Conference in Moscow: run-up to the Council on the heresy of Phanar?

In Moscow, the hierarchs of the Local Churches gave an assessment of the new ecclesiology of Phanar. Photo: UOJ

At a conference in Moscow, hierarchs of the Local Churches assessed Phanar's new ecclesiology of primacy. Will this event be the basis for the ROC Council decisions?

The conference "World Orthodoxy: Primacy and Conciliarity in the Light of the Orthodox Doctrine" was held in Moscow. It is obviously directed against the anti-canonical actions of Phanar, but what character this struggle can take and what it can lead to is a question that has not yet been resolved. We offer an analytical overview of the speeches of the participants of the conference, as well as the ecclesiastic and near-ecclesiastic situation in which it was held.

Background: the creation of the OCU and the response of the UOC and the ROC

On October 11, 2018, at its meeting, the Synod of the Church of Constantinople adopted a document declaring the abolition of the transfer of the Kiev Metropolis to the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686, the acceptance of Filaret Denisenko, Makariy Maletich and all their followers, i.e. UOC-KP and UAOC, in the "bosom of the Church", and also that the Patriarchate of Constantinople continues the process of granting "autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine." In response to this, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on October 15, 2018 adopted a Statement, the essence of which boils down to the following theses:

  • schism, like any other sin, is healed by repentance and nothing else, otherwise it remains schism and sin;
  • the Constantinople hierarchs, who decided to enter into communion with the Ukrainian schismatics, did not admit them to the communion in the Church, but, on the contrary, identified themselves with the schismatics;
  • since the Phanar thus backslid into schism, there can be no Eucharistic communion with it, just as there cannot be any communion with those bishops, clergy and laity of the UOC who will enter into communion with schismatics.

Consequently, the Eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople was terminated. A similar decision is contained in the Resolution of the Council of Bishops of the UOC of November 13, 2018: “Having taken such anti-canonical decisions, recognizing the schismatics in their existing ranks, the Patriarchate of Constantinople itself embarked on the path of schism, according to church canons. In this regard, the Eucharistic communion of the UOC with the Constantinople Patriarchate is currently impossible and ceased."

At the beginning of December 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew sent letters to the bishops of the UOC, inviting them to appear on December 15, 2018 at the so-called "unification Council" together with the "episcopate" of the UOC-KP and the UAOC. All these letters were sent back to Phanar unopened. Only two bishops attended the “unification council”, who at that time had already declared themselves to have passed into the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As a result of the "Council" on December 15, 2018, by the merger of two schismatic organizations, the UOC-KP and the UAOC, the so-called Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was formed. Two days later, the Holy Synod of the UOC adopted an Address to the Faithful, in which it stated that the OCU “is an association of schismatics and has nothing to do with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In fact, nothing has changed for our Church since the schismatics have remained in schism, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remains the true Church of Christ in Ukraine,” and also called on believers to remain faithful to Christ and His Church.

Since then, the schismatics, backed by state authorities, have been waging an open struggle with the UOC, which ended up with the adoption of anti-church bills, illegal re-registration of communities in the OCU, forcible seizures of churches and other illegal actions.

Phanar claims to be the first without equals

The concept, according to which the head of the Church of Constantinople is the most important bishop in the Church and has only his own inherent powers, was worded in the article by Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis) “The First Without Equals. Response of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to the document on primacy adopted by the Moscow Patriarchate. " The quintessence of the arguments of Metropolitan Elpidophoros on this topic is the following: “If we talk about the source of primacy, then the source of primacy is the very person, the Archbishop of Constantinople, who as a bishop is the first ‘among equals’, but as the Archbishop of Constantinople, he is the first hierarch without equal (primus sine paribus)."

As in the case of the claims of the Pope, Patriarch Bartholomew's claims to the headship provoked a natural backlash from the Church, which raised its voice against the introduction of this false teaching into the Church that rejected this teaching almost a thousand years ago.

