The Orthodox schism: religion as a political instrument

The Orthodox schism: religion as a political instrument

On 15th October, the Russian Orthodox Church announced that it had severed  ties to the Patriarchate of Constantinople after the Patriarch declared that he would grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly, meaning independence from the Russian Church. Until this declaration, the only Orthodox Church in Ukraine that was officially recognized by other Patriarchates was administered from Moscow. While this may seem at first glance to be primarily a religious matter, it is in fact deeply political in nature.

The Orthodox Church & the State

The Orthodox Church is organized into Patriarchates, some of which follow national lines: in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Russia, and Serbia all have their own Patriarchates. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, based in Istanbul is officially ‘first among equals’, a legacy from when Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Ukraine’s lack of its own Patriarchate reflects its former incorporation into the Russian Empire.

Of all these churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest and richest, counting 150 million adherents, dwarfing the next largest, the Romanian Orthodox Church, which has 23 million members. This size and influence has prompted the Russian Church to refer to Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’, after Rome and Constantinople. It explains its confident, firm reaction to the Patriarch of Constantinople’s recognition. While the Istanbul-based Patriarchate is historically important, it is only responsible for a few thousand followers in Turkey. The worldly power in the Orthodox Church belongs to Moscow.

Orthodox patriarchates tend to ally themselves closely to the state, following the example of the relationship between Roman Emperor and the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire. The Russian Orthodox Church has aligned itself very closely to Vladimir Putin, publicly showing its support for his regime. For instance, the Patriarch of Moscow blessed Putin after his election as President in 2018. This example shows how the church sees the relationship with Putin as similar to the sort of relationship it had with the Tsars – anointing them, granting them spiritual authority to accompany their temporal power. In return for the church’s endorsement, Putin has returned church lands that were confiscated by the Communists and provided funds for the restoration and building of churches. He has thereby reasserted the church’s influence on Russian society, which was greatly weakened under the atheist Communist regime.

A Desire for Independence: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church

This closeness to Putin is what lies behind the Ukrainian government’s campaign to have an independent church officially recognized. The Russian Orthodox Church is seen as a tool for Putin to influence Ukrainian citizens. Having a specifically Ukrainian church asserts Ukraine’s sovereignty in a very powerful way, especially given that 65.4% of the Ukrainian population are members of the Orthodox faith. It also affirms Ukraine’s independence in a historical sense, as the Russian Church’s authority over the Ukrainian Church is a legacy of Russian rule. The establishment of an independent church is a clear rejection of Russian influence.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church can be expected to manoeuvre itself into a position similar to other Orthodox churches. It will likely cultivate a close relationship with the government, and will promote a conservative stance on social issues. In the areas of religious doctrine and social attitudes it will probably be indistinguishable from the Russian Orthodox Church it is replacing. In the future, the two churches might even be natural allies on many issues.

The push for a separate church has nothing to do with religious belief – no theological tenets are being argued over. It is about the Ukrainian government minimizing Russia’s influence on their state. The key context for it is the annexation of Crimea. By violating Ukraine’s sovereignty Putin fostered a determination on the part of Western-oriented politicians to cut ties with Russia. While the annexation boosted his domestic support, it has cost him perhaps the strongest significant instrument of soft power that he had in Ukraine. It has cemented Ukraine’s recent move towards the West.

The Recognition of National Churches: Looking Forwards

The Patriarch of Constantinople’s recognition of a new national church may bring similar disputes to a head elsewhere in Europe. The Serbian Orthodox Church has two unrecognised competitors outside of Serbia: the Montenegrin and Macedonian Orthodox Churches. Given both countries’ pro-Western governments, it is conceivable that they might petition for the recognition of their independent churches, as the Ukrainian government did. Moldova too is potentially ripe for a religious schism. The Romanian and Russian Orthodox Churches compete in Moldova, with both operating parishes there. This religious divide reflects a deep Western versus Russian split in the country’s society and politics.

It should be taken into account, however, that churches tend to work on much longer timescales than governments. To give an idea of the lengths of time that can be involved, the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is technically not a new recognition, but a revocation of a letter from 1686 that granted the Moscow Patriarchate authority over the church in Kiev. Resolving one of these other disputes within a generation of the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be a quick turnaround by church standards.

The latest schism will have repercussions for Orthodoxy across Eastern Europe. The different Patriarchates will have to decide to declare their support for either the Russian Church or the Ukrainian Church. Nevertheless, the motives behind the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are not religious or theological but purely political.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.