Counter Reform Programme of the Non Possessors

At the Council of 1503 the Non-Possessors put forward an antidote to the Josephites. They considered the prime danger to be any rise in the secular power of the Church. So, in accordance with the Byzantine tradition, they were against capital punishment for heretics, although they were not of course against it for civil criminals. But their main aim was the complete dissolution of lands belonging to the monasteries. In the Orthodox Church in general monasticism was the element whose influence (or lack thereof) was always definitive for its ideology and spiritual condition. So the Non-Possessors were striking at the most vital element of the whole church organization.

Monks should eat from the labour of their hands, or from receiving alms, they argued, with abundant reference to the monastic rules and regulations. This was a brilliant idea which allowed the resolution of three problems simultaneously: to win over the Grand Prince at the expense of the Josephites, to destroy the material base of the Josephite movement, and, most importantly, to preserve the independence of the church organization from the secular powers, to the extent of making it impossible for it to be a great landowner. The Russian nineteenth-century canonist and church historian, A. Pavlov, argued that the servility of the church hierarchy since the 1520s was a direct result of the victory of the Josephites who chained the church establishment to its acres.

Both the Josephite reformation and the Non-Possessor counter-reform started from an innovation. The former was elaborating the idea of the autonomy of the Muscovite Church; the latter wanted the reform of monasticism which, although not forbidden by canon law, was not obligatory either. In fact, monasteries both in Byzantium and in Russia were allowed to possess lands and the Josephites were right in justifying their stand by citing examples from the lives of earlier Byzantine and Russian saints. In answer to this the Non-Possessors said: 'They possessed, but possessed without passion.' So the Non-Possessors positioned their reform as necessary only as it applied 'here and now', to the Muscovite Church of their time.

At first, the Non-Possessors managed to gain power at the court of the Grand Prince Basil III, and Metropolitan Varlaam (1511-21) was their protector. With the blessing of Metropolitan Varlaam, in 1517 Vassian Patrikeev prepared the first edition of the Canonical Law Code (Kormchaya), shortly after reworking it with the help of Maxim the Greek, the first post-Byzantine intellectual and ascetic involved in the church life of Moscow since the early fifteenth century. He arrived in Russia after the Grand Prince appealed to the Athonite monasteries to send him a person able to translate ecclesiastical texts from Greek into Slavonic. Instead of staying for a couple of years, however, he spent the rest of his life in Russia and became venerated after his death as a holy confessor and a great theologian.

Together with Vassian, Maxim became a leader of the Non-Possessors. Their collective work, the canonical code, was accepted by the Grand Prince and was almost accepted by a church council. But here the Non-Possessors and their protector Varlaam fell into disfavour. Basil III had gradually perceived what the real difference was between the two church parties: the Non-Possessors were seeking an independent Church while the Josephites were seeking a Church submissive to the state. Maxim the Greek asked questions about the origin of the Muscovite autocephaly. He was told that there was a charter which gave the patriarch's blessing for it, but nobody was able to produce the document. In 1525 he would be condemned for his refusal to acknowledge the Muscovite autocephaly.

After the unlawful 'marriage' of the Grand Prince Basil III, who took his second wife in order to produce an heir (the future Tsar Ivan IV), any links between him and the Non-Possessors were broken. The wedding ceremony had been performed by the leader of the Josephites, Metropolitan Daniel, who justified his action by reference to the alleged specific rights of the tsar. It should be noted, however, that such a view of imperial adultery had been condemned in Byzantium as a result of the second marriage of Emperor Constantine VI (r. 780-97), the so-called Moechian Controversy. From 1525 the Non-Possessors were severely persecuted and their leaders jailed on trumped-up charges. The situation partially changed in 1547, but only for a short period. The earlier centres of the Russian Hesychast movement, such as the Holy Trinity Monastery near Moscow and the St Cyril of the White Lake Monastery near Vologda, became great sources of revenue for the Church. The Josephites of the second half of the sixteenth century ceased to be Hesychasts, and the Hesychast tradition was shifted further to the north, to the monastery on the Solovki Islands in the White Sea, the main centre for about a century.

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