Carol Saba is an attorney in France and one of the leading thinkers and writers in the Patriarchate of Antioch. Recently, he published a 5-part series in the widely-read Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar, describing the historical context for the current Orthodox crisis. This series was translated into English and published at Notes on Arab Orthodoxy. In the interest of furthering discussion about modern Orthodox history, I thought our readers would be interested in Carol’s series, which is published as a single essay below. I realize that not everyone will agree with Carol’s position vis-a-vis the current crisis in the Church. Regardless of whether you agree with him, though, I think it is important that we make an effort to understand the historical roots of the current situation, and Carol’s work is an important contribution to this. Many thanks to him for granting us permission to reprint his work.
The Ukrainian Crisis:
The Apogee of the Crisis of Impasse in the Orthodox Church
The new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, recently visited the Phanar, headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. He is someone who knows the importance of Russia’s geostrategic reach in Ukraine and is working, contrary to his predecessor, President Poroshenko, to reach an understanding with it. After his meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, Zelensky refused to sign a joint declaration with him, stating that “the state must not intervene in ecclesiastical affairs.” In addition to the fact that the Ukrainian presidential delegation was purely secular, this position may be considered to be a radical change contradicting the behavior of his predecessor, who openly interfered in the affairs of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, spurring Constantinople with pressure, promises and concessions to grant “autocephaly” unilaterally.
Geopolitical and ecclesiastical politics and interests intersected and on January 6, 2019 Constantinople granted a tomos of autocephaly to schismatic Ukrainian groups without any legitimacy, at the expense of the legitimate Ukrainian Church tied to Moscow, which had been granted autonomy and is recognized by all the Orthodox Churches.
Thus, despite the warnings of the Orthodox Churches, Constantinople imposed a new ecclesiastical reality in Ukraine, hoping that parishes would attach themselves to it and that it would be recognized by the Orthodox Churches. This has not yet happened, despite enormous pressure.
Moscow responded by breaking Eucharistic communion with Constantinople and withdrawing from all Episcopal Assemblies, committees and organizations in which the latter’s bishops were present. This put the entire Orthodox world into a state of stasis and unprecedented crisis and no one knows how it will end. The struggle between Moscow and Constantinople is not a product of the moment, but is rather the end result of historical accumulations and the politics of competition for primacy between them over the twentieth century, which is impairing Orthodox conciliarity and leading the Orthodox Church off along papist paths that are ruinous for her.
Who is using who, the Church or international politics? The ambiguous geopolitical-ecclesiastical overlap in Ukraine, which is seriously damaging the credibility of universal Orthodox spiritual witness, has blown up the global Orthodox crisis and fanned its flames. Constantinople’s critics speak of the intersection between its attack on Moscow in Ukraine and Western Atlanticist policies seeking to encircle Russia politically and ecclesiastically by separating the Church of Ukraine from the Patriarchate of Moscow to which it has belonged since the agreement signed by Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysius IV and the members of his Holy Synod in 1686 and sent to the tsars of Russia, the protectors of Orthodoxy at that time. Moscow’s critics, on the other hand, speak of the necessity of preventing the expansion of the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest, accuse it of greed to be “Third Rome” and identify it with the Kremlin’s diplomacy.
Constantinople’s offensive in Ukraine can, however, only be understood through an analysis of the factors behind the decline of its leading role and its transformation over the twentieth century on account of various geopolitical factors, the fall of the bipolar world and the Berlin Wall, and Russia’s political return to its previous glories, as well as the engines of globalization, especially “Orthodox globalization”, which brought its churches, on account of forced emigration, from the geography of the East to a worldwide geography on all continents.
Constantinople started to fear for the exclusivity of its declining primacy, especially after the Havana summit in February, 2016, between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis and after the “Council of Crete” in June, 2016 failed to be a universal Orthodox council, a council of unity, after four large churches–Antioch, Moscow, Georgia and Bulgaria– backed out. And so it started to behave confrontationally according to the principle of “cutting off my nose to spite my face.”
