The Russian Orthodox Church has officially broken ties with Constantinople's Ecumenical Patriarch in what might be one of the most important shifts in Orthodoxy for centuries.
Eastern Orthodoxy operates along a collegiate model for the various heads of churches. Patriarchate status involves a recognition of autocephaly, literally being one's own head. Unlike Rome, there is no single monarchical figure in Orthodoxy, even as various Orthodox churches have a single head, usually along national lines. Ukraine, having been a Russian dependent, and deeply entwined not only in Russia's European geopolitical footprint, but also in the history of Russia culturally and theologically, has been under the headship of Moscow.
It has only really been since the Nazi invasion that Ukrainian nationalism has picked up steam. During World War 2, many Ukrainians, especially in the western, aided the Nazi invasion. Avenging themselves of Stalin's famine and Soviet brutality, Ukrainians supported not only waging a war of liberation, but also involved themselves in the massacre of "slavs" and Jews. As Western news reporters are now finally, but reluctantly, realizing, most of the nationalist agitation for a European Ukraine has come from self-professing neo-Nazis, advocating for the purity of their white, European, race from the Eastern horde of Slavs and Jews. These are the same forces that US/NATO interests have supported in fomenting agitation against Russia, under the corporate marionette presidency of Poroshenko.
I'm not saying this to say that Russia is the good guy. They're their own bloodsoaked empire. But in the terms of geopolitics and the harsh world of realpolitik, Russia is the one trying to be cowed. The pro-Europe Ukrainian movement is, in its organizations and potency, mostly a gang of corporate crooks, deeply involved in the US military-financial complex, who've helped to fuel Ukrainian Nazism to serve as shock troops on the ground floor. Al Jazeera has become exceptionally neo-liberal in its outlook, so it's no surprise to see that they cite, almost as if a given, an analyst who "speculates" that the Orthodox Church is exercising some sort of political control over Ukrainians. It's insulting to the many Orthodox, Russian speaking, eastern Ukranians. The two countries have a far more complicated history than many Western news sources let on. Russia and Ukraine share a long-standing historical integration of cultural similarity and synthesis. The Mongols helped to shift the balance of influence from Kiev to the east when they burned the city to the ground in their conquest. Moscow, through treachery and craftiness, rose to become the supreme city, surpassing the far wealthier Novgorod, and overtaking Kiev's cultural patrimony. The urgent sense of nationalism has far more contemporary roots, a combination of Jesuit intrigue in seducing many in the western part to become a Uniate Church and Stalin's murderous famines. The Nazis helped Ukrainians find a nationalist consciousness.
As one might expect, the Russian Orthodox Church has deep ties to Russia as a national entity. The Josephites were one group within the medieval Russian Church who promulgated a more distinctly Russian theology against a more pan-Hellenist view. My title is a joke, I don't think the Josephites are back (certainly not their crude typological prophecies about Russia's glory). But I do think there's an intellectual turn back to the mystic-Slavic philosophies of the 19th century, typified in the success and rise of Alexandr Dugin and his rising Orthodox media empire. He's not quite Solovyev, neither in his odd genius nor his heterodoxy. But he's certainly a return to the blending of philosophy and theology in Church and nationality.
The Soviet era was a hard blow to the Russian Church. Officially banned, symbolically demonstrated in Stalin's demolition campaign, many Russian luminaries fled in the infamous Ship of Philosophers, that formed exile communities in Britain, France, and the United States. After Stalin, the Soviet Union eased up, allowing the Church to exist in state surveilled ghettos, and often resisted from various congregations in underground Orthodox communities. After the Soviet Union, the Church returned to clear visibility, still rocked from infighting and suspicion. The episode of Sergei Bulgakov's pseudo-heresy, with various churches in the name of patriarch giving conflicting judgements, is a show of it. However, with the rising star of Putin and his Tsar-like cult of personality and presidential authority, the Church has aligned itself with a revived Russia. Excoriating its Soviet ghosts, Russia has increasingly postured itself as the premier Orthodox power, with the blessing of Moscow's Patriarchate. With Dugin's Slavic philosophy, and now this break-up, Russia may shift more decisively into its own center of defining gravity.
Now, it's possible that this episode is just a political stunt, a kind of brinkmanship. Perhaps this episode is a way for the Russian Church to cow the Phanar. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is an odd and peculiar figure. Being declared a first-among-equals of the New Rome in Constantinople I (383), his role reflected the political map of the Roman empire with its lifeblood clearly in the east. This title was resented in Antioch and Alexandria, which broke off in the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) respectively. And with the growing distance from Latinate Rome, Byzantium-Constantinople was the City for Orthodoxy. Its Hagia Sophia was where king Vladimir of the Rus thought he had stepped into Heaven, the beginning of Russia's Orthodoxy. However, as the Turks strangled Rome, slicing open their belly at Manzikert (1071), the noose was slowly placed around the New Rome. A few crusades held off Turkish domination, though the treachery of the West, the partnership of the Vatican with the Germano-Frankish princes, helped further cripple Byzantium. 1453 was the coup d'grace, with Constantinople now becoming Turkish.
