In December last year, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople recognised an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine. In doing so, he risked turning the longstanding rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow into open and enduring schism: he was establishing a new ecclesial body on territory over which Moscow still claims jurisdiction.
Almost a year later the split continues to deepen and spread. Since mid-October, two important autocephalous churches have recognised the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), provoking fury and retaliatory sanctions from Moscow.
The October 12 decision of the Greek Holy Synod to recognise the OCU was not entirely surprising. Though independent of the Mother Church since 1833, the Church of Greece has traditionally supported Constantinople’s primacy of honour. However, there remains a wing of the Greek Church, more traditionalist and suspicious of Constantinople’s openness to ecumenism and dialogue with modernity, which had conspicuously followed Moscow’s harder line.
But opposition from this faction to recognising the OCU seems to have been weak, with fewer dissenting voices than anticipated. Indications are that strong-arm tactics from the Russians have backfired. Many prelates have denounced pressures from Moscow as amounting to blackmail and bribery.
Something similar seems to have happened when Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria announced his recognition of the OCU on November 8. This was a major surprise.
The ancient Alexandrian Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, claiming jurisdiction over the entire African continent, has survived essentially as a result of the important Greek diaspora there. Despite recent missionary expansion among native Africans, its hierarchy remains dominated by ethnic Greeks and Cypriots. Until this month’s sudden decision, however, Theodoros had very publicly leaned towards the Russian side in the dispute, denouncing the OCU’s Metropolitan Epiphanius as a schismatic.
This month, however, Theodoros commemorated Epiphanius liturgically as a brother bishop. Why the sudden volte-face? It does seem that here too perceived bullying from Moscow has been counter-productive. The Moscow Patriarchate’s attempts to use political pressures too reliant on the methods and influence of the Russian state have not succeeded in its aim of isolating Constantinople and its nascent Ukrainian protégé.
The result will be a damaging and, sadly, probably a lasting split. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has broken communion with hierarchs who concelebrate with OCU bishops and attempted to ban Russian pilgrims from travelling to sites in Greece under their jurisdiction. Many Orthodox churches, such as those in other Slavic lands, will follow Moscow in insisting that the only canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine is the one remaining in communion with Moscow, and may well take measures in support of its position.
However, Moscow’s attempts to create an unstoppable consensus against Constantinople seem to have stalled. The OCU, though it will not wholly supplant the Moscow-backed Church in Ukraine, is here to stay, and Constantinople has gathered important support.
It will be interesting to see if the Moscow patriarchate learns from its mistakes and chooses more diplomatic methods over political pressures to pursue its aims in future.