2023 may go down in history as a milestone in another major schism in the Christian world. The conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul), which has been developing for several years, has rapidly escalated from serious-but-resolvable disagreements to open accusations of heresy. The underlying cause is the political conflict between Russia and the West, with Ukraine at its center.

A turning point in the dispute occurred in the previous decade, in 2018, when the Patriarchate of Constantinople granted Kiev a tomos of autocephaly, meaning it backed its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. At that time, the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties with Constantinople. However, in 2022, following the start of the Russian military offensive, the situation naturally worsened.

Orthodox Christians have been forced to choose their political loyalties, willingly or out of necessity, at the expense of religious unity.

How significant is this schism? Has politics shattered Christian unity, and “has Christ indeed been divided”?

Point of no return

In July, the senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) gathered at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in the city of Sergiev Posad, north of Moscow, to hold a Bishops’ Conference. The main reason for this gathering was the events in Ukraine over the past few years.

They hadn’t convened for such a significant event in a long time. According to the ROC’s Charter, the Bishops’ Council –the highest body of hierarchical governance in the church– is summoned by the Patriarch and the Holy Synod no less than once every four years, prior to a local council, and in “exceptional cases.” However, due to world events, the council had not been convened for six years: its dates were initially postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and, in August 2022, the Synod indefinitely postponed the conduct of synodal events due to the international situation.

A Bishops’ Conference –a gathering of hierarchs of the ROC to discuss the state of affairs in the church during the inter-council period– had previously taken place in 2015. However, the situation in the Orthodox world did not require any postponements at that time.

This time, the council was almost entirely dedicated to relations between the ROC and the Patriarchate of Constantinople and to the situation of believers in Ukraine. The Russian Church declared a direct confrontation with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, accusing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of distorting Orthodox doctrine.

This is evidenced by the report of ROC Patriarch Kirill and by the document adopted by the assembled bishops, titled ‘On the Distortion of Orthodox Doctrine on the Church in the Actions of the Hierarchy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Statements of Its Representatives.’

The tone of the statements made by the ROC this summer indicates a profound schism in the Orthodox world, according to Roman Lunkin, Deputy Director of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) and Head of the Center for the Study of Problems of Religion and Society at the Institute of Europe. 

“The decisions of the Conference can be compared to the schisms of the 11th century, but only within the Orthodox world. Now there is not only a lack of Eucharistic communion with Constantinople, but also an accusation of violating church traditions,” he told the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

Moscow – Kiev – Constantinople

The essence of the disagreements between Constantinople and Moscow stems from the creation of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine. In 2018, Ukrainian authorities decided to establish their own Orthodox Church separate from the ROC. With the support of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, the process for its establishment began. In October 2018, the Synod of the Constantinople Church revoked a 17th-century decree that placed the Kiev Metropolis under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The ROC regarded these actions as encroachments on its canonical territory and suspended canonical communion with Constantinople.

In December of the same year, a so-called unification council of Orthodox churches in Ukraine took place in Kiev, during which the head of the new church structure, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kiev, was elected. In early 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch granted the OCU the tomos of autocephaly. The ROC criticized Constantinople’s actions as a gross violation of church canons. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow suggested that there was a deliberate attempt to destroy the ROC: “This is not just a struggle for jurisdiction; it is a struggle to remove the only powerful Orthodox force in the world. They want to squeeze canonical Orthodoxy out of the religious field of Ukraine.”

In May 2022, the remaining Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of Moscow, known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP), held an emergency council in Kiev and adopted a resolution declaring its complete independence from the ROC. However, this did not prevent the UOC-MP from facing persecution by Ukrainian authorities, who accused clergy members of having ties to the Moscow Patriarchate.

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