It almost goes without saying that the Orthodox world is a mess right now. The situation in Ukraine alone is a disaster: a Russian invasion of the country backed by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) by the state, and a recognized-by-only-some Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) that was created by the Ecumenical Patriarchate by joining together and legitimizing two schismatic church bodies. Moscow has broken communion with Constantinople and the other churches that have recognized the OCU: Alexandria, Cyprus, and Greece. In Africa, Moscow has established dioceses on the territory of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Antioch has been out of communion with Jerusalem for close to a decade due to Jerusalem’s claim of jurisdiction in Qatar. Far from being a unifying event, it seems that the long-hoped-for Holy and Great Council of 2016 was, at best, a mixed bag, and after it, everything went downhill.
How did we get into this mess? In a word: geopolitics. This is nothing new; it’s a pattern we’ve seen play out since the Old Testament. But in our modern age of rapid travel and communications, geopolitical change occurs more quickly, and is communicated more widely, than ever before. And so the changes wrought upon the Orthodox Church by the powers of this world toss us to and fro, fast enough to give an observer whiplash. We witness more history over a given time interval now than humans did at any other point in the past. Sometimes, the Orthodox Church responds effectively to that change; more often, we’re caught on our heels and are carried along by the waves.
In this article, I will try, as briefly as I can, to give some small beginning of an explanation of what led us to this dark place. Understanding the origins of our troubles is important if we’re ever going to find our way out – although the only true way out of our crisis is undoubtedly repentance.
I should say, this is not at all meant to be some kind of definitive history of world Orthodoxy in the past 100 years. I’m trying to show how we got into our current mess, not tell the entire story of the Church. So I’ll be ignoring all kinds of important and interesting and edifying stories (and even saints), because my aim here is simply to give some small insight into our current, and very difficult, state of affairs.
The Nine Years that Almost Destroyed the Orthodox Church
World War I and the years that followed (specifically, 1917 to 1925) completely reshaped the landscape of Orthodoxy. Prior to the Great War, most Orthodox Christians lived in one of three great empires: Russian, Ottoman, and Hapsburg. By the mid-1920s, all of those empires were gone.
In Russia, Orthodoxy fell from its status as the favored state religion to become a persecuted Church, with the atheist Bolshevik regime hell-bent on stamping it out in the most brutal and grotesque ways possible, and, when that failed, creating a pro-Communist false church (the “Living Church”) to subvert the Orthodox faith.
In the Ottoman Empire, the catastrophic Greco-Turkish War led to the massacre of thousands upon thousands of Orthodox Christians and the deportation of millions of Greek Orthodox from Asia Minor.
In the former Hapsburg lands, the various successor states organized themselves around national identities, leading to the creation of Greater Romania (and a unified Romanian Patriarchate) and Yugoslavia for the Serbs (and a unified Serbian Patriarchate).
The entire Orthodox order was upended. Something new was emerging, and for many years it was unclear what that new thing would be.
In 1917, the Moscow Patriarchate was revived under the leadership of St Tikhon, but for all intents and purposes, the new Patriarchate and its institutions were themselves suppressed by Lenin and Stalin, leaving Russian Orthodoxy in a state of disorder. Those Russians who made it out of the country organized themselves into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), initially with the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and, later, Serbia.
In Constantinople, an Allied force occupied the city for several years during the Greco-Turkish War, paving the way for the election of Meletios Metaxakis as Ecumenical Patriarch in 1921, but within a couple of years, the Allies left and the new Turkish state had its way with the EP, leading to questions about whether the EP would have to leave Turkey or even disappear altogether. Looking for a new raison d’etre, Metaxakis began to assert the EP’s jurisdiction over the so-called “barbarian lands.”
In the middle of all this turmoil, Metaxakis convened a Pan-Orthodox Congress in Constantinople in 1923. The congress led to the adoption of the New Calendar by the EP, and, in time, by numerous other churches. This, in turn, spawned schismatic movements, with rigorists rejecting the New Calendar and all that it stood for.
By the end of the 1920s, Metaxakis had become Patriarch of Alexandria, and it was under him that the Alexandrian Church, long dominated by ethnic Greeks in Egypt, took in converts from sub-Saharan Africa, beginning the expansion of Alexandria to encompass all of Africa.
Antioch had its own mess. By the end of the decade, the Antiochian Holy Synod was hopelessly divided, and two men claimed the title of Patriarch. The situation was only resolved when one of them died. For its part, Jerusalem had, for what felt like time immemorial, suffered from crippling financial problems that only seemed to get worse after the arrival of the British Mandate government, which opened the door to the Zionist movement, bringing a flood of Jewish settlers to the Holy Land.
The Bulgarian Church was out of communion with the Greek Churches, and had been since 1872 – basically, for as long as most anyone could remember. The Serbs and Romanians were, for a moment, somewhat in the driver’s seat, and the primates of both churches took the title Patriarch during this period. But Georgia was suffering: after a brief moment in the sun following the collapse of the Russian Empire, Orthodoxy in Georgia was brutally suppressed by its own native son, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
These few paragraphs barely begin to summarize this tumultuous period. For much more, see my article “The Nine Years that Almost Destroyed the Orthodox Church.”
