Vasilios N. Makrides is professor of religious studies at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Erfurt, Germany. His expertise is in Orthodox Christianity.
What is actually at stake in the unfolding Ukrainian Church crisis? The Orthodox actors involved draw on a variety of arguments from theology, canon law, and church history. Outside observers look at the sociopolitical dimensions of the conflict. It is about interesting discourses shedding light on this multidimensional crisis. Other perspectives, however, including those from institutional analysis, offer further useful insights.
The Orthodox churches are religious institutions relating to each other, as well as to other religious or secular institutions in their specific area of dominance (the so-called “canonical territory”) and internationally. Smooth inter-Orthodox relations presuppose a valid, binding, and generally accepted frame of reference and exact coordinates, in which these churches are expected to operate. However, this is exactly what is still missing in the overall Orthodox world of the currently 14 autocephalous churches. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is considered as the “leader” of this world, yet his pan-Orthodox functions and their concrete enactment are often contested. He claims, for instance, to have the exclusive right to grant autocephaly to a new church, and this is—historically speaking—true to a large extent. Yet, exactly this claim has been strongly contested, especially by the Moscow Patriarchate, on other considerations. Consequently, there is no pan-Orthodox unanimity on this issue, a fact complicating the relations between these two major Orthodox players, who possess additionally great geopolitical relevance.
Broadly speaking, it is about a power struggle between Constantinople and Moscow that has been going on in various forms since the second half of the nineteenth century and revolves around the central question of primacy. The past speaks rather in favor of Constantinople, yet the Moscow Patriarchate has hardly been an insignificant player in recent history. It is also the numerically biggest Orthodox church today. Even if weakened under Soviet rule, it has emerged in the post-communist period as a powerful domestic and global actor and is part and parcel of Russia’s current soft power international strategy.
One major incident in the continuing struggle between these two institutions has been the Pan-Orthodox Council of 2016 in Crete, which the Moscow Patriarchate tried unsuccessfully to boycott or postpone in various ways. It is commonly assumed that it was behind the last-minute withdrawal of the three other churches from the council. If this long-awaited council would have taken place under the leadership of Constantinople and with all Orthodox churches participating, it would certainly bestow a huge advantage, both symbolically and pragmatically, on this religious institution by enhancing further its primacy claims and legitimacy within the entire Orthodox body. Such a development was highly undesirable for the Russian side and its analogous claims. A closer analysis of the semiotics of the Moscow Patriarchate’s actions, before and after the council, reveals a constant policy of undermining Constantinople’s authority and steadily deploying and augmenting its own prerogatives. This can be often discerned in the dropping of the title “Ecumenical” when addressing the Patriarch of Constantinople; or in the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba in February 2016; or further through Moscow’s constant and meticulous mediatization in the presence of Russian political authorities or Orthodox church leaders.
In such a constellation, the religious institution under challenge (Constantinople) may take serious and open action against its potential contender (Moscow). A direct confrontation with the latter could not only clear the whole picture, but also enhance further the leading role of Constantinople. It would also send a message about who possesses pan-Orthodox power. Seen in this way, Constantinople aptly used the overall political crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations and chose to intervene in an area that badly hurt the Russian side, namely Ukraine. This was not a peripheral question, such as their dispute in Estonia back in 1996, but a key issue to which Moscow was always extremely sensitive. Institutionally speaking, Moscow had no other option than to completely break its relations with Constantinople. Any other decision would signify its clear defeat. Interestingly enough, Metropolitan Hilarion stated that Constantinople, due to its actions, cannot be considered any longer the leader of the Orthodox world. It becomes obvious then what it is all about in this crisis.
The conflict has just started and, given the pros and cons of both sides, it will be a long one with an open outcome. Whether one of the two sides wins, or a compromise will eventually be reached, remains to be seen.