Friday, July 18, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Orthodox Schism Threatens Moscow Patriarchate, Kremlin

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 18 – Embattled Orthodox Bishop Diomid yesterday anathematized Patriarch Aleksii II, Metropolitan Kirill and their supporters, an action that not only threatens to deepen the split within the Russian Orthodox Church but to affect that denomination’s relationship with the Russian state and thus undermine Kremlin policies both within Russia and abroad.
Given that the stakes involved in this conflict are so high, the Patriarchate and its government supporters have launched a campaign to portray Diomid as an obscurantist and tool of “dark forces” and to suppress his movement rather than to take seriously his calls for greater accountability within the church and greater independence for the church relative to the state.
But because Diomid speaks for millions of Russian Orthodox believers, because he enjoys at least some support within the church’s hierarchy and even the government, and because canon law gives bishops enormous power, such efforts by the Patriarchate and its Kremlin backers could quickly prove counterproductive, spreading rather than suppressing his ideas.
Diomid, who was stripped of his position by the Patriarchate on June 28 but has refused to repent, yesterday declared anathema Aleksii, Kirill, and all others in the Orthodox hierarchy who slavishly follow the dictates of the state, ignore canon law, and who promote ecumenical ties with other churches (
Repeating his argument that he personally has nothing to repent of and saying that he is not ready to leave his 20 million supporters to be destroyed by “false democracy,” the bishop said that his actions were not those of a schismatic but rather a defender of the faith. Certain “dark forces” are trying to present the situation otherwise, he suggested.
Among those apparently are the Patriarchate itself whose hierarchs quickly dismissed Diomid’s position as “nonsense” ( and outspoken Deacon Andrei Kurayev who cast doubt on Diomid’s ability to draft such a document on his own, suggesting it might have been prepared “in New York” (
(An intriguing counterpoint to this is a suggestion that the fight between Diomid and the Patriarchate in fact reflects a conflict between more conservative church leaders who have been linked to Vladimir Putin and several more liberal ones who are known to be close to Dmitry Medvedev (
Similar comments, which seek to portray Diomid as someone completely out of touch with modern life and the needs of the Russian state rather than as someone who is attempting to defend what he sees as the canonical principles and requirements of Orthodoxy as a distinctive religious community.
Why is this dispute within Russian Orthodoxy so important not only to those within the church but to the Russian state as such? There are at least three reasons. First, because canon law allows a bishop to appoint others, Diomid’s independent stance threatens the “power vertical” within the church that the Patriarchate and the Russian state have cultivated.
On the one hand, his ability to challenge the Patriarchate both via the Internet and through the use of some of the oldest religious tactics known, including seizing liturgical materials (, mean that he will spark a discussion the results of which are unclear to all involved.
And on the other, Diomid’s actions will make it more difficult for the Kremlin to continue to use the Patriarchate as its unquestioning handmaiden in the pursuit of Russian government policies abroad, something that will deprive Moscow of a tool it has regularly deployed.
Second, however quickly and brutally the Patriarchate and the Kremlin act against him – and both are likely to do so -- Diomid is unlikely to be the last independent-minded bishop to appear – indeed Deacon Kurayev suggested that it was little short of “a miracle” that there had not been more questioning bishops already in the post-1991 environment.
Consequently, it is entirely possible that other bishops will now enter the fray, not only further weakening the hierarchy of the Patriarchal church but reviving the intellectual life within the church that was largely shut down by the Soviets and that until now had not revived after the collapse of the USSR.
That could make Orthodoxy more dynamic, more attractive, and even more powerful – qualities that could make its relationship to Russian society and the Russian state far different than they are today and far more problematic for those who would like to see the church continue in its bureaucratic subservience.
And third – and this may be the most immediate reason why this church dispute will matter to others – Diomid’s actions could help promote the development of autocephalous churches in Ukraine and Belarus and thus shift the balance within Orthodoxy away from Moscow toward Constantinople.
In declaring Aleksii II anathema, Diomid also declared the bishopric of Minsk a “widowed” see, thus at least in principle opening the way for him to appoint his own man there. If that were to happen, the Belarusian church would be autocephalous in all but name, at least from the point of view of the Patriarchate.
And there are indications that the Ukrainians might invite the dissident bishop to the upcoming celebration of the 1020th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus’, thus elevating his status relative to Aleksii and putting both churchmen in a position to speak with the Universal Patriarch of Constantinople, who is slated to come as well.
That arrangement – and political analysts in Kyiv and Moscow say it is now under active consideration ( – could contribute to a shift in the administrative allegiance of Orthodox in Ukraine and to a shift in power from Moscow to Constantinople within Orthodoxy more generally.

UPDATE for July 20 – provides the full text of Bishop Diomid’s declaration, one that contains an extensive analysis of the situation within the Moscow Patriarchate as the basis for his decision to anathematize its leaders (

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