Russian Orthodox leaders are terrified they will go the same way as Constantinople

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill (Getty Images)

The turmoil in the Orthodox world continues with interesting news from Moldova, where, it is reported, Patriarch Kirill is cutting short a planned visit, in case there are ‘provocations’.

Moldova is a strange place, politically: once part of Romania, it was annexed by Stalin after the Second World War, but most of its population speak Romanian and consider themselves to be such. Moldova broke away from Russia with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but part of Moldova then broke away to form Transnistria, a country that is recognised by practically no one, and which is one of the many breakaway territories that is sponsored by Russia.

Moldova is Europe’s poorest country, but Moldovans have the right to Romanian passports, which is why quite a few of them have been able to seek a better life inside the European Union. Just as Moldova straddles the borderland between the common European home and the Russian sphere of influence, or however one chooses to put it, it is religiously divided as well. Its population is overwhelmingly Orthodox, but their loyalties are divided between the Patriarch of Moscow, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Romania, which reflects the territory’s divided history.

The projected visit by Patriarch Kirill into what he regards as his canonical territory opens up another front, so to speak, in the Ukrainian stand-off, because the Moscow Patriarch’s authority is contested in Moldova by the Romanians and the supporters of Constantinople. In this, Moldova reflects the situation in Estonia where, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are also two Orthodox Churches, one that acknowledges Constantinople and one that has stuck with Moscow.

It is at this point that we see a pattern emerging. Territories that have broken away from the Soviet Union and Russian domination seem eventually to want religious independence as well. Patriarch Kirill has done, and will continue to do his best to frustrate this, but his religious empire seems to be going the way of the Soviet empire before it. While the Russian Church outside Russia will continue, there is good evidence that it will face competition from non-Russian Orthodox Churches. In other words, the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate may, in future, be confined to the territory of the Russian Federation. If that happens, it will mean that the Russian Church will no longer be the ‘big beast’ of the Orthodox world.

All this, or something like it, has happened before. In the days of the Ottoman Empire, all the Orthodox Churches in the Balkans were part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, a Patriarchate that existed through the will of the Turkish Sultan. The said Patriarch was answerable to the Sultan for the good behaviour of the Orthodox Christians in the Empire.

As the Empire dissolved, so too did the authority of the Constantinople Patriarchate, as countries such as Greece and Bulgaria became not just independent, but also religiously so, with their own autocephalous churches. Now, though the Patriarchate of Constantinople holds primacy of honour, its actual canonical territory is tiny in terms of population, as hardly any Christians of any sort live in modern Turkey. (The Patriarchate also, technically, has authority over the ‘New Territories’, those lands that joined Greece in 1913.) Just as Constantinople faced the end of empire and the waning of influence, so too Moscow faces the same thing.

So what does all this mean? Orthodoxy has no Pope, let us remember, and the Orthodox themselves are adamant on this matter, attributing to Constantinople primacy of honour alone, though there is disagreement about what this means in practical terms. However, there has long been competition to be the pre-eminent figure in world Orthodoxy, contested between Moscow and Constantinople. Moscow may perhaps be losing its claim to be the leading centre of Orthodoxy. If this happens, Constantinople may well benefit; but in the long run we must all look forward to an Orthodox world that is – one hesitates to say more divided than ever – governed by several sources of authority, a group of Churches where power is diffused rather than centralised. One thing is for sure: this will make ecumenical dialogue that more challenging.