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Putin & The Patriarchs

Inside an epic church family feud that has fractured the Orthodox world

I don’t write much about Orthodox Christianity chiefly because there are so few Orthodox Christians in the West, and because we (therefore, I suppose) get very little news coverage about the Orthosphere. But the Financial Times last week did a big piece about the schism between Moscow and Constantinople (that is, the Ecumenical Patriarch), and its roots in Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical strategy. A reader sent it to me last week, and it’s really fascinating. Unfortunately, it’s also behind a paywall, though that paywall is inconsistent; I couldn’t get to the piece on my own a couple of days ago, but this morning, it was free. In case you can’t get to it, I’ll quote limited parts of it.

I’ll start by noting that even though I am an Orthodox Christian, I can genuinely say that I don’t have an opinion about any of this. As a general rule, I tend to sympathize with the Russian church on internal Orthodox matters, and am especially grateful to Russian church leaders for speaking out clearly on moral issues about which Western church leaders have seemingly lost their voice. But in this case, the details of the schism and everything that led up to it are so, well, Byzantine, that I honestly don’t know what to think of it all — except to say that schism is always to be grieved. I have Orthodox friends who have very strong opinions about all this, but having learned painful lessons about involving myself, if only mentally, in church politics, I am not eager to be drawn into this family feud.

OK, so here’s some background, on the story.

Orthodoxy has no pope. The closest we come is the Ecumenical Patriarch, based in the former Constantinople, but he is a figure much more like the Archbishop of Canterbury than the Roman pontiff. His position within global Orthodoxy is more one of honor than actual power and authority. Generally speaking (this is not true for the United States, which is in an unusual situation), Orthodoxy is a confederation of national churches, e.g., Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Antiochian (Syria Arab) Orthodox, etc. The Ecumenical Patriarch is always Greek, and lives within a tiny Greek community in Istanbul, which is all that remains of the once-Greek imperial capital of Constantinople.

There has been a longstanding rivalry between Moscow and Constantinople (the term Orthodox use to refer to ecclesiastical Istanbul). After the Muslim Turks took the city in 1453, and the Greek Church fell under the Muslim yoke, the Russians began to think of Moscow as the successor to Constantinople. There has been tension between the two great Orthodox sees for centuries. More recently, Bartholomew, the current Ecumenical Patriarch, has been within Orthodoxy a more liberalizing, Westernizing force; Kirill, the current Moscow Patriarch, has pushed back.

About one-third of the world’s Orthodox Christians are Russians, which makes the Russian church the biggest of the world’s 14 Orthodox jurisdictions, and the more powerful party in the Moscow-Constantinople rivalry. The privileges and funds that post-Communist Russian governments — especially Putin’s — have given to the once-persecuted Russian church has magnified its power and influence relative to Constantinople’s. The Putin government has promoted the Russian church’s fortunes. Depending on where you stand, this is either a great thing (the Russian state supports the restoration of Orthodox Christianity, and understands that Russia cannot be strong without a strong faith) or a terrible thing (Putin has cynically used the Church to advance his political power, and the Church has become a puppet for the State). I have friends passionately on both sides of this question. I have friends who think both things are true at the same time.

That gets us to today. The breakup of the Soviet Union occasioned the political separation of Ukraine from Russia. Ukrainian Orthodoxy remained united with Moscow, though the hierarchy in Ukraine pretty much ran its own show. Then, when Ukraine began to flirt politically with the West, Vladimir Putin got involved. Eventually he annexed Crimea. Russian-backed separatists started a war in eastern Ukraine. Relations between Ukraine and Russia became very, very fraught.

Last fall, Bartholomew granted Ukrainian Orthodox who broke with Moscow a tomos, an ecclesiastical term meaning that he recognized them as an independent church. This separated Ukrainian Orthodoxy from Moscow for the first time since 1686. In response, Moscow severed all ties with Constantinople (which is to say, with Greek Orthodoxy and all the churches under the EP’s authority), causing the greatest rift within Orthodoxy since the Great Schism of 1054, which separated the Latin West from the Byzantine East.

This is not just a theological matter, not in the least. As the FT writes:

Far from being an arcane squabble over centuries-old church doctrine, Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision had geopolitical significance. The fallout has affected the lives of priests and politicians, of ordinary worshippers and oligarchs. But most importantly, it was a blow to Vladimir Putin, for whom the Russian Orthodox church had come to symbolise Moscow’s sphere of influence in its near abroad. While Ukraine hailed the tomos as “an event no less substantial than our goals to join the EU and Nato”, Putin convened his security council in the middle of the night to discuss a response.


