Christian Geopolitics and the Ukrainian Ecclesiastical Crisis


It is a cliché that the internal politics of the Orthodox Church are, well, Byzantine. And this current crisis, in which the ostensible bone of contention is the ecclesiastical independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, is no different. Reflecting the complexities of the Orthodox world, the Ukrainian saga cannot be boiled down to a simple narrative with clear angels (freedom-loving Ukrainians fighting for religious and spiritual independence) and villains (an FSB-controlled, Putin-loving Moscow Patriarchate). In what follows, I seek to provide interested observers with a roadmap toward understanding the stakes in this situation.

What’s Happened, and Common Interpretations Thereof

In recent weeks, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has declared that his patriarchate no longer regarded as valid the claims of the Russian Orthodox Church over the Orthodox population in Ukraine, and that he was moving toward re-establishing the Kievan Metropolia (an Orthodox administrative unit headed by a senior bishop with the title of metropolitan) under Constantinople’s control, with the view of shortly thereafter granting this entity the status of an autocephalous (i.e., fully independent) Orthodox church. Bartholomew has seconded two bishops as special envoys to Ukraine in order to begin the process launched by his declaration. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church took the extreme step of severing ecclesiastical communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and put on ice participation in any pan-Orthodox meetings that would involve Constantinople’s representatives.

Headlines in secular media outlets around the globe interpreted this as the biggest split in Christendom since the schism between the Latin West and the Orthodox East in 1054. These same stories also tended to assign a purely political interpretation to the situation, with Western media viewing Moscow’s reaction as that of a frustrated imperial power, one that, by virtue of being imperial, was thoroughly in the wrong. Russian media outlets, for their part, perpetuated the idea that the movement toward Ukrainian autocephaly was the result of a plot by the United States, which had supposedly manipulated the aging Bartholomew into inflicting yet another wound meant to hit Russia where it hurts most (phantom imperial pains over Ukraine and all that).

These explanations of the situation are, however, facile, in that they ignore very real issues that are roiling the global Orthodox Church. These issues go the heart of the church’s understanding of itself.

The Macro Issue at Stake: What Is Autocephaly and Who Gets to Grant It?

Unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church has no centralized administration and no equivalent to the Pope. Instead, the faithful are divided among a set of Local Churches, each headed by a senior bishop, who often but not always holds the title of patriarch. The Local Churches are presumed to be united to each other in the profession of a specific interpretation of the Christian message and are administratively equal to each other in terms of status, although there is a certain honorific ranking that reflects the historical evolution of the Orthodox Church. The “founding mythology” of the church holds that, initially, there were five patriarchates, the so-called Pentarchy, consisting of Jerusalem, Antioch (Damascus), Alexandria, Rome, and, eventually, Byzantium/Constantinople. The split with Rome in 1054 brought the number of Local Churches down to four, with Constantinople, as the state church of the dominant political power of the day, viewed as the senior in terms of honor.

Over the centuries, new Local Churches emerged, usually in response to geopolitical shifts, in which Byzantium lost ecclesiastical control in proportion to its territorial losses as the empire shrank in the face of Arab, Persian, and Ottoman competition. As of 2018, the number of canonically recognized autocephalous Local Churches was approximately 15 (the status of the Orthodox Church of America is disputed because, while it was granted autocephaly in 1970 by the Moscow Patriarchate, that status has not been recognized by eight of the other Local Churches, including Constantinople), ranging in size from the megalith Moscow Patriarchate to the diminutive Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. “Canonically recognized” is the key term here. It means simply that the other Local Churches recognize the claims of a particular church to autocephaly as legitimate. Their mutual recognition is ritually enacted at every liturgy presided over by the head of a particular Local Church, in which this hierarch commemorates his fellow “first hierarchs” at a central moment of the ceremony.

