This article has been published in a special edition of Russia in Global Affairs, May 2019
“Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful.
Stay on the Path. Never step off!”
Ray Bradbury “A Sound of Thunder”
Can the flap of a butterfly’s wing lead to a hurricane? This classic example from chaos theory, which refers simultaneously to geography, mathematics and philosophy, still can cause heated debates among intellectuals: the beauty of the metaphor is not a reason to look for the rational in the irrational. For victims of a hurricane, however, it does not really matter what caused it—the flap of a butterfly’s wing or a church mouse’s tail.
For all the speculations about what happened on January 5, 2019 in St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, its consequences leave less and less doubt that the crisis triggered by the Tomos of autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine threatens to spill over not only to other countries but to Universal Orthodoxy and Christianity in general (which has seen few schisms and reformations in its history) and even affect globalization and the world order (true, not everyone is enthusiastic about a religious dimension, but now it leaves no choice: it will be difficult not to notice it). In a sense, considering the special ties between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the political West, the Tomos of autocephaly can also be viewed as an attempt by the latter to find a solution to “Problem 2014”: Ukraine has lost Crimea but has received an Orthodox Church of its own. But in any case, this factor will create a new tangle of differences, with consequences stretching beyond Ukraine, as has often happened in recent years.
This is not the first time that issues of religion and creed come into the focus of politics. Of course, the concept of human rights and freedoms, including the fundamental freedom of conscience and the right to profess any religion or no religion, has greatly complicated Lenin’s famous formula of a century ago concerning the separation of church and state and the separation of school and church. However, this is only an example of the establishment of boundaries between the church and the state—it does not negate the ability to cross these boundaries.
CHURCH OR NIGHTCLUB?
Terms that can be heard in the context of the Ukrainian church issue are rather bizarre for the 21st century information space: tomos, canon, anathema, autocephaly. They are bizarre in form but in substance they are surprisingly familiar to the ears of a modern observer, meaning independence, recognition and legitimacy. In fact, the Tomos of autocephaly, which is more like a museum piece from the remote Middle Ages than a statutory act redrawing the centuries-old status quo, reflects, like in a drop of water, all key challenges of the present disintegrating world order with its double standards, the right of the strong and the silence of the weak, interests of the minority and indifference of the majority, recognized borders, and the right to self-determination.
Since the Kosovo precedent of 2008, the world has been living in a split geopolitical reality: in some of its realms there are states that do not exist in other realms where, in turn, there are players that are non-existent in tertiary realms. The processes that unfolded after Kosovo’s independence only aggravated the collapse of the linear logic of international interaction. Today, each of its participants has both its own vision of the subject of dialogue and its own idea of ??participants in this dialogue with whom it has to negotiate at the global table. These include not only partially recognized states but also all kinds of non-state actors injecting their own motives into the choir of world politics. Some listen to them, others do not—either they cannot hear them in the information cacophony, or they lack the required auditory skills, or simply they do not want to hear them. All these factors have already led world politics to the “Schrödinger’s cat” effect, which exists for some people but does not for others. The situation in the church may develop by a similar scenario.
But this is not only about the Orthodox Church, although, of course, the crisis has hit Universal Orthodoxy the hardest: two realities have begun to develop, where Ukraine with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has become a religious version of the Balkan crisis. In the Balkans, too, there are already forces that are eager to follow the new precedent, namely, to become breakaway Churches, a sort of religious equivalent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are the non-canonical Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches that seek to be recognized as autocephalous.
The situation with religion in the era of globalization is quite peculiar. On the one hand, all traditional religions seek to preserve their identity (this is already a trend, and by no means marginal). On the other hand, we are witnessing the compression or, to put it another way, the sidelining of religion, even though it has already been occupying a very modest place in society after the turbulent 20th century. The processes of resistance in Islam, which demonstrates a high protest potential, are an indirect, yet the most obvious, manifestation of this. This potential sometimes assumes the most radical forms that are absolutely perverted even in relation to Islamic values. But there are also other trends.
Christianity, undoubtedly being the fundamental religion of the West which acts as the architect of globalization, has nearly become the first victim of tolerance and positive discrimination. The refusal of politicians to acknowledge the Christian roots of European unity in the EU founding documents was not only the result of heated debates on the underlying values of European civilization and not only a serious blow to the positions of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican, whose political ambitions have always been reckoned with. The hushing up of Europe’s Christian identity has generated a feeling of shame among Europeans for belonging to the majority in any form and in any field.
The sidelining of religion—a kind of “liberation” from the church—has more than just a normative dimension and involves all sorts of scandals related to hypocrisy, corruption, pedophilia and God knows what else, which keep leaking out from behind the church walls. However, there is one more important factor: faith, as a sphere of people’s personal choice and one of their rights, has begun to dissolve among other forms of identity, turning into something like a hobby, entertainment and leisure activity.
