The decision of global Orthodoxy’s nominal leader to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from Moscow will pit Orthodox churches against each other in the Balkans.
By Marcus Tanner
Small actions can have huge consequences when it comes to churches. When a papal delegate slammed a formal notice of excommunication on the high altar of the main church in Constantinople in 1054 – although he surely did not appreciate it – that one act began the “Great Schism” – the separation of the Church into Orthodox and Catholic Churches that has lasted now for almost a thousand years.
The Ecumenical Patriarch’s own act this week in recognizing the independence, or autocephaly, of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, may turn out to be less seismic – but is still threatens to cause a major split in the world’s Orthodox churches.
The decision made by Patriarch Bartholomew, the nominal leader of global Orthodoxy, flies in the face of the express wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, which bitterly contests the Ukrainian Church’s right to run its own affairs.
Besides infuriating Russia, Bartholomew’s decree will have knock-on effects all over the Balkans, where churches will now feel pressure to line up behind Constantinople or Moscow.
Besides splitting the Balkan Orthodox churches into pro- and anti-Moscow camps, the Ukrainian Church independence will have another important effect.
The Balkans is home to at least three churches with their own aspirations to autocephaly – in Macedonia, Montenegro and Moldova – which will all now feel emboldened in their own campaigns to win the same privilege as Ukraine.
The Patriarch’s decision, announced on Thursday at the end of a three-day synod in Istanbul, follows a determined campaign by Ukraine’s government to bolster national unity though the creation of a church that is no longer subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate.
The Kiev government has increasingly accused clerics loyal to Moscow of aiding and abetting the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014 and of supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Russian Church has also upped the ante, warning of bloodshed if what it calls Ukrainian “schismatics” try to take over Russian parishes and monasteries in Ukraine – a land that many Russians still view as the cradle of the Russian nation and the Russian Church.
What percentage of clergy, parishes and laity in Ukraine will go over to the independent church remains a moot point – though it is a safe bet that Russian-speaking congregations will resist enforced separation from Moscow.
Serbia lines up with Russia
But the problem for the Orthodox Church is that the dispute will not be confined to Ukraine, or the two rival patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople.
Other churches are being drawn into the feud.
Serbia and Russia are historically close Slavic nations and – with an eye on its own breakaway churches in Montenegro and Macedonia – Serbia’s Patriarch has already condemned the Ukrainian Church’s quest for independence.
In a protest letter sent to Bartholomew in September, Patriarch Irinej condemned talk of Ukrainian Church independence as “disastrous”, adding – controversially – that most of the states now claiming their own churches were “created by communists and are led now by atheists”.
Besides its own traditional loyalty to Moscow, the Serbian Church does not want to see any encouragement being given to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which broke way from the Serbian Church in the 1960s, or to the much smaller Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which revived itself in the 1990s, having been suppressed after Montenegro was united to Serbia after World War I.
The breakaway Montenegrin Orthodox Church is only a small irritant, as most Orthodox believers in this country still remain loyal to the Serbian Church, while the government has not got very involved.
The Macedonian Church’s claim to autocephaly is much more serious. With the strong support of the Macedonian state authorities, the Macedonian Orthodox Church has long had complete control over the local church infrastructure.
The worry in Belgrade is that Bartholomew, alienated by the Serbian Church’s staunchly Russophile views, will start sending approving signals to the Church in Macedonia.
The Bulgarian Church, meanwhile, appears internally divided, with some bishops lining up with Russia and Serbia, and accusing the Ecumenical Patriarch of acting unilaterally – and others preferring to duck the issue, or pass it to an Ecumenical Church Council.
On October 3, the Church’s Holy Synod voted not to discuss the matter of the Ukrainian Church – but three dissenting bishops released their own statement on October 10, denouncing Bartholomew.
“The Patriarchate of Constantinople has no right to enter into a foreign canonical territory and begin communications with Ukrainian schismatics, ignoring the only canonical hierarchy in Ukraine,” the trio said
Romanians and Greeks in a dilemma
The decision presents a dilemma for other churches in the Balkans as well.
The important Greek Church will also be torn; the Ecumenical Patriarchs have always been Greeks, but there is also a strong pro-Russian and pro-Serbian sentiment in the Church.
With the country still locked in a political dispute with Macedonia, over its name, the Greek Church will not want to see such a torch-bearer for Macedonian nationalism as the Macedonian Church getting any encouragement – or reward.
With Serbia and Bulgaria in one camp, and Greece likely feeling torn, the reaction of the Romanian Orthodox Church could be pivotal in determining whether Bartholomew emerges from this fierce dispute with important allies.
The powerful and numerically important Romanian Church is traditionally less allied to Moscow than the churches in Serbia and Bulgaria. It is also engaged in an uneasy face-off with the Moscow Patriarchate over the church in Moldova. It may well, therefore, feel reluctant to take sides.
Interestingly, President Petro Peroshenko of Ukraine’s visit to Romania in 2106 included talks with Romanian Patriarch Daniel, where he expressly brought up the Ukrainian Church’s quest for independence.
Equally interestingly, the Romanian Church’s official website reported the President’s request without comment or any reference to “schismatics”, noting only: “the Ukrainian President requested the Patriarch of Romania to support and facilitate the achievement of the endeavour of Ukrainians to have a united Orthodox Church”.
Even if the Romanians do not join the chorus of condemnation, however, in the short term the Ecumenical Patriarch seems to have isolated himself, with most big guns in the region – Russia, Serbia and Bulgaria – lined up against him.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s guns are by far the biggest of all. The Moscow Patriarch commands the allegiance of more than half of the world’s Orthodox believers and has immense political and financial resources.
His beleaguered rival sits in the hostile territory of Muslim Turkey, which has never concealed its long-term aim of eventually expelling this reminder of Istanbul’s former status as capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire.
As Turkey insists that the Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen – and as only a few thousand Orthodox believers now remain in Turkey – Bartholomew may turn out to be “the last Patriarch of Constantinople”, as a CNN report in 2010 noted. Moreover, Bartholomew himself is now 78.
On the other hand, it is hard to see how a decree of autocephaly – once issued – can now be rescinded or just forgotten.
In that sense, the independent Church of Ukraine is likely here to stay. Last patriarch or not – Bartholomew has certainly left his mark.
*Marcus Tanner is an editor of Balkan Insight and the author of “Albania’s Mountain Queen, Edith Durham and the Balkans” [Tauris].
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