Old Dog, New Tricks
No. 2.1 2019 June/SPECIAL ISSUE
Andrey Shishkov

Research Fellow with the Synodal Biblical and Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is a Senior Lecturer at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Post-Graduate Institute of the Russian Orthodox Church.

On the Language of Describing Modern Religious-Political Processes

The ecclesiastical crisis over the creation of an autocephalous church in Ukraine has highlighted once again the urgency of drawing a line between religious and political affairs in modern societies. The strong involvement of the authorities in the process of creating the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church has become a subject of debate and at the same time an imperative for identifying new trends in the state-church-society triangle.

Analysts and commentators have described as fundamentally new the situation where the authorities publicly meddle in affairs that are traditionally considered an exclusive realm of the Church. For instance, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion, has said: “It is not the politicians’ business to intervene in church affairs. Politicians are not in the position to decide how the Church should be established or organized.”

At the same time, the active role of the political authorities in proclaiming the autocephaly of any local Orthodox Church is more a tradition than an exception. Former Ukrainian president Pyotr Poroshenko’s idea of a single national local church is not new, and largely agrees with the Orthodox tradition of interference by political authorities in church affairs. What changes have occurred over the past century to cause such great alarm over the authorities’ participation in proclaiming autocephaly in Ukraine?




The political authorities have been a major force in establishing and governing church structures since the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. It was none other than Constantin, the “bishop of external affairs” as he described himself, who set a new paradigm for intervention by secular rulers in church affairs. From that moment, emperors, tsars and princes or their proxies have been full-fledged participants in church processes: they led church councils, elected or authorized the heads of local churches, and issued doctrinal documents. And, of course, they participated in proclaiming the autocephaly of local churches.

The first mention of autocephaly in church documents dates back to the acts of the Third World Council, which took place in Ephesus in 431 A.D. The very same Emperor Constantine established the world councils as an institution. The very word “universe” (oecumene) in those days was in fact synonymous with empire. The World Council’s decision, made in Ephesus to confirm the autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus, was undoubtedly a political one and required the consent of the political authorities. Under Emperor Constantine’s rule, the church structure in the eastern part of the Roman Empire was adjusted to the administrative and political system. Cyprus was part of a province in the Roman East, governed from Antioch on the Orontes, its capital city. The Council ruled that the Church of Cyprus was free to elect its head (in other words, to be autocephalous, or self-led), without intervention by the Church of Antioch.

The history of proclaiming autocephalous churches in the Balkans in the 10th-13th centuries is also closely related to politics. Bulgarian and Serbian rulers initiated the emergence of autocephalous churches in the countries they governed. The Moscow Council, which in 1448 elected Metropolitan Jonas as the head of the Russian Church and, in fact, declared the autocephaly of that local church, had been called by Grand Prince Vassily II, who also participated in its sessions.

All modern autocephalies were proclaimed with the political authorities either taking direct part in the process or providing firm support. The autocephalies in Greece (1833), Romania (1865), Bulgaria (1872) and Georgia (1917) went hand in hand with the creation of nation states in the respective countries and were a major element of nation state construction.

The authorities’ support for the autocephalous churches in Poland and Albania fitted in well with the policy of post-imperial transit.




The active role of the state in church affairs is hard to accept because the public discourse of describing religious and political problems in modern societies largely stems from the secular paradigm. Secular understanding of the place of religion in the life of an individual and society restricts it to the private space—private life or the life of micro-society. A believer can display religiousness and be guided by religious rules only in private life. But the political and public space must remain secular; in other words, clear of religion.

Historically the secular political space began to take shape in response to the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Those wars discredited the social and political role of religion. Secularization made it possible to considerably ease religiously motivated violence, if not halt it altogether. In contrast to the pre-secular era, when religion and politics were linked inseparably, the new situation required the disengagement of politics and religion and their further autonomous existence. Juridically it was formalized as the separation of the church and the state. The state guaranteed its citizens the right to freedom of conscience and religion or belief, but its manifestations were restricted to the private sphere.

