All-Russian Church Council of 1917-1918

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The All Russian Council or Sobor of 1917-1918, properly the All Russian Local Council, was the culmination of the reform movement in the Church of Russia that had its beginnings during the late nineteenth century, The Council began on August 15, 1917 (os), during the period of freedom under the Provisional Government and continued until September 20, 1918 as the repressions of the Bolshevik government destroyed the Church's new found freedom from government control.


The 1917-1918 Council was the first council of the Russian Church since the one of 1681-1682, and also the first since Peter I deposed the Patriarch and introduced his reforms including the establishment of the Holy Synod under a civil procurator as the senior authority of the Church. This action resulted in a far-reaching diminution in ecclesiastical power and deep State involvement in the affairs of the Church. As the twentieth century began this arrangement had reached a critical stage for the Church, a situation which was further heightened when Tsar Nicholas II released the manifesto of freedom of religious conscience on April 17, 1905. This action compromised the authority of the Church, deprived it of its special status, and gave greater freedoms to other religious groups.

Discussion of the problems confronting the Church had been on-going since the mid 1880s, but with little positive effect other than the realization that only a national Church council, with the powers inherent to it under church tradition, could satisfactorily implement the necessary reforms. The urgency for convening a council peaked with the revolution of 1905-1907 and the emperor's manifesto of 1905. The strong consensus in the Church for the need of a council under the principles of conciliarism (sobornost) was not to the liking of the procurator nor the emperor. Yet, Tsar Nicholas, with misgivings, authorized the formation of a Preconciliar Commission in 1906-1907. While the deliberations of the Commission for a council were published in four thick volumes, Nicholas postponed the council due to the upheaval of revolution of 1905.


The February revolution of 1917 altered conditions greatly as the overthrow of the autocratic government freed the Church to convoke a national council. Almost immediately the issues were discussed in the religious journals, and diocesan Congresses and assemblies convened to discuss issues, consider reforms, and elect delegates to the All-Russian Church Council. In May and June 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Church School Leaders was followed by the All-Russian Congress of Clergy and Laity. These forums explored the issues, aired differences, and, particularly in the Congress of Clergy and Laity, served as a preparatory commission that discussed reforming the Church on principles of sobornost.

A reconstituted Holy Synod established the Preconciliar Committee on April 29, 1917. The Committee formulated the rules for selecting the delegates to the All-Russian Council and established the working sections to prepare material for Council decision. These sections prepared instructions for the members and prepared materials on administration of the central church, on administration of dioceses, on ecclesiastical justice, parishes, issues concerning dogma and liturgical practices, church finances, church-state relations, monasticism, and church educational institutions.

During these months and with the added use of the materials from the earlier Preconciliar Commissions of 1906-1907 and 1912-1916, an agenda, regulations, and materials for the council were completed. Even under the uncertain times of the Provisional Government the All Russian Local Council convened on August 15, 1917, the date that had been established by the Holy Synod on July 5,1917.

The Council

With 564 delegates in attendance at the Kremlin's Dormition Cathedral (Uspenskii Sobor), the Council opened with Divine Liturgy celebrated by the future martyr Metropolitan Vladimir. Of these 299 were lay delegates and 265 were from the clergy which included bishop, priests, deacons, and sacristans. It also convened without the presence of the chief procurator, whose position was disestablished on August 5 by the Provisional Government. The metropolitan of Moscow, Tikhon (Belavin), was elected chairman of the Council by a large majority. Plenary meetings of all members met under the Presidium that handled the daily agenda of the Council and considered petitions from members as well as personnel issues. All proposals to the Council were required to be in writing. A quorum was established of at least one third of the membership of all Council members. Committees/sections were established to consider and draft decree legislation on specific issues for the review of the Council plenum and vote by the Council. Assignments to the various sections was determined on choices made by each member. Each section was chaired by a bishop and kept minutes of its meetings.

Three sections were established for administrative purposes and nineteen to consider specific issues before the Council. Six of these addressed issues concerning the administration of the Church, six concerning religious issues, four involving education issues, and two involving economic issues of property and clergy remuneration. A special section concerning publication was also established. All decrees passed by the plenum were reviewed by the Episcopal Conference that consisted of all the bishops at the Council and that could reject any decree within three days by at least a three-fourth majority vote.


