Vladimir Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill presiding over a meeting with the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate on July 27, 2013 in Kyiv, Ukraine, less than a year before the Russian annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas. The head of this Moscow exarchate in Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufriy, is seated in the middle of the front row. (Photo: kremlin.ru)
The decision of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC MP) to allow the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) some greater flexibility and to begin talks with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP) have two serious consequences, Igor Kryuchkov says.
On the one hand, the two deepen the split of world Orthodoxy, already riven by feuds among its various branches, the religious affairs commentator says; but on the other “they open the possibility for strengthening the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine,” a goal the Kremlin very much seeks.
The first decision, to allow the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to administer its affairs from Kyiv did not change anything, ROC MP sources say. Instead, this decision was taken so that the church in Ukraine would not fall afoul of Kyiv’s hostility to any organization “’with an administrative center in the aggressor country.’”
And thus while it attracted a fair amount of attention and overreading – for a discussion of that, see Moscow Patriarchate hasn’t ‘freed’ Ukrainian Orthodox Church but rather imposed new limits – it is the second action by the ROC MP hierarchs that is far more important not only in Ukraine where it puts Orthodox there in a difficult position but in the Orthodox world more generally.
The relationship between the ROC MP and the UOC KP is fraught because the latter demands recognition of itself as an autocephalous church, and the ROC MP, committed to the principle of its self-proclaimed “canonical territory” across the entire former Soviet space is not prepared to take that step.
But the announcement by the hierarchs of the ROC MP that the Moscow church is now prepared to enter into talks with the UOC KP represents a breakthrough because the UOC KP is interested in only one thing: recognition of its self-standing status in the world of Orthodox Christianity.
Russian news agencies say, Kryuchkov continues, that the ROC MP intends to establish a special commission headed by Metropolitan Ilarion, the head of the Moscow patriarchate’s department of external relations. It raises the stakes in Ukraine, given that the UOC KP has indicated that it will never rejoin the ROC MP as Moscow has demanded.
As a source close to the UOC KP points out, there is no “generally recognized procedure for recognizing a new autocephaly” within Orthodoxy. On the one hand, some think that it can be offered only by the Mother Church, in this case, the ROC MP, which at least up to now has been unwilling to do that.
And on the other, some believe that it can be extended by the Constantinople patriarchate. Those who believe that placed great hopes in the Crete meeting last summer that was supposed to attract all Orthodox patriarchates but which in fact didn’t: The Bulgarian, Georgian and Antioch ones refused from the outset, and the ROC MP subsequently joined them.
The ROC MP blamed Constantinople for the failure of this meeting, “the first in 300 years,” Kryuchkov says. The real problem is that Constantinople views itself as the monarch among Orthodox while other Orthodox churches, including the Russian one view themselves as equal in standing.
The decisions this past week in Moscow, however, raise some important issues. By giving the UOC MP administrative independence at least nominally, the ROC MP has “strengthened the trend toward the differential of the positions of Constantinople and Moscow.” That risks leading to new conflicts among the Orthodox churches and thus Orthodox powers.
But the ROC MP has also “raised the political stakes in Ukraine. Having strengthened the autonomy of its Ukrainian branch, the ROC MP has put before the Kyiv authorities a hard choice: either to continue the struggle with influence in two Orthodox bishoprics, both of which are now [formally] subordinate to Kyiv or change its approach, which will lead only to a deepening of a religious split.”
And at the same time, because the ROC MP would like to emphasize its equality with Constantinople, Moscow may be quite pleased to at least discuss some kind of approach to autocephaly for the Orthodox in Ukraine, thus showing that it can do that “without an agreement with Constantinople.”
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