THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH’S BATTLE WITH TIME: REFLECTIONS ON THE PATRIARCHATE OF ALEXANDRIA’S RECOGNITION OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH OF UKRAINE by Andreja Bogdanovski

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Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria (second from right) concelebrates with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (left) in July 2018
(Photo credit: Religion News Service)

By coincidence or not, this time last year Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) thanked Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria for his support of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) on the question of Ukrainian autocephaly. Exactly a year later, the Patriarchate of Alexandria (AP) joined the Orthodox Church of Greece (OCG) in recognising the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). How do Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Onuphrius of Kiev* feel? If the initial reactions from the UOC-MP are any indicator, then the answer is betrayed.

In a span of 30 days, these two very important Churches have recognised the autocephaly of the newly minted OCU. Since the granting of the Tomos of Autocephaly in January of this year, the OCU has shown great resilience in very difficult moments. Let’s not forget the string of attacks by “Patriarch” Filaret Denysenko this spring when he did everything possible to torpedo Metropolitan Epiphanius’ leadership. He even revived the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). The election of President Zelensky and his equidistance policy on religious matters changed the circumstances in which religious organisations operate in Ukraine. Poroshenko’s interference in church affairs and clear favouritism over one church are things of the past. Furthermore, since May of this year no new parishes have decided to change affiliation from the UOC-MP to the OCU. These two recognitions—from Athens and Alexandria—are breathing fresh air into the OCU.

Moscow, expectedly, reacted with fury to the first recognition by the OCG. In this case the ROC followed a similar pattern compared to the days after it became clear that the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) was ready to grant a Tomos of Autocephaly to the Ukrainians in the fall/winter of 2018. First, the ROC condemned the decision by the OCG, then it decided to call a Holy Synod where a decision to partially cease communion with the OCG’s hierarchy was reached.

Unlike the case with Constantinople, the ROC decided to try new tactics this time around with the OCG, which should in their belief ultimately create a discord within the OCG and put pressure on Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens. The partial cessation of communion was meant to do exactly this, clergy within the OCG turning against each other. To further enhance this process, the ROC borrowed clues from the secular world of targeted sanctions and forbade travel agencies from organising pilgrimages to certain locations in Greece, something which the EP called a murky affair aimed to inflict economic pressure on the OCG.

This shows that the ROC has attempted to come up with a response on a church-by-church basis, hoping that its harsh response to the OCG would keep the rest of Orthodoxy quiet, at least for some time. However, 26 days later the AP decided to recognise the OCU (November 8, 2019), which was another and much quicker than expected blow to the ROC’s efforts to halt the recognition process. Unlike the cases of EP and the OCG, the ROC without much deliberation quickly decided to cease liturgical commemoration of the Patriarch of Alexandria.

Things are now looking awkward for the Russians. After striking off the first in the diptychs, i.e., Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Patriarch Kirill for a few weeks started with the second in order of precedence, that being Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria. Now that changes, too. Considering that the AP is one of the ancient Patriarchates with a canonical territory stretching to the entire African continent, this recognition creates great momentum for the OCU. It is something that took many by surprise, including the ROC. Unlike the OCG, which was widely speculated to become one of the first recognisers and a matter of when and not if, the leadership of the ROC and the UOC-MP was convinced that Patriarch Theodoros was on their side of the divide.

Was this expectation justified? A simple discourse analysis points to an affirmative answer. While the AP was not a loud defender of the UOC-MP compared with, for example the Serbian or the Polish Orthodox Churches, Patriarch Theodoros showed great sympathy and support to Metropolitan Onuphrius, especially in relation to the actions taken by the then UOC-KP.

Patriarch Theodoros’ position on the Ukrainian church issue was more visible after his trips to Poland, Ukraine, and Russia in 2018. His support can be unpacked in three different directions: 1) support for Metropolitan Onuphrius of the UOC-MP, 2) disapproval of “Patriarch” Filaret of the UOC-KP, and 3) maintenance of close relations with the ROC.

