The original French version of this wide-ranging article appeared on December 15, the day of the Reunification Council in Kyiv. This explains why a few of the details are already dated. Yet the substance of Prof. Arjakovsky’s commentary remains a valuable contribution to our dialogue on the current state of the Orthodox Church. The author offers much to ponder—and much to debate.


Before the passions presently troubling Orthodox Christians spin out of control, in this article I wish to set forth how I see current developments in the Orthodox Church and to offer my proposals for a way out of the crisis. I have written several books which study the older and recent history of the Orthodox Church closely, both in France and around the world, and I have lived a long time in Ukraine and Russia, two countries in conflict today and situated at the epicentre of the present crisis. Also because of the friendship that I feel for Christians in the different Churches in conflict today, I believe that it’s my responsibility as an Orthodox Christian to share my opinion without, of course, claiming any exhaustiveness whatever.

Becoming Aware of the Crisis in the Orthodox Church

To begin, I believe that we must admit that the Orthodox Church has realized for some years that she is passing through a crisis, which is also a call from the Spirit. To be convinced of this it suffices to mention the dozens of subjects of disagreement on the agenda of the pan-Orthodox council at the start of the 1970s. The fourteen Orthodox Churches recognized that they were in need of reform. Thus they entered into a period of thaw which is and will be extremely beneficial to them. That the pan-Orthodox Council of Crete in 2016 was held after a century of preparation attests to this thaw. In particular, the recognition by the fathers of the Council that the borders of the Church of Christ extend beyond those of the Orthodox Church, and that in consequence the ecumenical movement is legitimate, was crucial. But the non-participation of four Churches at this Council showed that the wounds and the distrust are deep. This is why, conscious that the Spirit blows in and on the Churches, we must not make quick decisions in reacting too emotionally to the disappearance of certain elements from the past which we are in the habit of considering stable, even eternal.

Certainly, the October 15, 2018 decision of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to forbid his faithful to commune at Liturgies celebrated by representatives of Constantinople is deplorable and attests to an outmoded form of clericalism. In the same way, the November 27, 2018 decision of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to suppress the Exarchate of Russian Parishes in Western Europe, made without the least consultation with Archbishop John of Charioupolis—much less with the faithful of this Archdiocese—was abrupt and irresponsible. Finally, the often intransigent attitude of Metropolitan [sic] Filaret of Kyiv, not only with regard to Moscow but also to Constantinople, gives the disconcerting impression that he confuses the Church of Kyiv with his private property. Nevertheless, I believe that we mustn’t focus on these too human attitudes. On the one hand it is good to understand the sense of current events and, on the other hand, to look ahead to the future and to adopt, with wisdom, constructive attitudes.

The most obvious sign of the Orthodox Church’s crisis is that two countries the majority of whose citizens define themselves as Orthodox Christians have been at war for four years, a violent war which has seen more than 10,000 dead (only on the Ukrainian side; we do not know the numbers of Russian soldiers and mercenaries killed in combat), hundreds of thousands of wounded, and several millions of displaced persons. Even if, in the West, we think of the Russia-Ukraine war as something faraway, we must all the same acknowledge that it has a religious component for which the Orthodox Churches bear a part of the responsibility. We must also admit clearly that this conflict now threatens to become a new world war.

Moreover, I should clarify that, if I use a capital letter for the Orthodox Churches, this is because they call themselves “Orthodox”—but without, for all that, admitting that they form divine-human realities in which the holiness of the Orthodox Christian faith is far from always being embodied. Let us think of the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate has not once condemned the annexation of Crimea, which was however an obvious violation of international law, which is the basis of world peace. Neither has the Moscow Patriarchate condemned “the Orthodox army of the Donbas,” despite the fact that its fighters claim to be adherents of the Russian Church. On the side of the Patriarchate of Constantinople there was also no condemnation of this annexation at the moment in 2014 that it took place. We also know that the creation of the Kyiv Patriarchate has not been long, peaceful process.