“Why would you summon the security council over a church in a neighbouring country? It shows Ukraine that Russia is interfering,” says Evgeny Nikiforov, head of Radio Radonezh, a state-funded Orthodox station in Moscow. Still, losing what remains of a former imperial dominion is like having a “phantom limb”, he adds. “Ukraine is so much a part of Russia that people don’t understand how to live without it.”

It is hard to overstate the matter. Kiev was where Russian Orthodoxy was formally born in the year 988. If the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is separate from Russia, it feels to the Russians like they have lost their heart.

The FT piece, written by Max Seddon, explains that outwardly Putin and Patriarch Kirill have “presented a united front.” Seddon notes in detail that a number of Russian oligarchs and politicians have in the post-Communist period become deeply involved with Orthodoxy. More:

At some point in the 1990s, Putin became close to Father Tikhon Shevkunov, who ran a monastery down the street from the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, that was frequented by its top brass. Neither Putin nor Shevkunov have confirmed persistent rumours that the monk brought him into the Orthodox faith when Putin ran the FSB, and became his confessor, though Shevkunov once told a newspaper that Putin “makes confession, takes communion and understands his responsibility before God for the high service entrusted to him and for his immortal soul”.

The monk has accompanied Putin on several foreign trips during his presidency, while Kremlin-run firms fund his charities and educational projects.

After Putin came to power in 1999, many of his close confidants were part of an Orthodox elite that would exert significant influence over Russian politics. Former KGB agents now in charge of state companies began to donate their new-found wealth to church causes: Yakunin, while head of Russian Railways, helped to bring holy relics from Athos to Moscow and ferried the Eternal Flame from Jerusalem each year in special canisters bought from Nasa.

Until reading this FT piece, I had no idea how deeply Russian oligarchs and the Russian government were involved in building (and re-building) the Russian church, and Orthodox institutions elsewhere, like on Mount Athos. To be clear, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem. In Europe, the reason there exists so many beautiful Catholic churches, monasteries, and religious art is because of the generosity of wealthy Catholic laymen over the centuries. Did they give out of pure hearts, or for self-aggrandizement, or both? Does that really matter today? The point is, any Western Christian who is going to condemn newly wealthy Russians for donating heavily to the Church had better be prepared to condemn most of the historical Christian architecture in the West.

It is hard to overstate how much the Russian government, under Putin, has spent on building new churches and restoring those destroyed by the Bolsheviks. This is a very good thing, in my view, and something for which we Christians should be grateful. That said, you’d have to be terminally naive to think that rich men and governments always give to the Church — Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant — expecting nothing in return.

So. Ukrainian Orthodoxy, in the post-Soviet period, began to fracture. The FT piece has some fascinating background, none of which I knew, but all of which indicates that none of the churchmen involved in this controversy are without fault. By 2016, it was a real mess, with the geopolitical stresses between Russia and Ukraine also fracturing the Ukraine church. In the summer of 2016, the world’s Orthodox patriarchs were schedule to meet in Crete, in an “Ecumenical Council” — the first such meeting since the year 787. It was Patriarch Bartholomew’s special project. But just before the meeting convened, Patriarch Kirill pulled out.

Without Moscow’s participation, the meeting could not be a true Ecumenical Council. It was a complete waste of time. Patriarch Bartholomew was deeply insulted.

Fast-forward to 2018. Ukranian president Petro Poroshenko was in political trouble. He decided to play the church nationalism card. Next thing you know, Bartholomew stuck the shiv into the back of Russian Orthodoxy by granting breakaway Ukrainians a tomos. Until I read the FT piece, I hadn’t realized how disgracefully Filaret, an elderly, King Lear bishop in Ukraine, had behaved in all this. Like I said, nobody has clean hands.

And this past spring, Poroshenko still lost his election.

The tectonic shocks from the schism continue to roll across the Orthodox world. Ultimately, all the churches will likely be forced to side with either Moscow or Constantinople — and that means not being able to receive communion at each side’s churches. It is a terrible, terrible thing. And Ukrainian Orthodoxy remains a hot jurisdictional mess. An Orthodox theologian tells the FT that the schism “could drag on for decades.” Which is to say, long after the patriarchs, bishops, and politicians who caused it have died and gone on to their reward.

Here’s something I did not know until read the FT piece (which, again, you can try to access here): fallout from the schism has damaged the relationship between Putin and Kirill. Putin is said to fault the Patriarch for not preventing the schism, and the Patriarch is said to blame Putin for forcing it with his clumsy geopolitical strategery.

What if they’re both right? What if the symphonia between Church and State under Putin has ended being disadvantageous for both Church and State?

As I said: I am not well informed enough to take a position on this matter, except to say that it grieves me that the Orthodox Church suffers like this from the sins and failings of men. One must pray that charity and humility ultimately prevail, and the schism is healed. In the meantime, I commend Max Seddon and the Financial Times for their thoughtful attention to the role theology and ecclesiastical history play in the monumental geopolitical events of our time.

