WHEN Patriarch Kirill of Russia arrives in Istanbul today for a summit with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, he will have one overriding aim: to deter the granting of independence to Orthodox Christians in Ukraine.
The drive for autocephaly, or ecclesiastical self-rule, is vigorously supported by Ukraine’s government and parliament, as might be expected in a country that is fighting Russian-backed separatists.
But Kirill and his Russian Orthodox confrères have vowed to oppose it at all costs. As the arguments are weighed up by Patriarch Bartholomew, who holds honorary primacy among the world’s 14 main Orthodox Churches, Anglicans and others will need to prepare their response.
Orthodox Christians, mostly concentrated in the east, nominally make up 70 per cent of Ukraine’s 44 million inhabitants. But they have been divided since the 1991 collapse of Soviet rule between a Church hierarchy still subject to Russia’s Moscow Patriarchate, and two smaller Orthodox communities — the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church — neither of which are canonically recognised by Orthodox leaders abroad.
The Orthodox divisions deepened after Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the outbreak of war in the self-declared eastern republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. While the Kiev Patriarchate, headed by Patriarch Filaret Denisenko, has backed Ukraine’s pro-Western aspirations, arguing that ecclesial subjection to Moscow was never accepted, the Moscow Patriarchate has favoured close links with Russia, rejecting calls for autocephaly.
When the 1030th anniversary of the Christianisation of Kievan Rus, out of which modern Russia and Ukraine were formed, fell a month ago, Patriarch Kirill marked it with a rally in Moscow, in Red Square, addressed by President Vladimir Putin, and thanked Orthodox Ukrainians in a TV message for “staying bravely loyal” to Moscow, despite “ubiquitous discrimination” and “church takeovers by splinter groups and Uniates”.
Ukrainian politicians, led by President Petro Poroshenko, who attended an alternative commemoration with Patriarch Filaret in Kiev, see the situation quite differently. For them, Orthodox divisions are a source of national vulnerability, especially given the Moscow Patriarchate’s close links with Putin’s regime and failure to voice any criticism of Russian actions, which have left more than 10,000 Ukrainians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced and homeless.
In April, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada parliament endorsed Poroshenko’s request for Orthodox independence from Moscow, first submitted to Patriarch Bartholomew in 2016, and the creation of a “united local Orthodox Ukrainian Church”. Poroshenko enthused last month: “Autocephaly will complete the establishment of Ukraine’s independence and self-rule — it will strengthen the people’s rights and freedoms.”
AFTER Poroshenko and other Ukrainian politicians personally paid court to Bartholomew this year, there were hopes that the Patriarch might issue the relevant tomos, or decree, for the Kievan Rus anniversary in July. Although declining to do so, Bartholomew dispatched a message to Kiev, confirming that his Constantinople see had never accepted conditions which “jolted the natural activity of the Orthodox Church”, and hoped to “renew Orthodox unity with the final aim of autocephaly”.
As Russian Orthodox leaders continue to dismiss any talk of separation, however, tensions are rising.
When Orthodox delegations met in Crete two years ago for a historic council, they confirmed that rival claims to jurisdiction must be referred to the Ecumenical Patriarch. But Russian Orthodox leaders boycotted the council, and have since pressed others not to recognise Bartholomew’s authority.
They persuaded several to travel to Moscow, rather than Kiev, for the July anniversary, and solicited some characteristically harsh rhetoric from the Serbian Patriarch, Irinej Gavrilovic: “Everyone who helps the Ukrainian schismatics is not only an enemy of the Russian Church and Russian world, but also of all Orthodox Slavic peoples and the whole Orthodox world.”
The Russian Orthodox have also sought to enlist the Pope, sending Hilarion with a large delegation to the Vatican in May. Ukrainian politicians have been disappointed by the Pope’s timid reaction to Russia’s moves against their country, believing that he has gone too far in efforts to conciliate Orthodox leaders since his February 2016 encounter with Kirill in Cuba.
Whatever the truth, the Russians were delighted when Pope Francis assured Hilarion that his Church recognised “only one Patriarchate”, and would not “get involved in internal matters of the Russian Orthodox Church, nor in political issues”. A commentary by the Religious Information Service in Ukraine said that the official Vatican text of the Pope’s address had “differed significantly” from the Russian transcript, making clear that the Roman Catholic Church recognised no other Patriarchate in Russia, without mentioning Ukraine.
UNDER pressure from all sides, Patriarch Bartholomew may still postpone a decree on Ukrainian Church independence. If he does so, the Ukrainians could declare it unilaterally: a move for which there are historical precedents.
Come what may, Russian church leaders can only blame themselves for the worsening dispute.
For Orthodox Ukrainians, it is plainly intolerable that their supposed religious authority also sides, in President Poroshenko’s words, with “the Kremlin’s imperial policy”, routinely uses state power to impose itself, and continues to trumpet the notion of a “Russki mir”, or Russian world, stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic.
No amount of legalistic and canonical arguments about “fraternal Orthodox nations” will alter the fact that that world is now no more — and that Ukrainians are independent and sovereign, and entitled to their own Church.
When the time comes, Anglicans and other Churches should recognise this an an inevitability. What matters in the end is safeguarding the Christian faith, not who wields jurisdiction in an unseemly game of ecclesiastical power politics.
Jonathan Luxmoore’s latest book, Glosy Boga (God’s Voices), with Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, was published in July by Homo Dei, in Krakow.