Membership in the club of autocephalous Local Churches is desirable to practicing Orthodox Christians because it guarantees that one belongs to a truly Orthodox, non-heretical church (that is, one that recognizes the corpus of dogma developed by the Seven Ecumenical Councils), and that one may partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist in any church understood as legitimate, even if it happens to not be your local (in most cases, national) church. For Orthodox clergy (both priests and bishops), belonging to a canonically recognized Orthodox Local Church means not just the ability to concelebrate but also the feeling of security that comes with being part of a large, internationally recognized organization that is capable occasionally of acting as a voice for its constituency, whether it be through the World Council of Churches or directly petitioning governments in the interests of a local Orthodox population.

Most seriously for the purposes of the discussion here, autocephaly for a particular Local Church has, more often than not, accompanied the achievement of political independence. Particularly since the beginning of the 19th century, Local Churches have come to be viewed as national churches, in such a way that a perceived attack on the integrity of a particular church is likely to be interpreted as an attack on the nation itself.

One other factor needs to be mentioned here: For reasons too complex to go into at the present moment, many of the contemporary Local Churches have been affected by schism within their ranks, to the point where there are competing ecclesiastical jurisdictions that have challenged the legitimacy of the churches of Russia, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, and even Constantinople itself. These schismatic Orthodox organizations fall under the umbrella of a phenomenon known within the field of Orthodox studies as “Alternative Orthodoxy.” They are rather insignificant in terms of membership and are not as a rule recognized by any of the canonical autocephalous churches.

The central question that arises here is this: Given that there is no centralized authority in the Orthodox world equivalent to the Pope in Rome, who has the authority to grant autocephaly to an emerging (national) church? This issue is key to understanding the messy Ukrainian situation. For now, suffice it to say that, for the majority of the Local Churches in existence today, it was the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Constantinople) that granted their independence — which makes sense given that (as I discuss more below), in this case, independence was being granted to Orthodox who had previously submitted to Constantinople’s ecclesiastical rule. But does the fact that, historically, Constantinople has done most of the “autocephaly giving” mean that the ability to do so is its exclusive prerogative, and one that it can exercise within the territorial boundaries of other Local Churches, with or without their consent? In short, does Constantinople have a say in the creation of an independent Orthodox church in Ukraine, or does it not?

This is the heart of the dispute between Moscow and Constantinople today. And it has implications for the entire Orthodox world. Each of the Local Churches today are surely asking themselves whether or not Constantinople may, one day, decide to grant autocephaly to schismatic groups in Serbia, Romania, Georgia, etc., or even if it will pretend to exercise full ecclesiastical control over all Orthodox Christians living in the confines of the United States, for example.

And finally, before turning to the specific case of Ukraine, the whole picture is complicated yet further by the fact that global Orthodoxy has, at least over the past 100 years or so, been — broadly speaking — split into two camps, one leaning toward Russia and the other leaning toward Constantinople. The divide is both cultural and theological, with Constantinople viewed as more modern and liberal and the Moscow Patriarchate perceived as a bulwark of conservatism. In terms of numbers, the Russian local church far outstrips Constantinople. The Patriarchate of Moscow lays claim to the allegiance of at least 100 million Orthodox in Russia itself, in addition to millions of parishioners across the former Soviet Union and farther afield among the Russian-speaking diaspora. In contrast, Constantinople has a few hundred elderly Greeks living within the walls of Istanbul and approximately 3.5 million parishioners scattered in the diaspora who acknowledge Bartholomew as their first hierarch. In light of this nearly 10-to-one numerical superiority, the strategy of Constantinople has been to stress its position as “first among equals.” We therefore are forced to place Ukraine into the context of competition between Moscow and Constantinople for prestige and spiritual authority.

The Micro Issue: To Whom Is Autocephaly Being Granted in Ukraine?

It gets even more complicated when we turn to inter-Orthodox jurisdictional issues in Ukraine. Even assuming that one granted Constantinople’s prerogative to hand out autocephaly to the Orthodox living in that country, the question remains: To whom exactly is autocephaly being granted? A brief historical discussion will show why this is such a convoluted issue.