The secular way of description is distinguished by the strict dichotomy of secularism and religion, with a strict borderline drawn between the two. Any trespassing either way is perceived as something extraordinary and alarming as a rule. The churches’ public activity in a secular society is regarded as a violation of the principle of the secular state, while the authorities’ interference in church affairs is seen as a disregard for the freedom of religion or belief.

In the public mind shaped in accordance with the secular paradigm, religiousness can be expressed within a strictly reserved domain of pure religiousness, governed by religious organizations, such as churches. Religiousness is restricted to the activity of religious organizations, which as a rule is confined to the administration of religious rites. The borders of the church are drawn in accordance with the borders of corresponding religious organizations juridically registered by the state and coincide with the hierarchic structure. The church-society contrast fully agrees with the secular paradigm. The church as represented by its governing hierarchy accepts these rules.




In the 20th century the secular paradigm began to prevail not just in the social sciences by describing the place of religion in social processes, but also in ecclesiology—a branch of theology that studies and describes the church. The theological language that describes church structures in fact is a replica of the corresponding political language. At the same time, the separation of the church and politics remains.

The modern understanding of autocephaly took shape in the modern era under the influence of emerging sovereign nation states. The proclamation of autocephalies proceeded alongside the creation of such states, which lent the process of obtaining them the flavor of a national liberation struggle.

In modern ecclesiology the phenomenon that we currently refer to as church autocephaly corresponds to what in the political interstate sphere is understood as sovereignty. The principle of autocephaly implies non-intervention in the internal affairs of an autocephalous church by other autocephalous churches; the inviolability of its canonical territorial borders; and the equality of autocephalous churches as actors of interchurch relations. It is this association of autocephaly with sovereignty that constitutes the main distinction of the modern understanding of autocephaly from all previous interpretations. There can be no administrative authority above an autocephalous church, because it enjoys sovereignty; in other words, highest power itself.

In accordance with this understanding of autocephaly, an autocephalous church is a Church in its own right: it elects its head and makes other decisions concerning church affairs on its own. In other words, it is not subordinate to any other autocephalous church and is therefore independent from other churches in all respects other than dogma matters. In line with this principle, all autocephalous churches are equitable participants in interchurch relations. This understanding is different from the one that existed in ancient times and the Middle Ages, when formally an autocephalous (i.e. self-proclaimed) church could be affiliated with larger churches. For instance, the autocephalous dioceses of Pontus, Asia, and Thrace were part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The modern understanding of autocephaly completely excludes the political and social aspects from the description of the church. The language in which the Orthodox Church speaks about autocephaly in fact models a situation of “pure ecclesiasticism,” where there is no place for political actors and where there exist only quasi-state church entities maintaining relations identical to those among states.




The secular paradigm as a public means of describing religious and political processes reached its prime in the 1960s-1970s. In the 1990s-2000s, though, the sociologists of religion subjected secularism to revision. Since the mid-1990s, U.S. sociologist Jose Casanova and a number of other scholars started to postulate that religion was returning to the public space. In 1999, one of the leading theoreticians of secularization, U.S. sociologist Peter Berger, published a work called The Desecularization of the World, the first in a same-name collection of articles. In that piece he pointed to the mistakes of the secularization theory. And in a William Phillips Memorial Lecture at the New School for Social Research in New York, Berger said that the world remained “furiously religious.”

German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas adhered to a completely different view on the presence of religion in the public sphere. One month after 11 September 2001, he delivered a report entitled Faith and Knowledge to put forward an idea of a post-secular society. Habermas considers this concept in the context of the normative political theory of liberal democracy. He maintains that the development of liberal democracy naturally leads to the discovery of the right of religious citizens to be present in the public space and to act in accordance with religious convictions.

