The principle of summoning a synod or council of ecclesiastical persons to discuss some grave question affecting the Church goes back, of course, to the very beginning of her history. Since the day when the Apostles met at Jerusalem to settle whether Gentile converts were to keep the Old Law ( Acts 15:6-29 ), it had been the custom to call together such gatherings as occasion required. Bishops summoned synods of their clergy, metropolitans and patriarchs summoned their suffragans, and then since 325 there was a succession of those greatest synods, representing the whole Catholic world, that are known as general councils. But all these synods met only on certain occasions, for a short time, to discuss some one, or at most a few, of the burning questions. We shall find the predecessors of present Orthodox Holy Synods rather in permanent councils at the courts of certain chief bishops. Such councils formed themselves naturally, without any detriment to the monarchical principle. The bishop was always autocrat in his own diocese, the patriarch in his patriarchate. Nevertheless, when he had a number of wise and learned persons, clergy of his city, suffragan and titular bishops in his palace or near at hand, it was very natural that he should consult them continually, hear their advice, and then follow it or not as he thought best. Two examples of such advisory committees established permanently under their bishops are famous. The pope had at hand his suburban bishops, the Roman parish priests, and regionary deacons. Without going through the formality of summoning a diocesan or provincial synod he could always profit by their collected wisdom. He did so continually. From the fact that it was normally just these three bodies who joined to elect a new pope when the see was vacant they had additional importance, and their views gained additional weight. The assembly of these persons around the pope as a permanent institution was the Concilium apostolicœ sedis to which papal letters from the fifth to the eighth or ninth centuries often refer. The same name was, however, also used for specially summoned Roman provincial synods, which were quite a different thing. The Concilium apostolicœ sedis in the first sense evolved into the college of cardinals , who still form a kind of permanent synod for the pope to consult. But there has never been any idea of so radical a revolution as the government of the Roman Church by a synod. Once the pope was lawfully elected he was absolutely master. He could consult his cardinals if he thought fit, but after they had given their opinions he was still entirely free to do as he chose.
A nearer example for the Orthodox was a similar institution at Constantinople. As the œcumenical patriarchs gradually grew in importance, as they spread the boundaries of their jurisdiction and were able more and more plainly to assert a kind of authority over all Eastern Christendom, so was their palace filled with a growing crowd of suffragans, auxiliary and titular bishops, chorepiscopi, and archimandrites. Bishops from outlying provinces always had business at the patriarchal city. The presence of the imperial court naturally helped to attract ecclesiastical persons, as well as others, to Constantinople. The Arab and Turkish conquests in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor added further to the number of idle bishops at court. Refugees, having now nothing to do in their own sees, kept their title and rank, but came to swell the dependence of the œcumenical patriarch. So from the fifth century there was always a number of suffragans and titular bishops who established themselves permanently at Constantinople. Again, it was natural that these people should justify their presence and spend their time by helping the patriarch to administer his vast province and by forming a consulting synod always at hand to advise him. So at Constantinople, as at Rome, there was a kind of permanent synod, at first informal, then gradually recognized in principle. This was the "present synod ", "synod of inhabitants" ( synodos endemousa ), that became for many centuries an important element in the government of the Orthodox Church. As far back as the Council of Chalcedon (451) its existence and rights had been discussed. At that council Photius, Bishop of Tyre, asked the question: "Is it right to call the assembly of dwellers in the imperial city a synod ?" Tryphon of Chios answered: "It is called a synod and is assembled as such." The Patriarch Anatolius said: "The assembly" (he avoids calling it a synod ) "fortifies from on high the most holy bishops who dwell in