New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Nationalism has posed the most serious challenge to the Orthodox Church’s traditional system of governance. In the last two centuries, the Orthodox churches in several newly created nation-states predominantly or heavily Orthodox (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, etc.) have been granted “autocephaly”, or authority over their own affairs (except in matters of doctrine) within their respective national boundaries. Now a dispute has broken out between the two largest Orthodox countries, Russia and Ukraine (united under the Soviet umbrella until the fall of Communism) over whether the Ukrainian church should be autocephalous.
The Russian Patriarchate holds that its jurisdiction extends over the Ukrainian church and that granting it autocephaly is only Moscow’s prerogative. But the Patriarch of Constantinople, or “Ecumenical” Patriarch, claiming that it has always had de jure authority over the Ukrainian church, granted it autocephaly in October 2018 despite Russian objections. Reporting on this recently, the New York Times ran an article titled, “A New Historic Schism?”
“Ukraine is 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,” said Professor George E. Demacopoulos in the HALC-sponsored conversation, “A New Historic Schism?” at the Consulate General of Greece in New York on February 27.
“A New Historic Schism?” a conversation with Professor Demacopoulos and Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou about the tensions between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Moscow over Ukraine was introduced by Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs of HALC (Hellenic American Leadership Council). The event was part of HALC’s Politics on the Rocks series, which offers access to the insight of individuals who are working directly on issues or are experts in their fields. George E. Demacopoulos is Professor of Theology and Fr. John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University. Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou is a Professor of Theology and the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, and Senior Fellow at the Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion. They are Co-Directors of the Orthodox Christian Studies Program at Fordham University.
The issue of the autocephaly of Ukraine “speaks to a lot of us, especially to those involved in the Church, and is something about which there is a lot of misinformation,” said Davelis, “Getting to the bottom of it and getting the facts from experts” was the purpose of the evening’s discussion.
Demacopoulos explained that in the Orthodox world there is a very long history of self-governing Churches that were united sacramentally (for baptisms communion, etc.), their self-governing traditions going back at least to the 4th century. “In the ancient world those divisions were simply the geographies pf provisional boundaries in the Roman Empire, having absolutely nothing to do with a concept of a nation or with cultural identity. When cultural groups began to break away from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, however, and there was an explosion of the concept of the nation state, a nation state that worked and developed and grew with this notion of self-government was imagined. People agitating for a nation state took this notion of an autocephalous Church and used it as a vehicle to achieve national sovereignty.” It worked both ways, he said, “the people in charge of the Church got independence out of that and the agitators for nationhood got something out of it because it was a vehicle behind which to coalesce.”
There was a problem: Orthodox canon law doesn’t anticipate this concept of the nation. “Orthodox canon law was produced in an empire, where political feeling was homogenous, so the canons don’t rightly speak to that kind of situation and that kind of problem, nor do they really speak to what you really do when the boundaries of nation states switch, and one group wants to forge their own Church. Ukraine is 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.”
Ukraine is a flashpoint for two reasons, he said. First, if Ukraine was to have its own Church it would immediately be the second largest Church in the Orthodox world, depriving the Russian Church of approximately 45 % of its parishes. A Lithuanian or Estonian Church, or a Church in the Czech Republic would not have this impact of causing big problems or big-deal political shifts. “There have been Ukrainians asking for independence for 100 years. The Bolshevik Revolution squashed that, and then when the Soviet Union fell apart these issues suddenly emerged. For a variety of reasons that my colleague Professor Papanikolaou actually knows better, people petitioned the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople to grant autocephaly… there’s a tradition and soft precedent today that he has the authority to do so. Ukrainians have been asking him to do so for 20 years, and now he has. Along with a variety of other issues.
One of the consequences of this is that the Patriarch of Moscow has broken communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch. What that technically means is that if you are a member of the Russian Church you cannot receive the sacraments in a church attached to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, nor will the sacraments be granted to members of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Russia. Technically that’s what that means—it doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening. So technically, the New York Times is wrong,” Demacopoulos concluded, “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 article will be continued in the next issue.
HALC podcast episode with Professor Demacopoulos go to: https://thegreekcurrent.simplecast.fm/4747fd95
Article by Professor Papanikolaou go to: https://publicorthodoxy.org/2019/02/19/i-am-a-traditionalist-therefore-i-am/
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