A schism has erupted in the Eastern Orthodox world that could potentially be bigger than anything in the past thousand years. The Patriarchs of Constantinople and Russia are now no longer in communion with one another. This is akin to a baptist setting foot in a catholic church and being refused communion. They are effectively two different religions now.
How did this happen?
On the 11th of October this year, the Patriarch of Constantinople decided to reenter communion with Kiev’s Patriarch Filaret, who was defrocked by the Patriarch of Moscow over 20 years ago This is an issue because as far as the Russian patriarchate is concerned, this lies within its own jurisdiction, not the jurisdiction of Constantinople. This is based upon a 17th century document, which Constantinople has canceled. The Russian Patriarch’s press secretary said that Constantinople had “crossed the red line”, and that Constantinople had no right to do this since Ukraine’s patriarchate was anathematized by Moscow, not Constantinople, and it is the duty of other patriarchates to respect those decisions.
But what are these lines? When were they drawn and by whom? And what implications will this have with the rest of the Orthodox world and all the other patriarchs?
For those who don’t fully understand how hierarchy works in the Eastern Orthodox church, allow me to make a crude comparison. The Catholic church has one Pope, but the Orthodox world has multiple Popes or Patriarchs, mostly representing different nations. For example Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia each have a separate Patriarch. Whether you are Georgian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox you are still ultimately Orthodox and are permitted to share in the sacraments with one another. Although they are supposed to be equal, Constantinople has always been considered “the first among equals” since it took up the mantle after the great split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. The Russian Orthodox church and its Patriarch officially ranks fifth in the Orthodox order of precedence, immediately below the four ancient Patriarchates. (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem). Originally there were five great patriarchates, with Rome technically at the head, in what was known as the "Pentarchy". Moscow did not sit at this ancient table. It is this idea of equality among patriarchates but mixed with the underlying assumption that one patriarchate born from another will implicitly be subordinate to it that has been a factor in this crisis.
Nevertheless, age may be one thing, but simple mathematics is another. Russia is the biggest Eastern Orthodox country in the world, and the Patriarchate of Moscow has the largest following of 150 million which dwarfs Constantinople’s 25 million, most of whom live in Greece.
As well as numbers, both sides lack credibility in the eyes of the other. Regardless of his relationship with Putin, which may call into question his autonomy, Russian Patriarch Kirill does at least reside in an Orthodox country. The same cannot be said for the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who resides in Constantinople which hasn’t been Orthodox since it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Constantinople’s continued credibility as "First Among Equals" was called into question when Bartholomew backed Turkey’s actions in Syria and Kurdistan earlier this year.
Returning to the Ukraine, In 2014, Kirill and Filaret both wrote letters to Bartholomew about how the conflict was being reflected in the churches. Kirll accused the local Ukrainian "junta" of various atrocities: Apparently they "(forced) Archpriest Vadim Yablonovsky (to) dig his own grave and on the same day they arrested Archpriest Viktor Stratovich, handcuffed him, and took him away with a bag over his head into the woods, where they forced him to grovel on his knees as they interrogated him."
In response, Filaret accused his Moscow counterpart of engaging in a "cynical propaganda campaign."
“For the first time since the reign of Nazi Fuhrer Hitler we are faced with the massive propaganda against Ukraine which is extraordinary in its cynicism and falsehood. By means of almost all its Russia is trying to convince the world in righteousness of its actions...
The letter by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, in which he interprets the events in the Donbas as civil war and religious conflict, should be regarded namely as part and fruit of this propaganda.
...Recently, the instances of use by terrorists of clerical outfits and documents for escape have been disclosed, the latter, to our knowledge, are being issued by one of the dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate in Donbas,"
All this gives grounds for the Ukrainian servicemen to treat with special attention the travels of the priests who may in fact be disguised terrorists or their accomplices. I attest that in this regard our priests are also being caused inconvenience by the Ukrainian soldiers, which we try to bear with”.
If you are confused, I should point out that are in fact several different competing churches, each claiming the mantle of Orthodoxy.
There is one belonging to the new Kiev "Patriarchate". This is currently led by Patriarch Filaret. This patriarchate is not recognized as such by the Moscow Patriarchate which still considers Ukraine subordinate and within its own jurisdiction. Filaret had previously been in full communion with Moscow as a metropolitan (think Archbishop) until 1992, when he decided to convert his see into an autocephalous church like any other, and then eventually assumed the mantle of Patriarch in 1995 with the support of the Ukrainian government. Constantinople’s decision to renew communion with him has predictably angered Moscow, especially since it was not Constantinople’s decision to defrock Filaret in the first place.
This brings us to the second group. There are also the remnants of the Ukrainian Orthodox who remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate and refuse to support their own autocephaly without its approval. They are led by a Metropolitan Vladimir Sabodan (also based in Kiev, but not a patriarch). As far as they are concerned, the church of Kiev has been under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate since 1686, whereas Filaret's group and the Ecumenical Patriarch claim it was merely a temporary provision and not without precedent.
There is also a third group known as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church who are at least partly in communion with Filaret’s faction, but there is no need to discuss these further.
Those loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate have seen a decline in membership (no doubt related to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea), nevertheless amongst all affiliations 54 percent of Ukrainians support the creation of a united Ukrainian church.
What does this mean for the other Patriarchates? So far, the Patriarchs of Belarus and Serbia have declared their support for Moscow. As of 10/16/2018 Georgia is still undecided, but whatever decision they make will no doubt have a big impact on Ukrainian-Georgian relations given their similar geopolitical situations vis-a-vis Russia.
“Georgia must support us because we are Orthodox Christians – as are they. I see no reason why we shouldn’t be together. Russia attacked both Georgia and Ukraine. We equally suffer and we must pray together. We believe that the Georgian church will join us in this prayer,” Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret said on Ukranian TV.
There are obvious geopolitical factors at play here, namely, the Russian state’s relations with Syria (home of the Antioch Patriarchate), Georgia, and Ukraine, but on a deeper level there is also one of history. Kiev is the shared birthplace of both Ukraine and Russia. It forms the seed of both countries’ national myths. They are both arguably heirs to the Kievan Rus, and Saint Vladimir who converted to Orthodoxy in the 9th Century, long before Moscow became the seat of Russian civilization. Without this link to the past, Russia potentially loses its historical claim the the Kievan Rus legacy.
(Although this article isn't about the Caucasus, Russia and Ukraine both have geopolitical and religious links to Georgia. Further news on Georgia's stance on this issue will be covered further.)