The Orthodox Cold War
The next big pivot point for global Orthodoxy was World War II. Back in 1927, Moscow’s locum tenens, Metropolitan Sergius, tried to appease the Soviet government by issuing a declaration of loyalty to the Soviet state, which sparked an immediate and long-lasting controversy in Russian Orthodoxy, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. But the Church remained suppressed, with the Patriarchate kept alive only on paper, with a handful of “free” bishops and no functioning institutions.
In 1943, Stalin decided that it was in his strategic interest to reestablish the Moscow Patriarchate. This resulted in the election of Metropolitan Sergius as Patriarch and the creation of a host of new church institutions, including theological academies and a printing press. Russian Orthodoxy wasn’t a favored religion again, but it was allowed to function in a limited way, as long as it seemed useful to the Soviet state. The same year, Stalin allowed the Georgian Church to be granted autocephaly by Moscow.
In 1945, Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow toured the Orthodox world, spreading the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate and raising alarm in the West, which feared the spread of Soviet power. Greece was embroiled in a civil war, and U.S. President Harry Truman announced the “Truman Doctrine” to contain communism. The Truman Doctrine was specifically created to address this problem in Greece and Turkey. The Ecumenical Patriarchate suddenly became a strategically valuable institution, but its leader, Patriarch Maximos, was seen as too weak. Moscow made a push to organize a Pan-Orthodox Council – even sometimes called an Ecumenical Council – in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Russian autocephaly, in 1948. Stalin talked of creating an “Orthodox Vatican” in Russia. Despite the geopolitical tensions and the fact that the anniversary celebrated Moscow’s self-declared independence from a then-Uniate EP, Patriarch Maximos sent representatives to the gathering (the EP reps participated in the celebrations but not in the council itself). In light of all this, a weak Ecumenical Patriarch came to be seen by America as a grave danger. (For more on the 1948 Moscow council, see this article.)
So in 1948, Maximos was ousted in favor of the Greek Archbishop of America, Athenagoras, who swept into power with united support from America, Greece, and Turkey. He had deep ties with the American government, dating back to 1942, when he began assisting the OSS (precursor to the CIA). He told the OSS at the time, “Every one under my order is under yours. You may command them for any service you require. There will be no questions asked and your directions will be executed faithfully.” He was, from the American perspective, the ideal Patriarch to counteract the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The new Ecumenical Patriarch flew from the United States to Istanbul aboard a U.S. military plane provided by President Truman. In his early years, Athenagoras offered himself up as an asset for the American government, regularly meeting with U.S. officials, providing intelligence, and doing everything he could to serve American interests. He viewed himself as a key figure in the fight against Communism, an ecclesiastical agent of the Truman Doctrine. For loads more on this, check out this article.
The Cold War had opened up a parallel and very related Cold War in Orthodoxy, between Moscow and Constantinople. The Greek world was not unified in this war, with, for example, the Patriarch of Alexandria generally favoring Moscow rather than his fellow Greek EP.
The Low Point of Orthodox Influence
Josef Stalin died in March 1953, a decade after he re-established the Moscow Patriarchate. His successor, Khrushchev, had less use for Russian Orthodoxy as a geopolitical tool, and, perhaps consequently, the U.S. government’s interest in the Ecumenical Patriarchate began to wane, too.
Four weeks after Stalin died, the U.S. Consul in Istanbul met with Patriarch Athenagoras. He described the meeting in this way:
Upon the occasion of my first official call upon the Oecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras on April 1, the Patriarch spent much of his time in expressing his love and admiration for the United States and all things our country represents. He went so far as to state that the cornerstone of the policy which he had set for himself as Patriarch was to advance American ideals. His expressions of admiration for the United States were at times so unrestrained as to become almost embarrassing. I could not help feeling that if, as a Turkish citizen, his feelings are as freely expressed to non-Americans, he will become labelled as a sort of professional pro-American, that his influence in Turkey and among the Orthodox will be consequently diminished, and that to some his utterances will be considered merely the repetition of American propaganda. I understand that in some quarters his efforts have already been discounted for this reason and that the Department is aware of this. I would therefore be inclined to recommend that we do what we can to encourage a note of subtlety in the Patriarch’s expressions of his very understandable pro-American sentiments, and that our future relations with him should be conducted with such discretion as to avoid having him too closely associated with us.
The following month, in May 1953, the Bulgarian Church – which had just reconciled with Constantinople in 1945, through the mediation of Moscow Patriarch Alexy – declared itself to be a Patriarchate, causing new friction between Bulgaria and the EP.
Patriarch Athenagoras was no fool; he surely understood that without Stalin, the Moscow Patriarchate could decline in significance – and this could mean a corresponding decline for Constantinople, too.
