Moscow, Kyiv, Constantinople: what happens after the Ukrainian Church crisis?

As the dust begins to settle in the Orthodox Church split between Russia and Ukraine, it is Constantinople that faces the biggest challenge. 

Iannis Carras
21 February 2019

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew. Photo Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International / The President of Ukraine. Some rights reserved.Who now remembers the “clash of civilizations”, Samuel Huntington’s hypothesis that religious identities would prove a primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world?

Events in Ukraine over the course of the last few months are indicative of wider reconfigurations shaking the Orthodox world. The Russian Orthodox Church (Patriarchate of Moscow) has broken off communion with Ecumenical Patriarchate (Constantinople), based in Istanbul, traditionally “first among equals” in the Church order. The Russian Church has even opened parishes in territories under the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s jurisdiction, including in Istanbul.

While Ukraine is faced with ongoing division, Russia is confronted by increased difficulties in the use of religion to project power into neighbouring countries. The rest of the Orthodox world is called on to take sides. In short, it is the clash within the religious group rather than between civilizations that has come to the fore. But arguably, it is the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople which is confronted with the greatest challenge.

Symbolic capital

Competing interpretations of the events of 2014 remain central to any understanding of the Ukrainian Church crisis of 2018 and 2019. The doubting of separate Ukrainian nationhood implied by the ideology of a “Russian world”, an argument made explicit by Patriarch Kirill during his negotiations with Patriarch Bartholomew in 2018, frames the question of why the Russian Church had not proceeded to grant autocephaly (self-rule) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) itself.

If this had happened, the newly autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church would then have been constituted around the old Episcopate, allowing Moscow to continue exerting influence through both formal channels and informal. This would have allowed for reunification of the different Ukrainian Orthodox churches only on terms set by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Granting autocephaly was discussed in Russia, with such figures as the blogger and deacon Andrey Kurayev arguing in favour. But the granting of autocephaly by the Russian Church would have clashed with the belief that the “Russian world” really should be unified politically, and not just culturally.

The validity of a “Russian world” including Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, is by no means the only contested discourse that has played out during the Ukrainian Church crisis. Central have been the nature of Church-state relations. So too the status of the Church in Ukraine up until 1686, and the documents of purported transfer of Ukraine from Constantinople to Moscow dated to 1686 itself. A further set of contested discourses relate to the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as “first among equals” in Orthodoxy. Tangentially related to these has been the question of whether Orthodoxy should be opposed to the West, or find itself in creative dialogue with ideas emanating from further West.

But above all it is the omnipresence of the past in arguments over the Ukrainian Church crisis that has been evident. This is in contrast with Soviet ideology which looked to the future, and also in contrast with Orthodox thinkers whose works have a more eschatological bent. The prominence of the past in determining current practice limits potential creativity for resolving disputes.

In the post-Soviet context, the connections between religious institutions and state administration are being reconfigured. The result is that religious expression is pushed from privatized spheres into forms of public performance. Both Vladimir Putin’s and Petr Poroshenko’s criticism and use of Ukrainian autocephaly adhere to this pattern.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Russian Church did not anticipate that the Ecumenical Patriarchate would intervene in Ukraine so decisively. The Russian Church could easily have attended the Pan-Orthodox Council on Crete in 2016, a decision that would have placed obstacles to the granting of Ukrainian autocephaly. Nonetheless, the outcome of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s intervention is not yet clear: what will it mean for Ukraine and the Orthodox world as a whole?

Trading places

One of the consequences of the decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on autocephaly is that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is starting to acquire the trappings of a state Church. This has not occurred through changes in the Ukrainian constitution, but rather, given the role of President and Parliament in requesting autocephaly, through association with state authorities and media projection.

This all fits with 19th and 20th century examples of the growth of national consciousness, in the Balkans and elsewhere. When the nation is presented as “a sacred communion of the people”, a separate Church is required to underline the nation’s longevity, and unite its members into a single community. The nation borrows its narratives of salvation from religion.

To be fair, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine starts with advantages. Its statute is more democratic than the equivalent of the Russian Church. In the results of the secret voting by Bishops, clergy and lay persons to elect the new Metropolitan of Kiev, no single group appeared to dominate. Thus, there is a chance that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church might function in a more conciliar way than others. Finally, in Ukraine, the laity matters. Their movements will end up deciding which Orthodox Churches have more members, and, in the context of new legislation, where the majority of parishes will settle. But if the equation of Church with state has been central to the story of Russian Orthodoxy, it is the equation of Church with nation rather than state that has been the predominant narrative in the Balkans. How this difference will play out in Ukraine remains to be seen.

Constantinople at the cross-roads

But what of the challenges faced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate? First, some thoughts about its structure. The absence of significant laity in Istanbul, and the dispersion of the Patriarchate’s flock between parts of Greece and diaspora and convert communities in the West complicates analysis. One solution is to focus on the Patriarchate’s inner circle of Hierarchs.

As the decision-makers at the core of the Patriarchate are few, the role of religious intellectuals in interpreting and projecting the world-view of the Patriarchate has proved important. In the Ukrainian Church crisis, the work of theologian Konstantin Vetoshnikov has been significant. A closer examination of the arguments for the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s intervention point to strengths and weaknesses in its position.

Discussion of historical precedent includes the role of Constantinople from the Christianizing of Kievan Rus onwards. Excluded are the responses of parts of the Russian Church in order to progress beyond the suffocatingly close relations of Church and state that characterised periods of Tsarist and Soviet history. The most important of these has been the All-Russian Church Council of 1917-1918 which accorded lay members and priests an important role in Church governance, and which has served as an alternative vision to state-Orthodoxies.

