Over the last two months there have been some remarkable developments in the Orthodox world. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has a leading role among the Orthodox local churches, undertook the task of unifying the Orthodox population in Ukraine and granting them the status of an autocephalous church, independent from the Russian Orthodox Church. For this purpose, the Ecumenical Patriarchate referred to two of its ancient rights – the first is the right of arbitration among the Orthodoxy, coming from an ancient rule (canon) from the 5th century; the second one is the historical truth reflected in the Patriarchy’s preserved documentation – namely that the Ukrainian lands were in its canonical territory and were taken away after the war in the late 17th century. The main argument of the congregation of the bishops of Constantinople, however, is moral rather than geopolitical. It is a fact that not since yesterday, but throughout the 20th century, and especially during the last three decades, the desire for autocephaly in Ukraine and for the return of orientation to the mother church of Constantinople, with which Kiev has old ties, has been on the rise. At the same time, ROC, instead of distancing itself from the official policy of the Russian Federation, became involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine through its representatives.
A number of organizations, including the Ukrainian Diaspora, local civic and political associations, youth organizations, and finally the Ukrainian Parliament and Presidents (except for the penultimate one) have been approaching the Ecumenical Patriarchate to provide them with autocephaly. So have a substantial number of lay people and clerics from the Patriarchate of North America and Western Europe. In the early 1990s the ROC refused autocephaly to the Ukrainians, although at that time it would have benefitted the Russian lobby. The refusal resulted in a discussion about a “forgotten” injustice and opened the possibility for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to take on the role of arbiter and conciliator for the divided Ukrainian Orthodox -something that the ROC did not manage to complete in 26 years. On the contrary, it put an anathema on two large church communities, and kept them in isolation from the rest of the Orthodoxy for a long time.
Nonetheless, the geopolitical meaningfulness of the present moment is not to be underestimated. A century ago, when there was a civil war in the Ukraine, the moment was not right, especially since the Patriarchy was in a serious crisis and almost destroyed by the government of the Republic of Turkey. Twenty years ago, the West was open and favorable to Russia and did not want a confrontation – the timing was not right. Now there is an extraordinary window of opportunity for Ukrainian Christians, as the Russian Federation has managed, with its constant aggressive actions, to awaken the West from its rose-painted lethargy and irresponsibility towards Eastern Europe. The Ecumenical Patriarchate took a commendable position despite the dangers and threats.
Only days ago in a communication by the Council of its Bishops, the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized the First Hierarchs of the two Ukrainian churches which were pronounced non-canonical by the ROC. The recognition came after the Patriarchate sent two of its Ukrainian clerics with the purpose of becoming Exarchs of the two church communities in Kiev and start preparations for their General Council. The Bishops from the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kiev have also been invited to the Council as they are recognized as canonical bishops. Eleven of them have already confirmed their participation in the upcoming General Council. Immediate media threats from the Russian side followed.
The Russian Orthodox Bishops’ Council meeting, held in Minsk (Belarus) responded today with an announcement that it suspended its Eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and forbid its clerics and laymen to participate in worship services in this church. Hence, those who decide to participate in unification Council in Ukraine will remove themselves from the ROC. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev announced the decision and challenged the right of Constantinople to make a decision for Ukraine, arguing that Odessa did not exist in the 17th century and that East Ukraine was outside the diocese of Constantinople at the time. Taking this decision in Minsk seeks to emphasize local Christians’ affiliation to the ROC and thwart any moves by the local church towards its independence. Such could be expected, as the situation in Minsk is not very different from that in Kiev from a historical and canonical point of view.
What changes could be effected by the presence of a large Slavic-language church in the Ukraine, affiliated to Constantinople?
Firstly: Generally, the pro-democratic and open wing in Orthodoxy will acquire significant prevalence. An injustice will be righted and this will inspire confidence in Orthodoxy as a whole and in its capabilities as a Universalist Christian Church, respecting and protecting true Christian values. This will undoubtedly give to the local church in Kiev the means to reach an agreement which is a factor in favor of peace.
Secondly: It will be difficult for the ROC to claim that it is the largest church, as statistics on Orthodox activity in the Russian Federation show exceptionally low values, unlike in Ukraine. It will also raise the question whether the ROC is fifth in line within the Orthodox Church Dyptichs. It may be the case in future developments that historical contribution becomes more important and the Dyptichs are rearranged.