If that’s what Athenagoras thought, he would soon, and tragically, be proven right. In September 1955, an anti-Orthodox pogrom erupted in Istanbul, and Athenagoras’s old patron, the American government, sat on the sidelines, doing nothing to protect the Orthodox. Basically overnight, the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul fell from almost 68,000 to 48,000.
In Cyprus, the ruling British Empire’s days on the island were numbered, and tensions between the Cypriot Greeks and Turks could be cut with a knife. Cyprus became an independent country in 1960 and the Greek majority elected the Cypriot primate, Archbishop Makarios, as the country’s first President. The rights of the Turkish minority were a divisive issue. Over Christmas in 1963, violence broke out, leading to the displacement of some 25,000 Turkish Cypriots. In 1964, Turkey responded in kind, stripping Greek nationals and dual citizens in Istanbul of their Turkish citizenship. In the years to come, most of the Greeks who remained in the city after the 1955 pogrom would depart, and by 1978, just 7,000 Greeks were left.
The American government, which had been so interested in the EP in the early years of Athenagoras’s patriarchate, cared less and less as the years went by. It is perhaps not surprising that, at this moment of irrelevance, Athenagoras made an outward turn. In 1961, he re-started the dormant process of organizing a Pan-Orthodox Council, and from 1961 to 1968, four major Pan-Orthodox conferences were held. Also in 1961, to facilitate the pre-conciliar process, Athenagoras relented and accepted Bulgaria’s status as a Patriarchate. This outward shift wasn’t limited to inter-Orthodox relations. In 1959, the EP’s new Archbishop of North and South America, Iakovos, met with Pope John XXIII. This set the stage for 1964, when Athenagoras famously met with Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem; the two embraced, and a year later, they jointly “lifted the anathemas” of 1054. A new era in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue had begun.
Athenagoras was aging and he reached out to the U.S. for help with succession, but the Nixon Administration ignored him. In 1972, he died, and U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew begged Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to intervene, to allow the EP to hold a free election. Kissinger was dismissive: “I don’t give a damn about the Turkish bishops. I give a damn about the Turkish government.” The Turks vetoed all the best candidates, and the eventual winner, Dimitrios, was a good but politically weak man, of little use on the world stage. For the whole story on the 1972 EP election, click here.
Moscow, too, was at a relative low point in its global influence. Patriarch Pimen was not a particularly strong figure; instead, the dominant personality in Russian Orthodoxy was Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad. Nikodim had been put in charge of the MP’s Department of External Church Relations and ordained a bishop in 1960 at the tender age of 31. A KGB record dated April 16, 1960 states, “The KGB considers it expedient to appoint as chairman of the [Moscow Patriarchate] department for external church relations Archimandrite Nikodim Rotov, and to promote him as representative of the Russian Orthodox Church for participation in the activity of the World Council of Churches and the Soviet Committee for the defense of peace.” Nikodim played a key role in negotiating a deal with Moscow’s estranged American daughter church, the “Metropolia.” In 1970, Moscow granted autocephaly to the Metropolia, creating the “Orthodox Church in America.” Patriarch Athenagoras reacted negatively, arguing that no church had the authority to grant autocephaly unilaterally; rather, “the granting of autocephaly is a right belonging to the Church as a whole.”
Metropolitan Nikodim was clearly on the fast track, next in line to become Patriarch. But he died unexpectedly in 1978, aged just 48, while at the installation of Pope John Paul I at the Vatican. One of Metropolitan Nikodim’s spiritual children is the current Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill.
In Greece, a military junta took control of the country in 1967 and ruled for seven years, with the church under the thumb of the dictatorship. Over in Cyprus, Makarios III sat uneasily both on the Archiepiscopal throne and in the President’s office, with Greek-Turkish tensions growing ever worse. In 1973, three-fifths of the Cypriot Holy Synod attempted a coup d’etat against Makarios (that is, Makarios as Archbishop, not President). In response, Makarios called for a pan-Orthodox council. Because of the fraught geopolitical situation, the Turkish-based EP and the Athens-based Church of Greece (which was under the military junta) didn’t show up, so the council was chaired by the Patriarch of Alexandria. Makarios was vindicated, but the following year, the Greek junta attempted its own coup against Makarios, this time in his capacity as President. In response, the Turks invaded Cyprus, occupying the northern part of the island. Makarios survived as President, but the Greek junta collapsed. At this point, Makarios was probably the most prominent figure in Greek Orthodoxy – certainly more so than any Patriarch – despite his comparatively low standing in the diptychs. (One little data point: in 2001 I visited Madame Tussaud’s, the famous wax museum in London. Makarios was the only Orthodox cleric with a wax figure.) But then, in 1977, he died at the age of just 63. So in 1977-78, both the leading Greek and Russian Orthodox hierarchs in the world died at young ages.
