Christ's side: the Serbian Church in the "Ukrainian question"

Serbian Patriarch Porfirije. Collage: UOJ

In a recent interview, Pat. Porfirije said that the Serbian Church in the "Ukrainian question" took the side of canons, and not Moscow or Phanar. What does this mean?

On May 19, 2021, a delegation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church headed by the Chancellor, Metropolitan Anthony (Pakanich) of Boryspil and Brovary, met in Belgrade with His Holiness Patriarch Porfirije of Serbia.

Archpriest Nikolai Danilevich, deputy head of the Department for External Church Relations (DECR) of the UOC, said about the meeting: “There was a very warm and friendly meeting with the Patriarch,” and “the Serbian Church firmly stands on the side of the canonical order and support for the UOC”.

Later, Patriarch Porfirije himself commented on the meeting with Metropolitan Anthony. In particular, the Primate of the Serbian Church stressed that the SOC in the "Ukrainian question" takes a strictly canonical position and, in accordance with it, supports the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, headed by His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry.

Patriarch Porfirije 's commentary, given by him following his meeting with Metropolitan Anthony, can be divided into three parts.

The first part is devoted to the canonical order in the Church, which is a condition for the unity of Orthodoxy.

The second part deals with the dependence of the Gospel preaching on the canonical order.

The third part is a testimony of the unity of Orthodoxy, expressed, in the opinion of Patriarch Porfirije, in the support for the UOC.

The words of the Serbian Patriarch express the most sensible approach to solving the crisis in which world Orthodoxy found itself after the bestowal of the Tomos to the OCU by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Therefore, it is worth dwelling on them in more detail.

Canonical order as a condition for the unity of Orthodoxy

According to Patriarch Porfirije, “it is immeasurably important for us to have the unity of faith so that we have the unity of dogmas. But at the same time, the condition for the unity and preservation of the true Orthodox faith is the preservation of the canonical order of the Church."

This statement of the Patriarch directly appeals to the theory of the "First without equals", which the Phanariots are now actively developing. According to it, the Patriarch of Constantinople has special privileges in Orthodoxy and has not only the primacy of honour but also the primacy of authority. In addition, in recent years, from the lips of the supporters of this theory, we have heard the words more and more often that unity in Orthodoxy should have its visible expression – in the personality of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

It is these words that the famous Greek theologian Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) uses, claiming that the head of the Phanar is "a visible symbol of the unity of Orthodoxy". The head of the Phanar’s Archdiocese in the USA, Archbishop Elpidophoros, is sure that only the Patriarchate of Constantinople "bears responsibility for the unity of Orthodoxy and benefits for it".

Patriarch Bartholomew himself is convinced that "we, the Orthodox, must subject ourselves to self-criticism and revise our ecclesiology if we do not want to become a federation of Protestant Churches". In other words, the conciliar structure of the Church reminds him in some way of Protestantism. But the problem is that Patriarch Bartholomew either does not understand or does not want to understand the difference between Orthodox conciliarity and Protestant federation. In Orthodoxy, conciliarity is life in the Holy Spirit, where all decisions are made jointly and require general church reception. With such a structure, Christ leads the Church, and not one of the hierarchs. Whereas in the "Protestant federation" – everyone is "his own head", and, as they say, many men, many minds.

But Patriarch Bartholomew does not stop there but goes further. In his opinion, the problem of unity can be solved if we accept that in the Orthodox Church there is a bishop who is higher than other bishops and has exclusive power. A quote: “Since in our ordination to the bishop we swear to obey the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, we must admit that in the indivisible Ecumenical Orthodoxy there is a “First” not only by honour but a “First” with special responsibilities and canonical powers assigned by the Ecumenical Councils".

Patriarch Bartholomew even declares that whoever breaks the Eucharistic unity with the Phanar "risks cutting himself off from the body of the Orthodox Church". That is, for him the Orthodox Church is identified with the Phanar rather than with the Body of Christ. Is it any wonder that, according to some Phanariots, the Church is headed not by Christ but by Patriarch Bartholomew.

Therefore, it is quite obvious that pointing out the need to preserve the canonical order in the Church, Patriarch Porfirije does not mean the understanding of the canons that Phanariots have now. For the Primate of the Serbian Church, the canons are a condition for the unity of world Orthodoxy in Christ, while for the Phanar, the canons are only an instrument of power, and the visible expression of unity is obedience to the Patriarchate of Constantinople and not to the Church. This is what is important to keep in mind.

Church life, not personal sympathies

Patriarch Porfirije believes that "a concern about the canonical order is not an expression of our attitude towards someone with more or less sympathy". And you need to listen very carefully to these words.

The fact is that too often representatives of the Greek-speaking Local Churches perceive the Tomos of the OCU as a forced measure on the part of the Phanar in the struggle against the influence of the Russian Church in world Orthodoxy. Accordingly, they consider the "Ukrainian question" exclusively in the context of the confrontation between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. This means that all their decisions are in some sense politically and nationally motivated.

For example, the metropolitans of the Church of Greece, which recognized the OCU, in an interview with the Greek resource Vima Orthodoxias, directly said that the Church of Greece traditionally supports the Patriarchate of Constantinople and cannot do otherwise.

