PATRIARCH BARTHOLOMEW I (pictured), the “first among equals” in the stormy world of Orthodox Christianity, seemed like a model of composure as he prepared this week for what promises to be one of the most turbulent months in the recent history of the eastern church.
During a three-day meeting in Istanbul of the bishops under Bartholomew’s immediate sway, it was confirmed that a “unification council” will be convened in Ukraine in December in order to establish a new Ukrainian Orthodox church that will duly receive a formal grant of independence from the Patriarch. This will further enrage the ecclesiastical and worldly authorities in Moscow who insist that a church subject to the Moscow Patriarchate is the only legitimate Orthodox body in Ukraine. There is clearly some concern in Moscow that some clergy now under Muscovite authority may peel off and join the new Ukrainian body. But it remains very unclear who will lead the new Ukrainian church and what its exact status will be.
The drama is unfolding against a background of looming crisis in the earthly relations between Moscow and Kiev, after Russian forces seized three Ukrainian boats between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea; Ukraine, in a move that will have consequences for church affairs, has just banned Russian men from entering the country except in exceptional humanitarian circumstances.
Addressing visitors to his Istanbul headquarters last night, Patriarch Bartholomew said:
We believe we are doing the correct thing. It is a right of the Ukrainian Orthodox to have their own autocephalous, independent church—just as all the peoples of the Balkans, starting with Greece, acquired their own churches…we knew that our fraternal church in Russia would be upset, but we could not act any different.”
The Patriarchate of Moscow, which is the largest of the 14 churches that make up world Orthodoxy, on October 15th severed communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople headed by Bartholomew I and told its faithful not to participate in communion or other sacramental rites in churches under Bartholomew’s authority. Any Russian believer who ignored this order would have to confess this transgression and seek forgiveness, the Muscovite decree proclaimed.
The standoff between Constantinople, which commands the prestige of antiquity and historical continuity, and the worldly heft of Moscow has forced the other Orthodox churches to take sides. Many of the Slavic Orthodox, including the Poles and Serbs, have leaned towards Moscow’s view that Constantinople cannot act unilaterally over Ukraine. However, Patriarch Bartholomew received a warm welcome from the Orthodox hierarchy in Romania, an overwhelmingly Orthodox country, when he went there on November 24th to inaugurate a new cathedral.
One of the most nuanced responses has come from the 89-year-old leader of the Orthodox church in Albania, Archbishop Anastasios, who is an internationally respected scholar of comparative religion. On the one hand, he said, the latest developments confirmed his fears that granting ecclesiastical independence to Ukraine might be “a march in a minefield”, but on the other, he felt that the Patriarchate of Moscow was at fault in using the Eucharist, Christianity’s holiest rite, as an instrument of power.
In a letter to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, Archbishop Anastasios declared:
It is unthinkable that the Divine Eucharist, the mystery par excellence of the infinite love and the utter humiliation of Christ, could be used as a weapon against another Church. Is it possible that the decision and order of the hierarchy of the Church of Russia may cancel the energy of the Holy Spirit in the holy Orthodox churches that operate under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate [of Constantinople]?
In other words, down with the weaponisation of the chalice. Things have moved on since 1208 when a medieval pope punished England’s King John by declaring most of the church sacraments in his land invalid.