There’s one other contender as the most prominent Orthodox bishop in the world at this time: Iakovos, the Greek Archbishop of North and South America. Iakovos was larger than life, famous beyond the Orthodox world beginning with his Life magazine cover for marching at Selma with Martin Luther King. But the Turks blocked his candidacy for the Ecumenical Throne in 1972, and by the time of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration as U.S. President in 1977, Orthodoxy was seen as so insignificant that Iakovos was not invited to participate as he had at previous inaugurations. Stinging from this slight, he approached a young priest of his, Fr Alexander Karloutsos, and asked him to do something about it.
The New Era Begins
The new era in Orthodox history begins with Fr Alex Karloutsos, who almost single-handedly re-established the relationship between the Ecumencial Patriarchate and the United States government. In 1979, due to Karloutsos’s efforts, Jimmy Carter awarded Iakovos the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1985, Karloutsos helped arrange for by then former President Carter to visit Istanbul and push the Turkish government to allow the reconstruction of the central building of the Phanar; the Turks agreed. It’s at this time that the Phanar commissioned two famous mosaics: one of the Apostle Andrew and St Stachys (the legendary founders of the Church of Byzantium) and one of Mehmet the Conqueror and Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios (about which, more to come in the near-ish future). In 1990, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios (accompanied by then-Metropolitan Bartholmew of Chalcedon) visited America – the first-ever visit of an EP to the United States. Karloutsos arranged for the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to be closed to the public so that Dimitrios could be received by members of Congress. In Chicago, an outdoor liturgy was celebrated with over 12,000 people in attendance.
Behind the Iron Curtain, a thaw had begun. Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the USSR in 1985, and he authorized grand celebrations for the thousand-year anniversary of the conversion of the Rus’ in 1988. The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989; in December, the communist government of Ceaușescu in Romania was overthrown, and Patriarch Teoctist nearly fell with it. As in the 1920s, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, an old geopolitical order was falling away and an uncertain new reality was emerging, which would have seismic effects on the Orthodox Church.
As this was happening, in 1990, Patriarch Pimen of Moscow died, and he was succeeded by the 61-year-old Alexy II, who beat out his rival, Metropolitan Philaret Denisenko of Kiev. The new Patriarch Alexy took office as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia… it goes on – they all proclaimed independence, basically at the same historical moment. Aside from Georgia, the Orthodox Churches in the former Soviet republics were subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate; what would become of them now that their countries were independent? All eyes were on Ukraine, where the bishops of the Ukrainian Exarchate requested autocephaly. They were denied; instead, the MP granted them a form of autonomy, creating the modern-day structure of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which last year cut all remaining ties with Moscow. (As I understand it, many of the Ukrainian bishops that requested autocephaly later withdrew their requests, claiming that they had been pressured to sign by Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev.)
Philaret was incensed: he had lost out on the Moscow Patriarchal throne, failed to gain autocephaly for the church in Ukraine, and was the subject of scandalous news reports about his personal life. So he took a momentous step, going into schism and forming his own jurisdiction, known as the Kiev Patriarchate. Another, related but rival schismatic jurisdiction, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) was also created in the midst of this chaos. Moscow responded by defrocking Philaret, who appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate – but the EP denied the appeal, leaving Philaret and his followers outside of canonical Orthodoxy. In 1997, the MP anathematized Philaret; again, the EP supported this decision.
In Russia itself, in the last days of the USSR and the years that followed, Orthodoxy went overnight from a religion of grandmothers to the hot new trend. Throngs of Russians lined up to be baptized – we’re talking tens and tens of millions of people in a very short period of time. Many of these people had little understanding of what they were doing, but, somewhat like the fourth century following the conversion of St Constantine, becoming Orthodox was the thing to do. In some cases, charismatic priests (“young elders”) emerged, building their own followings from among these new converts.
In Istanbul, Patriarch Dimitrios died in 1991, after almost two decades on the throne. The big question here was, would Turkey interfere again, as they had done in 1972, and veto all the top candidates for Patriarch? The difference between 1972 and 1991, however, was Fr Alex Karloutsos. Because of Karloutsos’s establishment of strong ties with the United States, the White House stepped in, convincing the Turkish government not to meddle in the Patriarchal election. No candidates were erased, and on October 22, 1991, the 51-year-old Metropolitan of Chalcedon, Bartholomew, was elected.
The First Age of Bartholomew
Patriarch Bartholomew seemed to be a force of nature, a dynamic and visionary leader at the most pivotal moment for Orthodoxy in seven decades. He immediately made inter-Orthodox relations a priority. Even before his election, he instructed Fr Alex Karloutsos to help facilitate a visit of Patriarch Alexy to America – the first such visit by a Patriarch of Moscow. Alexy arrived in the United States just days after Bartholomew’s enthronement in Istanbul. The visit included a meeting with 34 of the Orthodox bishops of America – a bigger gathering than the famous Ligonier meeting that took place three years later.
In 1992, Patriarch Bartholomew convened a gathering of all of the Orthodox autocephalous primates – the “Synaxis.” In 1993, a pre-conciliar meeting was held in Chambésy and called for the creation of “episcopal assemblies” in the regions of the “diaspora.” This prompted 29 of the Orthodox bishops in America to gather the following year at the Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, for a meeting that has become somewhat legendary. Also in 1993, Bartholomew traveled to Russia, concelebrating with Patriarch Alexy in what was a significant show of support for Alexy at an uncertain moment in Russian history.
