The Russian Orthodox Church has been the dominant religious force in Russia for more than 1,000 years. Its hierarchy is similar to other Orthodox churches -- it is headed by a patriarch, archbishops, bishops and priests. Despite 75 years of Soviet-imposed atheism, 60 percent of Russians identify as Russian Orthodox, and the church has also followed the Russian diaspora all over the world.
The Councils and the Synod
The Russian Orthodox Church has a hierarchal structure, and the Local Council, the Bishop's Council and the Holy Synod are at the top of that hierarchy. The Local Council is the highest authority. It consists of the bishops and representatives of other parts of the church and is responsible for interpreting church teachings, canonizing saints and electing the Patriarch. The Bishop's Council oversees local issues for the dioceses and parishes, and the Holy Synod -- headed by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia -- is the supreme administrative body when the Bishop's Councils are not in session.
The Patriarch is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, but like other Orthodox Patriarchs, he is not considered supreme or infallible like the Roman Catholic Pope. The Patriarch can be thought of as an elected chief executive similar to an American president, but his term is for a lifetime. A patriarch must be a bishop, at least 40 years old, possess a higher theological education and be held in high esteem by the church. The current Patriarch is Kirill, who became Patriarch in 2009.
Archbishops, Bishops and Priests
The Russian Orthodox Church is split into geographic divisions called eparchies, which are similar to a diocese in a Western church. Smaller eparchies are governed by a single bishop, but larger ones have several bishops headed by an archbishop. There are approximately 130 eparchies in the Russian Orthodox Church. The eparchies are divided into parishes, and these parishes are usually presided over by a priest. Orthodox bishops are celibate, but celibacy is not required for priests.
History of the Russian Orthodox Church's Hierarchy
The Russian Orthodox Church considers the Apostle Andrew to be its founder, but it did not officially exist until 988, when Prince Vladimir adopted Byzantine Christianity. The Church was originally under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, but in 1325 the center of the Church's power moved permanently from Kiev to Moscow. The church's governance changed every few hundred years for most of the church's history. For example, the current Patriarch is only the 16th in the church's history because the Patriarchate was frequently interrupted with other forms of church governance.
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