The Ukrainian Church Crisis between East and West – but what is Eastern and what is Western here?

// Vasilios N. Makrides – 22.02.2019

The issue at stake:

The primate of the new autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine Epifaniy (Dumenko), was officially enthroned on the 3rd of February 2019 in the historical Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kiev in the presence of the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

In fact, the current political leadership of Ukraine wholeheartedly supported the ecclesiastical independence of the country and the "Unification Council" held on the 15th of December 2018, aimed at uniting the various competing Orthodox Churches in the country and thus putting an end to a long-standing problematic situation. The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Catholic (Uniate) Churches in the Ukraine also supported this decision, especially because of the aspired greater independence from Russia.

However, this development directly impinged upon the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church, given that it still runs a large autonomous church in the Ukraine under its jurisdiction. This church stayed away from the above “Unification Council” and claimed to be the only canonical church in the country. Consequently, Moscow accused Constantinople of intruding into its canonical territory. The exacerbated political conflict in the country between East and West acquired thereby an additional ecclesiastical dimension, which complicates the whole situation even further.

Who was the main actor behind the process of granting autocephaly to the new church and issuing the related “Tomos”? It was the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (based in Istanbul, Turkey) and its current head, Patriarch Bartholomew, which claims that solely Constantinople possesses the exclusive right to grant autocephaly (full independence) to a new Orthodox Church.

All new autocephalous Orthodox Churches from the 19th century onwards went namely through this process, although mostly in a conflictual manner. In some cases, the Moscow Patriarchate did grant its own autocephaly to the same or other churches, which again led to tensions and conflicts with Constantinople. The issue of the Ukrainian Church autocephaly first arose in 2018 following a related Ukrainian petition to Constantinople, despite the foreseeable large conflict with the Moscow Patriarchate. Unperturbed by various caveats and other suggestions, Constantinople gradually proceeded to the next steps and finalized the case – according to its official discourse, fretting about the future of the Orthodox in the Ukraine and about the tragic consequences of the long-standing church divisions there. It justified its position and decision by reference to various theological, canonical and historical arguments. (see here)

As was to be expected, this development caused the sharpest possible reaction on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate, which broke immediately and completely its ecclesiastical relations with Constantinople. This is the biggest schism within the Orthodox world, given that it happened between the two most powerful Orthodox players of today. It remains to be seen how the other autocephalous Orthodox Churches (12 in total) will position themselves vis-à-vis the present crisis and whether they opt for the Constantinople or the Moscow side – some may decide to remain neutral, as well. 

My intention here is not to go over the details of this church crisis or to take sides by supporting the actions of Constantinople or Moscow's reaction. It is just the last episode in the ongoing battle between these religious institutions for many decades. I am more interested in the spatio-temporal dimensions of the present crisis between East and West and their apparent numerous antinomies. There is a long tradition in the Orthodox world that political independence or the change of political borders should go hand in hand with ecclesiastical independence and the formation of new church borders, respectively (cf. the Canon 17 of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and the Canon 38 of the Quinisext Council/Trullo, held Constantinople in 691/692). This tradition was radically re-interpreted in the age of nationalisms from the 19th century onwards with many negative implications for the unity of the Orthodox world. Various, still unresolved cases and conflicts account for this. The title that Constantinople officially uses as self-representation, namely "ecumenical", points to its broader and transregional, if not global, responsibilities and competences as the "leader" of the entire Orthodox world - and not only in a spiritual sense. These have been contested by other Orthodox actors in modern times, especially by Moscow, which raises analogous claims. But Constantinople seems to have here a historically-founded advantage and has never abdicated from this role. The last incident between the two contenders took place in 2016 when Moscow tried unsuccessfully to block or to postpone a "Pan-Orthodox Council" under the aegis of Constantinople. However, the Council, despite the absence of four Orthodox Churches, took place on the island of Crete, which, by the way, belongs to Constantinople's ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Now, what has the West to do with all this? Given the political crisis between the Western world/alliance and Russia over Ukraine in the last years, it occasions no surprise that the West (USA, EU) supported Ukraine’s ecclesiastical independence from Moscow and fully endorsed the actions of Constantinople as legitimate and valid. Of course, they did not get involved into complex theological and canonical matters, but were interested basically in the main outcome of this process. The motto is: The more Ukraine gets further away from Russia, the better it is for the West and its interests. This pertains to all possible domains, ranging from politics and economy to culture and religion. We should also not forget that Constantinople enjoys the general recognition and full support of the West for several decades – a rather paradoxical and ironic situation considering the tumultuous history of their mutual relations. So, the question may be posed as to what is Eastern and what is Western in the particular setting of the Ukrainian church crisis. 

