Americans are so deeply attached to the notion of a separation of church and state (despite our best attempts to the contrary) that we sometimes forget that once upon at time, religion was effectively the only politic there was, and that to this day religion and government are often very much intertwined. Case in point: the recent decision by the Patriarch of Constantinople to recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the resultant schism between Moscow and Constantinople.
The decision and subsequent backlash are the result of literal centuries of history, and reflect the political realities and aims of Russia, Turkey, Greece, and, by extension, even the US. We ignore religion in politics at our own peril. But the less-often-acknowledged flip side, that politics has in return infected religion, plays a role here as well.
First, a little history of Christianity. What we know today as Christianity was established over the course of seven Ecumenical Councils held from 325 AD to 787 AD. By the time we got to a whole 1,000 years after Christ, there were 5 main centers of Christianity, each headed by a bishop: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch. Then, in 1054, the bishop of Rome (the Pope, today) got into a bit of a tiff with the other four bishops, claiming religious authority over the other four and changing core theology without consent. So, the Pope said “then I excommunicate you!” and the other four were like “??? No? We excommunicate YOU.” And lo, it was made so, and Catholicism was born. Since Constantinople was the second-oldest church, and, more importantly, by far the most politically important, the honor of primer inter pares (first among equals) fell to the Patriarch of Constantinople, making the city the “New Rome”, a name given to it by Emperor Constantine when he founded the city.
In 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, the Russians, who had by now gained their own autocephalous (self-headed – it’s a Greek word) church, saw an opportunity to claim primacy as the “Third Rome”, and they’ve been trying it ever since, claiming to be the only uninterrupted home of Orthodoxy (y’know, except that whole thing with the Soviet Union). This is despite the continued existence and legitimacy of the Patriarchate in Constantinople. It’s still there, in Istanbul, and I’ve been to it.
The thing about the Russian Orthodox Church is, it started in Kiev, Ukraine in the 9th century, and its history is directly tied to the creation of the Russian state as we know it today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, religion has come back into vogue in Russia, and Vladimir Putin is tight with Patriarch Kirill – Kirill happily spouts Russian nationalist slogans, turning the Russian Orthodox Church into something of a cultural extension of Russian power. As such, and per a 1686 deal in which Constantinople gave Moscow authority over an autonomous (but not autocephalous) church in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate. Russia views Kiev and Ukraine broadly as part of its historic and cultural jurisdiction, and resents what they view as an attempt by Constantinople to undermine their influence in their own back yard.
You’ll recall that in 2014, Ukraine went through a bit of soul-searching and replaced a pro-Russian president with a pro-Western president in a coup, and was subsequently invaded by Russia, resulting in the annexation of Crimea by Russia. So they’re not on the best of terms.
Something like 80% of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians. But here’s the issue: though they’re all effectively the same religion, they belong to three ecclesiastically separate entities. There’s the Moscow Patriarchate, as given to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1686. In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian Christians established their own church: the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – Kiev Patriarchate, which is today the largest church in Ukraine. Finally, there’s the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Neither the OCU-KP nor the UAOC are recognized by any of the 14 official autocephalous Orthodox Churches.
But, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian government and the Kiev Patriarchate decided to pursue autocephaly in order to strengthen their standing and independence apart from Russia. This year, they officially petitioned the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople if they could please be autocephalous. On October 11th, His Eminence announced that yes, they could be autocephalous. In response, Moscow has announced that it will cut all ties with Constantinople.
This is not the first time Moscow has antagonized Constantinople. In 2016, there was a Holy and Great Council scheduled, that literally took 55 years to put together. After bending over backwards and changing the location to appease Moscow and ensure its attendance, the Russian Orthodox pulled out and took Bulgaria, Georgia, and Antioch (Syria) with them. Let it not escape your notice that all three are within the Russian geopolitical sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, Constantinople is waning as a center of Christianity. A centuries-long campaign of ethnic cleansing in Turkey has reduced what was once a community of millions of Greek Orthodox to a mere 2,000, and it’s dwindling quickly. Moreover, the Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen, by Turkish law. Furthermore, he must be educated in Turkey – and the Turkish government closed the last seminary in Turkey in 1971.
Already, the Churches of Poland, Serbia, and Syria (Antioch) have come out to support Moscow. Add a very-likely Georgia and Bulgaria given their 2016 performance, and Moscow’s coalition grows. Putin has made several visits to Mount Athos, the independent community of monasteries in Greece, and has flirted with Greece politically, most notably in 2015 during the financial crisis as a means of drawing Greece away from Europe. If other churches follow, this could be the blow that finally spells the end for the Orthodox Church in Istanbul.
However, Moscow has also tried this before – in 1996, they cut ties for a few months over the same issue in Estonia before a deal was reached – so all is not lost. However, this is a troubled time for Ukraine and Constantinople. The Orthodox of America are directly under the authority of Constantinople, and I was read a lengthy defense of the Patriarch in Church last Sunday, penned by our local bishop. It remains to be seen if Constantinople will bend to Moscow; if Moscow will bend to Constantinople; or if we will experience a schism unlike anything we’ve seen in a thousand years. #fpf