There are many parallels between recent upheavals in the Orthodox Church in Europe and the ongoing saga of Brexit. Both paths of events raise fundamental questions about our fidelity to truth and the rule of law, and reveal the existential crises that affect the United Kingdom and other nations on the one hand and the Orthodox Church on the other. What sort of a world do we want to live in? What kind of Church does God intend us to be?
In my Culture Wars and the Orthodox Church I draw parallels between the rise in the right wing and nationalist populism that produced Trump and Brexit, as well as a debased form of Orthodoxy that raises national or ethnic identity to an absolute and tolerates the kind of fusion between church and state that has been taking place in Russia. I concluded that the culture wars surrounding Brexit/Trump and those within the Orthodox Church are functionally related, in that not only is Russia the site of this church-state fusion, but it also has in Vladimir Putin a leader who has made no secret of his support for Brexit.
In this article I would like to explore the striking parallels between recent events in the Orthodox Church in Western Europe and the Brexit process. The UK Brexit referendum of June 2016 resulted in a slim majority of the British people wishing to leave the EU. However, they were not asked what kind of Brexit they wanted, i.e., what kind of future relationship they wanted with the EU and the rest of the world. The result was obtained through lies and funding irregularities that should have led to criminal charges and the setting aside of what was, after all, a very narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU.
But because politicians had been kowtowing to anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment for years, it was perhaps too much to expect that they would take an eleventh hour stand for truth. Since then politicians have been trying to square a circle: to have “frictionless trade” and “close ties with the EU” while simultaneously “taking back control.” But the continuing conundrum over Northern Ireland and the location of its border with the Republic of Ireland, which is in the EU, shows that those who want to have their cake and eat it usually end up eating stale bread.
Likewise, in November 2018 the Ecumenical Patriarch unexpectedly informed Archbishop John (Renneteau) of Charioupolis that the Archdiocese at Rue Daru, Paris (the full name of which was the Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe) no longer existed. This decision presented the Archdiocese with a cruel dilemma: dissolution was anathema to many, but how was one to preserve the freedom of the Archdiocese, its international character, how to stay together, without either violating the church canons or returning to a Russian Patriarchate that many distrust after what had happened in London, Biarritz, and Nice?
This proved an impossible circle to square. And so it was that the Archdiocese voted at an Extraordinary General Assembly (EGA) not to dissolve but to stay together, but without determining the exact manner in which it was to do so. Indeed, the resultant disagreements and confusion parallel the lack of a sense of direction under the premiership of Theresa May, when the UK, and more particularly its government, strove to decide what kind of Brexit it wanted, but failed. Archbishop John argued consistently in favour of transferring to the Moscow Patriarchate, and in the EGA of September 7, 2019 a majority voted for this course of action, but without obtaining a sufficient majority for the transfer to be legally valid. Archbishop John, along with many parishes, transferred to Moscow anyway.
This action had at least four important consequences: first, it created a legal morass as to who is the rightful occupant of the cathedral at Rue Daru; secondly, it left parishes with the unenviable choice between following their bishop, remaining in the same jurisdiction, or opting for a third patriarchate; third, it created a situation whereby priests who had formerly been in communion with each other were now out of communion; and fourth, it left many members and friends of the Archdiocese feeling abandoned and humiliated.
In the same way, the Brexit decision sowed confusion and anxiety among British residents in Europe and European residents in Britain, and many feel alienated and humiliated by the Conservative party victory in the December General Election. The disaffection many Orthodox feel for their hierarchs is comparable to the contempt in which politicians are held in many parts of the world, especially Britain and the United States.
And so we see the evil fruits of recent convulsions: a disregard for the rules, a vain attempt to “have one’s cake and eat it,” and poor quality of decision due to unprocessed trauma and emotion. The sight of Archbishop John (Renneteau) expostulating outside the church of the Institut Saint-Serge, “It’s my property and it’s my church… it’s my home” shows how destabilizing and disorientating recent events have proven to be.
(See the video C’est ma propriété et c’est mon église…je suis chez moi, posted on October 9, 2019; filmed the day before.)
In both the theatres of conflict under consideration, nationalist and identitarian sentiments have become inflamed. In pre-Brexit Britain, attacks on racial and religious minorities have spiked. In one Orthodox parish in France, advocates of staying in the Ecumenical Patriarchate were locked out of their church by advocates of a transfer to Moscow. Parishes throughout the Archdiocese have become divided as to which course to take.
(Here we may note another Brexit parallel: advocates of the UK leaving the EU accused anti-Brexiteers of being “traitors,” of trying to destroy democracy. Likewise, supporters of Archbishop John’s move to Moscow have accused their opponents of “trying to destroy the Archdiocese.”)
The Patriarch of Moscow presents the return of the Rue Daru Archdiocese to Moscow as a healing of division, an end to isolation. Such a view takes no account of those who felt at home (and therefore not “isolated”) in the Rue Daru Archdiocese before the events of 2018.
Aside from the similarities between the Brexit process and recent upheavals in the Orthodox church, we must note one important difference. Whereas the Brexit vote was based on lies or lack of understanding, the desire among members of the Rue Daru Archdiocese to return to Moscow was, at least in some cases, born of an understandable desire to keep together an archdiocese which occupies a special place in the history of Orthodoxy. Straddling several Western European countries and international in character, unified though diverse, the Archdiocese before its recent fragmentation resembled the EU in some respects. It had its critics: fundamentalists derided it as “liberal,” a hotbed of Freemasonry. (In the same way many on the Christian Right excoriate the EU as being a product of the Antichrist.) A more subtle criticism of the Archdiocese was that it was an anomaly, a Russian-tradition grouping within a Greek jurisdiction that had to end sooner or later.
However, I believe that this uncoupling of culture and jurisdiction was an unforeseen blessing. It was a prophylactic against ethnophyletism of the kind that is almost inevitable where culture and jurisdiction become mutually reinforcing, making Western Europeans feel like outsiders in certain parishes.
Both the Orthodox Church and the EU exist to heal rifts and the wounds they cause: the former to heal the rift between God and humanity, the latter having been set up after World War II to put an end to centuries of warfare in Europe. These healing processes are now in danger of unravelling.
In the political domain, we badly need an end to kakocracy, as practiced in the USA, the UK, China, Russia, India, Brazil, Poland, and Hungary.
Likewise, in the ecclesial sphere, we need a theology of church governance based on the Gospel, and we need it fast.
James Chater holds a DPhil from Oxford University. He is a musicologist and composer of Orthodox liturgical music, and also freelances as a journalist, writes occasional social and political commentary, and blogs about his wide range of interests at jameschater.com. He resides in France.