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The Ugly Politics Of Orthodoxy

Geopolitical rivalries rooted in centuries of conflict threaten to split world Orthodoxy

I was waiting to see something definite before posting about it, but I’m leaving tomorrow for Italy, and I’m afraid that it’ll happen while I’m on the book tour, and I will not have the opportunity to note it. So I’m going to post this here, because it’s important, and it probably won’t make the news in the US.

Some background: Orthodox Christian ecclesiology is pretty much a confederacy of national churches, all believing the same things, and worshiping in the same way, but administered by national hierarchies. The Russian Orthodox Church is the Orthodox Church in Russia. The Greek Orthodox Church is the Orthodox Church in Greece. And so forth. They’re all normally in communion with each other. If you’re a Russian traveling in Greece, you can go to communion in a Greek Orthodox parish, no problem.

It’s confusing to Americans, because we have so many different Orthodox churches here in the US. It’s not supposed to be that way, but that’s how it happened, with each immigrant group bringing its own hierarchy over. We’re supposed to have a single Orthodox church in our country, but it hasn’t happened, and might never happen. We’re all in communion with each other, though.

That’s probably about to change, and for ugly reasons.

The two great rival churches in Orthodoxy are the Greeks and the Russians. This goes back many centuries. In Orthodox ecclesiology, the Patriarch of Byzantium has historically been considered the first among equals. Orthodoxy does not have a pope; it’s ruled collegially, by synods. The Byzantine patriarch is more like the Archbishop of Canterbury in that way. After Byzantium fell to the Ottomans, the Moscow — the Russian church — became the de facto great power in world Orthodoxy. The Byzantine patriarch — now called the Ecumenical Patriarch — has continued on all these years as a figurehead. The current one, Bartholomew, lives in a small quarter in Istanbul. Unlike Moscow, he has no money, but he does have the power, by virtue of his office, to grant “autocephaly” — the right to self-rule — to national churches in communion with his See.

(I have probably oversimplified this explanation. Forgive me. It’s complicated.)

So, the crisis coming to a head right now threatens to split world Orthodoxy. Since Russia and Ukraine began fighting, a large number of Ukraine-based Orthodox parishes have wanted to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate and form a Ukrainian Orthodox patriarchate — a national church independent from Moscow. Moscow has fought this hard. For one, a huge number of parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church are in Ukraine. To lose them would be a big, big blow to Moscow. For another, Ukraine is the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy, in the 10th century.  It is hard to overstate how much this means to Russian Orthodoxy, on an emotional and symbolic level.

But if the breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox bishops ask the Ecumenical Patriarch for autocephaly, he can grant it — and, according to this report today, is moving very quickly to do that. If this happens, there will almost certainly be a schism between Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. World Orthodoxy will likely split along lines of those faithful to the EP, and those who align with Russia. It will be a severe wound to the body of Orthodoxy, and highlights Orthodoxy’s greatest weakness: its lack of unity.

I’m about to jump on an overnight flight, so I’m going to need to wrap this up. This take on the controversy from an Orthodox reader here in the US is a good summary of the scandal of this war between the Orthodox superpowers. Note well: I’m not necessarily endorsing what this reader says — I don’t know enough details about the situation from either side to take an informed position but I am telling you that this is the kind of thing one hears in US Orthodox circles these days:

The Moscow Patriarchate, aka the Russian State Church, has a disproportionate number of its believers and parishes in the Ukraine. Ukraine wants as much separation as possible from the Putin kleptocracy, to include its servant church. As per this AP report last month:

The nexus between Russia’s intelligence and religious establishments survived the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the KGB’s reorganization into the FSB, according to Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “Our church leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits,” Oreshkin said. “They provide Vladimir Putin’s policy with an ideological foundation.”

Their solution? Apply to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul) for a tomos of autocephaly that would mean independence from the KGB church in Moscow.

This request, brought personally by the Ukrainian head of state and spurring a visit from Patriarch Kyrill to Istanbul in response, gives Constantinople the first bit of leverage it has had in years against the state-supported Russian church. The attempt at an Oeceumenical Synod last year — the first steps toward union with Rome — were blocked by the Slav churches in obedience to Moscow and at the anything-but-universal Synod by anti-ecumenist bishops from Greece who refused to recognize the papist heresy as a “church” akin to the Orthodox Church. The Ukraine tomos possibility gives Constantinople, essentially toothless in any political or ecclesial battle with the well funded Russian State Church, a chance for payback and to assert its claims to ‘first among equals’ status in the Orthodox world.

