Glimpses of Liturgical Renewal in Russia

Sobor Feodorovskoy, St. Petersburg, Russia
(Photo: Jeffrey Smith)

The Liturgical Movement of the 20th Century in the West

The Liturgical Movement in the West is well known.  For the Roman Catholic Church, the work of the pioneers of this movement was codified and given ecumenical import at Vatican II with the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).  The document stressed the centrality of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the activity of the church.[1] The Constitution also emphasized the important formative and educational aspects of liturgy and asserted that in order to be continually formed by the liturgy, the faithful “should be led to take that full, conscious, and active part in the liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of liturgy.”[2]  The Fathers of the Council also gave guidelines for reform, including the use of sound tradition, a careful study of the structure and meaning of the liturgy, structural clarity, the primacy of Scripture as well as acknowledging other pastoral considerations (e.g. the use of the vernacular and inculturation.)

The Liturgical Movement of the 20th Century in the East

Less well known, is the Liturgical Movement of the East.  In particular, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of active theological and liturgical scholarship in Russia, in particular. For instance, over five hundred scholarly theological monographs on biblical studies, patristics, church history, and liturgics were published in Russia during these years, mirroring the enthusiasm for these studies in the Christian West.  In addition, liturgical and pastoral concerns were brought into focus during this time.

Bishop Nazarius of Nizhni-Novgorod summarizes the formative value of liturgy and the need for the faithful to be actively engaged in its celebration. Here he anticipates the call for the “full, conscious, active” participation that would become a mark of the movement in the West.

Similar to the voices of the Liturgical Movement in the Christian West, the bishops of the Russian church were concerned with the educational and formative value of liturgy and the need for reform.  Bishop Nazarius of Nizhni-Novgorod summarizes the formative value of liturgy and the need for the faithful to be actively engaged in its celebration.  Here he anticipates the call for the “full, conscious, active” participation that would become a mark of the movement in the West.  He says,

The Orthodox faith is acquired, strengthened, and maintained chiefly by means of liturgical worship. Liturgical worship is properly considered to be the best school for teaching faith and morals, for it acts abundantly and salutarily on all the powers and capacities of the soul. But if worship is to accomplish all this, then all the faithful must participate in it directly, consciously, actively [emphasis mine].[3]

The Orthodox faith is acquired, strengthened, and maintained chiefly by means of liturgical worship. Liturgical worship is properly considered to be the best school for teaching faith and morals, for it acts abundantly and salutarily on all the powers and capacities of the soul. But if worship is to accomplish all this, then all the faithful must participate in it directly, consciously, actively

Bishop Nazarius of Nizhni-Novgorod, c. 1905

Unfortunately, the Bolshevik Revolution halted this reform impetus.  The primary concern for the Church during the years of Communist rule and state sponsored atheism was just to survive.

The Church in Russia

Since the fall of communism, the Orthodox Church in Russia has experienced a revival.  Positively, numerous churches have been rebuilt, seminaries and theological schools as well as monasteries reopened, and adults and children baptized.  Less positively (in my opinion), has been the blending of religious affiliation and Russian nationalism and the (overly) close connection between the church and the state.  Outwardly, the Church is again thriving, but little of the impetus for reform that marked the beginning of the last century rules the day.  However, on my recent trip to Russia, I was pleasantly surprised to see glimpses of this renewal effort emerging.

Glimpses of Liturgical Renewal

On our last Sunday in Russia, we visited a parish in St. Petersburg, Sobor Feodorovskoy.  The parish had been (re)started by approximately fifty families who wanted to take seriously many of the recommendations of the Russian bishops of the early 20th century for their liturgical life.  What follows are my impressions in brief. 

