By Arab News
By Peter Welby*
“The biggest split in Christianity for 1,000 years,” screamed the headline in Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper, announcing the decision of the most senior bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church to recognize the independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from that of Russia. That headline pulls in the reader but overstates the crisis. A split in the Christian Church in the 16th century by some estimates cost up to 17 million lives across Europe by the end of the 17th century. It became known as the Reformation. That is not to say there is no crisis. As with many, if not most, splits in the history of Christianity — at least for the past 1,500 years — politics is just as significant as theology, and in this case perhaps more so.
To describe the Eastern Orthodox Church as a Byzantine institution is no exercise in hyperbole. It can trace its direct political ancestry to the Emperor Constantine. Its most senior bishop lives in Istanbul, which the church still calls Constantinople. And — perhaps unsurprisingly for a church that was set up by an emperor — its theology often ties it to government.
That often makes it a nationalist church, which is reflected in its structure. It is made up of 15 (now 16) autocephalous local churches that recognize one another as part of the same wider church, but are almost entirely independent of each other. At the center of the network sits the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople, recognized as the first among equals by the leaders of the different churches.
Those churches are usually closely tied to their local governments, perhaps none more so than the Russian Orthodox Church. The breakup of empires, then, has often led to tensions in the churches as newly formed independent states want their own independent church, as happened in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Russian Orthodox Church does not like splits. According to The Times newspaper, archbishops of Canterbury are routinely welcomed to their post with a letter from the patriarch of Moscow declaring them to be anathema, cheerily signed “with best wishes.” But politically, when the splitters are from its own jurisdiction, the hatred is real and has consequences.
And in this case, when the splitters muster support for their cause from within the wider Orthodox Church because of the actions of the Russian state in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church goes ballistic.
In a total denial of reality, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesman last week said the ecumenical patriarch had “excluded himself from canonical Orthodoxy,” as if it was not the Russian church that found itself isolated. In fact, a grant to Russia of jurisdiction over the Ukrainian church in 1686 is regarded by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a loan of authority for expediency (the Ottomans had only just been repulsed from Vienna) rather than a gift.
It is hard to tell which the Russian church dislikes more: The ecumenical patriarch’s recognition of a split in its jurisdiction, or its simultaneous effective repudiation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regional adventurism. Criticism of the president is, in the Russian Orthodox Church’s eyes, a pretty major sin. When Putin was running for his third term in 2012, Patriarch Kirill described him as a “miracle of God.”
Putin is not afraid to give a sacred twist to his foreign policy, justifying the annexation of Crimea on the basis that it was from there that Russian Christianity originated. But the church does not shy away from such interpretations either, with a spokesman for the patriarch describing Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 as a “holy battle.”
There remain many unknowns in this story. Russian pressure may force a reversal of the ecumenical patriarch’s decision. The Russian church may quietly make its way back into the fold after a decent interval of sulking (certainly, this is nothing on the great theological disputes of the early church). Resolution of the political situation in Ukraine would certainly help matters.
But if the split becomes permanent (and church splits often do), it is not nearly as severe as Russian spokesmen make out. Russian religious demographics vary wildly depending on who you ask, but anything between 43 percent and 72 percent of Russians regard themselves as Orthodox — somewhere between 62 million and 104 million people. This has risen from as little as 31 percent in 1991, commensurate with the ever-closer identification of the church with the state.
But this does not tell the full story. Despite a claim by a church leader in 2016 that three new churches are opened in Russia every day, according to a Pew poll only 7 percent of Russians attend church at least once a month — just over 10 million people. That is still a lot, but in the context of Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole, not a crushing blow.
The greater problem that Russian distance may cause the other Orthodox churches is financial. The Russian Orthodox Church is not short on cash. In 2012, there was a scandal over a picture of the patriarch wearing a luxury watch.
The church responded in the time-honored fashion of 20th-century Russian politics by doctoring the photo so that the watch disappeared, and the patriarch gave an interview denying that he had ever worn it. Farcically, however, the doctored photo still had the reflection of the watch, on his wrist, on the glossy tabletop.
But by recognizing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the ecumenical patriarch has deprived the Russian church of a third of its territory. It seems likely that Eastern Orthodoxy will survive regardless.
* Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby