The actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (EP) in its process of granting a Tomos of autocephaly to the schismatic groups in Ukraine have created a canonical crisis. This point of “judgment” (the real meaning of “crisis”) is not so much about Ukraine, per se; but about the nature of the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and of primacy, indeed of episcopacy in the Orthodox Church. Thus, it affects every Orthodox Church and every Orthodox Christian. It has nothing to do with nationalism, though this has been a tool for manipulation of various parties involved; it has nothing to do with a rivalry between Moscow and Constantinople, though this is certainly exacerbated by the situation. It has nothing to do with Greeks versus Russians, or with Constantinople’s frustration with Moscow over the Cretan council. The roots of this crisis are a hundred years old, and its foundations date back to the Roman Empire.
It is a time of judgment for Orthodoxy, to make us deal with reality as it is, and not how we imagine it to be, not how we would like it to be. This means that to resolve this crisis we have to look at the history of the past several hundred years, and the current situation, and make some decisions as to how we are going to proceed as the Church. This brings up many corollary questions: What is the relationship between the Church and the world, the Church and secular governments, the Church and the nation-state? How does the Church engage in missionary outreach, and the nature of those missions? How do the Local Churches relate to one another, maintain communion with one another and support one another, in relation to the secular world?
The real issue is, what is the nature of the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Orthodoxy and how does it work in relation to the Synodal constitution of the Church?
There are two systems of presuppositions which have clashed in Ukraine. First, the conciliar vision of the Church which sees Local autocephalous Churches as having full authority over their defined territories, and missions, with full jurisdiction over juridical, canonical and disciplinary matters residing in the Synod of that Local Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople has primacy of honor as the first among equals, on the basis of the ancient canons. However each Synod has its own primate, and each functions independently as autocephalous. The second system has a set of presuppositions which vest final authority in the Ecumenical Patriarch over all canonical decisions, with a right of appeal and the right to overrule the other patriarchs, primates and their Synods, and whose decisions cannot be appealed. The conciliar/synodal model has been the operating principle of most of the Orthodox Churches for the past several hundred years. The Constantinopolitan model has been developing over the last century, on the basis of interpretations of the ancient canons, and has most recently been applied in Ukraine. It relativizes the autocephalies of the national Churches, and asserts not only primacy of honor but primacy of jurisdiction over all the Orthodox Churches, and sole jurisdiction outside of their national territories.
The specific conflict between these two visions of the Church manifested itself in Ukraine. While the interference of political powers and their financial ability to influence the leading actors, as well as the personal motivations of various actors involved, are important,they are side issues. The current conflict arose from the process of granting the Tomos of autocephaly to the schismatics in Ukraine, and especially, the validation of their schism. This was done despite the presence of the much larger canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, an autonomous Church under the Moscow Patriarchate. There was no consultation nor agreement with the UOC-MP, and they did not request autocephaly. The process involved the petition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for autocephaly from the President of Ukraine, P. Poroshenko, on behalf of two groups that had long been in schism from the canonical Church in Ukraine. These bodies were led by former clerics who had been legitimately defrocked and anathematized by the Russian Orthodox Church, of which they had been members: the so called “Patriarch” Philaret Denisenko and “Metropolitan” Makary. The excommunication and expulsion of Denisenko had been universally recognized as just, for abuse of power and corruption, and for schism; and supported, even by Patriarch Bartholomew, who had also affirmed the complete competence and jurisdiction of the Russian Church to deal with these issues. Poroshenko’s petition included an appeal to overrule the decisions and disciplines levied against these clerics by the Russian Synod. The EP appointed two Exarchs, bishops from North America, to work out the details of the relationship with Constantinople and bring the two groups together. By entering Ukraine on official Church business without the blessing of the canonical Metropolitan of Kiev, Metropolitan Onuphry, the Exarchs of Constantinople violated the canonical territory of the autonomos Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and of the Patriarchate of Moscow of which it is part. Interfering in the Church affairs of another Local Church, and invading their territory are major canonical infractions. As a result, Moscow resolved to cease commemorating the Patriarch Bartholomew. Constantinople then withdrew the 300-year-old document, ceding jurisdiction of Kiev to Moscow. The biggest canonical infractions came, however, when the EP validated these schismatic groups and declared them fully canonical, took them under his jurisdiction, and validated the priesthood and episcopacy of their clergy. Moscow had no choice but to break communion with Constantinople at this point. Constantinple later established them with a Tomos of Autocephaly. In addition, the EP has established a stavropegial diocese, under himself, on the territory of Ukraine. He is operating on the basis of his own presuppositions; but they are not shared by the rest of the Church. Rather, he is seen as operating unilaterally, without consultation or conciliar consensus with the other Orthodox Churches.
Perhaps the most significant act in this process has been the validation of the clergy of the schismatic groups, and the recognition of their organization as a legitimate church within the Patriarchate of Constantinople, albeit nominally autocephalous. None of the other actions of this process touch on the sacramental constitution of the Church; these, however, cut to the very nature of episcopacy and priesthood, and of the Church itself. Everything else, as offensive as it has been to the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches, is essentially administrative and juridical. Not that these are not important, but they do not have any implications for sacramental integrity of the Church or the continuity of the Tradition. If this schism was just administrative, the parties would eventually reconcile, even if grudgingly, as after Constantinople invaded and divided the Church in Estonia. There was a break in communion for a time, as there is now between Jerusalem and Antioch. But there was no issue that forced the rest of the Churches to take sides and go into schism with the others.
The schismatic clergy all had cut themselves off from the canonical Church. Some had been canonically ordained, most were uncanonically ordained by schismatic bishops, and some had never been ordained as bishops. In an unprecedented sweep of the pen, the Patriarch of Constantinople declared all these clergy valid and canonical, lifting the defrockings and anathemas, and placing them under his omophorion—figuratively. Then the EP demands that they commemorate the new primate as the head of a legitimate Orthodox Church, and serve with him and his clergy, and does so himself. So all the Churches, the primates and Synods, must choose: Will they serve with clergy from this new Ukrainian Church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Those clergy and faithful will also go all over the world, to Jerusalem, Mt. Athos, Cyprus, Greece, Serbia, Romania. Will they be received to communion? Will they be allowed to serve? Will their Baptisms be recognized?
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