Staunton, Feb. 25 – Given how angry the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate have been about the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, there are compelling reasons to think that in the event of a Russian victory in Ukraine, Moscow would move quickly to strip the UOP of its independent status and force it back within the ROC MP.
That possibility both became more likely and faces more obstacles because of a conflict between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church over Moscow’s decision to form bishoprics in Africa and thus violate canon law and an analysis offered by Ukrainian experts of Moscow’s behavior about annulling autocephaly.
Earlier this month, Metroplitan Grigory of Peresteri at a synod of the Greek church urged that the ROC MP be stripped of its autocephaly for five years as punishment for Moscow’s creation of an African exarchate and its violation of Alexandria’s autocephaly (risu.ua/chlen-sinodu-elladskoyi-cerkvi-zaproponuvav-pozbaviti-rpc-avtokefaliyi-na-pyat-rokiv_n125973).
Not surprisingly, the Moscow Patriarchate immediately responded, with Metropolitan Ilarion, head of the church’s foreign relations department, delivering a savage rejoinder (mospat.ru/ru/news/88989/). His response has now been analyzed by Dmitry Gorevoy, a specialist on religion in Ukraine (risu.ua/ru/avtokefaliya-rpc-kanonicheski-mozhet-byt-otmenena-otvet-na-statyu-mitropolita-ilariona-alfeeva_n126233).
Gorevoy points out that the language of the basic statue of the ROC MP contains provisions that allow the Moscow church to extend its canonical territory at will including to the ends of the earth. Only Georgia on the territory of the former USSR, and countries in the Middle East are generally excluded.
In his judgment, the Ukrainian expert says, “the ROC is striving for world rule” as far as the Orthodox are concerned. The Greeks have accused Moscow among other things of adopting an ethnic approach to religion, Russifying believers who are culturally close to the Russians and defending Russians against assimilation where the non-Russians are radically different.
Those provisions and practices are not to be found in other Orthodox churches. But the most interesting and contentious of the Greek hierarch’s proposals – to deprive the ROC MP of autocephaly for five years – is the one the Moscow metropolitan has fastened on because it has potentially the most serious consequences.
If the Orthodox world were to agree to strip the ROC MP of autocephaly for that period and if it were able to enforce its decision on Moscow, then the ROC MP would effectively be put in receivership, with decisions on policy and personnel taken not by the hierarchs of the Russian church but by others, presumably appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Metropolitan Ilarion says that church law does not contain any provisions allowing for an Orthodox church that has been given autocephaly to have that status taken away, conveniently forgetting that Moscow twice done just that: in 1811 with respect to the Georgian church and in 1924 with respect to the Polish Apostolic Orthodox Church.
Ilarion says that “the extension of autocephaly or the status of a Patriarchate of a Church in a particular land is an irrevocable act. It cannot be limited or recalled.” In short, Moscow is insisting on the importance of a rule that it has in fact violated, something that raises questions about its moves against the UOP and also makes those moves more problematic.