But Constantinople’s strike in Ukraine was not only painful for Moscow, but for the entire Orthodox world. Things took place without any agreement between the Orthodox Churches, but rather by a unilateral decision of Constantinople, as if the intention of the intersection of the geopolitical with the ecclesiastical is to remake a new global role for Constantinople that would give its primacy hierarchical content, as canonical leadership over the other Orthodox Churches, far removed from honorary primacy.
The new theory of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s primacy worldwide is defended by Constantinople’s new champions. At their forefront is the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s new bishop in America, Archbishop Elpidophoros, who hold Turkish nationality, is avid to become the next patriarch and has strong American and Western relationships. This theory goes beyond the primacy of honor that the Ecumenical Patriarch has according to Orthodox tradition to a global “canonical” primacy that makes him “first without equals”, where he is the one who knows the highest good for Orthodoxy and he is the one who decides without referring to his brothers, the leaders of the local Orthodox Churches and their holy synods, while they are to follow him…
How did Orthodoxy arrive at this crisis point?
“O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance.”
Orthodoxy from the Fall of Constantinople to the Rise of Moscow
“O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance.” This lament for Constantinople upon its fall is like weeping by the rivers of Babylon, words that mourn with nostalgia, sorrow, pain, tears and grief over the holy Queen City. Byzantium rose with Constantine the Great, it flourished and its wealth amassed for more than a millennium. It established a civilization that Europe has inherited. With its defeat on the walls of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, the earth shook and a deep wound was opened in Orthodoxy that still bleeds today.
Orthodoxy entered into the Ottoman era and experienced a state of historical stasis, during which its powers declined, its immune system weakened, and factors of worldly anxiety grew within it. The Ottoman sultanate encompassed it and enfeebled the Eastern Patriarchates and the churches of the Balkans over the course of four hundred years.
Nor was the West absent from efforts to weaken Orthodoxy, absorb it, and drain it of its blood through missions, biting off chunks, poaching, efforts to dominate the East and effectuating schisms within it. The Orthodox became strangers in their homelands and their theological and leadership capabilities for recovery and renewal declined. Their worldly anxiety pushed them to develop ethno-phyletist politics based on wedding Orthodoxy to nationalist chauvinism as a means of liberation from the Ottoman cage. The Orthodox were transformed from being masters of the house to being a closed-off protectorate. After having been the “people of God” in harmony with its patriarchal and imperial leadership, according to the idea of “Byzantine symphonia” upon which Justinian’s empire was based, the Orthodox turned into the Rum ethnic millet, which was seen as a minority that was closed in on itself and subject to certain privileges granted to it by the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
The Ecumenical Patriarch inherited the position of the Byzantine Emperor. A crown of imperial majesty, studded with precious stones, was placed on his head. There began a transformation of the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch along with an effort to further develop canonically his inherited authority by way of the Patriarch Gennadios’ agreement with Sultan Mehmet II Fetih immediately after the fall of Constantinople. The latter recognized the former as patriarch and “ethnarch”. That is, as the temporal and religious leader of the Rum Millet.
After the fall of the empire, the Ecumenical Patriarch comprised in his person two authorities: ecclesiastical and temporal. He became the symbol of the double-headed eagle, responsible for defending religious and historical Orthodoxy. Over time, his synod was transformed into a “permanent synod” that incorporated the Orthodox patriarchs of the East, who were forced to reside in Istanbul for long periods of time because the Ecumenical Patriarch was their gateway, passage and intermediary before the Sublime Porte, because he was the only one recognized by law for Orthodox affairs in the sultanate.
The Greek element overwhelmed the leadership of the Eastern Patriarchates and the Ecumenical Patriarch became a “super-patriarch” who decided as he saw fit. In practice, this established a quasi-papal canonical hierarchy of ecclesiastical authority far removed from the universal Orthodox conciliarity that had constituted its governance since the time of the Apostles. The governance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was ottomanized and it became a “court” where Byzantine and Ottoman courtly practices and traditions were mixed. The patriarch became a sultan and he was characterized by sultanic manners of acting, which became for them an inviolable Orthodox tradition.