Bearing this East-West cleavage in mind, it is useful to take a closer look at the main actors of the recent conflict, namely Constantinople and Moscow, especially as far as their relationship to the West is concerned:

Starting with Constantinople, it is truly bizarre to witness the immense and unabated support that this historical see of Christianity has received in the last decades until today especially by the United States of America, which is commonly considered the “leader of the West”. The same holds true mutatis mutandis for the European Union and other regional or global institutions, political, religious or otherwise. Constantinople enjoys their recognition and open support as the “leader” of the Orthodox world. This is not due to Constantinople’s often precarious condition in modern Turkey and the concomitant Greek-Turkish tensions. More specifically, it has to do with the Cold War period, when the Moscow Patriarchate got finally political backing by the Soviets and was used as an instrument of their international anti-Western policy – inter alia, as the key rival to Constantinople within global Orthodoxy. In fact, a Pan-Orthodox Council was convoked in 1948 in Moscow under the aegis of the Moscow Patriarchate, yet both its appeal and attendance were limited. It is precisely in this context of the Soviet religious policy that the West realized the potential of Constantinople and started supporting it in numerous ways as a pertinent means to counterbalance Moscow’s growing religious influence and significance. Characteristically enough, when Athenagoras was elected Patriarch of Constantinople (1948–1972), he was flown from the USA to Istanbul in the Presidential airplane “The Sacred Cow” of the American President Harry S. Truman (1945–1953) to assume his new position. The Truman administration was probably also involved in the election of Athenagoras, who had previously been Archbishop of North and South America (1930–1948) and entertained very close relations to Truman. Indeed, he honored Truman in 1947 by offering him a piece of the True Cross. There is a famous, intimate photo from this occasion showing Athenagoras kissing Truman on the forehead. (see here)

In all probability, the US government saw in the Patriarchate of Constantinople a key partner for its future international policy, especially in the context of the Cold War, and for advancing the ideals of democracy, human dignity and freedom. It was the beginning of a novel and productive interaction of Constantinople with the West, which culminated in the present multifarious global role of the current Patriarch Bartholomew and his equally wider recognition, acceptance and appeal. In fact, there is a lobby association in the USA, founded in 1966, consisting of influential lay Orthodox American citizens, and named “The Order of St. Andrew the Apostle: Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in America”. Its basic interest is to promote religious freedom, whereas it systematically supports the work of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in numerous ways. Yet, this close relation of Constantinople with the West seems a bit paradoxical and absurd in the light of history. Constantinople, exactly as the rest of the Orthodox world in general, has been for centuries a bastion of anti-occidental views, positions and actions. Under Ottoman rule, it also provided a theological legitimation for the Ottomans as being an instrument of God aimed at saving Orthodox Christians from a subjection to the Pope and to the heretical Latins of the West. It is thus highly interesting to witness this recent transformation of Constantinople from an “Eastern” Church see into a key ally of the West. It is about a role that will be probably strengthened even further in the years to come.

On the other hand, the Moscow Patriarchate, leader of the world's numerically biggest Orthodox Church, has emerged in the post-Soviet period as a powerful, influential and foremost player. Strongly backed by Russia's political leadership, it has experienced a tremendous development, both domestically and internationally. Aside from Constantinople, it is the only Orthodox Church that attempts to play a broader, global role nowadays. This also explains its pretensions to lead the Orthodox world of the future or at least to undermine the related role of Constantinople. This is actually the main cause of their mutual problems, at least since the second half of the 19th century. Moscow has always tried to present itself as Constantinople's "other" in every respect and to differentiate itself from it, namely from the church that had initially granted it the autocephalous status and elevated it to a Patriarchate back in 1589. (see here)

