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Some writers have called the quarrel between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople over the status of the church in Ukraine the worst crisis in inter-church relations since 1054, when the Orthodox and Catholic churches went their different ways.
In actual fact, the crisis is nothing new. There have been many such splits in the Orthodox world as Eastern Europe has undergone political and national upheavals in the last two hundred years. Some have been more peaceful, some more difficult. Moscow and Kiev should look to the better examples to guide how they handle the new divorce.
In the case of Ukraine, a confessional split with Moscow has been inevitable ever since the country achieved independence in 1991. In every East European country, the status of the church has always been a political issue, decided on by leaders. In the case of Russia itself, the decision dates back to 1589, when Job was elected as the first Patriarch of Moscow, while Boris Godunov was the czar. This was the culmination of a long process in which Russia was emerging as a new national state.
In more modern times, the first important split happened in newly independent Greece. As long as the Ottoman Empire ruled over Greece and most of the Balkans, the patriarch in Constantinople exercised spirituality over the Orthodox Christians in those lands. When Greece won independence from the Ottomans, however, the situation changed and a new autocephalous Greek church emerged in 1833, independent from Constantinople. A compromise was only worked out in 1850, although much of Greece is still part of the new post-independence Greek church.
In the case of Serbia and Romania, an independent church was achieved and recognized fairly painlessly, when the two countries achieved their state independence in the second half of the nineteenth century.
A much more traumatic split occurred with the Bulgarians, who proclaimed their own national church in Istanbul in 1872, in defiance of the Constantinople patriarchate. In response, the patriarchate declared that the Bulgarians had committed the heresy of “phyletism,” conflating nation and church. The schism lasted until 1945, when the Bulgarian autocephalous church was granted recognition.
In the Bulgarian dispute, the Russian Orthodox Church swerved between the two sides, supporting the new Bulgarian national church when relations with Bulgaria were good and expressing solidarity with Constantinople when times were bad.
Russia has also changed its attitude to the Georgian Orthodox Church depending on the political circumstances of the time. When Russia absorbed Georgia into its empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it also dissolved the autonomy of the ancient Georgian church. As soon as czarist rule in Russia had ended in 1918, the Georgians again proclaimed autocephaly. On Stalin’s orders, the Russian Church recognized the Georgian church’s autocephalous status in 1943.
This string of examples illustrates how the status of an Orthodox church is generally associated with that of a national state.
In Ukraine, the emergence of a distinct national church has been postponed for almost thirty years only because most Ukrainian parishes have been reluctant to recognize the inevitable. Now, a whole new generation has grown up living in an independent Ukraine. Since 2014, the new conflict with Russia over Crimea and Donbas has strongly accentuated anti-Russian propaganda and sentiments and demoralized the adherents of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.
With the benefit of hindsight, it now looks as though the best decision the Russian Orthodox Church could have taken in the early 1990s was to initiate the birth of an autocephalous church in Ukraine itself, thus preserving good-neighborly relations between Moscow and Kiev. But as there were already separatist tendencies in the Ukrainian church, such a move would have been unpopular in Moscow. Besides, not many Russians took the idea of an independent Ukraine very seriously in that era.
Now it seems likely that within the next five to ten years, most Orthodox churches in Ukraine and most priests currently subordinate to the Moscow patriarchate will be loyal to the new autocephalous church. The Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine looks set to have the kind of status the Catholic Church has had in England since the Reformation in the sixteenth century, that of being the church of a persecuted minority which, however, cannot be uprooted because of its historic roots.
In Macedonia, there has been a split between two churches for decades, and the dispute there shows no sign of ending. There is a national church supported by the government, which declared itself autocephalous in 1967 but is not recognized by other Orthodox churches. There is also the Archbishopric of Ohrid, which is part of the Serbian Orthodox Church and therefore recognized as being legitimate outside Macedonia, but which is subjected to all kinds of pressure inside the country, including frequent arrests of its bishop.
I don't wish to be called a prophet of discord, but it looks quite likely that the same contradictions between national identity and church allegiance will play out in Belarus and Moldova and, at some point in the future, the Orthodox churches there will also proclaim autocephaly.
The Church of England offers a more positive model. It consists of 39 “member churches” across the world, all of which are autonomous but recognize the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as their overall leader.
If the Russian Orthodox Church could display the same kind of flexibility toward the Orthodox churches of the former Soviet Union, then compromise might be possible. Moscow could remain the main center of spiritual authority for post-Soviet Orthodox believers without exercising full control over them.
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