The Russian Orthodox Church has broken ties with Orthodoxy's leader. Here's what that's all about.
The Russian Orthodox Church has suspended Eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The decision was made at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on October 15 in Minsk. The stated reason for the suspension is the “anti-canonical actions of the Constantinople Patriarchate, which opened communication channels to schismatics in Ukraine and thereby encroached on the Russian Orthodox Church’s canonical territory.”
The Constantinople Patriarchate is the “first among equals” among the heads of the several autocephalous churches that make up the Eastern Orthodox Church. The official title of Patriarch Bartholomew is Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch. Sergey Chapnin, a church publicist and former executive editor of Moscow Patriarchate Magazine, told Meduza that all local Orthodox churches recognize the primacy of the Constantinople Patriarchate, including his right to overrule decisions by the heads of other local churches and to grant independence to new branches. “The only serious competition and appeals not to recognize Constantinople’s special status come from Moscow,” Chapnin says.
Breaking Eucharistic communion is nearly the last resort in inter-church relations. The split means that Russian Orthodox Church clergy will no longer be able to worship or perform ceremonies together with the the hierarchs and clerics of the Constantinople Patriarchate. Russian Orthodox Christians will no longer be able to take communion or participate in other sacraments at churches within the Constantinople Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. When Eucharistic communion is suspended, the patriarchs from the quarreling churches typically stop mentioning each other in prayer, though the Russian Orthodox Church implemented this measure before the final split: Patriarch Kirill already hasn’t mentioned Patriarch Bartholomew for a month. (Memorial prayer at Russian Orthodox churches has started with Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa Theodore II.)
The Russian Orthodox Church has drafted a list for tourists of all the churches where they can no longer pray. Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Archpriest Igor Yakimchuk has noted that Constantinople Patriarchate churches are located, in part, in Istanbul, Antalya, Crete, and on Rhodes. Yakimchuk also said that clergy will face disciplinary punishment for failing to observe the new prohibitions, and laypeople will be asked to confess and repent to disobeying the church.
The Russian Orthodox Church says Mount Athos is also now closed to Russian Orthodox Christians from Russia. Patriarch Kirill’s press secretary, priest Alexander Volkov, has pointed out that Mount Athos is in the Constantinople Patriarchate’s jurisdiction “with all the same consequences.” Mount Athos is a self-governing territory within Greece that includes 20 monasteries. The mountain is one of the holiest shrines in Christian Orthodoxy, which many pilgrims, including Christians from Russia, try to reach every year. The region is also a popular place for pilgrimages by Russian politicians, bureaucrats, and business people. Vladimir Putin has also visited twice: once in 2005 and again in 2016.
The Russian Orthodox Church has won support from the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Moscow-dependent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A spokesman for the church said Metropolitan Onufriy (the current head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church) “participated today in the meeting from start to finish, and — like all members of the Synod — supported its decision,” and its decision to align with the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In response, the Kyiv Patriarchate’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church called the Russian Orthodox Church’s move “self-isolation in retaliation for legal decisions by the world community.”
This isn’t the first time the Russian Orthodox Church has suspended relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate. In February 1999, the same Patriarch Bartholomew serving now announced that the Constantinople Patriarchate was adding the Estonian Orthodox Church to its jurisdiction. Three days later, the Russian Orthodox Church suspended Eucharistic communion with the Constantinople Patriarchate, but ties were reestablished after a few months, when everything was restored. Today there are two Estonian Orthodox churches, one controlled from Constantinople and the other from Moscow.
Moscow's conflict with Constantinople is thanks entirely to Ukraine. The biggest canonical Orthodox church in Ukraine is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The other two major Orthodox churches — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church — are independent, unrecognized by the Constantinople Patriarchate, and non-canonical. After the Maidan Revolution in 2014 and the war in eastern Ukraine, officials in Kyiv started talking more actively about the creation of a new canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church that would be autocephalous (independent). The Constantinople Patriarchate then agreed to grant autocephaly to the new church, which will be created on the foundation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and the joined parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which categorically opposes this initiative because it doesn’t want to lose its influence in Ukraine.