UPDATE: An American reader in Moscow says there’s a lot wrong with the FT piece, at least as I have reported it. He writes:

I can’t access Max Seddon’s piece, so I am sure most of my corrections are problems with his article. In any case, there are some serious factual errors and lack of context for a lot of the information in this post.

To begin, the main problem is the narrative of the Ukrainian Church breaking from the Russian Church. This simply did not occur. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recognized by the rest of the Local Orthodox Churches, remains within the Moscow Patriarchate. Metropolitan Onuphry, the Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who consistently is left out of Western coverage of this crisis, is to this day a member of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. There simply has been no change on this front.

Very basic proof: Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Onuphry concelebrating the Divine Liturgy in the Saint Sergius Lavra outside of Moscow in June of this year: https://pravlife.org/uk/content/predstoyatel-upc-spivsluzhyv-patriarhu-v-prestolne-svyato-troyice-sergiyevoyi-lavry

That’s right. The head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church flew from Kiev to Moscow to attend a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of which he continues to be a member. While there his Beatitude Onuphry served the Liturgy with His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, which in the Orthodox world means everything. The Archbishop of Greece refused to serve the Liturgy with “Metropolitan Epiphany” Dumenko because that would mean legitimizing his controversial status.

The basic fact pulls the carpet out from under the narrative of Seddon’s piece (what you have quoted) as well as most of the Western coverage. The Churches did not split. This is a classic case for Terry Mattingly at GetReligion — journalists who don’t know enough about the religion they are writing about simply cannot resist the temptation to bend the narrative so that it perfectly reflects the political narrative. In this case, that would be “Russia is mad that Ukraine wants independence.”

1) Last fall, Bartholomew granted Ukrainian Orthodox who broke with Moscow a tomos

There are some factual errors here, some of which are significant. First, “Ukrainian Orthodox who broke with Moscow” is incorrect. The man who received the tomos of autocephaly (other than the now former president Petro Poroshenko) is “Metropolitan Epiphany,” who for any canonical Orthodox Christian should be referred to as Serhiy (Sergey) Dumenko. Dumenko did not break with Moscow for the simple reason that he was never in union with Moscow. Everything is his ecclesiastical career — his ordination as a priest and tonsuring as a monk, ordination as a bishop — occurred outside the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is possible and perhaps even likely (my friend has researched it, but without definite results) that his baptism as a child was canonical, but that’s it. The man responsible for Dumenko’s rise in the schismatic group where he made his career is a fellow commonly referred to as “Patriarch Philaret” – a defrocked metropolitan who once taught at the Moscow Theological Academy and nearly became Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (he came in 3rd place after an Estonian bishop who became Patriarch and another Ukrainian bishop who became Metropolitan of Ukraine). It is fair to apply the phrase “broke with Moscow” to “Patriarch Philaret” as he was a canonical bishop who left the Church to form/hijack a schismatic group referred to as the “Kiev Patriarchate” but Philaret refuses to submit to the tomos of autocephaly and Patriarch Bartholomew, giving us the remarkable situation in which the Phanar claims to be healing the schism in Ukraine but ends up causing another schism (Dumenko is now fighting with his former boss Philaret, taking him to court, closing his bank accounts, all while being set to receive a human rights award from the Archons, a US-based club of rich Greeks with extra-special access to the Ecumenical Patriarch).

A good comparison: Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, but anyone who became a protestant after the schism (without having ever been a Catholic) could not have been said to have done the same. One has to be a member of something to break away from it. Dumenko simply does not fulfill this requirement, so it is factually incorrect to claim that

2) This separated Ukrainian Orthodoxy from Moscow for the first time since 1686.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the only canonical Church recognized by the rest of the Local Orthodox Churches, REMAINS within the Moscow Patriarchate. Metropolitan Onuphry (or Onuphrius) and his flock have made zero requests for changes to their status within the Moscow Patriarchate. Their only activity in this entire scandal is being physically beaten, having their property seized by raiders from schismatic groups with the support of local authorities — to such a degree that UN reports have been written about it! The UN!

3) an ecclesiastical term meaning that he recognized them as an independent church

This is highly debatable. This “independent church” has nearly none of the features of an autocephalous Church: they are not permitted to make their own chrism, they are not permitted to glorify their own saints without the permission of the Phanar, they are not permitted to have parishes outside their territory (as in they would have been required, if Philaret and his “Kiev Patriarchate” had been on board, to surrender parishes outside of Ukraine to the direct control of the Phanar (read: loss of finances). Churches that have received a tomos of autocephaly from Constantinople in the past have all of these rights, this new body does not.

