DIVIDED AS AUTOCEPHALOUS, OR UNITED AS BRETHREN?
A commentary on the crisis in Ukraine
By Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki
Over the last few months we have become witnesses to a very dangerous (and judging by the phenomena, uncalled-for) crisis that broke out within the bosom of our Church. The reason is the impending cession of autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine. It appears that inter-orthodox relations are a major problem in our day, and while unity with the heterodox is being pursued, with the Orthodox confessing love for them, they are however shattering that love in reality; they may declare the link that exists in the communion between them, but they are confirming the opposite. Meanwhile, the faithful people are confronting their religious heads in altercations with legalistic arguments, and who, instead of uniting the faithful together, are generating camps with followers and groups of conflicting supporters. What a crime! In all of this conflict there is a pretext and a cause, the pretext being the need for autocephaly by the Church of Ukraine, and the cause being who has the right to cede: who it belongs to, who has it.
The words we hear being invoked by the Churches involved are historical privileges and canons. Unfortunately, what we don’t hear is the Gospel. The first question is: is autocephaly really that necessary – spiritually? If so, couldn’t it wait a while longer? There is also a second question: Are our rights so important, that we must defend them by ignoring or fighting with our brethren, or even interrupting our millennium-long communion with them? And thirdly: is the invoking of historical rights and canons more significant than the invoking of the word of the Gospel?
Constantinople is now addressing as “friends” the (until now) brethren of Russia, while they are refusing to confess the ecumenicity of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Thus are being torn down the most basic foundations of the Church’s unity: brotherhood -the expression of which is the pan-orthodox communion- and ecumenicity, whose guarantor according to the Canons and historical tradition is Constantinople.
Α. In reality, the autocephaly of Ukraine does not constitute such an urgent need, but rather a right and a stubborn political demand. On the contrary, the unity of the Churches constitutes an imperative necessity and non-negotiable Gospel commandment. What could possibly have a greater significance - the autocephaly of a local Church, or the unity of all, “in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”?
And who are the ones that seek the autocephaly? Is it ever possible that a secular President of a doubtful spiritual background and a self-proclaimed “Patriarch” with a problematic ecclesiastic sensitivity who has until now been rejected as schismatic, be the individuals who are suitable expressers of the in-the-Holy-Spirit needs, the will of God, and the sigh of the Church in Ukraine?
And even if we don’t want to heed the voice of those who resist the autocephaly, how can we rest our hopes for unity on those who have already caused a lengthy schism and for years have been harboring all the stray and defrocked old-calendarists of the Hellenic region – and not only?
If Philaret had been elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1990 – which he had striven so much for, but did not succeed – would he have asked to become Metropolitan of the autocephalous Church of Ukraine today? If yes, from whom - from the Synod of Moscow, over which he had presided, or from Constantinople, to which he feigns respect and supposedly bows to?
Β. Per Christian logic, the one who sees only his own rights is not just. Just is the one who protects his own rights, but also preserves the balance of love, peace, patience, and forgiveness, because that is the only way that God’s “rights” are protected. Besides, our salvation is based on the greatest of injustices: «By the blood of God, the serpent’s poison was washed away and the curse was unbound with a just condemnation, when the Just One was condemned by an unjust trial»*. Fortunately God hasn’t invoked justice and His rights!
At this stage, the method of tackling the problem of autocephaly of Ukraine is based on the rights of those who cede it; that is, the Phanar and Moscow: the historical or political-economic power and not the evangelical word - or at least the existing ecclesiastic need in Ukraine. Apart from this, the outline of powerful political expediencies, instructions and pressures are being discerned in the horizon. But of the holy Gospel, all that is left is the... cover.
