Church of the Nativity

Old Rite Russian Orthodox

​An Old Rite parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). We are located in Erie, PA.

Background on the Old Rite

Old Believers, or more correctly Old Ritualists, are Russian Orthodox Christians who adhere to the service books and ritual of the Russian Orthodox Church prior to the reforms made to those books and services by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon beginning in the year 1653. While this may seem to be a rather verbose definition of this group, or again more correctly, these groups, it is necessary to understand exactly what Old Believers are and from whence they have come. We will refer to these groups as Old Believers rather than Old Ritualists, since that is probably the more common designation used for the adherents of the pre-Nikonian Rite of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, the term “Old Ritualists” is a more accurate term since these Russian Orthodox Christians do not have different beliefs or doctrines than the “New Ritualists” of the Russian Orthodox Church, but follow a variant of the same rite. Before the Russian Revolution in 1917 there were probably more than 20 million Old Believers located throughout the Russian Empire and in the Diaspora, but now after nearly a century of Communist persecution and simple secularization of Russian people, that number probably does not exceed 2 million.

It is important to state at the outset that the phenomenon of the Old Believers cannot be understood by simply stating that Patriarch Nikon revised the Russian Orthodox ritual creating Old believers. It is necessary to understand the background that brought about the tragic events that led to the Great Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church creating the Old Believers.

The Russian land received Christianity in the year 988 because of the decision of Prince Vladimir to accept Eastern Christianity from Byzantium. The Russian people were baptized en masse in the Dnieper River in 988 and came under the omophorion of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Thus, the Russians were part of the Greek Orthodox Church until they were formally granted their complete independence and their own Patriarch in 1588.

Nevertheless, while being under the spiritual and administrative direction of the Patriarch of Constantinople until 1588, a number of events occurred between 988 and 1588 that led to the Russians feeling that they were already an independent Church long before the Constantinopolitan Patriarch and the other Eastern Patriarchs conferred a Patriarch and independence on them.

First of all, Constantinople was stormed by the Latin Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. After this disgraceful act on the part of the Crusaders, they appointed a Latin Patriarch to administer the Greek Church. This was most likely the first event that began to distance the Russians from their baptizers and to make them suspect that their “teachers” had lost their Orthodox purity and independence from the Roman Catholic Church. 

In the mid-thirteenth Century, Batu, the grandson of Gengis Khan, swept into Russia with the Mongol horde instituting the more than 200-year-period the Russians still refer to as the “Mongol yoke”. While the Mongols were ruthless and barbaric in their treatment of those who opposed them, they were religious during the first part of their reign, thus leaving the Russian Church to function as it had before. However, all foreign relations were controlled by the Mongols, and the Russians found themselves isolated not only from Western Europe, but also even from the East – including Constantinople, which still legally was responsible for all administrative actions of the Russian Church.

In 1439, both the Russian Church and the Greek Church took part in the Council of Florence which was called in an attempt to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. As David Scheffel relates in his book In the Shadow of Antichrist:

"The imminent threat of a Turkish conquest of the remnants of Byzantium had prompted the (Greek) emperor to seek military assistance from the West in exchange for settling the schism between Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism to Rome’s advantage. The short-lived Union of Florence brought about neither the survival of the ailing eastern empire nor a lasting peace between Constantinople and Rome. But it supplied a powerful rationale for the Russification of the Muscovite branch of the Orthodox Church and for Russia’s role as the self-appointed protector of the Christian faith.”

Finally, the conquest of Constantinople  by the Ottoman Empire under the command of Sultan Mehmed II, on Tuesday, May 29, 1453 marked not only the final destruction of the Eastern Roman Empire,  but also the strategic conquest crucial for Ottoman rule over the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans. Many of the Russian faithful believed that this conquest was permitted by God as punishment for the betrayal of Orthodox Christianity to the Latin’s at the above-mentioned Council of Florence. Whatever the reason, this conquest led to the enslavement of the Greek Church to the Turks, leading the leaders of the Russian Church to believe that the time had come for independence from the their Greek “fathers”. This attitude, and the resultant difficulty in normal relations between the Greek and Russian Churches, led to increasing Russification of Russian liturgical practices and, eventually, certain differences in ritual between the Greeks and Russians. Among these differences were in the making the sign of the cross while praying. The Russians used what is commonly referred to as the “two-fingered” sign of the cross while the Greeks were by the 16th Century, if not earlier, using what was known as the “three-fingered” sign of the cross.

