A month ago the analogy between the case of the Orthodox Church in Skopje and the Church in Kiev came to light, as well as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s favourable attitude towards their autocephaly. Immediately there were objections voiced, not necessarily only from supporters of the Russian propaganda on this issue. The argument was that the Ecumenical Patriarch was going too far as he had no right to grant autocephaly to these churches. Here I will try to explain why the two churches appealed to His Holiness and what would be the most feasible solutions to both cases.
In the Orthodox world, the Patriarch of Constantinople is first by honor. He is in charge of arbitration among the local Orthodox Churches and this capacity of his appears very important from the perspective of the unity of Orthodoxy in the modern pluralistic world where religious communities share the same territory. The establishment of democratic regimes in countries where an ever growing number of Orthodox Christians live, has given a new vigor to his historical unifying role. Opposition between his cathedra and Moscow, which appeared for the first time in the 15th century, reemerged in the 20th century. While Moscow’s interpretation of Orthodoxy has been gravitating towards authoritarianism and dictatorship, Orthodox Christians looking to Constantinople have found themselves in a space where western democracy rules. It is not a fortuitous occurence but the natural course of things determined by the historical evolution of those two communities.
Naturally, after the collapse of the USSR, as early as the 1990s, the old issue with the Orthodox Church in Ukraine emerged again. The scandals surrounding the Skopje Church began more than three decades earlier, in the 1950s, after its bishops seceded from the Orthodox Church of Serbia (OCS), which had obtained the right to control the bishoprics on the territory of FYROM after WW1. In both cases, it is a matter of division within the Orthodox communities in those countries for political rather than faith-related reasons. The association of those two churches to the Russian and Serbian churches by political means undoubtedly sowed the seeds of the current conflicts. After Russia conquered Eastern Ukraine and Kiev in 1667, in 1685 the Russian Church annexed the Metropolis of Kiev. Prior to this, Metropolitans of the Ecumenical Patriarchate operated in these territories. Even later, until the middle of the 19thcentury, the territories to the west of Kiev, where the Orthodox Christians lived side by side with Catholics, remained under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. The annexation of these territories remained without a sanction and was not formally recognized by any Pan-Orthodox Council until the Moscow Council held in 1953, under the political pressure of the CPSU and with the task to settle this and other issues but only with the help of the votes of the Orthodox Churches in the Soviet camp. Therefore, from a purely canonical point of view, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in its right as Mother Church, to provide it with autocephaly, moreover that the Kiev Metropolis was located in its jurisdiction. In his powers as arbitrator and peace-maker among Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch is obliged to involve in this process all three divided Orthodox churches in Ukraine – the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate, the UOC-Kievan Patriarchy, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). He was requested to do so by Ukrainian public figures who for the past 6 months managed to collect several hundred thousand signatures in a petition addressed to him personally. Neither the previous Russian Patriarch Alexy II, nor the current Patriarch Cyril succeeded in the unification in Ukraine. The latter tried in a series of conciliar meetings in Moscow to deflect the appeal for the autocephaly of Kiev, but in the end granted it only limited autonomy in 2008. Not only did they fail to achieve unification with the other Orthodox Christians, on the contrary – relations grew increasingly tense, until an open armed conflict broke out between the Russian Federation and Ukraine in 2014. During the military actions, church periodicals in Ukraine alleged that clergy from the UOC-MP openly declared their stance against the government in Kiev and supported foreign troops entering Ukrainian territory. On the other hand, the motto of “Orthodox war” against the West was launched. Therefore, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s role as arbitrator requires from him to take a standing in favor of peace and unification of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, who are not insignificant in their number. Some experts in Russian Orthodoxy argue that between 40% and 60% of the Orthodox Church parishes of the Russian Church are located on Ukrainian territory. Add to this figure a similar number of parishes, associated with the other two Orthodox churches in the country.
According to the agreement for the unification of the Orthodox Church in Kiev, initiated by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the three jurisdictions – the UOC-MP (headed by Onuphrey), the UOC-KP (headed by Philaret) and the UAOC (headed by Macarius) – have to organize sooner rather than later a common church council to elect an Archbishop. The newly-elected Archbishop will be given a tomos for the autocephaly by the Patriarch of Constantinople. In actual fact, many of the priests and a number of bishops in the UOC-MP are not at all happy with the intervention by the Russian Federation in eastern Ukraine, and they uphold that the Church should not engage in political causes and their loyalty is with Ukraine. Most likely, the future Archbishop of Kiev will be elected among those clerics from UOC-MP, as they are now internationally canonically recognized, and there is no reason for anyone to challenge the granting of tomos for the autocephaly to such a bishop, more so that it is for the purpose of the unification of the Orthodox Christians in the country. In this situation it is highly unlikely for bishops from the same jurisdiction (UOC-MP) to oppose the autocephalous status and openly side with the ROC. Certainly, the Heads of all three jurisdictions should voluntarily withdraw and it seems this has already been agreed by all three parties.