the mighty city when occasion summons them to discuss certain ecclesiastical affairs, to meet and examine each, to find suitable answers to questions. So no novelty has been introduced by me, nor have the most holy bishops introduced any new principle by assembling according to custom " ( Mansi, VII, 91 sqq.). The council then proceeded with the business in hand without expressing either approval or dislike of the permanent synod at Constantinople (Kattenbusch, "Konfessionskunde", I, 86). Such was very much the attitude of the Church generally as long as the Endemusa Synod lasted. It in no way affected the legal position of the Patriarch of Constantinople, nor was it in any sense a government of his patriarchate by synod. In this case too, as at Rome, the consulting synod had no rights. The patriarch governed his subjects as autocrat, had the same responsibilities as other patriarchs. If he chose to discuss matters beforehand with "the most holy bishops who dwell in the mighty city" that proceeding concerned no one else. So the Endemusa Synod continued to meet regularly and became eventually a recognized body. So little did the patriarchs fear a lessening of their authority from it that it was to them rather an additional weapon of aggrandizement. There was a certain splendour about it. The œcumenical patriarch could contemplate the college of cardinals marshalled around the Western throne with greater complacency when he remembered his hagiotatoi endemountes episkopoi . Much more important was the fact that his orders and wishes could be constantly announced to so many obedient retainers. And bishops from outlying parts of the patriarchate who spent a short time at Constantinople, approached their chief through the synod ; they too were invited or commanded to attend its sessions as long as they were in the city. So they heard the patriarch's addresses, received his commands, and carried back to their distant homes a great reverence for the lord of so many retainers. Kattenbusch considers the Endemusa Synod an important element in the patriarch's advancement. "He conceived the brilliant idea of organizing these bishops into a Synod so that with their help he could interfere in almost any circumstances of all dioceses and eparchies with a certain appearance of authority" (loc. cit., 86). The Endemusa Synod was abolished only in quite recent times as part of the general reorganization of the patriarch's ecclesiastical and civil jurisdiction since the hatti-humayun of 1856.
This permanent synod then may be considered as a kind of predecessor of the modern Orthodox Holy Synods. It had accustomed people to the idea of such assemblies of bishops and made the acceptance of the new synods among so conservative a folk as the Orthodox possible. But the present Holy Synods are in no sense continuations of the Endemusa. In spite of a general likeness there is this fundamental difference between the old synods and the new ones: the Endemusa had no sort of jurisdiction ; it was simply a consulting body, itself entirely subject to the monarchical patriarch. The modern Holy Synods, on the other hand, are the supreme lawgiving authorities over their Churches; they have absolute authority over every metropolitan and bishop. Laws in Churches that have such synods are made, not by the will of an autocrat, but by a majority of votes in synod. It is in short — what the older Church never dreamed of — government by Parliament.
The beginning of Holy Directing Synods was made by Peter the Great for the Church of Russia. The Russian Synod is the oldest, and the example was followed long afterwards by other Orthodox Churches. Peter the Great (1689-1725), as part of his great reform of the empire, set about reforming the national Church too. This reform was openly, frankly, in the direction of subjecting the Church to the State, that is to himself. His modern and liberal ideas never went to the length of modifying his own absolute authority. His idea was rather that of a paternal tyranny: he meant to use his rights as autocrat in order to force German and Western principles and improvements on an unwilling people, for their own good. So the rigidly conservative Russian found himself in the difficult position (not the only case in history) of being bitterly opposed to the autocrat's liberalism while basing his opposition on the principle of autocracy. The clergy — always conservative, especially in the Orthodox Churches — had already long led this opposition to the rationalist "German tsar". Then the tsar set to work to crush their power by reforming the Church and making it a department of the State.
