This article has been published in a special edition of Russia in Global Affairs, May 2019
The recent bestowal of autocephaly upon the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the issuing of the accompanying Patriarchal and Synodical Tomos led to the exacerbation of the already strained relations between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow. This recent development continues to be a cause of concern in the Orthodox world due to its potential consequences for the unity of the Orthodox Churches and the dialogue with other Christian Churches.
The issue is exceptionally complex and cannot be adequately analyzed in a short article. Generally, the process of bestowing autocephaly on the Ukrainian Church follows similar lines with the bestowal of autocephaly on other Orthodox Churches in the 19th and 20th centuries and is intertwined with the territorial and political changes in the broader Crimean region that took place over a longer period of time.
More specifically, immediately after the October Revolution of 1917 the efforts to ensure political autonomy were conjoined with the demand for ecclesiastical independence and the right to self-government from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Even more sustained and intense efforts in this direction ensued after the country’s full independence from the Soviet Union and the subsequent formation of the Ukrainian state (1991). In this novel political situation, the Orthodox body of the faithful found itself deeply fragmented and divided into three churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. This internal fragmentation is directly related to the degree to which these churches supported the drive for forming an independent Ukrainian state, on the one hand, and to their predisposition to obtain ecclesiastical independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, on the other.
The details relating to the history of the Kiev state from the Middle Ages to the present day and, more specifically, the unfolding of its ecclesiastical history during the period of its canonical subjection to the Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as during the times when the Metropolitan of Moscow was ordained by the Patriarch of Moscow (17th century and later) are common knowledge and leave no room for dispute or revisionism. In this context, we shall attempt to take on some aspects of this issue, especially the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in resolving this endogenous crisis that flared up in the Ukrainian Church.
The hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church, based on the status in the order of precedence and seniority accorded to Patriarchates, Autocephalous and Autonomous Churches in conjunction with the self-government of the local churches, constitutes a distinctive attribute that is interwoven in the fabric of its history and life from its beginnings to the present day that continues to determine its essential form. More specifically, in the 19th and 20th centuries the form of organization and self-government of a local church was determined in relation to its degree of independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, within the canonical jurisdiction under which it fell. In the case of autocephaly, the Ecumenical Patriarchate issues a Patriarchal and Synodical Tomos to recognize the full ecclesiastical independence of a local church, which is administered by the Synod of the Prelates and its primate freely and without any impediment or intervention and in accordance with the Holy Canons and its internal laws.
In each case the political authorities, as embodied in the person of the ruling prince, took upon themselves to formulate a request and exercise pressure on the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In the case of the autocephalous Slavic Orthodox Churches the role of the ruling prince was so crucial that it led to the imposition of his authority on their life and administration. These churches, with a very few exceptions, never managed to escape the tight confines and the control exercised by the political authorities, even when the crowned rulers ceased to exist and were replaced by new political regimes that were, in some cases, inimical or apparently indifferent to the Church (a fine case in point is the Soviet administration in the territories that belonged to the Soviet Union or the example of the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe).
Power and strength within the life of the Orthodox Church are not gauged by secular standards, such as economic power or numerical superiority. Spiritual strength “is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12.9) and this is corroborated by both Sacred Scripture and the living experience of the Orthodox Church. The subjugation of the Church to the temptation of power abrogates its essence and malforms its soteriological character. It is evident that the Orthodox Church, even though it does “become incarnate” in each historical culture, may not be deemed coextensive with its function as a component of a given national identity. Its strength does not lie in state power but rather in its capacity to transform the world.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, on account of its placement and character, transcends the nationalism of the “Orthodox” states and churches. Even though it constitutes a minority in a predominantly Islamic country, its global presence and reach are of particular importance. Its recent labeling as “Turkish” is completely absurd and is intended to disparage its long history, tradition and contribution, which have received international recognition. Beyond any reasonable doubt the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the Mother Church among modern local churches and hence the relations between them are determined by the “physiology” of the ecclesiastical body.
The time-honored canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church places an obligation on the Ecumenical Patriarchate to make provisions for the adversities affecting the other churches and especially care for those churches that are in canonical communion with the Patriarchate. This obligation emanates from the fact that the See of the Bishop of Constantinople occupies the highest place in the order of precedence of the Eastern Patriarchates. Within the tradition of the Church this primacy is primarily understood as the ministry rather than authority. It relates to the broader mode of synodicality and autonomy that permeates the constitution, organization and administration of the local churches. The right of prelates and priests to appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch is consistent with this mode.
Regarding the matter at hand, this means that, irrespective of the degree to which Ukraine is intertwined with the ecclesiastical and political history of Russia since the earliest stages of the latter’s Christianization and regardless of the attempts of political powers to influence patriarchal policy, the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a coordinating and unifying factor may not be disregarded. Without a shadow of a doubt, granting the request for ecclesiastical independence is founded on the canonical obligation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to take an interest in and provide for local churches that are facing pastoral and administrative problems. This is even more applicable to those churches that have never ceased to belong to the canonical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, even though historical circumstances meant that temporary or “ordinary” administration had to be ceded to other churches.
The maintenance of a canonical bond between the daughter and the Mother Church—and therefore of doctrinal and canonical unity—has always been a necessary condition for the acquisition of autocephaly. The function of the Ecumenical Patriarchate consisted of providing a solution for an intractable problem. This function is of particular importance for the peace and cohesion of a troubled and severely afflicted world as well as the unity and communion of the Orthodox Churches and Universal Orthodoxy.
If we turn our attention to recent historical developments, it becomes apparent that one of the top priorities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since the early 20th century has been its endeavor to secure the unity of the Orthodox Churches, which enhanced its role as a unifying and coordinating factor against the background of conflict and radical political change. This role became even more essential following the rapid upheavals of the 1990s in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, which created new tendencies and conditions forcing the Orthodox Churches to re-examine the nature of their witness to the world and their relation with the world. The Orthodox Churches had to confront the challenge of fundamentalism and nationalism as well as various forms of anti-ecumenism, isolationism and localism that have sought and still forcefully seek to impose an obsolete order by reinforcing divisive propensities and disputes.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the spirit of dialogue and understanding and through a lengthy synodical process, was, on the one hand, conducive to surmounting the challenges described above whilst maintaining the unity of the Church in a framework of “heteromorphic” diversity of forms of ecclesiastical government. Relevant examples include the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the respective jurisdictions of Churches, Autocephaly, Autonomy, and the Diaspora. On the other hand, it attempted to formulate a common ecclesiology characterized by realism in order to confront the problems preoccupying the modern world and maintain its relations with other religions and Christian Churches.
It became apparent that not all Orthodox Churches were prepared to overcome their respective entrenched views and cease the pursuit of their interests in the narrowest possible sense of the word. Nor were they ready to prove that they could cooperate to solve their problems.
A clear perception of the essence of the matter suggests that a solution to the problem of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Ukrainian Church may be achieved only if the interested parties put worldly expediency aside and take as their foundation the tradition of the Orthodox Church that is founded on dialogue and synodicality and bears the hallmarks of patience, fortitude and a participatory and democratic character.
It may be a good opportunity for the Orthodox Church in Russia to contemplate whether its absence from the Holy and Great Council in Crete in 2016 was a mistake, given that it would be able to adduce as testimony not its wealth or numerical superiority but the wounds it suffered in Christ and its own perspective on the issues that preoccupy the modern Orthodox Church. Its perspective should have been its contribution to the dialogue.
To solve the problem that arose from the declaration of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Ukrainian Church, there is no other way forward than dialogue in the framework of synodicality. It is in this framework that all arising problems and their many and manifold parameters may be properly examined.