by John Nichiporuk
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?
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.
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).
The Epigonation (Greek. ἐπιγονάτιον), also called a Palitza, 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.
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. (According to Met. Hilarion of Volokalamsk, until the year 2004 some clergymen in the Russian Orthodox Church received the right to wear two or three crosses, but that custom has since been eliminated)
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.