The Church of Russia in the first period (988-1589) had formed part of the Byzantine Patriarchate. By the sixteenth century Russia had become a great empire, whereas Constantinople was now in the hands of the Turks. So the Russians, especially their tsar, thought that such a dependence no longer suited the changed conditions. Feodor Ivanovitch (1584-1598) wrote to Jeremias II, Patriarch of Constantinople (1572-1579, 1580-1584, 1586-1595), demanding recognition of the independence of the Russian Church. Jeremias, though unwilling to lose so great a province, understood that he had no chance of resisting the tsar's demand, made the best of a bad business, and comforted himself by accepting a heavy bribe. It was the first of a long series of dismemberments of the Byzantine Patriarchate. Jeremias's successors have often had to submit to such losses; in modern times they have not even had the comfort of a bribe. So in 1589 the metropolitan See of Moscow became an independent patriarchate. The Orthodox rejoiced; the new patriarchate was admitted everywhere as fifth, after Jerusalem, leaving the first place to Constantinople; they explained that now the sacred pentarchy, the (not really very) ancient order of five patriarchs, was restored; Moscow had arisen to atone for the fall of Rome. The restored pentarchy was not destined to last very long. From 1589 to 1700 the Russian Church was ruled by the Patriarch of Moscow. In 1700 Adrian, the last patriarch, died. Peter the Great had already conceived the idea of his Holy Synod, so, instead of allowing a successor to be appointed, he named various temporary, administrators till his scheme should be ready. First the Metropolitan of Sary, then the Metropolitan of Ryazan administered the patriarchate during this period of twenty-one years. Peter did not allow either of them to make any new laws or take any steps of importance. Meanwhile he himself reorganized the Church, like his army and his government, on a German model. He abolished many monasteries, brought the control of all ecclesiastical property under the State, modified the administration of dioceses, appointed, deposed, and transferred bishops as he liked. At last on 25 Jan., 1721, the ukase appeared, abolishing the patriarchate and establishing a Most Holy Directing Synod in its place. The idea of this synod (obviously a quite different thing from the traditional synods that met at intervals to examine some special question), like most of Peter's reforms, came from Germany. Luther had proposed commissions of pastors and laymen to be sent by the head of the State (the Elector of Saxony in the first instance, 1527) to hold visitations of districts in the interest of the sect. Out of these commissions grew the Consistories . They are meant to take the place of bishops and to have episcopal authority, as far as such a thing is possible in Lutheranism. They judge "all cases which belonged to ecclesiastical jurisdiction of old" (Richter, "Gesch. der evangel. Kirchenverfassung", p. 82), can excommunicate, and could in the eighteenth century punish by torture, fines, and prison. They are appointed by the secular government, have a state official, the "Kommissarius" or procurator, at their head, with a notary, and consist of superintendents, pastors, theologians, and lawyers, all appointed by the Government. The Russian Holy Synod is an exact copy of this. Its object was to bring the Church into absolute dependence on the State. Under this synod the Russian Church is certainly the most Erastian religious body in the world. As soon as he had established the synod, Peter wrote to Jeremias III of Constantinople announcing its erection, demanding his recognition of it, and that it should be recognized equally by the other patriarchs. Jeremias made no difficulty. In 1723 he published an encyclical declaring that the Russian Synod "is and is named our brother in Christ, a holy and sacred Council. It has authority to examine and determine questions equally with the four apostolic holy Patriarchs. We remind and exhort it to respect and follow the laws and customs of the seven holy General Councils and all other things that the Eastern Church observes" (Silbernagl, p. 102). So the principle of a Holy Directing Synod was accepted by the Orthodox Church. It was to take the place of a patriarch and to have patriarchal authority. Such was not, however, the tsar's idea. When the Russian bishops petitioned him to restore the Patriarchate of Moscow he struck his breast and exclaimed: "Here is your Patriarch" (Kattenbusch, p. 190, note). Nor has any Holy Synod in Russia ever been allowed any sort of independent authority over the Church. The synod is always the agent of the State's power.
This is the model of the others. The ukase of 1721 is still the law determining its rights and duties. An examination of this will show how radically Erastian the whole arrangement is. The ukase begins by explaining what the synod is and giving the reasons for its establishment. The government of many is better than that of one; moreover, if the Church has one head it is difficult for the State to control it. Countless abuses in the Russian Church have made this reform not only desirable but absolutely necessary. The second part of the ukase describes what causes are subject to the jurisdiction of the synod. The general ones are that it has to see that all things in Russia take place according to the law of Christ, to put down whatever is contrary to that law, and to watch over the education of the people. The special categories subject to the synod are five:
