Awards for Priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. Part Two

We described the first five awards given to a priest for selfless service to God in the first part of the article. We covered their origin, their criteria, and the spiritual significance of these priestly distinctions. Awards are usually presented by the bishop during the Liturgy after the Little Entrance or at the end of the service. At the time the award is given, the bishop proclaims Axios and the people repeat it.

So, after the cross with decorations, the next award is the rank of the archpriest.

The Rank of an Archpriest

Under the latest regulations on awards, which were adopted at the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church on November 29 – December 2, 2017, this rank is awarded by decree of the Patriarch not earlier than five years after the cross with decorations. By the time a priest is elevated to the rank of archpriest, he must have served for at least twenty-five years. The rank of an archpriest has been known since the 8th century and was usually conferred on the parish priest. The appointment to the rank of an archpriest is made by a special ceremony during which the bishop prays that the priest be honored “to stand as the first presbyter”, i. e. to be the first clergyman of the parish (see the Bishop’s Official). Prior to the Greek word “archpriest”, the Russian term was “Protopop” (Protopop Avvakum is notorious in Church history for his defending the Old Believers). Ever since the Synodal period, the archpriestly dignity has been awarded to honored priests from among the married clergy, and nowadays it can be given both for merits and for length of service.

The Right to Celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the Royal Door open until the Cherubic Hymn

This award is given with the blessing of the Patriarch no sooner than after five years of service as an archpriest. It is customary for the Royal Door to be opened for the first time on the 3rd Antiphon, closed during the Litany of the Catechumens, and reopened on the Cherubic Hymn. If the priest has the seventh or eighth award, he is entitled to serve the Liturgy with the Royal Door open all the time until the Gifts are placed on the Holy Table, or until the exclamation Holy things to the holy people, respectively.

The Right to Celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the Open Royal Door until Our Father

This privilege is also within the exclusive discretion of the Patriarch. The award is to be granted not earlier than five years after the previous award. The Patriarch may grant the same right to cathedral churches, too. In that case, all priests of the cathedral serve with the open Royal Door.

What is the meaning of these two awards? According to the Statutes of Russian Orthodox Church Awards, there are three types of awards for priests: 1) various liturgical vestments, which have a special spiritual meaning; 2) promotion in ministry (elevation to the rank of an archpriest or a protopresbyter); 3) distinctions in performing divine services. The seventh and eighth awards are precisely such distinctions in the way a priest celebrates the Liturgy, and are intended to emphasize the priest’s high status.

A miter is a liturgical headdress, traditionally associated with bishops’ attire. Despite the seemingly ancient custom of wearing the miter, this headdress appeared quite late, not until 1000 AD. The first persons to wear special liturgical headdresses, later to be called miters, were the Popes of Rome, as well as the leaders of the Church of Alexandria. In effect, the miter was an imperial crown, which could only be worn by a Byzantine emperor. Over time, wishing to honor the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the emperors started presenting their royal regalia to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Of these, the imperial sakkos and the miter crown are particularly notable. For a long time only the Archbishop of New Rome could wear both a sakkos and a miter, whereas other metropolitans and bishops served in phelonions and without miters. Little by little other bishops were also allowed to receive miters. However, they could serve in them only in their own diocese and not in the presence of the Patriarch.

Unlike the Russian Church, where the miter is worn by both archimandrites and distinguished married priests, in the Greek East, it is still an exclusive characteristic of the bishops. Catherine II (†1796) first granted a miter to her spiritual advisor, a married priest, in 1786. In keeping with current guidelines, the miter is awarded by decree of the Patriarch to a priest who has served for at least forty years (for monks, the equivalent of this award is the elevation to the rank of an archimandrite).

A second pectoral cross with decorations

It is awarded by decree of the Patriarch after ten years of service after the miter.

The Patriarchal Cross

It is awarded in exceptional cases on the personal initiative and decision of the Patriarch in consideration of special contributions for the glory of God and for the benefit of the Church. The award may be granted regardless of the priest’s rank.

The Rank of a Protopresbyter

This is the last award for the white clergy. In the same way as the Patriarchal Cross, the award is conferred by the Patriarch in exceptional cases in gratitude for special efforts for the benefit of the Church as a whole. The dignity of a protopresbyter in the Russian Empire was awarded exclusively to the rectors of the Assumption and Archangel Cathedrals of the Kremlin, the court priest (spiritual adviser of the tsar), as well as to the head of the naval clergy. At present, the dignity of protopresbyter is given to the rector of the Patriarchal Cathedral.

Some consider these awards a remnant of the Byzantine or imperial Russia times and disdain such a system of encouragement of the clergy. There are even some priests who refuse to accept and wear these awards, and there are those who look forward to these awards. Everyone is free to have their own opinion about the acceptability of these awards from the Gospel’s perspective, but they have already become a well-established custom of the Church. The main feeling that a priest should have when accepting an award should be sincere humility, awareness of his ineptitude, and at the same time gratitude to God for such an encouragement which can be perceived as a prototype of the main award for which the priest carries his difficult cross: the Kingdom of Heaven.

John Nichiporuk

About the author

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

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