A split which will lead to a unification of Christianity?

19.11.2018 | By Jan Gładysiak

What is happening in the Orthodox faith is unprecedented. The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s announcement to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has become a catalyst for a dramatic change in power relations in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Church is losing arguments which determine its power while the Patriarchate of Constantinople is strengthening their dominance in the Orthodox faith. We should pay close attention to this process not only because of the near vicinity and potential disturbances in Ukraine. More importantly, the main brake preventing an ecumenical dialogue with Catholicism, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia will stop being effective. Will it be possible to reunite the Christian Church, split since 1054? The likelihood of such developments is higher now than ever.

We are currently looking at a schism in Eastern Orthodox Church, and the consequences of the split are not limited solely to Ukraine. There are firm indications that autocephaly granted to the local Orthodox church will affect the entire Christendom. Adam Szczupak notes down in his text that the process may be practically difficult in Ukraine. Property matters will become a hotbed of conflicts, but also it will be a business of Ukraine to resolve them internally. Equally important, if not even more important, is a reaction of the rest of Orthodoxy to the new situation.

Unlike the Roman Catholic counterpart, the Orthodox church is composed mainly of equal national churches. Regarding numbers, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is the biggest one, as it has included Ukraine. Naturally, it is the most powerful financially and, furthermore, it walks arm in arm with the Kremlin. Orthodox churches situated in countries which keep a good relationship with Russia, also seek good favours of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Although ‘the hard data’ such as the number of followers and material wealth don’t necessarily translate into the greatest power, they cannot be neglected. The canonical primacy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople has been respected by nearly all Orthodoxy so far. In reality, it’s the Russian Orthodox Church which has been the most significant.

Implications in the political situation within Ukraine led Bartholomew I to do ‘checking’ and, next, he put his titular leadership into practice. He reminded about the right to make this kind of call at a meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Constantinople last August, adding that not only the number of congregations but also prayers and the canonical discipline matter the most.

The Russian Orthodox Church on a slippery slope

We are already aware that Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision led the Russian Orthodox Church to no longer conduct joint services with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Minor thing as it sounds, the Church of Russia has stopped mentioning Bartholomew I in the prayers, but in reality, this is a breakdown of relations in Eastern Orthodoxy which can have far-reaching consequences.

It seems that the Russian Orthodox Church is facing a challenging situation. On the one hand, it had to respond adequately toward Constantinople. On the other hand, it has condemned itself to isolation in Orthodoxy. We could see that other Orthodox churches are somewhat unwilling to support the claims of the Russian Church, although they wish to remain neutral. Most of them are awaiting further developments, including within Ukraine where a unification council will take place shortly to elect the head of the new Orthodox Church. The question is: what kind of reaction can we expect from Ukrainian bishops and clergymen who are under the control of the Russian Orthodox Church? Some of them have signed up for autocephaly. Those who will choose to recognise the decision of Constantinople and the new superiors officially will determine the influence of both the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and Russia itself which supports the ‘Russkiy Mir’ – a vision which draws largely on Orthodoxy and the idea of Moscow being the ‘Third Rome’.

This will be essential only to Moscow because the Russian Orthodoxy has already lost the dispute. The only thing remaining is to determine the extent of loss and the tools of influence which it will have at disposal after the battle of wills. This is not exclusively a prestigious failure, but also a material loss as Ukraine accounts for one-third of parishes and the faithful who now will be taken over by the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

As a result, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia is about to lose its main argument which has allowed them to hold a significant position in Orthodoxy, such as the number of faithful and financial resources. From now on, the new balance of power will be advantageous for Constantinople as it will gain much more than just the canonical primacy.

Moreover, the future of the Russian Orthodox Church looks even grimmer as Bartholomew’s decision to cancel the accord on the annexation of the Kiev Metropolitanate by the Russian church in 1686 may have severe repercussions outside Ukraine. It will affect not only the territory of Ukraine but also, in a great measure, the regions of Belarus in its current form which previously fell under the jurisdiction of the Kiev Metropolitanate. Although the pursuit of separation from Russia is present in Belarus, yet it is not as strong as in Ukraine, but the decision of Constantinople will undoubtedly strengthen it.

This course of events is not in line with what the ROC anticipated. A decision to hold a meeting of the Holy Synod outside Russia for the first time in history was supposed to demonstrate the power of the Church of Russia, however, following the decision of Constantinople and the reaction of the Patriarchate of Moscow, it brought quite the opposite effects. When the ROC leadership announced breaking with the Eucharistic communion, the declaration did not fire up any enthusiasm of the Belarus authorities as their politics currently involves contributing to peacekeeping efforts in Ukraine. Definitely, Minsk is going to watch religious developments very closely within Ukraine. With the Ukrainian Orthodox Church serving as a clear precedent, Belarus might follow its footsteps on condition that it pays off. It comes without a doubt that granting independence from Moscow will encourage Orthodox churches from other former Soviet republics to file a claim for independence.

Some commentators of the Russian media foreshadow possible turmoil in the country as some Orthodox don’t find Kirill’s style of governing appealing. On top of it, the decision about cutting ties with Constantinople strikes at ordinary followers and clergymen, because it prevents them from going on pilgrimages to holy places, especially to Mount Athos and Jerusalem.