Acknowledging the Legitimacy of the Formation of an Autocephalous Church of Kyiv

The situation of schism among three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine is one of the reasons for the Kremlin’s non-recognition of Ukrainian identity. This situation, which wounds a great many families painfully, was not tenable in the long term. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, more than 25 million faithful strong, has been asking for autocephaly for at least a century; and, if we add up its three jurisdictions, it constitutes the main Orthodox Church in Europe. We must be grateful to Patriarch Bartholomew for taking the bull of this division by the horns, despite his advanced age. He acted with wisdom in listening patiently for 27 years to all the parties of the conflict, the Churches but also the recent presidents of the Ukrainian republic and the National Assembly of Ukraine [the Verkhovna Rada], which voted twice with a very large majority in favour of his intervention in 2016 and 2018. 

Patriarch Bartholomew also reminded us, by setting forth very clear arguments, of the legitimacy of his authority to try to care for this open wound in the heart of Europe. The Patriarch of Constantinople has had precedence in the Church, after the See of Rome, since the Fourth Ecumenical Council, precedence which—since the schism with the Roman Church—has taken the form of Petrine responsibility (the right to convoke councils, the right of appeal, the right to recognize autocephalous status…). On December 4, 2018 Bishop Makarios of Christoupolis explained perfectly to the European parliamentarians in Brussels that it was in fact the Ecumenical Patriarchate that granted autocephaly to the Churches of Moscow (1589), Greece (1850), Serbia (1879), Romania (1885), Poland (1924), Albania (1937), Bulgaria (1945), Georgia (1990), and the Czech Lands (1998). What’s more, the Church of Constantinople was at the origins of the foundation of the Church of Kyiv in 988, and accompanied it until the 17th century. Despite what Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, in 1686 Constantinople only assigned to the Church of Moscow the possibility of designating the Metropolitan of Kyiv provisionally, with the condition that he would recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople as his Primate. Furthermore, the Ukrainian Church in the immigration asked Constantinople, not Moscow, for [canonical] recognition. This is why it was integrated in 1994 within the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

After the three Maidans of 1991, 2004, and 2014, Patriarch Bartholomew recognized that the Ukrainian nation wanted no more division among Christians. Informed of the fact that, since 1991, the totality of Ukrainian Orthodox bishops had asked for autocephaly, and equally conscious of the responsibility of the Churches in maintaining this division and in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Patriarch Bartholomew very wisely decided to give Ukrainian Orthodox Christians the possibility of forming their own Church. As opinion polls show, the great majority of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are very grateful today to Patriarch Bartholomew for his involvement in the process of assigning—in principle on January 6, 2019 in Istanbul—autocephalous status to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

In addition, the Ukrainian government has promised to the Orthodox faithful wishing to remain within the Patriarchate of Moscow that they will be free to do so. The only change will consist in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [UOC-MP] taking the name of Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. On their side, the bishops who participated in the Reconciliation Council of December 15, 2018 have appealed to their faithful to refuse any form of violence at the moment where parishes will have to choose whether or not to take part in this Church of Kyiv.

Rediscovering the Path of Humility and the Sense of Service to Overcome the Double Temptation of Quietism and Clericalism

It’s clear that all Orthodox Christians bear responsibility for the present crisis, which translates in particular into a schism between Moscow and Constantinople and a war between Moscow and Kyiv.

Elsewhere I have written that the majority of the faithful have for a long time lost the sense of the Orthodox faith as a synthesis between four fundamental, existential positions, four definitions of the Church, and four relationships to the truth as right glory, correct truth, faithful memory, and knowledge of justice. Many laypeople have come to separate faith and reason and to fall asleep in a form of liturgical quietism, of a narrow, confessional, pseudo-patristic way of thinking disconnected from the realities of the world. 

But the hierarchs of the Churches of Kyiv, Moscow, and Constantinople must also recognize humbly their fears, weaknesses, and limitations if they wish to embody the hierarchal expression of the Orthodox faith in the Church of Christ.

On the part of one Church, the Kyiv Patriarchate—which has had to navigate alone for three decades—there is a fear of being again manipulated by its Mother-Church. It is indeed true that, in the past, this Church of Kyiv has had to suffer abandonment not only by Moscow but also by Constantinople. Here is where, it seems to me, Ukrainian Christians must show some historical discernment. To live in a position of inter-ecclesial openness and communion is more demanding that to live alone with oneself. But the mission of any Church is to follow the path to the Kingdom of God. Today Metropolitan [sic] Filaret of Kyiv must humbly accept to be led by the Patriarch of Constantinople on the path of inter-ecclesial recognition. In particular he must accept the fact that the bishops can only govern (that is, serve) by being accompanied by the priests and laity. This will permit the Church of Kyiv to actualize the truth of the Church according to which, in Christ, each baptized person is called to become king, priest, and prophet. Thus will this Church show the other Orthodox Churches how to heal the diseases of ethnophyletism and clericalism.

