You gotta hand it to the Phanar. They’ve been dealt a bad hand ever since 1453 but they’ve always managed to find a way to not play it if at all possible. On the other hand, on those occasions in which they do play it, it tends to make matters worse for Constantinople.
According to the semi-official website of the Moscow Patriarchate (Pravoslavie.ru/english/101923.htm), His Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is stoking anti-Muscovite embers in Ukraine, widely dropping hints that he “will help [them] find…a united Church.”
The occasion for this announcement was on March 15, when Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman of Ukraine, paid a visit to the Phanar. Groysmen presented His Holiness with news that there is a groundswell among Ukrainians to solve the long-simmering schismatic situation that exists among Orthodox Christians there.
According to Pravoslavie.ru; “Ukrainian politicians and non-canonical schismatic “Orthodox” clergy have appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate many times to involve himself in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate and declare the Ukrainian Church autocephalous, which he has thus far declined to do.”
Bartholomew replied to Groysman, “[w]e can be optimistic about the future.” While sympathetic to the Ukrainian’s plea, note what word did not pass Bartholomew’s lips –i.e. autocephaly. When it comes to the Phanar, statements and more importantly unstatements, are key.
Clearly, His Holiness understands this. As well as the fact that going down this road could blow up in his face as the situation in Ukraine is anything but stable.
Worse, the reverberations that would redound upon the Phanar would not be pleasant. The Ukrainians for one thing would be livid if anything less than autocephaly was granted. For one thing, it would make them appear weak in the face of Putin’s Russia. It would in fact solidify the Muscovite narrative that Ukraine (or “Little Russia”) is an integral part of the Rusyn civilization and thus, the Russian Orthodox Church. This is how (for example), Constantinople views the Orthodox Church in America –as a semi-autonomous archdiocese of Moscow.
This is not what the Ukrainians want. If anything, those who remain loyal to Kiev, want nothing at all to do with Russia, now or forever. They are even willing to amputate their Eastern, Russophilic limb if that’s what it takes to create a more homogeneous nation. An autocephalous Church, one that was at least recognized by Constantinople and its dependencies would go a long way to solidifying their ethnogenic narrative. Although this would enrage Moscow, short of an actual invasion, there would be nothing they could do. In this sense, the Ukrainians would only have to worry about themselves and not give a rip about the international fallout.
Bartholomew however has no such luxury. The Phanar would have to consider what the Russian response would be. For one thing, Moscow would up its game in Damascus and if it becomes obvious that Constantinople continues to follow the globalist path –which ultimately leads to Rome–then Moscow can force the issue and Antioch would then become first among the Diptychs. All the other local Churches that the Phanar has antagonized over the years would give such a move serious consideration, as it would move them all up two spots in the pecking order.
Just because the Phanar is relatively weak doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. Surely there are some cooler heads there that understand that the globalist narrative which propped them up over the last several decades is in serious trouble. Thanks to the Brexit and the recent presidential election in the United States, the previous transnational way of doing things is no longer operative. President Erdogan of Turkey learned this lesson the hard way earlier last month when he tried to cajole President Trump into seeing things his way in Syria, rather than Putin’s. As we reported earlier, Erdogan’s pleas fell on deaf ears.
Quite simply, the Phanar’s stock as a State Department asset has dwindled significantly.
To be sure, the Ukrainian-autocephaly card is a high one. Unfortunately for the Phanar, when it’s the only card, it makes it hard to play. Moreover, Constantinople’s continued antagonism of more traditional elements throughout the rest of the Orthodox world has not made them many friends. According to some souces, the entirety of Mount Athos has stopped commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarch for some years now. Many of these people already look to Moscow for leadership.
As is known, one of the sticking points between Constantinople and Moscow (among others) is the power to grant autocephaly. Moscow believes that any Mother Church can grant autocephaly. Istanbul on the other hand believes that only an Ecumenical Council can do so, and absent of such a council, only the Ecumenical Patriarchate possesses that right. A third way, one which was more conciliar and would split the differences, was being adjudicated in Crete during last year’s “council” but nothing came of it.
That being said, the Phanar has been extremely stingy when it comes to granting autocephaly. Throughout its history, national Churches only arose when the natives seized the reins of power and declared their autocephaly on their own, often to the great chagrin of the Mother Church in Constantinople. The one time in recent memory when Constantinople did so (in Estonia), it only angered Moscow and the wounds between the two Churches have not healed. (It also granted Albania autocephaly but that country was never in the cross-hairs.) At any rate, the autocephaly of the tiny Estonian Church has proved to be somewhat of an embarrassment.
Because of this history, it is doubtful that the present Ecumenical Patriarch or his putative successor (Elpidophorous Lambrianides, whose papal pretensions are even more startling that Bartholomew’s) is going to be profligate with creating Local Churches unmoored from the Phanar. If anything, the Phanar has been laying the groundwork for rescinding the autocephaly of the Church of Greece and taking the entire Greek nation back into its sheep-fold. It’s not too implausible to believe that they would like to do so as well with Bulgaria, Serbia and the other Balkan Churches as well. (They were able to do so several centuries ago thanks to the Ottoman armies which conquered those states.)
Here’s to hoping that cooler heads prevail and the Phanar take into account the ruptures that would happen in Orthodoxy should they force the Ukrainian issue.