The buildings of churches and other houses of worship, where services are no longer held for various reasons, have been turned over more and more often not only to museums, which is already a common practice, but also to public organizations, youth centers and even nightclubs. As ordinary real estate properties, these buildings are sold or leased in the open market. In Britain, for example, the number of church buildings where religious functions are performed decreases by an average of four percent a year, according to local experts. Surveys also show that the Anglican Church’s membership has shrunk at least by half over the past twenty years.
People, who now have the right to change their identity at their discretion, can easily change not only their political party affiliation or profession but also their name, surname, nationality and even gender. Citizenship in the form of a passport of a certain state is now simply a commodity in the global supermarket. Against this background, religious affiliation is nothing special at all—it can be changed several times a day, and no one will turn a hair. There is now less and less news about Hollywood stars converting to an exotic Oriental religion, as no one gets impressed by that anymore.
Now that religion has been degraded to the level of entertainment where the choice of faith exists side by side with fast food menus and ballot papers, religious feelings may look sincere, at least to some extent, only among agnostics and atheists. Their views are at least universal and therefore rarely cause doubts and disputes.
ISTANBUL “OPIUM” FOR THE UKRAINIAN PEOPLE
Even though nothing, including religion, can develop in isolation, secular and church communities have for centuries been separated: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” and “the Earthly City and the City of God.” When analyzing church-related events that have had a political resonance, it is important not to forget their undoubtedly religious nature, which alone can provide a solution. At the same time, since there is a political context and since it plays, and will continue to play, a decisive role in some aspects and developments, secular factors should not be ignored, either.
For example, observers of the church crisis in Ukraine should pay attention to the fact that the Tomos of Autocephaly, granted to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, was signed by an ethnic Greek and Turkish citizen, Dimitrios Arhondonis, which is the secular name of Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Constantinople–New Rome. He heads the Orthodox Church of Constantinople (OCC), recognized by Universal Orthodoxy as the first in the diptych, that is, it is named first among other Churches at liturgies. The OCC has about 5.5 million believers, which is an estimated 1.5-2.5 percent of all Orthodox believers in the world and is less than not only the number of Orthodox believers in Ukraine but also the declared membership of the unrecognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev patriarchate (UOC-KP), which has merged into the OCU.
The Republic of Turkey itself, which is a secular state populated mainly by Muslims, does not recognize the ecumenical status of Bartholomew I and regards him as the head of a very small (slightly more than 0.5 percent of the country’s population) local Orthodox Greek community. Ten years ago, the patriarch was denied this status by a special court decision which referred to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Also, officially there is nothing belonging to “Constantinople” in Turkey after the city was conquered in the 15th century and renamed Istanbul. Therefore, the Turkish name for the Orthodox Church of Constantinople is the Roman Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople or the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of the Phanar.
Turkish leaders hold regular meetings with Patriarch Bartholomew I, which are officially described as part of the domestic agenda. Although meetings between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bartholomew I in recent months touched on the dialogue with the Churches of Russia and Ukraine, the general format of official comments did not go beyond the frameworks of traditional coverage of the president’s meetings with representatives of the country’s civil society.
Patriarch Bartholomew I granted autocephaly to a church that had not even existed a month before. The OCU was officially established on December 15, 2018. Noteworthy is the status of its 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius (born Sergei Petrovich Dumenko). In accordance with the Statute of the new Church, the name of its primate is “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.” However, Epiphanius was raised to the rank of metropolitan—the second highest rank in the church hierarchy after the patriarch—in another church organization, the UOC-KP, which until its voluntary dissolution on December 15, 2018 remained unrecognized by Universal Orthodoxy. Therefore, any of its decisions, including appointments, are questionable from the point of view of all Orthodox Churches, including the OCC and the recognition-seeking OCU itself. This is not just a formality: whereas scandals in a secular society over ministers’ fake diplomas or dissertations lead to their resignations, for such conservative public institution as the Church matters of conformity or non-conformity to form (canon) may remain relevant for centuries.
Even if we leave aside the issue of legitimacy of the OCU and of the Tomos granted to it by the OCC, the status of priests and hierarchs of the new church needs clarification and at least some legitimation: How should the church community view Epiphanius, who received a theological education and moved up the church ladder at institutions of the UOC-KP which was not recognized by other Orthodox Churches? Are the church “generals” ready to take him as an equal, although recently he was a “private” from the point of view of their own rules? In October 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew I canonically reinstated the hierarchs of the UOC-KP and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), but this decision did not apply to the institutions they created. And who are the people who call themselves the “New Autocephalous Church”? Who consecrated (or will consecrate) them and in what order? Who will confirm the status of the clergy of the new Church, received outside the OCU and outside the Churches commemorated in the diptych, that is, officially recognized Churches? It is noteworthy that all local churches, except the OCC, regardless of their attitude to the process in general, avoid mentioning the title “Metropolitan” in relation to Epiphanius.
