All-Russian Church Council of 1917-1918
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.
With 564 delegates in attendance, the Council opened with Divine Liturgy at the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral (Uspenskii Sobor). 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 meeting 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.
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