Patriarch Bartholomew himself has repeatedly stated that he is actually the head of all Orthodoxy. For example, in November 2020, in an interview on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of the throne of Constantinople, he said, “We, the Orthodox, must be self-critical and reconsider our ecclesiology if we do not want to become a federation of Protestant Churches. Since in our ordination to a Bishop we swear to obey the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, we must admit that in an indivisible Ecumenical Orthodoxy there is a "First" not only by honour, but a "First" with special responsibilities and regular powers entrusted by the Ecumenical Councils. This is a guarantee of ensuring the unity in time and a common witness of Orthodoxy in the modern world."

In his speech at the Synaxis on September 1, 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew declared his right to be the supreme judge over all bishops: “It’s worth recalling the opinion of the canonist Miodrag Petrovich that ‘only the Archbishop of Constantinople has the privilege of judging and metropolitans of other patriarchs’."

Here is another similar quote from the speech of Patriarch Bartholomew: “Some people erroneously believe that they can love the Orthodox Church but not the Ecumenical Patriarchate, forgetting that it embodies the true ecclesiastical character of Orthodoxy. <…> ‘In the beginning was the Word ... In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind’ (John 1, 1, 4). The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate, ‘there is life in it, and that life is the light of the Churches.’ The late Metropolitan Kirill of Gorty and Arcadia, beloved hierarch of the Mother Church and my friend, was right when he stressed that ‘Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate.’ <…> For Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate serves as the yeast that ‘works through the whole batch of dough’ (Gal. 5: 9).”

In his turn, Metropolitan Amphilochios of Adrianople (Patriarchate of Constantinople) directly stated that Phanar is the source of existence for any Local Church: “The Orthodox Church without the Ecumenical Patriarchate would be a kind of Protestantism ... It is inconceivable that some Local Church ... terminated its communion with it (Ecumenical Patriarchate – Ed.), since the canonicity of its existence flows from it."

All this directly contradicts the Orthodox teaching about the Church, according to which we believe "In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church", as well as the two thousand year history of the Church, which testifies that none of the bishops ever encroached on the headship in the Church. A similar encroachment on this headship by the Pope led to the fact that Catholics cut themselves off from the Church of Christ. Accordingly, the Church recognized papism as heresy, a doctrine incompatible with Orthodoxy.

Nowadays such claims are put forward by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. And just as in the case of the claims of the Roman Pope, the claims of Patriarch Bartholomew to the headship caused a natural response of the Church, which raised its voice against the introduction of this false teaching into the Church, which was rejected by the Church almost a thousand years ago.

Holding a conference is a way to combat the heresy of "Constantinople papism". Its implementation is very relevant. We can say that it is not only ripe, but also overripe.

Thus, holding the conference "World Orthodoxy: Primacy and Sobornost in the Light of the Orthodox Doctrine" is a way to combat the heresy of "Constantinople's papism". Its implementation is very relevant. We can say that it is not only ripe, but also overripe, since during the time that has passed since the first anti-canonical decisions of Phanar, viz. almost three years, Patriarch Bartholomew not only did give up furthering of this heresy, but continues even more to persist in it. Moreover, he tries to attract hierarchs from other Local Churches to his side.

What was brought up at the conference

In the format of this article, it is not possible to analyze all the speeches, so we will dwell only on some of them.

The conference opened with a welcoming speech from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus. Regarding the relevance of the conference, he said, “The topic, which we are starting to consider today, leaves no doubt about its importance and relevance. The state of affairs in the family of Local Orthodox Churches is of great concern. The situation in the Orthodox world can be assessed as precarious. The crisis is clearly evidenced by serious controversies among the Orthodox in terms of understanding the structure of Ecumenical Orthodoxy, notions of primacy and conciliarity, correlation of the canonical structure of the Church with acts in the field of church administration."