This decision by Patriarch Bartholomew to involve himself in the destiny of the Church of Kyiv has provoked the anger of the Moscow Patriarchate, which considered Ukraine to be part of its “canonical territory.” The Moscow Patriarchate has justified its henceforth open claim to take over the leadership of the Orthodox Church by the fact that, after the Council of Florence (1439), the Church of Constantinople had fallen into schism, which would explain the self-founding of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1448. In reality this view of history is false. On the one hand, the Council of Florence was adopted by the near totality of Orthodox bishops and therefore could not be considered as heretical. (The Church of Constantinople only rejected it in 1484 while the Church of Kyiv remained faithful to it until the 17th century.) On the other hand we know that the See of Moscow was itself under Muslim domination in the 15th century. Yet again, the mythology on which the Russian Church has fed since its founding, namely, of being “the Third Rome” and sole inheritor of the Christian Empire, was based on a non-Christian political theology. 

This Church of Moscow came to contest the leadership of the Church of Constantinople by relying on an ultra-autocephalist ecclesiology. This depends largely on political power and refuses any ecclesial authority outside of itself. Now, as has been shown very well by Professor [and Protopresbyter] John Erickson, Orthodox ecclesiology is based on communion among the Churches, in the image of trinitarian life, which involves at the same time the principle of primacy, that is, of a real, personal authority, of conciliar (synodal) life, and of the participation of every baptized person. Today’s theologians who call themselves Orthodox yet seek to contest the Patriarch of Constantinople’s position as protos relative to the Churches call into question at one and the same time the history of the Orthodox Church, as recognized by the greatest historians from Anton Kartachev to John Meyendorff, and the authority of the Ecumenical Councils. 

It seems to me that Russian Orthodox hierarchs, theologians, and quite simply the laity should undertake in our day the work of discernment. It is the interests of the Russian Church to propose a path of renewal, faithful to the living Tradition, for the Orthodox Church as well as for the Russian nation. The Church of Moscow in particular must free itself from its Third Rome mythology and realize that it is not the sole inheritor of Kyivan Rus’. If not, as the last pan-Orthodox council showed in Crete, the Russian Church could be carried away by the most fundamentalist currents which confuse the Church with the state and propagate more and more deadly imperialist ideas. To support the formation of an autocephalous Church in Ukraine would be an opportunity to establish a peaceful dialogue with the Ukrainian nation. Over time this Church of the Moscow Patriarchate—about which we know that only 5% of Russian citizens today attend the Sunday Liturgy—could position itself as an advocate for Russian-Ukrainian peace and in this way win back the confidence of the Russian people. I add here that it’s not by proposing to create an ethnic church to Orthodox Christians living elsewhere in the world, even for those of Russian origin, that the Moscow Patriarchate will prepare for the future in a spiritual manner. Everyone knows, in fact, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. 

Finally, it is irresponsible and deeply offensive that, on November 27, 2018, the Patriarchate of Constantinople wished to place its [Russian] Exarchate [in Western Europe], and its Exarch first of all, before the fait accompli of its suppression. This is not the way to establish confidence among Christians in the Church of Christ. Certainly Patriarch Bartholomew assures these Christians that their spiritual and liturgical traditions will be respected. Equally certainly, everyone can understand that, in a time of acute schism, the Patriarch of Constantinople would need clear compliance on the part of this Exarchate’s parishes, especially after the recent defection of the church in Florence. But the Patriarchate of Constantinople seems not to realize the extent to which, in adhering to the 1917 Council of the Russian Church, the archdiocese of Russian parishes in Western Europe has had the time to form its own, original consciousness, certainly imperfect, but nevertheless producing good fruits throughout the history of the 20th century. To suppress this tradition of the Council of 1917 with the stroke of pen is naive. To wish to crush this [Archdiocese’s] proper consciousness is an offense against the Spirit. 

