A Nationalist Split In Eastern Orthodoxy With Roots In The Russia-Ukraine Crisis
The Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church is pushing for independence. Church leaders in Moscow are not too happy about this.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church is on the verge of taking a step that Russia is not going to like, and the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church aren’t happy about it:
Ukraine’s president on Thursday hailed the announcement by Orthodoxy’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople that it will move forward with granting Ukrainian clerics independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, while the Russian church denounced the decision.
The Istanbul-based patriarchate, whose head Bartholomew I is considered the “first among equals” of Orthodox church leaders, said it was removing its conde mnation of leaders of schismatic Orthodox churches in Ukraine, a step toward establishing an ecclesiastically independent — or autocephalous — church in Ukraine.
Since the late 1600s, the church in Ukraine has been formally under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
President Petro Poroshenko has pushed for the church in Ukraine to be independent.
“For us, our own church is a guarantee of our spiritual freedom,” Poroshenko said. “I guarantee that the Ukrainian state will respect the choice of those who decide to stay in church structures retaining unity with the Russian Orthodox Church.”
The Russian church, the world’s largest Orthodox grouping, was furious.
“With its actions, Constantinople is crossing a red line and catastrophically undermines the unity of global Orthodoxy,” said Alexander Volkov, a spokesman for Russian church leader Patriarch Kirill. The Russian church has said it will no longer regard the Ecumenical Patriarch as first among equals if the Ukrainian church is recognized as legitimate.
Ukraine currently has three Orthodox communities — those that stay under Moscow’s control and two schismatic churches.
The leader of the larger of the two schismatic churches, Patriarch Filaret, said he would call a council with the leadership of the other schismatic church to choose a leader of the autocephalous church. Moscow-loyal church representatives can attend if they desire, he said.
Rod Dreher, who is Orthodox himself, wrote about this issue back in September when the idea was first being floated:
The two great rival churches in Orthodoxy are the Greeks and the Russians. This goes back many centuries. In Orthodox ecclesiology, the Patriarch of Byzantium has historically been considered the first among equals. Orthodoxy does not have a pope; it’s ruled collegially, by synods. The Byzantine patriarch is more like the Archbishop of Canterbury in that way. After Byzantium fell to the Ottomans, the Moscow — the Russian church — became the de facto great power in world Orthodoxy. The Byzantine patriarch — now called the Ecumenical Patriarch — has continued on all these years as a figurehead. The current one, Bartholomew, lives in a small quarter in Istanbul. Unlike Moscow, he has no money, but he does have the power, by virtue of his office, to grant “autocephaly” — the right to self-rule — to national churches in communion with his See.
(I have probably oversimplified this explanation. Forgive me. It’s complicated.)
So, the crisis coming to a head right now threatens to split world Orthodoxy. Since Russia and Ukraine began fighting, a large number of Ukraine-based Orthodox parishes have wanted to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate and form a Ukrainian Orthodox patriarchate — a national church independent from Moscow. Moscow has fought this hard. For one, a huge number of parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church are in Ukraine. To lose them would be a big, big blow to Moscow. For another, Ukraine is the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy, in the 10th century. It is hard to overstate how much this means to Russian Orthodoxy, on an emotional and symbolic level.
But if the breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox bishops ask the Ecumenical Patriarch for autocephaly, he can grant it — and, according to this report today, is moving very quickly to do that. If this happens, there will almost certainly be a schism between Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. World Orthodoxy will likely split along lines of those faithful to the EP, and those who align with Russia.
Leaving aside the admittedly weird internal politics and nationalism of the Orthodox Church, much of what we’re seeing here seems to be an outgrowth of the conflict that has been going on between Ukraine and Russia ever since the events of 2014. During that time period, we saw the pro-Russian government in Kiev booted out of power after massive protests and allegations of corruption against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and which was quickly followed by the Russian annexation of Crimea via a referendum that every independent observer agrees was entirely illegitimate. Since then, the Russians have been backing pro-Russian separatists in the Eastern part of Ukraine and have apparently been sending troops across the border to assist those separatists in their battles. In no small part, this is because Russia still doesn’t fully recognize the independence of Ukraine as an entity or ethnic group outside of Russia. Partly, this is due to the fact that the roots of Russia, and of the Russian Orthodox Church, can be found in what happened in Ukraine more than 1,000 years ago before making its way eastward. In part, it’s due to the fact that, prior to 1991, there was no such thing as an independent Ukraine although Ukrainian nationalism was a strong force during the years of Soviet dominance, something that led Josef Stalin to undertake a mass starvation campaign that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1920s.
In addition to the political history between Russia and Ukraine, the other factor that appears to be at play here is a matter of internal church politics between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, something that goes back centuries and is largely attributable to the fact that, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, there is no overall unifying voice and, as a result, the Church has broken down into nationalist spinoffs that tend to go their own ways at times. In the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, this has included a tendency to ally itself with whoever happens to be in power in Moscow at a given point in time whether it be the Czars, the Soviets, or Vladimir Putin. As a result, it’s not hard to believe that the Russian Church’s response to this is based as much in its desire to curry favor of Putin as it is to their own objections to the existence of an independent Ukranian Orthodox Church.