When the Prince of Kiev converted to Orthodoxy in 988 AD, it was at the hands of missionaries from Constantinople. The Greeks consecrated a local bishop for the newly founded Metropolia of Kiev, and, for the next 400 years or so, the successive metropolitans of Kiev were canonically under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. After the fall of Kiev to the Mongols, the Kievan prelate moved north, eventually bringing his seat to Moscow. He continued to style himself metropolitan of Kiev until the mid-15th century, and his election continued to be confirmed by Constantinople. When, in 1439, the Greeks signed the so-called Florentine Union with the Catholic Church, the Moscow-based Orthodox church refused to follow suit and for the first time selected its own metropolitan without the permission of Constantinople. In other words, it became de facto autocephalous. But for reasons too complicated to go into here, this de facto autocephaly did not cover the significant parts of the territory of the former Kievan principality — Ukraine. So, from 1458 there existed two metropolia on the territory whose rulers claimed their roots in the Kievan principality of old: the Kievan (under Constantinople) and that of Moscow (de facto independent).

By the end of the 16th century, the metropolitans of Moscow achieved the status of ‘Patriarchs,’ and formal acknowledgment of their autocephaly by Constantinople and by the other eastern patriarchs. (How they did so is an interesting story in itself. Among other factors, as a minority faith under the Ottomans, the eastern Orthodox patriarchates depended heavily on the financial support of the tsars of Moscow). The Kievan Metropolia remained under Constantinople until 1687, a situation that changed with the annexation of Left-Bank Ukraine to the Tsardom of Moscow, at which point the Moscow and Constantinople patriarchates signed an agreement transferring ecclesiastical over-lordship of the Kievan Metropolia to Moscow.

For more than three centuries, this remained the status quo. And when, in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a segment of the Ukrainian clergy declared independence from the Russian Church, setting up the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, none of the other Local Churches, including Constantinople, recognized this new jurisdiction, which for most of the 20th century existed largely as a network of parishes in the North American Ukrainian diaspora. After the end of communism in Ukraine, the church “returned home,” but has been unable to garner the adherence of more than 2 percent of the Ukrainian population.

Subsequently, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a situation in which approximately half of the parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate were now located within the geographical confines of the newly-independent Ukrainian state. In response to growing demands by the Ukrainian clergy for ecclesiastical independence, the Moscow Patriarchate granted them broad autonomy, whereby the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate became, for the most part, self-governing, with its own council of bishops, educational institutions, ecclesiastical departments, etc., in exchange for continuing to acknowledge the patriarch of Moscow as their spiritual head (“Great Lord and Father,” in Orthodox parlance). Since the early 1990s, then, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate has functioned as the only Orthodox church in Ukraine recognized as canonical by all the Local Churches, and, prior to 2014, the Orthodox church with the majority of followers in Ukraine (the situation has changed somewhat since then, on which more is below).

At approximately the same time, however, clashing ambitions and personalities among the Moscow Patriarchate hierarchy resulted in the creation of an additional Orthodox church in Ukraine. Very briefly, in 1990, the death of Patriarch Pimen I had led to the election of Aleksii (Ridiger) as patriarch of Moscow, leaving out in the cold the then-Metropolitan of Kiev, Filaret (Denisenko), who had been widely seen as Pimen’s successor. More than that — Filaret’s personal life clashed with Orthodox norms for bishops, who are supposed to be celibate monks. He had three children and a publicly visible common-law wife, which raised questions about his moral probity. When the Moscow Patriarchate got around to raising these questions, Filaret’s reaction was to split to form his own Orthodox church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, with himself as its head, which he remains to this day. As in the case of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, this church has not been recognized as canonical by any of the other Local Churches. As for the number of Filaret’s followers, statistics on jurisdictional adherence in Ukraine are notoriously unreliable  (and differ rather wildly depending on the particular sympathies of those producing them), but it is clear that in the post-2014 environment, the number of Ukrainians identifying themselves with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate has gone up, as the latter has positioned itself as a resolutely nationalist jurisdiction. The Ukrainian church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate has, in the meantime, suffered somewhat of a decline (although again exact numbers are impossible to pin down).  A safe bet would be to assume that each of these two jurisdictions has the support of perhaps 25 percent of the Ukrainian population.