This difference and several other ritualistic differences led Tsar Ivan IV (the “Terrible” to convene an all Russian Council in 1551 to determine whether the Greek practices or the Russian practices were the more ancient and correct. Tsar Ivan submitted a series of questions to the Church Council.  The answers were in one hundred numbered chapters and were given the name Stoglav or “Hundred Chapters.”  The main purpose of the council was to unify the church service and rituals, revise and correct the books they used, fight superstition and heresy, establish schools, and end the abuse of power by clergymen indulging in drunkenness, corruption, and debauchery.  Also, Ivan was concerned about the collapse of customs and traditions from Western influences.  He was calling for a strengthening of true Orthodoxy, believing the divine scriptures forbad believers to follow foreign customs. Some of the disputes settled by the Stoglav were how the sign of the cross was to be made.  It was decided that it must be made with two fingers, not one or three.  Also, church processions must move with the sun, never against it.  During certain prayers, “Alleluia” must only be repeated twice, never more or less.  The council also decided that to shave the beard was a vulgar sin.  The council ruled on how icons were to be made.  It determined to increase the structure of the Russian Orthodox Church.  One part of the plan was to add more saints.  In three years, thirty-seven more saints were added.  Stoglav declared it was the duty of the state to give proper religious instruction to the people.  Because of this, books were to be revised and corrected where necessary. To this day Old Believers adamantly argue that Patriarch Nikon was wrong in introducing his reforms because they flew in the face of the Stoglav Council which was a venerable all-Russian council, rather than the whim of one man (Patriarch Nikon).

But by the middle of the seventeenth Century the issue again arose as to the propriety of the Russian practices in light of the fact that they differed from the practices of the other Eastern local Churches. This came to the forefront particularly due to the subservient positions the other Eastern Churches found themselves because of Ottoman or Latin dominance in their regions. This often led to the other Eastern patriarchs or their legates seeking assistance and leadership from the Russian Church, which by now, although the “child” of the other Eastern Churches, was by far the largest and freest. These Eastern patriarchs sought Russian leadership and even tempted the Russians with a promise to follow the Russian patriarchs, if only the Russian Church would “correct” its ritualistic “errors”.

Finally at the beginning of Great Lent in 1653 Patriarch Nikon ordered a “correction” of a number of service books along with revisions in certain practices of the ritual of the Russian Church. Since Nikon appointed a number of clergy from Kiev to lead the “correction” of the service books, the northern Russian clergy were particularly incensed because of the suspicion that the Kievan clergy had been under significant Roman Catholic influence. Of particular significance in creating a condition ripe for division was the directive of Nikon that faithful begin to sign themselves with the three-fingered sign of the cross rather than the ancient Russian practice of the two-fingered sign of the cross. One of the most staunch defenders of the “old ways” and thus, one of the strongest adversaries of Patriarch Nikon was Archpriest Avvakum, a former friend and ally of Nikon in bringing renewal to the Russian Church during the Patriarchate of Nikon’s predecessor, Patriarch Joseph. Serge Zenkovsky, in his book “Medieval Russia’s epics, chronicles and tales” translates in part the autobiography of the Archpriest Avvakum as to his reaction to the decree of Patriarch Nikon:

It was if winter was of a mind to come; our hearts froze, our limbs shook. Neronov (another prominent Zealot) entrusted his church to me and shut himself in the Miracle Monastery, and he spent a week praying in a cell, and one day a voice came from the icon of the Saviour: ‘The hour of tribulation has come; it behooves you to suffer and be strong.’

Scheffel  in his book “In the Shadow of Antichrist”, describes the events that followed:

The refusal of many priests to adopt the new sign of the cross led to charges of sedition and a string of arrests. The ranks of the Zealots were decimated and their leaders defrocked and banished to remote monasteries. Among them was Avvakum, who was sent to Siberia in 1653. Having removed his most vocal opponents, the patriarch took firm control of the printing house and the group of correctors entrusted with the liturgical standardization. The composition of the team changed, with Ukrainian and Greek scholars replacing Russian ones. By 1654 Nikon was in complete charge of the correction project.

Although Nikon convened Russian councils in 1654 and 1655 which confirmed his reforms (although begrudgingly under pressure from Nikon), and other Eastern prelates did likewise in 1666-1667, the opponents, who now began to be called “Old Ritualists” or, in time, “Old Believers” never agreed to the reforms. In the Council of 1666-1667 the Old Rite was forbidden and anathematized and those who refused to accept the reforms were also placed under anathema. By then even if there had been no formal split between the “dominant” or “state” Church and the Old Believers, there was no question that division had existed in fact since the enforcement of the reforms by both Patriarch Nikon and the state under Tsar Alexis. Many Old Believers saw Nikon as the Antichrist and awaited the end of time which certainly would be the result of the fall of the last bastion of “true” Christianity – the official Russian Orthodox Church.