Working sessions of the Council continued throughout the period of the Council, except for recesses for the Nativity and Paschal seasons, until the Council closed in September 1918. Each section would meet separately with submission of the draft products of their work to the plenum for consideration by the whole Council membership. Initially the Council was occupied by the issues of reform and reconstruction of Church governance. Other issued followed.

Church governance

Work on Church governance was the culmination of extensive pre-conciliar work. The sessions included consideration and organization of future Councils, diocesan organization within the Church including size and grouping of dioceses into "metropolitan" districts as well as internal diocesan issues, reestablishment of the Patriarchate, and institutionalizing the concept of sobornost.


The Section on Higher Church Administration was responsible for the issue of restoring the patriarchate and as such made it its first priority. As the subject of the patriarchate had been discussed extensively before the Council, the disposition of the section was for restoration, and it focused its attention on canonical and doctrinal factors. The idea of restoring the patriarchate was not unanimous. The Section noted that the concept of dual principles of sobornost and patriarchy was derived from the core teachings of Orthodox Christianity. A plenary session of the Council was convened to act upon the issue of restoration on October 11. From an initial list of 51 speakers on the subject, the speaker list grew to 95 before the Council on October 25, 1917 voted to allow no more speakers and to limit each speaker to fifteen minutes. The Bolshevik takeover was also on October 25. Then, on October 28 the Council passed a decree that the Russian Orthodox Church's administration is to be headed by a patriarch, who is to be considered the "first among equal bishops" and who is subordinate and accountable to a national Sobor which retained supreme legislative, administrative, judicial and inspection power in the Church. Thus, the Council not only restored the patriarchate but defined its authority and limitations.

Patriarch Tikhon

Between October 30 and November 4, the Council established the procedure for choosing the new patriarch, deciding on a procedure of selecting by lot from among the three candidates who received the most votes by the Council membership. On November 5, a starets (elder) extracted the name of the new patriarch, Metropolitan Tikhon (Belavin) of Moscow, who became Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia. On November 21, 1917, in an elaborate service Metr. Tikhon was installed as the first patriarch of the Church of Russia since the early eighteenth century. The enthronement took place in the Kremlin's Dormition Cathedral.

As the nature of the Bolshevik government became more evident, the Council on January 25,1918 issued a decree for the Patriarch to establish a succession as a safeguard for the Church: "in case of illness, death, or other tragic eventualities for the Patriarch, it is decided to ask him to choose a few Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal See, who in order of their seniority shall continue the authority of the Patriarch, lawfully succeeding the Patriarch."

Holy Synod

The Council established a new Holy Synod by decree on December 7, 1917. The new Synod have twelve members, with the patriarch as the chairman and the metropolitan of Kiev as an ex officio permanent member. The Council was to select for three year terms six bishops. Five bishops who were to serve for a one year term were to be selected from five regions, one each from each region, that consisted each of thirteen or fourteen dioceses. The North American, Japanese, Chinese, and Urmii missions were included in the Siberian region and would attend Synodal sessions for periods of not more than six months. Thus, the Council ensured that the Synod would have a diverse input and participation and avoid the arbitrary packing of the Synod as had been the case during imperial times.

On December 8, the Council issued a decree stating the functions and competence of the Synod. The Synod would have responsibility for administering the internal life of the church and assigned it four areas of competence: religious doctrine, divine services, education, and administration and discipline,

Supreme Church Board

The Council also established a second central group in the form of the Supreme Church Board that served alongside of the Synod. This board, with the patriarch as chairman, was accountable to the national (i.e., local) Church Council. The Board consisted of fifteen members in addition to the chairman. Three Synod members chosen by the Synod and twelve other representatives, elected for three year terms by the national Church Council, made up the Board. These twelve would include one monk, five members of the secular clergy, and six laymen.

The Council charged the Board with administering economic and social matters in five areas: administration, economics, education, inspection and supervision, and legal advisory matters. The Council also noted the areas in which joint consideration by the Synod and Board were needed. These included areas that combined spiritual and secular issues.

Diocesan Administration

The Council addressed the issues and proposals from the Section on Diocesan Administration. In applying the principles of Sobornost to the diocese the Section had treated each diocese as a "small church" that would require the participation of bishops, clergy, and laity down to the deanery level. The discussions on the issues were very intense, to the extent that the Section had to create a reconciliation commission.