Here’s the thing.

What you find is that it is all about politics, demographics, money, and power.

Autocephaly, though, is supposed to be granted in recognition of a daughter church’s maturity in the faith, i.e., that it producing wonder working saints, an Orthodox culture, and a distinct aspect of Christ unique to its part of the world.

This is what made the Russian State Church’s awarding of autocephaly to the Metropolia, now ‘The Orthodox Church in America,’ during the Vietnam War such a comi-tragic farce. It was a pay-off for tribute and the transfer of the Orthodox Church of Japan to Moscow’s control, not a token of American sanctity or Orthodox maturity.

Everything has to be politics now, not just the reporting, but in the Church leadership itself. They don’t even bother to pretend that the tomos would be in recognition of anything spiritual.

As an Orthodox monk shared with me:

It amazes me how utterly political all of these matters are to the prevailing “Orthodox world.” There was a time when autocephality[cephaly] was, at least ideally, akin to a recognition of a local Church’s spiritual maturity and status. Today, superficial issues of demographics, power alignment, and even ecumenical consensus from heterodox voices obtain. Analogous would be the tonsuring of a Great Schema monastic because he or she has a sufficiently well-sewn or brightly colored analabos for the ceremony of tonsure. No need for an new name. Just use the largely unused “church name.”

Anyway, there are a bunch of links below that show just how bad the political infighting is between the equivalents of the Vatican in the Orthodox world. Note especially the fears in Istanbul that Patriarch Kyrill would poison Bartholomew in some kind of FSB hit.

The Catholics have it bad, that’s for sure. But in these end times, the figurehead leaders of Orthodox, Inc., are at least as worldly and disconnected from anything of Christ as Francis and company.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to embed all the links the reader included. But please know that this is dirty business on both the Russian and the Ukrainian-EP side. Nobody’s hands are spiritually clean. Putin’s war on Ukraine has done terrible damage to the unity of the Orthodox Church there, that’s for sure.

It is a relief to many of us American Orthodox that the worst scandals in Orthodoxy right now are about money and power, not doctrine and sex. But that’s cold comfort, all things considered. This is a dangerous and deeply tragic moment for Orthodox Christianity.

When I get to Europe, I will approve comments from people on both (all?) sides of this issue. Again: I’m not taking sides, because I don’t know enough about it to make an informed decision. I just pray that schism can be avoided.

UPDATE: A friend e-mails:

A prediction from 1895:

“It is obvious that there are questions on which the Russian Church could and ought to negotiate with the Mother See, and if these questions are carefully avoided it is because it is a foregone conclusion that a clear formulation of them would only end in a formal schism. The jealous hatred of the Greeks for the Russians, to which the latter reply with a hostility mingled with contempt — that is the fact which governs the real relations of these two national Churches, in spite of their being officially in communion with one another. But even this official unity hangs upon a single hair, and all the diplomacy of the clergy of St. Petersburg and Constantinople is needed to prevent the snapping of this slender thread. The will to maintain this counterfeit unity is decidedly not inspired by Christian charity, but by the dread of a fatal disclosure; for on the day on which the Russian and Greek Churches formally break with one another the whole world will see that the Ecumenical Eastern Church is a mere fiction and that there exists in the East nothing but isolated national Churches. That is the real motive which impels our hierarchy to (p. 69) adopt an attitude of caution and moderation towards the Greeks, in other words, to avoid any kind of dealings with them. As for the Church of Constantinople, which in its arrogant provincialism assumes the title of “the Great Church” and ‘the Œcumenical Church,’ it would probably be glad to be rid of these Northern barbarians who are only a hindrance to its Pan-Hellenic aims. In recent times, the patriarchate of Constantinople has been twice on the point of anathematizing the Russian Church; only purely material considerations have prevented a split.” (p. 70)

Vladimir Solovyev, *Russia and the Universal Church,* trans. Herbert Rees (London, 1948: Geoffrey Bles), pp. 69-70.

