Independence of the Church as a feat of faith

27 September 18:21
Can a Christian risk the salvation of their soul to please the authorities? Photo: UOJ Can a Christian risk the salvation of their soul to please the authorities? Photo: UOJ

The greatest spiritual danger for a Christian is the desire to find compromises where one can serve both God and Mammon.

"For to you, it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for His sake" (Philippians 1:29).

Today, our Church is undoubtedly going through one of the most challenging periods in recent history: alongside the seizures of churches, physical violence against believers, and constant lies and slander from the media, there is now the threat of legislative prohibition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

It is clear that the implementation of this plan will face significant obstacles as it entirely contradicts both the Constitution of Ukraine and international law. Furthermore, it will lead to even greater tension within Ukrainian society.

But what about the Church? How is She reacting to this situation? Some representatives of the UOC are trying to find a way out of the crisis, essentially proposing one option – the self-proclamation of autocephaly. This group of church "activists" persistently promotes the idea of a "complete break with the Russian Orthodox Church", which would be expressed through the proclamation of autocephaly for the UOC by the Bishops’ Council of our Church.

It should be noted that not all UOC members agree with such a choice and such an "alternative" to the Church ban. Many Christians understand that everything related to our choices and actions should be done according to the will of God, expressed in the Gospel teachings and the living faith of the Christian soul.

However, the "activists" of the self-proclaimed autocephaly are convinced that such a step will help our Church, first and foremost, to rid itself of "external" influence, and secondly, it will serve as proof to the state authorities of the UOC's independence. According to their opinion, if autocephaly is proclaimed, then the State Service for Religious and Ethnic Policy of Ukraine will immediately cease its pressure on the Church.

The thing is that according to the Letter (or Tomos) of Patriarch Alexy dated 1990, our Church is entirely and fully independent in administrative management and free to make any decisions regarding its internal church life that do not contradict Orthodox canons.

Furthermore, in 2017, at the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, it was emphasized that the "governing centre of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is located in Kyiv". In other words, we already have independence. Therefore, the excessive pressure exerted on the Church regarding "autocephaly" suggests that the state authorities may need not so much the independence of our Church as Her division and subordination.

The nature of Christ's Church is such that any independent Local Orthodox Church is only a part of the Ecumenical Church, carrying out its salvation mission often in challenging conditions of its historical existence. In this sense, the "independence" of any particular Local Church is a conditional concept.

External forces have always influenced or attempted to influence the Church, most often through state power. Even ancient autocephalous Churches with apostolic origins or those holding a special place in the church diptychs, such as the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem and others, have almost always experienced pressure or influence from state authorities. Regardless of the era, those in power have sought to use the Church to achieve their political goals while trying to dictate their terms for the "peaceful and good life" of the Church. In other words, autocephaly does not guarantee complete and absolute independence within the Local Church itself. This internal independence of the Church of Christ has often had to be defended at the cost of the confessional and martyrdom feat.

Let's recall that some Byzantine emperors were not only heretics themselves but also imposed their heretical views on bishops, clergy and ordinary believers. For example, Arian emperors persecuted Orthodox Christians, threw them into prisons or sent them into exile.

Other emperors, under the pretext of "caring" for the Church, issued "reconciliatory" edicts prescribing the "correct faith" for the Church. For instance, Emperor Zeno, in 482, issued a creed to the clergy and believers of the Alexandrian Patriarchate aimed at reconciling the conflicting parties of Miaphysites and Dyophysites following the Council of Chalcedon.

Some emperors, especially the iconoclast emperors, used force against the devotees of holy icons, compelling them to renounce the Church's teachings for short-term benefits. The beginning of the iconoclast movement was associated with political reasons, namely, Emperor Leo III's desire to "resolve" issues with the growing Muslim population, for whom the veneration of icons was unacceptable. Through iconoclasm, Byzantine emperors sought to eliminate one of the main obstacles to reconciling Christians with Jews and Muslims, as well as to facilitate the subjugation of nations practising these religions within the empire. In 726 and 730, Emperor Leo III issued laws banning the veneration of icons. Leo’s policy toward the Church was continued by Constantine V Copronymus and other emperors of the Byzantine Empire.

In turn, defenders of icons understood that it should not be the needs of the state or politics that determine the course of the Church but rather unwavering faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel.

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople only worsened. Formally, being an autocephalous and independent Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had no real freedom. For example, the Ottoman Sultan effectively appointed and approved the Patriarch of Constantinople, and without the Sultan's approval, a Patriarch could not ascend to the Throne. There were numerous cases where the authorities "dismissed" or removed Patriarchs who were not pleasing to them. For instance, Saint Gregory V served as Patriarch three times: in 1797-1798, 1806-1808, and 1818-1821. Each time, he was deposed at the behest of the Ottoman authorities and ultimately accused of supporting the Greek uprising, leading to his beheading on the steps of Hagia Sophia, the symbol of Christian Byzantium.

Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Orthodox Christians faced restrictions on conducting religious services. They were not allowed to build or renovate churches and monasteries, to place crosses on the domes of churches or gather the faithful for prayer using bell ringing. Even today, the situation regarding religious freedom in Turkey is, to say the least, challenging.

Thus, the status of an autocephalous and even the Mother See Church in the Orthodox world has not given the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople any advantages in its relations with the authorities. Furthermore, too often, many decisions made at the Phanar are dependent on the authorities.

The situation is no better for the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, which is one of the most authoritative in the Orthodox world and has had autocephalous status since its inception. For example, during the period from 1099 to 1187, when Jerusalem was under the rule of the so-called Latin Kingdom, the Crusaders had a significant influence on the appointment and approval of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. They not only frequently interfered in the elections of the Patriarch but even promoted their own candidates.

After the fall of the Crusader rule, the situation of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem did not improve. Like in Turkey, the Ottoman Sultan had the right to appoint and approve the head of the Church of Jerusalem. Thus, the Patriarch election was fully controlled by the authorities. The state often interfered in the land and property matters of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, as well as its parishes.

Just like the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, despite having autocephalous status and formal independence, has operated and continues to operate under limitations on its rights and freedoms imposed by state authorities.

Of course, a similar situation has occurred in other Local Churches as well.

The Russian Orthodox Church, after gaining its autocephalous status, also experienced the negative influence of the authorities. For instance, in 1700, after the death of Patriarch Adrian, Peter the Great implemented reforms in the Russian Church, creating The Most Holy Governing Synod, which replaced the Patriarch as the highest governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church. The head of the Synod was the Chief Procurator (also Ober-Procurator), and the Emperor referred to himself as the "Head of the Church". Naturally, these reforms allowed the state to affect significantly church affairs.

The situation became catastrophic after the October Revolution when the Soviet government declared its course towards atheism and began persecuting religious communities. The Russian Orthodox Church faced repression, church closures, arrests, and the execution of priests and laypeople. The state confiscated church property, land and valuables, banned religious educational institutions and literature, controlled the activities of priests and bishops, as well as the faithful, established schismatic structures (such as the "Living Church" or the Renovationist schism), and isolated the Russian Orthodox Church from foreign connections and contacts with other Orthodox Churches.

We can see that in all these cases, the autocephalous status of the Churches could not ensure their real independence in their internal and external activities. And there is nothing surprising about this. After all, "the whole world lieth in wickedness" (1 John 5:19). And this world's evil periodically creates difficulties for the life of the Church, regardless of the historical circumstances in which it finds itself.

When we talk about autocephaly, we should not mean compromises that deprive the Church of spiritual freedom in the name of temporal interests, but rather the benefit of the Church with a perspective on its future development and service in the interests of the Orthodox people.

Can we confidently say that at this moment, for the service of God and the people of God, we cannot do without autocephaly, especially when it has to be proclaimed against the canons of the Church? Does the spiritual height of our faith and zeal for salvation depend on the autocephalous status? Can such a status free us from external influence and guarantee freedom from state interference? These questions are already answered by the entire fullness of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, courageously enduring injustices and persecutions, remaining faithful to its canonical structure and saving calling.

So why do many active proponents of immediate autocephaly believe that their point of view has a right to exist, while the opinion of those who believe that everything in the Church should happen in accordance with canonical order has no such right? Why are they convinced that prayer is a passive action and that we need to take urgent action instead? Is it because they turn to political and logical considerations seeking a way out of the current situation, pursuing temporal interests rather than the salvation of the soul?

St. Gregory the Theologian once said to St. Basil the Great, "You accuse me of sloth and slackness because I have not occupied Sasima nor kept myself in a state of episcopal commotion nor arm myself along with you to fight as dogs fight for a piece thrown to them…..But for me, the most important thing is inaction... and I think that if all were like me, there would be no troubles for the Churches, nor would the faith, which everyone now turns into a weapon of their love for disputes, be desecrated."

And he is right. Often, our excessive external activity leads only to disputes and the abandonment of spiritual exploits but not to the benefit of the Church. However, internal activity is perceived as something outdated, outlived and ineffective. Is this correct? No, of course not.

Because we as Christians believe and know for sure that not a single hair falls from our heads without God's will. The task for Christians of our time is not to apostatize from the Church and not to lose its saving guidance, which is only possible by following the right spiritual priorities.

The greatest spiritual danger for a Christian is the desire to find compromises where one can serve both God and Mammon. The Gospel truth, however, denies such a state of affairs. How can we not remember the words of the Apostle James: "Don't you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?" (James 4:4). Therefore, every time we encounter misunderstanding and hostility from the sinful world towards the Church, let us remember these words and the words of the Saviour, who said, "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you... But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 15:19 and John 16:33). Our Church's helmsman is Christ Himself, and He will guide the Church's ship to the salvific haven of the Kingdom of Heaven, leading it through the storm of trials and sorrows.

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