The issue of election of the diocesan bishop remained difficult. In February 1918, the Council in setting the role of the bishop specified that the bishop would be elected only after the see was vacant. The diocese would elect by at least a two thirds vote their bishop from among the candidates compiled by the local bishops or Holy Synod and confirmed by higher Church authorities. Concern about the practicality of this procedure was voiced through many motions at plenary sessions. As late as July 18, 1918, delegates asked for overturning the decrees because of the difficult period we are living through

As with the national church and its council, the diocesan assembly, with its bishop, was declared the supreme organ of the diocesan administration. Similarly, the diocese was divided into a number of deaneries consisting of groups of parishes, with a priest as the head and assisted by two members of the clergy and two laymen. Deanery assemblies would elect these officials.

With very large dioceses, some approaching 2,000 parishes, during the imperial period, questions were raised about the loss of contact of the bishop with his people. In response to this situation petitions to form smaller dioceses from the larger ones were made even before the Council. To correct the situation, Bishop Serafim of Staritsk presented a draft proposal to form new dioceses and vicariates. In an initial move the Council passed on April 15, 1918 decrees establishing vicar bishops within the existing dioceses with the intent that the vicars would administer the vicariates independently under the general direction of the diocesan bishop. Then, on August 8, 1918, the Council established dioceses and vicariates with the intent that under the diocesan bishop groups of deaneries would meet in assemblies to form new dioceses that would be formalized by higher Church administration.


On the final day of the Council, September 20, 1918, the Council issued a decree establishing, in principle, the formation of groups of diocese into an organization. The idea of such units situated between individual diocese and the higher, patriarchal/synodal administrations had been discussed for decades, if not centuries, as a means of bring the hierarchy closer to the faithful. The ramifications of such a move were discussed extensively during the Council, both pro and con. The idea was to form informal groupings of four or five dioceses, using the expression 'first bishop' for the senior bishop in order not to introduce another formal layer of administration that would, among other evils, encourage schism. The idea continued of introducing these changes under the principle of sobornost. The use of the term 'metropolitanate regions' was avoided as the Section wanted to avoid the idea of creating the rank of metropolitan who under Russian usage was senior to an archbishop. Yet the decree left its administration to the higher Church administration as continuation of the Council became more difficult in a Bolshevik Russia.


Other Sections of the Council addressed reforms proposed for the parish and life at the parish level. Such issues as adjusting the division of parish income among parish staff, revival of parish life, the parish statute, and women's role in the Church including the deaconess issue, were discussed vigorously. A Council decree of November 17, 1917 adjusted the split of parish income among the parish staff, making the priest's share 46 percent, the deacon's 31 percent and the sacristan's 23 percent. This was not received well by the clergy members who found their shares lowered by six percent at the expense of an increase for the sacristan. On April 20, 1918, the Council adopted a Parish Statute. The statute defined the parish as a society of Orthodox clergy and laity unified in a locality around an edifice under the canonical administration of the bishop and led by a priest who was assigned by the bishop. The parish was required to maintain records of each parishioner and record vital statistics. Administration of the parish was to be carried out by a staff of clergy and laity and an assembly that had to meet twice a year to consider maintenance of the buildings, elect parish office holders, financial support of the clergy, maintain parish records, and manage the parish schools. Women could participate in the assemblies and serve as starosta.

Liturgical life

A number of aspects involving the liturgical life of the church was addressed by the Section on Divine Services, Homiletics, and Churches, (led by Archbishop Evlogii of Volhynia, later of the emigration in Paris). Among the aspects debated were the careless behaviors by both the clergy and laity, preaching, the typikon, sale of items within the sanctified space of the church not related to the services, observance of fasts, calendar reform, marriage and divorce, and celibacy and marriage issues. The turmoil of the Bolshevik takeover seriously altered the atmosphere for debates and conditions concerning church life. Much of the section's efforts was not to reach the Council plenum. A decree by the Section "On Church Preaching" was issued through the plenum on December 1, 1917, but by the conclusion of the Council in September 1918 the Council was able to consider only some of the Section's work, but without making any decisions.

Calendar reform was debated with note of the difficulties of smoothly making a transition to a modern calendar such as the Medler model of the 1860s. But, with the Bolshevik decree on January 26, 1918 that made the Gregorian calendar the civil calendar, with February 14 (ns) following February 1 (os), much of the discussion became moot. Thus, the Council on January 30, 1918 approved the section's proposal to retain the old style calendar to be used in parallel with the new style calendar.

