Prospect of Ortho­dox schism would paint Putin a new Henry VIII

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide -

THE East­ern Ortho­dox Church is closer than ever to a schism that would cast Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in a role sim­i­lar to that of King Henry VIII when he split the Church of Eng­land from Rome in the 16th Cen­tury.

Rus­sia’s am­bi­tion to be the cen­tre of the Ortho­dox world threat­ens to end in iso­la­tion. But hold­ing back from split­ting the church will mean hu­mil­i­a­tion by the Ukraini­ans, who have been ruth­lessly ter­rorised by the Rus­sian leader.

On Oc­to­ber 11, the Holy Synod of the Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­ar­chate of Con­stantino­ple took a mo­men­tous ac­tion for the Ortho­dox faith in Ukraine. It re­in­stated two bish­ops lead­ing Ukrainian splin­ter churches not recog­nised by the Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate to their rank and al­lowed their fol­low­ers to take com­mu­nion with the church.

Now, the cler­ics must unite their or­gan­i­sa­tions to form an in­de­pen­dent (or to use the re­li­gious term, au­to­cephalous) Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church, which will be recog­nised by the Con­stantino­ple Pa­tri­ar­chate — dis­re­gard­ing the wishes of Rus­sia, for­merly re­spon­si­ble for ap­point­ing Ukraine’s church lead­ers.

The Synod in­val­i­dated a doc­u­ment it is­sued in 1686, grant­ing the Pa­tri­arch of Moscow the right to or­dain the Met­ro­pol­i­tan of Kiev.

If this sounds ar­cane, it should.

The Ortho­dox Church, with about 300m faith­ful world­wide, is steeped in tra­di­tion and rit­ual. The au­thor­ity of Is­tan­bul-based Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­arch Bartholomew, who presided over the Synod meet­ing, rests on Canon 28 of the Coun­cil of Chal­cedon, which took place in 451 AD, long be­fore the split be­tween the Catholic and Ortho­dox Churches; it granted the re­li­gious leader of “new Rome” — Con­stantino­ple — pow­ers sec­ond to those of the Pope.

It’s doubt­ful that Putin, who has co-opted the power of the Church to the ser­vice of his im­pe­ri­al­ist ide­ol­ogy, wants to play Henry VIII — who at first was a de­vout Catholic but then de­fied Rome’s spir­i­tual au­thor­ity.

The Rus­sian Church’s in­ter­na­tional reach has been im­por­tant to the Rus­sian ruler.

Putin has twice vis­ited Mount Athos, the monas­tic en­clave in Greece that is Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity’s holi­est place; it’s been fash­ion­able among Putin loy­al­ists to as­sert their Ortho­dox faith by mak­ing a pil­grim­age there. Athos, though, falls un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Con­stantino­ple Pa­tri­ar­chate, and it may be lost to Rus­sians af­ter a for­mal schism, an enor­mous sym­bolic de­feat for a pres­i­dent in­tent to project a de­vout im­age.

On the other hand, it’s as dif­fi­cult for Putin as it is for Moscow Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill to ac­cept an in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian church blessed by Con­stantino­ple. It would go against his oft-re­peated as­ser­tion that Rus­sians and Ukraini­ans are one peo­ple — and ad­mit­ting that not Moscow, but Is­tan­bul, is the true seat of power of global Or­tho­doxy would be al­most un­bear­able. Com­pared to these spir­i­tual wounds, the po­ten­tial loss of 12,328 parishes in Ukraine, and the in­come from them, is ar­guably less cat­a­strophic.

As was once said on Fa­ther Ted, it’s an ec­u­meni­cal mat­ter.

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