Break-off: a response of the Russian Orthodox Church to Constantinople

The Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in Minsk on 15 October, 2018

The decree of the ROC Synod: to terminate Eucharistic communion with the Church of Constantinople and call on the Local Churches to solve the problem in a conciliar way.

Who is right in the dispute between the two Churches and what does it imply to the whole Orthodox world?

On October 15, at its meeting in Minsk, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted a Statement in response to the actions of the Constantinople Orthodox Church. It is rather sizeable, but in essence it boils down to several theses, which logically follow one from another.

A schism, like any other sin, is healed by repentance and nothing else. Otherwise, it remains a schism and a sin. Hierarchs (in this case, of Constantinople), who enter into communion with the schismatics, do not return the latter to the fold of the Church, but rather identify themselves with the schismatics. And if Phanar backslid in this way, there can be no eucharistic communion with it. There can be no such communion with those bishops, clerics and laity of the UOC who will enter into communion with the schismatics. The respective canonical punishments will be made in relation to them.

Such, in fact, is the response of the Russian Orthodox Church to the “removal of the anathema” from Mr. Denisenko by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as well as the “reinstatement” of Denisenko with Maletich in their rank. In its decision on this matter, the Phanar for some reason was guided by the understanding of the anathema being common for secular circles, namely that anathema is a kind of punishment, a scourge, a curse that hits the disobedient, which can be easily laid and removed.

However, the ecclesiastical doctrine of the anathema is different. Anathema is not about calling all sorts of misfortunes and mishaps upon the anathematized, but a statement of the fact that this man, by his actions and convictions, put himself outside the Church. We repeat, it is not the anathema that places a person outside the Church, but a person himself does this. The Church only states that it has occurred. She tells it, first of all, to this man himself: think again, you have placed yourself outside of the Body of Christ, you are outside the saving ark of God. How do you think to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

Anathema also warns other people who, being guided by some of their own considerations, were swept away by wrong thinking: do not follow this person, you will find yourself outside the Church. Accordingly, it is impossible to remove the anathema without the inner spiritual change of a person – after all, without repentance, a person will remain outside the Church. Removing the anathema is, again, a statement of the fact that a person repented of his errors, and asks to be taken back to the Church, for he is ready to be there again. We repeat, the removal of the anathema does not automatically return a person to the Church, this act only states the person’s intention to return to the Church, Who accepts him like a child-loving mother. If there is no intention to return to the Church, if a person persists in his errors, then no external influence returns him, no “removal of the anathema” can be effective.

In addition, only the Local Orthodox Church, which has used this type of canonical prohibition, can consider the issue of lifting the anathema. In this case it is the Russian Orthodox Church. Apart from the ROC, this can be solved by the Pan-Orthodox Council, but not at all by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In confirmation of the fact that the sacred canons of the Orthodox Church establish such an order, in the Statement of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church the texts of these canons with their interpretations by Byzantine canonists are cited.

In general, the statement of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church differs from the Statement of Constantinople in several eye-catching moments.

The first thing is that Phanariots, in support of their decisions, give no reason and no reference neither to the Holy Scriptures, to the resolutions of the Ecumenical Councils, nor to the opinions of the holy fathers.

The Phanariots, in support of their decisions, do not give any grounds or references either to the Holy Scriptures, to the resolutions of the Ecumenical Councils, or to the opinions of the Holy Fathers.

Why did we "lift the anathema" from Denisenko? Because we decided so!

Why was the Decision of 1686 canceled? We felt like doing so!

On what basis do we restore the “Stavropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Kiev”? Because it has always been so!

Unlike the above arguments, each paragraph of the Statement of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church is substantiated in detail by the existing canons and rules.

For instance, the thesis that Constantinople is not entitled to consider the issue of the anathema of Mr. Denisenko is based on the following:

“In its decision to justify the leaders of the schism and “legitimize” their hierarchy, the Holy Synod of the Church of Constantinople refers to the non-existent “canonical privileges of the Patriarch of Constantinople to accept appeals of bishops and clerics from all autocephalous Churches.” These claims in the form they are now being implemented by the Patriarch, have never had the support of the fullness of the Orthodox Church: they cannot be substantiated by the sacred canons and directly contradict, in particular, the 15th rule of the Council of Antioch: "If any bishop ... is judged by all the other bishops in that territory, and they all agree to pronounce a single sentence to him – such bishop is not to be judged by other bishops, who shall accept firmly the conciliar decision of the bishops in that territory", they are also refuted by the practice of the decisions of the Holy Ecumenical and Local Councils as well as interpretations of authoritative canonists of the Byzantine and new times.