The third part of the document describes the duties, rights, and methods of the synod (Gondal, "L'Eglise russe", p. 42; Kattenbusch, p. 191). The synod meets at Petersburg. Its members are partly ecclesiastical persons, partly laymen. All are appointed by the tsar. Originally there were to be twelve ecclesiastical members; but this number has been constantly changed at the tsar's pleasure. A ukase of 1763 determined that there should be at least six ecclesiastical members. The Metropolitans of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, and the Exarch of Georgia are always members (these persons, as all bishops, are appointed by the Government); one or two other archbishops, a titular metropolitan, the tsar's confessor, the head chaplain of the army and navy, and some other bishops make up the number. Bishops who have dioceses may only attend the meetings of the synod for half the year. During the other half they must return to their sees. The lay members consist of the procurator ( Oberprocuror ) and a number of commissioners. The eldest metropolitan present is chairman but has no more authority than any other bishop. In spite of the protests of Russian theologians it is evident that the real head of the synod is the procurator. He is always a layman, generally an officer in the army. He sits as representing the Government, and must be present at all meetings. The procurator has to prepare and examine beforehand all questions to be discussed; he can quash any proceedings at once, can forbid any law to be passed till he has consulted his — and the synod's — imperial master about it. He is assisted in his work by a chief secretary, an "executor", two secretaries, and other officials, all of course laymen like himself. So obvious is it that the procurator is really the head of the synod that Russians themselves (except the theologians who write to defend their Church from the charge of Erastianism ) are quite conscious of it. When Mr. Palmer was in Russia it was a common joke to point to the procurator in his officer's uniform and say: "That is our patriarch" (Palmer, "Visit to the Russian Church ", 1895, pp. 48, 73, 221). Every member of the Holy Synod before taking his place in it has to swear this oath : "I swear by the Almighty and by His holy Gospel that I will do my duty in all assemblies, decisions and discussions of the Spiritual law-giving Synod, that I will seek only truth and justice, that I will act according to my conscience without respect of persons, according to the laws of the Synod approved by his Imperial Majesty. I swear by the living God that I will undertake all business of the law-giving Synod with zeal and care. I promise as servant and subject fidelity and obedience to my true and natural master the Tsar and Emperor of all Russia and his illustrious successors, and to those whom he may appoint by virtue of his undoubted right in this matter. I acknowledge him as supreme judge in this spiritual assembly . I swear by the all-knowing God that I understand this oath according to the full force and meaning which the words have to all who read or hear them" (Silbernagl, op. cit., pp. 104-105).
Of the Erastian nature of the Russian Holy Synod, then it would seem that there can be no doubt ; and since the whole Church of Russia, every bishop, monastery, and school, is submitted absolutely and without appeal to the synod, it is not unjust to describe it as the most Erastian religious body in the world. This statement, however, much offends many modern Russian theologians. A century or so ago they accepted the tyranny of the tsar over Church as well as over State as a matter of course; nor did they seem to be much distressed by it. Now, contact with Western theology, the spread of better ideas among them, and study of the Fathers have evoked in Russia too the ideal of the Church as a perfect society, a city of God on earth, too sacred to be placed under the secular government. The result is that some Russians, candidly admitting the hopeless Erastianism of Peter the Great's arrangement, demand its abolition and the restoration of the Patriarchate of Moscow. Agreeing with Peter the Great that if the Church has one head it is difficult for the State to control it, they demand one head for that very reason. One hears constantly of this movement in favour of a restored patriarchate in Russia (see, for instance, the "Echos d'Orient" for 1901, pp. 187, 232; for 1905, pp. 176, etc.; and Palmieri, "La Chiesa Russa", chap. ii). But there is another class of Russians whose loyalty to their Church leads them to defend her under any circumstances, even those of Peter the Great's tyrannical arrangement. To them everything is satisfactory, the Holy Synod a free ecclesiastical tribunal, the relations between Church and State in Russia the ideal ones for a Christian and Orthodox land. Erastianism, they protest indignantly, is a libellous misrepresentation by Catholic controversialists (most Protestants make the same accusation, by the way). Of these apologists is Dr. Alexis von Maltzew, Provost of the Russian Church at Berlin, certainly one of the most learned and sympathetic of modern Orthodox theologians. Provost Maltzew constantly returns to the question of this alleged Erastianism ( Cäsaropapismus is the German term used by him). His defence is summarized especially in his "Antwort auf die Schrift des hochw. Herrn Domcapitulars Röhm" (Berlin, 1896), §3 (Die Synode) and §4 (Staat und Kirche). The