That first Synaxis of Primates was only the beginning. In the years to come, five more would be held – and that doesn’t count the host of other major pan-Orthodox activities that occurred. That’s not to say that there weren’t speed bumps – there most certainly were.
In 1993, Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem – a staunch opponent of the EP’s ecumenical activities with the heterodox – decided to establish jurisdictions in the diaspora, a direct shot at the EP’s claim to exclusive jurisdiction over the “barbarian lands.” Jerusalem reactivated its former archdiocese of Australia, and the EP responded by convening a council in Istanbul at the end of July 1993, which included the Patriarch of Alexandria, the Archbishop of Athens, representatives from Cyprus, and numerous EP hierarchs (including Iakovos of America). The council defrocked two Jerusalem bishops, including the powerful Timotheos of Lydda (now of Bostra and Jerusalem’s Exarch in Cyprus); it condemned Diodoros and removed his name from the diptychs (i.e., “breaking communion”), but it stopped short of trying to depose him, giving him until Christmas to make changes. At this point the Greek government intervened, threatening to cut off its funding of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Diodoros relented and shut down the Australian archdiocese, and the EP made peace; in 1995, Bartholomew and Diodoros concelebrated, along with the previously defrocked Jerusalem bishops, who were restored.
Also in 1995, the Ecumenical Patriarchate received a group of previously schismatic Ukrainian-Americans into its jurisdiction – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. Patriarch Alexy of Moscow was concerned: what were the implications of this action for Ukraine itself? Patriarch Bartholomew responded by reassuring Alexy that he had no intentions of legitimizing the schismatics in Ukraine, and, in fact, that by normalizing the Ukrainians of the diaspora, the cause of Philaret Denisenko and his allies would be weakened.
A bigger storm cloud appeared in 1996, in Estonia. The territory of Estonia was long part of the Russian Empire and its Orthodox churches were under the Russian Orthodox Church. Following the fall of the Tsar, with Russian Orthodoxy under persecution, St Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, granted autonomy to the Estonian Church. Soon, though, the Estonians made a play for autocephaly. They approached Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis, who disappointed them, merely receiving them into the EP’s jurisdiction and acknowledging the autonomy granted by St Tikhon. During World War II, the Soviets took control of Estonia, and the Moscow Patriarchate re-annexed the Church in Estonia. The future Patriarch Alexy II was born in Estonia in 1929 and was a teenager when the Moscow Patriarchate took control of the Estonian Church.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Estonia regained its independence, and some in the Estonian Church wanted to switch allegiances from Moscow to Constantinople. In February 1996, Patriarch Bartholomew declared that the EP’s jurisdiction in the country was re-established, with the 1923 EP tomos reactivated. Moscow’s annexation of Estonia was, said the EP, “arbitrary” and “uncanonical,” and the EP was now taking back what it saw as rightfully its own. As you might imagine, Moscow didn’t take this lying down, breaking communion with the EP. But both sides wanted to resolve things, and they immediately began meeting to negotiate a solution. By May, they had a deal: basically, the EP and Moscow accepted the presence of both jurisdictions on Estonian soil. The Estonian people could choose which one they joined. Estonia would flare up here and there over the years. In 1999, the EP elected a Metropolitan of All Estonia, causing a new protest from Moscow. In 2000, another Synaxis of Primates was held, and Stephanos of Estonia attended – but Patriarch Alexy of Moscow did not. But communion wasn’t broken.
In 1997, Patriarch Bartholomew made his first visit to the United States as Ecumenical Patriarch, again facilitated by Fr Alex Karloutsos. He was given the Congressional Gold Medal and spoke out against Protestant missionaries who were working to convert the traditionally Orthodox people in Russia and the other former Soviet republics. This came shortly after Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a law granting protected status to Orthodoxy and several other traditional religions in an effort to curtail Protestant proselytism.
From 1998 to 2006, four ad hoc pan-Orthodox councils were held to deal with local crises:
- In 1998, a council was held in Bulgaria to deal with a group of schismatics that had broken away from the Bulgarian Patriarchate. To read all about this council, click here.
- In 2000, a council was held in Cyprus to address allegations against Bishop Athanasios of Limassol. The council exonerated Athanasios.
- In 2005, a council was held in Istanbul to deal with a crisis in Jerusalem, where the Holy Synod had deposed Patriarch Irenaios. The council upheld the decision of the Jerusalem Synod.
- In 2006, another council was held in Cyprus, this time to remove the incapacitated Archbishop Chrysostomos from the throne, paving the way for archiepiscopal elections in Cyprus.
These councils were very well-attended, with most or all of the Orthodox Churches sending bishops.
