Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reason #78 Why I'm not Patriarch of Moscow

At that time, namely in the year 988, under the rule of prince Vladimir, this newly-founded Church of Russia was placed under the canonical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, in application of the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council.
--Abp. IRENAIOS of Crete, Head of the Delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, from his address given at the enthronement of Pat. KIRILL of Moscow

As a newbie to Orthodoxy, I may be way off base here, but this seems like a gratuitous citation of the canon, and a rather insulting one to be made at the enthronement of the new Patriarch. "Congratulations . . . look forward to working with you . . . by the way, I'm right and you're wrong."

Now, for those who might not know, relations between the Ecumenical Patriarch--that's the bishop of Constantinople--and the Patriarch of Moscow have been strained in recent years, to say the least. It's got to the point that their delegations literally cannot be in the same room with each other at what are supposed to be joint theological dialogs between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. I'm not going to try to explain all of the ins and outs of the dispute. I probably don't understand it well enough myself, and I suspect it would bore most readers.

But a major point of contention in their relationship is precisely the "application of the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council." Yes, that Fourth Ecumenical Council--the one that articulated and defended the doctrine of two natures of Christ. The Ecumencial Councils were called primarily to address major Christological issues, but while they were at it, they also dealt with more practical concerns of Church life in their time. Canon 28, if I may attempt a rough summary, re-affirmed the Ecumenical (imperial) status and prerogatives of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Included in his responsibilities was the ordination of bishops in certain areas listed in the canon. The controversial part deals with "bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians." Recent Ecumenical Patriarchs have contended that this means their jurisdiction automatically extends to any "barbaric" area where an independent Orthodox Church is not already established. Moscow Patriarchs (and others) have preferred a more limited reading of the canon--that it applied to the specific territories mentioned and the specific political circumstances of the Empire.

The practical outcome of these competing interpretations is that Constantinople claims jurisdiction in a particular area because of the canon, while Moscow claims jurisdiction in the same area because of history and common sense. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th c., around the same time that Moscow was coming into its own as capital of the Russian Empire. Over the next four centuries or so, Orthodox existence was largely defined by these two Empires. Russia became the default protector of Orthodoxy in many parts of the world, and missionary activity of the Russian Church pushed eastward, all the way into North America. Around the beginning of the 20th c., things changed dramatically, when both Empires collapsed. Waves of emigration from various parts of the Orthodox world brought different ethnic groups into closer contact, far removed geographically from their home churches. Waves of nationalism also swept through the states newly freed from imperial rule, with often controversial claims of ecclesiastical independence. As it suffered under Communism, the Russian Church could no longer oversee much of what it had in the past. At the same time, as Orthodox fled the historic territory of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the new, secular government of Turkey took an even more hostile stance than that of the Ottoman Empire, the Patriarch looked to the Greek Diaspora in the West for strength.

Today, Orthodoxy in the West is a patchwork of ethnic jurisdictions. Vestiges of the multinational administrations set up by Imperial Russia no longer have a real claim on territorial unity. Constantinople has had little success convincing anyone of its canonical claims, but it retains control of the populous Greek churches and thus champions the status quo of divided, ethnic structures. Meanwhile, in the post-Communist bloc, fragmenting states and overblown nationalism make fertile ground for schism. Those who fear the West cling to their associations with Moscow, including church jurisdiction; those who fear Russia are quick to set up their own independent churches, either by simply striking out on their own (without recognition from any other Orthodox church) or by appealing to Constantinople.

One bright spot in all of this came a few months back at the anniversary celebration of Orthodoxy in Kiev. There, competing churches abound, but so far the Ecumenical Patriarch has refused to endorse any of them. Instead, he and the Patriarch of Moscow concelebrated, and disaster was averted.

I digress, but hopefully it's of some use to show what a slap this citation of canon 28 could be. I would guess that Pat. KIRILL expected no less and let it go by. He has decades of experience working with other churches, so I can't imagine there's much that would surprise him. The Western press, when it has paid any attention at all to the election and enthronement of the new Patriarch, has mostly been interested in what it means for relations between Russian Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church. Personally, I'm much more interested in what it means for relationships within Orthodoxy--specifically, for that between Moscow and Constantinople. It's a very complicated situation, and I don't profess to understand it fully or to have any substantive answers. But it's a sad testimony to the ways that human fear and pride upset the unity of Christ, and I pray every day that resolution will come quickly.

1 comment:

  1. A really good post. IRENAIOS's citation at the enthronement does seem a little snarky. Can churches grow and mature beyond what was set administratively in a Council? Yes, but only when MY favorite ethnicity or jurisdiction likes it.

    There is a real sense of entitlement that shows through when bishops talk about jurisdictional issues and Orthodox unity. It seems every jurisdiction deserves to be over something it does not currently have. Because we're always arguing about it, the only bishop that actually enlarges his fold is the Roman Pope.

    Some would trade the pastoral needs of the people for a historically "proper" arrangement and some bishops want one ethnicity to be totally within their fold altogether. Heck some even want *all* ethnicities and jurisdictions in their fold (but all writings, practice, and commentary subject to the judgment of their particular ethnicity, of course).

    Which Council issues are most important? Which administrative decisions are okay to change? You can't really draw a clear line because sometimes an outward arrangement comes about for real spiritual reasons. I have come to believe that the most important issues are the ones that more closely affect my icon corner. I hope that makes sense.