Tuesday 15 October 2019

Prospect of Orthodox schism would paint Putin a new Henry VIII

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Leonid Bershidsky

The Eastern Orthodox Church is closer than ever to a schism that would cast Russian President Vladimir Putin in a role similar to that of King Henry VIII when he split the Church of England from Rome in the 16th Century.

Russia's ambition to be the centre of the Orthodox world threatens to end in isolation. But holding back from splitting the church will mean humiliation by the Ukrainians, who have been ruthlessly terrorised by the Russian leader.

On October 11, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople took a momentous action for the Orthodox faith in Ukraine. It reinstated two bishops leading Ukrainian splinter churches not recognised by the Moscow Patriarchate to their rank and allowed their followers to take communion with the church.

Now, the clerics must unite their organisations to form an independent (or to use the religious term, autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which will be recognised by the Constantinople Patriarchate - disregarding the wishes of Russia, formerly responsible for appointing Ukraine's church leaders.

The Synod invalidated a document it issued in 1686, granting the Patriarch of Moscow the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev.

If this sounds arcane, it should.

The Orthodox Church, with about 300m faithful worldwide, is steeped in tradition and ritual. The authority of Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who presided over the Synod meeting, rests on Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in 451 AD, long before the split between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches; it granted the religious leader of "new Rome" - Constantinople - powers second to those of the Pope.

It's doubtful that Putin, who has co-opted the power of the Church to the service of his imperialist ideology, wants to play Henry VIII - who at first was a devout Catholic but then defied Rome's spiritual authority.

The Russian Church's international reach has been important to the Russian ruler.

Putin has twice visited Mount Athos, the monastic enclave in Greece that is Orthodox Christianity's holiest place; it's been fashionable among Putin loyalists to assert their Orthodox faith by making a pilgrimage there. Athos, though, falls under the jurisdiction of the Constantinople Patriarchate, and it may be lost to Russians after a formal schism, an enormous symbolic defeat for a president intent to project a devout image.

On the other hand, it's as difficult for Putin as it is for Moscow Patriarch Kirill to accept an independent Ukrainian church blessed by Constantinople. It would go against his oft-repeated assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are one people - and admitting that not Moscow, but Istanbul, is the true seat of power of global Orthodoxy would be almost unbearable. Compared to these spiritual wounds, the potential loss of 12,328 parishes in Ukraine, and the income from them, is arguably less catastrophic.

As was once said on Father Ted, it's an ecumenical matter.


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