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Orthodox schism and the clash of civilizations

16 October 2018

Events of the last month or so suggest that there is a real danger of a schism in the Orthodox Church that might affect Orthodox Christians throughout the world.

It began in Ukraine. As my church journalist friend Sergei Chapnin writes Ukraine Is Dangerously Close to a Religious War – Bloomberg:

For several centuries, since the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Moscow has pretended to the role of a “Third Rome” — a political and religious capital that would unite the Orthodox world, or at least its Slavic part. To that end, in the 17th century, the Russian church subsumed its Ukrainian neighbor. Even after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, most Orthodox believers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus remained united under one spiritual leader, the Patriarch of Moscow. In 2016, Putin inaugurated a colossal statue of St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev who established Russian Orthodoxy, next to the Kremlin — indicating that Russia aspires to be his true heir.

That said, a rift has long been developing. In 1992, the charismatic former leader of the Russian church in Kiev, Filaret, sought to establish an independent, “autocephalous” church — one that that would answer only to God, not to Moscow. At the time, Russia enjoyed the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, still considered first among equals in the Orthodox world, in opposing and ultimately excommunicating Filaret. Yet some 6,000 parishes remain loyal to the self-proclaimed patriarch, a threat that the Russian church, to its own detriment, has largely ignored.

Now the Patriarch of Constantinople has decided to recognise the schismatic group in Ukraine as Canonical. At best it would spread the phenomenon of “jurisdictionalism” to Ukraine. At worst, it could split the Orthodox Church throughout the world. Already the Patriarchate of Moscow (the largest of the Orthodox Churches) has broken communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Outside Ukraine itself, the following graphic illustrates what many Orthodox Christians have thought of the Ukrainian schism:

Is it all verifiably true?

I don’t know.

I post this, not to take sides on issues I know too little about, but rather to show non-Orthodox readers how many Orthodox Christians do perceive the issues. And those are the issues that need to be dealt with.

It seems to me that the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow ought to be working together to bring Christians in the Ukraine together to try to heal the schism. Perhaps they are doing so in secret, behind the scenes, but if they are, there is little to show for it.

The problem is exacerbated because the politicians also want to stick their oar in. As Sergei Chapnin points out in the article cited above, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the Church in Ukraine as part of his Russkiy Mir project. President Poroshenko of Ukraine sees an autocephalous Ukrainian Church, even if divided, as an important boost to his status as an independent ruler.

Concerning this our own African Pope has said Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria and All Africa: One must not yield to pressure on the Church in Ukraine | The Russian Orthodox Church:

The Church should be governed according to sacred canons. Politicians have their own considerations, guidelines and instructions but politicians come and go whereas the Church has existed inviolably for already two thousand years now. In this sense, the Patriarchate of Alexandria agrees with the opinion of the Russian Church that political pressure must not be yielded to. It is wrong that when states are divided and then the Church has to be divided too.

But it goes further than that.

About 25 years ago Professor Samuel Huntington put forward his “clash of civilizations” thesis, in which he suggested in the post-Cold War era conflict would no longer be between the the three “worlds” (First, Second and Third), but between nine civilizations, based mainly on religion. Subsequent events have shown that his thesis is largely correct. He used the geological analogy of tectonic plates, and said that conflicts would tend to originate, like earthquakes, on the fault lines where two or more civilisations meet.

One of these “fault lines” runs through the middle of Ukraine, with Western Civilization to the west of the line and the Orthodox Civilization to the east of it. Western Ukraine was for a long time ruled by Lithuania, which was Roman Catholic, and that was where Uniatism started. And even without the Uniates, Orthodox Christians in Ukraine have been divided as this article points out.

Russia, Ukraine, and the battle for religion | European Council on Foreign Relations:

There are no fewer than three main Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Why so many? One of these, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), was set up in 1921 but banned under Stalin in 1930. It survived in the diaspora and returned to Ukraine in 1990. The current trio derives from an unsuccessful attempt in 1992, just after Ukraine’s political independence in 1991, to broker a merger between the UAOC and the existing Orthodox hierarchy in Ukraine. The merger created a new church, dubbed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kievan Patriarchate (OUC-KP). But there was resistance on both sides: many in the UAOC refused to join, because they saw the existing Orthodox hierarchy as compromised by the KGB. While most of that compromised hierarchy refused to join the Kievan Patriarchate, for additional reasons of ‘canonicity’, traditionalism, and Russian nationalism. They remained under the Russian church, but relabelled it as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (OUC-MP). Just for good measure, there is a fourth church, the Greek Catholic Church – half-Orthodox and half-Catholic – banned in 1946, but revived in 1989, largely based in western Ukraine.

That article comes from a Western source, and therefore exhibits a Western bias — again, part of Huntington’s thesis — that conflicts on the “fault lines” of civilisations would draw in the centres. And as a result the Church in Ukraine has tended to become a political football for forces outside Ukraine., and for secular politicians generally.

According to this article Putin Is the Biggest Loser of Orthodox Schism – Bloomberg:

Moscow’s only hope in this lose-lose situation is that Ukrainians will shoot themselves in the foot, as they’ve often done before. To receive autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Ukrainian Christians must unite and select a leader. Whether this will happen depends in part on the two clerics reinstated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate – Filaret, who was excommunicated by the Russian church in 1997 for splitting off the so-called Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, and Metropolitan Makariy, who runs the relatively small Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

But I suggest that that is not true. The biggest loser is not Putin, but thousands of ordinary Orthodox Christians who are cut off from communion with their fellow Orthodox, especially in “diaspora” countries like Western Europe, the Americas and Australia.

I don’t really care whether the church in Ukraine becomes autocephalous or not, though I do think that unity should precede autocephaly, and that the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow should concentrate (and cooperate) on that rather than trying to force the rest of the Orthodox in the world to take sides on the issue.

As our Pope and Patriarch has said, the Church should not be governed by politicians, neither by Poroshenko nor by Putin, and not by the Trumps and Mays of this world either.

We should take more seriously the words we sing nearly every Sunday at the Divine Liturgy:

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men
in whom there is no salvation

The Lord will reign forever
Thy God, O Zion, to all generations.



One Comment leave one →
  1. 17 October 2018 8:37 am

    One of the comparisons that have emerged from this discussion are the comparison of Putin and Poroshenko with King Henry VIII of England, who promoted schism in order to found a national(ist?) church.

    Another more recent comparison is Kaizer Matanzima of the Transkei “homeland” in South Africa, who promoted just such a schism in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, which he banned, and nationalised the Methodist Chuches in the Transkei, for almost exactly the same reasons.

    I would welcome comments from any Methodists in Southern Africa who were around in that period and had direct experience of those events.

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