Friday, January 11, 2019

The dangers of schism: the new Cold War within Orthodoxy


The dangers of schism: the new Cold War within Orthodoxy 

The Tablet


Religion and nationalism can be a dangerous combination. Western Christianity therefore should react cautiously to the drastic breach between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches. It culminated with the propagation on the Orthodox Christmas Day of a decree, or tomos, which confirmed the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Church. It thus became independent from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, which governs the Russian Orthodox Church. So both Ukrainian and Russian nationalism have thereby gained a new cause célèbre – if not yet a new casus belli – in a region of the world that is already trigger-happy.

It is certainly a blow to President Vladimir Putin’s desire to re-establish Russian hegemony over the states on his borders. For all its denials to the contrary, the Moscow Patriarchate shows every indication of operating in accordance with the strategic aims of the Kremlin, and that includes trying to pull the Ukraine away from the sphere of influence of the European Union and Nato. Ill feeling between Ukraine and Russia goes back a long way, even before Stalin’s pre-war attempt to starve the Ukrainian peasantry into submission or annihilation. Russia has stolen the Crimea from Ukraine, is in the process of trying the same tactics in the Donbass region, and has interfered blatantly with Ukrainian shipping in the Black Sea.


Yet a breach of communion between neighbouring churches is a serious matter. The schism really lies in the break in relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the first among equals in the Eastern Orthodox world. It was Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople who issued the tomos which has led to the withdrawal of communion between himself and the Moscow Patriarch Kirill. There were already tensions. Russian church leaders have long regarded Bartholomew as far too pro-Western.

Other parts of the Orthodox world will now have to decide where their allegiance lies, and it is already clear that the Serbian Orthodox Church, for instance, will side with Russia. A cold war within Orthodoxy seems inevitable, however unedifying. Nationalist politics seem once again about to trump theological principles. That is always a scandal. The Russian Orthodox Church has emerged from savage persecution and made great strides in bringing Russian society back to Christianity. It should not be driven into a corner but shown the hand of friendship and respect.