“Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God. If any man walk about with strange doctrine, he cannot lie down with the passion. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons.”
— St. Ignatius Of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians.
I have a friend who is a descendant of a historically important Byzantine family, members of which have achieved sainthood in the Orthodox church. He also happens to be a priest who conducts missionary work among English-speaking Australians hitherto unexposed to Orthodoxy. His mission is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
A week ago, should I have wanted to do so, I could have attended his parish to take communion. There I would have found a group of parishioners from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds reveling in the one common thing that unites them: a belief in a common set of principles. If I was in need of a sacrament or spiritual succour, I could seek his assistance. Now, that privilege is questionable, for the church he serves, is apparently no longer the one I belong to. His church falls under the auspices of the Russian Patriarchate of Moscow. My church falls under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Russian church has declared that it is in schism with what is considered to be the spiritual head of all Orthodox churches globally. As a result, to quote the Holy Synod of the Russian church:
“Henceforth and until the Constantinople Patriarchate renounces its accepted anti-canonical decisions, for all clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church it is not possible to serve with the clergy of the Constantinople Church; and for the laity, it is not possible to participate in the sacraments served in its churches.”
The “anti-canonical decisions” mentioned to by the Synod, refer to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s recent restoration to canonical status of the leader and members of an Orthodox church group in the Ukraine that was hitherto unrecognised by the Orthodox churches worldwide. This is symptomatic of a larger conflict that has been simmering between Moscow and Constantinople ever since the independence of the Ukraine decades ago, as to under whose jurisdiction Orthodox churches in the country lie. It is, in effect, a turf war.
And what a convoluted, arcane turf war it is. Historically, the Orthodox Metropolis of Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, was founded by the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the tenth century.
The Byzantine legacy is apparent in the most beautiful of its churches, Saint Sophia, modelled after its namesake. That Metropolis was moved several first to Vladimir in 1299 and then again in 1240, when Kiev was sacked by the Mongols, then to Moscow in 1325, after moving several times between Vilnius in Lithuania and Galych, while a separate Metropolis of Kiev was re-founded in 1458.
Mutual recognition of sacraments such as baptisms and weddings are now placed in jeopardy, for according to church law, one cannot share a religious life with schismatics. The Russian church has decreed that if any of its adherents commune (that is pray or worship) with parishioners of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, they must confess to their own priest and repent.
In the meantime, the Ecumenical Patriarchate raised the Metropolitan of Moscow to the status of Patriarch in 1589, thus creating the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1686, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, now situated within the hostile Ottoman Empire, transferred responsibility for ordaining the Metropolitan of Kiev to the Patriarch of Moscow. It is this right of ordination which is the major bone of contention between the parties. It should be noted that in 1700 Peter the Great abolished the office of Moscow Patriarchate and it was only reinstated in 1917, meaning that for most of its independent existence, the Russian Church has not had a Patriarch. Incidentally, as part of its policy of Slavicisation, Moscow also abolished the Patriarchate of Georgia in 1811, when Georgia came under Russian control, until 1917.
What led to the schism of the Moscow Patriarchate from the Ecumenical Patriarchate
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, to whose jurisdiction canonical Greek-speaking churches in Australia belong, argues that it never fully gave jurisdiction over the Kiev Metropolis to Moscow, but only temporarily granted the Moscow Patriarchate the right to ordain its metropolitan to Kiev, a right that it has just recently revoked amidst controversy.
The Moscow Patriarchate argues that, because the Ecumenical Patriarchate made no claims over the Ukraine for over 300 years (when it formed part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union), because of the close connection between the Kiev Metropolis and its successor in Moscow, and because the 1686 document gives no expiration for the action, the Ukraine has been an integral part of the Moscow Patriarchate ever since.
The Moscow Patriarchate alleges that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is actually intruding into canonical territory that does not belong to it, something which violates Canon Law.
The Moscow Patriarchate also alleges that, although the Ecumenical Patriarchate claims that a church can only be made self-governing (autocephaly) by the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, until recently, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was arguing that a grant of autocephaly, of the type it envisages for the Ukraine, requires the unanimous approval of all the other orthodox churches worldwide, something that has not been provided in this instance.