In contrast, the rise of tsarist Russia began as the largest Orthodox nation numerically. The baptism of Prince Vladimir and his people, which took place in Kiev in 988, came as the result of Greek missions that had been evangelizing the Slavic peoples since the time of Saints Cyril and Methodius. The growth of the influence of Muscovy and its prince, however, came after Tatar invasions in the thirteenth century and the transfer of the princes of Rus from Kiev to Moscow.
Constantinople hesitated very much to grant independence to the very influential metropolis of Moscow that was dependent on it and which had for some time begun to elect its own bishop locally. Constantinople’s recognition of Moscow as a patriarchate took place in 1589 after the mediation of Patriarch Joachim V of Antioch, “who visited Moscow in 1586,” as Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim of thrice-blessed memory informs us, “and supported Tsar Boris Godunov’s request to turn the Church of Russia into a patriarchate. He raised the issue with Patriarch Jeremiah of Constantinople, who after that visited Russia in 1589 and took part in the election of Job, the first patriarch of the Russian Church.” Appended to the historical document of the tomos of autocephaly is his signature, in addition to that of Jeremiah of Constantinople and Sophronius of Jerusalem.
Thus, as Moscow rose, its military, diplomatic and political influence was magnified and its role as protector of the Eastern Orthodox grew, talk began of Moscow as “Third Rome”, which laid the basis for the competition and tug-of-war between Moscow and Constantinople in the Orthodox world. This, alongside the transformations of the nineteenth century and the rise of ethnic chauvinism, continues to menace Orthodoxy’s purity, its evangelistic momentum and the edifice of its catholic unity.
The Transformations of the 19th Century:
Laying the Groundwork for the Competition and Rivalry of the 20th Century
Istanbul, 1872. Let’s go back a little… “In the Church of Christ, which is a spiritual communion that aims, through her Head and founder, to encompass all nations in one brotherhood in Christ, considers Phyletism and discrimination on the basis of ethnic and linguistic origin to be something completely foreign to the concept… when each ethnic church strives to realize what is particular to it, is a deadly assault on the dogma of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church…”
Thus spoke the fathers of the famous Synod of Constantinople, which met in 1872 in response to the conflict that had been raging since 1856 between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Bulgarian dioceses in the Ottoman Empire, which were striving for ecclesiastical independence from Istanbul. For the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément, this was “the last council of the Pentarchy.” That is, the Church’s ancient system of governance based on the principle of five patriarchates: Rome (which left it in 1054), Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. As for the Russians, they regarded it as a “Greek council” because all the patriarchs of the East and all the bishops who attended it were of Greek origin, an indication of the Greek ethnicity’s domination over the patriarchates of the East.
Competition and rivalry in the twentieth century had as background the ongoing struggle between Moscow and Constantinople, which had become deeply rooted since the rise of ethnic and nationalist chauvinisms and European and Russian interventions in the Ottoman Empire shortly after the issue of the famous Ottoman Hatt-ı Hümayun in 1856, which spoke of reforms to the system and the rights and responsibilities of every millet, whetting the appetite of the Orthodox of the empire for independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
After the fall of Constantinople and the Sultan Fetih’s recognition of its patriarch as the sole leader of all the Orthodox of the “Rum Millet” in the empire, Constantinople tightened its control over the empire’s patriarchates and bishoprics, from the Middle East to the Balkans, including the Bulgarian lands. Theories developed, declaring that the Ecumenical Patriarch had inherited the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodoxy of Constantinople came to be a synonym for the “Hellenic nation”, which encompassed many ethnic groups and languages. Greek became the holy language of Orthodoxy and any move towards independence was an attack on this Orthodoxy.
A “gerondist” (in Greek, geronda means ‘elder’ or ‘senior’) movement developed in Constantinople, establishing a conservative ecclesiastical aristocracy, which regarded the continued existence of the Ecumenical See over the course of history as being due to resisting change and preserving traditions and inherited prerogatives. It resisted all reformist movements in the See, accusing their followers of being creatures of western politics. And so Constantinople came to be “the Great Church” and “the Mother Church” which, even if it reluctantly accepted the independence of the empire’s churches from it under the pressure of circumstances, continued to regard them as daughters dependent on it. These established relations characterized by an attitude of superiority and paternalism toward the churches, which continues until today, in defense of the prerogatives of bygone Byzantine and Ottoman times.
