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Daniil Parenkov

Deputy Head, Department of Political Theory, MGIMO University, RIAC Expert

The conflict surrounding the Orthodox church in Ukraine has moved irrevocably beyond the purely intra-ecclesiastical agenda. Experts, political scientists and journalists have plunged headlong into the subtleties of canon law, the history of intra-Orthodox relations and discussions of the church hierarchs’ psychological profiles. As a rule, they consider the situation in a rather limited political context, assessing its consequences either for Russia–Ukraine relations or for Russia’s relations with the West. At the same time, the problem of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is far broader than the question of the future of Orthodoxy in a particular country or its relations with its neighbours.

The conflict between Moscow and Constantinople has reached a new level. Its further development will determine the future of the world Orthodoxy and affect, at the very least, the position of Christianity in Europe, which is home to some 257 million Catholics and about 200.5 million Orthodox Christians. If the contradictions between the principal centres of power are not resolved, the Orthodoxy may cease to exist in its current form. Without the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox world loses any qualitative significance. And without the “symbolic power” of the rest of the Orthodox world, the Moscow Patriarchate is no more than Russia’s national religion, which may sit well with some politicians and hierarchs, but contradicts the internal logic of the Church and Christian universalism.


The conflict surrounding the Orthodox church in Ukraine has moved irrevocably beyond the purely intra-ecclesiastical agenda. Experts, political scientists, and journalists have plunged headlong into the subtleties of canon law, the history of intra-Orthodox relations and discussions of the psychological profiles of the church hierarchs. As a rule, they consider the situation in a rather limited political context, assessing its consequences either for Russia–Ukraine relations or for Russia’s relations with the West.

At the same time, the problem of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is far broader than the question of the future of Orthodoxy in a particular country or its relations with its neighbours. It would seem that a more extensive analysis of the current processes is possible using the approaches employed in the modern theory of international relations, which acknowledges the existence in global politics of denominational actors with their own objectives and principles [1]. Such a post-secular take will make it possible to delineate the interests of secular and religious actors and assess the balance of power on the political and religious map of the world (that overlap, but rarely coincide).

Orthodox Centres of Power in Global Politics

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One Cross For Two

In recent history, the Roman Catholic Church has long been the only significant religious actor of in the international arena. Historically, the Holy See was sufficiently independent of secular authorities, and had the structure and resources that allowed it to harbour global ambitions. In the 20th century, the Lateran Accords made it possible for the Roman Catholic Church to retain its secular extra-territorial authority. In terms of “religious economy,” the Roman Catholic Church, as the world’s largest denomination, was bound to perceive itself on a global scale, which it does, seeing all countries and continents as its “religious market.” Other religious movements lacked either the requisite strength of numbers or a requisite structure acting on behalf of its followers, or were subordinated to secular authorities, which made it impossible for them to entertain similar ambitions. This applies to autocephalous Orthodox Churches that either viewed themselves as regional actors or simply struggled for survival.

The first window of opportunity for the emergence of independent Orthodox centres of power appeared with the fall of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the two states in which virtually all the world’s Orthodox population was concentrated. The Patriarchate of Constantinople immediately seized the opportunity afforded by the weakening of control over the religious sphere and attempted to use its status as the “first among equals” to take the leading positions in the family of Orthodox Churches. In 1922, Patriarch Meletius II of Alexandria declared Phanar’s right to govern the parishes of the so-called diaspora (that is, the parishes outside the territories of local Churches), and in 1923, he attempted to hold and chair a “Pan-Orthodox Congress.” Moreover, same year, taking advantage of the difficult situation of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Meletius II hastened to spread his influence on its territory as well. He took the Orthodox population of Estonia and Finland under the governance of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and also interfered in the affairs of the Church in Poland. The ROC’s independence at the time was so fleeting that the growing demands of the Phanariotes encountered virtually no resistance.

As the USSR grew stronger and the Soviet Empire emerged, the opportunities of independent Orthodoxy were shrinking and finally collapsed when the world split into two global ideological camps. Orthodoxy found itself in the part which did not presuppose any independent ecclesiastical institutions. It should be noted that the provisional “restitution” of the ROC’s canonical territories which took place as the USSR moved West, was the result of the secular authorities, not the ecclesiastical authorities, realizing their interests.

The process of shaping a new system of international ecclesiastical relations was launched in the Orthodox world.

The situation changed radically with the collapse of the USSR. About 185 million Orthodox Christians, over 90 per cent of their total number, lived in the countries of the former socialist bloc (primarily Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan). For the first time in modern history, large Orthodox communities that emerged on the ruins of the Soviet Empire had their own ecclesiastic bodies independent of the secular authorities. The actual, rather than the nominal separation of church and state (which in the post-Soviet and post-Imperial reality mostly meant that the state would not interfere in the affairs of the Church) allowed the ecclesiastical hierarchy to reconsider the significance and purposes of the institutions they headed. As soon as they became accustomed to the new situation of religious freedom, as soon as this part of the “market” that previously had been excluded from the global religious economy was opened, the struggle to define roles, boundaries and common goals intensified within Orthodoxy.

