Foreword: Russia and the Ukraine in Conflict
The possible military, economic and geopolitical consequences of the conflict in the Ukraine are much discussed. But what can we say of the ecclesiastical consequences? Both Russia and the Ukraine are ethnically more or less identical, both have majorities which are nominally Russian Orthodox Christians, so that both are dependent on the same Russian Orthodox Church, centred in Moscow. And yet a military conflict is under way between the two countries and there are many in the Ukraine who now do not want to recognise any administration in Moscow, even stating that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch should be tried for war crimes. Let us look at the general background to this situation.
Introduction: The Orthodox Church and Geopolitics
The Orthodox Church is a Confederation or family of 14 universally recognised Autocephalous (= fully independent) Local Churches, with some 200 million adherents in all. Each Local Church is led by a Patriarch, Metropolitan or Archbishop, depending on its size. With 142 million members, over 70% of the total, the Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest of these Local Churches, followed by the Romanian (19 million), the Greek (10 million) and the Serbian (8 million). The remaining 19 million Orthodox belong to the other 10 very small Local Churches, each numbering on average about 2 million members. Although these Churches are based in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, several of them have ‘diasporas’, that is, emigrant minorities and missions, often going back several generations, in Western Europe, North America, Australia and outside their Eurasian homelands. These diasporas number millions.
Most of these smaller Local Churches are precisely that – local, that is, national. Thus, it is extremely rare, for example, to find a Non-Albanian member of the Albanian Orthodox Church or a Non-Georgian member of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The largest exception is the Russian Orthodox Church, which is multinational, with over sixty nationalities inside and outside the Russian Federation. Indeed, well over a quarter of all Russian Orthodox churches and clergy are to be found in the Ukraine, even though the Russian Orthodox administrative centre is in Moscow. That administration, known as ‘The Moscow Patriarchate’, is led by its Patriarch, whose title is ‘of Moscow and All Rus’ (‘Rus’ meaning the East Slav lands).
For well over a century, the Western Powers, with their State-controlled religions, have been trying to control the Orthodox Church. This has followed the well-worn model of how the USA came to control Roman Catholicism after the Second World War, protestantising or secularising it at the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965. Then, in 1978 it helped appoint the Polish Pope Woytila (‘John-Paul II’) to undermine the Soviet Union and in 2013 Jorge Bergoglio (‘Francis I’) to impose its post-Christian agenda. As for the Orthodox world, in 1948 the US State Department took over the small, politically weak but ancient Church of Constantinople in Istanbul, and has ever since tried to use it to manipulate the internal affairs of the whole Orthodox Church and ‘vaticanise’ it too.
It is in this context that the multinational nature of the Russian Orthodox Church is not only a strength, but also a weakness. For some Russian Orthodox living outside the Russian Federation and Belarus, ‘the Moscow Patriarchate’ administration, appears to be simply a department of the Russian State. This is nothing new. It happened during the pre-Soviet period and notably the Soviet period, when anti-Soviet Russian Orthodox immigrant groups, now variously called ROCOR, the OCA, the Paris Archdiocese, as well as Ukrainian and Belarusian jurisdictions, broke away from the enslaved Church administration held hostage in Moscow.
The pressure to split from the Mother-Church came and comes not only from the people, but also from political pressures from States under which Russian Orthodox have lived. We can see this very clearly in the USA, where émigré groups have been infiltrated, creating bishops, in fact CIA assets. In the UK, Germany and France a similar pattern can be observed. This movement is spreading to the hostage Russian Orthodox episcopate in the Russophobic Baltic States, Moldova and above all in the Ukraine, where several, large-scale splits have occurred, with millions leaving the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. How can such nationalist splintering effects be avoided by Moscow?
Unlike the Church of Constantinople in Turkey, which is financially dependent on politicised Greek Americans, the Russian Church is free of systematic US interference. However, as we have said, it does have its own internal traitors and they are US assets. Moreover, the Russian Church also has its own issues, all of which go back to the westernisation of Russia which began intensively 300 years ago, though all these issues have much worsened since 1917. These issues are: Russian nationalism (which undermines the ethos of a multinational Church), centralisation, bureaucracy and corruption.
