The outcomes of the ROC Synod: a turning point in the history of Orthodoxy?

The ROC Synod may have fateful consequences for Orthodoxy. Photo: UOJ

The ROC Synod made important decisions: an assessment of the Phanar head’s visit to Ukraine and preparation for the creation of an MP structure on the African continent.

On September 23–24, 2021, a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church took place. Its results can, without exaggeration, become a turning point in the history of Orthodoxy.

The journals of the meeting of the Holy Synod, in addition to information about the visits of His Holiness Patriarch to various eparchies, the approval of liturgical texts and personnel appointments, contain two decisions that can have far-reaching consequences not only for the Russian Orthodox Church but for the entire Orthodoxy. This is an assessment of the visit of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to Kiev in August 2021 and the decision to prepare for the creation of a new church hierarchy on the African continent.

Assessment of the Phanar head’s visit to Kiev

The assessment of the visit is preceded by a brief summary of the history of the emergence and development of the current church conflict. It is useful to recall it here in a few theses:

  • over the past decades, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has repeatedly encroached on the canonical territory of the ROC, which caused condemnation on the latter. Since 2018, these attacks have become systematic;
  • on September 8, 2018, the Holy Synod of the ROC condemned the appointment of two hierarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople as “exarchs” in Ukraine and stated that “full responsibility for these anti-canonical acts lies personally with Patriarch Bartholomew and those persons in the Church of Constantinople who support them”;
  • on September 14, 2018, the Holy Synod of the ROC set out in a detailed form the canonical position of the Russian Orthodox Church in connection with the illegal intrusion of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in its canonical territory and decided to terminate the prayer commemoration of Patriarch Bartholomew at divine services, the concelebration with the Phanar hierarchs and participation in all commissions and structures headed by Constantinople representatives;
  • on October 11, 2018, the Patriarchate of Constantinople announced the "cancellation" of the Letter of 1686 on the transfer of the Kiev Metropolis to the Moscow Patriarchate and the " reinstatement in the priesthood" of the leaders of schismatic groups together with their followers;
  • on October 15, 2018, the Holy Synod of the ROC condemned these illegal actions of the Phanar and broke off Eucharistic communion with it;
  • on November 13, 2018, the Council of Bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church unanimously condemned the intervention of Constantinople and confirmed the break of Eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople;
  • on December 15, 2018, with the participation of the Phanar hierarchs and under the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, the so-called "Unification Council" was held, at which the so-called Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was created;
  • on December 17, 2018, the Holy Synod of the UOC recognized the “Unification Council” as an illegitimate schismatic assembly and banned two hierarchs of the UOC (Shostatsky and Drabinko) who participated in it.

An assessment of the visit of Patriarch Bartholomew is contained in the first paragraph of the Synod's Resolution: "To recognize the arrival of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in Kiev <...> as a gross violation of the canons, in particular, Canon 3 of the Council of Sardica and Canon 13 of the Council of Antioch."

The Holy Synod stated that the anti-canonical actions of Patriarch Bartholomew continue and are aimed at destroying the unity of Orthodoxy. It highlighted the purely political nature of the visit, as well as the dependence of Patriarch Bartholomew on external forces (read the U.S. Department of State).

The ROC Synod expressed support for the UOC and its Primate, Metropolitan Onuphry, and stated that the ROC itself remains faithful to the holy canons of the Church and calls on everyone to “pan-Orthodox discussion of the situation in world Orthodoxy”, and that “the responsibility for undermining the unity of the Orthodox Church lies entirely with the Patriarch Bartholomew".

All this is logical and correct, but there are several alarming points in the Resolution of the ROC Synod.

In particular, this is clause 4: “Preserving the grateful memory of the merits of the Holy Church of Constantinople in enlightening Rus’ with the light of Christ's faith, to emphasize that the noble exploits of the ever-memorable Holy Patriarchs of Constantinople in the past do not justify the current canonical crimes of Patriarch Bartholomew, who supported the schism and entered into church communion with persons who call themselves Orthodox bishops but do not have canonical ordination." It is alarming here that the Synod, listing the crimes of the Phanar head, mentioned the support for schismatics and communion with persons who do not have ordinations but did not say anything about the main reason for all this to become possible, namely, the claim to primacy in the Church, the heresy of "Constantinople papism". But this is the root of all anti-canonical actions of the Phanar. Without pointing out this ground for all the crimes of Patriarch Bartholomew, without saying that first of all it is necessary to fight this heresy as it threatens the entire teaching about the Church, it is impossible to overcome the consequences.

