Posted on Oct 27, 2018
On October 11th, following a three day meeting in Istanbul, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople announced its decision to terminate the effect of its Tomos, the publication of a declaration issued 300 years ago, which gave Russia patrimony over Ukraine, thus setting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on the path to independence - ‘autocephalous’ in Church parlance - from Moscow.
At the same time, the heads of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv (UOC-KP) Patriarch Filaret, and of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) Metropolitan Makariy, both of who had been excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, were reinstated in their canonical status.
This move, precipitated by Kyiv in 2016 in response to Russia’s ongoing aggression against its neighbours, was taken in order to prevent Moscow’s continued use of the Orthodox Church as a political tool in order to exert influence Ukraine.
This has caused considerable consternation and embarrassment for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has always voiced his belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, a sentiment that inspired, and was used to justify, in Putin’s mind at least, Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and subsequent military and other support for rebels factions in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Moscow had challenged the right of Constantinople to rule on this matter, but was overruled: as a result, in a fit of fury, the Moscow Patriarch announced that the Russian Orthodox Church was breaking its ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, sowing the seeds of what could possibly become the biggest schism in the Orthodox Church in a thousand years.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople has the status of being “first among equals” as the main Church of the old Christian Byzantine Empire.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the Moscow patriarchate’s head of external church relations, declared the decision of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to be “unlawful”, saying that Moscow “will not be able to communicate with the church which today finds itself in the midst of a schism.”
This action may be driven not merely by the granting of autonomy to the Ukrainian Churches, but also by the fact that Moscow has had a difficult relationship with Constantinople for some time. In 2016, Moscow ignored and attempted to foil the long-awaited Great Orthodox Council, which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew considered to be his lifetime achievement.
They lately haven’t given any theological argument against Constantinople’s actions. If they go into a schism, they will marginalise themselves. Let’s see how long they will last.
The Council went ahead in June of that year in Crete, with one of the matters on the agenda being ‘Autonomy and the Means by Which it is Proclaimed”, which may go some way to explaining Putin’s hostility to the event.
As Putin appears determined to lead his country into a future of not so splendid isolation, this may be viewed by the Kremlin as a beneficial crisis: he clearly does not have the power he wanted over the wider Orthodox Church, and so better for him to denounce it and turn his back on it.
Since the aggression of 2014 Ukraine’s Russophile population is now reduced in both size and political influence. Control over one of Ukraine’s two Orthodox Churches, the (UOC-KP) - the other being the (UAOC), which appoints its own head, and has never come under the jurisdiction of any external patriarch or archbishop - had given the Kremlin an important power base in the country.
In fact, since 2014 congregations have been moving away from the Moscow Patriarchate in favour of those Churches that identify as Ukrainian in increasing numbers.
Numerically, the Moscow Patriarchate will eventually lose thousands of parishes. In ten years, we will no longer have Moscow/ Constantinople axis as the only major power struggle within worldwide Orthodoxy. Rather, we will have Constantinople as a soft power hovering over the three main churches with considerable numbers: Moscow (still the largest, contrary to some Ukrainian enthusiasts); Kyiv as a close second; and Bucharest as a very close third (19 million population, higher percentage of believers than in Ukraine or Russia). I predict that in this scheme of things there is a real potential for the Bucharest leadership because unlike Belgrade, it has not received multi-million euro gifts from Moscow; unlike Kyiv, it does not owe its recent legitimacy to Constantinople… Short-term all of this bids trouble; long-term, today’s move will have the implications of significantly curtailing Moscow’s ideological hold on Eastern Europe.
All these important changes come at a time when Ukraine’s government and civil society are presiding over a resurgence of the Ukrainian language - suppressed by Moscow during the Soviet era - and the removal of symbols of the Soviet past. All of this is a blow to Putin’s perverse view of the world, in which he once described the collapse of the evil empire as a “geopolitical disaster”.
He has also stated Russia to be “spiritually inseparable from Ukraine”, a claim undermined by the Orthodox church's decision to make Ukraine independent.
On October 12th, the day following the Constantinople declaration, Putin urgently convened an extraordinary meeting of Russia’s National Security and Defence Council, where the “situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine”, was discussed. This was most revealing, as the Church that comes under patrimony of Moscow is officially known as the ‘Ukrainian’ Orthodox Church.
“I think we will soon see how many bishops of the UOC MP are really bishops, and how many are pro-Russian politicians in church robes” said Ukrainian religious scientist Prof. Yuriy Chornomorets.
Indeed, the Church has always been used as a political tool by Russia - the current Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, is a close friend of Putin, who has often used the Church to endorse many of his polices, such as his opposition to feminism and same-sex marriage, once describing his first 12 years of his rule as a “miracle of God” .
Kirill has been implicated in the activities of the Siloviki, the criminal group of mainly former KGB/FSB officers over which the Russian president presides. Indeed, Kirill’s predecessor, Alexy II, who died in December 2008, was also known to have been recruited into the KGB in 1958, operating under the codename ‘Drozdov’.
“Moscow will do everything to destroy the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” said Patriarch Filaret, of the UOC-KP (pictured below right) “and therefore, to preserve the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and bring it to fruition, I have to work to the end”.
Filaret has also stated that there is no misunderstanding between the two Ukrainian Churches, suggesting that the UOC-KP is also expecting to be granted autocephaly.
"There is no misunderstanding between the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church since both are for the autocephalous”.
Putin will certainly continue to use the Moscow Patriarchate to exert influence on Ukraine, as he will continue to use it as a propaganda tool at home, and to inspire feelings of patriotism in the armed forces: his cynicism knows no bounds.
Patriarch Kirill has already hinted at what is to come when in an outburst in which he attempted to divert attention away from the the legitimate legal and religious reasons behind the move towards independence of the Ukrainian Churches he stated ”We are aware of how difficult the current situation in the brotherly land of Ukraine is, but we believe that secular forces that aim to destroy the church will never succeed."
In his words, Patriarch Kirill appears to confirm the warning of Patriarch Filaret. Putin will demand his revenge for what is the greatest setback and humiliation of his political career to date. Europe has stood by Ukraine since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and must prepare itself to witness further Russian aggression, this time in the name of God.
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