Nevertheless, movements of national liberation arose in the East, due to the European Enlightenment and Western influences, which threatened these methods of Constantinople’s. Ideas of “national” independence from the Ottoman yoke developed among the peoples alongside ideas of ecclesiastical independence from submission to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The leaders of the Greek Revolution in 1821, which in 1830 won independence for Greece from the empire, demanded and declared ecclesiastical independence in 1833. They accused the Patriarchate of Constantinople of being attached to and dependent upon the Sublime Porte. Constantinople did not recognize the autocephaly of the Church of Greece until 1850 and there continue to be disagreements on various thorny issues between the mother and her daughter.
Greek independence whetted the Bulgarians’ appetite. The shifting tides, the ecclesiastical, political and diplomatic negotiations and interventions and tug-of-war between Constantinople and Moscow continued from 1856 to 1870. Constantinople attempted to prevent the Bulgarian autocephaly that was declared unilaterally by the Bulgarians in 1870 and in 1872, the Holy Synod of Constantinople came out against the Bulgarian schism, to which it gave its assent in 1945.
The competition and rivalry over this issue testifies to the struggle between Moscow and Constantinople starting in that time, as does the role of the Russian ambassador to the Ottomans, Nikolai Ignatiev, in the Bulgarian issue. Then came Serbian autocephaly in 1879, which was recognized by Constantinople in 1920.
As for Antioch, the election of Meletius Doumani in 1898 as the first Arab patriarch of Antioch since 1724 provoked a crisis of his recognition by Constantinople, which saw Moscow’s fingerprints on this election under the cover of Arabization. This delayed the sultan’s confirmation of the patriarch for a year, so that his enthronement in Damascus took place on December 31, 1899.
Will the 20th century be any less cruel for Orthodoxy than those that preceded it?
The Suffering of the Orthodox Church during the Twentieth Century:
Internal and External Dangers Alike
The twentieth century was crueler to Orthodoxy than previous centuries. All the Orthodox churches were– and continue to be– along geopolitical fault lines, pulled in different directions by various countries’ interests and hot and cold wars. After Eastern Orthodoxy’s imprisonment in the Ottoman cage for four hundred years, there came the First World War, which started in the Balkans and went on to weigh heavily on all Orthodox societies. This was followed in 1917 by the atheistic Bolshevik Revolution, which struck Russia, the largest Orthodox nation, and Orthodoxy was crushed between the anvil and hammer of Communism.
Before Stalin resorted to Orthodoxy and nationalist sentiment in 1941 to save Russia from the Nazi steamroller, around 600 bishops, 40,000 priests and 120,000 monks and nuns were killed and thousands of cathedrals, churches and monasteries were destroyed. Communism was defeated in 1988, and Gorbachev asked Patriarch Pimen to jointly organize the celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the Baptism of the Rus. Then, Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe was liberated from the Soviet cage when the Berlin Wall fell in 1990.
As for Greek Orthodoxy, it suffered repeated blows: in 1923, with the ethnic cleansing of the Greeks of Asia Minor; with the bloody events of September, 1955 against the Greeks of Istanbul to expel them; the invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus in 1974; the Greek economic crisis and its being under international trusteeship since 2008; and the efforts by the radical socialist, atheist government of Tsipras to tame the Church of Greece by force.
The rise of radical, Salafist Islamism on account of the weakness of Arab civil society has threatened the Middle Eastern churches and pushed their members to emigrate. And let us not forget the suffering of Serbia, the Yugoslav wars since 1991, and NATO’s campaign against it; the hostile situation for Serbian Orthodoxy and its historic sites in Kosovo; the seizure of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli struggle since 1948; “others’ wars in Lebanon,” in the words of Ghassan Toueini, since 1975; and the ongoing tragedy in Syria. Efforts to enervate and divide Orthodoxy continue with the Ukrainian crisis and attempts to split Orthodoxy in Macedonia and Montenegro from Serbia. In this way, the lines of fire shifted within the Orthodox space over the course of the twentieth century and they continue to do so, their flames biting at the body and flesh of Orthodoxy.