Theodoros had been a representative of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Odessa, Ukraine from 1985 to 1990. He lived in the country for ten years and, in his wordssince then his love for Russia became much stronger. During his visit in Odessa in September 2018 he clearly backed Metropolitan Onuphrius, calling the UOC-MP the only canonical Church in Ukraine. That was, of course, in the period that the Ecumenical Patriarch had sent two exarchs to Ukraine to work on the preparations for autocephaly.

When it came to the UOC-KP and “Patriarch” Filaret, Patriarch Theodoros did not mince words portraying him as a schismatic who needed to repent in order to return to the bosom of the Church. Theodoros’ assessment of Filaret was that he was led by personal ambition infused with politics.

Patriarch Theodoros doesn’t hide his affinity for Russia, either. In an interview for RIA Novosti on the occasion of the celebrations in Moscow for the 1030th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’ [when the above photo was taken] where he was among those present, he said:

I have come because I love Russia very much and from my youth wanted to feel what the Russian life is like, which means to belong to the Russian Church.

His presence at the festivities last July should be seen as clear support for Patriarch Kirill. At the occasion, he praised Putin and did not minimise his excitement for “marching side by side” during the cross procession.

While witnessing this from the ROC’s and UOC-MP’s viewpoint can be emotional, and the sense of betrayal is flying high, it is important  also to assess clear-headedly what Patriarch Theodoros did not do. To my knowledge, most of the examples of support for Metropolitan Onuphrius and Patriarch Kirill date back to the period before the Unification Council of December 15, 2018 and the election of Metropolitan Epiphanius as Primate of the autocephalous OCU took place. While Theodoros might have expressed his negative views of Filaret, he has not publicly attacked Metropolitan Epiphanius, the OCU, or the Ecumenical Patriarch for granting autocephaly to the OCU.

While at present we are not exactly clear about the precise reasons behind Patriarch Theodoros’ decision with regard to the OCU, there was a hint of a shift of allegiance already among the hierarchs of the AP, though underreported, two months ago. Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), head of the ROC’s Department for External Church Relations (DECR), reacted and sent a letter to Metropolitan Chrysostom of Mozambique to protest the alleged concelebration with a representative of the OCU. However, this action by Metropolitan Hilarion turned around as a boomerang, as Metropolitan Ioannis of Zambia responded that it was not Hilarion’s business to meddle in the affairs of his Church, saying that Hilarion should instead speak directly with Patriarch Theodoros on this matter. Ioannis received public support from other church representatives from Constantinople and the AP. The fear of retaliatory measures by the ROC was clearly voiced by Metropolitan Seraphim (Kykkotis) of Zimbabwe, who spoke of the ROC sending clergy to any local church which would recognise the OCU’s autocephaly.

To finish this article, as new recognitions have slowly become the new norm for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, this definitely creates an additional boost and legitimacy for its internal development which should stabilise its presence in Ukraine. This is not a reversible process, and the Russian Orthodox Church is battling with time. With the recognition by the Patriarchate of Alexandria the Russian Orthodox Church has also lost the chance for creating a pan-Orthodox Council.

Still, while we are witnessing individual responses to those Churches which decide to go ahead and recognise the OCU, one should remember the grand strategy announced last December (below) by Metropolitan Hilarion, who is the face of the ROC’s de-recognition efforts. Should the Patriarchate of Alexandria fear? Only time will tell.

The Russian Church “will now act as if they [Constantinople] do not exist at all because our purpose is missionary, our task is to educate, we are creating these structures for ministerial care about our flock, there can be no such deterring factors here” … “For example, Europe, Southeast Asia, North and South America, Australia, it’s all, from the point of view of Constantinople, a diaspora in which they believe only they can be represented, and we should all leave there and give our parishes and dioceses to them.”  (Metropolitan Hilarion, Moscow, December 29, 2018)

*The capital of Ukraine will be spelled Kiev or Kyiv respectively depending on the primary language of communication—Russian or Ukrainian—of the ecclesiastical entity in question.
See the extensive Ukraine section in our Archives.

Andreja Bogdanovski is a PhD candidate at the University of Buckingham, UK, where he studies church autocephaly movements across Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He tweets @BogdanovskiA.

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