Bartholomew I is winning new battles

Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople is the greatest winner of this game. Born into a Greek family, comprehensively educated (he studied in Munich, Rome, and in Swiss Bossey), polyglot, has a thorough knowledge on religious matters and the politics worldwide. He also objects to the Russian narrative so eagerly advocated everywhere. He dared to take a decision with regards to Ukraine, and he also criticised Kirill I in front of journalists when he was standing right next to him. Kirill came to Constantinople to search for a ‘last resort’. Bartholomew continues to keep the Orthodox Church in dialogue with the modern world, which is entirely in line with the way that Constantinople leads Orthodoxy worldwide. This approach was originally initiated by his predecessors: Athenagoras I and Demetrios I.

This is not the first time that Bartholomew has won. The Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church was held in Crete in 2016. This was an exceptional gathering which had been prepared for nearly 100 years! The convocation and organisation of this event is Bartholomew’s great achievement. The Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the congregation at the last minute hoping that other Orthodox churches will follow them. It did not happen – the synod took place and confirmed in its closing speech that sobornost is how Orthodoxy expresses the unity of the church.

If this is the case, the desire for a dialogue with other Christian denominations, which is of utmost importance for the synod, is shared by the entire Orthodoxy. We have already got used to similar statements in the Catholic Church, perhaps this is why such a declaration no longer makes an impression on us. However, it is a real breakthrough in the Orthodox world.

When Bartholomew used this historical moment, Orthodoxy worldwide gathered around Constantinople, not only officially as it used in the past. Both the main centre of interests, which is trying to undermine this approach and openness for a dialogue with the rest of Christendom has led the Church of Russia to isolation on its own request.

A hostile approach toward the Catholic Church was a consequence of that brake. The crisis in relations with the Vatican followed the decision to upgrade the apostolic administrations situated in Russia to the level of dioceses. The fact that popes made efforts for many years to encounter the Patriarch of Moscow – to no avail – proves that there could be no real dialogue. The Church of Russia had no interest in it. Meanwhile, they should only be concerned by Christian unity. We can see now that the Orthodox church is opening up on dialogue. Most importantly, the ROC will be allowed to join the discussion in the future, yet, no longer on their conditions.

The East and the West closer to one another

The current situation in the Orthodox faith is of vital importance to the Catholic church. Following the mutual excommunications by the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, the Great Schism became a fact. Two ‘lungs of Christianity’ used to develop separately for many years, and they both competed for influence in the world, reinforcing their religious and political importance forever. Today, the situation looks totally different. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic church has become massively involved in ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox faith. The same process occurred slightly differently in the Eastern Church given their organisational structure. From the beginning, Constantinople has always been at the forefront of the ecumenical dialogue with Catholics (also other denominations and religions, however, this is a different story). Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI rescinded the mutual excommunications of 1054. His successor, Demetrios I continued his efforts for reconciliation. He was the first one to recite together with Pope John Paul II the Nicene Creed without the controversial ‘Filioque’ clause. ‘Filioque’ has been the subject of great theological controversy between Eastern and Western Christianity. Finally, Bartholomew I led to the synod which voted for a dialogue with the rest of Christianity.

Keeping friendly terms between the two greatest capitals of Christianity and bilateral meetings have become a good practice now. The theological dispute is not insignificant, yet it is understood in a different sense. Both religions approach the subject attempting to understand the reasons of the other. They put the blame for the dispute on the linguistic differences between Greek and Latina and also communication difficulties which were crucial in the 11th century, but they have already disappeared.

There are no major differences regarding doctrines between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Any existing discrepancies usually result from diverse cultural settings where these two religions developed.

Moreover, both churches have a similar approach toward bioethical issues, secularism or even ecology. We are witnessing the clash of civilisations where Orthodoxy and Catholicism are the greatest allies. They are closer together than with the Protestant church, although both Catholics and the Orthodox have been engaged in a broad dialogue with Protestants.

Matters which divide Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are continually being discussed. The Joint International Commission established by Pope John Paul II and Demetrios I plays a crucial role here. One of the most prominent principles is to reject uniatism as a path to bring two churches into communion – in practice, one of the churches is expected to yield and subordinate to the other. This idea was widespread, particularly among Catholics. In a meeting with Patriarch of Moscow, Pope Francis himself reassured that uniatism would not be followed. This change in approach is especially significant for technical reasons as it allows to reunite two Christians religions.

Thanks to the efforts of the Joint International Commission, the Orthodox faith withdrew its objection to Eastern Rite Catholics who recognise the supremacy of Pope. This issue led to multiple disputes in the past. The Orthodox and Catholic churches confirmed that both lead to salvation, which means that they are both equal.

Finally, the Catholic Church took a series of other steps which allowed to take the dialogue with the Eastern church to the next level. Examples include as small contributions as the fact that Pope Benedict XVI renounced the title of ‘Patriarch of the West’ without much publicity. The title had become obsolete for Catholics while Orthodoxy felt uncomfortable about it. Another thing is a dramatic change in the perception of the papacy. The pope himself contributed to it when he resigned. The battle for primacy between the two churches was one of the reasons for the Great Schism. A decision of Benedict XVI showed that it’s possible to change the perception of a primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the Catholic Church where it has a far more significant role than in Orthodoxy.

Translation from Polish: Małgorzata Warchoł


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.