The  Free  Church  and  the  Sobor


The  Free  Church  and  the  Sobor



       The Russian people has always sensed itself a Christian people. Many Russian thinkers and artists have been inclined even to regard it as a Christian people preeminently. The Slavophils thought, that the Russian people lives by the Orthodox faith, which is the sole true faith, having within it the fullness of truth. Of Russia Tyutchev sang:

Bent neathe the crush of cross,
Throughout all thee, O native land,
Hath traversed in humble guise
The King of Heaven, giving blessing.

Dostoevsky preached, that the Russian people — is a God-bearing people. The finest of Russian people believed, that in the hidden depths of the Russian people lay concealed the possibility of higher religious revelations. But here now has burst forth the Revolution and led to tempestuous stirrings within the immense sea of the people’s life. The people, silent a thousand years, has wanted, finally, to speak out, and here, in hearkening to the multi-voiced people amidst the raging elements of the Revolution, it has to be admitted, that the Name of Christ is not to be heard within this din. It is not in the Name of Christ that the Revolution has been made, and it is not Christian love that directs its course. All the attempts to transform our national Revolution into a social one have been movements aspiring to the point of wrath with a thirst for equality, conceived of mechanically and materialistically, and least of all is there to be sensed any spirit of Christian brotherhood. The Revolution has uncovered a spiritual apostasy within the Russian people. And this apostasy is the result of too ingrained a servility, of too far-gone a process of disintegration within the old order, of too long a paralysis of the Russian Church and the moral withering of churchly authority. The sanctities in the people’s soul for a long time have been corroded both from the right, and from the left, and this has prepared the way for that cynical attitude towards the sanctities, now being discerned in all its ugliness. Revolutions are good, in that they show the true position, they cast down every conditional and hypocritical lie. The significance of the Revolution will be great in abolishing the old lie and rot.

The Revolution has struck the Church a blow and destroyed the old connection between church and state. Externally within church structures everything has been set into flux. The Russian Church has to set about restructuring from the top on down. But in the elemental spreading growth of the Revolution, the church movement has proven totally at a loss. The voice of the Church is not heard in the roar of the Revolution. During the days of great danger for Russia, the Orthodox Church is not playing that role, which it played in former times, when St. Sergei of Radonezh saved our native land and guided it spiritually. There are grounds to fear, that just like prior to the turnabout, when the Church was brought low before the autocratic state, it will again be brought low before the new democratic state. But during these days, when Russia and indeed all the world is living through unprecedented catastrophes, when everything in the world has become shaken and unsteady, Christians cannot but want, that there should be heard the voice of the Free Church of Christ. The free Church is first of all the Church, independent of the ruling authority of the state and from every element of this world. It of itself per se draws upon the source of its own revelations, it receives its freedom in Christ as its Head. The Church cannot receive its freedom by the Revolution nor by the changes, occurring within the state, the freedom of the Church cannot derive merely from a democratic structure. And if in the old connection of church and state there was transgressed the commandment of Christ as regards the relationship between “the things of God” and “the things of Caesar”, then this was an inner pitfall for churchly people, for churchly mankind, its temptation and enslavement to “this world”. The Church, however, in its inner sanctity, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail, cannot be enslaved. It itself is the wellspring of graced freedom, it limits the all-encompassing power of the state, before which the pagan world bowed and scraped, and it guards the infinite nature and infinite rights of the human soul. Only Christianity acknowledges the infinitude of the human spirit and its incommensurability with whatever the kingdoms of this world. But the Church is God-manly an organism, and the human will of the churchly people can be tempted with all manner of temptations, it can fall and become enslaved. The people of the Russian Church, situated under the spiritual lead of Byzantium, has passed through great temptings, it has rendered “God’s due” — to “Caesar”. The autocephaly of the Russian Church has signified its being headed by the tsar. And upon this path, the Church’s people in Russia has lost its independent significance in the life of its Church. The freedom principle remained at the forefront of such ideologies of Orthodoxy, as the Slavophils, but it was absent in the actual reality of the Church. Both the Church’s people and the Church’s hierarchy became accustomed to an abased passivity, and all activity was lodged within the organs of the state. And our present-day task for the life of the Church mustneeds be seen in this, that the Church’s people itself and the Church’s hierarchy now are summoned to activeness and self-initiative in everything (amidst other things also in the matter of religious nurture and education). It has become impossible still to count on the expectation, that the matter of Christianity upon earth will be handled for Orthodox Christians by someone else, by some protecting and guarding ruling power.