At the same time, Patriarch Kirill said that one of the main reasons for the emergence of the crisis was the purposeful interference of politicians in ecclesiastic affairs. The purpose of this intervention is an attempt to split Orthodoxy by dividing it into “Greek” and “Slavic”. “Moreover, it is quite obvious that there is a tendency to create a mediastinum, if not to tear apart Greek Orthodoxy, Mediterranean Orthodoxy from Slavic Orthodoxy altogether, from the Russian Orthodox Church in the first line. It aims to reproduce the model of the schism of 1054 and thereby weaken the Orthodox Church ...” said His Holiness the Patriarch.

On the issue of granting autocephaly, Patriarch Kirill noted that during the preparations for the Cretan Council in 2016, which did not become a Pan-Orthodox Council, the representatives of the Local Churches made a fundamental decision: autocephaly can be granted only with the consent of all universally recognized Local Orthodox Churches. This decision was not included in the draft final documents at the request of the Patriarch of Constantinople. After the Council of Crete, which Patriarch Bartholomew continues to call "pan-Orthodox", he declared that he had allegedly received from the apostles the right to grant autocephaly to anyone he liked, without the consent of other Local Churches.

Patriarch Kirill emphasized that the concept of "the first without equals" is a new ecclesiology, which "has no basis either in the sacred canons or in the whole Church Tradition." A practical manifestation of this ecclesiology was the invasion of Ukraine by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Moreover, this situation can serve for a more accurate clarification and formulation of the Orthodox teaching about the Church. “Meanwhile, in the history of the Church there have often been cases when critical situations gave impetus for a more thorough understanding of the doctrine and various practical issues of church life. I am convinced that we need a theological analysis of what is happening in Ecumenical Orthodoxy nowadays,” said the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Among the tasks facing the conference, Patriarch Kirill named:

  • analysis of the ecclesiological reasons for the current church crisis;
  • the need for a theological and canonical assessment of acts that stem from misunderstanding of primacy.

Bishop Irinej (Bulovic) of Bačka of the Serbian Orthodox Church presented a report “Church autocephaly yesterday and today”. On the issue of Patriarch Bartholomew's granting autocephaly to Ukrainian schismatics, Bishop Irinej said the following: “Autocephaly should be a confirmation and consolidation of the conciliarity and unity of the Church, but in fact it has become a wall of temptation and a stumbling block. It not only fails to contribute to consolidation of the Orthodox faith and growth of the body of the Ecumenical Orthodox Church, but above all does not serve the pastoral soteriological efforts to save the souls of all believers."

Vladyka Irinej described the actions of Phanar as "canonical disorder, canonical anarchy, interference and invasion of the canonical territory of other Local Orthodox Churches ..." expressing regret that "the pastoral aspect and the soteriological perspective of the Church's activities in the world are becoming minor or even ignored."

Bishop Bishop Irinej of Bačka described the actions of Phanar as "canonical disorder, canonical anarchy, interference and invasion of the canonical territory of other Local Orthodox Churches."

Further development of the situation may, in his opinion, lead to a split similar to the events of 1054, when the Catholic Church broke away from Orthodoxy. “The situation is very tragic and dangerous, but I am sure that both on the day of Pentecost and throughout the entire history of the Church, the Holy Spirit guides the Church. The Savior convinces us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, cannot overcome Her, and I am sure that there will be some solution. Because if this split lasts too long, then, unfortunately, a new split, like the one in the 11th century, will be inevitable, with the blame will being on those who caused such a split. I wish our Lord could prevent this from happening, and somehow the situation could heal with time,” said Metropolitan Irinej.

Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia (Jerusalem Orthodox Church) expressed support for the ROC and stated that the Holy Land tirelessly prays for the healing of the schism and recognizes the only canonical Church in Ukraine – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its head, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv and All Ukraine.