Thus, most Old Believers migrated to isolated areas of the Russian empire to live monastic-like lives in preparation for the imminent second coming of the Lord. Many of the Old Believers fled to the shores of the White Sea, thus, leading to their designation as “Pomortsi” (Shore Dwellers). The ancestors of the Erie parish come from this “soglasie” of Old Believers. The Pomortsi became famous throughout Russia for their piety and their work ethic, which in many ways may remind non Russian readers of the Protestant work ethic. But when the end of time proved not to be as imminent as believed, by the end of the 17th Century as all the clergy who had been ordained by bishops consecrated before the reforms of Nikon were dieing out, the Old Believers were faced with a critical decision – how to preserve the fullness of the liturgical life of the Church without ordained priests. Again Scheffel explains well this quandary and the decisions reached in his book “In the Shadow of Antichrist”:

In theory the early leaders could have chosen one of three solutions. The most comprehensive strategy would have been to set up an independent church with bishops and priests of its own... The second solution was the use of priests who had been ordained in the reformed church and then left it to join the Old Believers, The status of these clergymen was, however, controversial because unlike the old priests, who had been ordained by pre-Nikonite bishops, these new ones had in a sense compromised themselves by receiving consecration from bishops whom the Old Believers dismissed as heterodox. Nevertheless, urged by Avvakum to adopt this strategy, most of the southern and western communities came to rely on these fugitive priests, which earned them the designation of “priestists” or in Russian “popovtsy”. This concession to necessity was rejected by the vast majority of the northern Old Believers, who opted for the third and most radical alternative: the total repudiation of all elements of the reformed church, including the new clergy. Determined to make due with only laity, this branch came to be known as “bezpopovtsy”, the “priestless ones”.
The divergence of the Old Believers into the two factions of “popovtsy” and “bezpopovtsy” took place in the last years of the 17th century, at a time when the almost complete disappearance of pre-Nikonian clergy made urgent the design of a lasting model for spiritual revival. The official birth of the priestless wing was announced at two meetings held in Novgorod in 1692 and 1694. The assembled leaders defined the reformed church as defiled by the antichrist and called upon all Christians to refrain from using its sacraments and priests. Converts to Old Orthodoxy who had grown up in the official church were required to be baptized anew, and their marriages had to be dissolved. Although provisions were made for specially designated laymen to administer baptism, the designers of the priestless strategy did not dare to give these elders the power to sanctify marriages. Consequently, membership in the new congregations required universal celibacy, and future growth was expected to be generated exclusively by converts from the official church.

Eventually, the priestless Old Believers formed various “soglasia” or “concords” based upon certain viewpoints on how to exist under these never before imagined conditions. One of the issues that confronted the Old Believers was whether to pray for the Tsar –if he was the Antichrist – or at least associated with the reign of the Antichrist. After the early severe persecutions came to an end and the Russian tsars decided to allow the Old Believers a certain amount of peaceful coexistence, the majority of priestless Old Believers by a more attentive study of Holy Writ and ancient books discovered that the reign of Antichrist would consist of two periods. In the former, the son of destruction would reign merely in the spiritual sense, and the faithful would not be much molested; in the latter, he would reign visibly in the flesh, and true believers would be subjected to the most frightful persecution. The second period, it was held, had evidently not yet arrived, for the faithful now enjoyed a time of freedom, and not of compulsion or oppression. Very many Old Believers accepted this concept, and determined to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's, or, in secular language, to pray for the Tsar and to pay their taxes. This ingenious compromise was not accepted by all the priestless Old Believers. On the contrary, many of them regarded it as backsliding; and among these irreconcilables was a certain peasant called Feodosi, a man of little education, but of remarkable intellectual power and unusual strength of character. He raised anew the old zeal against obedience to the state by his preaching and writings--widely circulated in manuscript--and succeeded in founding a new sect in the forest region near the Polish frontier.