As we have said, on top of these we now have the conflict in the Ukraine. This has caused division in the Russian Orthodox Church, not only among westernised fringe members of the Church, some of whom belong to an American-based marginal group called ‘Public Orthodoxy’, but above all in the Ukraine itself, as well as in the Baltics, Moldova and Western Europe. Although some of these divisions may be nationalistic or of the spiritually feeble politically correct variety, they are nevertheless very real and above all long-term, sometimes going back well over a century.
For instance, in the Ukraine itself a third of the canonical (let alone uncanonical) episcopate today refuses to commemorate the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill at services, seeing in him an enemy of the Ukrainian people. For their people, even the word ‘Moscow’ in the title ‘Moscow Patriarchate’ is a dirty word and they see the Patriarch not as a representative multinational figure, but as a corrupt nationalist stooge of an enemy Russian government. Below we make suggestions which might be of use in finding solutions to these critical problems.
First of all, there is the very name ‘the Moscow Patriarchate’. Given how Western aggression has pushed the Russian Federation to embrace Asia and sometimes made the Russian Church favour relations with traditional Islam (and traditional Non-Christian religions in general) over relations with non-traditional secularist Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, some have suggested that the Russian capital itself could be moved from the megalopolis of Moscow. The new capital would be the Urals city of Ekaterinburg, on the very frontier of Europe and Asia. This city is also marked by the historic events surrounding the martyrdom of Tsar Nicholas II and his Family in 1918.
If that happened, the present ‘Moscow Patriarchate’ would have to be renamed ‘The Patriarchate of Ekaterinburg and All Rus’. However, this is for the moment a purely imaginary discussion. It is our suggestion that the administration of the Patriarchate of Moscow might rather be moved some thirty miles to the north-west of Moscow, to the historic, seventeenth-century monastery complex and patriarchal residence of New Jerusalem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem_Monastery#:~:text=History%20The%20New%20Jerusalem%20Monastery%20was%20founded%20in,its%20name%20from%20the%20concept%20of%20New%20Jerusalem). This would give the Patriarchate the new title of ‘The Patriarchate of New Jerusalem and All Rus’. This would avoid any Soviet connotations of the title ‘Patriarchate of Moscow’. Also totally unrealistic? Perhaps. However, we also have a solution other than renaming or ‘rebranding’.
The Solution of Autonomisation
At present the Russian Church is divided administratively into Autonomous (self-governing, but not fully independent) Churches, Exarchates and Metropolias. The difference between these administrative terms is the level of independence from the Centre, with an Autonomous Church being much more independent than an Exarchate and an Exarchate much more independent than a Metropolia. Each of these administrative divisions is composed of a number of dioceses, each of which is in turn headed by an archbishop (more senior) or a bishop (more junior), under each of whom there is a network of parish and monasteries.
In order to overcome the fourfold problems we mentioned above, Russian nationalism, centralisation and hence bureaucracy and hence corruption, we suggest that the whole multinational structure of the Russian Church be decentralised into regional Autonomous Churches. This would do away with the intermediate ‘Exarchates’ and keep Metropolias as structures only inside the Russian Church and inside each new Autonomous Church. Two such Autonomous Churches already exist – the Russian-founded Japanese and Chinese Orthodox Churches. These two are and must be autonomous because they are in the territories of different states. Why not be consistently logical and do the same elsewhere?
What we are suggesting is that this principle of Autonomous Churches be extended to replace the present Exarchates and Metropolias in Non-Russian territories. Only the heads of Autonomous Orthodox Churches, although still part of the Russian Orthodox Church, would actually commemorate the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. (This would avoid the present political tensions and conflicts about his commemoration). Thus, the following new Autonomous Orthodox Churches could be founded:
- The Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Replacing the present ‘Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate’, this would cover the territory of the new Ukraine. True, the latter’s borders are yet to be established, but it would surely include at least the nine central provinces of the present, Communist-created Ukraine. The seven provinces of the west of the present Ukraine, in Galicia and Transcarpathia (eastern Carpatho-Russia), might join, or rather return to, other countries politically, such as Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Ecclesiastically, local Orthodox there might join the Belarussian (see below), Polish, Czechoslovak and Romanian Local Orthodox Churches. Church autonomy in the new Ukraine would surely help lead to the collapse of present anti-Moscow nationalist and schismatic groups there.
