Awards for Priests in the Russian Orthodox Church

There are quite a few church awards for clergy in the Russian Orthodox Church. These awards are intended to acknowledge the skill and hard work of the priest in his ministry for the glory of God and His Holy Church. Little by little, a certain hierarchy of awards has evolved. They are conferred in strict succession. What is the history of these ecclesiastical insignia and what do they symbolize?

Nabedrennik

It is a unique liturgical award, absent in other Orthodox Churches. It is awarded to a priest by his bishop after three years of priestly service (5 years for monks). It has the shape of a rectangular cloth with a cross in the center and is worn using a long ribbon on one’s left shoulder, hanging at the right thigh. It symbolizes the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17) and reminds the priest of the need to be good at using this spiritual weapon. The four sides of the nabedrennik remind of the four Gospels, which the priest must preach. It was first introduced in the sixteenth century. It is unclear why this liturgical garment appeared, but most likely it was introduced as an alternative to the epigonation, which was originally the exclusive accessory of bishops. As evidenced by 17th-century manuscripts, archpriests, hegumens and archimandrites were not entitled to wear an epigonation, but were given nabedrenniks instead. A streamlining of the priestly awards was undertaken at the Moscow Council in 1675, and the nabedrennik was no longer listed among the liturgical vestments due to the Greek tradition, which still does not know such an object. However, soon the nabedrennik reappeared but it no longer was an equivalent of a bishop’s epigonation. Rather, it became a separate award.

Kamilavka

This headgear of the Orthodox clergy is purple and looks like a slightly widening cylinder covered with fabric. Unlike the Greek Church, in the Russian Church it is an award that is presented no sooner than three years after the nabedrennik. The right to wear the kamilavka also gives the right to wear a purple skufia, whilst one can wear a simple black skufia from the moment one joins the clergy.

Traditionally, the kamilavka is meant to remind us of the Savior’s crown of thorns. Historically, it was made of camel’s hair (Greek: κάμηλος) and was worn by the people of the East to protect themselves from the sun. Kamilavkas or scyadias were also worn by emperors and state dignitaries. Later, as a sign of respect for the priesthood, they were also given to clerics. They were first introduced into the Russian Church in the 17th century but were not popular with clergy who preferred to wear skufias. It was classified as a church award by the decree of Emperor Paul I.

Golden Pectoral Cross

Christians began wearing pectoral crosses approximately since the 4th century. In most cases it was not even a cross, but a small box (encolpion) containing the relics of holy martyrs. Gradually, they began to make encolpia in the shape of crosses and they could be worn by all, both clerics and laymen. The practice of wearing the cross with reverence was confirmed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which gives examples of such ancient martyrs as Procopius of Caesarea (†303) and Orestes (†304) wearing crosses. As a rule, laypeople wore crosses or encolpia under their clothes and bishops on top of their vestments to indicate their ecclesiastical dignity. A gilded silver four-pointed cross with a relief image of the Crucifixion as a priestly decoration appeared under Emperor Paul I (†1801), who established this award in 1797 to be granted by him personally. Since 1896, to celebrate the Coronation of Emperor Nicholas II (†1917), all priests were required to wear a silver eight-pointed cross with the Crucifixion on its front side and the engraving Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity (1 Tim. 4:12) written in Church Slavonic on its back since the moment of their ordination. A golden cross is awarded by the bishop not earlier than four years after a kamilavka (for monks, five years after having been awarded a kamilavka).

Epigonation (Greek. ἐπιγονάτιον) is a diamond-shaped cloth with a cross in the center, suspended on a ribbon from one corner, worn on the right side (if a priest wears an epigonation, the nabedrennik is worn on the left side). Like a nabedrennik, an epigonation represents the spiritual sword of God’s Word. When the Basileus rewarded his distinguished officers with a reward weapon, he would also give them a decorated cloth made of stiff fabric, which was fastened to the belt and prevented the sword from beating against their legs while walking. When the Emperor began to reward clergy, he gave bishops only this cloth, because clergymen can not carry weapons. At first, the epigonation was an accessory of bishops, but over time, the priests also started to receive it as an sign of honor. In the Greek Church, epigonations are given only to those priests who are authorized to hear confessions and also to those who have a university degree. Back in the 17th century, in the Russian Church, only archimandrites of three monasteries – the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Monastery, the Moscow Chudov Monastery, and the Nativity Monastery in Vladimir – were entitled to wear an epigonation, while others could receive an epigonation only with the blessing of the Patriarch or as a gift from the Tsar. Currently, it is bestowed by decree of the Patriarch after five years of wearing the golden cross.

Cross with Decorations

It is awarded by decree of the Patriarch after five years of wearing an epigonation. The cross is decorated with enamel, filigree, engraving, and stones and normally has an imperial crown on top of the cross and pendants on the bottom. Originally such crosses were worn by bishops, but Peter I (†1725) allowed the archimandrites who were members of the Synod to wear the same crosses in 1722. Elizabeth Petrovna (†1762) ordered all archimandrites to wear such crosses in 1742 to distinguish them from hegumens. Bishops, who had previously worn both crosses and panagias, started wearing only panagias to be distinguished from archimandrites.

These are the first five ecclesiastical awards given to priests, which have gradually emerged in the history of the Church. As we can see, all these awards have historically been granted by the secular authorities to the Church hierarchy “out of reverence for the priestly ministry” and the Church, represented by its hierarchs, did not turn down such a sign of honor from the earthly rulers, considering these awards a sign of admiration for Christ and respect for His ministers. While accepting these awards and introducing them into the church life, the Holy Fathers stressed that they should be considered as just a kind of encouragement to the clergyman because Christ is our main award.

John Nichiporuk

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
a Master of Theology, specialized in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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