Possible Scenarios for a Way Out of the Ecclesial Crisis in Western Europe

This is why it would appear wise to me for everyone to recognize his or her mistakes and for a double movement of reconciliation to take place:

On the one hand the Patriarch of Constantinople must quickly reinstate His Eminence John of Charioupolis as Archbishop, with very precise competencies and a mode of functioning guaranteed for the Archdiocese, such that these parishes can have the assurance of being able to live according to their specific traditions. It would be equally indispensable for Patriarch Bartholomew to make some gesture of friendship and confidence with regard to Archbishop John of Charioupolis and the faithful of his Archdiocese, who have been painfully affected by the Patriarch’s too hasty decision.

On the other hand, it would be good if the members of this old Exarchate accepted to acknowledge that their mission consists in forming a post-ethnic local Church which, by definition, means a close collaboration with the Ecumenical Patriarchate—which, let us admit it, has not happened before now. This Church must also liberate itself from the narrowness connected with its minority status and notably from its often triumphalist reading of its own history. I add here that the See of Constantinople has welcomed Russian parishes in diaspora over several decades, which helped the Russian diaspora to avoid both the risk of manipulation by the Moscow Patriarchate during the era of the Soviet regime and the agony experienced by the parishes which placed themselves under the jurisdiction of the Russian Church Abroad. It would be good to show gratitude to Constantinople in return at a moment where it too needs support.

In case Constantinople refused to acknowledge its hastiness, grant these guarantees, and adopt a true pastoral attitude, there would remain two solutions to the dissolved Archdiocese: either to begin the process of forming a local, autonomous Church—but this would mean entering into a particularly perilous ecclesial-juridical void, given the Archdiocese’s lack of strength and meager capabilities; or, scatter among the different canonical Churches existing in Western Europe (Moscow, Bucharest, Kyiv, Antioch, etc.). But here too, nothing would guarantee that this Archdiocese’s “own spirit” be preserved enduringly and enriched. In the latter case at any rate, as a minimum in the short term, there would be need of a document which could guarantee the preservation of their particular spirit. Be that as it may, if the Russian parishes in Western Europe under the Patriarchate of Constantinople do not show spiritual discernment, seek to move beyond their national tropism, and accept to overcome their legitimate unhappiness with regard to clericalism, they will quite simply be swept away by history.

In the opposite case where the Ecumenical Patriarch refuses to leave behind his clerical style of management and does not accept to revisit the hazardous decision of his Synod on November 27, 2018, Constantinople can only discover—but too late—that it has lost the leadership over the Orthodox Churches outside its canonical territory (already the case for Moscow, but this non-recognition will only grow). The loss of the presidency of the Episcopal Assemblies, created everywhere around the world particularly at the initiative of members of the Rue Daru Exarchate, could prove fatal in the end for Constantinople’s authority around the world.

This is why, in my opinion, the primary task for finding a way out of this crisis that would be acceptable to all parties is to define together, quickly, in 2019, with the bishops, priests, and lay members of the Rue Daru Archdiocese (also with, if possible, the participation of Orthodox Christians from other jurisdictions as observers), this spirit or this identity proper to the Orthodox Church of France (this work must also be done in Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, etc. …), and to show its compatibility with a renewed, global, pan-Orthodox governance.

This particular spirit of the Archdiocese is found, in my opinion, in light of the debates of the 1917 Council of Moscow (which rehabilitated not only the power of the Primate in the Church, but also re-established the election of bishops, the active role of the laity in the Church, ecumenical engagement, theological creativity, the personalist and sapiential reconciliation of faith and reason, the condemnation of capital punishment, the separation of Church and state…). These ideas at once traditional and new were put progressively into practice thanks to enlightened bishops and theologians, from Metropolitan Evlogy (Georgievsky) to Archbishop John (Renneteau), from Father Sergius Bulgakov to Olivier Clément, and have given numerous signs of holiness universally recognized. This Archdiocese-become-Exarchate has contributed in fact with ACER [a Russian Orthodox student organization in France], St. Sergius Institute, Orthodox Action, Syndesmos, the Orthodox Fraternity in Western Europe, etc., to inventing a new theology—creative, personalist, sophiological, and trinitarian (even if it is true that, for different reasons to which we must come back, notably a mythified and anti-ecumenical vision of the past, this living Tradition was lost in the sands of time…), and to thinking a new, post-ethnic ecclesiology as well as an ecumenical future for the Orthodox Church of France.