Basement Chapel Altar Area, Sobor Feodorovskoy
(Photo: Jeff Smith)

As we know, liturgy is not just texts, but the entire event, including the space, music, ritual practices, etc.  The first thing I noticed upon our arrival was the church building, itself (pictured at the top of this post). Like most Russian churches, it is a rather tall and imposing structure topped with traditional cupolas.  But as we entered at the ground level, I was immediately struck by the simple architecture of the small chapel. (See picture above.)  The altar area was marked off by a low channel barrier in an ancient Greek style that set apart the area but still invited the participation of the assembly.  This is unlike most Orthodox churches where the altar area is set apart by a wall of icons (in Russia, usually five tiers high) that, while generally quite beautiful, can hinder the communal participation of the laity.  In addition, to the side of the altar was a large (adult) baptismal font. (See picture below.)  It was cruciform in shape and had stairs on both sides of the main axis, allowing candidates to physically experience the death and resurrection symbolism of Baptism.  As they descend the stairs, they cast of the old self.  They are then immersed three times and as they ascend the stairs at the other end, are reborn into a life in Christ.  One of the parishioners told me that this ancient architectural program was a deliberate attempt to present (and remember) Christianity as it came to Russia.

Baptismal Font, Sobor Feodorovskoy
(Photo: Teva Regule)

The larger worship space was on the second floor.  Typical of Russian churches, the ceiling was approximately three stories high.  Unlike most Russian churches, the stone walls were simply decorated, albeit with a more traditional two-tier iconostasis marking off the altar area.  As is usual of most churches in Russia, there are no pews.  This can allow for a greater freedom of movement, although, standing for the entire service can also be tiring!

When we arrived prior to the start of the Divine Liturgy, there was already a large group of the faithful who had gathered for a group confession prior to the service.  (The practice of confession prior to receiving communion is still rather tightly coupled in Russian practice.  Allowing for a group confession is a pastorally sensitive way for a large number of faithful to prepare themselves to receive the Eucharist at the Liturgy.)  By the start of Liturgy, the nave was filled with worshippers—young families with children, older folks, young professionals, students, etc.  Some women still covered their heads as is traditional in Russian practice, but some did not.  Some were well dressed; others were dressed more casually.  The service began with the presiding priest intoning the opening lines of the Liturgy with the choir’s “Amen” filling the worship space.  It was glorious!  In general, the choral music that we heard in all Russian churches was incredibly beautiful and this was no exception.  In addition, they sang a number of newer compositions reflecting a musical tradition that continues to be living.  The choir was directed by a woman, one of the few formal liturgical roles open to women outside of the monastic context.  Although most of the service was still celebrated in Church Slavonic (an older form of a Slavic language), the readings and sermon were proclaimed in modern Russian and some of the prayers were said aloud instead of “secretly” for a more conscious participation of the faithful.  (Unfortunately, the use of the vernacular is still controversial in Russia as it is in many traditional Orthodox countries (e.g. Greece.))  The congregation was directly and actively engaged in the service by singing some of the responses, exchanging the Kiss of Peace (quite unique for most of the Orthodox world as it is a ritual that is often done just by the clergy), singing the Creed and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, prostrating during the epiclesis and praying together some of the prayers (e.g. the Prayer before Communion.)  Almost the entire assembly received the Eucharist with five chalices used for distribution.  Although many Orthodox churches have experienced a Eucharistic revival in the last fifty years, the practice of frequent communion of the laity is not ubiquitous.  It was good to see it happening here.

The congregation was directly and actively engaged in the service by singing some of the responses, exchanging the Kiss of Peace, singing the Creed and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, prostrating during the epiclesis and praying together some of the prayers…

After the service, we were invited to “coffee hour” in the parish hall.  Having this type of fellowship after the liturgy is not generally the practice in Russia.  Most of the churches (at least the ones that we visited) are quite large and people tend to come in and out during the service without the communal fellowship afterwards that is usually found in Orthodox churches in the West.  The parish is striving to be more than just a place where the faithful gather once a week to worship.  They have a full calendar of services throughout the week, as well as study groups and other events to build up the community.  Still, it is the Eucharist that is the source of their ecclesial life and the summit to which they return every week.

