Lessons From the Church Split Currently Occurring in Eastern Europe

The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople/Istanbul. From its opening in 537 until its seizure by Muslims in 1453, it was the largest Christian cathedral in the world and head of the Orthodox Church for most of that time.

Little attention has been paid in the west to developing controversy in the Orthodox church realm.  Few of us consider the Orthodox churches in our review of Christianity, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is very western in focus.

While unsurprising, it is also unfortunate, because the Orthodox churches hold a great store of history and tradition, and have a clear line dating back to “The Great Schism” in 1054 when the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches first split, primarily (but not only) due to a difference of interpretation about the Holy Spirit.

As such, any claim to being “the original church” would have to be equally shared between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.  But we hesitate to validate the concept of being the original church as relevant to much at all and certainly not a claim that then allows “Church tradition” to be used as an argument against Biblical teaching (as sometimes seems to be the case with churches making that claim).

Making the concept of a claim to be “the original church” all the more meaningless is that it could as readily be made by the Lutherans or Calvinists or any of the other Protestant denominations, because they generally split from the Catholic church due to a belief the Catholic church had strayed too far from original Biblical teachings.

Like the Catholic church, Orthodox churches have accumulated a tradition of worship that in places seems at variance with the basic Bible teachings.  Some things that give us pause include their observation of seven different sacraments, they venerate icons, they pray to Mary and other saints, they pray for the dead, and teach a grace-plus-works process as being necessary to qualify for salvation.

The Evolution of the Orthodox Churches

(This is, obviously, a very undetailed overview of just some elements of the Orthodox church, written purely as introduction and background to the issues being discussed in the article, not intended as a broader history of the Orthodox church.)

Unlike the Catholic church, the Orthodox church is not just one united church.  There are a number of different Orthodox church groupings, and 15 (or possibly 13 – sources differ on this fundamental point which shows how little we in the west actually know of the Orthodox church) of them have granted each other mutual recognition, with a coordinating council which is presided over by the head of the Constantinople Orthodox church – known as the (Constantinople) Patriarch.  Each church is however independent of each other.

It is a cruel twist of history that the primacy of the Constantinople Orthodox church is hard to support in terms of its current situation.  Although the main cathedral of the church is still located in the heart of modern-day Istanbul, it had to move from the glorious Hagia Sophia after the Muslim conquest in 1453, and now is in a small humble building.  Even more distressing, after various Muslim purges of Christians in the city, there are few local members of the church (although it remains a very popular place of pilgrimage).  But tradition nominates that particular Orthodox church as the “first among equals”.

A distinctive element of the Orthodox church is that the different church groupings within their family of churches have largely been defined not so much by differences in tradition or worship or faith, but by regional locations.  The regional nature of these churches has perhaps influenced the church leadership to become more closely aligned with the governing authorities of the regions they are involved within.  While there can be prudent reasons for aligning with the governing body of an area a church is primarily active in, we are also reminded of Christ drawing a line of distinction between matters of the church and matters of the state, in the well-known expression in Matthew 22:21 (the KJV phrasing is best known, and so is shown here)

Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

This has become a problem in Ukraine.  The history of Ukraine and Russia is an interesting one, and, like many European nations, a complex one.  Russia traces its Slavic origins back to the ancient Kievan Rus, so it could be said, in a sense, that modern Russia emerged in Ukraine.  But after the disintegration of the Kievan Rus alliance in the 12th century, Ukraine has been occupied by several different powers, even the Muslim Crimean Khanate until the late 18th century, when Ukraine found itself shared between the Russian Empire and the Austrian Empire.

After the Russian Revolution and the First World War, there was a brief-lived period of chaotic independence (with Kiev being taken and retaken five times by different forces) between 1917-1921, then in 1922 Ukraine became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union.  A policy of Russification saw the Russian Orthodox Church established as the official religion in the country, although the concept of religion during Soviet times was always a strained (and constrained) one.

Some Ukrainian people were very independent, others – around the border areas with Russia, or emigrants from Russia – were keen to be part of a larger Russian themed union.

Recent Developments

In 1991, as part of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent nation.  National pride caused an ambitious period of making the country Ukrainian rather than Russian.  The official language became Ukrainian rather than Russia, even though many people didn’t speak it.  Much to Russia’s chagrin, Ukraine sought to distance itself from the former Soviet Union and the new replacement concept, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and looked westward, wishing instead to join the EU and NATO.

But some people living in Ukraine considered themselves to be Russian rather than Ukrainian, and others, while acknowledging their nominal Ukrainian nationality, preferred to be allied with a fellow Slavic nation, Russia, than to look westward to unfamiliar countries, customs, and languages.

These tensions created breakaway movements, aided semi-covertly/semi-overtly by the Russian government, which was keen to get the return of its Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol, and happy to take back as much of Ukraine as it could as part of a desire to rebuild the former Russian Empire.

This all placed the Orthodox Church in an uncomfortable position.  The same people championing Ukrainian independence and the establishment of a separate Ukrainian national identity found themselves worshipping in Russian churches (there are approximately 12,000 Orthodox churches in total in Ukraine, a country of about 44.5 million people), controlled by a Patriarch, based in Moscow, and with the church leadership having close ties with the senior leadership of the Russian government.

With not just a resurgence of national pride and a desire for a distinct Ukrainian identity, but also an ongoing border war with Russia (over 10,000 people killed so far) and the loss of territory to Russian backed separatists, having what many people in Ukraine consider to be an organ of the Russian government controlling their spiritual lives and worship has been an uncomfortable experience.

Unsurprisingly, this saw the establishment of breakaway church movements in Ukraine, with about 50 churches (so far) unilaterally announcing their freedom from Moscow and aligning with one of several self-pronounced new Ukrainian church groups.  Ukrainian nationalists have called for the ouster of all Russian churches, and their redesignation as Ukrainian churches.  This has unavoidably created some problems.

The first problem is – who owns the churches that are breaking away?  Are the churches owned by the local congregations or parishes or local church entities, or by the Ukrainian government, or by the Russian Orthodox Church or Russian government?  This problem is made more complex because of the history of communist times and the Soviet Union taking over ownership of all private property.

The second problem is, quite apart from ownership (and therefore money) issues, the unwillingness of the Russian church to allow the Ukrainian churches to break away.  For centuries, Moscow has been keen to be seen as “the third Rome” after breaking away from Constantinople in 1448, and the loss of a large part of its following and churches would harm its claim for equal billing with Rome and Constantinople.

The third problem is that the Council of Orthodox Churches was at first reluctant to recognize these new breakaway churches.  This was not only due to the Russian Orthodox Church being the largest and most influential of the member churches, but also due to a shared concern among other member churches that if they allowed this splintering to occur, groups within their own churches might also wish to break away, too.

But the separatist movement has been steadily gaining in strength, and last week, Patriarch Bartholomew of the Constantinople church indicated support for the concept of a separate Ukrainian church.  This caused the Russian church to break its ties with the Constantinople church.

Here’s a good NY Times article, and also an article from Associated Press, on the latest developments.

The Lesson/Tragedy?

The real tragedy in this growing conflict?

The conflict is totally unrelated to any matters of Christian teaching.  It is all to do with national (and church) politics.  Some churches have historically been adept at distancing themselves from local politics (most notably the Roman Catholic church in the two World Wars of the 20th century), but in this case, the close ties between the churches and the countries they are based in creates problems.

And that is a sad reflection on the Godliness of the leadership of the churches involved.

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