Navigating the Schism as a Layman

January 3, 2020 in Church Affairs

Christ is born!

It has been a bit over a year since most turbulent parts of the schism pertaining to Ukraine occurred. The ship that is the Orthodox Church is finally in some quieter waters, but we are certainly still in dangerous territory. Various hierarchs have been making their decisions to commemorate the new Ukrainian metropolitan, rocking the boat and leading to further hostilities amongst our bishops.

There’s that keyword, bishops. We aren’t bishops, we’re laymen. What are we to do as our spiritual heads argue and navigate these frightful waters? It’s scary! We feel paralyzed from what’s going on, we don’t have a say in their decisions! How do we, as laymen, understand what’s going on and where we’re headed?!

As an outsider in the OCA, I want to provide my insights to the schism in the hope of helping others understand. Here in the West, there’s a large expanse between us and them, making us even more lost as to what’s going on. It is my hope to help calm the hype and panic of some who are uncertain, maybe feeling hopeless about the situation.

This article will follow three main ideas: where we are, how we got here, and what we can do.

Where are we?

At this point, the schism’s hype has subsided. While the Russian Orthodox Church (and ROCOR) have severed Eucharistic communion with the whole of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the initial stab wound is healing. The schism has not been mended in any sense, but the pain and shock of it has gone down. We realize that we’re okay and we can still carry on. We’ve regained our internal stability and hope for the future where we become reunited.

The Church of Greece and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria has chosen to recognize the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and to commemorate their metropolitan, Epiphaniy (Dumenko). In response, the Russian Orthodox Church has ceased to commemorate their primates (Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, respectively). However, unlike with Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church has not declared full severance in communion with these churches.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, like many churches, has remained in want of a pan-Orthodox council, which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has rejected, as over half the Church did not attend the June 2016 “Holy and Great Council” in Crete.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem has attempted to get things moving, inviting the primates of all Orthodox churches to a “fraternal gathering in love”[1] in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This move has been supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia thus far. The Church of Greece has rejected it, saying that only the Ecumenical Patriarch can convene such a council. The Patriarch agrees, which is why he specifically used “fraternal gathering in love” and stated that he honors the Ecumenical Patriarch’s supposed prerogative in convening councils. Confusing…

How did we get here?

This is the fun section of the article, where we reveal the complexity of the schism. I’ll attempt my best to explain it as briefly as possible.

On October 11th, 2018, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided that it wanted to pursue the establishment of an autocephalous (that is, independent) Orthodox church in Ukraine. Most of the technicalities around this can be ignored. What is important to keep in mind is that the Ecumenical Patriarchate had issued a letter to the Patriarch of Moscow in 1686 pertaining to Ukraine and that the Ecumenical Patriarchate wished to achieve this by uniting the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate, both formerly schismatic and excommunicated groups. There’s a third detail that we will get into later.

In the letter issued to Moscow, differing conclusions are drawn by both parties. The Russian Church claims that the letter transferred the jurisdiction of the Metropolis of Kyiv (Ukraine) from Constantinople to Moscow. While Constantinople claims that it was merely a temporary situation where the Church of Russia was to ordain the metropolitan of Kyiv for an unspecified amount of time, a decision that they claim was hastily done on account of historical circumstance. What we can understand as laymen is that some sort of transferring of authority occurred where Moscow became responsible for the affairs in Ukraine, whether it was temporary or permanent is a matter of debate.

In order to achieve the goal of a new autocephalous Ukrainian Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided to lift the excommunications of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), two groups that had both schismed from the (then) canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). Their primates were excommunicated and the status quo was that these churches were both schismatic with no value to them.

While lifting of excommunication is nothing novel, the contention lies in how the schismatics were received. Instead of a typical procedure in vesting the ordained schismatics, the seemingly simple wave of a hand is what changed these once schismatics into canonical deacons, priests, and bishops. We hear nothing of a standard procedure of reception for these groups, which is rather confusing given our strictness toward canonical tradition.

The third detail is the prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. There are certain “givens” that the Ecumenical Patriarch claims to have, and some others agree. According to the OrthodoxWiki, these prerogatives are as follows:

  1. Equality with [Old] Rome.
  2. The right to hear appeals, upon request.
  3. The right to ordain bishops in areas outside canonical boundaries.
  4. The right to establish stavropegial monasteries wheresoever they desire.

Here’s the sources that the EP claims to have these abilities from, respectively:

  1. Canon 3 of the Second Council of Constantinople, Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, and Canon 36 of the Council of Trullo.
  2. Canons 9 and 17 of the Council of Chalcedon.
  3. Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon.
  4. The Epanagoge, a book of Byzantine law in existence around 886.

While a portion of these sources are understood and accepted by the Orthodox Church as a whole, there are two that are not, that of Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon and the Epanagoge.

Canon Confusion

Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon states as follows:

Following in all things the decisions of the holy Fathers, and acknowledging the canon, which has been just read, of the One Hundred and Fifty Bishops beloved-of-God (who assembled in the imperial city of Constantinople, which is New Rome, in the time of the Emperor Theodosius of happy memory), we also do enact and decree the same things concerning the privileges of the most holy Church of Constantinople, which is New Rome. For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city. And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious Bishops, actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges (ἴσα πρεσβεῖα) to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honoured with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her; so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople; every metropolitan of the aforesaid dioceses, together with the bishops of his province, ordaining his own provincial bishops, as has been declared by the divine canons; but that, as has been above said, the metropolitans of the aforesaid Dioceses should be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after the proper elections have been held according to custom and have been reported to him.