chief points upon which he insists are that only members of the hierarchy can vote in the synod, that the Oberprocuror has no power to compel the bishops, that the synod can even (if the tsar is absent) arrest and try the Oberprocuror, that the synod has no independent authority in dogmatic questions — as successor of the Patriarch of Moscow it inherits neither more nor less than his rights in matters of canon law; where dogma is concerned the other patriarchs must be consulted too — that Peter the Great sought and obtained the consent of the patriarchs for his synod, and finally that: "Only he who knows the strict order, the admirable discipline, the stable organism that distinguish the Orthodox Church of Russia, can properly appreciate the beneficent work done by the Holy Synod under the exalted protection of the Orthodox Emperor" (op. cit., p. 19). With every sympathy for the provost's loyalty to his Church, one would answer this by saying that a synod of which all members are appointed by the State, whose members take such an oath as the one quoted above, whose acts can at any moment be quashed by the government agent, is not an independent authority. Certainly Peter's idea in founding the Holy Synod was to put an end to the old Imperium in imperio of the free Church, and to the patriarch who had become almost a rival of the tsar. Peter meant to unite all authority in himself, over Church as well as State; and the Russian Government has continued his policy ever since. Never has the Church been allowed the shadow of independent action. Through his Oberprocuror and synod the tsar rules his Church as absolutely as he rules his army and navy through their respective ministries. That most members of the synod are bishops is as natural as that most members of the ministry of war are generals — the tsar appoints both in any case. It must be admitted that in a country so exclusively committed to one religion as is Russia there are advantages in Erastianism. It is quite true that the synod (except by such small ways as the canonization of saints ) does not touch dogma ; to do so would be to provoke a schism with the patriarchs and the other Orthodox Churches. Russia has the same faith of the seven holy councils as Constantinople, Greece, Bulgaria, etc. And in questions of canon law it is a great advantage to have the strong arm of the State to carry out decrees. There can be no opposition, no persecution by the Government, of a Church whose laws are countersigned by the Oberprocuror. On the contrary the State — should one not perhaps say: the other departments of the State? — is at hand if it is wanted. Provost Maltzew is right. The Russian Church is extraordinarily orderly, well-organized, uniform. The synod deposes bishops, silences preachers, sends people to monasteries, excommunicates ; and if there is trouble the minister of police steps in.
The jurisdiction of the Holy Synod extends over every kind of ecclesiastical question and over some that are partly secular. All bishops, priests, clerks, monks, and nuns have to obey the synod absolutely under pain of deposition, suspension, excommunication, or maybe even imprisonment. The synod's chief duties are to watch over the preservation of the Orthodox faith, the instruction of the people, the celebration of feasts, and all questions of Church order and ritual. It has to suppress heresies, examine alleged miracles and relics, forbid superstitious practices. All Orthodox theological works are subject to its censorship. The synod further administers all church property, controls the expenditure, is responsible for the fabric of churches and monasteries. It presents candidates for episcopal sees, prelacies, and the office of archimandrite, to the tsar for nomination, and can examine such candidates as to their fitness. It is the last court of appeal against bishops or other ecclesiastical superiors, can advise, warn, and threaten any bishop, and grant all manner of dispensations and indulgences. But to make new laws even in church matters, it needs the tsar's assent. All processes for heresy, blasphemy, superstition, adultery, divorce, and all matrimonial causes are brought to the synod. Questions of testaments, inheritance, and education are settled by the synod in agreement with the Senate and are controlled further by the tsar's consent. To administer all these matters the synod has various subcommittees. It has an economic college for questions of church property and a committee of control that re-examines the matter. These committees consist of lawyers, chancellors, secretaries, treasurers, architects (for the buildings), etc. They are, of course, entirely subject to the synod. Since 1909 bishops have to send all money for stipends (selling candles, prayers for the dead, free offerings, collections, alms-boxes) to the synod to be redistributed. Expenses and profits of ecclesiastical schools are also controlled by a committee of the synod. It pays for printing service-books and many spiritual works ( prayer books and so on), also for all imperial ukases that affect the Church. It has special commissions for Moscow, Georgia, and Lithuania. There are two synodal presses, at Petersburg and Moscow, where all Orthodox religious books must be printed, after they have passed the censor. The profits of these presses go to assist poor churches. For the censorship, finally, there are offices at Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. Throughout Russia the synod is named in the liturgy instead of a patriarch.
