Schism in Orthodoxy?


The Orthodox Schism Under Western Eyes

schism is underway between two major Orthodox Churches, one with significance for Catholicism. And yet, in Catholic media the phenomenon—called by many the biggest split in modern Orthodoxy history—has gone conspicuously unnoticed. A single Catholic News Agency article from October 14th summarizes the problem tellingly and laconically:

The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow has cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, claiming his recognition of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine departed from Orthodox Christian norms . . .

. . . Patriarch Bartholomew’s plan to create a single, self-governing Church in the Ukraine, led by its own patriarch, is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Orthodox Christians. The Russian Church sees the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority.

There are about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church in 1054.

Something is afoot that should capture the Catholic imagination. It has something to do with unity, authority, and Apostolic Christianity. Its precise meaning, however, remains elusive not merely because the situation remains in flux but also because the inner workings of Orthodox Christianity seem—to many anyway—obscure, opaque.

As a Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic myself, this crisis hits a bit closer to home. For us, the Orthodox—with whom we share a liturgical, theological, and ritual patrimony—never seem very off. In many ways, they are closer than our Latin brethren. Regardless, this particular controversy is worthy of the attention of all members of the Catholic Church, whose response should be neither a simplistic triumphalism nor a willful ignorance. In fact, the Schism cuts right to the heart of our ongoing kerfuffle about authority and primacy.

With this in mind, let us try to understand exactly what is transpiring in and around Ukraine.

Whose Schism? Which Rationale?

The short version of events is that, since about the collapse of the USSR, there have been three competing jurisdictions in Ukraine: the UOC-MP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate), the UOC-KP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate), and the UOAC (Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church). Until the beginning of this crisis, only the first of these was recognized as the legitimate, canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine; it is subordinate to the “Moscow Patriarchate” (hence the MP), and thus, in the eyes of many Ukrainians, is an arm of the Russian nation-state, which is obviously not incredibly popular in the aftermath of the invasion of Crimea. The other two jurisdictions arose in 1992 and 1921 respectively, in the hope that Ukrainian Orthodox believers could, for the most part, govern themselves—a concept known as autocephaly(something even the MP Church asked for when the Soviet Union fell). What the Ecumenical Patriarch—traditionally the protos (head) of the Orthodox Church—has done is to ask all three groups to unite into one body, which would (hopefully) be free of outside influence. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church has ceased Eucharistic communion with all believers under the omophor (pastoral protection) of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Most other Orthodox Churches are sitting on the sidelines, figuring out what to do, still in communion with both, though many have notable Russian sympathies.

The arguments of each faction betray a different vision of how authority ought to work, that is, what exactly the Orthodox Church is. Supporters of the Ecumenical Patriarch argue that only his see has ever been allowed to grant autocephaly, that even Moscow’s headship over Ukraine was a temporary right granted under duress by Constantinople. This move is merely an attempt to bring back into communion millions of people who have existed outside of canonical Orthodoxy for no good, dogmatic reason. Politics should not separate those who are united in the Faith. Thus Bartholomew’s move is not only in the spirit of Christian charity but also wholly in line with the traditional understanding of autocephaly, which can only be granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch, and, who in bestowing it, preserves himself as the rightful, visible head of the Orthodox Church. Archbishop Job of Telmessos summarized this position well in a recent interview:

— If you study the history of the Orthodox Church, according to texts and documents, rather than created myths and false historiography, it is evident that absolutely all modern autocephalies have been proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Even if we take the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia, we see that its autocephaly was self-proclaimed in 1448, when Moscow elected metropolitan Jonas independently, without the consent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It is interesting to emphasize that the Orthodox Church in Russia has never been given a tomos of autocephaly! In 1589-1590, Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II simply normalized the situation by raising this see to a patriarchal rank, while allowing the Moscow bishop “to be called” patriarch, provided that he would commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch and consider him “as his head and protos,” as stated in the letter.

Later autocephalies that were proclaimed in the 19th and 20th centuries—all were proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate: the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Greece (1850), in Serbia (1879 and elevated to the a patriarchate in 1922), in Romania (1885 and elevated to a patriarchate in 1925), in Poland (1924), in Albania (1937) in Bulgaria (1945 and elevated to a patriarchate in 1961), in Georgia (1990) and in the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1998). Each of these proclamations was linked to a political factor and autocephaly was proclaimed as a way of ensuring the unity of the Church, within the interior of each of these states, as well as the unity between the Local Churches.

In addition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the history of the Orthodox Church, no other Local Church has proclaimed autocephaly. True, the Orthodox Church in Russia may claim that it proclaimed the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Georgia (1943), in Czechoslovakia (1951) and in America (1970), but these autocephalies were not recognized by the fullness of the Orthodox Church as the Orthodox Church in Russia does not have such a prerogative of providing autocephaly. Therefore, these three Churches themselves appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for providing tomoses of autocephaly. Over time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate normalized the situation by declaring the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Georgia (1990) and in the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1998).

Supporters of Moscow fire back that this is an infringement on their canonical territory; it is effectively a power-grab by Constantinople, whose traditional position of authority is undermined by the fact that the Russian Church is, by far, the largest in the Orthodox Communion. Of course, with many of its faithful and 12,328 of its churches located in Ukraine, the Russian Church stands to lose the prestige that comes with these numbers should Bartholomew succeed. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of External Church Relations for the Russian Orthodox, has said that he hopes “common sense prevails.” Here, “common sense,” means: “you gave us authority over this territory long ago. It’s ours and now you seek to mettle in it to your own benefit. You initiated this schism by overreaching.”

There are many ways of staging this conflict: nationality v. universality, tradition v. pragmatism, etc. Ultimately, however, all of these pairings may be reduced to questions of authority and institution, questions that have already been raised in the pages of this very journal.




It would seem that Russian politics is disturbing the uneasy status quo in the situation of the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine. After the recent Russian Invasion of Ukrainian Territory, the Russian-led Patriarchate there (which was granted autonomy by the Constantinople Ecumenical Patriarch) has been seen by the Constantinople Patriarch Batholomew to be trying to annex the other two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine – (1) the Patriarchate of Kiev, and (2) the Autocephalous Ukraine Patriarchate – which, historically have  been part of the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

Because of this unease about Russian dominance, the Protos (Ecumenical Patriarch), Bartholomew, has called for the three branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine to consider joining together as a single Patriarchate – free from domination by Russian political influence – which has angered the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, to the point where he has declared the Churches under his own jurisdiction to be ‘out of Communion’ – (Eucharistic Fellowship) with Churches under the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The irony of this recent schismatic furore is that the Anglican Communion is currently under a not dissimilar threat from the efforts of the GAFCON-FOCA  group – to place itself outside of Eucharistic Fellowship of all other Anglican Churches which do not subscribe to the Jerusalem Statement of Faith that has been raised up by Gafcon in direct opposition to the Lambeth Quadrilateral – which has traditionally bound the Anglican Churches around the world in fellowship with the See of Canterbury.

A similar ethos of claims to numerical superiority by both Russia and Gafcon seems to have become the excuse for rival claims to authority over the primary (Protos) jurisdiction of both Orthodox and Anglican Churches.

How both historic Churches (each severed from the original papal claims of Roman jurisdiction) will sort out their rival claims to ‘orthodoxy’ in their own jurisdictions has yet to be seen. However, claims based on numerical adherence are hardly tenable in matters of spiritual efficacy. Politics and temporal power bases were never part of the Gospel initiative.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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