It is alarming here that the Synod, listing the crimes of the Phanar head, did not say anything about the main reason – the claim to primacy in the Church, the heresy of "Constantinople papism".

The next clause 5 raises even more questions.

It sounds like this: “It should be noted that by supporting the schism in Ukraine, Patriarch Bartholomew lost the trust of millions of believers. To emphasize that in conditions when the majority of Orthodox believers in the world are not in church communion with him, he no longer has the right to speak on behalf of the entire world Orthodoxy and represent himself as its leader." How to understand the phrase: "He no longer has the right to speak on behalf of the entire world Orthodoxy"? Does this mean that earlier, before the break of Eucharistic communion, he had such a right? That he had "the trust of millions of believers"? And how does this agree with the words of the same Journal No. 60 of the Synod, which says that until 2018, i.e. before the break of Eucharistic communion, the Phanar encroached on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church? It turns out that by committing this encroachment, Patriarch Bartholomew had the right to speak on behalf of Orthodoxy and consider himself its leader?

We can certainly say that this is just an unfortunate wording of the Resolution of the Synod, which will not entail significant consequences, but the matter is not so simple. In preparation for the Crete Council of 2016, which was conceived as pan-Orthodox, i.e. would have practically the same authority as the Ecumenical Councils, the representatives of the Local Churches were almost ready to recognize some leadership for the Patriarchate of Constantinople and to assign coordinating functions to it. All this was reflected in the final documents of the Crete Council, which did not become pan-Orthodox by the Providence of God.

Now Patriarch Bartholomew is exerting significant pressure on the Local Churches to make them recognize the decisions of the Crete Council as universally binding. However, the assignment of these coordination functions to Patriarch Bartholomew automatically deprives any other Primate of the opportunity to exercise them at the pan-Orthodox level. That is, we get the light version of “papism”. The words from the really unfortunate wording of the Resolution of the Synod of the ROC are the consequences of this former readiness of the ROC Department for External Church Relations to recognize the leadership and coordination function of the Phanar head. Now, when it has already become clear what this "leadership" will result in, we must not allow this "coordination" to become a compromise in a possible settlement of today's church crisis.

Parallel hierarchy in Africa

Of course, there is no word about parallel jurisdiction in Journal No. 61 of the Synodal Resolutions, which concerns the Alexandrian Church. But the essence of the decision made is really the following: since the Alexandrian Church entered into communion with the schismatics and thus fell into schism, the ROC has the canonical right to accept Orthodox communities in Africa into its jurisdiction.

This decision is also preceded by a note describing the betrayal of the Alexandrian Patriarch Theodore, which he did not even bother to cover up with a fig leaf.

Back in September 2018, he came to Odessa, concelebrated with Metropolitan Onuphry and declared: “Stay in the Orthodox faith! Stay in the canonical Church! There have been difficult times in the history of our Church, but in Ukraine, in this blessed Orthodox country, there is a canonical Church, there is our Beatitude brother Onuphry – a blessed man from God and a true monk. <...> I will try on my own to inform everyone about the situation in Ukraine ... The Ukrainian Church must remain in its canonicity. There is no need for us to give Her anything more since She already has it as the Orthodox Church of Christ. The great sin for which we will give an answer at the Second Coming will be if at least one drop of blood is shed."

But already in November 2019, he commemorated Sergei (Epiphany) Dumenko as “His Beatitude Metropolitan of Kiev” and further only exacerbated his betrayal, expressing all kinds of support to the OCU and “forgetting” about the existence of Metropolitan Onuphry in general.

And if at first there was still hope that Patriarch Theodore would listen to the voice of conscience and change his decision, now there is no trace of this hope left. On July 28, 2021, the Primate of the Church of Alexandria sent to Kiev his official representative, Bishop Theodore of Babylon, who read out greetings on behalf of the Patriarch of Alexandria. And on August 13, 2021, on the Island of Imbros (Turkey), Patriarch Theodore concelebrated the Divine Liturgy with Patriarch Bartholomew and Sergei Dumenko, to whom he declared his strong support. After that, it became obvious that Patriarch Theodore burned all the bridges behind him and was not going to return to the observance of Orthodox canons, just like Patriarch Bartholomew, by the way.

