A recent newspiece on OrthoChristian.com, the representative news site of the Moscow Patriarchate, reported that “Patriarch” Philaret Denisenko, the decades-long leader of the “Kyiv Patriarchate” of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, refused to sign a document pledging fealty to the statutes of the newly formed “Church” structure presently known as the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).
To give a very brief overview of the situation, the Eastern Orthodox Church consists of 15 self-governing “Local Churches” that are all in communion with one another, sharing the same faith, doctrine, and ability to share clergy and resources with one another, yet all completely independent. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where the Bishop of Rome has a say in all Roman churches, the Orthodox Church is a confederation united in faith, but with no central authority for the Church as a whole.
At least, that is how the Orthodox Church is supposed to operate.
But Patriarch Bartholomew I, the overseer of the beleaguered and tiny Patriarchate of Constantinople, a group of fewer than 4,000 Orthodox Christians still left in Turkey, has the present rank of “first in honor” among all the Local Churches. However he wants that to be “first in power” rather than “first among equals.” This is a point of contention that none of the rest of the Orthodox local churches agree with.
Summary of the plot and its execution (thus far)
Starting in the summer of 2018, the Patriarch, who had before repeatedly denied the legitimacy of two schismatic church structures in Ukraine, the aforementioned Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), suddenly did a turnabout and rapidly moved to grant legitimacy to both schismatic groups and their leaders, and then proceeded with plans to unite these two groups into the new OCU structure.
While the rest of the Orthodox world watched with sharp concern, the Russian Orthodox Church leadership took great exception to this matter, because for many years schismatic groups had been on record for seizing canonical parishes of the legitimate Church structure in Ukraine (The Ukrainian Orthodox Church), which is a highly independent group but which operates as part of the Moscow Patriarchate. For many Ukrainians, the notion that Russia has some sort of “say” through this church structure, and therefore has some sort of influence in Ukraine was easily stoked by Western agencies, such as the Americans who embedded themselves in Ukraine’s governmental and financial structure, such as Victoria Nuland, Hunter Biden and many more.
Many in Ukraine have fostered a blazing resentment towards modern-day Russia for various reasons such as the Holodomor famine, which was a result of Soviet era policies, and which in no way represent the intentions of wishes of the Russian government or its people for their Ukrainian brothers and sisters.
Politics, politics and more politics…
However, the facts do not matter. The ability to whip people up into a frenzy to serve another purpose does, and politically, the West’s aims in Ukraine were to secure it as a sort of economic and political affront to the growing power of Russia; militarily, there is a great desire to bring Ukraine into NATO, despite aged promises not to do so, in that alliance’s press to create what amounts to a “fence” around the giant superpower, ostensibly to “contain” President Putin’s “ambitions” to expand his country.
A Church structure that operated completely independently of Putin was the carrot President Poroshenko waved before his people, and to some extent it seemed he succeeded in getting what he want. Ukraine indeed now does have a church structure that is independent of Russia.
But, this new structure is not a Local Church. Now, it appears more and more to be the case that it was never intended to be. Oddly enough, the carrier of this message is none other than Philaret Denisenko himself, though he was not only expelled from the Moscow Church, but anathematized, meaning in essence, “this man is the worst person you can be around – he works against Christ, so stay away from him!”
And yet, in proof that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Philaret made some salient points. From OrthoChristian.com:
…In an interview with currenttime.tv published yesterday, Philaret declared that had he known the contents of the tomos of autocephaly granted by Constantinople, he would have rejected it. He further stated that the OCU will not fulfill three points of the tomos.
“We at the council did not know its contents,” Philaret said. “We found out only after the unification. Had we known the contents of this tomos, we would not have agreed to such a tomos.”
The first of three points unacceptable to Philaret is the stipulation that all parishes abroad must transfer to Constantinople. Philaret has complained about this many times and several parishes of the KP abroad have openly refused to join Constantinople.
