Autocephaly – The Politics of Religion

Sometime in the next month or two, Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople Bartholomew will issue a “Tomos”, a special religious decree granting autocephaly (self government) to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

This is something that most Ukrainian Orthodox faithful have been waiting for since 1686, when the Patriarchate was moved under dubious and politically motivated circumstances from Kyiv to Moscow. To most Ukrainians, that move had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with Moscow’s imperialistic campaigns to conquer and subjugate all the lands of Eastern Europe, Siberia and the far east of Asia. To the Muscovites, the Orthodox church was just another tool to be used to achieve that aim. Since then, the Orthodox church in Ukraine has been under the reactionary and Russified rule of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP).

The tight allegiance of the MP to the current Russian state is but a continuation of a centuries old symbiotic relationship. During Tsarist times, the church was one of the pillars that supported the autocratic feudal state. This misguided loyalty was aptly demonstrated by the Russian Orthodox church declaring in the year 2000 that the last Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and his five children, would be named saints. One can debate that moral strengths and weaknesses of the last Tsar, but to name this autocrat who was responsible for the persecution and death of thousands a saint, says much about the lack of moral and spiritual underpinning of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Over the past several decades, the MP has been a staunch supporter of Putin’s anti-Ukrainian policies, and a de facto agency of the Russian government. There are credible claims that the current Patriarch, Kirill, was a long-time agent of the KGB, and it is highly likely that he still has strong ties to the Russian secret services. Kirill make no bones about his support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Priests of the MP in Ukraine have overtly co-operated and assisted the Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine in their illegal invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territories. The churches of the MP in Ukraine are nothing else but a fifth column serving the interests of their masters in Moscow.

Patriarch Kirill and the MP are particularly vociferous in condemning the impending Tomos, claiming it to be nothing more than a political power play initiated by Ukraine’s President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government. To be fair, there is some truth in this assertion. However, coming from the mouth of the head of a church whose actions for centuries have been purely political and anything but spiritual, is to give new meaning to both irony and hypocrisy.

The granting of the Tomos, though a coup for Ukraine and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, will bring on a whole new set of challenges and issues that will not be easy to resolve. There are no less than three Orthodox churches in Ukraine – those of the Moscow Patriarchate, those of the breakaway Kyiv Patriarchate, and also those of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

The latter two have had ongoing merger discussions for decades, but to date, no agreement has yet been reached. Once the Kyivan Patriarchate (KP) is made canonical, there will no doubt be increased pressure for the Autocephalous church to join them, but it is by no means guaranteed that that is what will actually happen.

The MP will, of course, oppose any efforts to forcibly incorporate their parishes in Ukraine into the new autocephalous and now “canonical” KP. The biggest dilemma will fall on the average Orthodox believer who belongs to an MP parish. They have always been told that the MP was the only true canonical church, and the other Orthodox churches in Ukraine were schismatic, if not heretical. Now, the Ecumenical Patriarchate will make the KP officially “canonical”. When that happens, the MP has threatened to break ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate under whose jurisdiction it theoretically falls. If that becomes the case, it will itself lose its “canonicity”.

What is the poor bewildered MP parishioner to do?

There is also the question of what happens to the Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the West, including those of the U.S. and Canada. They currently fall directly under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Once the Tomos is granted, will they be transferred to the KP, or will they stay under Constantinople?

Sadly, what most of the ordinary faithful don’t realize, is that this whole issue of canonicity has really very little to do with the religious or spiritual teachings of Christianity, be it Orthodox or otherwise. Canonicity was a political construct created in the wake of the split of the early church between Rome and Constantinople. It has little to do with doctrine and belief and everything to do with power, jurisdiction and control. It is in that context that the new conflicts over “canonicity” will be fought.

There is one more thing worthy of note in these events. Patriarch Bartholomew has designated Archbishop Daniel of the U.S. and Bishop Ilarion of Canada to be his Exarchs, or representatives in Ukraine to work out the arrangements for the Tomos with the Ukrainian religious and political authorities. I suspect there may be some symbolism at play here, namely that maybe the Patriarch sees the future vision and leadership of Orthodoxy as coming from the West and not from the East.