By Kadri Liik, Momchil Metodiev, Nicu Popescu*
However, this is not the full story. This ecclesiastical conflict has complex roots, ranging from clerical matters to political and interpersonal ones.
The biggest impediment to Moscow exerting any significant influence over the move to autocephaly was probably Kirill’s decision not to attend the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete in 2016. Planning for this council began in the 1960s; for Constantinople, the presence of the Moscow church mattered. The Russian church had insisted that each document for the council should be approved unanimously by all churches represented at the council. And the location of the council was even moved from Istanbul to Crete in order to make things more palatable to the Russian government, after Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015.
Yet the Moscow Patriarchate still eventually decided to boycott the council, claiming that the gathering would be insufficiently representative: the churches of Antioch (whose patriarch resides in Damascus), Bulgaria, and Georgia announced their decision not to attend the council before Moscow did, on the grounds that some of the documents for the meeting would lead to a dangerous modernisation of church doctrine (it is widely believed that three other churches consulted on their decision with the Russian church, although there is little hard proof of this). The Moscow Patriarchate appears to have made its decision not to attend at the last minute; its true motivations for doing so remain unclear. Several observers in Moscow told ECFR that they believe it to have been made under the influence of secular authorities rather than through purely clerical calculations.
Again, geopolitics bled into inter-church politics: growing anti-Westernism in Russia also increased the strain on relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate had at times portrayed the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a “Western” institution due to its vast international network and ecumenical position with regard to other Christian denominations. “They associate Bartholomew with the US – via the Greek diaspora in the US”, says church expert Ksenia Luchenko. Russian politicians’ persistent belief that the West instigated the Maidan protests in Kyiv and other post-Soviet “colour” revolutions has likely only reinforced this stance. Latterly, Putin has openly accused the United States and Constantinople of working together to support the Ukrainian government and the move towards church independence.
None of this prevented the Moscow Patriarchate from trying to avert the inevitable. In August 2018, Kirill went to see Bartholomew in Fener, the formerly Greek neighbourhood of Istanbul, in a last-minute effort to prevent him from granting autocephaly to Ukraine. Diplomatic finesse left at home, it seemed more of an attempt to bulldoze Constantinople into submission than a charm offensive. It proved wholly counterproductive. Publicly available video shows Kirill’s Russian bodyguards offering drinks, with the Russian patriarch refusing to have anything that was offered to him by his hosts. The hosts seem to have interpreted this as fear of being poisoned and took offence.
At this meeting, Kirill told Bartholomew: “Your All-Holiness, if you give autocephaly to Ukraine, blood will be poured out.” To this, the Ecumenical Patriarch replied: “Your Beatitude, we neither have an army at our disposal nor any weapons. If blood is to be poured out, it will not be spilled by us, but by you!”
At one point during the meeting, Bartholomew turned to Hilarion to say: “You stated that President Poroshenko has bribed the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I ask you directly, can you prove this? If you can’t prove it, you are doing the Mother Church an injustice and consequently will be cursed by Her. Knowingly misleading others through lying is unforgivable.” The Moscow Patriarch’s choice of adopting the Kremlin-style rhetoric of great-power entitlement did not help him on an issue where Russia was clearly a demandeur. The Russian Orthodox Church may be able to provide ballast to the Kremlin; but the inverse turned out not to be true – neither the Kremlin nor Kremlin-style rhetoric helped the Moscow Patriarchate in its dispute with Constantinople.
It might not necessarily have been this way. In conversation with ECFR, Bartholomew recalled his earlier contact with Kirill almost fondly – the two have known each other for decades and engaged in close discussions over Estonian church questions in the 1990s. Bartholomew also spoke warmly of his visit to Moscow in 2010 and the tour of the Kremlin that Medvedev and Kirill gave him. But previously warm personal relations were not enough to offset the larger forces driving a split. Relations had soured to such an extent that the Moscow Patriarchate could find no way to halt what had become an irreversible change.
There is certainly a struggle between Constantinople and Moscow, but its size should not be exaggerated. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has a lot of soft power, but it has far less access to other levers of power than the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church has billions of dollars in revenues, employs thousands of people at home and abroad, and commands an ability to access and rely on the global network of Russian diplomatic and media presence, from RT to dozens of religious websites in multiple languages. None of these is available to Constantinople.
The meaning of autocephaly
Then came the day when the stars had aligned for the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church: Ukraine had requested it; “one country, one church” was an accepted principle in the Orthodox world; and Constantinople felt that it had nothing to lose in its relations with Moscow by applying that principle to Ukraine.
The meaning and procedure of granting autocephaly are complex and have evolved over time. Unlike the Catholic Church, which recognises the Pope as its supreme authority, the Orthodox Church does not recognise the existence of such an authority. According to Orthodox ecclesiology, every church territory has the right to autocephaly and the Ecumenical Patriarch is recognised as “first among equals” by the heads of all autocephalous Orthodox churches. He is not able to interfere in the internal affairs of other churches, but the heads do recognise him as a unifying point in the Orthodox world. He has the indisputable right to grant autocephaly to ecclesiastical territories under his jurisdiction.
In medieval times, the Orthodox world recognised the existence of the Pentarchy – five traditional patriarchal sees in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Later, several new churches were formed in areas that today fall within the territory of several nation states – these are the autocephalous churches in Cyprus, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Poland, Albania, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as autonomous churches in Finland and Estonia. Almost all of them, including that in Russia, received their autocephalous status from Constantinople.
In the Ukrainian case, autocephaly is also a question of historical dispute: namely, the question of how, in 1686, Moscow established its jurisdiction over the Kievan Metropolitanate. The Russian Orthodox Church insists that, when this happened, Constantinople transferred its jurisdiction over Kiev to the Moscow Patriarchate. Moscow, therefore, maintains that Kiev has been a part of the Russian diocese since then. For its part, Constantinople argues that, in that year, it gave Moscow only the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev because Ottoman rule made it impossible for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to fully exercise its jurisdiction over Kiev. This reading of history is based on a document issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1686. “I … told him [Kirill]: you took ecclesiastic control of Kiev in a non-Orthodox manner”, Bartholomew commented to ECFR.14 “Our Patriarch, my predecessor, went to collect church revenues in Russia. But then he was not allowed to return to Constantinople without concessions over Kiev. So, in 1686, Moscow received only ‘the right to ordain’ the Metropolitan of Kiev, who was obliged to mention the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch as first in the liturgies. But failed to do it as promised.”
For this reason, the initial step before granting autocephaly was to re-establish the jurisdiction of Constantinople over Ukraine. This happened in October 2018 and was accepted by the Kyivan Patriarchate church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
The establishment of the church is just the beginning of a long process – but the Orthodox world is used to taking the long view. Bartholomew himself says all major church decisions – such as the Pan-Orthodox Council or the granting of autocephaly – take decades, at least, to win the acceptance of all involved. Church expert Andrei Kuraev is at pains to point out that: “The Russian church was in a schism with Constantinople for almost a century before the latter recognised it. The same happened later to the Greek church, which refused to be subordinate to the patriarch in Istanbul. Then the Bulgarian schism; the Romanian, Albanian, Serbian schisms.” Ukrainian autocephaly was born out of crisis and took decades to heal, just as with many other national Orthodox churches.
*Τhis article is part of a research for ECFR. Romfea.news will republish extracts from the paper in the following days