On October 15, a Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) convened in Minsk announced a shocking decision: it would break off full communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, arguably the highest authority in the Orthodox world. 

Now, ROC Patriarch Kirill’s clergy will no longer be able to serve together with Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew’s subordinates, while the Russian Orthodox laity will have to refrain from partaking in communions, baptisms, and weddings in Greek churches. Mount Athos, a multinational monastic peninsula in Northern Greece that is part of the Constantinople or Ecumenical Patriarchate, will also fall under the ban.

The intra-Orthodox conflict erupted over Kyiv’s attempts to gain church autonomy. Now, developments in Ukraine affect not only relations between Russia and the West, but also between different Orthodox churches. It didn’t have to be this way.

The ROC is the largest Orthodox Church in the world, but it is hardly comparable to its Constantinople counterpart in terms of power. Bartholomew’s church brought Christianity to Kyivan Rus a thousand years ago, and the Constantinople Patriarch has been regarded as the first among patriarchs in the Orthodox Christian world since Byzantine times. Although he may not have the influence on local churches that his predecessors in Byzantium or the Ottoman Empire once possessed, Bartholomew still acts as a sort of coordination center of Orthodoxy.

And although modern Istanbul hosts only a tiny Greek population, the patriarchate headquartered there controls churches in Northern Greece, some Greek islands like Crete, and—more importantly—the entire Greek diaspora in the West, as well as some Russian and Ukrainian foreign parishes.

For years, Ukrainian churches that do not communicate with the ROC nor any other Orthodox church—primarily the so-called Kyiv Patriarchate—have been trying to restore communication via the Ecumenical Patriarchate. After failing to reconcile with Ukrainian Orthodox believers under the ROC, these “schismatics” have made numerous attempts to gain recognition from Constantinople.

Then, in September, Patriarch Bartholomew dispatched his personal envoys—known as exarchs—to Ukraine for negotiations with the two unrecognized churches. The move provoked a stern reaction from the Moscow Patriarchate: the ROC announced that its bishops would no longer conduct joint services with their Constantinople counterparts, and it withdrew from bishop conferences led and coordinated by Constantinople hierarchs.

But the October 11 Constantinople Synod meeting became a turning point. The Synod invalidated its 1686 decision to effectively lease the Kyiv Metropolitanate to Moscow. It also lifted the excommunication that the Moscow Patriarch imposed in the 1990s on the head of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Filaret Denysenko, and the head of the unrecognized Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Makariy Maletych.

The two churches’ future remains unclear. Ukraine still lacks the Constantinople ecclesiastical structure. Nevertheless, this is a major development: a quarter-century-long conflict between millions of Ukrainian faithful and the global Orthodox Church may soon come to a close. Now, the “schismatics” have a chance to rejoin the Church—although that would likely entail the creation of a parallel jurisdiction and, subsequently, an autocephalous Ukrainian Church.

The ROC’s reaction on October 15 was to rupture its full communion with Constantinople until the Ecumenical Patriarch withdraws his decision on Ukraine.

What does the Russian Church’s decision actually change? In truth, very little. But the purpose of the prohibition is clear: to express the ROC’s extreme displeasure with its older Constantinople brother.

In fact, the Russians stand to lose more from this than the Greeks. To spite Bartholomew, they will deprive themselves of trips to Mount Athos. Russian clergy won’t teach Russian children the Orthodox Christian faith in German schools. And they won’t draw state salaries in Belgium. After all, this is controlled through bishop assemblies headed by the Constantinople Patriarchate. Russians won’t serve in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, since clergy affiliated with the Constantinople Patriarchate are among the Greek pilgrim priests.

How could the Synod members make a decision that inconveniences Russian Orthodox Christians so much? Most likely, they weren’t thinking about rank-and-file ROC believers, who dream of a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, a trip to Crete, or studies at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris—which, like some church institutions in the Russian diaspora, also belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

As for the clergy, they’ve already faced problems getting Greek visas in the past few months. Even the St. Petersburg Metropolitan, who also heads the economic department of the Moscow Patriarchate, was denied a visa to visit Mount Athos.

The ROC’s position in the Orthodox Christian world is very similar to that of Russia under Western sanctions. But unlike the Russian government, the ROC single-handedly created its “sanctions” and the problems they cause its followers. The Ecumenical Patriarch is unlikely to react to the ROC’s announcement. Some local churches might express support for Moscow on the Ukraine issue, but won’t break with Constantinople or Moscow over it.

Now, the Ecumenical Patriarch and his supporters get free rein in Ukraine. Without the involvement of the Moscow Patriarchate clergy, a Constantinople church structure can be created in Ukraine even faster. The ROC’s Minsk Synod already warned that “hierarchs or clergy that leave the canonical church to join the schismatics or enter in communion with them”—likely through the prospective Constantinople structures in Ukraine—“commit a canonical crime that will trigger respective censure.” The threat is clear. But once a Constantinople metropolitanate or autocephalous church is created in Ukraine, it won’t look so threatening.

Patriarch Kirill and his entourage insist that “the schism cannot be legalized,” and independent churches should join the ROC and be absorbed into its official structure.

But the ROC has had a different experience of reuniting with churches that have been out of communication for decades. In 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia reunited with the ROC of the Moscow Patriarchate. In doing so, it wasn’t required to repent, merge its diocese with those of the Moscow Patriarchate, or self-liquidate. Father Tikhon (Shevkunov)—currently the Pskov metropolitan and widely regarded as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confessor—was one of the authors of this successful reunification. The current patriarch, then Metropolitan Kirill, opposed it.

For the past year, Metropolitan Tikhon is said to have been trying to convince the Moscow Patriarchate to remove its anathemas against Ukraine’s Filaret and return his structure to the Church by gradually unifying it with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate—thus, preempting a similar move by Constantinople.

Naturally, Patriarch Kirill’s position won out. But it has not brought a “liquidation of the schism.” Rather, it is creating even greater divisions. In 2007, a group of church officials were able to resolve a similar problem. In 2018, another group’s inflexibility will lose Ukraine for the Russian Church and block the way to Mount Athos and the Greek world for Russians themselves.

Both Russia and its church are still trying to construct their relations with Ukraine in the mold of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. That obviously no longer works. But other nations’ histories provide numerous examples of states that perceived themselves as one, then split, but later came together on new terms. Great Britain and the United States or Austria and Germany are clear examples. 

Another example is Greece and Cyprus. They are both Orthodox Christian countries, but the presence of two autocephalous churches—which have built relations with one another on equal terms—does not impede their transborder unity. The Greek populations of Greece and Cyprus conceive of themselves as one people, albeit living in different political nations, so they aren’t divided by the presence of different churches.

Ukraine and Russia are in a totally different position, so the unity of faith is powerless here. In the olden days, faith was greater than the state. Now, everyone—including the clergy—frequently and eagerly demonstrates that the state trumps faith.

  • Alexander Zanemonets