Decisions of AOC Synod: a new round in the schism of World Orthodoxy

05 December 2022 14:36
Does Orthodoxy recognize defrocking of Metropolitan Leonid by the Church of Alexandria? Photo: UOJ Does Orthodoxy recognize defrocking of Metropolitan Leonid by the Church of Alexandria? Photo: UOJ

The Synod of Alexandria Church decided to stop the commemoration of Patriarch Kirill and to defrock Metropolitan Leonid. What does it imply for the Orthodox Church?

On November 22, 2022, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria decided to suspend the commemoration of the name of Patriarch Kirill at divine services, as well as to ban the head of the Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Africa, Metropolitan Leonid of Klin, from priesthood. These decisions were dictated by the desire to "resist the illegal intrusion of the Russian Orthodox Church" into the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria. At the moment, we can say that they have exacerbated the lingering crisis between the two Local Churches. But do they also affect world Orthodoxy?

Background of the problem

In 2018, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, without agreement with other Local Churches, legitimized the Ukrainian schismatics by creating the OCU. This step of the Phanar was perceived by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church as an act of intrusion into the canonical territory of the Russian Church. In this regard, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church announced the rupture of Eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It became obvious that the Tomos of the OCU led to a grave crisis in world Orthodoxy, and the Phanar's decision came in for criticism by almost all the primates of other Orthodox Churches.

In the context of our article, it should be recalled that Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria at first expressed support for the UOC and its canonical Primate, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry.

However, after a while, the head of the Alexandrian Church made a liturgical mention of Epifaniy Dumenko during the service, which was viewed as a betrayal – both by believers and the hierarchy of the UOC, as well as the ROC. The Synod of the Russian Church announced the rupture of Eucharistic communion with Patriarch Theodore and decided on a "symmetrical response" by creating the Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Africa.

This structure was headed by Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachev) of Klin, and priests Georgy Maksimov and Andrey Novikov became its main representatives on the African continent.

In a fairly short period, a large number of priests of the Patriarchate of Alexandria moved to the Exarchate, which forced the Synod of this Church to first ban Maximov and Novikov from priesthood, and now to break off Eucharistic communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, simultaneously “defrocking” Metropolitan Leonid. By and large, since the recognition of the OCU, the Church of Alexandria has become the first Church that, in response to the break in Eucharistic communion by the ROC, did the same. What does this mean?

Split “clearance”

It has already been said many times that the creation of the OCU provoked at least a grave crisis in world Orthodoxy. Moreover, many hierarchs and primates of the Churches believed and continue to believe that the granting of "Ukrainian autocephaly" and the following reaction from the ROC led to the actual schism of Orthodoxy. Opinions were also expressed that because of the OCU, the Church was divided into two conventional camps – “Greek” and “Slavic”. At the same time, even in the Greek-speaking Churches, not everyone supported the decision of the Phanar (for example, the Albanian Church, the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch). In turn, Patriarch Bartholomew stubbornly denies the existence of schism in world Orthodoxy, referring to the fact that the Russian Church has unilaterally severed communion with other Churches. Like, “although Patriarch Kirill does not commemorate us, we do commemorate him, which means that there is no schism.”

However, the decision of the Church of Alexandria to suspend the commemoration of the Primate of the ROC in diptychs at divine services clearly and unequivocally says that the schism has now become a reality not to be ignored. At a minimum, the schism between the Russian and Alexandrian Churches has been formalized and documented. Another question is how this will affect world Orthodoxy?

Here there can be no doubt that the decision of the Alexandrian Synod will be supported by the Phanar. Also, it is quite possible that the words of support will be expressed by those Churches that have already recognized the OCU – Greek and Cypriot. However, will it be confined to only words, or will they make a similar decision, breaking off their communion with the ROC? Hardly. But they may well agree to discuss the actions of Patriarch Kirill.

The fact is that Patriarch Theodore had previously spoken of initiating a “meeting of the pentarchy” for the trial of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church because of establishment of an exarchate in Africa by Moscow. However, a year ago this “meeting” was actually boycotted by the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem. Now, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the situation is different. Assumedly, Patriarch Theodore will turn to Patriarch Bartholomew with a request to convene a Council to assess the activities of the Russian Church in general and Patriarch Kirill in particular. Moreover, the prerequisites for such a Council are embedded in the decision of the Synod of the Church of Alexandria, which speaks of condemning the political and ecclesiological theories of the “Russian world” on “ethnophyletic grounds”.

Whether there will be “trials” over Patriarch Kirill is an open question, but the fact that the break in Orthodox unity has been formalized seems to be accomplished. One of the manifestations of such a rupture is the decision of the Alexandrians to defrock Metropolitan Leonid.

Defrocking and its implications

The Resolution of the Synod says that the Church of Alexandria "καθαίρεση από του υψηλού υπουργήματος της Αρχιερωσύνης του τέως", which can be translated as "decided to deprive the former Metropolitan Leonid of the highest episcopal dignity.” In other words, Metropolitan Leonid is no longer a bishop for the Church of Alexandria.

The Exarch for Africa personally commented on this decision in his characteristic little diplomatic style, calling Patriarch Theodore a “schismatic” who “after reading the file of his mischiefs, kindly provided by the SBU-CIA liaison, suddenly abruptly declared his support for the Turkish officer Bartholomew, thereby justifying the genocide of the Donbass population, tens of thousands of victims, women, children, the elderly, and biting the hand of Moscow.”

From this emotional speech, we can conclude that Metropolitan Leonid does not recognize the deprivation of his episcopal dignity. But how will world Orthodoxy approach this decision, and in general, does one Local Church have the right to defrock a hierarch from another Local Church?

History knows such cases. The most indicative is the example of St. John Chrysostom, whom Theophilos, First Hierarch of Alexandria, declared defrocked, fixing this decision at the robber "council under the oak." In addition, we can recall that Patriarch Nestorius was deposed and anathematized at the initiative of St. Cyril of Alexandria. So, the current Synod of the Church of Alexandria has not come up with anything new, especially considering that the Patriarch of Alexandria still bears the title of “Judge of the Universe.”

Another question is how will the Local Churches react to the decision regarding Metropolitan Leonid of Klin? After all, the 11th Apostolic Canon says that “If any one shall pray, even in a private house, with an excommunicated person, let him also be excommunicated.” This means that representatives of some Local Churches may refuse to serve with Metropolitan Leonid. We are not talking about the Greek, Cypriot or Constantinople Churches (Vladyka Leonid does not concelebrate with them anyway), but about other “Greek” Churches – Jerusalem, Antioch, Albanian. Also, with a high degree of probability, Romanians and Georgians will hardly concelebrate with Metropolitan Leonid.

On the other hand, commemorating the layman Serhiy Dumenko, Patriarch Theodore himself fully falls under this canon, not to mention the joint service of the head of the Phanar and the Hellenic primate with the Ukrainian leader of schismatics. Therefore, the current canonical situation in the Church is extremely confusing.


What is at hand? The decisions of the Synod of the Church of Alexandria consolidated the schism in world Orthodoxy and created additional problems for compromise solutions to resolve the current crisis. it was triggered and aggravated primarily by the Tomos of the OCU provided by the Phanar, and everything else is just a ramification. It is not difficult to guess that the situation will worsen and radicalize every day, which may lead to the final and irrevocable division of the Orthodox Church into two camps, each of which will consider itself canonical and true, while its opponents – graceless schismatics. There can be only one way out of this situation – to sit down at the negotiating table and try to solve the problem not in the geopolitical, but in the ecclesiological and canonical field. However, we have to state that, unfortunately, there are no premises for such negotiations so far.

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