THERE WILL BE NO FOURTH ROME
The aforementioned difficulties are only the tip of the iceberg. It is obvious that a scrupulous study of the crisis triggered by the signing of the Tomos will raise a much wider range of questions, which are beyond the scope of this article. However, they are already actively asked not only in the church community but also in the media.
Firstly, issues of historical canonicity, as well as the content of the Tomos itself, are in fact church issues, which are highly important from the point of view of understanding the nature of the current crisis and mechanisms for its possible resolution, but which, at the same time, unfortunately or maybe fortunately, play an insignificant role for key beneficiaries of the process. The resolution of these issues is an internal affair of the Orthodox Church. Secondly, bilateral Russian-Ukrainian relations should be set aside. For all the variety of intersection points between the religious and Russian-Ukrainian discourses, the latter only served as a catalyst for the former, in which the problem of Ukrainian autocephaly may be a significant, yet separate, case. Thirdly, this article leaves aside the twists of Ukrainian politics. Despite the election hype, which obviously gave an impetus to the sluggish years-long campaign for the separation of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, the electoral process still has clear temporal boundaries. No matter how heated election debates may be, they are a priori short-lived, compared with the life cycle of any religious conflict.
The only thing that I would like to focus on is the significance that all these events may have for Russia. On the one hand, Russia is now blamed for everything that is odd or controversial in the contemporary world; on the other hand, it continues to look for its own identity formula not so much for the sake of the rest of the world, as for itself and for its citizens and institutions.
The attitude to the church in Russia can hardly be called even. This equally applies to society, the authorities, and religious organizations, including the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) itself, which has raised its head after a century of ordeals. Recent years have been marked by an unprecedented growth of the ROC’s activity in various spheres of life in society. The role that the church has begun to play in education, health and culture was initially met with surprise and even fierce resistance. Attacks against the ROC were eagerly covered by the media. It seemed that society relished stories about the patriarch’s watches, Pussy Riot dances or the hysteria over the film “Matilda.” However, the growing humanization of society and the development of philanthropy, volunteering and mutual support have already become distinctive marks of present-day Russia, and there is no disputing the contribution made to these processes by the church and religion.
Against the background of universal secularism and absolutization of freedom of speech in the spirit of “Je suis Charlie,” even to the point of verbal sadism, Russia has chosen to rely on more traditional, conservative values and their interpretation from the standpoint of the present day, and looks for answers to new challenges in previous effective solutions. This is fertile ground for the religious worldview, and the ROC has naturally become an important element of social dynamics in the country, complemented by successes abroad. The year 2007 saw a momentous event—the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion of the ROC with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had been autonomous almost throughout the 20th century. In 2016, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia had the first ever meeting with the Pope. They adopted an extensive joint declaration which reflected the common views of both Churches on key challenges of our time, including their unconcealed rejection of many of the consequences of globalization.
The election of Kirill, a relatively young and enlightened man with a long record of work abroad, as Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 2009 gave an additional impetus to the stepped-up activity of church life. On the other hand, this vigor, unusual for religious institutions, was often criticized both in Russia and abroad.
In the present conditions, too, the ROC was quick to react to the OCC’s actions and broke off all relations with it when it was only about to grant the Tomos to Ukraine. The history of church schisms gives little chance of finding a solution in the foreseeable future that would suit both parties (even though there is the precedent of Estonia, where two Orthodox Churches coexist on a parity basis, one under the jurisdiction of the ROC and the other under the jurisdiction of the OCC, Ukraine is a different story). Nevertheless, one should not underestimate opportunities that may open up for the Moscow Patriarchate in the unfolding crisis.
First of all, this concerns the issue of primacy in Universal Orthodoxy. All local churches now have to make a decision on their attitude to the OCU or, simply put, take sides: Are they with Constantinople or Moscow? And although the Serbian and Polish Churches have already made their choice in favor of the latter, while some others are still undecided, the very fact of division among churches may play into Moscow’s hands: the ROC is the largest Orthodox Church in the world; the number of its members is estimated at more than half of the world’s Orthodox population. In other words, the ROC has more believers than all other local churches combined. While political Moscow demonstratively ignores decisions made in Washington, Orthodox Moscow will likewise pay no obeisance to decisions made in Istanbul.
There also appear grounds for a new interpretation of the “Moscow is the Third Rome” doctrine, namely, that each Rome has a Church of its own: since, under the influence of external factors, “two Romes have fallen; the third stands; and there will be no fourth,” Russia’s messianic role is becoming quite mystical.