What could have been, what may yet be

Recently, interest in the renewal of Church structures, the encouragement of lay participation in Church life and liturgy, and the relationship of Church and state have drawn the attention of religious experts and commentators. An example of this is the article by George Weigel on the possibility of the Russian Orthodox Church collaborating with the Vatican to find common ground for Church-state relationships.

As we navigate contemporary challenges, those of us who remain faithful to the methods of ressourcement pioneers look for models. One of the most tantalizing yet least-understood models of ecclesial conciliarity is the Moscow Council of 1917-18. I just reviewed the English translation of Hyacinthe Destivelle’s book on the Moscow Council  for The Wheel, an exciting new online Orthodox journal, so you’ll have to wait for the next issue to read the entirety of my review.

I am comfortable sharing this: Hyacinthe Destivelle unveils the history and complexity of the development of conciliarity in his meticulous presentation and analysis of the Moscow Council and its reception in the Orthodox Church.

When I first perused the French-language edition of the study, I was glued to the translation of primary sources. Particularly precious to me were the sections on the Church in Ukraine.

But this study contains much more. In addition to Destivelle’s analysis, which exhibits his careful reading of the sources, you’ll find reports on the structure of the parish, decrees on the participation of women in Church life, the fate of the preconciliar deliberations on the liturgy, and conciliar decrees on remarriage in the Church.

A word from inside the Orthodox Church: many progressive Orthodox Christians look to the Moscow Council as an example of “what could have been” in Orthodoxy, a dream of lay participation in the life of the Church alongside the bishops, a reshaping of Church structure from the pyramidal patterns that seem to dominate the ecclesial landscape. In most Orthodox Churches of the world today, an episcopo-centric ecclesiology continues to prevail, with limited participation of the laity in Church life. Despite the absence of a global reception of the conciliarity envisioned by the Moscow Council, many Orthodox Christians hope that the vision of the council “may yet be,” and refer to the council as a model to be adopted for the Church in the twenty-first century and beyond. Such a Church would encourage lay participation in all aspects of Church life, beginning with the liturgy. In 2015, Orthodoxy is situated in between what could have been and what may yet be.


  1. This is fascinating, and it reminds me of a question:
    What history of the Church in Russia could you recommend to me/us? I suppose I’d prefer closer to 250 pages than 600, but I’ll take all suggestions. I’m especially interested in the Church’s reactions to all the political upheavals of the last 150 years.

  2. Great question. On the history of the Church in modernity, I recommend two books in particular. The first is by Vera Shevzov, “Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of the Revolution” (Oxford, 2003). Shevzova’s book surveys the interplay of politics, theology, and Church movements, and also treats lived religion. The second book is a recent one by Paul Gavrilyuk, “George Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance” (Oxford, 2014). Gavrilyuk’s book is an intellectual profile of Florovsky, but also contains precious treatment of the impact of the revolution on Russian theology, not to mention the political activities of the theologians. Other authors I would single out are Gregory Freeze, Nadieszda Kizenko, Heather Coleman, Antoine Arjakovsky, Brandon Gallaher, Michael Plekon, Irina Papkova, Maya Kozesky, Scott Kenworthy, Zoe Knox, and many, many others. I found Papkova and Knox to have particularly helpful treatments of the post-Soviet period of the Church. Arjakovsky recent book, “The Way,” is a substantial treatment of Russian emigre theologians and their journal.

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