Kiev Caves Lavra

More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

I know that this will be hard for many journalists think about the following concepts without their heads exploding, but let’s give it a try. After all, the events unfolding at Orthodox altars in Ukraine are very important and may take years or decades to settle — not that readers would know that from reading mainstream news reports on the schism.

Ready?

First and foremost: There is no Eastern Orthodox pope, no one shepherd who can snap his fingers and make Orthodox disputes vanish.

Yes, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are key players in the current drama. However, this dispute between Moscow and Constantinople transcends politics and enters the world of doctrine and church polity. The ties that bind between Kiev and Moscow are far older than the current politics of Europe and Russia.

Yes, it is true that are are arguments about whether the Ecumenical Patriarch — based at the tiny, embattled Orthodox church in Turkey — has the power to grant “autocephaly” (creating an autonomous national church) in Ukraine. However, these debates are not, ultimately, between Poroshenko and Putin — they are between Patriarch Bartholomew and the rest of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs.

With that in mind, before we turn to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Christianity Today, let’s pause for a recent word from the ancient church of Antioch.

Responding to Patriarch Bartholomew’s request to recognize the results of December 15’s “unification council” and the nationalist Ukrainian church created there, His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch urged Pat. Bartholomew to stop the process of granting autocephaly until a pan-Orthodox solution could be found to the Ukrainian crisis. 

In other words, this Ukrainian issue is creating a global Orthodox crisis. Thus, it will require a global Orthodox solution. Repeat: There is no Orthodox pope.

Additional information:

The Patriarch of Constantinople sent letters of appeal to recognize the Ukrainian church to all the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches on December 24. The request has thus far been explicitly denied by the Polish and  Serbian Churches. 

In his response, Pat. John emphasized that the events surrounding the creation of the new church cause concern not only because of the disunion they create in the Orthodox world, but also because the opinion of the Local Orthodox Churches was not taken into account by Constantinople. …

Journalists: Please look for this. The issue here is not what churches remain in Communion with Moscow or the Ecumenical Patriarch. The issue is how many other patriarchs declare themselves to be in Communion with this alleged new church in Kiev. This is what matters to the Orthodox, not whether Kiev is in Communion with the U.S. State Department and the European Union.

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It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history.

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Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Anyone who has studied the history of Orthodox Christianity knows the details of this story, as well as the arguments about its significance.

As the first Christian millennium was drawing to a close, something big happened among the East Slavic and Finnic tribes of Europe. As always, the change involved economics, culture, military might and, last but not least, religion.

Here is a typical short take on this complicated subject:

The chronicles report that the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. … They breathlessly reported back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell if they were on earth or in heaven.

Thus, Prince Vladimir was baptized In 988 and commanded his whole nation to follow his conversion to Orthodoxy.

Just in case you missed it, one of the key words in this account is “Kiev.”

In the past week or so, I have received all kinds of contacts asking for my take on mainstream news coverage of the split that has taken place between the giant Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch based — with a tiny, persecuted flock — in Istanbul.

To be blunt, this topic is so complex that most of the Orthodox folks that I know think it would be next to impossible for journalists to handle it in a few inches of type or sound bites. Many of the Orthodox are reading the transcripts of statements by Orthodox leaders and that’s that.

However, I would like to note a few key issues that news consumers should watch for, when reading about this important story.

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AP mixes Byzantine politics with Russian hacking to tell an Orthodox story that's way too simple

AP mixes Byzantine politics with Russian hacking to tell an Orthodox story that's way too simple

Orthodox Christians around the world are waiting to find out what did, or did not, happen in a high-stakes meeting the other day between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill of Russia.

The issue was one of the most important, and symbolic, landmines in the history of Orthodox Christianity. That would be Kiev, a city that represents the "Baptism of Rus' " in 988 (click here for background), when Orthodox faith entered the world of the Slavs.

For the massive Russian Orthodox Church, everything begins in Kiev. The presence of the great Kiev Pechersk Lavra -- a monastery founded in 1051 -- only raises the stakes in this struggle for control of holy ground.

The Associated Press ran a feature before this showdown that mixed in spies, hackers and a hint of Donald Trump-era craziness. But before we get into all of that, let me offer a sample of the confusing news -- the word "Byzantine" applies here -- that followed the meeting.

KIEV (Sputnik) -- Reports about the decision to grant autocephaly to an Ukrainian church allegedly taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate are false and distort the reality, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) said on Saturday.

On Friday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the parties discussed "issues of mutual interest." Following the meeting, Ukrainian media reported that Patriarch Bartholomew had allegedly informed Patriarch Kirill of Constantinople's decision to grant Ukrainian church with autocephaly.

What, you ask, does "autocephaly" mean? It literally means "self-headed." Thus, the leader of an autocephalous church does not answer to a higher ranking metropolitan or patriarch.

Currently, the church In Ukraine that most Orthodox believers consider canonical (as opposed to two competing flocks, as I discussed in this 2009 column written in Kiev) is linked to Moscow. Back to that news report:


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Got news? Prayers and poetry in the Ukraine standoff

The daily march of the headlines from Kiev continues. The other day, I offered up a post linked to an amazing Associated Press photo of a quarter of Orthodox Christians, including at least one priest and one monk, who put themselves in the line of fire in between a wall of riot police and the brick-tossing demonstrators. Click here to catch up on that.

I want to return to that subject for a moment (also watch for an upcoming Crossroads podcast with George Conger on Ukraine coverage), because several Orthodox readers of this site have sent me links to additional information about what is happening with those priests and monks. It appears that their public witness for peace is continuing?

As George has been stressing in his posts, it’s important to realize that — in part due to the complexities of post-Soviet life in this region — there are two major Eastern Orthodox bodies and hierarchies in Ukraine, one aligned with Russia and the other is an autonomous Ukrainian church.

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