Controversy in the Orthodox Church

One of the questions we often get now that we are baptized is “what type of Orthodox Church do you belong to? Is it the same as Greek Orthodox?” And with the war between Ukraine and Russia, these have expanded into “Were you going to Russian Orthodox Churches? What’s up with the split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church? Why is the Russian Orthodox Church siding with Putin and not condemning the war? Is Putin Orthodox?” Given all these new questions, I thought it was time to dig a little deeper into these issues to hopefully bring people a little more clarity.

Disclaimer: Whole books could be written on these subjects. To try and summarize it in a a few paragraphs grossly over-simplifies the issue and leaves out a lot of nuances and history. I love Ukraine and I will stand by it. But there has been an unfair amount of anti-Russia sentiment pointed in the wrong direction over the years. I have seen it myself, and it grieves me. Unfortunately I cannot cover it all in this blogpost, so I have tried to link sources that give more detail. They are linked both to individual points and listed altogether at the end. I would highly encourage you to read through most of them as they are typically short 5-8 minute reads and will give a lot more context than I can provide here.

Organization of the Church

There is one Orthodox Church, which holds to the same general beliefs and Traditions (big T). But within the The Church are organized groups of Churches, geographical and cultural, stemming from their place of origin. While there are small differences between their practices traditions (little t), at their core they are all the same Orthodox Church. While the Catholic Church was only doing services in Latin, the Orthodox Church was translating liturgy into the native language and allowing small differences to develop according to the culture. For example, many of the Russian Orthodox Churches (ROC) we have attended have their sermon or homily at the end of Liturgy after communion. The Serbian churches we have visited typically have the homily in between the Gospel reading and communion. The songs may have the same lyrics, but the tune is more fitting of the culture and style of the country of origin. But one of the beautiful things about it is that we can walk into almost any Orthodox Church all over the world, without knowing the language, and figure out approximately what’s going on in the service. And it feels like coming home every time.

The Churches are further categorized as either autocephalous (self-headed) or autonomous (self-governed). Both are still independent, but autonomous churches are still under the head of an autocephalous church. The difference is explained succinctly here. I like to think of autonomous dioceses as a sub church or under a mentor church. There are now 16 autocephalous churches of Orthodoxy: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Poland, Romania, Albania, America, and the “Czech Republic and Slovakia” under one. And the most recent addition is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019. Some articles still reference 14 or 15 autocephalous churches since the last 2 are so recent, and Ukraine is surrounded with controversy.

The History and Spirituality

St. Vladimir monument, Kyiv.

Both Russia and Ukraine can trace their Orthodox history to Prince Vladimir’s baptism in 988 AD, with their common ancestors the Kyivan-Rus. At the time, Kyiv was the strong central city over the land. The first reference to Moscow as its own city wasn’t until 1147 AD, nearly 160 years later. Kyiv was the center of spirituality, where the Patriarch resided. But in the year 1240 AD, Kyiv was attacked by the Mongols, and began an unfortunate decline in power and strength. In 1686, Russia conquered Kyiv and eastern Ukraine and forcibly moved the Patriarch to Moscow, where the position has remained ever since. There were many more ups and downs, including communism and the persecution of the church in Ukraine and Russia. But since Ukraine finally gained true independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was autonomous. It was independent and self-governed, but under the head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Despite abuse in the past, this was spiritually normal for Orthodoxy. We don’t like to have schisms and splits, even if we are still one Orthodox Church. The most recent Orthodox Churches to gain autocephalous status were Czech Republic and Slovakia in 2016, America in 1970, and Albania in 1937. It doesn’t just happen every few years or so. Among many Orthodox across the globe, there was not a good spiritual reason for Ukraine to split from the ROC. They believed it was purely politically motivated.

The Political Side:

St. Basil’s cathedral, Moscow.