For instance, John Zonara writes: “The Constantinople [Patriarch] is recognized as a judge not at all over all metropolitans, but only over its subordinates. For neither the Syrian metropolitans, nor the Palestinian, nor the Phoenician, nor the Egyptian are subject to his judgment against their will, but the Syrian are judged by the Patriarch of Antioch, the Palestinian – by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the Egyptian – by the Patriarch of Alexandria, whom they are ordained by and subordinated to."

The 116th (118th) rule of the Carthaginian Council says about the impossibility of accepting an anathematized person by another Local Church: "Whoever, being excommunicated from church communion ... sneaks into overseas countries in order to be accepted into communion will be subject to the expulsion from the clergy." The canonical message of the Council to Pope Kelestin reads as follows: "Those excommunicated in their diocese may not enter your holy communication ... Whatever matters may arise, they must be resolved in the proper places."

The Venerable Nicodemus of the Holy Mount in his “Pidalion”, which is an authoritative source of the church-canon law of the Church of Constantinople, interprets the 9th rule of the 4th Ecumenical Council, rejecting the false opinion on the right of Constantinople to consider appeals from other Churches: “The patriarch of Constantinople has no right to act in dioceses and terrains of other Patriarchs; nor does this rule give him the right to take appeals on whatever matter in the Ecumenical Church ... "

Listing a number of arguments in favor of this interpretation, referring to the case law of the Ecumenical Councils, Ven. Nicodemus concludes: "At present ...the Primate of Constantinople is the first, the only one, and the last judge of the metropolitans subordinate to him – but not those who are subordinate to the other Patriarchs. For, as we have said, the last and general judge of all patriarchs is the Ecumenical Council and no one else. "From the foregoing it follows that the Synod of the Church of Constantinople does not have canonical rights for the annulment of judicial decisions rendered by the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Assigning to oneself the authority to abolish the judicial and other decisions of other Local Orthodox Churches is only one of the manifestations of the new false doctrine, now proclaimed by the Church of Constantinople, which attributes to the Patriarch of Constantinople the law of the “first without equal” (primus sine paribus) enjoying universal jurisdiction.

“Such a vision by the Constantinople Patriarchate of its rights and powers enters into an irresistible contradiction with the centuries-old canonical tradition upon which the existence of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Local Churches is based,” warns the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2008 in the “On Church Unity” definition. In the same definition, the Council called on the Church of Constantinople "to act cautiously and refrain from steps that could undermine Orthodox unity till the listed novelties have been addressed at the pan-Orthodox level. This is especially true of attempts to revise the canonical boundaries of the Local Orthodox Churches" (from the text of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of 15 October 2018).

Thus, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church shows everyone that it is not guided by the short-term political situation or personal antipathy towards Mr. Denisenko, but by the opinion of the Holy Apostles and the Ecumenical Councils. Such are the rules by which the Holy Orthodox Church lives and the violation of which leads not to the well-being of the Church, but to disorder, hostility and, ultimately, to the triumph of the enemy of the human race – the Satan.

Arguing the illegal decision of Constantinople to recover the Kiev Metropolitanate, the ROC Synod cites the following arguments:

Firstly, the documents of 1686 (the entire package, not just the corresponding Tomos) testify to the transfer of the Kiev Metropolis of the Russian Orthodox Church unconditionally and on an ongoing basis.

Secondly, the size, composition, and boundaries of the Kiev Metropolis in 1686 are fundamentally different from the modern Ukrainian Church.

And, thirdly, the sacred canons set time limits during which one can cancel or challenge decisions on matters of canonical territory.

“In the Synodal Charter of 1686 and other documents accompanying it, nothing is said about the temporary nature of the transfer of the Kiev Metropolis to the Moscow Patriarchate, or that this act can be canceled. The attempt of the hierarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in political and self-seeking forms to reconsider this resolution more than three hundred years after it was issued contradicts the spirit of the sacred canons of the Orthodox Church, which do not allow the revision of established and not disputed for a long time church boundaries.

In fact, Rule 129 (133) of the Carthaginian Council states: "If someone ... turned whatever place to catholic unity and had it in his jurisdiction for three years, and no one demanded it back from him, then it would not be recoverable, if, moreover, in these three years there was a bishop who was supposed to claim it, but didn’t." The17th rule IV of the Ecumenical Council establishes a thirty-year term of limitation for the possible conciliar consideration of disputes concerning the jurisdiction of even individual parishes: "The parishes in each diocese ... must invariably be under the authority of the bishops in charge of them – especially if they have had them in their jurisdiction and management for over thirty years” (from the text of the Statement of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of 15 October 2018).

