Women as mentors among the Old Believers

One of the memorable works at last year’s Someone 1917 exhibition in Moscow was this 1917 painting (alternative links: 1, 2) by Vladimir A. Kuznetsov (1877-1960). Its title can be translated as God’s People or Godly Folk. These are Old Believers praying together – by all signs, “priestless” Old Believers (bezpopovtsy). An earlier work by Kuznetsov, painted in 1909, depicts four Old Believer women praying for a recently departed member of their community. (The Russian title is Kanún, a word with many meanings in modern Russian, from κανών, akin to canon.)

In both paintings, an elderly lady is shown leading the prayer; in Kanun, she is assisted by other female believers. The priestless Old Believers did not renounce priesthood, like most Protestants had, but found it impossible to have priests ordained in a proper way to keep the apostolic succession. (A possible parallel is the impossibility of priesthood in Judaism after the fall of the Temple.) However, some respected, trusted and/or charismatic members of priestless communities were recognized as nastavniki – mentors, tutors, preceptors, or teachers: not quite pastors but sometimes filling in for that role. Those well-versed in the Scriptures and the somewhat eclectic literary canon of the Old Faith were known as nachetchiki, meaning, more or less, “well-read ones.”

But what about the sacraments? If I understand correctly the logic of their great polemicists, priestless Old Believers retained baptism and confession (or penance) because in the Greek Orthodox tradition these two could be administered by laymen (or even laywomen) in emergency, when no priest was available. In a sense, the priestless Orthodox believed that they would remain in extremis until the Second Coming so it was appropriate that lay folk should baptize children and hear confession.

Marriage was a more difficult issue because there was no mention in authoritative church literature, apparently, of this rite being performed by lay people. Some Old Believer communities (soglasiya) chose to remain celibate, sometimes even insisting that married couples stop carnal intercourse and live like sisters and brothers, literally. They would rear orphans and foundlings to keep the community going. Others argued that the end was not as near at hand as previously believed, and the community of the faithful should sustain its numbers in the natural, divinely ordained manner. Marriage, it was said, had not been elevated to sacrament in the original church. The priestless devised an elaborate ritual to sanction marriage, but it was in essence a blessing by a nastavnik, a layman.

Although most of the Old Believer mentors and bibliophiles in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were men, women were not excluded from this calling. Nastavnitsy and nachetchitsy were mostly spinsters and widows. The two dark-clad elderly women reading from the prayer book in Kuznetsov’s paintings must have been mentors as well. It’s remarkable that even before 1917, the priestless Old Believers came so close to accepting female ministry (although not priesthood). The all-female prayer in Kanuny seems, at first glance, an unusual practice for a conservative Christian community rooted in a vision of a patriarchal gold age. But with the study of Old Believers, paradoxes are to be expected.

In the Soviet times, the role of female mentors among the priestless became progressively more important as their communities lost their best men to repression and war. Some of these nastavnitsy persevered through the hard times, the 1920s through the 1950s, and died in their 80s and 90s, when totalitarian Communist indoctrination was already on the wane.

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