The establishment of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine heated the debate and sharpened the language of the leaders of the Orthodox world. The tone was set by former Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, who called the event “historic” and promised that it would create a “Church without Putin and Kirill.”
For his part, Foreign Minister of the Russian Church Hilarion Alfeyev called the Unification Council on December 15, 2018, which established the new Church, “a robber council.” In his already traditional Christmas interview, Russian Patriarch Kirill stated that the new Church was a “political project aimed at destroying Orthodoxy in Ukraine.” Unsurprisingly, the sharpest voice was that of the Russian state TV that aired the footage showing the granting of the autocephaly under the headline “Bartholomew’s Night of Universal Orthodoxy.” The Ecumenical Patriarch himself did not conceal his indignation at the accusation that he had received money from Ukraine. With a good sense of humor and sarcasm at a Christmas event he said: “In reality, I did not receive money but many candies and chocolates from the factory of Poroshenko,” before distributing the candies to the children present.
However heated the debate was, it was followed almost silently by other Orthodox Churches. Some of them supported Moscow’s proposal for the convocation of a pan-Orthodox meeting to resolve the problem. But no one followed the example of Moscow, which declared a schism with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and compared it with the Great Schism of 1054 that divided the Christian world.
Politics aside, the establishment of the new Ukrainian autocephalous church falls within the context of the traditional rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow for leadership in the Orthodox world. Seen from that perspective, the schism is an important event with a lot of history in the background. Still, it remains a limited church conflict, with some possible long-term consequences and several dimensions. The first dimension is political: Is Moscow right when it claims that politics played too big a role in the process of granting the autocephaly? The second one is ecclesiastical: What is written in the Tomos, the decree for autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, granted by Constantinople, and how is it accepted by the other churches? The third and most important dimension is public: How is this act perceived by Orthodox societies and how will it affect the soft power and influence of the two main Orthodox sees?
Orthodox clerics like historical parallels, especially in times of crisis, although those parallels could be both misleading and dangerous. The term ‘Robber Council’ was invented by Pope Leo I the Great with regard to the Council of Ephesus in 449, which endorsed the monophysite heresy. The term is widely used by Orthodox hierarchs against any council, whose decisions they do not accept. But this phrase hardly is applicable to a council, whose decisions concern only jurisdictional matters, which is the case with the Council in Kiev held on December 15, 2018.
If a historical parallel is needed, it should be searched in the more recent history of Orthodox Christianity. The textbook example for a schism, created as a result of the problem of autocephaly, is the Bulgarian schism of 1872. In 1870 the Bulgarians, who were still living under Ottoman dominance, established their own Church, independent from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as part of their national aspirations. As a response, the Ecumenical Patriarchate convened a council, which convicted the Bulgarian Church for “ethno-phyletism,” as the council called the new doctrinal mistake of perceiving the nation and Church as identical. The announced schism was supported by all other churches and the Bulgarian Church was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as late as 1945 in completely different political and historical circumstances. In fact, this parallel is not completely applicable to the current dispute. While at that time the schism was proclaimed by Constantinople and supported by all the other churches, today the case is the opposite—the Ecumenical Patriarchate is granting autocephaly, while another church imposes schism not only on the newly established church but also on the Church of Constantinople.
Therefore, it would be more accurate if historical explanations were sought not on the basis of similarity of cases, but within the broader context of history, dominated by the rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow. It can be traced back at least to 1948, when the Russian Church convened in Moscow a Pan-Orthodox Assembly, well documented by historians, the aim of which was the formation of the “Orthodox Vatican” in opposition to the Catholic Vatican dominated by Western countries. The idea failed because it was rejected by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In this project the Russian Church was supported by all churches from the new communist states, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate was supported by all churches that lived within liberal states. The events in 1948 did not evolve into official schism but led to a severe deterioration of relations between the two parts of the Orthodox community. Initially the conflict seemed irredeemable but it was resolved eventually in the early 1960s.
The reconciliation opened up the possibility for the convocation of a Pan-Orthodox Council aimed at modernizing the church practice. The Council was initiated by Constantinople and in the following decades all churches agreed first on the agenda and then on the documents that should be approved. Initially the agenda included the question of how autocephaly could be proclaimed but later this issue was dropped. After long and painful preparatory work, especially in the 1990s, the agenda and draft documents were approved. Finally, at the explicit insistence of the Russian Church, it was decided that at the Council the texts would be considered and approved only if they were supported unanimously.
This is the same Pan-Orthodox Council that finally was convoked in Crete in 2016. Just before its opening, the Bulgarian, Georgian, and Antiochian Churches refused to participate, arguing that some of the texts contained dangerous modernization of the doctrine. They were followed by the Russian Church, which also refused to participate, insisting that in this case the Council would not be representative. Those events created the impression that the real motive was the unwillingness of the Russian Church to admit the leading role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and that the three churches abstained from participation under Russian pressure.