In his welcoming address to the conference participants, Metropolitan Isaiah of Tamassos and Orinis (Orthodox Church of Cyprus) drew attention to the pressure exerted on the bishops of the Cypriot Church. “From the beginning of the church crisis, it was not at all easy for Metropolitan Nikiphoros, for me, and for other Cypriot bishops, to write, speak and generally address the Ukrainian issue. You know that geopolitical events are forcing Cyprus to follow the course of the Euro-American policy with all the ensuing consequences. Despite this, we do speak and write, and we also beg God to enlighten us in order ‘to correctly handle the word of truth" as our hierarchical conscience tells us despite the negative implications we might face."

At the conference, a report by Metropolitan Nikiforos of Kykkos and Tillyria (Orthodox Church of Cyprus) was read by video link, in which he noted that “the ambitions of the Ecumenical Patriarch now affect the entire Church: in fact, he puts forward claims for the right to interfere in the internal life of all Local Orthodox Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches”, this being in serious conflict with the canonical structure of the Church. “For two millennia of its history, the Orthodox Church has not endowed any of its bishops with the title and competences of the Head of the Church,” Vladyka Nikiforos said.

At the same time, the Church has always considered the Lord Jesus Christ as the only head of the Church, and endowed the Ecumenical Councils with the highest competence in managing the Church. “Consequently, it doesn’t get any more straightforward that that – moreover, this can be justified historically, canonically, dogmatically, proceeding from the iconographic tradition and the writings of the fathers – that none of the Primates, Patriarchs or heads of the Autocephalous Churches can replace the only unchanging Head of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church in its conciliarity and catholicity has no other Head than our Lord Jesus Christ,” said Metropolitan Nikiforos.

Metropolitan Andrei of Gori and Athena (Georgian Orthodox Church) gave a historical account of the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church and noted that until its independence, the Georgian Church used to be in canonical subordination not to the Constantinople, but to the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

Another representative of the Georgian Church, the rector of the Tbilisi Theological Academy and Seminary, Protopresbyter Georgy Zviadadze, presented a report on the issue of primacy in the era of Ecumenical Councils, in which he noted that claims to the primacy of a single bishop contradict the very nature of the Church: the Council of Bishops – the Local or, if circumstances require so, the Ecumenical – is the higher instance to resolve all religious-canonical issues. The synodal principle implies that the highest governing bodies of the Orthodox Church are not of a single character, as is customary in the Catholic Church."

He also linked the teaching of the Church with the teaching of the Holy Eucharist. “From the Holy Eucharist proceeds not only the unity of all Local Churches, but also respect for the ecclesiastical integrity and catholicity of each Local Church. Unity at the universal level, which belittles the integrity and catholicity of any Local Autocephalous Church, is contrary to Eucharistic ecclesiology,” Fr. Georgy said. In the conclusion of his report, he stated that "the existence of any administrative center at a universal level, which would have administrative powers, is completely alien to church canonical practice."

Also, the reports of two Ukrainian bishops were presented via video link: the rector of the Kyiv Theological Academy and the Seminary, Bishop Sylvester of Belogorodka and the Chairman of the Theological and Canonical Commission, Metropolitan Augustin of Bila Tserkva and Boguslav.

Vladyka Sylvester presented a report on the topic "Reflection of the Doctrine of the Primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Regulatory Documents of the OCU", in which he noted that Patriarch Bartholomew "consistently used the Ukrainian church situation in order to declare his special status among the Local Orthodox Churches." The UOC hierarch confirmed his conclusions by referring to the Statute of the OCU. “According to the statuteof the OCU, the power of the Patriarch of Constantinople goes beyond the framework of the Church of Constantinople and has a universal character. This places the Patriarchal throne of Constantinople above all other Local Churches,” said Bishop Sylvester. The report also declared the inadmissibility of Patriarch Bartholomew's claims to exclusive powers in the Church. “The Patriarch of Constantinople arrogates to himself the exclusive right to issue tomos on autocephaly of Local Orthodox Churches, to consider appeals from clerics of all Local Churches against decisions of church courts and to exercise spiritual leadership of the Orthodox Diaspora. <...> This understanding of primacy by the Ecumenical Church has been directly rejected by the Russian Orthodox Church," Vladyka Sylvester emphasized.