Given that there are three Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine, of which one is canonical and the others not, to whom is Constantinople granting autocephaly? Ostensibly, Bartholomew undertook his action in response to lobbying by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian parliament (in which they were joined by representatives of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church), seeking his approval for the creation of an autocephalous Orthodox church that would not even nominally be subjugated to a foreign and currently hostile power. The problem is that this lobbying effort has not been joined by Metropolitan of Kiev Onuphri (of the Moscow Patriarchate). In other words, the one canonical church in Ukraine has actually not asked for autocephaly from anyone. And granting autocephaly to either one of the other two groups would not work either, because none of the other Orthodox Local Churches recognize them as legitimate.

Bartholomew’s way around this problem has been rather creative. Rather than granting autocephaly to a specific group, Constantinople has, rather, reneged on the above-mentioned 17th century agreement with Moscow that gave the latter control of the Kiev Metropolia, and declared that it is going to set the metropolia up anew, with the intent of giving it independence. The assumption, one gathers, is that once this new Kievan metropolia is set up, the other three groups will put aside their differences and flock under its banner, and all the Orthodox of Ukraine will get along in one happy national family. The extent to which this is a realistic proposition will be briefly discussed below.

The Political Backdrop (the Media Is Not Totally Wrong)

So much for the internal Orthodox politics. Is the worldwide media right to view this crisis as woven into the tapestry of a new Cold War? Had the split between Moscow and Constantinople happened at any time prior to 2014, it would have merited a short paragraph on page A10 of The New York Times. Indeed, the Moscow Patriarchate and Constantinople are not the only two Local Churches locked, at present, in a dispute that has led to the rupture of relations: The patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem have, since 2014, been in a state of ecclesiastical schism over the question of who gets to ordain clergy for the tiny Orthodox population of Qatar, and this has received virtually no international media coverage.

The annexation of Crimea and the continuing imbroglio in the Donbas region has, quite obviously, led to an acceleration of anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine, making the position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate much less secure than it had been previously. Belonging to a parish in which the priest commemorates the patriarch of Moscow during the liturgy has begun to take on connotations of disloyalty to Ukraine. And it is true that when, in the years between 2008 and 2014, Patriarch Kirill would visit Ukraine, he would do so accompanied by strong rhetoric about the so-called “Russkii Mir”(Russian World) to which Ukraine ostensibly belonged, in the patriarch’s view. These ideas clearly fed into the propaganda of the anti-Kiev forces in Donbas. Moreover, Moscow-based Orthodox oligarchs were alleged to be funneling funds to separatists through various church-related channels. Finally, the refusal of Metropolitan Onufri to treat the Donbas situation as a war of aggression by Russia — he has preferred to speak of it as a civil war — has led to an increasing perception of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate as pro-Russian, despite the fact that, when it came to the annexation of Crimea, Onufri publicly pleaded with the Russian government to not do it.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian government has dropped its previous policy of neutrality toward the three Orthodox jurisdictions, a formula that had worked well since the early 1990s. As the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate have demonstrated unflagging loyalty to the present Ukrainian nationalism, their position vis-à-vis the government has clearly risen in proportion to that of the church that falls under the Moscow Patriarchate. The biggest problem here is land and property. Under Ukrainian law, a rather significant percentage of ecclesiastical property belongs to the state and is simply leased (for free) to the churches using it. And it so happens that more than half of Orthodox ecclesiastical property in Ukraine is occupied by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. In principle, if the government was to decide to transfer all of these churches and monasteries to an as-yet specified other jurisdiction, they could legally do so. And indeed various parliamentary bills have been proposed, limiting the property and civil rights of any religious organization with headquarters based outside Ukraine — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate being the obvious target of such legislation.