This is the historical background of the establishment and recognition of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Much more visible are the political dimensions of the current schism, even without referring to the immediate conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Paradoxically, the same dimensions are also mostly emphasized by some church leaders. The recognition of the autocephaly was initiated by then Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, whose letter was supported by the leaders of the two unrecognized Churches in Ukraine. President Poroshenko also took active part in the Unification Council on December 15, 2018 and in the events in Istanbul on January 6-7, 2019, when the Tomos for autocephaly was signed and granted to the Ukrainian hierarchs. All this prompted the Moscow Patriarchate’s accusations of unacceptable state interference in church affairs along with unambiguous hints at external pressure on the Orthodox world.
It must be admitted that Moscow’s displeasure seems reasonable. The presence of the Ukrainian president at each of these events, although justified and understandable, was too obvious and dominant and inevitably provoked the accusations. At the same time, the newly elected head of the Ukrainian Church, 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kiev remained in the shadow of the Ukrainian president during the autocephaly celebrations.
It is true, however, that political motives also clearly exist in the Russian Church’s reaction. Ukrainians perceive as a threat Patriarch Kirill’s well-known idea of the Russian world, which basically claims that the Russian civilization extends far beyond the boundaries of the Russian state. Patriarch Kirill, at his last meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Phanar in August 2018, emphasized once more this idea by stating (according to the transcript released by the Ecumenical Patriarchate): “We have never abandoned the notion that we are one country and one people. It is impossible for us to separate Kiev from our country, as this is where our history began. The Russian Orthodox Church preserves the national consciousness of both Russians and Ukrainians.”
Although important and visible, these political dimensions of the current schism are also the most short-lived. Sharp words will be forgotten within several months and politicians (at least in democratic countries) will step down from the scene in a relatively short historical period.
The Tomos, its content and perception
Politicians will change, while the newly established church will remain. That is the reason why the ecclesiastical dimensions of the current schism are more significant. Moscow imposed the schism because it insisted that the recognition of the Ukrainian Church represented uncanonical entry into its own church territory. On that issue the argument of the Constantinople seems convincing. Quoting the documents from that time, it argues that in 1686 the Ecumenical Patriarch granted to Moscow only the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev “in a manner of condescension” and due to the specific historical circumstances. The Metropolitan of Kiev was obliged to commemorate the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch “among the first” during the Divine Liturgy. Since those requirements were breached, the granting of autocephaly was preceded by restoration of the canonical rights of Constantinople over the territory of Ukraine.
The other ecclesiastical dimension is related to the content of the Tomos. The document explicitly states that the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has no right to change the title of its head, which means that the Metropolitan of Kiev could not be elevated unilaterally to the status of patriarch. The Ecumenical Patriarch retains the rights of appeal in case of internal disputes; the Ukrainian Church has no right to set up parishes or dioceses outside the country and the existing Ukrainian parishes abroad should be transferred to Constantinople. From one perspective, it seems that all those provisions aim at ensuring the ultimate power of the Ecumenical Patriarch. But they could also be read positively: the prohibition on the establishment of new parishes outside Ukraine aims to calm down the other churches, which may feel threatened by the new church, mostly the Polish Orthodox Church. The right of appeal is intended to prevent possible future internal disputes or schisms within the Ukrainian Church, which do not seem impossible in view of strained relations between two former church bodies that established the new church. Moreover, the right of appeal of the Ecumenical Patriarch is widely accepted in the Orthodox world. For example, the internal schism in the Bulgarian Church in the 1990s was resolved by the decisive interference of the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The third, most discussed, ecclesiastical dimension is the one related to the perception of the autocephaly by the other Orthodox Churches. Moscow’s proposal to convene a Pan-Orthodox Meeting created the impression of weakness. Proposing such a meeting only two years after the boycott of the Pan-Orthodox Council looked like a desperate move aimed at postponing the inevitable. It was not a surprise then that this proposal was supported only by several Orthodox Churches (Serbia, Poland, Antioch, Czech Lands, and Slovakia). All other churches remained silent or ambiguous, most notably among them the Bulgarian and Georgian Churches that had not attended the Council in Crete.
The same applies to the reactions of other churches to the establishment of the new church and the granting of autocephaly. So far all of them have abstained from stating a clear position and preferred to remain silent. None of them is ready to declare schism against Moscow. There are different reasons for each one. The only thing in common is that each church has something to lose from breaking up relations with Constantinople. Some are concerned that as a response Constantinople could grant autocephaly to other churches. The Serbian Church, which is among the closest allies of Moscow, is afraid that the recognition of the Ukrainian autocephaly could be followed by recognition of the Macedonian Church (whose autocephaly, declared unilaterally in 1967, remains unrecognized) or even of the Church in Montenegro. Moscow could expect unreserved support only from the Church in Antioch: although recognized as an ancient patriarchate, it is clear to everyone that within the circumstances of the Syrian civil war its options are extremely limited.
