A Schism in Universal Orthodoxy?
No. 2.1 2019 June/SPECIAL ISSUE
Peter Petrovsky

Research Fellow at the Center for Social, Philosophical and Anthropological Studies at the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus; Co-Chairman of the editorial board of Eurasia.Expert.

Risks of Church Division and Their Implications

Ukraine, which became the apple of geopolitical discord in 2014, is now also turning into one of the key factors behind the emerging schism in the Orthodox world. This psychologically and mentally complex factor may be employed in the geopolitical struggle where Orthodoxy, as an instrument of influence and political governance, will be used more and more often for achieving certain goals. Therefore, Orthodox church life may go beyond the narrow religious bounds and become a matter of national security.




The division of Orthodox Churches over Ukraine would have been solely a matter of jurisdiction and autocephaly but for the Phanar’s canonical innovations regarding such important issues as the bigamy of priests and other liberal trends. In particular, Archbishop Leo (Makkonen) of the Finnish Orthodox Church (FOC), which is an autonomous archdiocese of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, has proposed integrating homosexuals into the life of Orthodox communities. The FOC, like many other archdioceses of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, has switched to the Gregorian calendar. Such a radical change is rare in Orthodoxy. Some churches use the Revised Julian calendar, which combines the Gregorian calendar and moveable feasts observed according to the Julian calendar.

It should be recalled that Constantinople communicated with and eventually recognized Renovationists, a schismatic church in Russia, in the 1920s. Then the Phanar was ready to accept the Renovationists’ departure from Orthodox dogmas and recognize them as a canonical church. Simultaneously, Constantinople broke off relations with the Moscow Patriarchate.

There are also suspicions among Orthodox believers about the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s special involvement in the ecumenical movement. In particular, the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the most conservative churches, strongly condemns ecumenism.

The Phanar’s claims to primacy not only in honor but also in power have already caused a storm of criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and other Churches, which accused Constantinople of sliding into papism and schism.

These developments indicate that a possible schism in Universal Orthodoxy over Ukraine may also have a worldview nature, dividing believers into conservatives and liberals. If so, the ROC will definitely support the former, while the Patriarchate of Constantinople will favor the latter.

A division based on this principle has already been declared in Ukraine. It is known that most schismatics are susceptible to liberal ideas. Two hierarchs of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who have joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), have liberal views, too. From the first days of the OCU’s activity, state and church propaganda has emphasized its “progressive” nature, as distinct from the conservative and static Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Therefore, there are prerequisites for a deeper division in Orthodoxy over canonical and dogmatic approaches.

On the other hand, the Phanar’s special approach to the current transfer of Russian parishes of the Western European Exarchate under the omophorion of the ROC, also shows that Constantinople is ready to fully revise the philosophy of the hierarchical and structural functioning of Universal Orthodoxy. As part of the heritage of the Byzantine Church, the Phanar in the late 19th-early 20th centuries strongly opposed the principle of organizing local churches according to ethnic principles. The Council of Constantinople of 1872 even declared this approach to be a heresy of phyletism.

However, after the establishment of the Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian and some other local churches, the Phanar lost many parishes and most of its flock. The only way out for it was missionary activity in new countries and spiritual direction of diasporas. However, the launch of similar missions by other local churches came as an obstacle for the Church of Constantinople (COC). Throughout the 20th century, the Patriarchate of Constantinople repeatedly tried to limit missionary activities of other local churches. And now, for the first time, the Tomos granted to the OCU has secured the Phanar’s right to solely guide the Ukrainian flock outside Ukraine. All parishes of the former Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church have come under the COC’s jurisdiction. In fact, the Ukrainian precedent is the first legal limitation of activities of a local church to state borders.

Such actions should be viewed as an attempt to create a new hierarchy of Orthodox Churches. There is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which extends its jurisdiction to various parishes in the diaspora and which does not limit its activities to national territories or particular nations, and there are local churches which operate within the borders of individual states and which provide spiritual guidance to one ethnic community. This structure creates an absolutely different architecture of the Orthodox world and threatens the integrity of some local churches, including the ROC, a risk that potentially comes from the COC.




The precedent of granting autocephaly to Ukraine may have negative consequences for Belarus and the Baltic states.

Constantinople’s claims to the ancient Kievan Metropolis automatically raise the issue of extending its jurisdiction to Belarus and the Baltic states, which were part of this structure in the 10th-18th centuries. The Phanar has thus declared itself the only possible jurisdiction in these countries.

Schismatics from the so-called Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church Abroad (BAOC) have already expressed support for using this tactic in Belarus, too. Of course, the Belarusian schismatics, unlike the Ukrainian ones, do not have parishes and believers in Belarus. The head of the schismatic BAOC is denied entry to the country. However, we should not forget that part of the schismatics from among Belarusian emigrants in the United States have long joined the COC and have a representation in the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Despite the small number of its members, unlike the Ukrainian Church, the Belarusian Council of Orthodox Churches in North America, which is part of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of North America accountable to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, can potentially play the same role as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada does for Ukraine.

In case of a negative scenario, there may be at least three, if not five, ecclesiastical jurisdictions in Belarus.

After all, it should not be forgotten that Western Belarus in 1921-1939 was part of Poland, and that Orthodox parishes were under the jurisdiction of the Polish Orthodox Church. This also holds true for some other countries. Therefore, the Ukrainian precedent can be the beginning of a redistribution of jurisdictions in Universal Orthodoxy.

Baltic Rehearsal
Sergey Leonidov, Igor Prekup
In the 1990s Constantinople challenged the Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia. It was then that the contours of the ethno-phyletism Constantinople style became visible. In the longer term, they would serve as the basis for the Phanar’s policies in Ukraine.