The Second Age of Bartholomew
We’ve now reached the point in our story where history gives way to gossip, and where the historian begins to pass the baton to the journalist. I am not a journalist, and I’m wary of delving too deeply into what are basically current events. So from here on out, I will limit myself to offering a timeline of some key moments in the past couple of decades:
2001: The Ecumenical Patriarchate formally accepted the addition of “All Africa” to the title of the Patriarch of Alexandria.
2002: Metropolitan Joachim of Chalcedon, the best friend and closest advisor to Patriarch Bartholomew, suffered a stroke. He would spend the next two decades in a coma before his death in 2023.
2004: The Ecumenical Patriarchate briefly broke communion with the Church of Greece. This will take a bit of explaining… In 1913, following the Balkan Wars, Greece annexed a bunch of new territories (Epirus, Greek Macedonia, northern Thrace, the northern and eastern Aegean Islands). These came to be known, conveniently, as the “New Territories” (or the “New Lands”). But while these territories were now politically part of Greece, they remained the canonical territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not the Church of Greece. In 1928, the EP resolved this ambiguous situation with a creative solution: the New Lands would remain ecclesiastically subject to the EP, but the administration of these dioceses would be delegated to the Church of Greece, which would elect metropolitans for the New Lands, subject to confirmation by the EP. In other words, the New Lands metropolitans would have a dual status, bishops of both the EP and the Church of Greece. To this day, if you go onto the websites of the EP and Church of Greece, you’ll see the New Lands bishops listed on both.
Anyway, in 2004, the Church of Greece elected three new bishops for New Lands dioceses without the approval of the EP. The EP Holy Synod responded by breaking communion with Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens. Patriarch Alexy of Moscow chimed in, writing a public letter of support for Christodoulos. Patriarch Ilia of Georgia also expressed support for Athens, while Patriarch Petros of Alexandria offered to act as an impartial mediator. In the end, the dispute was resolved by the Greek government, and the new bishops for the New Lands were duly approved by the EP.
Very soon after this, in September, the revered Petros of Alexandria died in a helicopter crash, along with three other Alexandrian bishops and numerous other passengers. The loss of Joachim of Chalcedon in 2002 and Petros of Alexandria in 2004 removed two major influences on Patriarch Bartholomew from the scene.
2005: Jerusalem crisis; pan-Orthodox council confirming the deposition of Patriarch Irenaios. He was succeeded by Patriarch Theophilos, who had previously been in charge of Jerusalem’s new parish in Qatar, which was the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Following his election, Theophilos had to get the approval of the various governments associated with the Jerusalem Patriarchate – Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. Israel refused to approve him for months, leading to a mini-crisis, but they ultimately – thanks in part to the intervention of Fr Alex Karloutsos, Senator Joe Lieberman, and religious freedom lawyer Jay Sekulow – gave the green light.
2006: Pan-Orthodox council in Cyprus to remove the incapacitated Archbishop Chrysostomos. The archiepiscopal election that followed resulted in three top candidates: Athanasios of Limassol, Nikephoros of Kykkos, and Chrysostomos of Paphos. Although Athanasios got the most votes, he was short of a majority, and Nikephoros and Chrysostomos cut a deal: Nikephoros would throw his support behind Chrysostomos, who would reign for a limited period of time and then retire in favor of Nikephoros. But after taking office, Chrysostomos II reneged, remaining Archbishop until his death in 2022. For a good summary of the 2006 Cypriot election, click here.
2007: The Moscow Patriarchate delegation walked out of an official Orthodox-Catholic dialogue meeting in Ravenna, Italy. The immediate flashpoint was the presence of representatives from the EP’s jurisdiction in Estonia. In Moscow’s absence, the dialogue group issued the Ravenna Document, which touched on, among other things, the topic of primacy.
The same year, the Moscow Patriarchate reunited with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).
2008: In July, Patriarch Bartholomew visited Ukraine at the invitation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for the 1,020th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’. Wikileaks has a fascinating U.S. State Department report on the event. The EP delegation had numerous high-level meeting with the Ukrainian president and his staff, as well as the leaders of the two schismatic churches, Philaret and Mefodiy. Led by Yushchenko, the talks were focused on how the EP could facilitate the unity of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Nothing was ultimately resolved at that time.
Patriarch Alexy of Moscow attended as well, although he was noticeably snubbed by Yushchenko. At this point, Alexy was in very poor health, and his doctors urged him not to travel. He refused, so they took the extreme step of demanding a meeting with the permanent members of the Holy Synod of Russia. At the meeting, Alexy reiterated that his position was not negotiable: he would attend the Kiev events at any cost. The weather was hot in Kiev, and a liturgy was celebrated outdoors, on Saint Vladimir Hill, without any shade. This took a particular toll on Alexy, and in the months that followed, his health continued to decline. Bartholomew and Alexy had a private meeting, smoothing over their differences enough that Alexy agreed to participate in the next Synaxis of Primates, scheduled for October in Istanbul.