The priestless Old Believers thus fell into two sections; the one, called Pomortsi, accepted at least a partial reconciliation with the civil power; the other, called Theodosians (Fedoseevtsi), after their founder, held to the old opinions, and refused to regard the Tsar otherwise than as Antichrist. These Theodosians were at first very staunch in their renunciation of the tsarist government, but eventually they gave way to the influences which had softened the fanaticism of the Pomortsi. Under the liberal, conciliatory rule of Catherine they lived in contentment, and many of them enriched themselves by trade. Nevertheless, while the Pomortsi eventually felt the need to compose a marriage ceremony that could be performed by a lay leader “nastavnik” and provide legal marriage for their faithful, the Thseodosians continued to argue that without priesthood there could be no form of liturgical marriage and that the faithful must live in a celibate manner or come together with only the blessing of their parents and ask forgiveness for their “fall” into union. Later a third branch of the priestless Old believers appeared under the leadership of a peasant called Philip, who founded a new sect called the Philipists or Phillipians. This branch still exists and holds fast to the old belief that the Tsar is Antichrist, and that the civil and ecclesiastical authorities are the servants of Satan.

At the present time the vast majority of priestless Old Believers are of the Pomortsi soglasie. The Pomortsi generally refer to their faith as The Pomorian Old Orthodox Church (Древлеправославная Поморская Церковь). The Pomorian Old Orthodox Church has parishes in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine (in these countries they are headed by National Councils and Spiritual Commissions), the United States, Brazil and elsewhere. The Erie parish of the Church of the Nativity of Christ is a parish of Pomortsi that accepted priesthood and united itself with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia according to the terms offered to Old Believers after ROCOR in 1974 lifted the anathemas against the Old Rite and against Old Believers. This action was similar to the decisions made by many Beglopopovtsy parishes and priestless parishes that since 1800 agreed to unite with the state church with the guarantee that they would be able to continue to worship using only the Old Rite of the Russian Church. These Old Beleivers became know as Edinovertsi since they had accepted the invitations to part of the “One Faith” or “Edinoverie” that the state Church promoted. The only difference between the Edinovertsi and the Old Rite parishes that unite with the New Rite Russian Church now is that the latter have decided to do so only after the anathemas were lifted, but refused to be in union with the New Rite Church while the anathemas were still in effect. Should the Russian Church Outside of Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate agree to restore Eucharistic communion between them, the Edinovertsi and the parish in Erie will be in full communion and able to serve and communion fully at each other’s parishes. There were over 600 Edinovertsi parishes before the Russian Revolution, but only a handful still exist at the present time.

The Old Believers who from the beginning of the division in the Russian Church felt it impossible to live without priesthood and a full sacramental life were left without any bishops so they could not consecrate priests. They had to receive "fugitive" priests of the Russian Orthodox Church. Such communities were called Beglopopovtsy (беглопоповцы) - "followers of fugitive priests". Eventually the Russian tsars made it illegal for priests of the “Niconian” Church to unite themselves with Old Believers, so this source of priests for the Old Believers disappeared. A part of the Old Believers who had received such priests and continued to believe it essential to retain priesthood searched the world for a bishop or bishops to ordain new priests for Old Believers. Again and again the attempt was made, and failed; but at last, after years of effort and intrigue, the design was realized. In 1844 the Austrian Government gave permission to found a bishopric at Belaya Krinitsa, in Galicia, a few miles from the Russian frontier; and two years later the deposed Metropolitan of Bosnia, Ambrose, consented, after much hesitation, to pass over to the Old Ritualist confession and accept the diocese. After chrismating Ambrose, these Old Believers recognized his episcopal rank and received newly ordained priests for their communities. He also ordained other bishops and thus formed what became known as the Russian Old Orthodox Church (Русская Православная Древлеправославная Церковь).From that time these Old Beleivers have had their own bishops, and have not been obliged to accept the runaway priests of the official Church. Since this new branch of the Old Believers had established its headquarters in an area of Austria known as Belaya Krinitsa, this hierarchy is commonly called the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy. This church has two branches – one centered in Moscow and one centered in Romania.  The branch in Moscow is led by the Metropolitan of Moscow and all Russia, who has his residence in Moscow. The Romanian branch is often known as the Lipovan Orthodox Oldritualist Church or Lipovan Orthodox Old-Ritualist Church  which is led by the Metropolitan of Belo-Krinitsa and All Old Orthodox Christians who resides in Braila, Romania.  

Many of the Beglopopovtsy didn’t recognize Archbishop Ambrose and his uncanonical sole ordination of other bishops, since at least two bishops are required canonically to ordain candidates to the episcopacy. After the Russian Revolution, some of these Beglopopovtsy chose to receive one of the Bishops of so called Obnovlentsy (Renovationists) bishops who turned to Old-Othodoxy and became the Archbishop of Novozybkov in the Starodub district of Russia. This hierarchy is thus commonly referred to as the Novozybkov  hierarchy of priested Old Believers. Recently the head of this Church took the title of Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, and now he is resides in Moscow.