The first other Orthodox Church to imitate the Russian Government by synod was that of Greece. The national assemblies of free Greece in 1822 and 1827 began the process of making their Church independent of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1833 the Greek Parliament formally rejected the patriarch's authority and set up a Holy Directing Synod in exact imitation of Russia. After much dispute the patriarch gave in and acknowledged the Greek synod, in 1850. Since then the Church of Greece is governed by a Holy Synod exactly as is the Church of Russia. A law in 1852 regulated its rights and duties. It meets at Athens under the presidency of the metropolitan of that city. Four other bishops are appointed by the Government as members for a year by vote. The members take an oath of fidelity to the king and government. Their deliberations are controlled by a royal commissioner, who is a layman chosen by government, just like the Russian oberprocuror. No act is valid without the commissioner's assent. There are also secretaries, writers, and a servant all appointed by the State. The Holy Synod is the highest authority in the Greek Church and has the same rights and duties as its Russian model. It is named in the liturgy instead of a patriarch. Professor Diomedes Kyriakos ( Ekkl. Historia , III, 155 sqq.) has tried to defend his Church from the charge of Erastianism with even less success (and certainly with less reasonableness and moderation) than Provost Maltzew. (See GREECE.)
All the independent Orthodox Churches formed during the nineteenth century have set up Holy Synods. The Churches in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (Karlowitz since 1765, Hermannstadt, 1864, Czernowitz, 1873) form synods of their bishops to regulate affairs; but, as in this case there is no interference of the Government, the situation is different. These synods are merely free conferences in which all the bishops of each Church take part. The arrangement of the Bulgarian Church (since 1870) is also different, inasmuch as its exarch has a certain amount of individual authority — approaching the position of a patriarch — and there are two governing assemblies. The Holy Synod, under the presidency of the exarch, has four other members, all bishops elected by their fellows for periods of four years. They meet regularly once a year, and exceptionally on other occasions. This synod has absolute authority over the Bulgarian Church in these matters: election of bishops, questions of faith, morals, and rite, ecclesiastical discipline, education of the clergy, censorship of books, marriage questions, and disputes among the clergy. The other body, the Exarch's Council, also under his presidency, has six lay members elected by the people and clergy, confirmed by the Government for four years. The council determines questions of education, building and maintenance of churches, and church finance. Neither body may publish any order without consent of the Government; but their composition, the appointment of members, and authority of the exarch show that the Bulgarian Church is less Erastian than her sisters of Russia and Greece. The Church of Servia (since 1879) has five bishops, of whom the Metropolitan of Belgrade is primate. All meet in the Holy Synod under his presidency once a year. The synod appoints bishops and regulates all other ecclesiastical questions. The Rumanian Church (since 1885) has the same arrangement. The president of the synod is the Metropolitan of Wallachia, the other primate (Metropolitan of Moldavia) and all the six remaining bishops are members. Its decisions must have the consent of the Government. The minister of religion attends the sessions, but only as a consultor. Lastly, the four bishops of Herzegovina and Bosnia (independent since 1880) meet in a kind of synod, called consistory, under the presidency of the Metropolitan of Sarajevo. In this case the (Austrian) Government does not interfere at all.
Although the synods of Bulgaria, Servia, and Rumania have a certain dependence on the State (whose sanction is necessary for the promulgation of their edicts), there is not in their case anything like the shameless Erastianism of Russia and Greece. Between these two the only question is whether it be more advantageous for the Church to be ruled by an irresponsible tyrant or a Balkan Parliament. Lastly, it may be noticed, the church government by synod is a principle destined to flourish among the Orthodox. The secular governments of Orthodox countries encourage it and approve of it, for obvious reasons. It makes all the complicated questions of church establishment and endowment in the new Balkan States comparatively easy to solve; it has a fine air of democracy, constitutionalism, parliamentary government, that appeals enormously to people just escaped from the Turk and full of such notions. It seems then that the old patriarchal idea will linger on at Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem (though even here, in its original homes, it is getting modified in a constitutional direction), but that all new movement in the Orthodox Church will be more and more towards the principles borrowed by Peter the Great from Lutheranism. The vital argument against Holy Directing Synods is their opposition to the old tradition, to the strictly monarchic system of the Church of the Fathers. Strange that this argument should be ignored by people who boast so confidently of their unswerving fidelity to antiquity. "Our Church knows no developments", they told Mr. Palmer triumphantly in Russia. One could easily make a considerable list of Orthodox developments in answer. And one of the most obvious examples would be the system of Holy Synods. What, one might ask, would their Fathers have said of national Churches governed by committees of bishops chosen by the State and controlled by Government officials?
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