Russian Orthodox Clergy

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Clergy in this article is defined as priests, those churchmen ordained to conduct the liturgy (Mass) and administer the sacraments (deacons could administer some sacraments but were not authorized to celebrate the liturgy). In Russian Orthodoxy priests are subdivided into "white" and "black" categories. Monk-priests, or hieromonks, called the black clergy because of the color of their robes, are ordained to conduct the liturgy in male or female monastic communities, and also in parish churches, as necessary (although that practice was discouraged in Muscovite Russia). While hieromonks are pledged to celibacy, the white clergyparish, or secular priests (because they serve laymen)are expected to be married. The focus of this article is on the parish clergy.


In Muscovite Russia (the principality of Moscow) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there was no systematic educational system, either ecclesiastic or secular. Schooling typically took place in the home of any priest or deacon willing to take in pupils for a fee. Priests' sons commonly studied under their fathers, if not becoming truly literate, at least memorizing enough services in Church Slavonic, the archaic language of the church dating from the tenth century, to perform portions of the liturgy and other services. In the 1490s the learned Novgorod Archbishop Gennadii petitioned the Moscow metropolitan (head of the Muscovite Orthodox Church) and the Moscow grand prince to set up a school system, but nothing came of it. In the Stoglav ('Hundred Chapters'), protocols of the Moscow Church Council of 1551, various remedies were decreed to rectify the situation: schools should be established in the homes of qualified priests, deacons, and readers; bishops should carefully examine candidates to the priesthood before ordaining them or appointing them to a parish; archpriests and priest supervisors should ensure that serving priests were qualified; and so forth. Despite Stoglav pronouncements, no discernable improvement in priests' education and training is evident in contemporary sources. It was not until the reign of Peter I the Great (ruled 16821725) that bishops were required to introduce ecclesiastical schools and directed to fund them by taxing parish churches and monasteries. Only in the 1780s in the reign of Catherine II the Great (ruled 17621796) were seminaries actually functioning in every eparchy (the church was divided territorially into twenty-six eparchies, or dioceses, at that time).

Despite poor and unsystematic education, the parish priest was frequently the only literate or semi-literate person in a village and was frequently called upon to draft or copy various documents like wills, property transactions, and the like.


The question of whether parish priests should be married, single, or celibate is an old and controversial one in the history of Christianity. Byzantine canons stated that a priest could marry, but that he did not have to; in any case, he could marry only before his ordination. Still following Byzantine canons, if a priest's wife died and the priest married for a second time, he could not serve in a church in any capacity whatsoever.

A preference for married secular clergy developed in Kievan times (tenth to thirteenth centuries). In Muscovy (fifteenth to seventeenth centuries) it was canonically ruled that secular priests had to be married, that they could marry only once, and that, in order for them to continue serving as parish priests, their wives had to be living. Whatever the rationale behind this requirement (one early sixteenth-century source explains that widower priests could not be trusted not to commit adultery), the Muscovite Church developed the policy that secular priests had to retire if their wives died. Various complementary rulings were issued: for example, that a widower priest could either take the tonsure and serve in a monastery as a hieromonk or remain in the secular world and serve in a church choir or as a reader.

Incentives for widower priests to avoid forced retirement must have been strong, and indeed there is evidence that many widower priests were able to continue serving or to take up service elsewhere. Church councils in 1503 and 1551 (the Stoglav Council) discussed and condemned various practices of widower priests to avoid forced retirement: for example, taking up with another woman, going to another eparchy, and pretending that the woman was his first wife; becoming ordained as a hieromonk and then taking up a regular appointment in a parish church; remarrying, hoping that the bishop's agents would not detect the uncanonical second marriage, or that, if they did, their silence could be purchased. There are no quantifiable data on the number of hieromonks or twice-married priests who were able to serve uncanonically in secular churches, but, judging by church councils' complaints and foreigners' accounts, the practice was common.


Secular priests were appointed to a parish either by a bishop or by the parishioners. Byzantine canons dictated that only a bishop could appoint a parish priest, but popular selection was tolerated in both Byzantine and Muscovite times. Popular election of parish clergy in the Muscovite church was facilitated by the fact that bishops lacked the administrative machinery and personnel to locate, train, and select qualified candidates, or to check thoroughly the qualifications of candidates proposed by parishioners. Nor were all bishops qualified to judge priest candidates. Not all bishops' assistants were above taking bribes. In addition to bishops' officials, who were typically laymen, priests were overseen by archpriests and senior priests although there is little evidence that the system worked, particularly outside cities.

The standard practice for a candidate for the priesthood was apparently the following: first he had to find a willing parish, and then he sought ordination and appointment by the local bishop. His arrangement with the parishioners might be concluded by a written contract, in which he promised to perform his duties over a stated period and parishioners promised to protect and support him; conditions were sometimes stated under which the priest could be dismissed by the parishioners. From his bishop the candidate purchased (or, canonically speaking, received in exchange for a donation) a charter of ordination and a charter of appointment. To the extent that parishioners exercised control over the process, the status of the priest might be no better than that of a parish employee who could be dismissed.