The problems associated with the Church control of marriage and divorce laws in Russia had been debated for decades. The need to relax the strictness of the laws that allowed only four reasons for divorce (adultery, abandonment, sexual incapacity, and mental incapacity) had been recognized both within the imperial government and the Church. While the Bolshevik decree of December 20, 1917 ended control by the Church over marriage and divorce, the Church categorically refused to recognize this in so far as believers were concerned and considered those who married in the Church guilty of adultery if the marriage was ended in a civil divorce with remarriage. In the atmosphere of civil control of marriage and divorce the Council continued the debate of adapting the ecclesiastical position on divorce in the modern world and adopted in an amended decree just before the Council closed rules expanding the grounds for divorce that ecclesiastical courts should consider.

Church-State relations

While based upon the Byzantine principle of symphonia, the relationship of the Church with the State had been filled with matters of contention and negotiation. This was true in the Russian state and empire, witness the relations between Ivan IV and Metr. Philip and of Alexis and Pat. Nikon. With the reforms of Peter I the Church became subordinate to the State, even to becoming a department of the State. With the February Revolution of 1917, the Church looked to establishing a new relationship in which the Church was fully independent of the State yet would look to the State for finances. This hoped-for-relationship was proposed by the Preconciliar Committee. The spirit of this proposal was carried into the Council and was formulated into a draft decree that came up for consideration by the Council plenum on November 13, 1917. It could not be a more inauspicious time.

The fact that no government existed was acknowledged by Sergius N. Bulgakov (then a layman), who presented the draft decree prepared by the Section on Church-State Relations. Continuing, Bulgakov considered it necessary to present the Council's idea to the Church at large, that is the Ecumenical Church, and to the faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some theoretical arguments that challenged the idea of national church were made, such as the issue of maintaining missions in Japan, China, and America under their own civil governments. The ideas were formulated into a decree by the Council on December 2, 1917 that set out the conditions a government must accept to guarantee the freedom and independence of the Russian Church.

The Council's ideas quickly became irrelevant as the new Bolshevik government issued a decree on January 23, 1918, separating church and state. Additionally, the decree denied the existence of the Church as a juridical entity and denied it any right to own property. The difficulties the Church experienced which were serious with the loss of finances when the Provisional Government failed became insurmountable as the Bolsheviks began to confiscate cash, monetary assets, and property. Included in the property seizures were those of printing presses which quickly made it impossible for the Church to communicate to the faithful and extended Church. Further, the clergy was disenfranchised and subject to persecution. The Church found quickly that it did not have any influence or power to object to the new government.

Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev when Metropolitan of Moscow

The clergy, having been disenfranchised, lost civil rights and found itself without recourse, with the prospect of being drafted into the Red Army. In January 1918, the Council began to hear of many cases of clergy, including bishops, being placed into prison and martyred. These included many members of the Council such as Metr. Vladimir of Kiev, who was the chairman of the Section on Church Discipline; Archbishop Andronik of Perm, who was chairman of the Section on Legal and Economic Status of the Clergy; and Bishop Germogen of Tobol'sk.

Archbishop Adronik as Bishop of Kyoto

The Council continued to issue decrees in an attempt to unite clergy and parishioners in the defense of church property, to help free those arrested, to aid their families, to communicate with political authorities, but with little effect.

Closing of the Council

The Council opened on August 15, 1917 and continued in session, except for the Nativity and Paschal recesses. Finances were available to continue the Council through the two recesses, but by September 1918 the council's secretary V.P. Shein noted that funds were not available for the assembly to meet again. With an acknowledgment that elections could not be accomplished for the next Council, which under the Council's rules would be three years hence, the Council voted to retain their powers until the next Council was empowered, and granted the Patriarch authority to reconvene the present Council at his choosing. Thus, the Council tried to leave a message of assurance that unfinished business would be completed. With that decision the Council closed on September 20, 1918.


The ideals of Sobornost as embodied in the work and decrees of the Council were stillborn in Russia with the ascendency of the Bolsheviks except as these ideals may have been distorted and used by the Bolshevik supported Renovated or Living Church movement as a counter to the canonical Church. The ideas were kept alive in the Russian Emigration, particularly in Paris, France, and applied to the organizational development of Russian missions aboard. With the devastating experiences within the Church of Russia during the Bolshevik era, the rehabilitation of these ideals within the Russian Church is still for the future to address.


  • George T. Kosar, Russian Orthodoxy in Crisis and Revolution: The Church Council of 1917-1918, ProQuest Information and Learning Company, 2003, UMI MicroForm 3116620. A dissertation accepted and approved by the Faculty of Brandeis University


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