When people hear the word Orthodoxy, if they don’t think of Greece, they think of Russia. The history stretches back 1,032 years, it contains the largest Orthodox population for any one country, and it’s colorful domed churches are iconic. Exactly how many people are Orthodox is somewhat debated. Some claim up to 70% are Orthodox, but a more practical number of practicing Orthodox Christians seem to lie around 40%. Tragically, the history of Orthodoxy in Russia has been marred by communism…and it still hasn’t recovered. Under communism, devotion to Lenin and then Stalin replaced devotion to God. They tried to wipe religion out, knowing it was a threat to their power. So much common knowledge was lost during that time as people were unable to speak freely. Priests were required to report anyone who came to them for confession to the authorities to be arrested, which developed a deep distrust of the church. Even today, according to some of our friends who have close ties to the ROC, they are less likely to partake in confession and communion (these are generalizations from the stories we have heard coming out of Russia, and do not necessarily apply to all. We have also heard of good, faithful people within the church as well). They also appear more reserved and less knowledgeable about the history, meaning of liturgy and traditions, and most shockingly, the Bible itself. Or perhaps it is not so shocking after all. After all, as much as religion can be seen as a threat to some, it is also a weapon of control in the wrong hands.

The reversal of this communist effect seems to have partially originated from Putin’s rise to power. He came to power in 2000, and in the past 2 decades Orthodoxy has been steadily increasing. On the surface level, that would seem like a good thing, right? People were returning to the church again. But his goals were political. He used the church to tie people’s identity to Russia, and the history to justify reclaiming Ukraine. This is what the Ukrainian people did not like. They did not like being under the headship of people who denied their very existence.

The Split and Controversy

St. Jonah’s monastery in Kyiv, which we visited several times, is under the ROC, and did not break away in 2019.

(Again, please remember that this is vastly over-simplified, and even the articles that I link do not go over everything. I wanted to show sources from both sides but struggled to find some from a Russian perspective.)

Ukraine has tried and failed in the past to create their own autocephalous church, in 1921, 1942, and in 1992. None were successfully recognized by any of the existing autocephalous churches. What it did create was confusion and disunity among the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. At one point there were two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, and the ROC in Ukraine. This was not ideal. Especially after the conflict in 2014 began (see Winter on Fire on Netflix for more details on when the war really started), the movement to break away from the ROC grew stronger. In an attempt to unify the churches, President Poroshenko worked with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and combined the two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches into one UOC that became autocephalous in 2018-2019. The decision was recognized by the autocephalous churches of Alexandria, Greece, and Cyprus. This was more support than previous attempts, but it was still controversial. Russia then split away from the Church of Constantinople, refusing mutual communion between them. Individual churches in Ukraine could choose which patriarch they wanted to be under: Kyiv or Moscow. It is estimated that around a third of the Ukrainian Churches under the Moscow Patriarchate switched to the Kyiv Patriarchate. It was still controversial and not entirely a “popular” decision. The majority stayed with Moscow. But now, with the full scale invasion, many more are splitting away.

This is what our priest, Father Pan, said on this complex matter: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate has the right to intervene in places, and as its spokespeople would relate, the authority to institute Churches when there’s an appeal made to them. The ROC however, having embraced those lands as her own cannot accept letting them go on the basis of administrative policy and jurisdiction. These are real people with real priests and Bishops taking care of them in the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (of ROC in this case). It remains to be determined if canonical rights over established unity are the best safeguards for Church peace and the continuation of Church life.”

The Current War

Russian Patriarch Kirill also has gotten very dangerously political in his speeches and homilies (sermons), especially since the war began. At first I thought they must all be brainwashed…but then I learned more details. Some people within the church are definitely brainwashed and believe the lies about Russian-speaking persecution and N*zi activity. But others are part of the brainwashing process. Tragically, Patriarch Kirill has refused to recognize the Ukrainians as a separate people group, and even stated that the cathedral stood not just for the glory of God but the might of the Russian army. At the same time, the Russian army has bombed and destroyed many Ukrainian churches, some with people hiding inside. This was not just churches under the UOC. They also bombed a monastery in Donetsk which was under the ROC, also housing refugees.

