We are facing the biggest split in Christendom for 1,000 years – and Western Christians have barely noticed it. That, at least, is the view of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is currently engaged in a dispute that could tear apart the Orthodox world.
The Russians are outraged because the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has sent two exarchs (envoys) to Ukraine. He has asked them to prepare the way for a “tomos of autocephaly” – a declaration of independence for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians.
The Russians consider this a gross violation of Church law. Russian Orthodoxy was born in Ukraine in the 10th century and the tomos would sever its historical roots. The Moscow Patriarchate also stands to lose millions of followers just as it is seeking to project itself as the world’s dominant Orthodox Church.
According to senior Russian official Metropolitan Hilarion, Moscow will respond to the tomos by breaking off communion with Constantinople. “Now the Patriarchate of Constantinople pose as a sort of leader of the 300 million-strong Orthodox population of the globe and the Patriarch of Constantinople is perceived as almost the Orthodox pope,” he said on Russian state television. “But at least a half of this 300 million-strong population will no longer recognise him even as the first in the family of Orthodox Churches.”
How did it come to this? From the 10th century onwards, the Church in Kiev was under the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. But in 1686, it was absorbed into the Moscow Patriarchate. Orthodox Christians in Ukraine have split into three main groups, one under the Moscow Patriarchate, another centred on Kiev and a third describing itself as autocephalous. After the Russian military intervened in Ukraine in 2014, resentment towards the Moscow Patriarchate grew. This April the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko asked the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly to Ukraine.
The Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision to send envoys is the culmination of years of conflict with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 2016, Moscow found reasons to reject Constantinople’s invitation to a historic Pan-Orthodox Council. Russian hackers indicted by the US special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal Bartholomew’s private correspondence, with a particular interest in Ukraine.
The rupture between Moscow and Constantinople presents a quandary for Rome. The fragmentation of Orthodoxy would make the reunion of East and West even harder. Under Pope Francis, the Vatican has courted both Moscow and Constantinople, but it might be forced to choose between the two. Catholics in Ukraine, meanwhile, may adopt a different stance from the Vatican. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church insists it does not interfere in Orthodox affairs.
But the Church’s leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has said that he looks “positively upon the efforts to overcome the divisions in Ukrainian Orthodoxy” – which sounds like coded support for Bartholomew’s vision of a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church in communion with Constantinople.
Recent media coverage of the Russian Orthodox Church has emphasised its growing strength after decades of persecution. But just six per cent of Orthodox adults attend church at least weekly in Russia, which has an ever diminishing population. If it loses its historic foothold in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate’s internal weakness will be cruelly exposed – and along with it, the fragility of the whole Orthodox world.
The first day at a new school can be confusing and disorienting – all the more so if you have to work out your travel arrangements. Last week, a Year 7 pupil at Holy Family, Thornton, Liverpool, suddenly realised he was on the wrong bus home. He had no money or phone, and the bus was rapidly taking him further away from his destination. With nobody to turn to, he started quietly weeping.
It would have been easy to look the other way. Fortunately, his new schoolmates were on hand. An older pupil, Tom O’Brien, aged 15, asked what the problem was. When he understood the situation, O’Brien gave the younger lad a £10 note and told him to get a taxi. “It’s OK, mate, don’t worry,” O’Brien reportedly said. “You’ll be home soon.” And when the boy got out of the bus, two other Holy Family pupils came with him, to make sure he got home safely.
It’s a modern Good Samaritan story, in its own small way. And we should be glad that a Catholic school has helped to instil these principles. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the word “kindness”, and it’s true that niceness is not a substitute for the great virtues of faith, hope and charity. But such small acts are nevertheless a reflection of God’s love.
That habit of kindness is something we could all try harder to build up. Like any virtue, it strengthens or weakens over time depending on whether we practise it. As O’Brien’s father commented on Facebook, “It isn’t out of character for Tom. I am a youth centre manager and he and his mates help out there … He knows what to do around people who need help.”
What’s more, kindness is infectious. The Liverpool Echo reports that the taxi driver didn’t charge for the journey.