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St. George

Lecture for Ch 607 The History of the Slavic-Russian Orthodox Churches

Lecture for Ch 607 The History of the Slavic-Russian Orthodox Churches
by Akinnugba Macfonse Osmond, OSM

The conversion of the Slavs was instigated by the patriarch Photius and carried out by the monks Cyril and Methodius from Thessalonica. Their invention of the Slavonic alphabet (Cyrillic and Glagolitic) made possible the translation of the Bible and the Greek liturgy and brought literacy as well as the Christian faith to the Slavic peoples. The work began in the Slavic Kingdom of Moravia and spread to Serbia and Bulgaria.

Cyril and Methodius
For Constantinople the middle of the ninth century was a period of rigorous missionary activity. The Byzantine Church, freed at last from the long struggle against the Iconoclasts, directed its energies to the conversion of the pagan Slavs, the Moravians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Russians. Photius was the first Patriarch of Constantinople to initiate missionary work on a large scale among these Slavs. He selected for the task two Greek brothers from Thessalonica, Constantine (826-869) and Methodius (815?-885). In the Orthodox Church Constantine is usually called by the name Cyril which he took on becoming a monk. Known in earlier life as Constantine the Philosopher,. He was the ablest among the pupils of Photius, and was familiar with a wide range of languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, and even the Samaritan dialect. But the special qualification which he and his brother enjoyed was their knowledge of Slavonic: in childhood they had learnt the dialect of the Slavs around Thessalonica, and they could speak it fluently. The first missionary journey of Cyril and Methodius was a short visit around 860 to the Khazars, who lived north of the Caucasus region. This expedition had no permanent results, and some years later the Khazars adopted Judaism.

The brothers real work began in 863 when they set out for Moravia (roughly equivalent to the modern Czechoslovakia). They went in answer to an appeal from the Prince of the land, Rostislav, who asked that Christian missionaries be sent, that are capable of preaching to the people in their own tongue and of taking services in Slavonic. Slavonic services required a Slavonic Bible and Slavonic service books. Before they set out for Moravia the brothers had already set to work on this enormous task of translation. They had first to invent a suitable Slavonic alphabet. In their translation the brothers used the form of Slavonic familiar to them from childhood, the Macedonian dialect spoken by the Slavs around Thessalonica. In this way the dialect of the Macedonian Slavs became Church Slavonic, which remains to the present day the liturgical language of the Russian and certain other Slavonic Orthodox Churches.

The significance of the future of Orthodoxy cannot be overestimated, of the Slavonic translations which Cyril and Methodius carried with them as they left Byzantium for the unknown north. Few events have been so important in the missionary history of the Church. From the start the Slav Christians enjoyed a precious privilege, such as none of the peoples of Western Europe shared at this time: they heard the Gospel and the services of the Church in a tongue which they could understand. Unlike the Church of Rome in the west with its insistence on Latin, the Orthodox Church has never been rigid in the matter of languages; its normal policy is to hold services in the language of the people.

In Moravia, as in Bulgaria, the Greek mission soon clashed with German missionaries at work in the same area. The two missions not only depended on different Patriarchates, but worked on different principles. Cyril and Methodius used Slavonic in their services, the Germans Latin; Cyril and Methodius recited the Creed in its original form, the Germans inserted the filioque. To free his mission from German interference, Cyril decided to place it under the immediate protection of the Pope. Cyrils action in appealing to Rome shows that he did not take the quarrel between Photius and Nicholas too seriously; for him east and west were still united as one Church, and it was not a matter of primary importance whether he depended on Constantinople or Rome, so long as he could continue to use Slavonic in Church services. The brothers traveled to Rome in person in 868 and were entirely successful in the appeal. Hadrian II, Nicholas I’s successor at Rome, received them favorably and gave full support to the Greek mission, confirming the use of Slavonic as the liturgical language of Moravia. He approved the brothers’ translations, and laid copies of their Slavonic service books on the altars of the principal churches in the city.

Cyril died at Rome (869), but Methodius returned to Moravia. Sad to say, the Germans ignored the Pope’s decision and obstructed Methodius in every possible way, even putting him in prison for more than a year. When Methodius died in 885, the Germans expelled his followers from the country, selling a number of them into slavery. Traces of the Slavonic mission lingered on in Moravia for two centuries more, but were eventually eradicated; and Christianity in its western form, with Latin culture and the Latin language (and of course the filioque), became universal. The attempt to found a Slavonic national Church in Moravia came to nothing. The work of Cyril and Methodius, so it seemed, had ended in failure.

