Moscow Patriarch Kirill speaking on October 18, 2019. Photo: novayagazeta.ru
The harsh even hysterical reaction of the Moscow Patriarchate to the decision of the Greek Orthodox Church to recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reflects the fact that the Greek move may be a bigger defeat for the Russian church than even the original grant by the Universal Patriarch.
That is because the Greek church is large, with more than 10,000 parishes, while Constantinople, like many other of the most ancient Orthodox churches, is very small; and the Greek action will likely open the way for them and other national Orthodox churches to recognize Kyiv as self-standing.
In a Novaya gazeta commentary, Aleksandr Soldatov says that the Greek move forced Moscow Patriarch Kirill to convene for the second time in a month a church council to decide what to do. (The first, a week earlier, was to accept several Russian Orthodox congregations in Europe into the Moscow Patriarchate).
Moscow is especially concerned about the Greek move because of how it was made and because of the overwhelming support it had from the hierarchy in the Greek church. On the one hand, the Greek Orthodox declared that it recognized the Universal Patriarchate’s right to grant autocephaly unilaterally, something Moscow has contested.
And on the other, despite Moscow’s efforts to affect the outcome of the Greek decision, only eight of the 130 prelates taking part in the Greek Orthodox decision voted against it, a clear indication of where opinion among the Orthodox is going as far as Ukraine is concerned and a sign that Moscow’s influence is declining.
Soldatov says that some within the hierarchy are even suggesting that the head of the church’s foreign relations department, Metropolitan Ilarion, be dismissed for his failure to block the Greek move, even installing a new deputy with reported knowledge of far more foreign languages. Including Arabic, the working language of the Antioch patriarchate.
Church observers say that the Moscow Patriarchate had three options: breaking with the Greek church as it has with Constantinople, seeking talks, or breaking only with those Greek hierarchs who voted against Moscow’s line. Moscow chose the last even though it violates church rules and will be seen as an unwelcome Russian effort to split other churches.
But just how worried the Moscow Patriarchate is about the impact of the Greek decision is suggested by a comment Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin made in his blog. He suggested that by supporting the Ukrainian church, the Greek one had “ceased to be a church” and become “a satanic assemblage” instead.
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