New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
The use of the word “schism” in the recent New York Times article “A New Historic Schism?” is wrong, said Professor George E. Demacopoulos at the HALC-sponsored conversation with Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou at the Consulate General of Greece in New York on February 27th. “Technically it is not a schism—the Ecumenical Patriarch has not reciprocated that. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and all its churches are perfectly willing to give the sacraments to people of the Russian Church, and so forth. So that is technically what has happened.”
This report on the conversation continues from last week’s edition of the Greek News.
Having referred earlier in the conversation to Ukraine’s autocephaly as “only the most recent episode in what has been a kind of 200-year transformation of the notion of self-governing Churches in the Orthodox world,” Professor Demacopoulos explained that “largely but not entirely, the territory, en masse, of autocephalous Churches maps onto the modern nation state… There are people within those ecclesiastical jurisdictions that are sovereign states politically, who are also agitating for autocephaly, and with the precedent of a breakaway territory appealing to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarch recognizing their Church, some jurisdictions, particularly in Eastern Europe, such as the Serbian Church and the Romanian Church are deeply, deeply, deeply concerned.” The Serbians, even though they have an exceptionally good relationship with the Patriarchate, and Romania are in the same situation, he added.
Many of the Churches want the issue “to go away”, but from the long view of a historian, Demacopoulos “sees no scenario in which 75 years from now, everybody—likely even Moscow—doesn’t recognize a separate Ukrainian Church. Because something will happen in the future in which it is in their interest to do so. And they will.”
Providing some historical background, Papanikolou explained that there are independent Orthodox Churches because we don’t have a pope, one of a variety of reasons being that we had an Emperor for a long time. “There were good historical and theological reasons there were these independent Churches, but because of having no emperor, the model was for us to come together in a council and solve all these problems. But no one knows who can really call a council. That’s sort of the issue. You need an Emperor to call a council, and in the Byzantine period it was the Emperor who called the councils; they were Imperial Councils, which, of course, became the Eccliastic Councils.”
Regarding the “Why now?” question of Ukraine’s autocephaly, Papanikolaou pointed out that each of the regional Churches has its own pope in a sense, the Primate, who is a pope-like figure to a greater or lesser power, the kinds of power they exercise in their own territories not necessarily of the same degree, depending on the history of that Church.
Returning to the idea of the Russian Church as another arm of the Russian government when it comes to its foreign policy message, Demacopoulos cited that Vladimir Putin, who sees himself as a defender of Christian values and conservativism in general, is making inroads across Europe, and with certain conservative groups in the United States through our social media.
He questioned whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate is worried about this trend, or about Russia calling itself ‘the third Rome’, driving the ‘competition’ for primacy between the Ecumenical Patriarch and Moscow.”
“I think that’s all rhetoric. I don’t think there’s ‘competition’ on that level,” Papanikolaou replied, “the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the Pope, but he is the recognizable global symbol of Orthodoxy. He is that symbol for a variety of reasons but his position now within a recognizably pressed situation to some extent magnifies the fact that he can’t actually symbolize global Orthodoxy because he’s not tied to a nation state. We all know that he’s Greek-speaking, but even the Greeks of Constantinople identify themselves as Romaioi—which is ‘Greek-plus’, I guess—as the real vestiges of the Roman Empire. I’ve even heard the Patriarch say that in sermons and speeches to people within the Patriarchal court. Rightly, however, his rhetoric is much different. He talks about peace, about religious dialogue, about the kind of themes that you expect an Orthodox Christian leader to talk about,” said Papanikolaou contrasting this with Patriarch Cyril’s “almost unprecedented kind of language, where he talks about the war in Syria as a ‘holy war’. There is political rhetoric, or even woven into some of the hymns of the Church running through the Byzantine Empire, but you don’t have the language of ‘holy war’. This shows that to some extent Cyril’s own rhetoric is mindful of the way in which the Russian government is positioning itself within Syria. These neologisms that occur with Cyril, and unprecedented kinds of actions within the Russian Orthodox Church, are clearly indications of their being aware how and in what way to advance Russia.”