The process of shaping a new system of international ecclesiastical relations was launched in the Orthodox world. The word “new” here essentially means “first.” The Orthodoxy did not have its “Westphal” capable of serving as the starting point for defining common canonical rules and stable canonical boundaries. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where intra-ecclesiastical relations are regulated by a codified and regularly updated canonical law system enhanced by the efficiency of its hierarchical organization, Orthodox Churches do not have a uniform canonical law for intra-Orthodox relations. The most recent Ecumenical Council took place in 787, and the most Local Council, whose provisions were included in the Orthodox Canon Law, concluded in 880. The majority of key documents on church governance date to the 4th century. Such distance in time inevitably creates room for various readings and interpretations. Local Churches regularly accuse each other of misinterpreting a particular rule to fit their interests. The lack of more modern documents that are recognized by all churches is largely due to the above-mentioned limited international agency of Orthodox Churches.

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The “great powers” of the Orthodox world – Constantinople and Moscow – took shape during this process. Of all the Churches, they are the only ones with sufficient resources (although they are of different nature), hierarchs of the requisite mindset and, mostly importantly, with the desire to fight for the right to format the “Orthodox factor” in global politics. As for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its principal and essentially only resource is the “symbolic capital” of its “first among equals” status. The ambitions of the Phanariotes are determined by the conditions of their survival: without the Pan-Orthodox status and inclusion into the global “religious market,” the ecumene of the Ecumenical Patriarchate will dwindle to 3000 Istanbul parishioners, which even the western media never fail to mention. The Patriarchs of Constantinople cannot afford the role of leaders of a national church, the role most Orthodox leaders assume, because they do not have a national church.

Moscow’s stance is based on an entirely different logic. Even without Ukraine, the ROC’s parishioners account for over a half of all Orthodox believers. The Russian Orthodox Church also inherited from the Russian and Soviet empires the largest and most well-developed infrastructure and an established system of relations with today’s Russian authorities: these are resources that other churches lack. The idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” as the holy keeper and defender of global Orthodoxy, is inheritance that the ROC received from its “symphony with the state.” This self-perception of both church hierarchs and large proportion of parishioners, multiplied by their numbers, prompts the Moscow Patriarchate to define its global strategy.

“Phanarian Papism” vs. “Council Confederation”

The differences between the models that Moscow and Phanar offer to the rest of Orthodoxy turned out to be fundamentally opposite. Based on the nature of its resources, the Patriarchate of Constantinople banked on unifying the Orthodox world along the lines of the Catholic model, striving to transform its primacy of honour into unquestionable primacy. The course Meletius II set in the early 20th century was continued by his successors in the late 20th century. Thus, one of Constantinople’s first acts following the collapse of the USSR was to establish ecclesiastical bodies in Estonia parallel to those of the ROC. For obvious reasons, other Orthodox Churches gave Phanar’s ambitions the cold shoulder. It should be noted, however, that Constantinople made a rather effective use of its “symbolic capital” outside Orthodoxy proper, converting it into recognition of the Patriarch as the spiritual leader in the eyes of the West. Such was the purpose of the frequent meetings that the Patriarchs of Constantinople held with Popes, the inclusion of environmental issues on the agenda and the other tactical moves aimed at establishing themselves in the role of Orthodoxy’s principal speaker in the western media space.

The model proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church can be provisionally termed a “council confederation” model. The ROC strove to enshrine the existing areas of canonical influence and set clear rules of the game based on making decisions at councils following the principle of a consolidated position. The ROC probably counted on retaining the leading role through its qualitative and quantitative superiority over other churches. At the same time, the Moscow Patriarchate demonstrated certain flexibility: internal mobilization of resources and centralization of power go hand in hand with the readiness to grant broad autonomy to individual parts, and conservative rhetoric in Russia coexisted perfectly within the framework of establishing contacts with Catholics and Anglicans.

Ukraine as the Point of Collapse

The conflict between Moscow and Constantinople has reached a new level. Its further development will determine the future of the world Orthodoxy and affect, at the very least, the position of Christianity in Europe, where some 257 million Catholics and about 200.5 million Orthodox Christians live

The problem of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church would have never grown to its current scale had it been solely a matter of the independence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. A competitive environment formed in Ukraine that made it possible for various religious organizations to co-exist in the country regardless of anyone’s recognition. Canonical law does not affect issues of property or worship. Those of Ukrainian Orthodox hierarchs who wanted absolute independence from the Russian Orthodox Church could opt for non-canonical bodies. A significant number of bishops would still prefer to remain part of a larger community with another scale of interests. This desire can hardly be explained by some external pressure, more likely, it is testimony to their similar views on the role and strategy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ultimately, it should be kept in mind that Ukrainian hierarchs account for nearly a third of Russian Orthodox bishops, and nearly a third of delegates at the 2009 Council that elected Patriarch Kirill of Moscow were Ukrainian citizens.