Yet in fact this was not so. Other countries, where the brothers had not themselves preached, benefited from their work, most notably Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia. Boris, Khan of Bulgaria, as we have seen, wavered for a time between east and west, but finally accepted the jurisdiction of Constantinople. The Byzantine missionaries in Bulgaria, however, lacking the vision of Cyril and Methodius, at first used Greek in Church services, a language as unintelligible as Latin to the ordinary Bulgar. But after their expulsion from Moravia, the disciples of Methodius turned naturally to Bulgaria, and here introduced the principles employed in the Moravian mission. Greek was replaced by Slavonic, and the Christian culture of Byzantium was presented to the Bulgars in a Slavonic form which they could assimilate. The Bulgarian Church grew rapidly. Around 926, during the reign of Tsar Symeon the Great (reigned 893-927), an independent Bulgarian Patriarchate was created, and this was recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 927. The dream of Boris an autocephalous Church of his own became a reality within half a century of his death. Bulgaria was the first national Church of the Slavs.

Byzantine missionaries went likewise to Serbia, which accepted Christianity in the second half of the ninth century, around 867-874. Serbia also lay on the dividing line between eastern and western Christendom, but after a period of uncertainty it followed the example of Bulgaria, not of Moravia, and came under Constantinople. Here too the Slavonic service books were introduced and a Slavonic-Byzantine culture grew up. The Serbian Church gained a partial independence under Saint Sava (1176-1235), the greatest of Serbian national saints, who in 1219 was consecrated at Nicaea as Archbishop of Serbia. In 1346 a Serbian Patriarchate was created, which was recognized by the Church of Constantinople in 1375.

The conversion of Russia was also due indirectly to the work of Cyril and Methodius. With Bulgars, Serbs, and Russians as their spiritual children, the two Greeks from Thessalonica abundantly deserve their title, Apostles of the Slavs.

Byzantium conferred two gifts upon the Slavs: a fully articulated system of Christian doctrine and a fully developed Christian civilization. When the conversion of the Slavs began in the ninth century, the great period of doctrinal controversies, the age of the Seven Councils, was at an end; the main outlines of the faith the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation had already been worked out, and were delivered to the Slavs in their definitive form. Perhaps this is why the Slavonic Churches have produced few original theologians, while the religious disputes which have arisen in Slavonic lands have usually not been dogmatic in character. But this faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation did not exist in a vacuum; with it went a whole Christian culture and civilization, and this too the Greek missionaries brought with them from Byzantium. The Slavs were Christianized and civilized at the same time.

The Greeks communicated this faith and civilization not in an alien but in a Slavonic garb what the Slavs borrowed from Byzantium they were able to make their own. Byzantine culture and the Orthodox faith, if at first limited mainly to the ruling classes, became in time an integral part of the daily life of the Slavonic peoples as a whole. The link between Church and people was made even firmer by the system of creating independent national Churches.

Certainly this close identification of Orthodoxy with the life of the people, and in particular the system of national Churches, have had unfortunate consequences. Because Church and nation were so closely associated, the Orthodox Slavs have often confused the two and have made the Church serve the ends of national politics; they have sometimes tended to think of their faith as primarily Serb, Russian, or Bulgar, and to forget that it is primarily Orthodox and Catholic. Nationalism has been the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries. Yet the integration of Church and people has in the end proved immensely beneficial. Christianity among the Slavs became in very truth the religion of the whole people, a popular religion in the best sense. In 1949 the Communists of Bulgaria published a law stating: .The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is in form, substance, and spirit a People’s Democratic Church.. Strip the words of their political associations, and behind them there lies an important truth.

The growing might of the Russian state contributed also to the growing authority of the Autocephalous Russian Church. In 1589 Metropolitan Job of Moscow became the first Russian patriarch. Eastern patriarchs recognized the Russian patriarch as the fifth in honor.

The Russian Orthodox Church was in a hard situation during the so called 'Khrushchev's thaw" as well when thousands of churches throughout the Soviet Union were closed "for ideological reasons".

It was impossible to build new churches. The Russian Orthodox church was further weakened in 1922, when the Renovated Church, a reform movement supported by the Soviet government, seceded from Patriarch Tikhon's church, restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited.

In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. The number of open churches reached 25,000. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active.

The Church and the government remained unfriendly until 1988. This point of view was based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is in schism, after breaking off from the Orthodox Church.

In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries—among them Saint Herman of Alaska -- to establish a formal mission in Alaska. The group further claimed to speak as a synod for the entire "free" Russian church. Between the World Wars the Metropolia coexisted and at times cooperated with an independent synod later known as Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), sometimes also called the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR)

Russia's Church was devastated by the repercussions of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Administratively, the Church is organized in a hierarchical structure. There are around 130 Russian Orthodox eparchies worldwide.

Further, some eparchies are organized into exarchates, or autonomous churches. Currently these include the Orthodox Churches of Belarusian exarchate; the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia; the Latvian, the Moldovan, and the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate.

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