This is very clear in the Orthodox world, he said, noting Putin’s trip to Belgrade and his “unbelievable reception” by the Patriarch of Serbia on the red carpet leading into the Church of Saint Sava. Russia has made it known that they are pouring millions and millions of dollars to finish the interior of Saint Sava; one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, it has been unfinished for decades. Another such move was Putin’s visit to Mt. Athos, where he was the first person to be allowed to sit on the throne reserved for the Byzantine Emperors.
“Eastern Europe is experiencing a kind of schizophrenia. It knows, in terms of living standards, that its future is with the West, but in terms of ethos and style of living, it sees Russia as its hero,” said Papanikolaou, adding that he thinks they see the Russian government and Church as “somewhat being a little bit their advocate.” Recently he saw some priests in Greece wearing a Russian-style vestment. “…in a way, it’s symbolic that they see Russia as this global leader of the kind of values that they want to achieve…”
He noted that the Mt. Athos leaders made a “very, very powerful statement that they will not tolerate the dishonoring of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They said they didn’t necessarily support what he did, but they would not go against the leadership of the Patriarch.”
Replying to Papanikolaou’s inquiry, “What should we be thinking of now?” regarding Ukraine, Demacopoulos expressed ambivalence. “On one hand, if ever a Church deserves the right to be autocephalous, it’s Ukraine, but on the other, I’m of the mind that having national Churches is a total disaster. It completely re-orients the oikoumene and the universalism of what Christianity is supposed to be… What is going to happen in these other smaller territories that are agitating for independence? There were 7 Orthodox Churches in the year 1700. Now there are officially 14, and unofficially, 16. Where are we going to be in 15, 50 or 100 years? Will the Ukrainian move inspire others to do the same thing? Who is going to back them, who is going to suppress them, and what is that going to do for global Orthodoxy? And what is going to happen in the United States, where the situation is as basically un-canonical as it could possibly be.”
Illustrating that idea, he said that sometimes it’s not appropriate to try to apply 5th century canons to the 21st century, “but one of the things the canons are very clear about is that there is one bishop per city. The notion of autocephaly and the theological rationale behind a single community anchored by a bishop makes a great deal of theological sense. But in New York there is a Greek bishop, a Serbian bishop, an OCA bishop, a Moscow bishop, an Antioch Ian bishop, a Bulgarian bishop… it’s absurd! In the West, in the United States, Britain or Australia, or whatever, there’s a lot of movement by Orthodox Christians between these Churches. Is that going to increase or is it going to decrease?”
Papanikolaou said he’ll watch the Putin/Russian Orthodox alliance, which intensified after the 2011 election, a Russian foreign policy that he thinks will continue, as the Russian government sees the use of the Church to extend Russian presence. An example: the huge new Russian cathedral in Paris which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but is just a symbol, as there are almost no Russians in Paris. There are varieties of forces in the Russian Orthodox Church, all kinds of trajectories within the Russian Orthodox states, he said, “There are really wonderful, faithful people carrying out work on the ground, and extremely conservative elements that want to see the Czar back and don’t like Putin.
An “optimist,” Demacopoulos added, “We should remember that after the Fall of Constantinople the Orthodox Church was primarily under occupation for the most part, and that at some point before the Czars emerged, the Russians were in that situation. And after the Ottomans came the Communists. Only now are these Churches pretty much free. It’s only been since 1991, not a long time in the arc of history. Now there are new situations, new questions, new challenges.” He suggested that the Ukrainian situation “might actually force the hand of the Orthodox Churches to figure out ways to solve problems, cooperate with each other, and perhaps get past nationalism. The responses from other Churches are good and indicative; they’re not really supporting either side. I think they’re trying to raise questions, nuance the situation, and perhaps push everybody towards procedures and mechanisms that will maybe resolve these things.”
“You sort of have to make your peace with the fact that there are always going to be institutional issues that intersect with ethnic and national interests in every space, and there are always going to be conflicts,” said Papanikolaou. “I think the Church is trying to work now on drawing on its counciliary model as a way of dealing with some of these conflicts on a global level finally, in a post-Ottoman, post-Communist context.”