The current actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople are based on its own interests, which could only be implemented in today’s international situation. The increasing struggle between the ROC and Phanar took its final shape in 2016 with the collapse of the Pan-Orthodox Council that had been in the works since 1961; for the Orthodox world, it would have become the Eighth Ecumenical Council. With the refusal of the Russian Orthodox Church and several other Churches to attend the Council, the issue of determining a universally acceptable system of international ecclesiastical relations was driven into a virtual impasse. The opportunity to determine the map of the Orthodox ecclesiastical world through negotiations was missed. The further logic of the process demanded a conflict that would serve as a catalyst for the public uncovering of contradictions and setting down the real balance of power.

The conflict surrounding Orthodoxy in Ukraine proved to be just such a catalyst. The Patriarchate of Constantinople used a local coincidence of its interests with those of the Ukrainian authorities and the geopolitical situation to move to the active stage of the conflict. Phanar declared the territory outside Russia that was of great importance for the ROC to be its canonical demesne. Additionally, by lifting the anathema from the leaders of Ukraine’s schismatic churches, Phanar practically confirmed its vision of itself as the final judicial body of the Orthodox world. It does not matter whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate will grant autocephaly to a specific religious body in Ukraine or whether it will look for ways to formally subsume the Ukrainian Church. In any case, its key objective is to remove this territory from the area of Moscow’s influence and to stake out its own presence there thereby enshrining the new balance of power.

A Schism or Disintegration?

The conflict between Moscow and Constantinople has reached a new level. Its further development will determine the future of the world Orthodoxy and affect, at the very least, the position of Christianity in Europe, where some 257 million Catholics and about 200.5 million Orthodox Christians live. If the contradictions between the principal centres of power are not resolved, then the risk it that Orthodoxy may cease to exist in its current form. Without the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox world loses any qualitative significance. And without the “symbolic power” of the rest of the Orthodox world, the Moscow Patriarchate is no more than Russia’s national religion, which may sit well with some politicians and hierarchs, but contradicts the internal logic of the Church and Christian universalism.

The current situation encapsulates the failure of both the Phanar and Moscow models, and their revitalization appears unlikely. Subsequently, events may follow one of two principal scenarios. The first scenario will be determined by the disintegration of the family of Orthodox Churches. Granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian church sets a decisive precedent for triggering the atomization of Orthodoxy. The protestant principle of “one state, one church” will deal a blow not only to the ROC, but also to other Orthodox churches, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The scale of disintegration will increase through the collapse of the unified legitimation system and, consequently, through the multiplication of Orthodox sects and the increased personal ambitions of individual bishops who would want autocephaly for themselves or at least autonomy within their states. Ukraine will be the first on the list; ultimate canonical confusion there will create all the requisite conditions for an explosive growth of the number of self-proclaimed patriarchs. Atomization will entail marginalization and relegation to the periphery of the religious world map. Emasculating and adapting the Church doctrine to the new realities, essentially an Orthodox “Reformation” and the end of universal Orthodoxy and the Diptych as its symbol will be the final chord in this scenario.

The second scenario is slightly less dramatic. The conflict between Phanar and the ROC will end with Orthodox Churches splitting into two camps with centres in Moscow and Istanbul. Other Orthodox Churches will try to remain neutral, but the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow will force them to pick a side. Orthodoxy will be plunged in its most deep-running split since the Great Schism. Long-term, neither party is likely to win. The schism will either evolve into disintegration, or return to the starting point of the 1990s. The struggle between the two camps will effectively remove Orthodox Churches from global religious politics; the Roman Catholic Church will boost its standing in global Christianity and ardent Protestant denominations will be far more visible on the religious map than Orthodoxy.

Under both scenarios, a way out of the crisis is possible if new charismatic leaders emerge who are capable of offering new integration points for the Orthodox world. Ethnic or country affiliations will have no special significance; what is going to be of far greater importance is the ability to sweep along the believers who are tired of the canonical confusion, militant rhetoric and the feeling of conflict. One could suppose that the project of “Orthodox reboot” will go beyond the boundaries of the current Orthodox borders. Both Ancient Eastern churches (often counted when calculating the total number of Orthodox churches) and individual non-Orthodox Churches (such as the Armenian Church or the Anglican Church) may also be involved.

Under any scenario, the current situation decreases the level of autonomy of Orthodox Churches while increasing their dependence on secular authorities as their potential sponsors or allies in the struggle against the opposing camp. Given the experience of church–state relations within Orthodoxy, the religious sphere is under threat of politicization, while the influence the Church has on political processes will shrink. Globally, it entails the dwindling of “religious multipolarity” as a factor in maintaining the political multipolarity.

1. See, for instance, Wilson E. After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 222 pp.


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