In a major religious split, the Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with the body seen as the spiritual authority of the world’s Orthodox Christians. The break came after the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognised the independence of the Ukrainian Church from Moscow. The row is being described as the greatest Orthodox split since the schism with Catholicism in 1054. Relations soured after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Many Ukrainians accuse the Russian Church of siding with Russia-backed separatists in the east. Russia sees Kiev as the historic cradle of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church now fears losing many of its 12,000 parishes in Ukraine. Constantinople holds sway over more than 300 million Orthodox Christians across the world. The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the biggest. (BBC News)

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second-largest Christian Church, with approximately 200 million members. As one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, the Orthodox Church has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, the Caucasus region, and the Near East. It operates as a communion of autonomous churches, each governed by its bishops, called a Holy Synod. The Orthodox Church has no central doctrinal or governance authority synonymous to the Catholic Pope, but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognised by all as “first among equals” of the bishops. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­

The Orthodox Churches are united in faith and by a common approach to theology, tradition, and worship. They draw on elements of Greek, Middle Eastern, Russian and Slavic culture. The Orthodox Churches share with other Christian Churches the belief that God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, and a belief in the incarnation of Christ, His crucifixion and His resurrection. The Orthodox Church differs substantially from other Churches in the way of life and worship, and in certain aspects of theology. Up until 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church shared communion with the Catholic Church, but the “East–West Schism” was then triggered by disputes over doctrine, especially the authority of the Pope. The Oriental Orthodox Churches are not in communion with the Eastern Orthodox Church, despite their similar names.

Eastern Orthodoxy in Ukraine and Russia has been united under the Russian Orthodox Church since 1686, when the Moscow Patriarchate was granted control over the Kiev archdiocese and the power to ordain its patriarch (also termed “metropolitan”). ­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Geopolitical influences
Since the fall of the Soviet Union (in the 1990s), the dominance of the Moscow Patriarchate has been challenged by the Kiev Patriarchate. This struggle has intensified in the past five years since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine, and Moscow’s influence in the Eastern Ukraine conflict. On 11 October, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople announced it was cancelling the Moscow Patriarchate’s 332-year spiritual jurisdiction over Ukraine and preparing to grant independence to the country’s Church. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s push for Church unity in Ukraine and independence from Russia is seen by many as an electoral strategy to bolster his ratings with less than six months to go to the presidential elections. Shortly after Patriarch Bartholomew I’s decision was announced, Mr Poroshenko said (according to the BBC): “It’s an issue of Ukrainian national security. It’s an issue of Ukrainian statehood.” It is yet to be seen whether Mr Poroshenko’s gamble pays dividends.

Patriarch Bartholomew I’s apparent reversal is also viewed by some as a manoeuvre to outflank growing Russian dominance. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s position as “first among equals” among Orthodox leaders is a status that has often rankled those in the Russian Orthodox Church with its much bigger, more influential and richer body. One of the big questions at this time is whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate bears sufficient authority over the Orthodox world to avoid a full-scale disintegration – and, even more seriously, whether ecclesiastical diplomacy can prevent the situation turning into bloodshed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters last week: “In the event that the events which are developing take the course of illegal activities, then of course, just as Russia defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers – and Mr Putin has spoken about this many times – Russia will defend the interests of the Orthodox. This is an absolutely grounded and absolutely understandable position.” While he said this defence would be political and diplomatic, his comments reminded Kiev of the language used in the run-up to the Crimean annexation and the separatist rebellion. Some Ukrainians fear that Moscow-inspired violence will become a pretext for another invasion. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Patriarch Bartholomew I, in his announcement of the next move in the granting of Ukrainian indepence, appealed “to all sides involved that they avoid appropriation of Churches, monasteries and other properties, as well as every other act of violence and retaliation, so that the peace and love of Christ may prevail”.

Any break in communion has negative consequences, and should the disagreement deteriorate into violence, this would not bring glory to God. Depending on who one speaks to, there could be both positive and negative outcomes of this split, but many continue to pray for a reconciliation. Due to the far-reaching political implications, however, a reconciliation is considered highly unlikely, so the manner in which the split is handled becomes very important. It is hoped that the soul-searching that generally accompanies such major upheavals would lead to deeper relationships with the Lord, a “sifting of the wheat from the chaff”, and an opportunity for people to test their hearts towards those they call ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’.

Clearly, the Lord commanded blessing for His children who gather in unity, and we can see in His prayer for believers His desire for unity and harmony among those who follow Him, that they be one, as He and the Father are one (John 17:21). However, Scripture also indicates in the situation of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41) that there may be times where serious disagreement leads to a parting of ways. As Matthew Henry points out in his commentary, this was still not the desired outcome, and should not be used as an excuse for fleshly failings, but we see that the Lord extended the work of His Kingdom following the fallout between the brethren. Paul and Barnabas went in different directions, but both continued sharing the Gospel, and the Kingdom was extended in two regions rather than one.

Date published: 28/10/2018
Written by: Donnelly McCleland
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