On October 15, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Minsk, Belarus, and declared their decision to sever Eucharistic Communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the basis of Constantinople’s “anticanonical acts” in Ukraine. This decision is not a full-scale schism, because Constantinople has not broken communion with Moscow, and the other Orthodox Churches in the world have not responded.
Moscow adopted this decision in protest of Constantinople’s recent decision to restore Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko), leader of the Kyivan Patriarchate (KP), and Metropolitan Makarii (Maletych), leader of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) to full communion with the Church. Filaret was the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine until he committed to obtaining canonical autocephaly (independence) from Moscow in 1991. Moscow deposed him from holy orders in 1992 for “leading the Church into schism,” and anathematized him in 1997. Both he and metropolitan Makarii appealed these canonical sanctions to Constantinople. By declaring these two bishops to be canonical, and their faithful in communion with the Church, Constantinople essentially restored the ancient Kyivan Metropolia on the basis of Constantinopolitan claims to canonical territory. Constantinople has promised the Ukrainians that they will receive autocephaly soon. One can expect that this autocephaly will be granted once the Ukrainians convoke a unification council and elect a new leader.
Moscow’s protest of Constantinople’s action is based on their argument that Ukraine is Moscow’s canonical territory. This dispute has resulted in an explosion of headlines and accusations, many of which are rooted in baseless and fatuous conspiracy theories circulated by clergy who need to crack their history books. Russian news agencies and politicians claim that autocephaly is a project of American invention designed to weaken Russia. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, even went so far as to say that Russia has a responsibility to defend “her faithful” in Ukraine; a tacit threat that exposes the lie that the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine is “independent.”
The accusation is based on Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s appeals to Constantinople to grant autocephaly to the Church in Ukraine, backed by the Ukrainian Parliament. A careful examination of this history shows that most Ukrainian presidents have been interested in the Church issue: Leonid Kravchuk and Victor Yushchenko supported autocephaly, while Victor Yanukovych was a supporter of the Russian World concept. Other politicians are also involved, especially the oligarch Vadym Novinsky, who sponsored numerous trips of delegations of bishops from the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine to promote opposition to autocephaly. The politicians’ involvement is designed to protect their own interests, while the struggle for autocephaly began as a dispute within the Church.
All of this might sound very byzantine to Catholic and Protestant readers. The canonical battle exposes the real issue: power, and not only power, but the presence of neo-imperialism in the Church.
Ukrainians are familiar with Patriarch Kirill’s “Russian World” initiative. The Russian World envisions a multinational Orthodox civilization that draws upon the values of medieval Rus’ – it sounds beautiful, to recapture sanctity, peace, strong families, and piety, a Christian rejection of the materialism that invites faithful to make idols out of possessions, status, and identity. The problem with the Russian World is that it depends on the reconstitution of the city-states of Kyivan Rus’ by connecting contemporary Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus’ into one united Rus’, with Moscow as its center, and Kyiv as the historical mother that gave birth to Rus’, her unity, and her Church. While Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the KP and UAOC rejected the Russian World as an initiative cloaking neo-imperialism, this initiative created chaos in the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. During his tenure as Metropolitan of Kyiv, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan, died 2014) permitted Ukrainization of the Church while attempting to hold together her diverse constituencies. His pastoral task was to construct a Church resistant to the temptations of Ukrainian nationalism and the Russian world. When he became gravely ill with Parkinson’s disease, a cohort of bishops who supported the Russian World attempted to revise the statute of the Church to reduce its autonomous status and conform it to the statute of the Moscow Patriarchate. These actions, along with the new leadership’s refusal to condemn Russian aggression and honor Ukrainian soldiers who died defending their country, alienated many of the rank and file clergy and laity in Ukraine.
Constantinople is playing the role of the biblical Cyrus in releasing the Ukrainians from their captivity to Moscow. As Sotiris Mitralexis wrote on October 15, Moscow’s reaction has been swift and decisive: they employed the ecclesial nuclear option in an attempt to salvage the dream of the Russian World, and one word characterizes their actions: consistently aggressive. Moscow’s aggression won’t halt the process of autocephaly in Ukraine: if anything, it will hasten it, unless Ukrainian Church leaders sabotage their own freedom.
This byzantine crisis affects real people. The rest of the world’s Orthodox Churches are now under pressure to pick a side. Faithful people who are ambivalent about the Ukrainian issue might be prohibited from partaking of communion in Church. This issue hits home in America, where Orthodox plurality is the norm, and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is larger than all of the other Orthodox churches combined. The crisis also exposes several flaws in contemporary Orthodoxy: the absence of an ecclesiological mechanism that resolves intra-Orthodox conflicts, and the tendency for the imperial legacies of the Churches to prohibit Orthodoxy from confronting modernity. Expect this crisis and its consequences to stir up new movements for reform in Orthodoxy, along with the usual array of counter-reformations.
Perhaps most lamentable is the seemingly complete absence of reference to the Great Canon, Christ and the Gospel. All of these differences and ideologies are supposed to be set aside for the sake of baptismal unity in Christ, experienced by sharing Eucharistic Communion. Sadly, this union is fractured for an indefinite period of time. But hope remains, because resurrection follows death, and one can hope that an Orthodox Church ready and willing to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century might rise from the ashes of neo-imperialism and the rubble caused by those who seek power.