Also, the Primate of the Cypriot Orthodox Church, Archbishop Chrysostomos, declared his full support for the Phanar for the same reason – "inherent spiritual and historical ties that connect the Phanar with the Church of Cyprus". Archbishop Chrysostomos blames the ROC for the schism that has arisen and declares: “Even if we agree that the Russian Orthodox Church ... has existed for a thousand years, we, the Ancient Patriarchates and the Cypriot Church, have existed for two thousand years. That is why they should consult with us. The Russian Orthodox Church got Orthodoxy from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which today it disregards. For all the younger Local Orthodox Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the Mother Church.” That is, the Russian Orthodox Church should "obey" and "respect" the Phanar only because it is younger! Like, for example, the Greek Church obeys the Phanar.

Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) mentioned above writes: “We must obey the voice of the Church, expressed by the Holy Synod of the Church ... We have the Church which we will obey, and we will not listen to every clergyman, theologian, teacher who delivers to our Holy Orthodox Church foreign traditions, foreign morality, foreign teachings, individual and religious paradigms." And these words are spoken by the Orthodox (?) bishop! “Obey”, “foreign traditions”, “foreign morality” ... For some reason, it has always seemed that in Orthodoxy there is only evangelical morality, and the main thing is obedience to Christ. It turns out there is also a “national” morality and there is the “Church” which one must “obey”.

This is what really matters – not "sympathy", not "side" of Moscow or the Phanar, not national or political interests, but only the life of the Church in Christ.

So, it turns out that the statements of many Greek bishops on the "Ukrainian question" are not about the desire to preserve unity with Christ, not about the canons or the Tradition of the Church but only about national solidarity. But where is the Church here? Her canon-governed life?

In fact, it is Patriarch Porfirije who voices the most sensible point of view on the problem since he does not speak for Moscow or the Phanar but for the Church, which should be with Christ. The head of the SOC defends the ecclesiastical canonical, not the national or another point of view on the "Ukrainian issue".

So, in early May, the Serbian Patriarch in one of his interviews voiced this position in a very reasonable way. In his opinion, the schism in Orthodoxy can be overcome since “the belief in the existence of a point from which it is impossible to return to normal church life does not take into account the fact that the Church is not an ordinary human organization governed by different interests and predominantly influenced by the human factor but is a single, holy, catholic and apostolic reality."

In addition, he stresses that "our Church hasn’t chosen the 'side' of Moscow or Constantinople or any other but always remained faithful to the canonical order and full determination to respect this order and testify about it."

This is what really matters – not "sympathy", not "side" of Moscow or the Phanar, not national or political interests, but only the life of the Church in Christ. And here, according to Patriarch Porfirije, it is the canonical order that is very important, which "is a condition without which we as Orthodox Christians cannot testify in the right way about our Lord the Savior."

Support for the UOC as a testimony to unity in Christ

Patriarch Porfirije finds it obvious that the granting of the Tomos to the schismatic OCU by the Patriarchate of Constantinople is a direct violation of the canonical order in the Church and, hence, its unity. In turn, this violation speaks not simply of the “papal ambitions” of the head of the Phanar and his “desire for primacy” in world Orthodoxy but of a violation of the very life of the Church. The violation that directly affects the preaching of Christ: "The canonical order is a condition without which we as Orthodox Christians cannot testify in the right way about our Lord the Savior."

That is why, says the Patriarch, “it is very important for us that the canonical order, which today is in crisis in Ukraine, is secure”, and “the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, headed by Metropolitan Onuphry, will be supported by our Church, and this will be a testimony of the unity among the Orthodox".

“The jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, headed by Metropolitan Onuphry, will be supported by our Church, and this will be a testimony of the unity among the Orthodox.”

Patriarch Porfirije

This unity shows the need to observe the conciliar structure of the Church, its dogmatic and canonical purity. It is also expressed in relation to each other. Thus, Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus reminded the Phanariots and their supporters that Metropolitan Onuphry and the UOC “were recognized by everyone: our Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greece, Alexandria, and Jerusalem — all Local Orthodox Churches until recently recognized that he is the canonical bishop of Kyiv, the Archbishop of All Ukraine".

However, in the opinion of the head of the Phanar, the recognition of the OCU must be considered as a "testimony to the unity" of Orthodoxy. Commenting on the decision of the primates of the Alexandrian, Greek and Cypriot Churches to include the name of Dumenko in their diptychs, Patriarch Bartholomew said that this is "a significant contribution to the unity of Orthodoxy as a practical consequence and expression of its ecclesiology". According to Patriarch Bartholomew, "Ukrainian autocephaly is a finalized church event, and the only ecclesiologically consistent position is the recognition of it by Orthodox brothers-primates as it happened with the autocephaly of all the younger brothers of the Orthodox Churches from the Russian Church."

The opinion of the Serbian Patriarch that the recognition and support of the UOC is a "testimony to the unity among the Orthodox" completely contradicts the position of the Phanar head.

The opinion of the Serbian Patriarch that the recognition and support of the UOC is a "testimony to the unity among the Orthodox" completely contradicts the position of the Phanar head. 

Moreover, this opinion today is shared by the majority of Orthodox Churches that are in canonical unity with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Whatever it may be, with his words, Patriarch Porfirije outlined several significant points that should be paid more attention to in polemics with supporters of the OCU.

Firstly, the life of the Church depends not only on dogmatic purity but also on the canonical order.

Secondly, we should not speak about the “side” of the Phanar or Moscow but exclusively about the “side” of Christ. In "Ukrainian", as in any other "question", it is neither sympathy nor national or political interests that should prevail, but exclusively the desire to remain in Christ and with Christ.

Thirdly, the canonical order can be secured by the support for the UOC.

And fourthly, Patriarch Porfirije made it clear to the representatives of the Ukrainian schism that in his person they received an implacable supporter of the Church canons. This means that no recognition of the OCU by the Serbian Orthodox Church is expected.

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