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How Moscow is Damaging the Unity of the Church, and What Orthodox Primates Must Do

In this brilliant and profound article, Archon Ostiarios Evagelos Sotiropoulos explains how the Moscow Patriarchate’s fanatically intransigent stance on the Autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine belies its stated concern for the unity of the Church. It also articulates why it is so important for the life and unity of the Church that Orthodox primates and hierarchs stand up to Moscow now and act for the good of the people of God, rather than for political concerns. Evagelos Sotiropoulos is the Editor of an important compendium of articles on why the Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision to grant Autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church was justified from both a canonical and a pastoral perspective: The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Ukraine Autocephaly: Historical, Canonical, and Pastoral Perspectives, published by the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle.

EXCLUSIVE: It is time for Orthodox primates and hierarchs to stand up to Moscow and ensure Church unity

Exclusive Commentary to The Orthodox World

By Evagelos Sotiropoulos

Also find this article on the web site of The Orthodox World

“Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:3).

The reaction of the Moscow Patriarchate to the recent decisions by the Ancient Patriarchate of Alexandria, as well as the Church of Greece, to formally recognize the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU) and its primate, Metropolitan Epiphanios of Kyiv and all Ukraine, reminds me of the Bible passage above.

Last November, in my article “Caring for the Church of Ukraine: Constantinople’s Calmness Carries the Day” published in Providence Magazine, I wrote that local Orthodox churches should seriously examine Moscow’s reaction to the granting of the Tomos of Autocephaly to the OCU by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate: “For today the target is Constantinople, but tomorrow it could be them, if their interests do not align with those of Moscow.”

This is precisely what is unfolding in the aftermath of the decisions taken by Patriarch Theodore and Archbishop Ieronymos; Moscow’s purported priority to honour and uphold pan-Orthodox unity, is not consistent according to their works.

Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who dwell in all places and fill all things, treasury of good things and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us of every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Seemingly without any sense of humility or fear of God, the Church of Russia has become the self-appointed arbiter of where the Holy Spirit is present.

Following the formal recognition of the OCU, Moscow responded to the Patriarchate of Alexandria and Church of Greece the same way it did to the Ecumenical Patriarchate – it severed communion with both local churches. That is, it weaponized the Body and Blood of Christ, the very source, the mystery that manifests the unity of all Orthodox who are one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 3:28), in order to advance its long-standing and politically-motivated agenda.

For the Church of Greece, however, Moscow also created and published a list of metropolises in Greece that can and cannot be visited by Russian pilgrims. The Church of Russia announced that they would monitor the situation and update this list if additional metropolitans from the Church of Greece concelebrated with OCU hierarchs. In effect, Moscow, according to its own judgment, wishes to determine where the Holy Spirit dwells and fills. It is as if the Holy Spirit is a robotic commodity that can be contained and distributed only where Moscow mandates. This, like many of Moscow’s ecclesiastical actions, betray a lack of Christian philanthropia and spiritual maturity.

Another example to highlight this point is the Church of Russia’s approach towards Mount Athos, specifically the Russian-speaking Monastery of St. Panteleimon (which, ironically in this context, means “all-merciful”). According to Moscow, the only Athonite monastery that has the grace of God, the only Athonite monastery where the Holy Spirit dwells and fills is St. Panteleimon. Not because they have a different presiding bishop (all monasteries on the Holy Mountain, including St. Panteleimon, commemorate the name of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew), not because they practice a different faith or have different liturgical customs, but because, wait for it … they are Russian! Whatever happened to the timeless words of St. Paul that there is neither Jew nor Greek (cf. Gal 3:28)?

What is the root problem of the current division? Is it a matter of Christian faith? No. Of Orthodox dogma, perhaps? No, again. There is one agenda here and it is the Russian World one. It is no surprise that almost all intra-Orthodox disagreements have a common denominator: the desire of Moscow to undermine Constantinople, directly or by proxy, and supplant it as the First Throne of Orthodoxy. And for this, if we are to be sincere, primates and hierarchs from all local churches, to a greater or lesser extent, bear some responsibility.

