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The Old Believers

The Old Believers, also known as Old Ritualists, came into existence as the result of a schism within the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. The Russian Church had adopted certain liturgical usages that differed from those of the Greeks. Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) introduced changes intended to make Russian practices conform to Greek usage. This was offensive to some Russian Orthodox who believed that it was legitimate for the Russian Church to adopt its own traditions. Opposition coalesced around a priest named Avvakum, who was burnt at the stake in 1682. His followers became known as Old Believers, or those who followed the old rituals before the reform.

The Old Believers, who at one time may have composed 10% of the Russian population, were harshly persecuted under the tsars. Many fled into Asia in the 18th century and others were forcefully exiled from European Russia. Many communities lived in almost complete isolation for centuries. Since no Orthodox bishop had joined the Old Believers, the group was deprived of a hierarchy. This, along with the fact that the communities were spread over vast areas, caused them to split into as many as 12 groups, each with its own characteristics. But the Old Believers managed to preserve traditional Russian iconography at a time when the official church supported more modern art forms.

The two most important groups are known as “Popovtsy, ” who have retained priests and sacraments, and “Bezpopovtsy, ” who reject them. The priestless communities are scattered throughout the far north from Karelia to the Urals. In 1847 the former Orthodox Metropolitan Ambrosios of Sarajevo (Bosnia) embraced the Old Believers and consecrated two bishops for those who remained loyal to the priesthood and sacraments. This gave rise to the hierarchy of the largest priestly group.

It was only after May 3, 1905, when Tsar Nicholas II issued the Edict of Toleration, that Old Believers were allowed to function freely in Russia. The situation of this community since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 is poorly known, but there were attempts to overcome the schism. Metropolitan Sergius and the Holy Synod took unsuccessful measures to heal the rift in 1929. Meetings took place in the period following World War II which culminated in the solemn lifting of the anathemas in 1971. So far, however, full communion between Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church has not been re-established.

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