As in most schisms in Christianity’s history, this one is determined as much by realpolitik and national interests as by dogma. Canonical issues can determine political behavior, while politics often dictate church developments. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is asserting its ancient right to grant autonomy to churches and to judge issues of church law. Constantinople was established by the Emperor Constantine in 330 and, as the “New Rome,” it came just after Rome in seniority. The schism in 1054 left Constantinople the primary church in the East. It is these rights of primacy that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is determined to defend, despite its very reduced circumstances following the city’s fall to the Ottomans and the withering of its own flock in Turkey.
Russia wants to project its leadership of the Orthodox world as the “Third Rome,” a role it took upon itself after breaking away from Constantinople in 1448, when its leadership disagreed with efforts to unite East and West Christendom. After 1453, many Orthodox, including the Greeks, looked to Russia for salvation from the Turks.
But today Ukraine is forging a separate identity after centuries of Russian domination, strengthening ties with the European Union and the United States. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, greeted the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s announcement of its decision on Oct. 11 with fighting words.
“This is the collapse of Moscow’s centuries-old claims for global domination as the Third Rome,” he said. “The independence of our church is part of our pro-European and pro-Ukrainian policies that we have been consistently pursuing.”
On Oct. 12, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, charged that the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision was a “provocation” backed by the United States. On the same day, Mr. Putin discussed the issue at his Security Council. Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Church of Russia, is a close ally of Mr. Putin’s and has taken a hard line on Ukraine for years. On Monday, the governing body of the Russian Church, the Holy Synod, decided to break off relations with Constantinople.
Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Russian church’s external relations, stressed that Moscow would not abide by any decisions taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding the Ukrainian Church. “All these decisions are unlawful and canonically void,” he said. “The Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize these decisions and will not follow them.” He called on the Ecumenical Patriarchate to change its decision.
This is unlikely, as Bartholomew has long seen the Russian church as trying to undermine his authority. Patriarch Kirill stayed away from a Holy and Great Council hosted by Bartholomew on Crete in 2016, a meeting of all Orthodox church leaders aimed at promoting unity, which had been 55 years in the making. The patriarchs of Bulgaria, Georgia and Antioch also did not attend.