In the coming months, it is the other churches’ reactions that will keep the intrigue alive. And most likely all of them will postpone their decision as long as possible, creating special commissions to study the case and keeping the communion both with Constantinople and Moscow. It could be expected that the new church will be recognized by some churches closest to Constantinople. It means that Moscow will continue to insist that the new Ukrainian Church should remain unrecognized, while Ukraine will keep insisting that the schism against Constantinople was backed by no other church. But the fact is that in the history of the Orthodox world there has not been a single case of autocephaly withdrawal once it is granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It means that the new church will be gradually accepted in the Orthodox world, although this process will certainly be slow and will probably take years.
The schism and the Churches’ soft power
The most important aspect of this dispute concerns its public dimension: how this schism is viewed and understood by the Orthodox societies and how the current debate on Ukraine affects the soft power of the two main Orthodox sees.
The general impression is that with the recognition of the Ukrainian Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has regained the initiative and authority in the Orthodox world. That was not the case in the past decade. In the course of the last several years the Russian Church effectively demonstrated its soft power, undermining the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Recently the Russian Church successfully put forward the argument that Orthodoxy can be identified only with the East because the West (i.e. the European Union and America) have become over-secularized societies, which is the reason why they are doomed to decline.
This message has found fertile soil in the current age of identity politics, especially among the former communist Orthodox societies. A Pew Research survey of 2017 showed that nearly two-third of adults in Orthodox-majority countries such as Serbia (78%), Russia (73%), Armenia (71%), Greece (70%), and Georgia (65%) agreed that there was a clash between their own traditional values and those of the West (In Orthodox countries in general some 59% agree with this statement, compared with 44% in other countries surveyed).
A collateral victim of that argument was the Ecumenical Patriarch. Due to his broad international contacts and good relations both with Catholics and Protestants, he is constantly portrayed as one of those “Western institutions.” This controversial and even conspiratorial argument, quite well-received in certain circles, became a universal explanation for all the problems of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Unlike the Russian Church, the soft power and influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate rest on more tangible foundations. Besides his universally accepted right of being “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, his other advantage is the broad network of international contacts, which makes him a preferred mediator in all major church conflicts. His jurisdiction over the monasteries on Mount Athos is another reason which prevents the Orthodox Churches that have their monasteries there from breaking up relations with Constantinople: besides Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Serbia also have their monasteries on Mount Athos.
How is the conflict perceived by other Orthodox societies? The unpleasant truth is that Orthodox societies, especially in the former communist countries, are much more secular than many Western countries. The same Pew Research survey shows that the median church attendance in Orthodox countries in Central and Eastern Europe is 10% (Romania, 21%, Georgia, 17%, Ukraine, 12%, Serbia, 6%, Russia, 6%, Bulgaria, 5%), while in the Catholic majority countries in the region it is 25% (45% in Poland and 43% in Ukraine).
Therefore, as Pew Research concludes, many Central and Eastern Europeans might be described as “believing and belonging, without behaving.” This explains the importance that each society attributes to the existence of an autocephalous church. And it is for this reason that people in those societies are sympathetic to the national aspirations of new states for establishing an autocephalous church.
It can be summed up that the establishment of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine is a serious blow to the ambitions of the Russian Church to lead the Orthodox world. But the current schism between Moscow and Constantinople will remain a local dispute, which will hardly turn into a new Great Schism. It will last some years, in the worst possible scenario maybe decades, but finally it will be resolved. Most important will be the behavior of the newly established Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Both the new church and the Ukrainian state should assure the other churches that the process of transfer of parishes from the Moscow Patriarchate to the newly established church is peaceful and voluntary. The new Ukrainian Church undoubtedly should be “free from Putin” but not from Kirill, who is the head of a recognized Orthodox Church. A positive sign in this respect is the fact that Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kiev mentions in the liturgies Patriarch Kirill among the heads of the other Orthodox Churches, with which the new church aspires for communion.
The current dispute is not a doctrinal dispute, it is a dispute over jurisdiction and arguably over primacy in the Orthodox world. In this respect it resembles another “Great Schism”: in the Catholic world this term often applies to the schism in the late 14th century between the Popes in Rome and in Avignon. That schism lasted several decades and finally was resolved by a council that recognized as legitimate the Pope in Rome. In the current “not so Great Schism” in the Orthodox world the positions of the Patriarch of New Rome to regain his authority seem better than those of the Patriarch of the “Third Rome.” There are also good sides to the current dispute: it proves that every Orthodox Church, however big and influential it is, has limits to its influence and power. This will hopefully lead to the restoration of conciliarity, the strongest and most attractive feature of the Universal Orthodox Church.