A multi-generational problem

The primary challenge to contemporary Church unity is not as a result of Constantinople’s decision vis-à-vis Ukraine. The fallout from the creation of the OCU is symptomatic of a larger, multi-generational problem. The problem is Moscow’s ecclesiastical approaches which are not firmly rooted in the good soil (cf. Luke 8:8) of the Church’s history, canons, and pastoral care for its flock. The question is: what kind of Orthodoxy do primates and hierarchs want? Do they prefer the Church be governed synodality, according to the holy canons, with the proper ecclesiastical order? Or do they prefer fleeting and narrow national interests, bullying tactics and, if we are to be sincere, the discreet disbursement of significant financial sums to determine Church decisions.

Consider, for a moment, how Moscow grants autocephaly whenever and wherever its interests are served: the establishment of the Orthodox Church in America is especially instructive here. Not only were the clergymen who comprised the OCA’s predecessor, the Metropolia, non-canonical up until the day Moscow decided to bestow autocephaly to it (without any canonical basis or prerogative to do so), Moscow has maintained multiple ecclesiastical bodies in the United States to the present day. This includes the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which has had its own questions of canonical legitimacy in recent decades (making the vociferous accusations against the Phanar from its clergymen that much more ironic).

Consider, as well, Moscow establishing autonomous churches throughout the oecumene. Preferring not to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with other Orthodox clergy, but instead employing Russian embassies and consulates as places of worship. Establishing parishes in other local churches under the banner of ‘Moscow Representation’ – even in Turkey – because while there may be no Jew or Greek, there certainly is Russian!

More recently, His Beatitude Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia of Georgia wrote to Patriarch Kirill with concerns about the invasion of Moscow onto the canonical territory of the Church of Georgia. This and other types of related actions have been repeated many times over many decades; if we are to be sincere, this is the standard operating procedure for Moscow.

In 2017, for example, I wrote “Crete, Korea, and the Future of Orthodoxy” in Huffington Post about how the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea (under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) was a canary in the coal mine. I described in detail how Moscow’s expansionist tendencies were destroying the unity of the Orthodox faithful in the Korean Peninsula and that hierarchs should intervene to ensure the continuation of the proper canonical order there. (Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea has written extensively about the non-canonical and disturbing actions of Moscow in Korea.)

And when others – be it local churches or individual clergymen – do not toe the political line, not only does Moscow hasten to weaponize the Holy Eucharist, they systematically employ the threat and execution of excommunication to both intimidate and bully dissidents and denigrate the opinion and outlook of others. Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko has written extensively on how the Moscow Patriarchate has used excommunication as a coercive tactic to remove critics and diminish their credibility.

A case study from Estonia is especially instructive here. Following the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s reestablishment of the Autonomous Orthodox Church of Estonia in 1996, Moscow immediately suspended eight priests and one deacon, labeling them as schismatics. Not because of an egregious canonical error or apostasy, but because they preferred to employ their God-given freedom to be under the canonical jurisdiction of Constantinople.

Before a formal agreement to re-establish communion between Constantinople and Moscow, the latter agreed to revoke the ecclesiastical penalties against the nine individuals. Does this not make a mockery of canonical punishment? Is this not one of many examples where the Church of Russia attempts to determine who has the grace of God and when they have it; in other words, where the Holy Spirit dwells and fills?

A final, related point on Estonia: following Constantinople’s 1996 decision, the Russian Parliament passed legislation to place burdensome financial sanctions on the Estonian government in retaliation – one example in a long list of the Moscow Patriarchate relying on and leveraging the Kremlin to advance its own, and indeed a common, Russian World agenda.

Showing its true face to the world

The steely resolve and Job-like patience of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to, after more than one hundred years, bring canonical order to the historic Orthodox country of Ukraine and its God-fearing faithful, has disturbed Moscow’s mandate and showed the world the true face of Russia.

The recognition of the OCU has also brought to light what many Orthodox hierarchs and observers of the Church have known for a long time: the Moscow Patriarchate’s modus operandi often involves bullying, threats and outright fabrications. But there is no need to believe this author, bishops from the Ancient Patriarchate of Alexandria as well as the Church of Greece have publicly confirmed these tactics.

