A Schism within the Schism: An Ever-Deepening Crisis in the Orthodox World

Source: FSSPX News

A serious crisis began in October 2018 and is shaking the Orthodox world. In Moscow, according to the Courrier de Russie, the situation is seen as “a planetary drama, comparable to the great schism of 1054 that led to the separation between the Eastern and Western Churches.”

What exactly happened? After its two-day Synod in Istanbul on October 10 and 11, 2018, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, a spiritual and symbolic authority for the Orthodox Christians, announced that it has decided to recognize the Church of Ukraine as independent of the religious authority of Moscow. Consequently, it also reestablished “in his hierarchical functions” the Patriarch Filaret Denisenko, who auto-proclaimed a Patriarchate independent of the Russian authority after the Ukrainian independence in 1991 and was excommunicated by the Patriarchate of Moscow the following year. This Patriarchate reacted strongly, saying that Constantinople had made “a catastrophic decision”. First of all, “for itself and for the entire Orthodox world in general,” declared the spokesman for the Russian Patriach Kirill, Alexander Volkov, quoted by the Russian press agency Ria Novosti. By “legalizing a schism”, the Patriarchate of Constantinople “crossed the line,” he added. A line that had never been crossed, for no Church in the world had recognized the Patriarchate of Kiev since its creation in 1992.

Moscow: “Constantinople is in schism”

Having gathered for a synod in Minsk (Belarus), on Monday, October 15, the Russian Orthodox Church decided to sever all ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The statement accuses the “Patriarchate of Constantinople of infringing upon the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church” and asks all the clergy of the Patriarchate of Moscow “no longer to concelebrate with the clergy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople” and the laymen “no longer to receive the sacraments from the priests” of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, so long as its decisions have not been revoked. “To us, the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople has recognized a schismatic structure means that it is itself in schism,” declared the Metropolitan Hilarion of the Patriarchate of Moscow. 

A few days earlier, on October 8, 2018, at a celebration in Russia, Kirill I, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, certainly already informed of Constantinople’s decision, declared that “all the forces of evil are united to tear the Ukrainian Church away from the unified Russian Orthodox Church!” He then accused the “political powers” of manipulation.

A Context of Political and Military Conflict

Indeed, the Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko “personally intervened”, passing the request from the Patriarchate of Kiev on to Constantinople himself. On the evening of October 11, he made a TV appearance to hail a “new act of the Ukrainian independence” and the end of “the imperial illusion and jingoist fantasies” of Moscow, claiming that it was a “matter of national security” and that it is necessary to “cut all the tentacles of the attacking country.”

On campaign to be reelected in March 2019, the Ukrainian Head of State did not hesitate to make religion one of the major bywords of his campaign. Posters reading “Army, Language (Ukrainian), Faith” have appeared all over the country. “I guarantee that the government will protect priests (…) who decide of their own free will to leave” the bosom of Moscow, he added on October 11 on his Twitter account. 

A statement from the US Department of State last September openly encouraged the recognition of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople is close with the United States.

At the risk of provoking tensions, pressure is likely to be put on the faithful to join the new Ukrainian Church or remain with the church attached to the historic authority of Moscow, that still has the majority among the clergy and is determined to keep it that way; The Patriarchate of Moscow reigns over 11,392 churches and 12,328 communities of believers (only 3,784 churches and 5,114 communities have gone over to its rival).

Metropolitan Hilarion, head of diplomacy for the Patriarchate of Moscow, announces the rupture with the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Minsk on October 15, 2018.

Metropolitan Hilarion, in Minsk on October 15, 2018

Constantinople and Moscow Vie for the Leadership of the Orthodox World

According to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, this rupture necessarily forces “all of the Orthodox world to choose” between Constantinople and Moscow. The day after the Patriarchate of Moscow announced its decision to sever all ties with Constantinople, the different Orthodox Churches reacted. While the Orthodox Churches of Georgia, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Poland seem to have opted for neutrality, Moscow received the support of other former Patriarchates such as Alexandria and Antioch.

The Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia also voiced its support for Moscow in the form of a letter from Archbishop Rotislav to the Russian Patriarch Kirill, asking him to condemn “any attempt to legalize the Ukrainian schismatics.”

In the Balkans, the Serbian Orthodox Church also sided with Moscow. The Serbian Patriarch Irinej spoke of “a decision that leads to rupture” and “openly and unambiguously opens the possibility of new divisions within other Churches” throughout the world.

The Metropolitan of the Serbian Church in Montenegro, Amfilohije, called Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople’s decision “catastrophic” for the unity of Orthodoxy.  “The Orthodox Church does not question his status of honorary primacy in the Orthodox Church, but that does not give him the right to meddle like this in the life of another local Church, even the Russian Orthodox Church,” he declared.

This question of the “honorary primacy” of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Orthodox world is more than ever a source of dispute, which doubtless explains why it is receiving much less support than Moscow. “At present, the Orthodox world is not unanimous as to the ‘why’ and ‘wherefore’ of this primacy of Constantinople,” explained Fr. Jivko Panev, an Orthodox priest who teaches at the Saint-Serge Institute of Theology in Paris, quoted by the newspaper La Croix.

As Courrier de Russie points out, “for Traditionalists, this is an opportunity to realize their dream of a Third Rome Moscow that will replace the Second, Constantinople, considered to be too progressivist.” The most conservative fringe of the Russian Church now wishes to take matters further and assemble an ecumenical council to depose Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and recognize the dominion of Moscow over the Orthodox world.

These Byzantine quarrels are far from the Roman unity, the only foundation established by Christ on earth to build His Church…