In short, for the Ukrainian government, its petition for autocephaly was a consciously anti-Russian action, negatively affecting as it would the one Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine with canonical ties to Moscow. It follows, therefore, that for Constantinople to go ahead and respond positively to this petition would be interpreted as anti-Russian by the Russian powers-that-be. And given the tendency of the Russian establishment to view American involvement behind every proverbial rock, the immediate perception within Russian foreign policy circles was to assign a measure of responsibility to the United States. In this respect, the State Department’s communiques in favor of autocephaly have been distinctly unhelpful, legitimating what might otherwise be considered to be paranoid Russian fears.

Implications for Ukrainian Stability and Possible Ways Forward

In the immediate future, much rests upon two factors. The first is what form “autocephaly” actually takes, if it takes it at all.  If Constantinople succeeds in organizing and legally registering a new Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine (i.e., a new Metropolia of Kiev), and if this new jurisdiction is headed by a bishop recognized by the vast majority of Ukrainians as a legitimate spiritual leader, and if, as a result, the three currently existing jurisdictions meld seamlessly into one, then we would see a consolidation of Ukrainian society that would have positive implications for the future — clearly, an end to inter-Orthodox squabbles in Ukraine would be a positive outcome. However, the current lay of the land is such that this outcome is extremely unlikely, given decades of inter-Orthodox hostility and the reluctance of the vast majority of, at least, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate’s clergy and parishioners to abandon their loyalty to Metropolitan Onuphri for some untested new jurisdictional arrangement. Tellingly, surveys report that approximately one third of all Ukrainians consider themselves to be  simply Orthodox, with no preference for any of the three churches. Whether this means potential sympathy for a new autocephalous church or an attitude of “a pox on all your houses” is anyone’s guess.

The second factor is the Ukrainian government: Will it, or will it not, initiate a mass transfer of property from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to either one of the other two jurisdictions, or to a not-as-yet formed fourth one?  And if it does so, what will happen to all the parishioners and clergy loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate who may not wish to submit to the new rules? The risk of violence here is quite real, even if one might quibble over the degree to which it is so. The same, incidentally, goes for the other two churches: If the government decides that it’s the “new autocephalous church” that is supposed to get all the property, and if it decides that these two jurisdictions are not it either, then what kind of reaction will this spur?

At the end of the day, then, it is this author’s assessment that, instead of proposing a helpful solution to the schisms affecting the Ukrainian Orthodox, the interference of Patriarch Bartholomew has made the situation potentially quite worse, most seriously by adding an element of uncertainty as to the desired outcome that is only going to grow as all sides involved dig in behind their respective self-righteous positions. The clear politicization of what should be an internal church affair further exacerbates the problem, with both the Russian and U.S. governments playing unhelpful roles as they stand up in defense of their favored Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdictions, instead of letting the Ukrainians sort out their problems on their own. Whether or not actual physical violence (of any degree) results from this situation, the rise of societal tension is an obvious byproduct, as is an aggravation of the already unpleasant relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation.

On a positive note, there are some possible ways out of the impasse. I have two suggestions. The first is ecclesiastical and the second is in the realm of international relations. In terms of the first, several of the other Local Churches have indicated that their preferred solution would be for a meeting of all heads of the Local Churches, at which the other 13 would adjudicate the dispute between Moscow and Constantinople. The problem, for now, is that Constantinople has already declared that it has no intention of submitting its decision for review by anyone, but its position on this question may depend on the strength of the reaction from the other Local Churches. The second way forward would be for all governments involved — Russian, Ukrainian, American, and possibly Turkish — to take a step back, to cease issuing statements framing the conflict in terms of the Russian-American confrontation, to acknowledge the need for the Ukrainians to sort things out themselves, and to encourage the various Orthodox factions to do just that, in as apolitical a fashion as possible.

Irina du Quenoy holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Government from Georgetown University. Her research focuses on religion and politics, with a particular emphasis on the Orthodox Church. She taught at the international relations and European studies department of Central European University from 2008 to 2012, subsequently moving to Beirut, Lebanon. Since September 2018, she is based in Washington, DC, and is the managing editor of the Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security.