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A Catholic looking at the present confrontation between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Moscow over the Orthodox Church in Ukraine might well conclude that there is something to be said for a church covering many different nations with a unified hierarchy culminating in a single unquestioned (at least in principle) head.

The Orthodox Church by contrast claims to be 'conciliar' - that is that its authoritative decisions are arrived at by councils of the whole church who issue clear, legally binding 'canons'. But the only councils universally recognised as authoritative are the seven (or eight) 'ecumenical councils' held in the first Christian millennium while there was still a more or less coherent Roman Empire with an Emperor based, from the fourth century onwards, in Constantinople.

In principle there were five self governing - 'autocephalous' - churches in the Empire, churches with their own patriarchs - Old Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, New Rome (Constantinople) and Jerusalem. A council could be said to represent the whole church when all the patriarchs were represented. At the moment of the conversion of Constantine, in the Council of Nicaea (325) there were only three patriarchates - Old Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Constantinople was made a patriarchate in the second ecumenical council (381) immediately assuming a dominant position as centre of the Empire. Then in 451 the main stream of the Patriarchate of Alexandria split away, forming what we call the 'Coptic' (Egyptian) church. A new but much smaller and weaker patriarchate in communion with Constantinople was formed. At the same council Jerusalem, previously under Antioch, was made a patriarchate.

But in the seventh century Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem all fell, first to the Persians then to the Muslims, and were no longer part of the Empire. In the ninth century frictions between the papacy (Old Rome - now turning to the new Germanic Empire forming in the West on the basis of peoples who had never been fully part of the Roman Empire) and New Rome resulted in two rival 'ecumenical councils', both held in Constantinople, the first (869-70) recognised in the West, the second (879-80) recognised in the East. Thereafter Old Rome managed to organise Germans, Goths, Vikings and some Slavs into its own more or less unified 'Catholic' Church, while New Rome organised mainly Slavs - Bulgarians, Serbs, Russians (Vikings again) - into its own more or less unified 'Orthodox' Church.


The whole area of Orthodoxy however succumbed to Muslim and - in the case of Rus', based initially in Kiev - Mongol ('Tatar') rule. Kievan Rus' then came under Polish Catholic domination while, in the fifteenth century, as Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy broke free of Mongol rule and began the fraught process of creating the Russian Empire. In the seventeenth/eighteenth century, as the result of a Cossack revolt, it incorporated the eastern part of what is now called 'Ukraine' (based on the Slav word for 'borderlands'), including Kiev, securing more territory to the West of Kiev through the partitions of Poland (between Russia, Austria and Prussia) at the end of the eighteenth century 

So from the thirteenth to the seventeenth/eighteenth centuries, Kievan Rus' had little or no connection with Muscovite Rus'. The extreme Western part of what is now Ukraine - Galicia - was incorporated in the Austrian Empire through the eighteenth century Polish partitions. It was returned to Polish rule after the Great War and only became part of the Russian Empire/Soviet Union first through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, then through Stalin's victory over Hitler. This is today, understandably enough, the area where hostility to all things Russian is strongest.

Initially after Constantinople fell to the Muslims, the Russian Church reorganised itself without reference to the Patriarch of Constantinople, with the Grand Prince of Muscovy proclaiming himself as 'Tsar' (i.e. Caesar) and therefore as a legitimate continuation of the Roman Imperial system. It was only in the sixteenth century (1589) that a Patriarch of Moscow was established with the blessing of Constantinople. But it was suppressed by Tsar Peter ('The Great') in 1721 (effectively in 1700 when the last patriarch died and Peter declined to replace him) and replaced by a Synod of Bishops controlled initially by the Tsar but eventually by a 'procurator', a lay government official appointed by the Tsar. The resemblance to the Church of England is not accidental. The patriarchate created in 1917 after the abdication of the Tsar and immediately before the Bolshevik takeover could quite legitimately be regarded as a new institution agreed by a council of the Russian Church with only a minimal nod, if that, in the direction of Constantinople, itself in a perilous position after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople could be said to have been strengthened administratively by incorporation into the Ottoman Empire since it was now in a single polity with the territories that had been lost to it by the steady advance of the Muslims and the Ottomans were anxious to have a simplified, unified Christendom in their territories with a clearly designated 'head'. But it was tightly controlled by the Sultanate and widely accused of serving the financial interests of the Greek community in Constantinople more than religion. In the nineteenth century, as the Christian parts of the Empire, starting with Greece, claimed their independence, they made their own church arrangements, regarding Constantinople as necessarily a tool of Turkish policy with very little moral authority (the real spiritual authority in the Church was probably the monastic island of Athos). As a result we have a Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, a Serbian Orthodox Church, a Romanian Orthodox Church. This, together with the Russian Orthodox Church, not to mention the Ukrainian, creates a chaotic situation in non-Orthodox countries where each of the ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions will have its own churches responsible to its own hierarchy. They are usually in communion with each other and with both Moscow and Constantinople and follow more or less the same ritual pattern - except for a division over which calendar to use. Constantinople in 1923 adopted what it calls the 'Reformed Julian calendar' - which happens to coincide with the Western 'Gregorian' calendar with a difference of dates only occurring after 877 years. This was partly done with a view to establishing closer relations with the Anglican Church at a time when the patriarch was looking to England for defence against the resurgent Turkish national movement. The Slavs in general remained faithful to the Julian calendar.