By Eryk Schumacher
The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I, has announced that it will cut all ties with its mother church in Constantinople (Greek name for Istanbul) in retaliation for the Church in Constantinople granting autonomy to the Ukrainian Church, which was under Russian control for the last 400 years.
Last week, the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine received a confirmation that it will soon be granted sovereignty from the Russian Orthodox Church, that had ascendancy over the Ukrainian places of worship for the last 4 centuries. This was deemed by the Russian Patriarch, Kirill I, to be a belligerent course of action, and the Church resolved to “rupture full communion with the Constantinople Patriarchate”, as the spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church stated in Minsk, marking a schism in the Orthodox Church.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is of great importance to its Russian counterpart, as Kiev is regarded to be a birthplace of the Russian Orthodoxy. The Ukrainian Churches are also very eminent, as its worshipers constitute 40% of the adherents of the Russian Orthodox church. The split will also result in the fact that now non-Russian worshipers won’t be able to take part in holy communion in a Russian church, and the clergy from Constantinople and Russian Patriarchates will be barred from serving together.
The political and diplomatic justifications for this course of action are conspicuous. Ever since The Russian annexation of Crimea and the exacerbating conflict in the Donbas region, foisted by separatists who are allegedly subsidized and supported by Russia, the Ukrainians have been intimidated by the spiritual power that is yielded by the church in Moscow, and the prospects of the Russians possibly utilizing this power to their own benefit. The Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, said that and independent Ukrainian church is “an issue of Ukrainian national security. It’s is an issue of Ukrainian statehood.”
The split is regarded by many to be the largest in 1000 years, when a communion was broken between what is now known as the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches, many also draw a parallel between the political justifications of both of the schisms, as one of the major reason for the East-West schism was Charlemagne’s ascension to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. The move is also surprising as the Patriarch of Constantinople, by granting independence to Ukrainian Church, invoked a power that has been granted to his office in Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and has been hardly used ever since.
The move has been met with support from the West and with fervent opposition from the East, the U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “we support Ukrainians’ ability to worship as they choose and hope this will be respected by all.” Russia has also called for support of the remaining 12 national orthodox churches, though it didn’t ask for direct breaking of ties with Constantinople. Already, however, the Serbian orthodox church, a staunch ally of Russia, has voiced its support for the cause.