13 October 2018

Meekness and generosity are the way out

The recent crisis in worldwide Orthodoxy over Ukrainian autocephaly has reached a new and dangerous precipice, with the Œcumenical Patriarchate unilaterally lifting the anathemas on the schismatic body of the ‘Kiev Patriarchate’ and establishing communion with them. This action, more so than any the Moscow Patriarchate has taken yet, is probably closer to a ‘nuclear option’ than any that has been taken so far. And my first and foremost reaction has been one of grief. I had indeed hoped that the calls for sobornyi unity and a conciliar solution to the autocephaly problem issuing, not only from my own church, but also from the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Cyprus, Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia and the Czech and Slovak Lands, would be enough to make the Œcumenical Patriarch reconsider. Unfortunately, it looks as though we were mistaken. With our Arab brothers we have to mourn how far we have lost sight of Christ.

N.b., how the Orthodox ecclesiastical expressions in the non-aligned global south are arrayed on this: Yugoslavia, Asia, Africa. And then note how the wealthy and well-connected local Orthodox churches in the West are aligned. If Wallerstein were Orthodox, he might have a thing or two to say about this – and even though he isn’t Orthodox, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t listen to him. The political schema of ‘core’, ‘semi-periphery’ and ‘periphery’ is equally valid here: and the ‘periphery’ clearly doesn’t want this to come to a full-blown schism within the Church. But that is what it is looking like, more and more.

This grieves me deeply. The problem with the Orthodox Church is that we have both the ideal and the imperfect historical realisations of sobornost’ before us. But we have yet to embrace them of our own will in the absence of an Emperor. This leaves us in a precarious situation in which the realms of politics and ecclesiastical affairs are confused. There are serious questions raised by this controversy which require answers found in the light of truth and in the light of agapē, but which are relegated to the corners by political concerns. How is church autocephaly decided? What is the correct relation of the Church to the State? What is the correct relation of the Church to the ethnic-linguistic nation? To what extent, and on whose behalf, should the Church involve itself in questions of political action? I believe that the Orthodox Church as a whole already possesses the correct approaches to these questions. (I am also far from neutral on this question: I believe that the attitudes and actions of the government of the Ukraine and the Œcumenical Patriarchate are fundamentally at odds with that approach.) However, we, the believers – and that includes priests, monks, metropolitans and patriarchs as well as us laymen – are darkened by self-love, by selfish interests and calculations, by desire for power. Says the Master of all in the Gospel of St Mark,
Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
With the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople squabbling and fighting like James and John over who gets the power and the glory and who gets to sit at the right hand, is there anyone among us in this entire situation who can be found willing to be the ‘servant of all’ after Christ’s word to His apostles? For the life of me, the only one I can see in this entire mess, who has been even imperfectly a public exemplar of this ethic of servanthood rather than mastery and lust for dominance, has been Metropolitan Onufriy – and it is his lack of political ambition which has made him a hated figure in the eyes of the legal scribes, princes and powers. Given the threats he faces, would it be too great a stretch to say that Metropolitan Onufriy, in his powerlessness and studied neutrality, is arrayed against Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas, who seem to have decided between them that it would be preferable for one man – and his part of the Orthodox Church – to die for the sake of the nation?

In the meantime, we cannot pretend that the current bone of contention has nothing to do with us, the Orthodox Church in America. The problem is here, with us. Though our origins are in the missions of the Russian Church to the Native Alaskans, the pivot of our historical witness has been the immigration of Ruthenians to these shores, including from the territory which is now included in the Ukraine, and their reconversion to Orthodoxy through resistance to the combined ideological power of capitalism, assimilationism and Americanist Catholicism. The American Orthodox witness reached back into the ‘old country’ through people like Holy Father Aleksei of Khust, to the chagrin of the Austrian-Hungarian authorities.

We, the laypeople of the Orthodox Church in America, are tied to both sides of this conflict in the Ukraine, by blood and water. Through the imagery, that is to say the iconographic imagery of ‘blood and water’, it should not be lost on us that we are called to be crucified with them. Given this history, and given our habitual silence in the face of the wrongs committed by our government, it may be up to us to show meekness in defiance of our own culture, in defiance of the flesh and in defiance of the reigning political logic. Perhaps we could do so by offering up, without defence, our own disputed tomos of autocephaly to a pan-Orthodox synaxis. We would then humbly abide by their judgement in the hopes that a principle and a body for church autocephaly might result. I am not saying that this is the answer or even the preferable course of action. But I do suspect that it will take such conscious acts of meekness and aggressive generosity to undo the Gordian knot of suspicion, cynicism, imperial legacy, ethnic-national and ecclesiastical pride that has only tightened with every pull made by a powerful Patriarch.

The hour is later than we think. Already, we must observe, the Church’s enemies are exulting in our confusion and selfish quarrelling; they believe they have scored a victory. Even though, as Fr Andrew (Damick) puts it, we do not refer victories and losses to ‘the immanent frame’, we still participate (or refuse to participate) in the final victory of Christ through our words and actions here and now. May we not be found jostling over who is greatest, or worse still plotting to kill the Heir to the vineyard in our hearts when He comes.


  1. I take exception to your characterization that the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople are "squabbling and fighting". Everything I have read from both camps has been measured. Have you personally witnessed or do you know someone who has witnessed this "squabbling and fighting"?

  2. Hello, Gregory! Welcome to the blog!

    Pretty manners, glib tongues and measured statements can still hide struggles for power and position. Is not the status of Constantinople as 'primus inter pares' one of the points of contention?

  3. Thank you for writing this. No rrsson why we shouldn't invoke Wallerstein or similar scholars. The Orthodox tradition does use secular geograohical structures as a lattice for ecclesial order. We need tontake center and periphery into account. Even more so that Gospel passage.