The outwards structure of the Russian Church, which has been the largest and strongest part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was upheld by its connection with the power of the tsar. The collapse and downfall of “the sacred Russian tsardom” signifies a new period in the history of the Eastern Church. The Byzantine idea is finished. The Church’s people has freed itself from one of the temptations, that of slavery to “Caesar”, and to it is given the freedom of choosing its ultimate path. There is nothing that still upholds the outward unity of the Eastern Church. And this represents an enormous trial for the spiritual powers of the Church’s people. The Eastern Church henceforth can be upheld only by its inner unity, only by the rebirth of churchly power and strength. And therefore particularly, there has to be awakened the churchly will for the restoration of the universal unity of the Church. The collapse of the Russian autocracy removes an impediment in the movement for the re-uniting of the Churches. But this movement is needed first of all is not some external union, but rather as an inner orientation of the two halves of Christian mankind each to the other with love, nowise denying the unique experience of each of the halves. Only the One Universal-OEcumenical Church can be fully free, not chained down to states and nations, not dependent upon the ruling powers of national states. Every division in the Church is already a partial loss of freedom. The autocephaly of the Russian Church was also a source of its unfreedom. The temptation of Papocaesarism in the Western Catholic Church was suchlike the same a source of division and suchlike the same a source of slavery, as was the temptation of Caesaropapism in the East. But it would be a mistake to think, that Protestantism was a movement towards the freedom of the Church. The Lutheran Reformation in its consequences was a subordination of the Church to the territorial principle and was a surrendering of it into the hands of the ruling princes. Every detour towards Protestantism represents a division in the Church, its splintering and the loss of its freedom. The Russian synodal structure was an insertion of Protestant principles into the Orthodox Church, borrowed from Germany, and it represented a means of control over the Church. The finest of Orthodox people have felt only but contempt for the synodal structure, they regarded it as non-canonical and have instead sought out the spiritual authority of the Orthodox Church in starchestvo, in the heeding of spiritual elders. The Church administration was bound up with the old state ruling authority and is sharing in its fate. The Holy Synod in the final period of its existence became subject to the same disintegration, as was in the bureaucracy, in it there was the same rottenness, that there was in the state authority. The princes of the Church found themselves enslaved to Grigorii Rasputin. He determined to a remarkable degree that composition of the Holy Synod, such as the revolutionary Provisional Government was to encounter. Facing the first revolutionary Uber-Prokurator was the task of undoing the old relationship of church and state, to remove the fetters from the Church, to free the Church structure from that which was bound up with the old ruling powers. From this point of view certain forceful measures of the Uber-Prokurator in regard to the old composition of the Holy Synod and the upper churchly hierarchy can be justified, though in future the Uber-Prokurator ought not to play any sort of churchly role, and instead be transformed into a minister of religious confessions. In the first revolutionary moments, the defense of the freedom and dignity of the Church and churchly authority was indefensible given the composition of the Holy Synod, the selection of which was nowise churchly, and which completely tied in the Church with the collapsing state powers. The first revolutionary period of churchly life proved to be tinted in the bureaucratic light of the new style, and this was an inevitable consequence of old sins. The body of the Church has already long since fallen sick, long since already has been in disarray, and the Revolution but merely uncovered the true situation with this, and cast off the hypocritical falsehood. The clerical class view is not wont to defend the freedom of the Church, it itself has been in captivity to the realm of Caesar and tends to aspire after earthly advantages. And it ought not to be forgotten, that the Russian Church has lived through a prolonged period of decay and suppression of spirit. The people of the Church have become silent and inactive. Much of their religious energy has become filtered off into the sects and was redirected into a struggle against the Church and the fullness innate to it. The soul of the people was in consternation and was shocked over the moral wantonness amongst the ranks of the Church hierarchy, and over the spiritual degeneration of the “official” Church. Such a religious condition for the people sets immense spiritual difficulties upon the path to churchly renewal. But one has to expect, that the great tribulations and upheavals in life will lead the Russian people to a religious self-intensification.