It is exactly in this context that the West enters the scene, as well. Both churches hardly share the same perception about the West. On the one hand, Constantinople nowadays tries to mitigate or even neutralize completely the traditional Orthodox anti-Westernism and to build stronger ties with the Western world – not least, because of its geographical location in a predominantly Islamic country and its unavoidable dealings with an unpredictable partner of the West, namely Turkey. Although it may criticize selected aspects of Western modernity, it does this constructively and in view of creating bridges to the old foe within the present global environment. Moscow, on the other hand, is much more critical towards the West and intends to bring about an alliance of conservative actors worldwide in the hopes of creating a viable alternative to Western modernity. In a way, it also intends to “save” the West from its deep, endemic crisis – a key element of traditional Russian Messianism. In this frame, its staple discourse exhibits, indirectly or directly, a confrontational attitude vis-à-vis the West. A comparison between Constantinople’s and Moscow’s position on the (Western) human rights suffices to reveal these differences. This becomes clear if  one compares the official Russian Orthodox document “Основы учения Русской Православной Церкви о достоинстве, свободе и правах человека” of 2008 with the speech of Patriarch Bartholomew on Orthodox Christianity and human rights, held at the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Berlin in June 2017. Not surprisingly, the Russian Church openly supports the overall anti-Western course of the current Russian political leadership, as well as its decisions regarding Ukraine (e. g., the annexation of Crimea in 2014), which enhanced even further the persisting tension to the West. But this is again nothing new. Even in Soviet times, as already mentioned, the Russian Church supported the anti-Western overall policy of the communist regime – or perhaps, it was also instrumentalized by the communists to this purpose, despite the fact that it also suffered severe persecution by them. In fact, there was a worth-noting congruence between Orthodox and communist anti-Western predilections. This long tradition goes on in another form in post-Soviet times.  

Talking about Orthodox Christianity at the beginning of the 21st century in terms of its antagonistic relationship to the West is an arduous task. Things are no longer clear-cut defined – perhaps they have never been so in the past, as well. Scholars and the media speak normally of “Eastern Christianity” and “Eastern Christians” in general, a category which may include not only the historical Orthodox Churches, but the Oriental Churches and even the Eastern Catholics. The adjective “Eastern” bears clear spatial and temporal connotations. In fact, the majority of the above Christian communities have been living and still live in their historical hearths, namely in Eastern and Southeastern Europe or in the Near East.

No doubt, the Orthodox adversarial pose towards the West is still a key node in the overall Orthodox Christian agenda, both official and unofficial, patent and latent alike. Orthodox anti-occidentality is parcel and part of the dominant Orthodox discourse in numerous articulations and with far-reaching repercussions. In many cases, it is even an “automatic” or even “instinctive” response and reaction on the part of the Orthodox to some Western development or challenge. Yet, in the light of the above remarks, it appears highly precarious and hazardous to distinguish the East and the West in absolute terms and overlook the multiple grey areas between the two. In the context of the Ukrainian Church crisis, Moscow accused Constantinople of transferring the US and generally the Western geopolitical interests in the Ukraine to an ecclesiastical level. The same was done officially by President Vladimir Putin, who also criticized the political background of Constantinople’s actions. In other words, Constantinople was portrayed as being a pawn of the Western world, its plans, interests and wishes – but certainly not in the sense of being a “useful idiot”, given that Constantinople heavily capitalizes on this Western support for its own sake.

All this may be more or less true, although Constantinople will never officially admit its potential subjection to the Western will and its inevitable “Westernization”, or the meddling of Western actors, powers and institutions in its own internal affairs. In its self-portrayal, it always remains “Eastern” as being the “new Rome”, alluding to the geographical transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire from the West to the East by Emperor Constantine I in 330.  In the meantime and in real terms, however, it has become also Western and even global, as it has to govern its numerous parishes and jurisdictions in the Western world and beyond that across the entire globe. After all, it firmly insists on being called “ecumenical”, and this is exactly what this term inter alia implies. At the same time, also Moscow cannot operate without the West, not only on the ecclesiastical, but on the political level, as well. It keeps constant contact to it and articulates its own discourse always by reference to past and present Western developments, be it in a critical and negative sense or not. The Russian Federation is not a member-state of the European Union, yet the Russian Church entertains official representations both in Brussels and in Strasbourg in order to follow closely what is going on in the main centers of power, decision-making and influence in contemporary Europe. In February 2016, the current Patriarch of Moscow Kirill even met with Pope Francis in Havana (Cuba) issuing together a joint declaration on current religious, political and social problems, This was an evocative meeting of great symbolic significance, the first one between such church leaders in history, yet again paradoxical in the light of the tensions between the two churches, both historically and more recently in post-communist times.

It becomes then obvious that an absolute East-West distinction is thereby constantly undermined and blurred. The notion of an Eastern or Western adherence is permanently construed anew, filled with novel and casual content, and used ad libitum, depending on the situation and the specific needs of the actors involved. The East-West rift was and is never absolute and hermetic. Certainly, this is not a new phenomenon – it was the normal case in the long past at the spatio-temporal level as well, even in times of enhanced East-West religious enmity and confrontation. Perhaps an East-West detailed symptomology, both historical and contemporary, may locate and describe all these “signs of the times”, namely the abundant and fascinating facets, constructions and projections of this long love-hate relationship between East and West. The Ukrainian Church crisis on the southeastern edge of Europe, coupled with its multiple Western connections, has recently shown it once more brilliantly.