Constantinople Grants Kiev Autocephaly; Moscow Warns of Schism
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the traditional leader of the Orthodox Church, has formally moved to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and revoke the Russian Orthodox Church’s right to ordain the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, presiding over the Holy and Sacred Synod, also issued orders restoring two splinter Ukrainian churches to full communion with Constantinople and recreating the office of Stavropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Kiev, thus formally placing the Ukrainian Church under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Since the Christianization of the Kievan Rus’ under Vladimir the Great in the late tenth century, the dominant religion for the majority of the Slavic peoples in present-day Central and Eastern Europe has been the (Eastern) Orthodox faith, organized under the auspices of various national Orthodox Churches. Unlike its western counterpart — the Roman Catholic Church — the Eastern Orthodox Church has no central governing authority or authoritative Pope-equivalent figure, instead consisting of self-ruling “autocephalous” and lower-ranking “autonomous” church groups that mutually recognize and maintain communion with each other. Owing to historical precedent and tradition, the head of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople — the Archbishop of Constantinople — is recognized by the heads of all other Orthodox Churches as their symbolic “first among equals” with the title of Ecumenical Patriarch.
While not having Pope-like powers of jurisdiction over other autocephalous churches and their patriarchs, the Ecumenical Patriarch retains the right of convening Church-wide councils to address special situations faced by the Orthodox faith and promote pan-Orthodox harmony, which historically have been generally well-attended by the members of the Orthodox Church leadership. The last such Church-wide council, held in June 2016, saw attendance by delegations from 10 out of 14 universally recognized autocephalous churches.
With regards to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church — headed by the Patriarchate of Moscow and all Rus’ — was granted the right to consecrate the Metropolitan of Kiev — the leading bishop in Ukraine — by written decree in 1686 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Organized under the name of the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” the recognized Church in Ukraine was thus directly subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church for over three centuries. Competing churches formed in Ukraine, one forming in 1921 during Ukraine’s short-lived independence as the “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” while another in 1992 as the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kievan Patriarchate” — have consistently called for Ukraine’s church to become autocephalous and fully independent from Moscow. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently condemned any move towards Ukrainian church independence as “schismatic” and declared the leaders of the two rival Ukrainian churches anathema.
The internationally condemned annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 fanned debate over the governance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with Orthodox faithful in Ukraine becoming divided between those seeking full autocephaly for the church and those seeking continued autonomy under the Russian Orthodox Church. Ukrainian political leaders thus embarked on a renewed campaign for an independent church, which was received positively by the Ecumenical Patriarch in July 2018. While the Patriarch of Moscow visited the Ecumenical Patriarch in August, the Ecumenical Patriarch ultimately appointed two special representatives to investigate the situation in Ukraine in September — drawing fiery protest from Moscow — and convened its governing council on Oct. 9 to consider the “ecclesiastical matter of Ukraine.”
In the announcement made on Oct. 11, 2018, the Holy and Sacred Synod renewed “the decision already made that the Ecumenical Patriarchate proceed to the granting of autocephaly” to the church in Ukraine; reestablished the supervisory position of Stavropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Kiev to formally subordinate the newly autocephalous church under Constantinople alone; reinstated the leaders and followers of the rival Ukrainian churches to full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and revoked the 1686 letter of the Holy Synod that granted the Patriarch of Moscow the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev.
The Synod also called for “all sides involved” to avoid “appropriation of Churches, Monasteries and other properties, as well as every other act of violence and retaliation, so that the peace and love of Christ may prevail.”
Ukrainian political leaders welcomed the announcement while Patriarch Filaret, head of the Kiev Patriarchate, articulated that the next moves for the Orthodox faith in Ukraine would necessarily avoid confrontation with Moscow and voluntary unification of all churches in Ukraine.
The response from secular and religious authorities in Moscow, however, was decidedly more negative. Russian President Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Oct. 12 to discuss the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a Kremlin spokesman declared that if developments “take the course of illegal activities, then of course, just as Russia defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers — and Putin has spoken about this many times — Russia will defend the interests of the Orthodox.” Russia’s top diplomat called the move by Constantinople a “provocation” that was “directly and publicly backed by Washington.”
Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ Kirill commented on Oct. 13 while visiting Minsk, Belarus, that he was aware of “how difficult the current situation in the brothery land of Ukraine is” but asserted that “secular forces that aim to destroy the church will never succeed.” A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate later notified media that the Moscow church’s governing council would issue its own assessments of the decision by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Oct. 15, 2018.
The dispute between Moscow and Constantinople appears to be driving the Orthodox faith towards a possible schism on a degree unseen in centuries. As the Orthodox Church lacks a central governing authority, the autocephalous status of an eventual unified Orthodox church in Ukraine will have to be recognized on a church-by-church basis by the other autocephalous churches. Furthermore, Kiev has expressed unease over Moscow’s position to “defend the interests of the Orthodox,” with Patriarch Filaret stressing the voluntary nature of church unification in Ukraine in order to avoid giving Moscow an “excuse to intrude in our internal affairs.” As such, the future organization of the Orthodox faith in Ukraine remains in limbo while the symbolic declaration plays into the greater spiritual and geopolitical battle over the future of Ukraine as a whole.