The tragic break in communion between the Œcumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox Church over the granting of autokephaly to the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine has not only caused division on a wider scale among Orthodox churches, but has also revealed fundamental and irreconcilable differences in spirit between churches of the Orthodox tradition.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where the office of the Bishop of Rome is invested with universal jurisdiction and primacy, and his declarations and teachings on doctrines defining faith and morals are regarded as infallible and irreformable of themselves and not by the consent of the church; the Orthodox Church adheres to the spirit of consensus, drawing on the sacred scriptures, the writings of the fathers, the definitions of church councils and the spiritual welfare of local Christian communities.
The expression ‘canonical’ refers to this consensual spirit of the apostolic churches: from acceptance of the texts which constitute the Holy Bible, to the church councils which defined the Creed, rejected false teachings and defined the rules for church government. Out of this conciliar ethos, compendia of canons were compiled for guidance, of which Bishop Julius of Iona, the first bishop of the British Orthodox Church, wrote: “As a hedge is planted not for its own sake, but for the protection of the flowers and fruits of the garden which it surrounds, so have the Holy Canons no other object than to preserve for our use the precious blessings of the Gospel of Life.” Other writers described them as “little buoys” to guide us as we navigate the Sea of Life; but sadly there are others who prefer to interpret them by the letter rather than the spirit. “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (2 Corinthians III: 6).
Constantinople’s right to grant autokephaly to churches under its oversight was in fact ignored by Russia in 1448 when the Metropolitan Jonas of Kiev was appointed Primate without recourse to the Œcumenical Patriarch. During the next 145 years, sixteen successive Metropolitans ruled the Russian Church until 1589, when Constantinople finally granted Russia autokephaly. In 1686 the Œcumenical Patriarch delegated to the Russian Church the right of consecration of the Metropolitan of Kiev, Ukraine’s prime see, but never transferred the territory of Ukraine to anyone with any Act so did not surrender its oversight of the Ukraine, which remained under the Œcumenical Patriarchate, including the specific provision of commemorating the Œcumenical Patriarch in all services.
Patriarch Bartholomeus of Constantinople is a profoundly conscientious spiritual father, who has always shown deep respect for the traditions of the church and the conciliar spirit; but equally a thoroughly pastoral oversight for the churches under his protection. A recent article by a Greek doctor, Lykourgas Nanis, published in Orthodox Witness (www.orthodoxwitness.org) in its blog “Over the Rooftops”, under the heading ‘Pope of the East’ throws napalm bomb on world Orthodoxy , which was headed by an insulting montage depicting “Mr. Bartholomew” “holding his pride” (a napalm bomb) because “the decision of the Fanariot synod is incendiary, a napalm bomb dropped on Ukraine as well as on ecumenical Orthodoxy”.
Dr. Nanis accuses the Œcumenical Patriarchate of behaving in a papal spirit, suggesting that Patriarch Bartholomeus is “aptly dubbed ‘Pope of the East’ with the Synod showing a “papal-governing mentality” to implement their distorted plans to fulfil their hegemonic ambitions and “revelling in contempt for the sacred canons that regulate the relations of the Orthodox Church with heretics and heathens, violating and trampling on a host of them, the important men in charge of ecclesiastical affairs in Bosporus have, with one stroke, without any substantive ecclesiastical reason and cause, made a foolish and unwise action that will lead to an intra-Orthodox schism, and ‘legitimizes’ their papally inspired and implemented hegemony.” Although invested with an historic ‘primacy of honour’ among the churches, the ludicrous accusations of seeking dominance over world Orthodoxy is exactly what Patriarch Bartholomeus is seeking to avoid; whereas the Russian Orthodox Church’s reaction is motivated by fear of a weakening of its own regional ascendency. Underscoring all canonical and pastoral arguments is the political hegemony which Putin’s Russia is seeking to revive. The independence achieved by Belarus and the Ukraine by the 1991 Belevezhe Accords which dissolved the former Soviet Union, has been something which Putin has been steadily attempting to undermine, notably through the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014 and repeated military incursions into Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in which some 2,500 people have died and more than a million have been displaced. Hardly surprisingly, Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko) of Kiev – an excommunicated former Russian Orthodox Metropolitan – and now the de facto head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate, who has recently been restored to communion by the Œcumenical Patriarchate, issued a statement accusing the Russian leader of trying to “incite bloodshed and killings” in eastern Ukraine. “With great regret I must now say publicly that among the rulers of this world … there has appeared a new Cain, not by his name but by his deeds,” he said. “Like the first fratricide of history Cain, these deeds show that the aforementioned ruler has fallen under the action of Satan.”
The historic arguments about whether the conversion of Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr) the Great in 988 marked the baptism of Russia or Ukraine are senseless, as the intervening millenia since Kieven Rus have been marked by huge cultural, religious and political changes, yet through the mercy of God and in spite of the atheism of the Soviet era, the Orthodox Christian faith has been preserved in its fullness in both countries. Just as when the Christians of the former Ottoman Empire regained their religious and political freedom with its collapse after more than three and a half centuries, so also did the states which came under Soviet dominance for just over seven decades. Far from Constantinople’s decision “legitimising canon violations and lawlessness” Patriarch Bartholomeus, fearing that Russian hegemony has contributed to “illegal elections of bishops and schisms, from which the pious Ukrainian people still suffer”, realised that it was Russia which was largely responsible for the painful ecclesiastical situation in the Ukraine.