More on the Moscow Council (1917-1918)

A PrayTell reader asked me to elaborate the significance of the Moscow Council of 1917-1918. I thought about my interest in the council over the weekend and decided to explain the significance of this event in my own words.

My original post directed reader to the English translation of Hyacinthe Destivelle’s seminal study of the Moscow Council, published by the University of Notre Dame Press (permit me to add a congratulatory note to Michael Plekon and Vitaly Permiakov for their excellent editorial work).

Prior to the publication of Destivelle’s work, one of the most accessible histories of this period was published by James Cunningham in abook titled “A Vanquished Hope.”

When I read Cunningham’s work many years ago, I learned the story of a Church confronting modernity. The Russian’s Church’s attempt to engage the challenges of modernity was painful. The Church looked inwards, and the Church’s bishops asked the hard questions about the people’s decreasing trust in the Church’s authority, the lack of active participation in the liturgy, the challenges posed by nihilism, and the proper pastoral responses to political activism, among other issues.

For decades, scholars have emphasized one of the many diagnoses of the problems in the Russian Church, namely the establishment of a synodal system by Tsar Peter 1 to replace the patriarchate. The Moscow Council deliberated the matter of restoring the patriarchate and resolved to restore the patriarchate, which simultaneously liberated the Church from its position as a state institution and established an identifiable leader for the Church (Destivelle argues that the patriarchate was re-created, not restored).

The re-creation of the patriarchate was significant, but the council took up many additional matters that manifest the Church confronting modernity. For example, the council authorized lay evangelizers, heard numerous proposals on liturgical reform and renewal, considered the possibility of clerical remarriage (which was not allowed), and opened new doors for women to exercise leadership in the Church.

The Moscow Council did not implement each proposal that one might identify as progressive. Destivelle and his predecessors make it clear that addressing each point of such an agenda was impossible for a council that attempted to convene and deliberate in a dangerous political environment with limited funding. This is why I described the council as “what might have been” had external circumstances been more friendly.

However, the fact that the Moscow Council was willing to hear proposals signifying progressive thinking was remarkable. Some of the more progressive proposals were implemented by the Living Church, and are thus regarded are illegitimate within global Orthodoxy. Other matters were taken up anew by Russian theologians in Western Europe and America, and resulted in some measure of ecclesial renewal outside of Russia.

Essentially, the Moscow Council was a manifestation of a Church that took an inventory of its internal pastoral situation, invited pastors and theologians to construct proposals for renewal, and adjusted to the rapidly-evolving political environment. In other words, it was a council that sought and engaged the surrounding world in dialogue. The results of the conciliar proceedings were limited, but the discussion of the matters taken up by the council have continued to the present, for nearly one-hundred years since it gathered in 1917.

Discussion of the fundamental issues confronting society and authentic consideration of proposals for addressing these issues are what contemporary Orthodox Christians hope for. Many of the issues debated by the Moscow Council remain relevant today, and this is why it is a gathering that symbolizes “what may yet be” for the future of Orthodoxy.


  1. I would add that the Moscow council was itself the culmination of some decades of stirring for reform and renewal in the Russian church.
    It was also necessarily a compromise but very importantly a demonstration that the church could restore the concilar principle of the early centuries, stepping away from hierarchical authoritarianism and involving the whole of the church. Vatican II is seen as the culmination of a “return to the sources” and thus, a recovery of the ancient and thus very traditional understanding of the church as the whole people of God–not just the pope, the bishops or canon law (all these had been definitions of the church–see Yves Congar’s diary kept at Vatican II). The Moscow council was quite like this for the Orthodox churches, a profound recognition of the conciliar shape of the church and the commitment toward acting that way. While the council was comprised of laity, clergy, monastics and the bishops, the compromise was that the bishops could veto a council decision, but then had to explain, i.e. teach why they had done so. The pattern of conciliar gathering and deliberation was employed by then Bp Tikhon (Bellavin) in the North American Metropolia for the sobor/council in Mayfield PA in 1907. Bp Tikhon was elected patriarch at the Moscow council. Several churches, including that in North America, eventually to be the OCA, as well as the churches of Finland and Japan and the diocesees of Sourozh in the UK and of western Europe in Paris adopted the conciliar shape and procedure in their statutes. However, in time, in some of these, there has been significant movement away from the conciliar pattern, back to absolute authority of the hierarch(s). Destivelle traces the legacy of the Moscow council in some but not all of these local churches.

  2. What does the Council say about women. For example, the restoration of the ordination of deaconesses, permission to read the Epistles and be a cantor and also to be part of local parish councils?

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