On the 15th of December, a religious council, or synod, of bishops will be held in Kyiv’s Saint-Sophia cathedral in order to decide on the creation of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Such a synod follows the decision by the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople (former name of Istanbul) to grant a Tomos of autocephaly, meaning a decree of canonical recognition, to an Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
This historical event marks a new step in the breaking of ties between Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate already announced it shall not take part in the 15th December synod. The council is also an important episode in the campaign for Petro Poroshenko’s reelection – the Ukrainian president announced the holding of the synod, and he will be present at its start, despite Ukraine’s constitutional separation of church and State.
NB: This publication is updated with new developments and shows of support / distrust of Orthodox Churches vis-à-vis the Ukrainian issue.
The situation in Ukraine is tense, with Metropolitan Macarius, head of the non-recognized Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church warning of possible violence ahead of the synod. Yet the Tomos issue echoes far beyond Ukraine’s borders. It sends shock waves across the Orthodox world. It may lead to a new schism. Some compare it to the 1054 Great Schism that separated Catholics and Orthodoxes. And while the situation has not yet reached this point, tensions are real. D&B looks into the geopolitics of Orthodoxy.
The Christian Orthodox Church is a communion of 14 autocephalous regional Churches, that is, administratively independent Churches governed by their own head. One has to add the Orthodox Church in America, which is recognized as autocephalous by only 5 autocephalous Churches. Yet it is still in communion with the other churches.
By contrast with the Catholic Church, collegiality is a key tenant of Orthodoxy: all Churches are considered equal to each other, with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople titled ‘first among equals’. Thanks to this special status, Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew 1st is entitled to grant autocephaly to a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is up to the other autocephalous Churches to acknowledge this decision or not.
Each Church has defined geographical boundaries and is ruled by a council of bishops, or synod. The primate may carry the title of Patriarch, Metropolitan (in the Slavic tradition) or Archbishop (in the Greek tradition). Geographical boundaries are drawn according to political borders, be it past (Patriarchate of Antioch) or contemporary (Church of Czech lands and Slovakia). For example, the Patriarchates of Moscow and Serbia exert jurisdiction over several countries because of historical territorial dominion over territories that are now politically independent. The Moscow Patriarchate also has strong influence over the Orthodox Church in America through immigration waves. It is one of only 5 autocephalous Churches to recognize the autocephaly of the Orthodox church in America.
Apart from the Orthodox Church in America, there are several issues connected to Churches that are not fully acknowledged as autocephalous or autonomous. The Ukrainian religious complexity is only part of the puzzle. Other contentious cases include two Estonian churches, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church and the Estonian Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchate – but also the self-governing Metropolis of Bessarabia (Moldova) of the Romanian Orthodox Church, whose autonomy from Bucharest is directly opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church. In former Yugoslavia, both the Montenegrin and Macedonian Orthodox Churches hope to separate from the Serbian Church. The Church of Macedonia seems to be more successful in this respect as it is supported by the country’s government. The Church of Montenegro struggles to gain authority in its own country and recognition abroad. The Ukrainian issue may affect these situations.
Georgia offers a peculiar case study as the Orthodox clergy of Abkhazia seceded from the Church of Georgia back in 2009. It now claims its independence although some observers assert that the Russian Church has unofficially placed the Orthodox clergy of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia under its jurisdiction. There exists a small Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church that has not succeeded in associating itself to the political independence of the country. The Russian Church is dominant in Belarus and the Autocephalous Church is currently headquartered in the United States.
To only add to this geopolitical complexity, one should not forget minor distinct Christian Orthodox groups scattered across the world such as some traditionalist groups or the Evangelical Orthodox Church, that is to say the only Eastern Orthodox denomination that mixes Charismatic and Evangelical elements (mostly in North America).
The Christian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in the world. It now represents the second largest Christian church after the Catholic Church. It is estimated that it numbers from 200 to 260 million believers across the world. The Russian Church is the largest of the 14 autocephalous Churches with an estimated 100-135 million believers.