Further to this, it remains unclear to what degree the historian Dmitri Obolensky’s “Byzantine Commonwealth” and its extension to an “Orthodox Commonwealth” can be employed for Russia. The different influences at work in the construction of the Russian state suggest limits for such terms. Any understanding of them leads to a consideration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s declared role from the Patriarch Athenagoras on (Patriarch 1948-1972) as proponent of an ecumenical Church with a super-national mission. It is this vision of the Patriarchate’s role that Paschalis Kitromilides develops in his new book. A component part of this role is Kitromilides’ revision of the understanding of the relation of religion and Enlightenment.

Kitromilides argues that Orthodoxy in the 18th and 19th century Balkans, with the Ecumenical Patriarchate at its head, showed willingness to take initiatives that were “concordant with the age of reason”. This interpretation of the interplay between Orthodoxy and Enlightenment has proved popular because it challenges the vision of Orthodoxy as the kern of a separate civilization, reducing the distance between Orthodox countries and contemporary Europe. It also provides room for the Church today to engage with a range of ideas about the rights of human beings and democratic government. Patriarch Bartholomew’s engagement with the ecological crisis from the outset of his Patriarchate in 1991 conforms to this pattern. One of his successes has been to persuade the other Orthodox Churches to incorporate an ecological worldview within their pastoral mission.

Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly condemned exclusivist nationalism during the course of the Ukrainian Church crisis. Such statements seem to be out of sync with events taking place in Ukraine, which might explain their repetition. But there are also contradictions between the nationalism which parts of the Hierarchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has espoused and these ecumenical teachings.

Equally importantly, in the case of the Ecumenical Patriarchate memory as knowledge has often crowded out living memories. The number of texts interpreting Church law hosted on Orthodox websites has been growing exponentially. But the way in which canon law has been applied seems to strengthen the group of Hierarchs that rotate in and out of the Holy Synod. These canons were written for a world very different from our own. Thus, the legitimacy of the Patriarchate’s claims to be the “canonical consciousness of the Church” depends upon the perception that the Patriarchate is not abusing them. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has thus to engage with other traditions of Orthodoxy in order to maintain its claims to primacy.

And it is in this regard that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is open to criticism. Inevitably arguments about the need for conformity with Church law will prove less powerful now that the Patriarchate has been central to the redrawing of religious boundaries in Ukraine, however justified.

Further, alongside intervention in Ukraine, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been criticised for its attempts to ensure that diaspora communities, including Ukrainian, remain under its direct jurisdiction. This is based on the principle that there should be only one Bishop in each city. But the Ecumenical Patriarchate has made no moves to create structures of governance that might encourage non-Greeks to feel that they have a role in the governance of the diaspora/Western Church.

People first

One of the few exceptions to this is the Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe, known colloquially as Rue Daru, in Paris. This is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but it draws its traditions from the Russian Church Council of 1917-18. Nurtured by exiles who had fled the Russian Revolution, the laity here plays a central role in Church governance, including the election of Bishops.

At the same time as its intervention in Ukraine, it is this Exarchate which the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided through a Synodal decision of 28 November 2018 to terminate. The “symbolic capital” of the Exarchate is far greater than its one-hundred and twenty Western European parishes, and it now constitutes a new front in the confrontation between Moscow and Constantinople.

The decision to dissolve the Exarchate has left the Ecumenical Patriarchate open to criticism that it is characterised by a power vertical. The change in sections of the Russian language blogosphere before and after the decision underlines this point. Whereas before much criticism had been directed against the lack of efforts by the Moscow Patriarchate to surmount divisions in Ukraine, after the decision to dissolve the Exarchate the words of the religious writer Sergei Chapnin may be considered indicative: “this is a war for power in its purest form”.

Whereas the Russian Church has a state to support it, the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not. At a time when the Russian Church is disputing the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Orthodoxy, the role of those who are willing to project the Patriarchate’s authority and reaffirm its “symbolic capital” is particularly important. Its role as interpreter of Church canons will become untenable unless it places the pastoral concerns of its flock at the fore. And that means dealing with the issue of its own Church governance. A small first step in this direction would be to signal a reversal of the decision of the Holy Synod on the dissolution of Rue Daru, before the Exarchate itself takes a decision whether to join Moscow, something that could happen as early as 23 February. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is at the cross-roads, torn between its closed system of control, and its purported openness to dialogue and “supranationalism”.

Imperial ecumenism?

The “clash of civilisations” is at its core an imperial discourse concealed as a universalist one, and that explains the popularity of civilizational theories in Russia today. Perhaps the greatest difference between theories of a “Russian world” and a “Byzantine” or “Orthodox Commonwealth”, however, remains the absence since 1453 of a revisionist state in the formerly Byzantine world. Religious ecumenism of this imperial variety posits a civilizational paradigm with the ability to transcend the sub-division of the imperial space into nations. But it conflates faith and ethnicity, while also, in the case of the “Russian world”, justifying the re-imposition of forms of imperial control.

Religious ecumenism in its contemporary sense is removed from this vision, seeking to transcend national boundaries, without constricting its scope to civilisational spheres. It draws on universal values of equality, freedom and human dignity. In Constantinople and throughout the Orthodox world, the particularism inherent in the Church’s imperial and ethnic past is clashing with the universalizing nature of the Christian faith.



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