Who can understand how it is possible for millennium-long, sister Churches of Christ to gloat, with the one discovering the deviations and mistakes of the other? Could the tension that we are now undergoing mean that we had not loved properly in the past? How can one justify the mouths of our ecclesiastic leaders, who with stentorian voices support the inter-christian and inter-religious dialogue, but dismiss communication between each other? Why is the one side unable to admit that the Grace of God can also illuminate the other side slightly differently? Is it ever possible that full illumination is exclusively “ours”, and not a single ray also illuminates the “others”, who have been our brethren until now? What, in the final analysis, is the significance of the word “communion”, if it doesn’t also include mutual understanding?
Or how is it, that they don’t take into account the disastrous consequences of an impending schism? Why are the simple faithful at fault, if they are banned from the grace of the pilgrim sites of the “others”? Why must Russians be deprived of the Holy Mountain and Patmos Island, and Greeks be deprived of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the Kiev Caves, Valaam Monastery and the grace of the Russian neo martyrs? Isn’t the grace of God universal, to be shared by everyone? When we are united in the common Faith and dogma, how can division on the basis of an administrative disagreement be sanctioned?
Finally, for whom was the Gospel of love, of forgiveness, of unity written for, and why? Doesn’t it pertain to us and to the challenges of our time?
Ε. But how can it also be possible for Moscow to admonish its clergy and faithful who receive Holy Communion at the Holy Mountain or Patmos Island, or possibly later on in Jerusalem and Greece? Is it ever possible for Holy Communion to be rendered a lever for political pressure and extortion? Is THAT what we have understood, after a thousand years of the Sacrament? We could understand a temporary pause in commemoration at a Patriarchal level, perhaps as an indication of a strong protest, but NOT the cessation of communion among the faithful.
The Church cannot possibly be distancing people from God’s grace instead of leading them to His holy sites. Rather than the faith of the people becoming weaker, shouldn’t it instead be reinforced, in the hope of bringing its leaders to their senses?
We are hoping our Patriarch will open his ecumenical embrace enough, to also hold the Russians. But the Ukranians will also be unable to unite ecclesiastically among themselves, unless they learn in Church to forgive the Russians and unite with them. That is how the Church will be the Church: when She abolishes enemies. The words of the recently proclaimed saint, Hossios Amphilochios the Younger in Patmos are opportune more than ever today: “Do you want to revenge those who offend you? The best revenge is love. Love transforms even wild beasts.”
But we also hope that our holy fathers in Russia – whose blessings the laity invokes at the end of each Liturgy – will understand that if they act with humility and not as conquerors, they will unite the Church and with the grace of God will also win over the hearts of all the Orthodox. There is no reason for them to –secularly– become the “Third Rome”, but spiritually the “First and Holy Moscow”; to become the first in our hearts. Combined with the aroma of their experience of recent persecution and the cloud of neo martyrs, we look forward to their also offering our Church the fragrant witness of unity.
As evil as the pride of the small and weak may be, the humble wisdom of the powerful and the mighty is a much greater thing. This is what we all need, because after all, we are not concerned with who has the power or the right on his side, but who acts in the Holy Spirit and conveys His grace.
The divinely-inspired exhortation of the Apostle Paul: “If you bite and eat one another, take care that you aren’t devoured by one another!” (Gal.5:15) may be showing the way to all of us. In ecclesiastic conflicts among brethren there are no victors. Everyone is a loser. On the contrary, when we are reconciled, there are no losers. Everyone is blessed.
We have seen North Korea reconciled with South Korea, and we who daily recite the Lord’s Prayer with our hearts and our lips cannot be reconciled among ourselves?
It is our fervent prayer that the Lord will provide “along with the temptation, the outcome” and will “draw” us towards repentance and “to revival”. Amen.
*Doxastikon hymn from Vespers of the Feast of the Precious Cross, rendered analytically:
“The serpent’s poison (administered in the Garden of Eden) was washed away, and the curse that was a just condemnation (on our forefather Adam) was unbound, by the Blood of God (that was spilled on the Cross), when the Just One (our Lord Jesus Christ) was condemned by an unjust trial.”