- The Belarusian Orthodox Church
This would replace the present Exarchate of Belarus and cover the territory of Belarus.
- The Moldovan Orthodox Church
This would replace the present local structure and cover the territory of Moldova, minus Transdnestria, added to it by Stalin, which would certainly choose to become part of the Russian Federation.
- The Baltic Orthodox Church
This would group all Orthodox in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Autonomy here might well be the end of the present sectarian grouping in Estonia under the US-run Patriarchate of Constantinople, as well as quelling pressures from Russophobic Baltic State politicians for the local Orthodox to be more independent of Moscow. In Lithuania they are even attempting to ban the Moscow Patriarchate wholesale and a schism is already in progress.
- The Central Asian Orthodox Church.
This would group the five million or so Orthodox in the five ‘stans’ of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
- The North American Orthodox Church
This would cover the territories of the USA, for the moment including Alaska and Hawaii, and Canada. It could finally regroup the three present groups of Russian origin, as well as of other Orthodox origins, in English-speaking North America. By ending the old structures of the ‘Orthodox Church in America’ or ‘OCA’ (after over 50 years still not accepted as canonically autocephalous, or fully independent, by most Local Orthodox Churches) and of the rather sectarian American Synod called ‘ROCOR’, combining them with the parishes under the present Moscow Patriarchate in North America, a long-awaited move towards unity would take place.
- The Western European Orthodox Church
This would replace the present Western European Exarchate, which includes Russian Orthodox in many countries in Western Europe, but would be extended to include Russian Orthodox in Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Scandinavian countries and Finland. It would also provide the structure to integrate the canonical elements of the Western European churches of the American ROCOR (see above) and of the Paris Archdiocese. The latter two organisations are both left over from the post-1917 period and perhaps lost their relevance after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is time to recognise this and for them to become parts of an Autonomous Local Church here.
- The South-East Asian Orthodox Church
This would replace the present South-East Asian Exarchate, which includes countries as diverse as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea and the Philippines.
Now we come to even more adventurous possibilities – perhaps to come in the more distant future:
- The African Orthodox Church
This would replace the present Exarchate of Africa – if that controversial Exarchate is to be continued.
- The Orthodox Church of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean
Based in Mexico City, this new structure would provide an opportunity to unite all present missions in this area.
- The South American Orthodox Church
Based in Brazil, this new structure would provide an opportunity to unite all present missions on this Continent.
- The Orthodox Church of Oceania
Based in Sydney, this new structure would provide an opportunity to unite all present missions in Australia, New Zealand and the islands of Oceania.
- The South Asian Orthodox Church
This would provide such a new structure to unite all present missions in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan.
Such decentralisation would bring the total number of Autonomous Orthodox Churches within the Russian Orthodox Church to fifteen, up from the present two. It is our thought that if some such decentralisation is not allowed, then various groups will break off from the Russian Church altogether. It is in order to avoid any further divisions or splintering, promoted either by nationalism or by geopolitics, that we put forward this suggestion of decentralisation, that is, the right to diversity within Russian Orthodox unity.
Of course, perhaps none of the above will happen and it will be up to other Local Churches to carry out missionary work. As we have said many, many times before over the decades, all is conditional. Suicidal and anti-missionary tendencies are clearly present in the Russian Church and maybe others will have to take up the beacon of missionary Orthodox work outside the Russian Federation, Belarus and the south-eastern Ukraine. Some, like the Patriarchates of Constantinople (especially in North America and Australia), Bucharest (especially in Western Europe) and Antioch (especially in South America), are already doing so. The future of the now highly politicised Russian Orthodox Church will remain in the balance, as long as it continues to place raison d’etat above the canons. Time will show us.