The Ugly Politics Of Orthodoxy [RodDreher]

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    The Ugly Politics Of Orthodoxy

    By Rod Dreher • September 7, 2018, 5:18 PM

    Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (paparazzza/Shutterstock)

    I was waiting to see something definite before posting about it, but I’m leaving tomorrow for Italy, and I’m afraid that it’ll happen while I’m on the book tour, and I will not have the opportunity to note it. So I’m going to post this here, because it’s important, and it probably won’t make the news in the US.

    Some background: Orthodox Christian ecclesiology is pretty much a confederacy of national churches, all believing the same things, and worshiping in the same way, but administered by national hierarchies. The Russian Orthodox Church is the Orthodox Church in Russia. The Greek Orthodox Church is the Orthodox Church in Greece. And so forth. They’re all normally in communion with each other. If you’re a Russian traveling in Greece, you can go to communion in a Greek Orthodox parish, no problem.

    It’s confusing to Americans, because we have so many different Orthodox churches here in the US. It’s not supposed to be that way, but that’s how it happened, with each immigrant group bringing its own hierarchy over. We’re supposed to have a single Orthodox church in our country, but it hasn’t happened, and might never happen. We’re all in communion with each other, though.

    That’s probably about to change, and for ugly reasons.

    The two great rival churches in Orthodoxy are the Greeks and the Russians. This goes back many centuries. In Orthodox ecclesiology, the Patriarch of Byzantium has historically been considered the first among equals. Orthodoxy does not have a pope; it’s ruled collegially, by synods. The Byzantine patriarch is more like the Archbishop of Canterbury in that way. After Byzantium fell to the Ottomans, the Moscow — the Russian church — became the de facto great power in world Orthodoxy. The Byzantine patriarch — now called the Ecumenical Patriarch — has continued on all these years as a figurehead. The current one, Bartholomew, lives in a small quarter in Istanbul. Unlike Moscow, he has no money, but he does have the power, by virtue of his office, to grant “autocephaly” — the right to self-rule — to national churches in communion with his See.

    (I have probably oversimplified this explanation. Forgive me. It’s complicated.)

    So, the crisis coming to a head right now threatens to split world Orthodoxy. Since Russia and Ukraine began fighting, a large number of Ukraine-based Orthodox parishes have wanted to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate and form a Ukrainian Orthodox patriarchate — a national church independent from Moscow. Moscow has fought this hard. For one, a huge number of parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church are in Ukraine. To lose them would be a big, big blow to Moscow. For another, Ukraine is the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy, in the 10th century. It is hard to overstate how much this means to Russian Orthodoxy, on an emotional and symbolic level.

    But if the breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox bishops ask the Ecumenical Patriarch for autocephaly, he can grant it — and, according to this report today, is moving very quickly to do that. If this happens, there will almost certainly be a schism between Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

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