THE Russian Orthodox Church has welcomed a summit held on Wednesday of last week in Jordan on the dispute over Ukraine’s new independent Church, although most Orthodox leaders joined Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in staying away.
“This aim wasn’t to solve everything at once — this would have been completely unrealistic, given the depth of the crisis,” the deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s external relations department, Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, said. “What matters is that peaceful joint discussions have now started, with a recognition that problems surrounding the Church in Ukraine are far from settled”.
The church official spoke amid reactions to the summit, which was convened in Amman, at Russian Orthodox urging, by Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, but was attended by only six of the world’s 15 main Orthodox Churches.
In an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, Patriarch Theophilos said that the meeting had succeeded in setting a “specific timeline” for a dialogue. Participants now counted on other Churches “not to ignore” the next stages, he said.
In a letter to Theophilos on the eve of the Amman summit, however, Patriarch Bartholomew accused organisers of “overlooking and ignoring” the negative consequences of their move, and of refusing to follow “centuries-old accepted principles”.
“If you were truly concerned about challenges faced by Orthodox society in critical times . . . you should first address us,” said Bartholomew, who is acknowledged as “first among equals” in the world Orthodox hierarchy. “Instead, this initiative aims to subvert established norms and alienate the Orthodox Church from its ecclesiastical foundations”.
Russian Orthodox leaders severed all ties with Bartholomew after he issued a “tomos of autocephaly” establishing a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine under Metropolitan Epiphanius Dumenko in January 2019 (Press, 11 January 2019), and are urging other Orthodox denominations to continue to recognise the country’s existing Church, which is loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.
The new Church was formally recognised last autumn by the Orthodox Church of Greece and Patriarchate of Alexandria, prompting Russian Orthodox leaders to cut ties with them in turn. In December, however, the Church of Ukraine said that it had received “good, clear signals” that others would soon also accept it, despite “violent pressure” from Moscow.
In a press release, the Jerusalem Patriarchate said that the Amman summit had aimed at “unity and reconciliation within Holy Orthodoxy” against an “imminent danger of schism”, and that participants — from the Churches of Russia, Jerusalem, Serbia, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia — had agreed that “issues of Orthodox-wide importance”, including the granting of autocephaly, required a “pan-Orthodox consensus”.
In its own communiqué, however, the Russian Church said that Patriarch Kirill had also raised wider questions, including “the problem of understanding primacy in the Church” and “attempts to justify claims to universal leadership”, as well as the lack of “a system of conciliar control” over the actions by the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The communiqué said that he had also questioned Patriarch Bartholomew’s right to “receive appeals” from Churches, and accused him of violating “basic principles of canon law” by acting as a judge in local church disputes.
“Today, the Orthodox Church has found itself facing a threat of a schism unprecedented for nearly a thousand years,” Kirill said. “The boundaries of canonical territories are being unilaterally reconsidered, and centuries-old church documents revoked, while the Ukraine schism is not being overcome, but aggravated.”
In a weekend message to Bartholomew on his 80th birthday, Metropolitan Epiphanius praised his “courageous canonical decisions” in recognising the new Church, and “resolving the long-standing Church issue in Ukraine”. But the meeting in Amman looks set to deepen the rift between the Moscow and Constantinople Patriarchates, besides worsening relations between rival Orthodox leaderships in Ukraine.
In an interview with the Russian news agency Tass last month, President Putin said that Ukraine’s existing Orthodox Church had been “completely independent” of the Moscow Patriarchate, despite its formal affliation, and accused the new Ukrainian Church of drawing support from those fearing “the capacities and competitive advantages” of Russian-Ukrainian unity.
This was rejected by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who told an American newspaper that the new Church’s creation had been “a decision exclusively of the people, initiated by its congregation according to church rules and legalised by the tomos document”.
Another senior member of the new church, Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, said that Kirill would never be allowed to visit his country until he had recognised the Church and publicly atoned, as “an official of the Russian government”, for his shared responsibility for Ukrainian sufferings in the continuing war against Russian-backed separatists, which has left more than 13,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.