But worst of all is that not a single bishop of the Church of Alexandria has so far expressed his disagreement with the anti-canonical actions of Patriarch Theodore and declared the impossibility of recognizing the schismatics. This contrasts with the situation in two other Local Churches that “recognized” the OCU: Cyprus and Greece. There, the most authoritative bishops expressed their categorical disagreement with the actions of their primates and stated that they did not recognize and would not recognize the Ukrainian schismatics in the future.

On December 26, 2019, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church broke off Eucharistic communion with Patriarch Theodore, as well as those bishops of the Alexandrian Church who would support his recognition of the OCU. Now it has become obvious that all the Alexandrian bishops tacitly attributed themselves to such ones.

However, many church communities in Africa and the clergy did not agree with the betrayal of their primate and the episcopate. They began to send petitions to the Moscow Patriarchate for admission to the jurisdiction of the ROC, to which the Patriarchate did not officially react in any way, hoping that Patriarch Theodore would repent of his betrayal. But now it's time to act. So, the Holy Synod decided to take the first step towards accepting them into its jurisdiction, or, in other words, towards creating in Africa a church structure parallel to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. To this end, the Synod instructed the Deputy Chairman of the ROC DECR "His Grace Archbishop Leonid of Vladikavkaz and Alania, after a thorough study of the appeals received, to submit proposals to the Holy Synod".

The principal decision on African parishes has been made, and the proposals mentioned will concern the form in which such admission to jurisdiction will take place, and how these parishes will be subsequently managed.

Thus, the principal decision on such parishes has been made, and the proposals mentioned will concern the form in which such admission to jurisdiction will take place, and how these parishes will be subsequently managed. Archbishop Leonid himself was dismissed by the Synod from the post of bishop in the Vladikavkaz and Alania diocese and appointed vicar of the Moscow Patriarch. This means that the ROC is launching serious work on Africa, and Vladyka Leonid simply will not have the opportunity to govern the diocese. From 2004 to 2013, Archbishop Leonid served as a representative of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ to the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, repeatedly went on business trips to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Greece and other countries. He is personally familiar with the communities and clergy of African countries and knows the situation, as they say, from the inside.

This means that the schism in Orthodoxy, which Patriarch Bartholomew created with his anti-canonical actions, and for which he bears personal responsibility, has taken place and is beginning to take its organizational forms. A return to the situation that was in Orthodoxy before 2018 is becoming less and less possible. It's hard to imagine what needs to happen for everything to return to normal. Patriarch Bartholomew will address the entire Orthodox world and say: forgive me, brethren, I have sinned, and deny all my heresies and delusions? And after him, the Primates of the Alexandrian, Cypriot and Greek Churches will withdraw their recognition of the OCU and return to the canonical field? Everything is possible, but another scenario seems more likely: the decision of the ROC Synod on the possible acceptance of African communities into its jurisdiction will cause a sharply negative reaction from the Church of Alexandria. The clerics who have moved to the Russian Orthodox Church will be Under the priesthood ban. There will be attempts to defend parishes and churches. The Churches of Constantinople, Cyprus and Greece will be forced to support their Alexandrian counterpart. The schism will enhance more and become irreversible. Officials of the U.S. Department of State, who decided to split Orthodoxy with the hands of Patriarch Bartholomew, can celebrate the victory: their plan worked.

Patriarch Bartholomew will address the entire Orthodox world and say: forgive me, brethren, I have sinned, and deny all my heresies and delusions?

Is the ROC Synod's decision correct? The answer to this question lies in the plane of prioritization: what is more important for us – the purity of faith or the visible unity of the Church. In other words, do we agree, for the sake of preserving this visible unity, to tacitly endure the heresy of "Constantinople papism", to agree with the violation of the sacred canons by representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople? The historical experience of the Church testifies that the fathers of the Ecumenical Councils did not make any compromises on the issue of true doctrine, they called heresy and false teaching false what they were. They watched with sorrow as some parts of the Church did not agree to accept this truth and broke away from Orthodoxy, but they did not sacrifice the Truth for the sake of visible unity. Therefore, the decision of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church must be recognized as correct, and those who fell into schism must be regretted and prayed for so that the Lord would reason with them and direct them to the true path.

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