Much of the renewal effort that I have described above may seem rather small through the lens of the more mature liturgical movement in the West.  However, in the Russian context it is notable.  The parish has grown significantly since its re-inception.  (People are voting with their feet!)  My experience left me hopeful that it will not only continue to do so, but that others will see the value of encouraging the “full, conscious, and active” participation of all the faithful in the liturgical life of the community.  Such active engagement helps us to continue to grow in that Life in Christ into which we are initiated at our Baptism.


[1] SC ¶10.

[2] SC ¶14.

[3] II:454, The bishops’ responses were published as Otzyvy eparkhial’nykh arkhiereev po voprosam o tserkovnoi reforme (St. Petersburg, 1906) in three volumes.  This citation is from the second volume.  It was found in the unpublished Master of Divinity thesis by John Shimchick. (John Shimchick, “The Responses of the Russian Episcopate Concerning Worship—1905 and the Liturgical Situation in America,” [master’s thesis, St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, 1980] 23.)

11 comments

  1. It is a little puzzling to me that you’d treat of the Soviet period with a mere, “Unfortunately, the Bolshevik Revolution halted this reform impetus. The primary concern for the Church during the years of Communist rule and state sponsored atheism was just to survive.”

    No mention of the “Renovationist,” so-called “Living Church,” the early-20s-through-early-30s government experiment at propping up a counter-church to the “Patriarchal” church. Some of its leaders introduced a number of radical liturgical reforms, among other things translating the liturgy from Slavonic to modern Russian, and moving altar tables into the nave for versus-populum celebration.

    1. Tom:
      One only has so much space in a blog post. However, what you say is true. The “Living Church” did appropriate (and try to extend) many of the reforms of the liturgical movement in Russia prior to the Revolution. They were also co-opted by the regime. All of this gave the whole idea of “reform/renewal” such a bad association that it still resonates to this day. Those opposed to any reform/renewal efforts don’t really decouple the positive/and, maybe, not so positive aspects of any reform/renewal efforts from their association with the “Living Church” (e.g. celebrating the services in modern Russian instead of Old Church Slavonic). My hope is that, over time, any reform/renewal effort can be evaluated on its own merits (and on its ability to help to engender spiritual growth in the faithful.)

      -Teva

  2. Fortunately, not too many Orthodox will go in for this stuff. They have had a century to watch the West dismantle its own liturgy on the basis of the Liturgical Movement.

    I found a pertinent exchange in a recent discussion at NLM that I would like to share here. One person wrote:

    “The current Eastern iconostasis (or ‘holy wall’) is not very traditional. Neither are rood screens, as Trent pointed out (chancel rails, on the other hand, apparently a Counter-Reformation thing, at least have a correlate in the ancient Byzantine templon).”

    To which an Eastern Orthodox hieromonk replied:

    “The point of Tradition is that it develops and praxis changes over the centuries. We do not indulge in liturgical archeology , but are part of a continuum as the Holy Spirit guides the Church. (though Catholic and Orthodox renovationists love doing this in a protestant critical manner, believing they are scraping away centuries of accretion to find a somehow pristine and pure practice: of their own making!)
    “In the early Church, communion was given in the hands and the Holy Gifts reserved in domestic settings. As Byzantines, we do not do this today, nor do we seek to do so, as Tradition has developed so that things are now done differently.
    “The services have grown in richness and solemnity as Tradition unfolds. The development of Byzantine hymnography has brought new textual layers and features to the Liturgy and offices; the musical Tradition has also seen great growth, with new genres of hymns over the millenia; the development of iconography has seen the portrayal of new themes and the development of the ikonstas; the arrangement of the temple has developed to what we see and know today.
    “So… we need to be cautious about saying things are not Traditional if they were not earlier practices.”