Therefore, the decision of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to return the Metropolitan of Kiev to its jurisdiction is insignificant both according to the canons of the Church and according to common sense, and even for reasons of elementary human ethics. If the Local Churches recognize the possibility of canceling such decisions of many centuries of prescription, this will make it impossible to make decisions at all, since they can be subsequently and arbitrarily canceled without giving reasons and without grounds enshrined in the Holy Tradition of the Church.

“Otherwise, it would be possible to annul any document defining the canonical territory and status of the Local Church, regardless of its antiquity, authority and general church recognition” (from the text of the Statement of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of 10 October 2018).

The second striking moment in the statements of the Constantinople and Russian Synods is an attitude to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The UOC is the only legal and canonical church structure in Ukraine. UOC is recognized by all the Local Churches. It is exclusively with this Church that the Eucharistic and ecclesiastic-diplomatic dialogue is conducted. And now Constantinople decided for some reason to pretend that it does not exist at all, that there is neither His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufriy, nor a numerous episcopate, nor nearly 13 thousand church communities. In the documents adopted by the Phanar there is not even a hint that the UOC may have an opinion on the issues under consideration, not to mention that this opinion should and must be taken into account.

Unlike the Phanar, the Holy Synod of the ROC states that Ukraine has its own hierarchy, without regard for whose opinion any actions are illegal and uncanonical:

“The attempt of the Constantinople Patriarchate to determine the destiny of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church without its consent is an anticanonical encroachment on other people's ecclesiastical destinies. An ecclesiastical rule says: "One should observe canons in other territories and everywhere in dioceses, so that none of the most blessed bishops extends his power to someone else's diocese ... one should not violate the rules of holy fathers, the arrogance of secular power must not sneak in under the guise of sacred rites, and may we not lose gradually and inconspicuously the freedom that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of all men, granted to us with His Blood ” (III Ecumenical Council, rule 8). The decision of the Constantinople Patriarchate to establish, by agreement with the secular authorities, its “Stavropegion” in Kiev without the knowledge and consent of the canonical priesthood authority of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church falls under the condemnation of this rule (from the text of the Statement of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of 15 October 2018).

The third point, which sharply distinguishes the statements of the Synods, is that Phanar decides everything alone, whereas the ROC appeals to the conciliar intelligence of the Church. Constantinople hierarchs did not even remember that in the Symbol of Faith, the Church is called “One, Holy, Cathedral and Apostolic” and that all important issues had always been resolved at the councils. Phanariots made their own decision and consider it as the only correct one that cannot be canceled by anyone. The Russian Church appeals to the fullness of the Orthodox Church: “We call on the Primates and Sacred Synods of the Local Orthodox Churches to properly evaluate the aforementioned anti-canonical acts of the Constantinople Patriarchate and to jointly find ways out of the hardest crisis tearing apart the body of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” (from the text of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church dated 15 October 2018).

Perhaps the Lord will arrange so that the crisis having affected the Ecumenical Church due to the Ukrainian issue will give impetus to the resumption of the time-honored Orthodox practice of conciliar discussion and resolution of important issues. Perhaps, we will witness the convocation of a real, not imaginary, Pan-Orthodox Council, which will solve really important issues unlike the Cretan Council of 2016, which declared to everyone the well-known teaching on fasting and marriage and at odd moments promoted the teaching about the Roman Catholic Church as a “sister church”.

And, finally, the fourth difference in the statements of the Russian and Constantinople Synods. This is about an appeal to God and Intercession of the Mother of God and the saints. “We ask archpastors, clergy, monastics and laity of the whole Russian Orthodox Church to strengthen the prayers for their brothers of the same faith in Ukraine. May the prayerful omophorion of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Venerable Fathers of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, Venerable Job of Pochaev, new martyrs, confessors, and all the saints of the Russian Church be upon all of us” (from the text of the Statement of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of 15 October 2018).

The schism between the two Churches cannot but cause deep melancholy because, first of all, ordinary believers suffered from this conflict. But the situation, which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is now facing, threatens not only our Church but also the entire structure of the World Orthodoxy. We believe that by the efforts of the Local Churches this conflict will be settled, and we should do what the hierarchs of the Synod of the Russian Church call to – offer our prayers to God.

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Is the creation of the Exarchate of the ROC in Africa justified?
Yes, because the Patriarch of Alexandria has gone into schism
No, this is the expansion of the ROC into the territory of the Church of Alexandria
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