Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Ukraine Issues – A Short Primer on the Present Church Crisis
As most people are aware from the broader Orthodox Media, there are Church issues in Ukraine that have caused a rift between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate. I had hoped to address this in the sermon on Sunday, September 16, but I overlooked this. Perhaps this was providential, but in any case I ask your forgiveness for my oversight. Nature abhors a vacuum, and this is especially true in situations like this. The last thing that I want, as your Rector, is for this situation to go unaddressed. We need to talk about this. I hope this venue will provide us a fruitful opportunity to do that.
The Russian Church has made significant efforts to not politicize the situation in Ukraine. I will do my best to do the same here. Given the emotional situation surrounding this question, and the abject misbehavior by several players in this unfortunate drama, it may seem that simply by reporting the facts I am being political. This is not true and not my intention. I urge you to discuss this situation with me if you are concerned – I am happy to talk with anyone about this further. My goal here is to inform our parish about this situation, keep us strongly united as a parish family, and keep this latest problem from impacting us in any negative way.
The issues with the Church in Ukraine are not political in nature, at least from the point of view of the Russian Orthodox Church. In short, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, asked Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in April 2018 to examine the Orthodox Church situation in Ukraine and to grant autochephaly to the Ukrainian Church. This seems quite inconsequential on its face, except that this is a Church question – not a political question. The fact that the present government in Ukraine is uncomfortable with the Ukrainian Church being part of the Moscow Patriarchate is completely without merit in this situation. Or at least President Poroshenko’s concerns are not more consequential than the opinion of any other Orthodox Christian in this regard. Not invalid, but not more more valid than any other lay member of the Orthodox Church. Every bishop in the Ukrainian Church – every single one – voted to maintain the status quo, that is, that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remain a self-governing part of the Russian Orthodox Church. From the Church point of view that is the end of the question. In the 2000-year history of the Church autocephaly has NEVER been imposed on a Local Church that was not requesting it. Doing nothing would further peace and concord among the Orthodox flock of Ukraine and among the other Orthodox Local Churches (Serbians, Russians, Georgians, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, etc.). Every Local Orthodox Church other than the Patriarchate of Constantinople has come out in favor of maintaining the status quo – every one.
Sadly, however, this has done nothing to dissuade the Patriarchate of Constantinople from pursuing a course in abject deviation from historical precedent and the canons of the Church. That is – historical precedent and the canons of the ORTHODOX Church. The actions of the Constantinople Church are, however, in complete cooperation with the historical precedent of the Roman Catholic Church. In essence, the Patriarch of Constantinople seems to see himself as an Eastern Pope, a super-essential bishop who is above his brother bishops and Patriarchs and not bound by the canons or historical precedence of the Church. Exactly as the Roman Catholic Church understands the Pope of Rome. This is completely without precedent in the history of the Orthodox Church. Last week the Patriarch of Constantinople appointed two bishops for Ukraine. This is in direct violation of the established Church Canons and the history of Orthodox Christianity. This is novel, and this is what makes this such an issue. The Constantinople Church has NO standing in Ukraine – none whatsoever. If the Orthodox as a whole accepts this decision we essentially accept that we are no longer the Orthodox Church, that all canons and historical precedents are of less importance than the whims of one of our bishops. We will have created a Pope along the lines of the Roman Catholic Pope and jettisoned 2000 years of the practices of the Holy Church. And that is simply not acceptable. The Orthodox Church has always had a conciliar principle. All bishops are equal. All must follow the canons. All must work within the boundaries of their dioceses and not interfere in the dioceses of their brother bishops.
Sadly, this is not the first time the Constantinople Church has sought to take advantage of a chaotic political situation in this way. This statement of the Holy Synod from its extraordinary session on September 14 provides helpful background in this regard. This can be found below. But this latest action of Constantinople seems to be one step too far – the other Orthodox Churches are not willing to accept this deviation, and this historical/canonical stand has led us to the present impasse.
Metropolitan Onuphry, the canonical Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recently gave an interview in which he “calls on the people of Ukraine to fear nothing, to preserve the purity of the Orthodox faith, and to live with God.” You can find that interview here below.
The main issue that could potentially influence our lives as Orthodox Christians here in Washtenaw County is our existing excellent relationship with our local St. Nicholas parish of the Constantinople Church. Before our reconciliation with the greater Russian Church our relationship with St. Nicholas’ was excellent. It has continued to be excellent. And I feel that it must continue to be excellent. Our bishops have not asked us to get involved in this situation other than asking us for our prayers. There are no sanctions being imposed beyond the episcopal level. Therefore I feel it is artificial and inappropriate for us to decide to impose sanctions of any sort on our own. There is a dispute at the episcopal level – we are to leave the dispute at that level. And pray for our bishops – that this crisis can be quickly and appropriately resolved for the good of the Holy Church.
We will end this conversation as we started it: as with any crisis in the world, in the Church, or in our families, our first reaction as Orthodox Christians should be prayer. And sobriety. Sober prayer to the Lord that He help us to work through the crisis at hand and to grow spiritually during the time of the crisis. If we can solve the problem then we should try to do that. If not – then we should ask the Lord to solve it in a way that is best for the salvation of all involved. But we should not lose our peace. We end with this because keeping one’s peace is a real challenge in emotional situations – let us ask the Lord’s help in this regard in light of the present crisis in the Church.
Let us put our hand to the plow, so to speak, in this regard. Let us pray for the peaceful and fruitful resolution of this crisis. Very few of us are going to receive a call from either Patriarch Kyrill or Patriarch Bartholomew asking us to get involved in the resolution of this problem. So let us entreat God that He help us. With God’s help everything is possible. I call upon all our parishioners to add to their daily prayer rule the Prayer for Peace in Ukraine that we have been reading at every Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir’s for some years now. You can find that prayer here:
Prayer for Peace in Ukraine
Our part is prayer. Not gossip. Not criticism. Not condemnation. Not sharing our own “wisdom” with others. Not doing ANYTHING to lead our brothers and sisters into temptation, but quietly, lovingly, praying for a peaceful and authentically Orthodox solution to this crisis. Less talk. More action (that is, the action of prayer). May the Lord help us, and may He grant peace and salvation to the long-suffering Orthodox people of Ukraine!