Once again, Alexy’s doctors begged him not to travel, and once again, he refused, insisting on joining the other primates. While there, Alexy met privately with Patriarch Bartholomew regarding Alexy’s proposal to appoint clergymen to serve at the Russian embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul, with the priests enjoying diplomatic status. This was standard procedure in the imperial era (one such diplomatic clergyman was the future St Theophan the Recluse), but Patriarch Bartholomew harshly rejected the proposal. Later, Bartholomew informed the Vatican and reported on the meeting to the U.S. Consul in Istanbul. He told the Consul, “at the Embassy they would be more than priests and would use their diplomatic status and religion for other purposes in the spirit of expansionism and imperialism.”
All of the autocephalous primates who were present for the Synaxis concelebrated at the Divine Liturgy, including Bartholomew and Alexy. Notably, both the Moscow and EP Metropolitans of Estonia (Cornelius and Stephanos) also concelebrated, as did Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, the primate of the UOC.
Less than two months later, Patriarch Alexy died. He was a measured patriarch who comported himself with dignity and guided the newly-liberated Russian Church with wisdom and prudence. His untimely death was a major loss for Orthodoxy.
2009: In February, the new Patriarch of Moscow was elected: Kirill, previously the head of Moscow’s Department of External Church Relations. In July, Patriarch Kirill visited Ukraine. Supporters of Philaret Denisenko’s Kiev Patriarchate accused Kirill of being an anti-Ukrainian agent of the Russian government, but Kirill made a point of visiting the Holodomor memorial, which commemorated the 1932-33 Soviet famine in Ukraine. A U.S. State Department report ahead of the visit (published on Wikileaks) found this notable, as the Russian government had “pointedly refused” to acknowledge the famine.
The same year, the Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference met in Chambésy, Switzerland – the first such meeting since 1993. The conference adopted rules of operation for episcopal assemblies (or assemblies of bishops) for the diaspora.
In November, the saintly Patriarch Pavle of Serbia died. He had been a unifying figure, deeply respected by all of his fellow primates.
2010: The first meeting of the Assembly of Bishops of North America was held in New York.
2011: Arab Spring and the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.
2012: In December, Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch died after 33 years on the throne. He was succeeded by Patriarch John X. This was a surprise, as John was technically ineligible according to the Antiochian rules, which required a candidate for Patriarch to have at least five years of service as a metropolitan (which John did not). But the Antiochian Holy Synod waived the requirement, resulting in John’s election.
2013: The Moscow Patriarchate issued a response to the 2007 Ravenna Document, declaring its position “on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church.”
Also in 2013, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem created a Diocese of Qatar, on the traditional canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Antioch, and consecrated a Bishop of Qatar. The new Patriarch John of Antioch asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to mediate the dispute, and there were various efforts to find a resolution, but none were successful.
2014: Because of Jerusalem’s actions in Qatar, the Patriarchate of Antioch broke communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Then-Metropolitan Elpidophoros issued a response to Moscow’s paper on primacy, declaring the Ecumenical Patriarch to be primus sine paribus (first without equals). Also in 2014, the Synaxis of Primates met again.
And the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, occupying Crimea. This occurred during an interregnum for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church: longtime, respected primate Metropolitan Vladimir Sabodan had died, and the current primate Metropolitan Onuphry was still locum tenens. Onuphry condemned the invasion and called out Putin by name, but in the eyes of some, he was insufficiently patriotic as a Ukrainian.
2015: The Qatar issue remained unresolved, leading to questions about whether the Holy and Great Council, planned for 2016, could be held. (For sources on the Qatar dispute through 2016, see this page at Notes on Arab Orthodoxy.)
2016: In January, the Synaxis of Primates was held to prepare for the Holy and Great Council. But as the June date of the council drew near, it became clear that all was not well. Antioch would not attend unless the dispute with Jerusalem over Qatar was resolved, which it was not. Bulgaria and Georgia had their own concerns about the council and declared that they wouldn’t attend, either. And at the eleventh hour, the Moscow Patriarchate backed out. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, then the head of external church relations for Moscow, explained, “We have made a decision that we will not be able to take part in the all-Orthodox Synod if other churches do not go.” The council was held anyway, but the absence of those four churches cast a pall over the whole thing.
The biggest achievement of the council was that it took place. Its actual decisions weren’t particularly impactful; it didn’t address the concerns of the absentee churches, and one of the biggest agenda items – autocephaly – was removed before the council convened. In the end, even the most enthusiastic supporter of the council must admit that it was not what so many hoped it would be.
Less than three weeks after the council ended, opponents of Turkish President Erdogan attempted a coup d’etat. Erdogan blamed this on the exiled Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who was close to Patriarch Bartholomew. This undoubtedly created pressure on the Ecumenical Patriarch, and in the years to come the Turkish media would accuse Bartholomew of supporting the coup.
Let me reiterate this, because I think it’s significant: within the span of a month, the long-awaited council was held in Crete but without the participation of four churches, leading to perceptions that it had failed, and then the Turkish coup attempt failed. It is difficult to imagine the kind of strain that these two events placed on Patriarch Bartholomew.