Blows have come from within and from the outside. Internally, with Orthodoxy’s inability to coalesce and anticipate and cope with the transformations of the globalization of the twentieth century, and on account of the rivalry, deadly for universal Orthodoxy, between Constantinople and Moscow, which has opened the door for global powers to exploit the weaknesses of nationalist Orthodoxies, which has damaged the the Orthodoxy of faith which, even if the arrows have struck it and it has become a martyr, continues to bear witness. In the midst of these transformations (the West seeking to seize the East, religious radicalism, atheistic Communism and irreligious, secularized and globalized liberalism), Orthodoxy has tried to break the bonds around it.
Within the context of attempting to strengthen the Ecumenical Patriarchate because of the transformations that were weakening it, Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis called for a Pan-Orthodox Congress in Istanbul in 1923. He was also the originator of the idea of saying yes to Orthodox unity in the diaspora, but under the banner of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was rejected by Moscow and a large portion of the Orthodox Churches. There followed meetings at Vatopedi Monastery on Athos in 1930, the first conference for Orthodox theological institutes in Athens in 1936, and the Moscow conference in 1948, which was held amidst difficult international circumstances and a growing cold war for leadership between Moscow and Constantinople. The latter rejected Moscow’s right to call for Pan-Orthodox meetings and boycotted the conference, along with the churches of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Greece.
Then came the election of Patriarch Athenagoras, who opened a window of hope and whose star shined in the Orthodox space like a man of peace, striving “to bring the Orthodox together into one house, albeit with many windows.” The path toward the Great Orthodox Council began on Rhodes in 1961 with hope and tribulations. It was followed, over some decades, by several Pan-Orthodox conferences and synaxes of the primates of the Orthodox Churches which should have, were it not for the pathologies of competition and primacy that prevented attention from being paid to the common good and to finding solutions to crucial ecclesiastical problems– among them, the issue of Jerusalem’s violation of Antioch’s jurisdiction in Qatar. Confrontational positioning between the churches grew at the expense of true conciliarity, which accompanies and proceeds slowly and deliberately. The Crete meeting of 2016 was fragmented and not universal, given the absence of four large churches: the apostolic Church of Antioch, Moscow, Bulgaria and Georgia.
The competition and blockage has continued through the Ukrainian crisis of 2018.
An Orthodox Church or Churches?
Elements for Escaping the Crisis of Universal Orthodoxy
The crisis is unprecedented. Moscow boycotts the “council” of Crete in 2016 and Constantinople responds in its own backyard by granting autocephaly to the schismatics in Ukraine at the expense of legitimate Orthodoxy there, which has been tied to Moscow for three hundred years. Moscow rejected the decision and broke communion with Constantinople. The Orthodox churches were flabbergasted and their activity was paralyzed. Appeals to the Ecumenical Patriarch to hold an emergency synaxis received no response. This state of schism spoils communion between the Orthodox Churches and hurts their credibility as one, indivisible body.
In the twentieth century, Orthodoxy became globalized and went from being “Eastern” Orthodoxy to being “global” Orthodoxy on all continents, without revising its traditional governance in order to catch up with this new geopolitical situation. The crisis today is two crises: a crisis of governance that is producing intractable crises (Estonia, Qatar, Czechia, Crete, Ukraine, etc.) and the crisis of an absence of mechanisms for conflict resolution.
The most difficult thing right now is that Constantinople is both plaintiff and judge. Exiting the impasse requires diagnosing the roots of the illness. Is Orthodoxy one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church or competing ethnic churches with no complementarity among them, despite Paul’s request to the Corinthians, “… there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other”? Yes, Constantinople fell before falling due to nationalist self-interest. And with time, the Orthodoxy of faith transformed into a nationalist Orthodoxy that searches for God’s history in books of geography, geopolitics, and affiliations.
