In a move some expected but many prayed would not happen, the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) of the Russian Orthodox Church has severed communal ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the ostensibly symbolic leader of the worldwide Eastern Orthodox Church. What this means in practice is that those under the omophorion of Russian Orthodox hierarchs, including its autonomous local churches in Ukraine and the United States, cannot receive sacraments, including Holy Communion, from any Orthodox cleric or bishop operating under the umbrella of the EP. While it may be too early to call the MP’s move a formal schism, it is expected that the other self-governing Orthodox churches around the world will begin choosing sides soon enough, perhaps leading to an unraveling of Orthodoxy’s confederate-style governing model. If this were to occur, it would be the largest Christian schism since the rupture between Rome and Constantinople nearly a millennium ago.
What is at Stake
While relations between the EP and MP have been icy for years, the current rift comes down to the canonical status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Since 1686, Moscow has claimed control of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which, up until that time, had been part of the EP. The loss of the EP’s power and prestige following the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims in 1453 led to Moscow asserting de facto primacy in the Orthodox communion ever after, though the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its bloody aftermath left much of Orthodoxy rudderless for the better part of a century.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union, three separate Eastern Orthodox communions have asserted themselves in Ukraine. While the MP long claimed control of the largest (and, in its eyes, the legitimate) of these church bodies, the Ukrainian nation’s recent assertion of independence from Russia’s political sphere of control has prompted large swathes of Ukrainian Orthodox to turn their allegiance toward the so called Kyivan Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a body which has not been officially recognized by any other Orthodox patriarchate or autocephalous church. However, at the behest of the Ukrainian government and many Orthodox Christians in the country, the EP has taken affirmative steps toward granting Ukraine what is known as a Tomos of Autocephaly, that is, a canonical declaration that would allow the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to operate and govern itself free of Moscow’s control. What this means is that the Kyivan Patriarchate, long reviled by the MP, would finally have a legitimate place in the worldwide Orthodox communion.
A Single Ukrainian Church
The possibility of a united, self-governing Ukrainian Church is nothing new. Prior to the Russian Orthodox asserting control of the territory today known as Ukraine in the 17th century, a substantial number of its bishops ratified the 1596 Union of Brest which returned the Orthodox faithful under the See of Kyiv to communion with the Roman Catholic Church. While military invasions and forced conversions would erode this restored unity in subsequent centuries, the ecclesiastical body today known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) underwent revitalization starting in the late 18th century as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the early decades of the 20th century, dreams arose of not only an independent Ukrainian state, but a single Ukrainian Church that would transcend the centuries-old divide between Catholics and Orthodox.
This ecclesiastical vision was spurred in large part by the Venerable Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, the UGCC’s leader from 1900 until his death on November 1, 1944. It was Sheptytsky’s dream to not only demonstrate that Catholics and Orthodox could overcome the schism between them, but that a single Ukrainian Church honoring the liturgical, spiritual, and theological patrimony of Byzantium could come together while remaining in communion with Rome. In order to assist this process, Metropolitan Andrey even offered to step aside as head of the UGCC so that a united Greek Catholic/Eastern Orthodox church in Ukraine could elect a new leader together, one who would lead a new Ukrainian Church free from partisan divides.
Sadly, this vision did not come to fruition. Two world wars and active hostility from the Russian Orthodox thwarted Ukrainian ecclesiastical autonomy. In 1946, Soviet authorities, in concert with the Russian Orthodox Church, staged the phony Synod of Lviv which purportedly abolished the UGCC. At the time, the majority of the UGCC’s bishops were imprisoned by the Soviets and many of its priests and faithful had either been murdered or rounded up by the authorities. For more than 50 years, the UGCC would remain the largest persecuted religious body in the world, only seeing the light of day on its native soil again in 1989. Since that time, the UGCC has undergone a steady process of rebuilding while keeping the spirit of Metropolitan Andrey’s vision alive.
What Comes Next
While it is impossible to see the future, it appears that the Ukrainian question will not be answered anytime soon. Even if the EP grants Ukraine the Tomos of Autocephaly, the chances are high that many local Orthodox churches around the globe will refuse to recognize it. Moreover, the MP, as the single largest Orthodox body, continues to exert substantial influence over the worldwide Orthodox communion. Acting, as it often has, as a geopolitical tool of the Russian state, the MP is staunchly against any substantive autonomy for Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians. Indeed, the MP remains adamant that the UGCC, a body that has always operated independent of its control, is both illegitimate and a stumbling block to “good relations” with Rome.
Pope Francis, for his part, has made numerous overtures during his pontificate toward both the EP and MP, going so far as to meet the Russian Orthodox Church’s head, Patriarch Kirill, in Havana, Cuba in February 2016. However, ever since the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in 1964, it has been the EP that has been on the forefront of strengthening ecumenical ties with Rome. While Rome has expressed no interest in getting involved in the EP/MP feud, it stands to reason that the EP remains the Vatican’s strongest Eastern ally even if the EP’s stock among its fellow Orthodox Christians has fallen in recent years.