A power struggle underway in the Eastern Orthodox Church could have significant religious and political implications. Bartholomew I, the patriarch of Constantinople and one of the Orthodox Church’s highest-ranking leaders, declared on October 11 that he will grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. Such autocephaly, or “self-headship,” is a response to ongoing political tensions between Russia and the Ukraine.
Bartholomew hasn’t yet made a formal edict about the move, which would revoke a 1686 decree giving the church in Moscow power over the one in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
Days after Bartholomew’s announcement, the Russian Orthodox Church cut ties with Constantinople. Even before that, when the Ukrainian Church’s intentions of seeking independence became clear, the Russian Church, or Moscow Patriarchate, began taking action. It suspended liturgical prayers for Bartholomew, banned priests from co-presiding with Constantinople bishops at worship services, and stopped participating in gatherings, conversations and commissions led by representatives from Constantinople.
Demographics and History Behind the Russian Orthodox Church Schism
Worldwide, there are almost 300 million Orthodox (or Eastern Orthodox) Christians, representing about 12 percent of all Christians. Until now, 14 nationally centered Orthodox churches have been in communion with one another. The largest, the Russian Orthodox Church, has almost 150 million members, or half of all Orthodox believers. Ukrainians represent up to 40 percent of the Russian Orthodox Church’s members. In fact, some people believe Kiev was the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox tradition.
The schism, scholars say, could be the most significant rift in Eastern Christendom since 1054. That’s when Eastern Orthodoxy was formed, by separating from what is now the Roman Catholic Church. Since Orthodoxy’s birth, the Constantinople Patriarchate has been its most influential center, with the Patriarch of Constantinople (currently Bartholomew) considered “first among equals.”
To complicate matters in the Ukraine, Orthodox Christians there have been divided, since the 1990s, into three groups: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Because only 54 percent of Ukrainians support a unified autocephalous church, the UOC-MP is expected to stick around even if a “divorce” is decreed.
Political Battles Are Playing Out in Church Bodies
As with the 1054 schism, the current division is “as much about territory and influence as it is about theology.” Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church—and its leader, Patriarch Kirill—has frequently acted as a mouthpiece for Russian nationalist ideology. “The Russian Orthodox Church acts as the spiritual arm of the Russian state,” says Robert Brinkley, an expert on the former Soviet Union.
Ukrainians have tried to establish a distinctively Ukrainian Orthodox Church since their country declared independence in 1991. Their efforts gained traction in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, a coastal region of Ukraine. That action sparked a war that is now having major implications on Orthodoxy.
The government of Russian president Vladimir Putin often relies on the Russian Orthodox Church to legitimize its actions. So experts say a schism would be a serious blow not only to the Russian Orthodox Church but to the Kremlin. “We’re talking about territory and power and authority,” says Rev. Alexander Laschuk, a professor at the University of Toronto. Laschuk expects a schism to occur but says it’s not yet clear if it will be “something short or something that will last centuries.”
After Bartholomew’s announcement, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would “defend the interests” of the Russian Orthodox Church if they are threatened in Ukraine. A representative for Patriarch Kirill said revoking the 1686 edit “crossed a red line” and was “catastrophic” for Orthodoxy.