As Russian religious researcher Alexander Kyrlezhev says, “post-secular is a (new) uncertainty regarding the ‘religious-secular’ ratio.” Accordingly, the borderline between secular and religious, very clear in the secular paradigm, becomes blurred.

Although Habermas is a renowned intellectual, the post-secular society concept he has proposed has not gained a firm foothold in the public discourse yet. The secular paradigm continues to dominate, while the post-secular approach remains a subject matter for further special studies.




In the above-mentioned report, Berger postulates that “modernity need not lead to secularization, but it will necessarily lead to pluralism.” At the dawn of modernity, the Protestant Reformation in Europe produced a situation of acute competition (including armed confrontation) between Catholics and Protestants. Religious pluralism, not institutionalized politically, resulted in war. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 proposed a possible settlement model: “whose realm, his religion” (cujus regio, ejus religio). Under this principle each ruler was free to dictate what religion to profess to the people of the land he ruled. Dissenters were free to emigrate somewhere else. But this principle of maintaining mono-confessionalism failed. After the bloody Thirty Years’ War, which ended with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a new principle—the freedom of faith—was established to herald the emergence of religious pluralism.

The Peace of Westphalia is also regarded as the starting point in the process of forming a system of sovereign nation states, their main principles being the integrity of the territory and the independence of governance. As mentioned above, the emergence of autocephalous national churches in the Balkans was preceded by the creation of sovereign nation states. But the political settlement of the religious issue in these countries (at least at the initial stages, where the new autocephalies cropped up) matched the Augsburg principles more than the Westphalian ones. In Orthodox countries, the national Church began to be regarded as the “soul of the nation”—its role in nation-building was defined precisely in this way.

The development of liberal democracy in Western countries created a different way of governing relations between the state and religious confessions, which in the sociology of religion was termed as the “religious market.” The key idea of this way of describing the place and role of religion in society is the free competition of religions, because the “consumer” enhances society’s well-being. The United States is considered the classic example of the “religious market.” The key feature of the American system of state-religion relations is the equidistance of all confessions from the government and their free competition. Casanova argues that the situation in Ukraine is akin to the U.S. religious market.

Alongside the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine there exists a larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate; a strong Greco-Catholic community, and rather large Protestant denominations. This is a list of only Christian confessions. In other words, religious pluralism is a fundamental fact of life. The idea of a single national church proclaimed by President Poroshenko and supported by a majority in parliament can be regarded as an attempt at government control of the “market of religions” in Ukraine.


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To sum up, we should return to the question of what has changed over the past 100 years to a point where the participation of political authorities in church affairs, once traditional for Orthodoxy, has begun to be perceived with alarm. Religious and political processes no longer agree with society’s prevailing means of describing them. The current situation is post-secular, while the method of public description continues to be secular.

Post-secular studies remain in the field of special (and not common) studies and have no sufficient influence on shaping public discourse. The process of their popularization is continuing though. The Ukrainian autocephaly may prove a good case for demonstrating the post-secular approach, because it was the first case of proclaiming autocephaly in a post-secular situation.

The theological study of the church (ecclesiology), too, requires its post-secular transformation, because the old paradigm, formed under the influence of secularizational processes, no longer explains the current ones. This is precisely why the actions by the Ukrainian authorities, quite traditional for Orthodoxy, are now in the blind spot of the ecclesiological description of the situation. The church sees the presence of these actors (such as the president and parliament, for instance), but it has no vocabulary to properly describe their place and role.

In order to include the socio-political processes in explanatory ecclesiological strategies it will be essential to depart from describing the church space as a space of “pure ecclesiasticism.” Autocephalous churches are not quasi-state autonomous religious organizations operating exclusively within the space of church relations, but an intricate complex of institutions incorporating state and civil society and operating in a common political space.

Religion and Politics: An Unbreakable Symbiosis?
Dmitry Uzlaner
Religion is the “blind spot” of modern social science, an elephant in the center of the room that no one notices until it begins to crush the china lying everywhere around.