Reactions to Ukrainian Tomos
The reasons that may have motivated Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1st of Constantinople to grant a Tomos of autocephaly to a Ukrainian Orthodox Church to-be are yet unknown. The Churches of Russia and Constantinople have been for some time now engaged in a competition for leadership. Each of them has serious advantages to weigh in, namely Constantinople’s historical significance, and Moscow’s high numbers of believers. Relations between the two kept worsening in recent years: Moscow’s refusal to participate in the 2016 pan-Orthodox Council (which was organized by Constantinople) was, in this regard, a key moment, and one which might have precipitated the decision to grant autocephaly, that is, canonical recognition, to a newly formed Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The Russian Church naturally opposes Constantinople’s decision as it stands to lose a few thousands of its parishes in Ukraine. The issue also proves to be very sensitive in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Be it justified or not, many Ukrainians and the country’s political leadership associate the Russian Church with the Kremlin’s policy. The Moscow Patriarchate also risks losing its historical claim to the christening of the Kyiv Rus’ in 988 and with it, its spiritual influence as representative of “the Third Rome”. Ukraine is not just another territory for the Russian Church: as the birthplace of Slavic Orthodoxy, it carries significant symbolic weight.
It has to be pointed out that Bartholomew’s decision seems to encompass a larger scope than the mere Ukrainian issue. It seems to many observers that the Ecumenical Patriarch seeks to redefine his overall relationship with the Russian Church. On 27th November, the Holy Ecumenical Synod cancelled the Patriarchal Tomos of 1999. In doing so, it dissolved the Archbishopric of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe that granted Moscow authority over Orthodox parishes in Western Europe. In effect, it is 65 parishes, 32 communities, 11 churches, 2 monasteries and 7 hermitages that are now supposed to fall back under the authority of Constantinople, although some Orthodox representatives oppose the move. The parishes are found in France (40 parishes), Belgium, the Netherlands, UK, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Spain.
Despite the Constantinople-Moscow rivalry, the Ecumenical Patriarch had long opposed the move to grant autocephaly to Ukraine, and his decision came as a surprise, if not a shock, to many representatives of autocephalous Churches across the world. Hence the issue that is now on top of the Christian Orthodox agenda is whether to support Constantinople or to side with Moscow. In fall 2019, the Churches of Greece and Alexandria have both voiced support for the independence of the Church of Ukraine.
Some, like the Serbian Church, have quickly come out against the Ukrainian autocephaly. It is supported by several Bulgarian church representatives, although the Church of Bulgaria still has not voiced any official position. A few Church representatives have voiced support to Constantinople although their respective Churches have not stated any official position yet. The majority of autocephalous Churches has called for appeasing of tensions and renewed dialogue. There is a clear feeling among observers that most Churches are waiting to see how the Ukrainian autocephaly and the Moscow-Constantinople conflict will evolve before choosing a side.
When it comes to acknowledging the Ukrainian autocephaly, some autocephalous Churches fear a “domino effect”. Serbia in particular is afraid that the autocephaly granted to the Ukrainian Church could encourage the Macedonian Church (although it is de facto the majority church in the country and independent from Serbia) and the Montenegrin Church to ask for their own Tomos of autocephaly. This would eventually lead to their de jure independence.
The Georgian Church is the most pro-Russian institution in an overall Kremlin-opposed country, but it still hasn’t expressed a position because of the Abkhaz issue.
Although they do not have any decision to make on acknowledging the autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine, the Estonian Churches are an interesting case to follow. Orthodoxy is a minority Christian institution in the country after Lutheranism. It is linked to strong Russian-speaking minorities. Although the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church seeks its independence, it may not support the independence of the Church of Ukraine.
Last but not least, the Romanian Church is the second largest Christian Orthodox Church. Considering both its disagreement with the Russian Church over Bessarabia (Moldova), the strong stance of the Serbian Church and the internal debates within the Church of Bulgaria, Bucharest’s position may be a game changer in the future of Orthodox geopolitics.