Then in 2018, just shy of two years following the 2016 council and the failed Turkish coup, the EP changed course on Ukraine, asserting its jurisdiction over the territory and, in one fell swoop, legitimizing both the Kiev Patriarchate and the UAOC, who up to this point were universally regarded as schismatics. The EP then convened a “unification council,” which led to the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, to which the EP granted autocephaly in January 2019. In response, the Moscow Patriarchate broke communion with the EP. The Mike Pompeo-led U.S. State Department publicly lobbied for the various Orthodox Churches to accept the OCU, although only a handful did. And now we’ve reached very nearly the present day – if you go back and read the first paragraph of this article, you’ll be basically caught up to the present day.
So How Did We End Up Here?
Geopolitics, basically. Well, geopolitics and some unique individuals.
Orthodox Church structures have been linked to political realities from, basically, the beginning. It’s why Rome and later Constantinople were given preeminence among the churches. It’s why, to this day, we’re organized into “dioceses,” which were Roman civil administrative units. Orthodoxy has always adapted to (or, in our worse moments, been carried along by) the winds of geopolitical change. This is still true today.
In the years following World War I, the old geopolitical order that had given Orthodoxy its earthly context for five hundred years fell apart. The ensuing chaos led to adaptations. It led the Ecumenical Patriarchate to pivot from an Asia Minor-focused church of Ottoman subjects to a hierarchical structure with only a tiny local flock, reinvented as a transnational body asserting jurisdiction over the “barbarian lands.” It led the Orthodox national groups of the old empires to coalesce into larger nation-states with corresponding patriarchates. And it led the once-dominant Russian Orthodox Church to scramble for survival, its best and brightest either dead, imprisoned, or in exile. When the dust settled, in the 1930s, Orthodoxy was at an extraordinarily low moment in its history.
Then World War II came, and suddenly, the Orthodox Church was once again a player on the global scene. Stalin, a new Julian the Apostate (who, like Julian, left the Orthodox faith of his birth and became a persecutor of the Church), made another turn, as it suddenly became expedient for the Soviet Union to build up the Russian Orthodox Church and attempt to use it as an influencer both within the USSR and globally. The Cold War was emerging, and America responded by adopting the Ecumenical Patriarchate as its own client. Just as the United States and the USSR fought proxy wars in other countries, they fought a proxy war in the Orthodox Church. Athenagoras, like Metaxakis before him, seized upon the opportunity, leveraging Orthodoxy’s newfound global geopolitical relevance to build up the prestige and influence of his patriarchate.
But when Stalin died, everything changed, and only a few short years after Athenagoras swept into the Phanar with the united backing of the USA, Turkey, and Greece, he found himself and his patriarchate to be a geopolitical afterthought once again. So much so that when the mob burned churches and raped Orthodox Christians in Istanbul in 1955, America did nothing. When the British vacated Cyprus and Archbishop Makarios became President, tensions rose between the Greek majority and the Turkish minority on the island, and this had a corresponding effect on conditions in Istanbul. The Turks banished all Greek nationals and dual citizens, and Athenagoras’s flock shrunk once more. He made overtures to the United States; they fell on deaf ears. But Athenagoras was not only a survivor; he pivoted from his old position as an agent of America to become simply a global religious figure, without the political attachments that he had when he arrived in Istanbul. Rapprochement with Rome, plans for a Holy and Great Council – all of this is a byproduct of Athenagoras finding himself to be suddenly a fringe player on the global stage, with the walls closing in on the Phanar in Turkey itself.
The role of Fr Alex Karloutsos is unusual in this context, because geopolitics can’t explain the American government’s shift in its policy toward the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the turn of the 1980s. This was before the fall of the Soviet Union, before the arrival of Gorbachev and the Soviet government’s softened position toward Orthodoxy. Athenagoras had created ties between the EP and Washington when geopolitics had opened up a window of opportunity; Karloutsos did the same without a comparable geopolitical opening. This is historically rare, if not unique.
The fall of Communism created our modern-day Orthodox order. The fall of Communism, combined with the renewed relationship between the EP and America. In the early years of this epoch, the 1990s and early 2000s, the relationship between the Phanar and Moscow was certainly uneasy and occasionally even hostile, but, with the exception of a couple months in 1996, communion was preserved, and the moderating personality of Patriarch Alexy helped to maintain a fragile peace.
We now find ourselves at another crossroads.
I just covered a whole lot of controversial topics, and I passed over a lot of important material (one could write a hundred books about this period and still leave out important stories). I’m sure that many of you reading this will have critiques, corrections – maybe even accusations. I welcome those, and I’m especially interested in hearing where I got something wrong or missed an important element of the story. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about any particular area that I covered in this article, let me know and I’m happy to send along sources. My email address is mfnamee at gmail dot com.
Finally, the now-obligatory note on spelling choices. These days, “Kiev” vs. “Kyiv” and “Vladimir” vs. “Volodymyr” are politically charged choices. Please don’t read into my use of “Kiev” and “Vladimir” as taking a position on any of this. I’m simply using the spelling conventions that were common in American English in the period prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.