Bishops and their officials retained greater authority over priest appointments at those churches that were subsidized by the grand prince or, less often, by the church hierarchy. Such appointments could be a plum, and some bishops' officials were caught seeking kickbacks from appointees to subsidized churches.

Priests without appointments were effectively without income. Since the church made no provision for maintaining jobless clergymen, their only course was to search for a position, meanwhile begging or serving temporarily at any church or monastery that would accept them. In principle an unemployed priest could obtain (purchase) a charter of transfer or transience from a bishop. From the priest's point of view, the major consideration about charters of ordination, appointment, transfer, and transience was that all these documents cost him money. The legitimacy of allowing any fees at all, particularly for ordination, had long been debated, first in the Byzantine and then the Muscovite Church. By the time of the Stoglav Council in 1551, Muscovite practice was to allow fees but to admonish bishops that they should collect equal fees from all candidates and priests.


The church did not pay priestsrather, it took money from them. Nor was a uniform policy established of how much parishioners were supposed to pay priests. In practice, priests had to exploit a number of sources of income and support, including the following: a plot of arable land set aside by the parish for the personal use of the priest and his family; income from teaching; donations and offerings in money and in kind from parishioners in return for special services like baptisms and memorial services; marriage fees (although, legally, marriage fees were supposed to be remitted in full to the bishop); fees for consecrating a church (more often beneficial to the clergy of large urban churches than of village parishes); whatever trade privileges and income-producing properties the parish church possessed (here, too, this applied more often to large urban churches or cathedrals than to village churches); and, finally, an annual stipend or subsidy from the grand prince's treasury, or, less often, from a bishop or from parishioners.

Although the potential income sources appear numerous, the fact remained that the secular clergy had little income security. In practice the village priest derived most of his support by farming the plot of land allotted to him by the parish; he was, typically, a barefoot peasant farmer, just like his parishioners (some parish contracts stipulate that the priest wear shoes in church when conducting the divine liturgy). Most productive church landholdings belonged to monasteries, some to prelates, almost none to parish churches.

The apparent narrow margin between income and expenses prompted many secular priests to seek an annual stipend or subsidy from the grand prince's treasury (bishops were resistant to making such grants, and village parishes rarely had the means). Funds or goods granted as subsidy might be paid to the parish to defray expenses, or directly to the priest as a salary. One calculation for Novgorod in the sixteenth century numbers seven village churches and approximately fifty urban churches receiving an annual subsidy from the Moscow grand prince. An early seventeenth-century estimate indicates that some 1,500 churches throughout Russia were receiving subsidies. Annual subsidies from the grand prince were so desirable (though their continuance was not guaranteed) that large churches would set up secondary altars, appoint a priest to each, and then request a subsidy from the grand prince. In the seventeenth century, for which statistics become more available, urban churches typically had two or three secondary altars; the Moscow Kremlin Cathedral of the Archangel Michael had twelve altars.


Some improvement in clerical education was achieved in seventeenth-century Muscovy when ecclesiastical schools were established in Moscow and Novgorod. Several members of the Zealots of Piety movement, who sought to reform the church and return it to authentic traditions, were educated secular clergy. In the Church Schism of the seventeenth century, when Old Believers rejected changes introduced by the official church, some Old Believer communities even went without priests because they could not accept priests ordained by the official church. To the extent that the church began publishing service books with some scholarly foundation, priests gained access to texts more standardized than those in previous hand-copied books.


The secular clergy experienced profound changes in the eighteenth century. As government policies, beginning with Peter I the Great (ruled 16821725), placed the church increasingly under government control, the secular clergy became virtual state employees, more under the authority of bishops and less dependent on parishes for appointments. For the first time in Russia, also beginning with Peter the Great, an ecclesiastical schooling system was begun throughout the country. One unfortunate aspect of the educational system, however, was the extent to which the curriculum was latinized (because of Ukrainian Orthodox influence) and unrelated to the Russian Church. On the plus side, secular priests received more systematic and formal training than ever before; on the negative side, the Latin-oriented educational system did not effectively train them to conduct services in Church Slavonic. Nevertheless, the secular clergy became something of a hereditary professional estate in the eighteenth century, and seminary education, even if one did not pursue an ecclesiastical career, was the best schooling available.

See also Old Believers ; Orthodoxy, Russian ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ; Russia .


Freeze, Gregory L. The Russian Levites: Parish Clergy in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1977.

Kollmann, Jack E., Jr. "The Stoglav Council and Parish Priests." Russian History/Histoire Russe 7, parts 12, (1980): 6591.

Pospielovsky, Dimitry. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia. Crestwood, N.Y., 1998.

Jack Kollmann