The report of Metropolitan Augustine of Bila Tserkva and Boguslav was devoted to the topic "Canonical Collision in the Interference of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Issues of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church". In his speech, Vladyka stated that “the actual recognition by the Patriarch of Constantinople of the schismatic ‘hierarchy’ consisting of persons ordained by schismatic bishops and excommunicated from the Church, who are subject to bans and anathematization by the Councils of Bishops of the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches, is an explicit challenge to all Local Orthodox Churches.” According to Metropolitan Augustine, today's problems should be viewed from the point of view of both history and eternal life. “After some time, when the fleeting socially- and politically-biased priorities of legitimacy and handshake will sink into oblivion, only issues and values that are above and beyond these categories will remain relevant for Ecumenical Orthodoxy. And in the face of God and the history of the Church, all those who were involved in these historical events and their consequences will bear responsibility: from initiators to those who create information noise against their background,” said Vladyka Augustine.

Significance of the conference and future prospects

As mentioned above, this conference is long overdue. The anti-canonical actions of Phanar had to be given a proper theological assessment, and such an assessment was given not only by the theologians of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also by representatives of other Local Churches: Jerusalem, Serbia, Cyprus and Georgia. It’s noteworthy that while the participation of Bishop Irinej of Bačka is natural, since the Serbian Church from the very beginning of the current church crisis that followed the anti-canonical intervention of Phanar in the Ukrainian church affairs took a clear and consistent position of rejection of these actions, then the participation of representatives of the Jerusalem and especially the Georgian Churches is rather indicative.

Recently, both the diplomats of the US State Department and the Phanariots have been exercising strong pressure on these Churches to force them to recognize the OCU. Therefore, the participation of representatives of these Churches in the Moscow Conference is in itself quite revealing. Particularly noteworthy is the participation of two metropolitans of the Cypriot Church, which "recognized" the OCU. The word "recognition" is not used in quotation marks by accident. The speeches of Metropolitans Isaiah and Nikiforos testify that one can speak of the recognition of the OCU only by a part of the Cypriot bishops, rather than the entire Church of Cyprus, as the OCU claims.

The near-term outlook for the developments after the conference is the holding of the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in November 2021, at which the Phanar's actions will be assessed at the level of the hierarchy.

The near-term outlook for the developments after the conference is the holding of the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in November 2021, at which the Phanar's actions will be assessed at the level of the hierarchy. His Holiness Patriarch Kirill said about this: “I would like to note particularly the importance of this conference, because the upcoming Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church will assess what we are now witnessing in the Orthodox world, and if it pleases the Holy Spirit and the assembled bishops, it will make a decision regarding the position of our Church in relation to the acts of Constantinople.”

Another possible event that this conference is preparing for may be the next meeting of representatives of the Local Churches in Amman. Patriarch Kirill expressed himself quite diplomatically about such a possibility, thanking the Patriarch of Jerusalem for organizing the previous meeting in February 2020.

“We welcomed the initiative of His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and All Palestine to convene an inter-Orthodox conference in Amman and took part in it. The Primate of the most ancient Church, referred to as the ‘Mother of Churches’ in the liturgical texts, courageously took upon himself a noble mission, providing the Local Orthodox Churches with a platform for discussions as the Patriarch of Constantinople actually deprived himself of the opportunity to convene such conferences,” said His Holiness the Patriarch.

In general, it can be stated that in response to the persistent attempts on the part of Patriarch Bartholomew to impose the idea of his supremacy in Orthodoxy, there is a consolidation of efforts of Local Churches, theologians and hierarchs, who consider these ideas heretical and actively oppose them. This gives rise to hope that the current crisis in the Church will be overcome, while the current schism will be healed in strict accordance with the doctrine and canons of the Church.

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