4) This separated Ukrainian Orthodoxy from Moscow for the first time since 1686. In response, Moscow severed all ties with Constantinople (which is to say, with Greek Orthodoxy and all the churches under the EP’s authority)

This is untrue. Eucharistic communion has been broken, but communication remains open between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Church of Greece (which is itself autonomous). Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev) has been to visit the Archbishop of Athens in recent months, and Greek hierarchs have been in Moscow recently as well. The Church of Greece to this day has not recognized the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” that Patriarch Bartholomew created.

5) causing the greatest rift within Orthodoxy since the Great Schism of 1054, which separated the Latin West from the Byzantine East.

It may be the greatest rift within Orthodoxy, but it is not SO unusual. The Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem have been out of Eucharistic communion for some years now as a result of a dispute over whose canonical territory Qatar is. Even Moscow and Constantinople have broken communion before, when Patriarch Bartholomew created (following the same pattern!) a second church in Estonia on the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate. His Estonian church has but a few thousand members, whereas the vast majority of the Estonian Orthodox population remains within the Moscow Patriarchate.

6) a blow to Vladimir Putin

This is difficult to understand given what I wrote above. If Putin supports the Moscow Patriarchate, then this “blow” exists entirely in the minds of those who don’t understand that no one really broke with the Moscow Patriarchate (aside from two bishops out of the 90 bishops in the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church).
I am not saying that I don’t think that the Russian state is uninterested in what is happening, but [fragment in the original — RD]

7) If the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is separate from Russia, it feels to the Russians like they have lost their heart.

Again, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has not separated from the Russian Orthodox Church. Active Orthodox believers understand this. Instead of feeling like they have lost their heart, they show genuine concern about the fact that the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church continues to be persecuted in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill and the Synod actually added extra prayers to the Divine Liturgy (!), one after the Gospel reading for peace in Ukraine and another addition praying for Orthodox unity. NB: The Ecumenical Patriarchate, to my knowledge, does not instruct all services to include prayers for Ukraine or Orthodox unity.

Yes, state media takes advantage of nominally Orthodox Russians who don’t know what canonicity is to make this scandal into an extension of Russian-Ukrainian political relations. Even SPAS, probably the largest “Orthodox” TV channel, often features programming with political debates that sound like every other state-run channel, with the exception that they mention the Orthodox Church more often. For the record, I personally find this abhorrent. The very format of these shows is not Orthodox. A bunch of panelists yelling and not listening to each other — where is the hesychia? It’s nothing but passions run wild.

8) The FT piece, written by Max Seddon, explains that outwardly Putin and Patriarch Kirill have “presented a united front.”

This is debatable. Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church have NOT supported all the activities of the Kremlin. Crimea remains the canonical territory of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, regardless of who is now in control of the peninsula. Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev has spoken publicly about how the Church does condone Russia’s actions. Likewise, when Russian-supported militias in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia declared independence from Georgia, petitions to Patriarch Kirill and the Synod to accept these territories into the Russian Orthodox Church were denied clearly and publicly. 11 years later, Patriarch Kirill continues to confirm that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church led by their Patriarch-Catholicos Ilya II, who is extremely respected by many Orthodox people in Russia. Patriarch Ilya II even flew to Moscow for the celebrations for Patriarch Kirill’s 70th birthday. I know — I attended the Liturgy in Christ the Savior Cathedral with my spiritual father.

9) But just before the meeting convened, Patriarch Kirill pulled out.

The FT is leaving out some major details here. First to pull out were Patriarch John X and the Church of Antioch. Once they said they would not be attending, Patriarch Kirill pointed out that it could not be considered a true council. In the end, the Serbian, Bulgarian and Georgian Churches also did not attend. And the Orthodox Church in America was never invited — Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate to this day refuse to recognize their autocephaly, granted by the Russian Orthodox Church.

10) fallout from the schism has damaged the relationship between Putin and Kirill.

This is the type of thing that sounds great in news articles but does not stand up to scrutiny. Patriarch Kirill cannot be held responsible for what happens OUTSIDE the Russian Orthodox Church, and Putin is certainly well aware of this. Whether or not Putin is genuinely Orthodox, he is thoroughly informed on ecclesiastical affairs and understands canonicity better than Western journalists.

Please understand that I am writing this with respect for journalists. This whole situation is so frigging complicated — while I am disappointed when any media outlet reports incorrectly, I simultaneously understand that few journalists are willing to put in the time and effort to grasp what’s happening. They are underpaid, overstressed, rushing for deadlines. I get it. The least I can do is provide a quick overview so that your readers have a bit more background.

I greatly appreciate this reader’s generous efforts to bring clarity.



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