The hopes for the renewal of our Church have for a long time already been bound up with the convening of a local Church Sobor, a national Church Council. The conciliar Sobor principle has to be restored to the Orthodox Church. The old ruling powers were afraid of having a Sobor, and its convening became possible only after the turnabout. The Church has to restructure itself upon elective and democratic principles. And henceforth there ought to be tolerated nothing, which should impede it inwardly. But it would be a mistake to conceive of the restoration of the conciliar principle and the democratisation of the churchly structure beyond purposes of churchly creativity and churchly rebirth. One of the temptations, waiting to ambush our Church life — is the mixing up of religion with politics. The politicising of the Church either from right or left is alike pernicious. Transition over to a political or social democracy is not a religious sort of movement, and for the rebirth of the Church it as such per se can do nothing. An authentic Church renewal can only come from within, from the depths, from the breath of a new spirit. A creative religious stirring will begin only then, when the people goes down into its depths, within itself, and ceases to live in the externals. Then an autonomous and original religious and churchly stirring will bring into politics and the societal aspect an higher truth, not otherwise found therein. In the revolutionary movement at present God is forgotten about, and from such a movement it would be foolish to await a religious rebirth. Man has been cast out onto the surface level of things, the superficial. It is impossible to expect too much even from a local Sobor. It would be scarcely possible to have in the Church Sobor a greater quantity of religious energy, than that, which exists in the people of the Church. However sad, but it must be admitted, that the Church Sobor has not been proceeded by any sort of churchly stirrings from below, there has been no sort of pent-up creative spiritual energy in the people. The specially convened Sobor was called for by the external necessity to restructure the Russian Church and avert the possibility of its being torn apart. The Sobor will have to define the relationship of the Church to the state, and to decide a whole series of questions relating to the Church’s existence. The Sobor has to first of all strengthen the position of the Church amidst the raging of the elements, which is sweeping everything along in its stormy path, it has to position the Church into a setting independent of the changing and fickle elements of revolution and reaction, i.e. to manifest the Free Church, subject only to its proper Head, Christ, and not fall into enslavement further under any changes in the affairs of the state.

But dangers and temptations lie in wait from various sides. On the one side there is possible a tendency towards a reformation of the Lutheran type. On another side, there is possible the arising of a clerical political current, which would lead to a class struggle within the Church and throughout the Church. Both the one and the other danger deviate off from the path of the Church, — as Free, One and Universal. And in both the one and the other tendency there would be a false inter-linking with politics and the state. Throughout all the dangers there has to be maintained and preserved the inner hierarchism of the Church, which also is a true freedom and independence from the world. Only a Church free and preserving its hierarchical succession can prove a spiritual fortress, in which it can defend against both inward and outward temptations. Sectarian tendencies always become a fruitless waste of religious energy. And it is impossible not to desire with all one’s soul, that the religious energy of sectarianism should be returned to the Church. The true path of the Free Church lies far off alike from both the inert and pharisaeical conservatism, which impedes every creative religious stirring, and from the destructive revolutionism, directed against the inward hierarchical harmony of the Church.

The free Church of the new Russian state ought to act as an inward spiritual power and to aspire to make the state more Christian inwardly, and not from the outside. A compulsory Christian state is an hypocritical lie. But the admitting of this negative truth does not signify a refusal from the right and obligation of a Christian people to impose a Christian imprint upon their state. Insofar as the Russian people remains a Christian people, it cannot but want, that the Church should occupy in its state an especial place, not consigning it to fragmentary aspects of society. The churchly freedom within Christianity is combined with religious freedom. But religious freedom, freedom of conscience for the Christian is not a formal and empty freedom, it is a truth of the Christian religion itself as the religion of freedom. Only irreligious people hostile to Christianity would assert, that religion is a partial matter for the individual man. No, religion is universal a matter, in it is the fullness of everything. The complete separation of the Church from the state, as doctrinaire liberals and socialists tend to demand, is undesirable and impossible. In France it assumed the form of a persecution against the Church. In principle there ought to be a separation of “the things of God” from the “things of Caesar”, and “God’s” ought to be completely free from any encroachments from “Caesar’s”. But “the things of God” are active in “Caesar’s”, from within, through churchly people, in which there ought to be an integral wholeness of spirit. The true Church is a combining of freedom with oneness. The Russian local Sobor is but a moment in the universal churchly stirrings, which ought to begin to unite in the world all the powers of Christianity for the struggle against the anti-Christian powers, which are on the increase in the world.

Nikolai  Berdyaev.

21 August 1917

© 2007  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1917 – 278 – en)

SVOBODNAYA  TSERKOV  I  SOBOR.  Article originally published in the weekly Journal “Narodopravstvo”, aug. 1917,  No. 7.

Republished in Tom 4 of  Berdiaev Collected Works by YMCA Press, in the collection of 1917-1918 Berdyaev articles under the title, “Dukhovnye osnovy russkoi revoliutsii (Stat’i 1917-18)” (“Spiritual Grounds of the Russian Revolution (Articles 1917-18)”,  Paris, 1990,  p. 207-215.