On February 21, 2019 His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch responded to the letter from His Beatitude Patriarch John X sent on December 31, 2018 calling on him to convoke a synaxis of the primates of the autocephalous Orthodox churches in order to examine the Ukrainian issue and find a Pan-Orthodox solution to it. His Holiness states that “after four Orthodox churches, without reason from an ecclesiological and theological point of view, refused to be present during the work of the Great and Holy Council, for which there is no excuse– and your ancient church was one of them– the Ecumenical Patriarchate has good reason to refrain from such a meeting at the Pan-Orthodox level, which would be useless inasmuch as it would only lead to agreement that the participants are in disagreement with each other.” (From Notes on Arab Orthodoxy).
Readers of my long-neglected blog may recall the Ecumenical Patriarch’s unilateral recognition of a new Orthodox Church for the country of Ukraine, and going back further, the abortive “Great and Holy Council” which the Patriarch attempted to call in 2016. With respect to the former, imagine the American Antiochians doing an end-run around their Patriarch, +John X, and getting +Bartholomew in Istanbul to declare an independent American Orthodox Church. Greatly simplified, that’s what happened with Ukraine motivated, as it now appears, in no small part by the Local Churches’ slight of the Ecumenical Patriarch in 2016. The letter is astonishingly curt and vindictive; Church-speak, like diplomat-speak, is as a rule very rigorously and subtly couched. This letter is the ecclesial equivalent of an Eff You.
Unfortunately, this is a pretty big deal. Moscow is out of communion with Constantinople over Ukraine. Antioch is out of communion with Jerusalem over the latter’s incursion into its territories (over which she appealed, and was ignored, by Constantinople). The canonical Ukrainian Church (the Metropolitanate which answers to Moscow) will soon be outlawed leading to seizure of properties and further escalations on all sides, with the Local Churches inevitably forced into a public stand and, hence, more schisms. The conciliar model is blowing up, thanks to Hellenistic bigots and a Muscovite Patriarch who, with justification, regards the See of Constantinople as functionally vacant but, in his own turn, would very much like to be considered the Third Rome. At the end of the day of course, the Patriarch of Moscow is the one with the sanction of the nuclear-armed Russian state, and the Ecumenical Patriarch lives in a Greek ghetto in Turkey. If you have to remind people of your primacy, as +Bartholomew persists in reminding everyone, you don’t really have it.
I cannot even begin to describe the contrivances our archaic, ethnically tangled ecclesiology has created for itself in the modern world. Yet I am told repeatedly, vehemently, under penalty of excommunication, that even the faintest expression of ethno-nationalism is just the worst sin of all sins that any sinner can ever sin. “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek,” as St. Paul puts it. Now, the first part is undoubtedly true as I’m aware of exactly one Orthodox of Jewish ancestry in my area, but I have sat in the conference room of a Greek cathedral and heard a prominent congregant remark to Christians of English, Syrian, Palestinian, and Russian descent that “Christianity is Hellenistic.” I also observe that, day in and day out, every single Orthodox bishop and priest of the so-called diaspora Churches in the Americas and Europe is in violation of the 1872 Council.
To my observation, the most salient and consistent feature of the historical Church has been the evolutionary wedding of Her liturgy and hierarchy to the local culture. I have read that the earliest schisms, resulting in the venerable Coptic, Armenian and Assyrian Churches, were motivated in part by antipathy to Byzantine supremacists. The Germanics peeled off with Luther and Calvin from Rome. The only French Pope moved the See to Avignon, and the King of the British Isles quite easily if heretically slipped the leash of a Pope several months’ journey away. (What would Western Christianity look like if the Roman Patriarch had prudentially granted autocephaly to the nations of Europe and Britain rather than try to run everything from the Italian peninsula?)
There is an old English Catholic hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers,” which seems to capture the prevailing sentiment of peoples everywhere quite well. If our beatitudinous Patriarchs are nationalistic–even, dare I say, imperialistic–then our shopworn “neither Jew nor Greek” dictum has to be an answer to some different question. I wish our bishops would get around to asking it but like I say, the more they have to deal with jurisdictional battles the less time they have to lecture us on immigrants and global warming.
Forgiveness Sunday and the beginning of Great Lent approaches. Let us pray for forgiveness, and the state of Christ’s Church and the World.