    1. Peter,

      You are correct that tradition/liturgical practice does change and develop and we cannot claim any one time is normative. But, not all change is positive from the perspective of the participation of the congregation. If we value that as a metric, then reclaiming older architectural styles that are more inclusive of the laity are valid. It depends on the metric one uses for evaluation.

      For instance, frequent communion of the laity fell into disuse very early in the Christian tradition and it really was only in the 20th century that more attention was paid to this practice and it was encouraged. Now, this is not just because it was done (say) in the 4th century (although having history behind a practice tends to give it weight), but because of its edifying import. That was the metric used to re-evaluate the practice and, in my opinion, should be an important metric when considering any change in liturgical practice.

      -Teva

  3. Thanks Teva, very interesting and nice to hear of good things happening.

    I wonder if you could comment on the use of the “Basement Chapel”? When exactly is it used? Is there more than one Sunday liturgy in the parish? I presume they don’t have something akin to the Roman Catholic daily Mass, so I am wondering when parishioners would be able to participate in a liturgy celebrated in the more intimate space there.

  4. Fr. Neil,
    I don’t know the answer to your question. There is only one Sunday liturgy (as is usually the case in Orthodox churches.) My guess (and it is only a guess) is that the chapel is used for weekday services.

    When I was in Greece, I saw quite a few of these lower channel barriers (e.g. older monasteries) used to set off the altar area. The difference between a low channel barrier and the five-tier iconostasis (for which the doors might also be closed for much of the service) is quite striking. From the perspective of the assembly (in the nave), the former invites more visual, audio, and symbolic physical participation in the liturgy. Having grown up in the Orthodox Church, I much prefer this. However, I realize it is not the norm in most of the Orthodox world, so I was particularly struck by its presence here.

    -Teva

    1. Thanks Teva,

      I have expereinced Eastern Liturgy mainly in the Chapel of the Three Hierarchs in St. Vladimir’s in Crestwood, NY. I agree with you that having a smaller iconostasis (as in St. Vladimir’s) does increase the possibilities for participation by the assembly.

    2. The Carpatho-Rusyn, Volhynian, and Galician peoples have a very long tradition of plainsong congregational singing (Prostopinije and Samoilka) of the Divine Services lead by a cantor dating back long before coming into union with Rome in the 17th c. They also had/have fully “enclosed” altars with 5 tier floor to ceiling icon screens. This visual “barrier” is not necessarily a hindrance to participation by the congregation. Perhaps a gradual recovery of the Russian Znamenny and Kievan chant traditions sung by the people would be a good first step in Russian liturgical reform?

      1. John,

        I agree that congregational singing (e.g. Prostopinije) can help engender the participation of the people in liturgy. (In fact, we had congregational singing in my parish growing up. It didn’t always sound great, but (for the most part) people sang.)

        I think the height and thickness of the iconostasis is another matter. Too often, it is seen as a barrier (or becomes so) between the sacred and secular, clergy and laity, men and women, etc. instead of something that sets aside the altar area, but still invites a flow between those boundaries. I think this may be felt more acutely by women as in traditional practice (outside of monasteries) women are not serving in the altar space and, in some places, not allowed to enter at all (even outside of the liturgy.) The presence of the solid iconostasis is experienced then as more of a barrier to their participation than it might be for men.

        -Teva

        -Teva

      2. The odd thing is that my wife’s church has evolved or devolved from Galician etc to Russian as the founders have gone on to everlasting bliss. With the influx of immigrants more Slavonic and more ceremonies have been utilized. The lively Carpathian melodies which encouraged popular participation have been replaced by the Russian tones. Didn’t Peter Anson comment about such a thing happening in the Roman Communion when the Solesmes chants replaced the earlier incorrect but livelier tones?

        Last time I was there I noticed a proliferation of eikons of varying degrees of quality. Would that Old Believer practices of encouraging only real painted eikons were followed by all other.

        Also I have noticed an increase of old world piety and prayerfulness that reminds me of my former Latin parish before the reforms of the last century.

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