Under the Ottoman sultans, the Patriarchate of Constantinople fluctuated from beleaguered leader of the Greek-speaking Orthodox, who had to mediate between his people and the court, and puppet, who helped smooth the way for the sultan's policies. It became a kind of defunct office, with many Byzantine Orthodox going underground, avoiding political involvement. For many Slavic peoples in the Balkans, the rise of the Russian Empire, turning its gaze west and south, signaled hope. Russia became the seat of Orthodoxy, whereas the Patriarch was reduced to symbolic head in the Turkish ghetto of the Phanar.
The 20th century signaled a change. The liberation of Greece was a blow to Ottoman power in the Balkans. The newly independent kingdom of Greece was deeply integrated into the West, with its royal family connected to Prussian Hohenzollerns and the Anglo-German Saxe-Coburg, among others. The significance of this western connection was not fully made alive until the end of World War 2, where the United States now intervened and intrigued in Greek affairs. After aiding the Greek Communists who had fought a guerilla war against the Nazis and Italian Fascists, the Americans quickly shifted towards active suppression. Greece became a fixed star in the NATO orbit, a strategic area for bases of operations, aimed to the north and to the east, able to point a dagger at the throat of the Soviet Union and maintain proximity to the Middle East. Directly through the Popodopoulos military junta, and through soft influence over the Papandreou political dynasty and other forces in the Greek political spectrum, the Americans directed the web of Greek and Greek-American financial-business interests to maintain support for its foreign policy.
Greek-Americans, many who were businessmen of various sorts, became useful mediators with the regime back in the old country and in the profit matrix in the new. The Greek Orthodox Church in America (GOA) has become a site for these connections and operations. Church functions have become networking opportunities, and as a cultural reserve, it has become colonized with quasi-Masonic Hellenic Fraternities which further build chains of networks. The Ecumenical Patriarch has not been shy to these networks. While there's much spookiness and superstition about Free Masonry, it is, at its core, a networking opportunity that, through odd and secret rituals, help bind people together. As a shadow institution, it becomes a way of networking below board. Thus it's unclear how deeply connected the Ecumenical Patriarch is, or is not, with various financial and political interests in the United States, whether directly or indirectly through Greek- American contacts. GOA is notorious among some Orthodox diehards for being, covertly more than overtly, a liberal mainline Protestant denomination. Like many wings in the American Roman Catholic Church, while many priests may show a public face of "orthodoxy", they're privately committed to radical reforms and heterodox, if not downright heretical or anti-Christian doctrines. GOA is a few steps behind American-Rome on this point; there are many priests who support abortion, female priests, and the conclusions of old-school Higher Criticism. Behind the drone of Tradition they adhere to these views among fellow priests, and away from the old women and the few devotees of the church.
It should not be a surprise (and is mostly likely) that the Ecumenical Patriarch's support for the autocephalous Ukrainian church is part of American meddling in trying to rip, quite forcefully, Ukraine from Russia's orbit. Again, while I'm putting it in geopolitical terms, it's a rather steep cultural shock for many Ukrainians, who don't see their being Ukrainian as opposed to Russian culture, politics, or social life. There's a difference between nation and nationalism, with the latter being almost unilaterally rallied among neo-Nazi groups. It might confuse some American commentators, but there were many Ukrainians who would've found it obscene to suggest the Yanukovych was merely a Russian puppet. In comparison, it'd be like saying Canada's Trudeau is an American puppet: he is a freely elected leader with his own set of policy objectives, but has to work within the geopolitical balance of power. Ukraine within a Russian umbrella was not an aggressively new paradigm, but a traditional regional bloc. Whether it should be that way is an idealistic, but rather foolish, question. If not Russia, who? Idealism about Ukrainian independence likes to obscure this question, either avoiding or blind to NATO casting its shadow over the whole procedure. It's not for nothing that both high-ranking Democrats and Republicans have direct or indirect connection to corporate interests located in Ukraine. For those with eyes to see, the question in Ukraine is not one of liberation, carte blanche, but which master is better to serve. To many Ukrainian Orthodox, who will be forced to double down on their loyalty to Russia against the small, but highly politicized, autocephalous church, Russia proves the more loyal friend. American operatives, like the Jesuits before, seem to be willing to do anything, even chopping up the Church, to achieve their ends.
What does this mean in terms of the Kingdom of God? Well, I hope it will shatter the illusions of the Ameridox, though it probably will not. Unaware of reality and afflicted with a rabid stupor, they will probably march in lockstep with American political aims, self-deluded that they're adhering to the Ecumenical Patriarch behind a trash heap of poor history and theological justifications. Maybe a few of them will realize that from their Evangelical and/or Confessional Protestant journey to Orthodoxy they had been in a haze, and will wake up and hear the voice of Christ. Maybe they will cease to be ideological internet trolls and immerse themselves in the issues. While I take extreme exception with some elements of Orthodox liturgy, prayer and worship, and dislike the binding nature in many formulae of Orthodox theology, I don't necessarily want these converts to leave. Perhaps a deepening of their faith perhaps, but may they wake up to the real issues. I'd suspect there will be some dumb analogies between England's Henry VIII and Putin, shattering the "unity" of the church for their vain politics. Even though the former is far more responsible than the latter, this unilateral politicization ignores the other half. They fail to see how every side is tainted.