For this local Church of France in process of being formed has, as its originality (this observation applies to most countries of the world outside of the Eastern Mother-Churches), the fact of finding itself on the canonical territory of the Catholic Church (which has always been recognized by the Orthodox Churches). Over time, once everyone admits that the divisions of the past have been understood and surpassed by the best Catholic and Orthodox theologians, this local Orthodox Church of France could have sufficient autonomy to be in a position to propose a particular mode of ecclesial life in double communion—with both Rome and Constantinople—as was the case for the Christians of first-millennium Gaul.

This Orthodox Church of France could also recover fraternal communion with the Greek Catholic or Melkite Churches, and with certain Eastern Churches called non-Chalcedonian, because they too have suffered in the past from divisions among their Mother-Churches. These, in most cases, seek today to rediscover the fundamental unity of the Church of Christ while firmly rejecting any form of malevolent proselytism. Their reflections, notably in the matter of canon law, and their practice, particularly in their permanent dialogue with the Roman Church, could prove particularly beneficial to the group of Orthodox Churches which define themselves as Chalcedonian.  


It seems to me that, despite all the wounds of each Church and all the sufferings of each Orthodox Christian in this period of upheavals, it is necessary in the first place to support the Patriarchate of Constantinople in its will to re-establish not only an organ of pan-Orthodox coordination but also its proper authority. We have understood that it’s a matter of conditional support, tied to the Apostle Andrew’s ability to respond to the call of Christ to follow Him. Even while making bold decisions which arise from his sole responsibility, the Patriarch of Constantinople must make use of canon 34 of the Council of the Apostles:

The bishops of each nation must know the one among them who is first, and consider him as their head, and do nothing exceptional without his opinion. Each of them must do only what applies to his diocese and the territories dependent on him. But let the first neither do anything without the opinion of all the others. Thus concord will reign, and God—the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—will be glorified in the Lord through the Holy Spirit.

 For all that this canon does not mean that, in times of crisis (which is by definition the time of human history), the protos can benefit from the support of all at every moment. That has never happened in the history of the Church. The group of fourteen Orthodox Churches must acknowledge this point and admit that, in the historical dynamic of the Councils, moreover of the position of the protos, the qualified majority has often been recognized as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s action allowing a wide reception by the whole Church of the decisions adopted. The protos must therefore show boldness in applying this rule of ecclesial life. Now, precisely, Patriarch Bartholomew shows great boldness today. 

But, as we have said, the re-establishment of his will to act, after centuries of paralysis, is being done too abruptly. This is why his boldness will be all the more recognized and rewarded if it is accompanied by evidence of humility and listening. The Orthodox Church in its totality must repent visibly of its sins, as the Catholic Church itself did in 2000, and realize that its reform is truly necessary. Orthodox bishops in particular must learn the lessons of the past, as much from their weakness with regard to secular authorities as from their unbalanced governance, resulting in alternating periods of imperial management with long periods of irregular or questionable councils. The laity must also recognize that centuries of inaction have a price today.

Prayer and ascesis, the true self-critical humility recommended by St. Ephraim the Syrian, these are the indispensable conditions for coming out of the current crisis. But it is also necessary today, in a spirit of peace and a manner both personal and communitarian, to accomplish a labour of creative reflection. The heart of the necessary reform is going to consist, for all Orthodox Christians, in ridding ourselves of the heresies of life as much as dogmatic heresies. It is necessary to be aware of the “monophysite” or “phyletistic” temptations of which our Church is often the consenting victim. It is also fitting to rid ourselves of the supreme heresy, namely, that loss of hope which translates into pride, the will for power, clericalism, non-listening to one another, anger, the non-desire to understand each other mutually, and ultimately, indifference, sadness, and the loss of love. 

This essay appeared in French on Prof. Arjakovsky’s personal blog on December 15, 2018. Translated for Orthodoxy in Dialogue by Jerry Ryan and Giacomo Sanfilippo.
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Antoine Arjakovsky holds a PhD from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS: School of Higher Studies in the Social Sciences) at the University of Paris. He is an Orthodox Christian, French historian, research director at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, and founding director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. His What is Orthodoxy? A Genealogy of Christian Understanding appeared in October 2018.

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