Orthodox Debates after the Creation of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Necessary Catharsis

By: Nicholas Denysenko

November 21, 2019

Orthodoxy in Ukraine: Ecumenical and Theological Perspectives

The process of the formation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) at the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EP) caused strong reactions throughout the Orthodox world. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) warned that granting autocephaly to the Church in Ukraine—complete ecclesiastical independence—would generate a terrible schism, one that would rival the Great Schism of 1054. Others warned of geopolitical consequences, fearing that Russia would expand its invasion into Ukraine on the pretext of defending the rights of believers of the Russian Orthodox Church. These predictions have not come to pass. There is no schism in the Orthodox Church—to date, the MP has broken communion with the EP, but the other churches remain in communion with both patriarchates. And while the war in Donbas continues to claim lives, Russia has not expanded its invasion of Ukrainian territory.

These geopolitical events obscure a new awakening among the Orthodox churches of the world. On the surface, this awakening appears to be messy. Some church leaders, like Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana in Albania, have found fault in both major patriarchates for taking unnecessary actions. In the course of recognizing the OCU, some bishops of the Church of Greece complained about the MP’s pressure tactics of persuasion. 

In the course of this awakening, some Orthodox thinkers are actively confronting the imperial legacies of church history, are publicly exposing the deficiencies of the church, and are preparing proposals for changes that will assist the church in confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century. 

When the EP published historical documents and analyses that claimed Ukraine as its canonical territory, some Orthodox accused the patriarchate of overstepping its authority. The MP in particular reacted angrily, alleging that Patriarch Bartholomew was guilty of the heresy of papism. Constantinople argued that that the highest authorities of the church had granted it the privilege of primacy, referring to rights and prerogatives that belong to Constantinople, alone, dating from the Council of Constantinople in 381. 

The EP’s actions in Ukraine drew from the historical memory of authority and were employed to liberate a people in captivity – Ukraine – from Russian power, through the church. The EP restored several million Orthodox faithful to the church, along with their leaders, who had been excommunicated from the church by Moscow, by invoking two canons from the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The MP had excommunicated Ukrainian Church leaders who sought independence and prayed in their native language beginning in 1920, a pattern that repeated several times through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Moscow argued that the excommunicated clergy and faithful were not truly Christian, and were radical fanatics who sought to create a nationalist Ukrainian church. 

The EP’s annulment of these sanctions not only restored millions of faithful to the church, but symbolized the struggle for authority waging in Orthodoxy. For decades, Orthodox theologians have debated the nature of primacy held by the EP in the church. The rights and privileges granted to Constantinople emanate from a period of strength, when the city was the capital and heart of the Eastern Roman Empire. Today, the EP has a minimal presence in Istanbul, which has led some to wonder if it is time to redefine the exercise of primacy in Orthodoxy since the EP has no anchor in a vibrant Orthodox metropolis. Ironically, Moscow has pursued expansion of its authority within the Orthodox world. This process gained momentum immediately after World War II, when Moscow granted autocephaly to the Churches of Poland and Czechoslovakia. In the post-Soviet era, Moscow Patriarch Kirill has promulgated the Russkii mir initiative, envisioning a multinational Orthodox civilization devoted to the core values of medieval Holy Rus’ within the ecclesial framework of the MP. 

Within Orthodoxy, Moscow has strength in numbers and influence. With Ukraine in its fold, the MP was by far the largest of all Orthodox structures. The EP, strangers in their own capital of Istanbul, acted from a position of weakness by granting the Ukrainian Church the independence they had sought for a century. This clash of authority has raised serious questions about power in Orthodoxy. Some churches continue to question the weight of the EP’s claim to historical privileges. Others have expressed frustration with Moscow’s use of power to retain Ukraine. Orthodox Church leaders from Africa, Greece, and Georgia have publicly denounced Moscow’s power politics. 

Many church insiders interpret the general absence of decisive responses from the sister churches as a sign of impotence. On the contrary, the EP’s decision to challenge Moscow’s power and release their hold on Ukrainians who wanted autocephaly unleashed fresh and vibrant public discourse on the nature of the church. Global Orthodoxy’s weaknesses have been exposed for all to see. The conflict, however, has not resulted in a catastrophe. All Orthodox churches remain in communion with Moscow and Constantinople. There is no sign of the breaking of communion spreading like a virus. 

The heated debate among Orthodox leaders and theologians is an opportunity for the church to redefine herself. Two questions headline the debate. First, is it necessary to retain and protect the components of church decision-making processes that bear strong imperial features? Second, how should the church confront the pattern of the use – and abuse – of power by church leaders to achieve their ambitions? These questions transcend church boundaries, especially as the Roman Catholic Church continues to reflect on the sexual abuse crisis and explores methods for mitigating the problem of clerical abuse of power. Orthodoxy’s struggle to reconcile with its imperial past and the power struggles of the present could become a useful topic for dialogue with the Catholic Church, as both bodies find that they share these problems together. 

The pains experienced by the global Orthodox Church bear the appearance of a grave illness. On the contrary, the EP’s intervention in the Ukrainian crisis and creation of the OCU awakened Orthodoxy from a long period of inertia. This pain is the good kind, the beginnings of a catharsis the church needs to heal and become the Body of Christ in the world.

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