The second point is the stipulation that the OCU receive its Chrism from Constantinople. Traditionally, making Chrism is an external sign of a Church’s autocephaly, though Constantinople prefers to keep Churches dependent upon it for the sacramental oil.
“The tomos says that we have no right to make myrrh. If we have to receive myrrh from Constantinople, from Istanbul, it means we are dependent,” Philaret commented. “We are an autocephalous Church by name, but in fact we are dependent.”
It was widely reported in the media even before the “unification council” on December 15 that the statutes and tomos written by the bishops of Constantinople would not grant true independence to the OCU.
The third point is the stipulation that any conflicts within the OCU be resolved by Constantinople.
“Three points that take the rights of an autocephalous Church from us. By name we are autocephalous, but in fact we are dependent on the Church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople,” Philaret summarized.
At this point the OCU has no official recognition by any Orthodox local churches except Constantinople. The Moscow Church reacted strenuously to the creation of the OCU by breaking relations with Constantinople. No other local church has done this to this extent, but even Churches by Russian-hating Poland, as well as Serbia and other lands have strongly condemned Bartholomew’s overreach of power here.
However, looking at these stipulations, there is a connection to be made.
Patriarch Bartholomew is isolated. The Turkish Muslims are not friendly to him and his Church, and the Orthodox Church remains present in the country only by the skin of its teeth. It is a museum piece, so to speak, because Constantinople was the New Rome and the Church was always a part of the city’s history. But no expansion is allowed, the seminary in Halki is closed and rendered a museum, and the Patriarch has no source of support except from outside Turkey.
He has long maintained the idea that “churches in the diaspora”, that is, all Orthodox communities that exist outside the borders of “traditionally Orthodox lands” belong by definition to Constantinople. The rest of the jurisdictions have likewise long disagreed with him, and further, they point out that such an arrangement is not part of the Church Canons, and that the Patriarch, perhaps understandably, but still wrongly, is trying to find ways to keep his group going so much that he is bending the tradition of the Orthodox Church to suit his personal wishes.
It would seem he scored a potential big success with the OCU, although no one seems to really recognize that yet other than Philaret Denisenko, to whom no one is likely to listen anyway.
Why is this important?
It is important for several reasons.
Geopolitically, Ukraine is a hotspot. It is the locus of a struggle between Western paranoia and Russian / Eastern European realities. Russia has no stated aims in Ukraine, and this is a reliable benchmark, because President Putin has no trouble saying what he thinks or wants. However, the insanity of Putin paranoia is easy to stoke for motives that, sadly do not help the Ukrainian people at all.
Religiously, the struggle within the Orthodox Church threatens to cause a massive schism within the group. If, for example, all the Orthodox local churches excommunicated Constantinople, then a new “first among equals” patriarchate would have to be selected. There is reason to believe that Russia might become this patriarchate since it is the largest, wealthiest and most influential Church. But such a decision would also be seen through geopolitical eyes as “Russia asserts world domination,” and this might yield a problem. Conversely, the local Churches might all move to accept the OCU, which would then isolate the Russian Church again and paint a big geopolitical target on it as “having tried to force its will on the other churches…” with predictable outcry following, mostly from the West.
To this end unfortunately the power structure in the USA appears to have taken the wrong side. Several people from the diplomatic arm of the US government, such as Sam Brownback and more recently, Geoffrey Pyatt, have been openly supportive of Constantinople’s “setting right” of things in Ukraine. In fact, in the US, it appears that the construction of the Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas is once again in progress, following a disappearance of the funds needed to build the structure.
From a point of view within the Orthodox Church, the struggle is more grave still. Unlike Rome, no bishop of any jurisdiction within the Orthodox Church can impose his will on someone else’s jurisdiction. The Patriarch or “ruling bishop” is the leader of that church’s council, but he does not dictate to the other bishops. The Pope does. And Bartholomew is trying to. The process of setting things right involves a lot of patient refusal to allow this, but it does appear that Patriarch Bartholomew just found a way to extend his reach and power.
And only a man of exceedingly bad reputation in the Church seems to recognize this.