UPDATE.2: An Orthodox friend writes:

The reader’s statement you posted in your article is by no means “a good summary” of the situation, but a spiteful and mendacious screed. Almost nothing the author states is true. And anyone who would call the Russian Church “the KGB Church” is ipso facto a hater. Even more egregiously, he/she totally ignores the fact that the two “Ukrainian” Churches (UOC-KP and UAOC) are both schismatic, making the granting of a tome of autocephaly a patriarchal endorsement of schism, an utterly terrible precedent. It would isolate the Phanar (and Kiev) from the rest of the Orthodox world. I could write much more here, but you would not likely have time to read it before leaving.

UPDATE.3: JamesP writes:

Where to begin untangling this knot?

Russia has provoked Ukraine with its imperial ambitions, and now the former’s Church will pay a price. Yes, Ukraine is a schism-ridden mess with multiple bad actors, so that’s Constantinople’s cover which does have some legitimacy even if it’s in bad faith.

The autocephaly of the Russian Metropolia in the US and Canada (now the OCA) was a cynical move by Moscow, and everyone knew it. In the US/Canada, though, the motive was mostly good: to create a unified Orthodox church in North America free from all of the foreign influence, dysfunction, and blood-sucking. (Many will disagree either because Holy Russia or Global Pope of Constantinople.) Some Romanians, Bulgarians, and Albanians signed on with the Metropolia Slavs. The more numerous Greeks and Arabs did not, so the principal aim of the autocephaly failed miserably. I’m in the OCA, and I am extremely thankful for this autocephaly, misbegotten though it was. We’re left alone and have nothing to gain from inter-church politics. Cool by me.

Russia, despite its enormous faults, stands firm theologically and understands the apocalyptic dimensions of the West’s backsliding into sodomy. (Too bad the Church’s influence over Russian society on killing the vast majority of their babies in the womb, human trafficking, alcoholism that beggars belief, etc. is so minimal.) Demographically, Russia is doomed. So is Ukraine. And any other white-ish place.

Constantinople is pro-sodomy/Western just like Rome. Ukraine fears Russia, as it well should, so it’s turning West with all that is entailed by that.

C’ople needs a powerful ally, and it will take Rome or Ukraine or EU or whatever, theology and morality be damned…and Roman radioactivity be damned. (Remember, they like that kind of radioactivity.)

Ukraine and C’ople are both fighting for their lives, and Russia probably miscalculated. Russia is fighting for its long-term viability against Western decadence, but they will lose to their own kinds of decadence.

It is possible — normal, actually — for various national Orthodox Churches to be in communion with other churches that are not in communion themselves. Witness the recent breaking of communion between Jerusalem and Antioch over a poorly-handled territory dispute on the Arabian peninsula. Nobody else broke communion with those churches as a result.

No, autocephaly isn’t always granted upon the recognition of spiritual maturity, wonderworking saints, etc. Russia declared its own independence, and C’ople didn’t recognize it for centuries. Other countries did, too, as they threw off the murderous Turkish yoke while C’ople was paralyzed by its muslim overlords.

If there is a political realignment of the Orthodox churches, God forbid, you will have a reduced Russia, (tiny) Poland, and Serbia together. Not sure about Czech-Slovakia or Bulgaria. Georgia would align with Russia if it had to, fearing its tanks which it well understands. All others (Greece, Cyprus, Antioch, Jerusalem, Bulgaria, Romania, Alexandria) would align with C’ople if push came to shove.

I’d like to think the OCA would remain neutral; it has nothing to gain from choosing either side, and it could blow apart in different ways if one side or the other were chosen. That’s not a bad thing.

I’d also like to think that most churches would call BS on the whole sordid affair and put both warring parties in time out, do with Ukraine as each feels it must, and publicly express the unity in Christ that’s really there among the actual Orthodox Christians.

What a bloody, embarrassing mess, eh? Right faith, wrong people, as we like to say. And Satan will always be the big winner…until he isn’t. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

I encourage all of you to read the comments for various perspectives from Orthodox Christians. I have made a point over the years not to get involved intellectually with international Orthodox Church politics, so I honestly don’t know what to think about this. Sorry about that.



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