17 July 2016

Of pews, populism and Pobedonostsev

We all stand together…

Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev – the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church; that éminence grise of Russian statecraft; that mighty pillar of traditional conservatism, reaction and Russian autocracy – is in fact a much more complicated figure than many are willing to credit him. As much as he admires England elsewhere for its deeply-rooted, institutional, practically apolitical commitment to its own traditions (as, indeed, many Slavophils before him had done), it is still with an archly populist eye that he observes the Church of England:
Enter an English church and watch the congregation. It is devout; solemn it may be, but it is a congregation of ‘ladies and gentlemen’, each with a place specially reserved; the rich in separate and embellished pews, like the boxes of an opera-house… We cannot help thinking that this church is merely a reunion of people in society, and that there is place in it only for what society calls ‘the respectable’. All use their prayer-books, but each has his own, which makes it plain that he wishes to be alone before God, and in no way to sacrifice his individuality… In former times, more particularly in the provinces, the pews were constructed with closed partitions, so that the occupant might pray in peace, alone, and undisturbed by any neighbour. How plainly these dispositions reveal the history of a feudal society, and even the history of the Reformation in England! ‘Nobility and gentry’ lead in all, because they possess and appropriate all. All is bought by conquest, even the right to sit in church… is it not strange that in England the masses have been forced to conquer in battle what among us has always been free as the air we breathe?
And then note how he defends – albeit in terms already somewhat compromised by the ground he is obliged to take contra a still largely-Westernised Russian gentry with its own pretensions – the practice of the Orthodox Church, built without these separate pews, where rich and poor must stand together as equals, often literally shoulder-to-shoulder! And note that he places special emphasis on the commonality of the Church, precisely that lack of individuation and separation from each other that defines even the practices of the churches under the influence of the Reformation:
From its dawn to the present day our Church has been the church of the people, inspired by love, and all-embracing, without distinction of class. The faith has sustained our peoples in the day of privation and calamity, and one thing only can sustain, strengthen, and regenerate them, and that is faith, the faith of the Church alone. Our people is reproached with ignorance in its religion; its faith, we are told, is defiled by superstition; it suffers from corrupt and wicked practices; its clergy is rude, inactive, ignorant, and oppressed, without influence on its flocks… What then is essential? The love of the people for its Church, the conception of the Church as a common possession, a congregation common in all things, the total absence of social distinctions, the communion of the people with the ministers of the Church, sprung from the people, and differing neither in manner of life, in virtues, nor in failings, who stand and fall with their flocks. This is a soil which would bring forth rich fruits with good cultivation, with less concern for the amelioration of life than the bettering of the soul, with less desire that the number of churches exceed not the needs of the people than that those needs shall not remain unsatisfied.
Liturgically- and structurally-speaking, he only distinction which is preserved in the Orthodox Church is that of the Royal Doors. The people themselves before the Doors are of equal consideration, all considering themselves to be ‘chief among sinners’; the priest himself is distinguished from us, only by his being a conduit for the Holy Gifts at the Altar behind the Doors, the real presence of Christ among the people.

I do not say these things out of a desire to offend my brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Churches where I once worshipped, or indeed anyone who worships where there happen to be pews. Indeed, these reflections are not about them, and they have their own trajectories and their own reasons for keeping to their own ways of doing things. I understand this, and if this practice works for them, so much the better for them. Instead I offer this observation from an Orthodox ‘insider’ of a past generation, for the benefit of other Orthodox believers who may be wont to adopt certain Western, legalistic, gentrified styles of thinking, out of a desire to believe that these are ‘traditional’ and to be kept pure of the stains of the unkempt masses.

When Pobedonostsev says that ‘[b]y nature we are much inclined to be infatuated with beauty of form, with organisation, with the external perfection of things’, he has in his sights not Westerners but his own Russian compatriots, who are stricken by what Iranian social critic Jalal al-e-Ahmad called غربزدگی (gharbzadegi: ‘Westitis’), who admire and want to imitate what they see as the liveliness and the modernity of the Western religious traditions. But that same observation is actually just as easily turned on some of us Western converts to Orthodoxy, who are perhaps over-enamoured by the idea of hierarchy that we see in the upper echelons, and want to hold to that idea of hierarchy for its own sake, being ‘infatuated with its beauty of form’. This was the spiritual tendency of Konstantin Leont’ev, for example. But, as good a man and as deep a thinker as Leont’ev was, as Pobedonostsev (and also, say, Dostoevsky and Mother Maria Skobtsova) would be quick to point out, there is a deep spiritual danger in this approach, that of forgetting ‘what is essential’, which some of the more reactionary Orthodox converts might fail to grasp, because they fear a possible plebeian taint more than they love God.

But such a fear has no place with us, no grounds in our midst, because there are no pews among us. (Even among the Orthodox Churches which may have the misfortune of physical pews, there are no spiritual pews ranking believers back to front, marking those with ‘reserved seats’ from those without!) God is among the least of us, and when we partake of His body and His blood, there is no distinction: the True Light shines upon us all; the Heavenly Spirit touches us all; the True Faith finds us all. That this was recognised by the paragon of Russian reaction himself, should go some way toward showing its truth for those of us who are still young in the faith.


  1. The orthodox church has its unique traditions. I like them. I believe they're justified on their own terms.

    But if we conceive of society as an organic whole (in Shakespeare's plays the state is equated with the body) ordered by aristocratic values, then every church gathering is a microcosm of the whole. In the Anglican ideal of family, church, king, and nation; the individual is part of a family, nation, and hierarchy all standing before God. Thus a leveling equality is mediated by the God sanctioned structures in which the individual is implicated. God saves the whole person, not just an atomized tabula rasa.

    I don't regard the orthodox traditions as errant; just different in emphasis.

  2. Well, thank you for that!

    Like I said, I'm not trashing the customs of the Anglican Communion or the Church of England. You guys have a reason and rationale for doing what you do, and I respect that. As I have said elsewhere, there are reasons why I am Orthodox and not Anglican - those reasons are not particularly applicable here, though.

    Re: God saving the person in her whole depth, rather than just an atomised tabula rasa - we are in perfect agreement there; it's simply that the Orthodox express that depth in other ways (for example, men and women dress differently in Church; individuals and families have devotions, name-days or slavas which are commemorated collectively, and so forth).