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Pope, Patriarchs, and President

22 July 2016

Has the Russian Church turned its back on the Orthodox stage owing to a political agenda, asks Michael Bourdeaux

Sean Hawkey

Half measures: the ending of the Great and Holy Council - minus the Russian delegates

Half measures: the ending of the Great and Holy Council - minus the Russian delegates

THE Orthodox Church is proud to claim — and rightly so — that its greatest strength lies in the tradition it has inherited, unbroken since apostolic times. This presents difficulties when its progressive thinkers feel that they need to adapt their faith to increase its relevance to modern times. So there has been talk, all the 60 years of my working life, of convening a “Great and Holy Council”, and, finally, this has come about, the first such meeting since the eighth century.

Bishop Christopher Hill, the official Anglican observer, reported its formal proceedings in the Church Times (News, 24 June and 1 July) — a welcome account, especially in view of the silence of the British media. He takes us carefully through the formal debates and sets out the conclusions (often difficult for the non-Orthodox to assimilate).

Events and tendencies in the Orthodox Church are significant for world politics, not just for believers; so it is legitimate for a sympathetic Anglican commentator to raise the questions that Bishop Hill does not. The two huge issues not discussed in the reports are: why did the Russian Orthodox Church boycott the event, and what matters were on participants’ minds but not on the agenda?

The Russian Orthodox Church, representing almost half the total number of Orthodox believers in the world, together with three other Patriarchates, was not there, having withdrawn at the last minute. Why? The absence of the Patriarchs of Georgia, Bulgaria, and Antioch would have been serious enough, but the Moscow Patriarchate has grown immensely in size and power since the collapse of communism a quarter of a century ago.

I am mindful of the fact that, before that time, its voice was influential, sometimes dominant, in dictating the agenda of the World Council of Churches, and it participated forcefully in world Christian politics. It would now seem to have turned its back not only on ecumenism, but also on playing a leading part at what could have been the greatest event on the Orthodox world stage in recent times.

A trawl through the hundreds of Orthodox voices quoted on the internet suggests that playing a “leading role” is somewhere near the heart of the conundrum. Down the centuries, the Russian Church has sometimes proclaimed that Moscow is the “Third Rome”, the second, Constantinople, having lost its voice after its fall to the Turks in 1453. It is, indeed, a quirk of history that, by tradition, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew — an ethnic Greek, but a Turkish citizen — is still the leader of world Orthodoxy, even though his flock in Istanbul is tiny and beleaguered. In Anglican terms, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, he can lead and advise, but not command.

It is no secret that, especially since 1991, the reinvigorated Moscow Patriarchate would like to supplant Constantinople’s waning Greek presence in a sea of Islam, the Phanar. As it commands the loyalty of an immense number of Orthodox believers, compared with the number of Greeks, one can see the logic from the Russian point of view. This, needless to say, chimes conveniently with the politics of President Putin, still trying to reinstate the greatness of his country as he observed it when a serving KGB officer. So, did the Russians ever intend to participate in the Great and Holy Council?

It is impossible to say for certain, but I am drawn to a sinister portent: the visit by Patriarch and President to the symbolical heartland of Orthodox spirituality, the Holy Mountain, Athos. Drawing the President of Greece into the act, the two cannot have been making this visit on 28 May, just three weeks before the opening of the Council, except as a premeditated act. Put this together with Patriarch Kirill’s meeting with the Pope on 11 February at Havana airport and one can see the development of a plan: to present Kirill as the leader of world Orthodoxy.

The BBC did not exactly counter this impression by stating in several broadcasts that this was the “first-ever” meeting of Pope and Patriarch — ignoring the fact that Rome and Constantinople have met several times in recent decades. It seems, then, that the Patriarch of Moscow was simply not prepared to appear in a position secondary to Patriarch Bartholomew.

So, what of the agenda itself? What of the gaps or answered the unasked questions? The Moscow Patriarchate assured the future Council that it would be present, and thus it may well have operated a heavy hand in excluding subjects that would have been highly controversial if debated.

What of the three rival jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine? Nominally, parishes loyal to Moscow are still the majority, but Russia’s violent incursions into the Eastern Ukraine and its seizing of the Crimea, flouting international law and specific treaties, have caused huge loss of popularity for the Russian Church in Ukraine; an increasing number of parishes have been seceding from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to the Kiev Patriarchate. The Ukrainian “Autocephalous” Orthodox Church would join in conversations aimed at unity, but Moscow fiercely resists such talks — so two Ukrainian churches are denied “canonicity’, and, therefore, could not be represented in Crete.

These events have international significance. Alongside them, too, President Putin has just given his assent to a new law that further restricts evangelism, and threatens all except Orthodox believers with severe punishment if they disobey. Compared with the hopes of the Gorbachev years, the emerging scenario is not a happy one.


Canon Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Insititute, Oxford.

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