Thirdly: The positions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on an international scale are becoming ever more insuperable. To a large extent, as a result of the intensive work of several generations of bishops in this church, and especially its First Hierarchs since the 1920s and after the great crisis, the Patriarchy has regained its status as a flagship of the Orthodox community. This, of course, is its moral and historical duty.
Four: The myth of “The Third Rome” will remain in the past. This will reduce dramatically the appetite for exploitation of Orthodoxy for political purposes. The very theory of translatio imperii  from Kiev, through Vladimir, Moscow, Petersburg and Moscow again, will lose value in this situation and will take away the arguments for influence on Orthodoxy, as there is now a large, influential Slavic-speaking Orthodox Church with strong sentiments towards Constantinople.
Five: The ROC response from today’s meeting was in fact deprived of the preliminary aplomb and only confirmed its previously stated will to suspend communion. Expectations are that Russian bishops will pronounce the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew a “heretic”, “ecumenist”, and an “absconder of Orthodoxy”, a “conspirator with the West and an American agent” (at least that was previously said in media close to the ROC). The rise of tension and heavy media rhetoric in a threatening tone is characteristic of Russian policy from the time of the USSR and even before that. The aim is always to intimidate the opponent so that he retreats as a result. However, this did not happen. In fact, the ROC Holy Synod has so far abstained from brusque responses. Perhaps they do not want to open a front against the West, because the ROC maintains a number of close ties with other religious denominations and makes good use of them. There are also relations with western far-right organizations that should not be harmed. Also, the Russian propaganda around the world has continued tarnishing the Patriarch since his election in 1992 and was practically overspent long before the current events. Every personal attack will now be seen as a sign of weakness.
Six: In this situation, the ROC cannot break all ties with Constantinople and will be placing itself in isolation, because apart from the Antiochian Church (for obvious reasons), there are hardly any other local churches that will follow it openly. The First Hierarch of the Czech and Slovak Church announced yesterday that he supported the idea of a Pan-Orthodox Council launched by Moscow, but he is unlikely to break ties with Constantinople. The same applies to Belgrade, Tbilisi and Warsaw. Even the Metropolitans in Sofia declined the proposal for a Council. The Greek-speaking and Romanian churches would not hesitate to stand with Constantinople.
Seven: This isolation will deprive the Russian information war against Western democracies of any arguments in favor of the newly created image of the Russian Federation and the ROC as “advocates of conservatism and Christian values”. How can it defend Christian values by leaving the Christian church in which you it is a member? Of course, there will be a massive information campaign to present events from the point of view of RF and ROC leadership. Perhaps that was precisely the focus of the meeting of the RF Security Council on Friday. They have most probably decided to provide a large amount of financial resources for an information offensive. Still, when in 1996 the ROC broke ties with Constantinople because of its recognition of the Estonian Orthodox Church, apart from the media propaganda, nothing dramatic took place. The pragmatic spirit and the desire not to lose positions among the Russian Diaspora in Western Europe and the US, prompted the Russian Bishops’ Council to overturn its decision a little later. Unlike in 1996, today the Russian Federation has a much more considerable media and financial resource. It is more likely that Russian society is much more aware of who is who in the Orthodox world than in 1996 and is interested in related political events. This is a two-edged sword, because in case of damages, the political consequences in the RF will be harsher than in 1996.
In conclusion, we can say that, in fact, the “great schism” did not take place. The ROC Holy Synod came out with a minimized decision, leaving it enough space to go back. On the other hand, in the electronic media in Russia, prominent Russian intellectuals and dissidents have stood openly by the Ukrainians. The only unrelenting attitude has come from journalists, politicians and public figures associated with the regime. Over the last few days, the official statements of the state representatives of the Russian Federation no longer speak about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, but of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This puts the discussion on a new footing.
- 1. Translatio imperii (Latin for “transfer of rule”) is a historiographical concept, originating in the Middle Ages, in which history is viewed as a linear succession of transfers of an imperium that invests supreme power in a singular ruler, an “emperor” (or sometimes even several emperors, e.g., the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Holy Roman Empire). The concept is closely linked to translatio studii (the geographic movement of learning). Both terms are thought to have their origins in the second chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible (verses 39–40).