For centuries, the archbishops of Constantinople could credibly claim to be the “Ecumenical Patriarch”. Their see was the “New Rome”, centre of the oikoumenē, the “inhabited world”. Today, their successor, Patriarch Bartholomew, looks beleaguered. The guards around his residence in the Phanar quarter of Istanbul reveal his threatened position in an increasingly Islamified Turkey. But now he seems poised to gain other powerful enemies, this time within the Orthodox Church itself, by unilaterally recognising a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow.
The renascent Church of Russia, thought to comprise more faithful than all the other Orthodox Churches combined, covets Constantinople’s leadership role. Styled “the Third Rome” since Tsarist times, Moscow believes geopolitical reality should give it more weight than Bartholomew’s aura of the Byzantine past.
Moscow has long sought to expose Bartholomew’s weakness, as when it tried to wreck the Pan-Orthodox Great and Holy Synod of 2016. The Russians and other Churches under their influence stayed away, greatly reducing the impact of the long-planned assembly where Constantinople had hoped to bolster its prestige.
But perhaps Bartholomew now has an opportunity to strike back. Since Ukraine gained independence in 1991 two distinct groups have separated from the Moscow patriarchate, seeking to establish a distinctively Ukrainian Church. One of these groups has established a patriarchate based in Kiev, while the other group, older but much smaller, makes the less radical claim of being the autocephalous (self-governing) Church of Ukraine. So far, neither has received recognition from any other canonically recognised Orthodox Church. But conflict with Russia since the 2014 revolution has reportedly enhanced the standing of these groups with patriotic Ukrainians.
Bartholomew has announced his intention to recognise an autocephalous Ukrainian Church, uniting these groups – and anyone else who will join them – into a single jurisdiction looking to Constantinople rather than Moscow as the Mother Church.
Bartholomew’s bold move has provoked an outcry from Moscow and other Orthodox churches and theologians. Some see it as unwarranted interference within Moscow’s jurisdiction, fanning the flame of Ukrainian nationalism and undermining Orthodox unity. Others accuse Constantinople of seeking an unprecedented quasi-papal role in Orthodoxy.
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