Apart from the issues of ecclesiastical law, there is also a fraught political situation on the Ukraine, which all parties are responding to: Russia, or Russian affiliated groups are in occupation of Ukrainian territory and inter-ethnic tensions are high.
There are also three separate Orthodox jurisdictions vying for control over their Ukrainian parishioners: the Metropolis of Kiev, under the Moscow Patriarchate (until recently the only recognised Orthodox jurisdiction worldwide and the largest group), the so-called Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kievan Patriarchate led by Filaret Denysenko, founded in 1992 when it went into schism from the Metropolis of Kiev) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church led by Makariy Maletych.
Owing to fears of Russian domination of the Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has actively supported the ‘Ukrainian’ churches, hoping to create a ‘national’ church, away from Moscow’s sway. As a result, a low-key violent internecine war has been simmering, with the breakaway Ukrainian churches seizing Moscow-oriented church buildings, intimidating and inflicting bodily harm upon parishioners, allegedly with the connivance or at least with the indifference of the authorities.
It is this situation that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has tried to resolve, seeking to break the canonical impasse of churches at war with each other, by husbanding a situation where under a regime such as exists in Estonia, Ukrainians of whatever linguistic or ethnic affiliation can either choose to belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, or the as yet ambiguous in nature Metropolis to be formed in the Ukraine under the Ecumenical Patriarchate and have mutual recognition of sacraments, in a safe environment, without the violence and hatred that has characterised religious life in the Ukraine up until now. Instead, it has waded into an ecclesiastical and political quagmire, where geostrategic interests seem to take precedence over ministering to the parishioners, a conflict that threatens to burst Orthodoxy apart at its seams.
How the Schism affects Australian Orthodox Christians in Australia
Australia is far removed from the Ukraine. Greek-Australian media has chosen to focus its attention on the canonical status of the Greek speaking St Savva of Kalymnos ‘church’ which, breaking away from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to affiliate itself with the Ukrainian Patriarchate that though hitherto schismatic, may possibly now have been rendered canonical thanks to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s recent decision.
Yet much more is at stake than the canonical status of a minor schismatic group. In Australia, underlining the Orthodox Church’s denouncement of ‘ethnophyletism,’ the conflation between church and nation, hundreds of parishioners visit the parishes of other linguistic traditions every week. Many play an active role in assisting in the life of those parishes and parish priests often do reach out over ethnic divides to seek assistance from orthodox of other linguistic traditions in the furtherance of their missionary work. Many Orthodox Australians in need have been assisted because of such inter-ethnic interaction within the church.
As a result, parish life is made all the richer for the cultural exchange, the ensuing goodwill and sharing of ideas that follows.
Although the Orthodox Church in Australia is largely organised according to one’s place of origin, in reality, parishioners’ lives transcend ethnic and linguistic divides. There has been significant intermarriage between Orthodox groups. In times of crisis, all Orthodox churches come together to formulate common approaches on social or other issues of concern. They constantly collaborate. In Australia therefore, the Orthodox Church truly is an icon of multiculturalism. All of these elements, particular to Australia, and especially, mutual recognition of sacraments such as baptisms and weddings are now placed in jeopardy, for according to church law, one cannot share a religious life with schismatics. The Russian church has decreed that if any of its adherents commune (that is pray or worship) with parishioners of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, they must confess to their own priest and repent.
Although local priests of all orthodox churches have been quick to press upon their parishioners the importance of remaining calm and allowing events to unfold, they have been unable to hold back the disbelief, dismay and derision Australian Orthodox faithful feel at this rupture in world-wide Orthodoxy. In some cases, zealots on both sides are beginning to add fuel to the fire by casting racially-based invectives and slurs at each other. All of a sudden, parties on either side who considered one another sister churches, are now convinced of the other’s intrinsic malevolence. From an in theory worldwide communion, a tribal ethos emerges, one that is diametrically opposed to the teachings of Orthodoxy and Australian multiculturalism.
And before the altar, my friend, the priest, suddenly and unexpectedly torn in two by his ethnic background and religious jurisdiction, prays, as he does every Sunday: “for the unity of faith and for the communion of the Holy Spirit, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.” As he does, so too do the churches of Russia and the Ecumenical Patriarchate resound with the same prayer, and the people on either side of the divide, watch and wait.