The Russian Orthodox Church on Monday officially broke communion with the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, whose patriarch has held the title “first among equals” for nearly a thousand years, following the East–West schism of 1054 — the schism that separated Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. If communion between Moscow and Constantinople is not reinstated, the schism would be the largest in nearly a millennium. Typically, questions of church are a purely ecclesiological matter, but in this case politics seems to have taken the reins of the discussion.
The two churches are feuding over whether a Ukrainian Orthodox Church can be autocephalous, or independently governed, without Russian Orthodox consent. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been under Russian Orthodox authority, but a Ukrainian nationalist movement birthed a new Orthodox Church, one outside Moscow’s authority. That new entity, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), was universally unrecognized in Orthodoxy until this month, when Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople recognized its validity independent from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and other recent conflicts between the two countries had led a robust nationalist movement of clergy and politicians to seek recognition of an independent Ukrainian church, sparking Bartholomew’s decision. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow responded to Bartholomew’s recognition by ceasing communion with Constantinople. Moscow, claiming that Bartholomew has no canonical authority to recognize an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, accuses him of encroaching on the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, maintaining that it alone has jurisdiction over that region.
Russia seeks to maintain influence over Ukraine, while Ukraine wants independence from the Kremlin. Western forces are hoping to chip away at some of Russia’s influence. However, this feud also impacts the more than a quarter-billion Orthodox Christians worldwide and threatens the stability and unity of a church that traces its origins to Jesus Christ himself.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko called this conflict “an issue of global geopolitics” and and stressed its importance in Ukraine’s fight for its future and freedom. Autocephaly is essential to the country’s “pro-European and pro-Ukrainian strategy,” according to a press statement from the president’s office. The European Council on Foreign Relations notes that an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church bolsters national sentiment by adding a religious dimension to the nation’s distinction from Russia, striking a blow to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s concept of a “Russian world” that would extend across its borders into Eastern Europe.
Last month, meeting with Patriarch Philaret of the UOC-KP, former vice president Joe Biden expressed support for its autocephaly. Biden seems to be defending an autocephalous Ukrainian church with a view toward an American proxy fight with Russia. U.S. hostility toward Russia has already been evident in, for example, its interference in Ukrainian–Russian disputes, in American popular sentiment for backing Syrian militants who could oust the Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad, and in Washington’s adversarial relationship with Iran, which has friendly ties to Russia. Americans should monitor how the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church continue to react to this situation, because the United States has picked a side. That can have serious geopolitical implications as hostility between Russia and the West continues to grow.
In addition to raising political questions, this quarrel threatens the unity and stability of the second-largest Christian denomination, Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy has not had a major schism since the Eastern patriarchs separated from the pope, the bishop of Rome, almost a thousand years ago, when Eastern patriarchs accused the pope of interfering in the affairs of other patriarchs and overstepping his authority. Bartholomew’s decision to overrule Kirill in Ukraine is reminiscent of that schism. After the schism, Eastern Orthodox Christians recognized the patriarch of Constantinople as first among equals, an honor they had once given the bishop of Rome, but the patriarch was not deemed to have authority in the affairs of other autocephalous churches.
In violation of that understanding, Bartholomew has now intervened in a church outside his jurisdiction, exposing himself to the accusation that he is attempting to be an Orthodox pope. Apart from the Ukrainian controversy, Bartholomew has faced criticism for his handling of the Holy and Great Council in Crete, which was meant to be attended by all Orthodox churches but was rejected by Moscow and some others. Instead of saying that the council was not binding on non-participants, Bartholomew doubled down and insisted that all churches accept it. He then demanded the autocephalous Church of Greece to punish any clergy who dissented. If the tensions between Constantinople and Moscow are not resolved, questions as to the scope of the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople are sure to arise, as the other autocephalous churches will have to ask to whom they owe allegiance, leaving the world to wonder what the Eastern Orthodoxy of the future will look like.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Sam Brownback, the United States ambassador for special assignments on international religious freedom, was said to have expressed support for an autocephalous Ukrainian church. That characterization was based on a statement, which Mr. Brownback disavows, that was issued by the office of the president of Ukraine.