What is the analogy with the church in Skopje? There is a parallel, however, unlike Ukraine, in FYROM a large proportion of active believers are backing the schismatic Archbishop Stephen and only a much smaller number support the canonical Archbishop Jovan of Ohrid, who is a member of the Synod in Belgrade. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the separation of Jovan from the Synod in Skopje and his transition to the Orthodox Church of Serbia (OCS) came after an unprincipled decision taken by his fellows in Skopje, who broke the agreement reached with the bishops in Belgrade after a joint conference in Niš in 2000, when broad autonomy was granted to the Church of FYROM. Although in 1924 the Ecumenical Patriarchate, under huge pressure from a number of international actors, and especially the Turkish government, granted the OCS the right to operate in Skopje, today the inability for reconciliation demonstrated by the bishops in Belgrade and Skopje once again calls for the arbitration of Constantinople. As the church in Skopje has historically been very closely related to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, provided it accepts the historical name “Archbishopric of Ohrid”, it has a chance of obtaining autocephaly from Constantinople. As I wrote in my previous text, Constantinople is highly responsible for this church and will undoubtedly do its best to restore it to the Orthodox family. However, to achieve this, Archbishop Stephen will have to withdraw voluntarily and a new Archbishop elected by a unification council. When such council is summoned, the clerics of both jurisdictions shall seek a general compromise candidate for primate. It is unlikely that he will be affiliated to the dark past of Yugoslavia and its secret services, nor tainted by unworthy behavior as a cleric. Certainly his theological literacy will be of special importance. Also, it is probable that one of the many functioning monasteries in the country will pass as a stauropigial to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This practice will ensure a strong connection between the two churches and an open pool of people for the Church hierarchy in Constantinople as well as in Skopje. Few people in Bulgaria know that the Rila Monastery had the same status until WW1 when it was transferred to the Exarchate with the help of the Bulgarian police. It is very likely that we will see one of the large monasteries in Kiev conceded to Constantinople as a stauropigial. Given the large number of Ukrainian churchgoers or working for the Ecumenical Patriarchate around the world, this will be welcomed by the Ukrainian public.
Unlike Ukraine, in FYROM bishops are more apparently of different opinions and doing so within the same ecclesiastical jurisdiction. This is easy to explain because there are military actions on the territory of the UOC, while Skopje is getting closer to the NATO security system. Still, in FYROM, some bishops like bishop Naum of Strumica – called on the BOC to become their mother church and at the same time asked it to advocate for them before the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Others, like Joseph of Kumanovo-Osogovo, call on Moscow to become an Ecumenical Patriarchate and confront Constantinople. There are also the likes of Timothy of Debar-Kichevo and Pimen, bishop for the Western European eparchy, who sympathize with Belgrade. However, the majority of bishops seem to have started to realize that if they abandon their nationalism and the aggressive language used with their neighbors and if they accept the reality of history with calmness and wisdom, they can rely on support from Constantinople as soon as the Ukrainian question is resolved. However, to resolve both cases, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew needs support from all local Orthodox churches, or at least most of them. According to the tradition in the Orthodox Church, he will seek recognition of his tomoses from all sides. It is not by chance that in the last month representatives of the Patriarchate have been meeting with the leaders of all local Orthodox churches, apparently probing their attitudes for possible actions to this effect. It is likely that after the self-isolation of the ROC from the Holy and Great Council in Crete and from all the Orthodox activities initiated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its disagreement would be disregarded in the cases of Kiev and Skopje. The question remains of how OCS will react? In my opinion, it is unlikely the Serbian bishops would confront the Ecumenical Patriarchate, given the lack of interest in this issue by the secular leadership of Serbia and the general public in the country which is increasingly turning to Europe and putting an end to the past. Still, the OCS has always been close to its people and has always looked for public support. I believe that the Synod in Sofia will also refrain from actions that would hinder the autocephaly of the two churches, although it will do so quietly so as not to annoy Moscow.