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The purpose of this whirlwind tour of Orthodox history has been to show that in terms of Church organisation, Orthodoxy is a mess so that in assessing the rights and wrongs of the Ukrainian Church controversy it is almost absurd to try to evoke any well established juridicial principle. That is what we have been given by our history and any attempt to change it is only likely to lead to further rancour and division. Constantinople thinks the problem can be resolved by establishing its own primacy as final court of appeal for the whole Orthodox world. The case for this on the basis of continuity from the earliest days of the Roman (Imperial) Church might be relatively strong. But the argument is entirely an intellectual one. The Patriarch, trapped in Istanbul, surrounded by a generally hostile Turkish population and with only a very small parish of his own, is in a weak position. Moscow, which could hardly on the basis of history establish any claim to universal jurisdiction, is nonetheless vastly more powerful in terms of resources and numbers of Orthodox believers scattered through the world.

As things stand (I am writing in December 2018) the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1990, in the last days of the Soviet Union, the then Moscow patriarch, Alexei II, gave a degree of 'independence in self government' to the UOC under its Metropolitan, Filaret. Filaret had been Archbishop of Kiev since 1966 and Metropolitan since 1968. He has been accused of being a KGB agent but that hardly distinguishes him from Alexei or his successor, the current Moscow Patriarch Kyrill. It was a necessary qualification for the job (as payment of large sums of money to the Turkish Sultan was a necessary qualification for the job of Patriarch of Constantinople under the Ottomans). In 1991 Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union and a 'sobor' (council) of the UOC declared the independence of the Ukrainian Church, with Filaret at its head, from Moscow. Moscow declared the new 'Kyiv patriarchate' to be schismatic and organised a separate loyalist synod in May 1992. This remained generally recognised as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the rest of the Orthodox world, including Constantinople, and it holds most of the important church properties in Ukraine. But Constantinople is now in the process of recognising the Kyiv patriarchate (or to be more precise a new church formed on December 15th 2018 from three elements - the Kyiv patriarchate, an older and much smaller Ukrainian autocephalous church and, perhaps, some elements from the Moscow church) as the legitimate Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thus implicitly reducing the existing Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the status of Russian Orthodox Church in the Ukraine. The necessary 'tomos' is due to be  given on the 6th January - Christmas Eve in the Julian calendar.


In doing this, Constantinople is asserting in the first case its right to do it. Constantinople claims to be the spiritual head of the world's three hundred million Orthodox Christians and thus to have sovereignty over Moscow. In particular it claims to have jurisdiction over all Orthodox Christians living outside the territory of their own hierarchs. Hence people in the Orthodox diaspora dissatisfied with their own hierarchs can turn to Constantinople. This has occurred recently in the Russian Orthodox Church in England when Bishop Basil of Sergievo, seen by many as the successor to the much loved Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, turned to Constantinople feeling ill treated by Moscow. He and his supporters joined up with the 'Paris exarchate' which had separated from the Communist dominated Moscow and been received by Constantinople in 1931. (1)

(1) For reasons I don't at present understand Bartholomew has recently dissolved this exarchate incorporating the Russian tradition churches into a potentially more unified local hierarchy. There are at least two other jurisdictions with independent hierarchies responsible to Constantinople - the two US based Ukrainian autocephalous churches which Constantinople has recognised since 1996. I assume they are united with their equivalents in Ukraine and will therefore now, like them, be united. I don't know if their parishes outside the US and Ukraine are now going to be incorporated into a unified system with other (mainly Greek) 'ecumenical patriarchate' parishes..

In the case of Bishop Basil and of the Paris exarchate, Constantinople's right to do this has not been very vigorously contested since in Western Europe both Moscow and Constantinople are operating outside 'their own' territory. Basil might equally have chosen to join the Serb or Bulgarian churches - except that they might not have accepted him because he was breaking the oath of allegiance he had sworn to Moscow. Only Constantinople would claim the right to override this. The Ukrainian issue is much more serious since Ukraine is traditionally an Orthodox country and Moscow claims that it is part of its own historical jurisdiction. Moscow also claims to be the legitimate successor of the original Kievan church established with the baptism of Rus' in the tenth century (so does the Kyiv patriarchate but here Moscow's claim to historic continuity, while perhaps not very strong, is nonetheless stronger than its rival's). 

One can immediately see why the issue is so important in the eyes of Ukrainian separatists. Each side of course claims that the other is playing politics. The issue is so serious that Moscow has broken communion with Constantinople thus potentially creating a world wide split in the (rather attractive) loose web of Orthodox sacramental unity. In Ukraine itself we can expect to see a concerted drive on the part of the newly formed church, backed by the government, to seize the properties currently in the hands of clergy loyal to Moscow - especially perhaps the older properties in existence prior to Ukraine coming under the Moscow jurisdiction. There is unlikely to be much of the discretion showed by the Irish Catholic Church in allowing the Anglican Church of Ireland to hang on to pre-Reformation properties in Ireland. 


The drive towards establishing an autocephalous Ukrainian Church independent of Moscow is of course backed by the US, and Bartholomew (the Constantinople Patriarch) has his own agenda. But I, as an Orthodox Christian sympathetic to Moscow, find it difficult to argue that what the Ukrainian separatists are doing in relation to Moscow is very different from what separatist Greeks, Serbs and Romanians did in the nineteenth century in relation to Constantinople. A similar problem had already arisen in Estonia where again Constantinople supported a nationalist breakaway from Moscow. That finished with an uneasy truce between two Estonian Orthodox Churches. The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC - already placed under Constantinople in 1923 when Estonia was an independent country) has some 20,000 believers in 59 parishes, while the Estonian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP) has some 150,000-200,000 believers, largely ethnic Russians, in 30 parishes. Those figures come from the 'International Religious Freedom Report' issued in 2003 by the US State Department, which takes an interest in such things. The Report is interesting on the subject of property relations, perhaps explaining the discrepancy by which the Moscow Church with so many more believers has so many fewer parishes:

'By the end of the reporting period, most church properties, including those being used by the EOCMP, have been under the legal control of the EAOC. Once the EOCMP registered and acquired the legal capacity of a juridical person, it then obtained the right to initiate court proceedings to gain de jure control over the properties that it has used on a de facto basis with the permission of the EAOC. On October 4, 2002, the Government and the two churches concluded a protocol of intentions according to which the EAOC would transfer a part of its property presently used by the EOCMP to the state. The state in turn will lease it to the EOCMP for 50 years. Aleksander Nevski Cathedral is owned by the city of Tallinn and rented out to its Russian Orthodox congregation on a several decade lease basis.'

We can assume from this that prior to independence all these church properties were owned by the EOCMP and that after independence they were all taken by the EAOC (which had been a church in exile during the Communist period).


Estonia of course is a predominately Lutheran, not Orthodox country. Perhaps some sort of accommodation between two 'Ukrainian Orthodox Churches' will be achieved but at present it seems unlikely. And it is certain that the present drive to suppress the Russian cultural heritage in Ukraine will do little to bring the pro-Russian Eastern areas of Luhansk and Donetsk back into the fold. One assumes they will hang on to their present ambiguous status until (as in the case of Georgia and Abkhazia/South Ossetia) a determined effort by the Ukrainians to seize them by force gives Moscow the justification for a decisive intervention. Unless both sides recognise the legitimacy of the other's position, we are facing the horrid prospect of something resembling the inter-Orthodox war that broke out between Greeks and Slavs in Macedonia during its struggle for independence from the Ottomans.