And while I dislike Slavophilia, and its concomitant philosophies, usually drawing upon German Romanticist metaphysics and the like (Schelling especially), I have some hope for Russian Orthodoxy. Even though the Patriarch of Moscow is playing politics, it's not superficial. The Phanar-Greek faction, if I may call it that, is a NATO tool, acting like a marionette for the unscrupulous. I don't think it's necessarily anti-Christ to appreciate one's nation, though what's happening in Russia is vainglorious at best, but most likely a sinful love affair with the Powers. However, if this schism breaks the false unity of Orthodoxy, and remains trenchant and permanent, I hope this opens up space in two ways. One, I hope the Russian Church will develop a rich sense of its self, a member of the body of Christ, without obscene claims to autarky and perfection. The road to Christification (if I may call it that) will be bumpy, the Russian church would have to be snapped off from the state, probably with a lot of pain and agony. But that's a far way away. The second is that I hope in places like Greece, and non-Slavic Orthodox regions, there will be a fresh opening for gospel ministry. I hope the increasingly transparent politicization of the Orthodoxy will erode this sense superiority, and create an opening for Christian unity.
And yet these hopes are whisps in the big picture, and mostly invisible as they work out in the local nooks and crannies. I hope there's a kind of reformation in Orthodoxy, though I hope it doesn't look like the Reformation, especially in many of its Magisterial forms. But that's asking for too much. Most likely, Orthodoxy will be riven between a Greek neo-papalism and neo-Josephites in nationalist mold. Yet, as long as This Age runs parallel with the Age to Come, Christ Crucified is the sign we live beneath. Amid the lust for mammon, the treachery and Jeroboam altars, the Crucified Lord reigns, ascended, whose Holy Spirit works to convict, reveal, and judge. I pray many eyes are opened through these tribulations.
Addendum: I have a great respect for much in Orthodox theology, even though I am not Orthodox and (as I said) take exception to it. Especially honor worthy has been Orthodox (namely Russian, but Slavic more generally) ecclesiology during the early and mid 20th century. The fires of Soviet persecution and the complicity of many elements in the hierarchy left many of the faithful bereft, forced to reckon with the truth and drawing up refreshing wells of thought from the life and teaching of people like Maximus the Confessor. I found an expression of this thought here. But I'm quoting the relevant part:
"In conclusion I would remind you that unlike the poor Latins, we don’t have to conflate the Church of Christ with any one individual. The very notion of “Sedevacantism” is, thank God, both absurd and irrelevant to us: we can freely chose whom we recognize as an true Orthodox Bishop according to our conscience and that choice is entirely unaffected by political, geographical or administrative considerations. Likewise, the “argument of numbers” is equally irrelevant to us: we don’t care, in the least, how many people recognize Church X or Patiarch Y as “canonical” or how many parishes any bishop or Church has. Again, the example of Saint Maximos the Confessor is the best illustration of that when he replied to his jailers (who told him that even the legates of Rome will partake of the Mysteries with the heretical Patriarch) “The whole world may enter into communion with the Patriarch [bold original], but I will not. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit anathematizes even angels who preach a new Gospel, that is, introduce novel teaching“. Contrast Saint Maximos’ willingness to disregard the possibility that the whole world would recognize the heretical patriarch with the modern “bean count” of parishes or Church members as some kind of proof of legitimacy! Finally, we know from our eschatology that in the End Times almost everybody will lapse and bow to the Antichrist, don’t we?! And yet, so many of us use the argument of numbers” to “prove” the “canonicity” of this or that person or ecclesiastical entity. How sad and yet how telling…
It is paradoxical that in our age of “enlightenment”, “democracy” and “freedom” so many of our punitively most “liberal” and “tolerant” bishops would demand of us a blind and mindless obedience, and not to God, but to them personally. Truly these bishops are the “stars from heaven which fell unto the earth” described by Saint John the Theologian, Apostle and Evangelist in his book of Revelation. I can tell you from personal experience that your bishop is not the exception, he is the rule – at least in our modern world. This is why I think that the single most important question each Orthodox Christian should ask himself is this: “which bishop today has remained truly Orthodox?” We know from the Scripture that the Church is the “the pillar and foundation of truth” and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. This means that there will always be at least one true bishop somewhere until the Second Coming. But we were never told that there would be many true bishops left. Christ told us “Fear not, little flock” and promised that He would send us the “the Spirit of truth” who will “guide you into all truth” and that those who really seek the truth (“do hunger and thirst after righteousness”) will find it (“shall be filled”) and that this truth shall “make us free”. This is just about the furthest thing from any kind of blind, mindless obedience I can imagine."If only many American Christians had the eschatological sense, the disinterest in worldly prestige, and cruciform understanding of not only the Christian life individually, but corporately. Lord have mercy.