Russian Orthodox Church Suspends Ties with Patriarch of Constantinople
The Russian Orthodox Church has formally suspended ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — the leading church of the Eastern Orthodox faith — after the Patriarch of Constantinople appointed two bishops to go to Kiev and lay the groundwork for approving formal independence for Ukraine’s church from the Russian Orthodox Church. The decision comes as Ukraine continues to face a pro-Russian armed insurgency in its east after Moscow’s internationally condemned annexation of Crimea in the wake of the successful Euromaidan protests that toppled pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Feb. 2014.
After the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in mid-2014, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — formally an autonomous church under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church — became divided between worshippers seeking full independence for the church in Ukraine and worshippers desiring for continued autonomy under the Russian Orthodox Church. A renewed campaign earlier this year by Ukrainian political leaders — directed at Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “first among equals” symbolic leader — to grant Ukraine’s church autocephaly appeared to have been positively received in early July, when the Patriarch issued a statement affirming the “spiritual and canonical rights of the Ecumenical Throne on the Ukrainian territory.”
After declaring the possibility of separating the Ukrainian church from Russian church an “all-Orthodox catastrophe,” Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church known for his exceptionally close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited Istanbul to stave off any action towards a grant of autocephaly on Aug. 31. This effort appears to have been unsuccessful, however, as the Patriarchate of Constantinople announced the appointment of two bishops as its direct representatives in Kiev on Sept. 7 — a move viewed as the next step to granting autocephaly.
The governing council of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a fiery protest the next day, calling the appointments “a gross violation of the church canons prohibiting bishops of one Local Church to interfere in the internal life and affairs of another Local Church” and “a real threat to the unity of the whole world Orthodoxy” before hinting at retaliatory action by the Patriarchate of Moscow.
That action came on Sept. 14, when an extraordinary session of the Russian Orthodox Church’s governing council decided to suspend the Russian church’s participation in all structures led or co-chaired by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Russian government on the same day issued a statement noting that “alarming reports about decisions that the Ukrainian Church may take definitely cause concern” but declined to get involved as “these issues concern inter-church dialogue” and “the state cannot interfere in it.”
It remains to be seen if a further escalation in this inter-church dispute will occur as the Patriarchate of Constantinople deliberates formally granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Religious historians have pointed out that grants of autocephaly in the recent past have rarely been immediately recognized, with the situation regarding the Orthodox Church in America being the leading example, while others have characterized this dispute as an open manifestation of the rivalry between the traditional symbolic head of the Orthodox Church — the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, owing to history — and the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, who heads the powerful Russian Orthodox Church that commands one-half of the world’s Orthodox worshippers as members.