What Really Happened in Constantinople Last Week

Last week Ukraine’s Orthodox Church got confirmation that it will likely receive the independence from Moscow that it has long sought. The issue is complex, and the terminology foreign to most readers. The issue of the Ukrainian church is similar to an iceberg. What appears above the surface is political, but the largest part underneath has nothing to do with politics. Millions of Orthodox Ukrainians were considered outside of spiritual unity with the rest of the Orthodox world. Thousands of other Orthodox Christians who belonged to the only legitimate Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), felt uncomfortable there because it seems to channel Russia’s political agenda. This is the same country which annexed Crimea and launched a hybrid war in Ukraine’s east.

Both the Moscow Patriarchate and its filial structure in Ukraine, the UOC, have failed to address the pastoral issue caused by the ecclesial schism. It was addressed, however, by the church of Constantinople, which had planted Christianity in the medieval Kyivan state and was responsible for the Kyivan Metropolia (an administrative unit in the Orthodox church) until it gave Moscow some rights to manage Ukrainian ecclesial matters in 1686. On October 11, the governing body of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, called the Holy Synod, revoked these rights from Moscow and reinstated its own control in Ukraine. Effectively, the Ecumenical Patriarchate restored the status quo, which existed on the territory of modern Ukraine at the end of the seventeenth century.

Although this decision seems to deal with the remote past, it has a wide array of political and ecclesial implications that apply today. The most important ecclesial implication is that the schism in Ukraine has effectively ended. Those faithful who belonged to unrecognized Orthodox churches are now in communion with the rest of Orthodox churches worldwide. The leaders of the unrecognized churches were restored to their episcopal and priestly degrees. Constantinople thus exercised its right to entertain appeals from outside its own jurisdiction. Constantinople also invited these churches to form a new ecclesial structure, which it intends to grant full independence (or autocephaly) by issuing a founding document, called a Tomos, to it.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision directly affects the standing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which was effectively brought back under the jurisdiction of Constantinople and given an opportunity to become a key player in building a new independent Ukrainian church. The UOC, however, has rejected the offer and aligned itself with Moscow. The Moscow Patriarchate partially broke its official relations with Constantinople, and more severe responses are expected on October 15, at the session of the Holy Synod of the Russian Church.

Moscow claims the project is purely political, backed by the United States, and serves the interests of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. For instance, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov stated in a recent interview: “As regards the church problems, the interference [of the state] to the life of the church is prohibited by law in Ukraine, Russia, and, I hope, in any other normal state. However, when the special representative of the USA on the questions of the church relations [editor’s note: this is false] openly welcomes the decision of the Patriarch Bartholomew, when K. Volker, who is supposed, on behalf of the USA, to contribute to the Ukrainian normalization on the basis of Minsk agreements, makes his statements about these processes, in this case we say: if the shoe fits, wear it.” The irony is that his statement comes from a politician who accuses other politicians of interfering in church affairs. Moreover, Lavrov’s statement followed Vladimir Putin’s meeting focused solely on the Ukrainian church issue with his Security Council on October 12. It seems this issue has become extremely important in Russian politics.

It’s also important in Ukrainian politics. There, the issue became a part of the national strategy of rebuking Russian aggression and protecting the state’s territorial integrity. In Ukraine, many believe that as Russia has intrumentalized the church to challenge Ukrainian statehood, so the Ukrainian state should protect itself by weakening the ties between Ukrainian Orthodoxy and Russia.

In addition to serving the national interest, an independent Ukrainian church may help the political interests of Poroshenko, who seeks reelection in 2019. Constantinople’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian church may become Poroshenko’s most important achievement. That is why he should be disappointed by the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to restore its Metropolia, instead of giving autocephaly to the Ukrainian church. He even tweeted that the October 11 decision granted the church autocephaly, which it did not. Poroshenko expected the Synod to grant the church independence, not a Metropolia dependent on Constantinople. Despite this frustration, the Tomos is still highly likely to be issued soon. The October 11 decision will certainly facilitate this much awaited document.

Father Cyril Hovorun is acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.

Image: Metropolitan Emmanuel of France reads a statement after the Synod meeting at the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer