyms for religious traitors.

See also: famine of 19211922; orthodoxy; russian orthodox church; tikhon, patriarch


Curtiss, John S. (1952). The Russian Church and the Soviet State, 19171950. Boston: Little, Brown.

Freeze, Gregory L. (1995). "Counter-reformation in Russian Orthodoxy: Popular Response to Religious Innovation, 19221925." Slavic Review 54:305339.

Roslof, Edward E. (2002). Red Priests: Renovationism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Revolution, 19051946. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Walters, Philip. (1991). "The Renovationist Coup: Personalities and Programmes." In Church, Nation and State in Russia and Ukraine, ed. Geoffrey A. Hosking. London: MacMillan.

Edward E. Roslof