During the extraordinary meeting of the Church of Greece hierarchy in October, for instance, bishop after bishop outlined in precision and with concrete examples the intimidating tactics, threats of punishment, and options for blackmail methodically planned and executed by Russian clergymen, including senior bishops such as Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk.

(As it relates to Metropolitan Hilarion, he travels from one local church to another leveraging Moscow’s financial clout and deploying the aforementioned tactics, making a mockery of Orthodox synodality in the process and especially taking advantage of some of the ancient patriarchates who find themselves in tenuous situations.)

However, hierarchs from around the world are now beginning to speak out, they are beginning to challenge the norm of accepting Russia’s actions because they are often not aligned with the proper ecclesiastical phronema (mindset).

It is therefore insincere when Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion speak about the dangers of papism, arguing that: “Our Church [Moscow] does not strive for power at the pan-Orthodox level. We only wish to preserve the canonical order and we cannot allow that a likeness of papism, a ‘quasi-papism’, should emerge in Orthodoxy.” It is a well-known tactic to vociferously accuse opponents, without any merit, of tactics employed by oneself.

Kirill’s words are again a reminder of Matthew 23:3, because while the patriarch’s words may be wise, his actions betray his works. There are many examples to support this point, the most egregious being Moscow’s underhandedness vis-à-vis the Holy and Great Council in Crete in 2016. In February I wrote:

Many are now calling for dialogue and the need for pan-Orthodox synodality to solve the issue of Ukraine; the pretense of virtue here knows no bounds. When Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew made concession after concession, mostly to Moscow, in order to realize the Holy and Great Council, it was not enough. When Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew agreed to have the autocephaly agenda item removed from the Council’s agenda, when he agreed to shorten the length of the Council, and when he agreed to move the location of the Council, it was not enough.

Let us briefly examine the words and works of His All-Holiness, not only as they relate to the Holy and Great Council, which alone speak volume, but his initiation and organization of six Synaxis of Primates since being enthroned Ecumenical Patriarch in 1991. Both of these initiatives, and many other related ones emanating from the Phanar, are the exact opposite of Moscow’s baseless charges of “papism.”

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt…” (Col 4:6)

Where does Orthodoxy go from here and how can the unity of the Church be ensured?

While the contribution and opinion of lay people – and even most Orthodox clergy – are important, the time has come for the Holy Synod of each local church to publicly speak out against the long standing practices of the Moscow Patriarchate.

It is time for primates and hierarchs to do the right thing. To follow the Ecumenical Councils, the well-established canonical and pastoral tradition of the Church that have been handed down from the Apostles to the Church Fathers and now to present-day bishops.

Primates and hierarchs will resolve the current stalemate if they follow the commandments of Christ – by loving one another, even their enemies (cf. Matthew 5:44)! By exemplifying Christian compassion and genuine mercy.

Moscow may be boxing themselves into a corner, which could help to explain its increasing reliance on extreme and zealous language focusing on “evil”. This in turn has created a group of fanatical Orthodox, particularly on social media, obsessed, not with love and forgiveness, but with schism, heresy and damnation.

Compare this to the language coming out of the Phanar and the homilies of His All-Holiness, which are based on and characterized by love and unity. There is no malice. No revenge nor retribution. Despite repeated personal attacks and countless character assassinations, there is the Ecumenical Patriarch, at every Divine Liturgy, commemorating and praying for Patriarch Kirill. Is this not the calling of a Christian? Let the reader consider it for themselves.

During its Patronal Feast last month, the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided to officially enter Elder Sophrony of Essex into the catalogue of Saints of the Orthodox Church. The Christ-centred teachings of this holy Russian-born ascetic of the twentieth-century, who was wholly devoted to the Lord, could serve as a blueprint for understanding and reconciliation.

If all parties involved focus on Church unity, if their works are consistent with their words, then they will put self-interest aside and make room for the Holy Spirit, Who indeed dwell in all places and fill all things, leading primates and hierarchs to the knowledge of His truth.

Evagelos Sotiropoulos is the Editor of The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Ukraine Autocephaly: Historical, Canonical, and Pastoral Perspectives published by the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle.

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