Project Canterbury

Sketches of the Rites and Customs of the Greco-Russian Church

By H. C. Romanoff

With Introduction by the Author of "The Heir of Redclyffe" [Charlotte Yonge]

London, Oxford and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1869.


THE scenes which are offered to the public in the following chapters are intended to illustrate the actual working of the Greco-Sclavonic Church in Russia. They are collected by an English lady married to a Russian officer, and stationed in one of those remote provinces which have no attractions to invite the tourist, and thus are scarcely known to ordinary readers, except by name, while the national habits are there best preserved in their full peculiarity, unaltered by foreign influences.

In the memory of many of us, the Greek Church was almost ignored. There were numerous persons who divided Christendom into Protestants and Roman Catholics, and supposed all the former to hold the truth, all the latter to be in error, and if the existence of Eastern Christians was pressed on them would have classed them as a more ignorant and debased species of Roman Catholics. Clearer knowledge has, however, dawned on us. We have become accustomed to regard foreign communions with more discrimination and [v/vi] more candour. The prayers for unity, which have so long been repeated with the most vague and undefined sense of what was therein asked, seem at last to be so far answered that there is a certain heaving and moving in the dissevered fragments, almost a yearning to be one again, and even a few absolute efforts which, though as yet uncertain and spasmodic, may yet, under God's grace, lead to something more definite and authoritative.

Looking back into the far past, we see that the germs of separation were to be found from the first foundation of the Church. Eastern and Western, Greek and Latin, differed in constitution and prejudices as well as in language, and tradition and custom necessarily diverged the more as time went on. The sense of the paramount importance of unity, together with the large-minded candour of the primitive Fathers, prevented any actual schism from taking place. The dispute respecting the time of keeping Easter was, as they perceived, no worthy cause for casting off the brethren whose hope was in the same Resurrection; and while essentials remained the same, unchanged, unbroken, they could perceive that small modifications of ceremonies to suite climate, character, or circumstance, were the very signs of the Catholicity of the Church in distinction to the exclusive Jewish ritual.

United, then, the Eastern and Western Churches resisted the heathen persecutions, and held the great councils; nor was it till days of greater ease and laxity that the minor differences were permitted to make the rent that had so long threatened. Much of outer circumstance assisted in this [vi/vii] result. In earlier days the East and West partook of almost similar culture, and Greek and Latin were almost equally familiar to the educated. The Celtic Church of Gaul was planted by Asiatic Greeks, and long retained traces of their influence; and whilst the Roman Empire was unbroken, there were no national enmities to promote misunderstandings.

But when the Latin portion of the Church was overrun by the Gothic nations, a spirit was brought in far more alien to the Greek than what had gone before. The subtlety and timidity of the Eastern temperament were contemptible to the high-spirited Frank or German, and when the majesty of Rome had overawed him and won his reverence, he made her his own, but fostered her impatience of the rivalry of Constantinople.

A clause, true in itself, but introduced, no one knew how, into the Nicene, or rather Constantinopolitan symbol, as repeated in the West, became the cause of fierce debate, and for this, after nearly ten centuries of Oneness, Rome finally severed herself and those Churches which had learnt to look to her as their guide.

Many endeavours to heal the wound were made, but their failure was owing far less to doctrinal differences than to the prejudices and hatreds of the multitude on either side. The crusade which might have been a grand occasion of union, made the division wider, through the narrow timid policy of Alexis Comnenus, the ignorant exclusiveness and avarice of the Franks, and the aggression of the Roman patriarchate. [vii/viii] Since that time Rome has continued to exalt herself and maintain those pretensions to universal dominion and infallibllity which alienated the Greeks, and have hitherto proved barriers against union with her.

The Russian Church is a child of the Greek. Her con version was the work of the tenth century, and was accomplished by missionaries from Constantinople, who introduced the Sclavonian Liturgy, and a translation of the Scriptures drawn up in the ninth cent by Cyril and Methodius for the use of the Bulgarians. These have ever since been scrupulously adhered to by this most conservative nation. In the seventeenth century a revision took place, in which the evident errors of copyists were corrected, but this caused the utmost discontent, and occasioned the chief schism in the Russian Church, since a certain number of persons refused to give up the old corruptions of text that they deemed absolutely holy. For many, years the reproach of ignorance and superstition seems justly to have attached to the Russian clergy, and though there were many saintly men among them, their cultivation was at a low ebb, and they were left behind in that rapid march of intellect which has proceeded ever since the time of Peter the Great Their power over the people was, however, so great, that Catherine II. was forced to comply outwardly with every rite of their Church, and it was the gay travellers at her court who, perhaps, chiefly led to the depreciation of the religion of the country.

Since that time education and civilization have much improved the intellects of the clergy. Many are really learned [viii/ix] men, and intelligence is fast spreading throughout the people.

What their religion is, and how it is carried into their lives, will best be gathered from the ensuing collection of sketches. Some, as will be seen, are accounts of the rite and its accessories, the prayers, &c, being translated from the Sclavonic offices; some interweave the accounts of the ceremonies with tales illustrative of that middle-class life of Russia, which is so little known to us. It is a picture of this people as they really are in both family and religious life, and though here and there-as in the reception of the Princess Dagmar-the old intolerant Eastern temper shows itself; yet on the whole this book will show us that we have more in common with the Russian than we thought, especially, in the really needful ordinances that are essential to the very existence of the Christian.

Some of these chapters are upon the Sacraments of the Greek Church, the two divinely ordained and "generally necessary to salvation," and those other five ordinances which both the East and West term Sacraments, and four of which we own as sacramental, though hesitating to class them with the two of universal application, while the hit has Scriptural authority that it is not easy to explain away. The other chapters are on occasional ceremonies, the consecration of a church, of a bell, a Bishop's visitation, the thanksgiving ceremony for the Tzar's preservation, &c., and the very curious rite for the adoption of a child.

We cannot help hoping that these descriptions may be found of value to those who are not capable of studying the [ix/x] fundamental doctrines of the Greek Church, that even those scholars who can examine into her documents may be glad to have this opportunity of seeing what is her external work, and her influence among the people.


June 1st, 1868.

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