Metropolitan Georges Khodr foretold in August, 1991, as he was analyzing Orthodoxy’s maladies, what is happening today in Ukraine: “Can the official Church which is subject to Moscow religiously preserve this allegiance if the Ukrainian Republic splits?” He continued, “No one can see the future because the historical custom, since the last century, is for those who obtain independence nationally to become independent ecclesiastically.” “The historical custom” for Sayyidna Georges is only a painful indicator of the influence of nationalisms on Orthodoxy, which was condemned at the council in Constantinople in 1872.
Nationalism is not the criterion, but rather communion of faith. Until now, this “historical custom” has never been applied in Antiochian experience. The Orthodox in Lebanon did not seek to establish their own national church at Lebanon’s independence and it is my hope that they will not seek it today. And they won’t, despite all the talk about imminent dangers to Antiochian unity and that Antioch, like Serbia, is the target after Ukraine. Of course, there are problems of governance, sensitivities and estrangement, but they must all be dealt with under the roof of Antiochian unity, so dear to Christ.
Here lies the seriousness of the Ukrainian crisis: as an attempt to subject the governance and geography of the Church– today more than ever– to variable nationalist and geopolitical considerations. Did not the new president of Ukraine, Zelensky, withdraw from the interventions of his predecessor, President Poroshenko, in the Church?
Historically, the Ancient Patriarchates were centers of communion of faith for flocks that transcend national, geographic and political considerations. Apostolic Canon 34 expresses this in the most marvelous way. However, with the rise of ideologies of national liberation in the 19th century under Western influence, there came the theory of the inevitability of ecclesiastical schism upon national independence, against the backdrop of the Greek national revolution.
The ideologue of this equation, which states that the boundaries of the Church, like the boundaries of the nation, should follow political boundaries and not the opposite, was the Archimandrite Theoklitos Farmakidis, the theorist of Greek autocephaly, which was declared in 1830 and recognized by Constantinople in 1850. Greek independence from the empire was also independence from Constantinople, which the leaders of the Greek Revolution accused of being dependent on the Sublime Port. But Farmakidis’ analogy reversed the ancient ecclesiastical rule and subjected the church to variable geopolitical considerations, opening the way for nationalist Orthodoxies and the intertwining of the ecclesiastical and the political in Orthodoxy, especially for Constantinople and Moscow in the context of their struggle over leadership.
For example, the correspondence of Harry Truman’s adviser Myron Taylor with Truman and the American ambassador in Turkey, as well as other documents of correspondence with the Vatican, show that during, before and after the election of Patriarch Athenagoras, there was an ongoing relationship between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the American administration in order to oppose Russia, Communism and, at the time, the Soviet Union. This relationship continues until today and one might point out statements from the US State Department in support of Constantinople’s decision in Ukraine.
On the other hand, many documents also demonstrate the exploitation of the Church in Russia by the Soviet state and today the Church in Russia is accused of identifying with the politics of the Russian state.
Escaping the crisis requires both sides and all the Orthodox Churches to look critically at the intertwining of the ecclesiastical and the political in Orthodoxy, to make nationalist Orthodoxy submit to the Orthodoxy of faith rather than the opposite, and to put into place modern practices and rules for participatory clergy-lay governance that constructively and productively connects the dialectic of primacy and conciliarity.
As for escaping the Ukrainian crisis, this requires historical boldness and sacrifices on both sides for the sake of the higher Orthodox good. It requires:
1) A decision by Constantinople to “freeze” the tomos of autocephaly.
2) A decision by Moscow to suspend the decision to break communion in order to open the way for a meeting, discussions and negotiations between the two sides.
3) A decision by both sides for the necessity of cooperating with the request for Ukrainian autocephaly in an open, churchly manner through joint agreement on the terms and conditions of this autocephaly: including the special relationship with Russia and the historical relationship with Constantinople, bearing in mind both sides’ historical rights and preventing any political exploitation of the issue.
It remains to wonder: the people of God or peoples of God? Church or churches? The future is close at hand. Kyrie eleison.