Another Orthodox Church bombed by Russian planes in Malyn, Ukraine. Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/EPA

This sickens me not just for my heart for Ukraine, but also the Orthodox Church around the world. It is already vastly misunderstood in the western and Protestant world. And now everyone is focused on the ROC as the example for Orthodoxy. And that hurts, because it is not a true representation as we have seen in every church we have been to throughout Ukraine and the United States. Yes, there is one Orthodox Church. But what the Russians are doing, specifically the ROC, has been condemned by many other Orthodox. This article lays out specific details about why what Patriarch Kirill and Putin are saying and doing are NOT aligned with Orthodox beliefs, and what directly CONTRADICTS their actions and words. The Church is in turmoil, trying to figure out how to handle this terrible situation. Some are calling for the Patriarch to be deposed and removed from power. Even some priests and bishops that are Russian Orthodox but live outside of Russia have symbolically cut ties by refusing to pray and bless Patriarch Kirill at the appropriate time during liturgy. On this particular point, we do not agree. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says we should pray for our leaders. We believe this is especially true when we think they are making unwise, unbiblical, or harmful decisions. It is under those circumstances that we should pray for them most, that God would work within their hearts and they would repent. We can still do this even while practically helping Ukraine in other ways. Kyiv Metropolitan Onufriy (ROC but serves in Kyiv) has tried to set a good example of this by calling for an “immediate end to the fratricidal war” but not condemning the Russian church altogether.

Others have condoned the death and destruction and called for peace, but have humbly admitted that since they do not know the intricacies of the history and politics between Russia and Ukraine. It is for these reasons that they do not immediately condemn one side or another, trying to avoid making quick judgements. While it can be frustrating when the aggressor does seem to be so clearly cut, these words reflect the Orthodox humility, patience, and peace that we have come to love.

Orthodox study Bible translation.

Our Opinion

We are still new to Orthodoxy. Our home church in America is under the Serbian Orthodox Church. Our priest is Greek Orthodox. We have been to Russian Orthodox Churches, and we have been to Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. Soon we will attend a Romanian Orthodox service for the first time. There are still a lot of nuances that we are learning. At different points we have understood both sides of the church split, both spiritually and politically. Here in Romania we serve Ukrainians who speak Russian and Ukrainian. We have friends from Russia that we pray for. We try to live our lives as Christ showed us: eating with tax collectors and Pharisees, healing the Samaritan woman and the centurion, sparing the adulterous woman’s life, forgiving the thief on the cross, and washing Judas’ feet.

The upheaval among Orthodox churches is a complex issue. I don’t know if we have formed a fully settled opinion on that issue yet. Neither have many in the Orthodox Church. Father Pan summed it up beautifully: “It is crucial for each one of us to have the courage to simply say ‘I do not know’ when we are confronted with difficult questions that are not only complex but also the true domain of God’s grace operating in ways beyond our comprehension. […] The honest answer is that the Church doesn’t have an actual response to the war in Ukraine, but it does have a response to what war might actually mean – like any other calamity. The Church doesn’t know war. The Church knows the Gospel, the Church is the body of Christ with Christ at the head, The Church knows the Sacraments. The Church knows forgiveness. The Church prays for rulers, good or bad, prays for peace, for unity… these are the promises of the eschaton (the end, return of Christ) already experienced in the Church now as an image of the kingdom.”

We are simply trying to share both sides of the story, so that those outside of Orthodoxy can have a fuller understanding. What we do know, and that we humbly ask, is this: please do not judge all of Orthodoxy by the words and actions of the ROC and Patriarch Kirill. They are not the sole representatives. We do not have a single human head of the Church. Christ is the head, and we follow as best as we are able.

All Sources:

Obviously the sources that we have provided are biased, defending one point or another. That is to be expected during times like these. But I know that for many outside the Orthodox Church, the different vocabulary, terms, and traditions can seem overwhelming, making it hard to find sources. If you are interested or have further questions about particular topics, please do not hesitate to let us know. We can connect you to resources that will answer better than we can.

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