Let’s go piece by piece through this.

the One Hundred and Fifty Bishops beloved-of-God (who assembled in the imperial city of Constantinople, which is New Rome, in the time of the Emperor Theodosius of happy memory)

In the final session of the council of Chalcedon, where the canons were read, it is noted that the delegation to the Pope of Rome had left early on. Whether they anticipated something like this occurring, who knows, but what we do know is that the canonical primus’ delegation was not present for the declaration of this council. Later, when St. Pope Leo the Great received word of these canons, he agreed to all of them but this particular canon. The Patriarch of Constantinople in response wrote a letter disavowing the canon, acting as though he had no part in it.

so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople

The EP understands this to mean that anywhere outside an existing canonical boundary is theirs to administer and ordain bishops for. A territorial “first dibs”, if you will. This is also the motivation why the autocephaly of the OCA is not recognized, for example.

For a while, this canon fell into obscurity after Pope Leo rejected it and Constantinople started pretending it never existed. Until around the 1920s when Patriarch Meletius IV (Metaxakis) of Constantiople (1921-1923) started to use the canon as a defense when the Ecumenical Patriarchate assumed the jurisdiction of the Greek Archdiocese in America, then belonging to the Church of Greece. Since then, we find the canon used consistently to lay claim to “barbarian lands” (those not of an existing jurisdiction).

In my findings, this is the canon that determines the Ecumenical Patriarch’s authority. If it isn’t a valid canon, then the EP lacks the abilities it claims. If it is, then it only logically follows that the EP does these things. However, the Church cannot decide. Those in favor of the EP will say that he definitely has authority through these canons, while others will say that this canon should’ve remained in obscurity like it has in history up until this point.

Finally, the Epanagoge was a book of law in the Byzantine Empire and given how close the government and the patriarchate were, it is somewhat logically sound. However, the Byzantine Empire does not exist anymore, and this book was actually withdrawn from official use not long after its publication. I haven’t read anything about this being used as an actual argument for the EP’s prerogatives, but you can at least understand where influence could come in.

The Creation of the OCU

The creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was done via unification council convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, presided by Metropolitan Emmanuel of France. Both the UAOC and UOC-KP were on board with this, seeking to dissolve themselves in a sort of “merge” into this new autocephalous church. In the unification council, they elected as primate Metropolitan Epiphaniy (Dumenko) of Pereyaslav and Bila Tserkva, then part of the UOC-KP.

Mission complete, right? Done and done… so they thought. While the UAOC was entirely on board with unification, the head of the UOC-KP started having second thoughts. You see, Filaret (Denysenko) was the “Patriarch” of the UOC-KP and because of this unification, he was merely a “honorary patriarch.” Metropolitan Epiphany de jure and de facto is the head of the OCU, he merely chooses to give Filaret a say in how it would be ran.

However, this wasn’t enough for Filaret. The authority he once enjoyed in the UOC-KP is now reduced to a mere nicety in the OCU. Not only this, but Filaret felt that the OCU was made to be dependent on the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the OCU’s tomos of autocephaly (read: letter of independence), as the OCU is objectively dependent on the EP for things like Holy Chrism (the anointing oil for the reception of converts, etc.). This wasn’t no real autocephaly or truly Ukrainian church, Filaret thought.

Thus, Filaret held a local “council” (only 2 bishops and a dozen priests were present). The council “abolished” the unification council. Filaret later stated that the UOC-KP will continue to exist as a third independent church. The Ukrainian government made a handful of moves to prevent any sort of usury on Filaret’s part. The OCU declared him a retired bishop with no jurisdiction and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said that he took the wrong path.

There’s an underlying irony to this situation. Epiphany was Filaret’s right-hand man, you can find him present in a significant portion of photos alongside him. Yet, I suppose being siblings in Christ is dependent on ecclesiastical titles, at least to Filaret.

What can we do?

The very obvious answer is obedience. Obedience to our priest, who is obedient to his bishop. We as laymen not only lack the authority to resolve Church conflict, we also lack the fundamental tools to do it. Unlike Protestantism, where schism is a pastime and part of life, we must stay where we are. Here in the West shouldn’t look to switch jurisdictions over this situation. After all, this is nothing new.

We should also avoid making hasty generalization and avoid slandering hierarchs and jurisdictions. We do not deal with the same struggles as them and we know nothing about their daily life. Insults or contempt toward our patriarchs and bishops is a sure way to put you down a dark path. The Church is divine and human, this is a very human situation. Unless you are ordained, keep your eyes on your own soul.

Finally, pray. Pray daily that God will mend the schism and bickering of the churches, that they may come to realize the futility of division and unite. There is only one faith, we should not squander it over borders.

Closing Thoughts

There are a few lingering questions on everyone’s mind:

  1. Who can give autocephaly?
  2. Does the EP rightfully have the authority it claims to have?

These questions are what need to be answered in a pan-Orthodox council. In such a council, clarifications need to be made on who has what authority, because it is not universally understood.

So here we are, biding our time and hoping something good happens. What happens from here is something only God knows, but we must find peace in the uncertainty. We live in a world where one moment we’re on the verge of war and another we want to get along. We simply need to pray and wait.

Hopefully, we may be one again.
- Seraphim