Vienna, October 21 – Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s recent meeting with Bartholomew I, the Universal Patriarch of Constantinople, has disturbed many in the Moscow Patriarchate who believe that, despite Minsk’s denials, Belarus is now on the “separatist” road to the establishment of a nationally-based autocephalous Orthodox Church.
But even if those denials are true, church historian Vadim Venediktov writes in the current issue of “NG-Religii,” the Moscow Patriarchate faces a new “parade of church sovereignties” in the former Soviet space, one that he says will ultimately mean there will be as many Orthodox churches as there are countries (religion.ng.ru/events/2010-10-20/3_parad.html).
At the present time, Venediktov points out, the Moscow Patriarchate officially recognizes and is in communion with 15 autocephalous and four autonomous churches within Orthodoxy around the world. Among the 15 autocephalous churches, nine have patriarchs, including Moscow and Tbilisi on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
The issue of autocephaly has been a highly contentious one because it calls into question the universalism of the church, but over the last 150 years, Venediktov says, Orthodoxy has generally been moving toward the view that “church autocephaly should follow the political independence of the state.”
That idea has its roots in the formation of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in Bulgaria in the 1870s, he continues, but it is far from universally established, as shown by the conflicts between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Constantinople Patriarchate and between the Moscow Patriarchate and Orthodox communities in the former Soviet space.
Among the first of the latter conflicts were those between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Universal Patriarch of Constantinople concerning the subordination of Orthodox sees in Estonia following that country’s recovery of its de facto independence in 1991, a conflict that has made Moscow especially nervous about anything Bartholomew does in its area.
More recently, the Moscow Patriarchate has been confronted with other challenges: In Ukraine, there are several competing patriarchates, only one of which is subordinate to Moscow. And in 2008, the Russian Church was faced with a Hobson’s choice given Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
On the one hand, the Moscow Patriarchate very much wanted to be supportive of the Kremlin’s foreign policy agenda, but on the other, it was reluctant to recognize the autocephaly or transfer of allegiance of Orthodox bishops in those two republics lest that step under its pretensions in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet space.
It is a measure of just how serious the Moscow Patriarchate views such threats to its power that Kirill came down on the side of the Church rather than on the side of the Russian state, although it is probable that over time, the political changes there will have religious administrative effects as well.
As Venediktov notes, the recent meeting between Lukashenka and the Universal Patriarch means that Moscow now must deal with “the problem of Belarusian autocephaly,” something that “from the canonical point of view” should be resolved on the basis of the principle that “church autocephaly follows the political independence of states.”
“If Alyaksandr Lukashenka pushes for the church autocephaly of his state, his actions in this case are completely logical and justified,” Venediktov says, “because an independent state ought to have an independent Church” – although Lukashenka and his religious leaders should be talking to the Moscow Patriarchate rather than the Universal one to achieve that.
Such a requirement, the church historian says, reflects the fact that “the autocephaly of the Belarusian Church is possible only with the agreement” of the Orthodox Church that had been its administrative superior, in this case, the Russian Orthodox Church. The same principle holds, Venediktov continues, with regard to the possible autocephaly of Ukrainian Orthodoxy.
“If [Moscow Patriarchate] recognizes that Belarus and Ukraine are independent states, then [it] must offer the Churches of these independent state autocephaly or perhaps autonomy. But if the church leadership does not offer autocephaly to Belarus and Ukraine, this means that [Moscow] doubts the lawfulness of the sovereignty of these states,” Venediktov argues.
And he concludes that despite all the anger about the Lukashenka meeting, “in all probability the Orthodox world is moving to a situation in which in the not distant future there will be just as many autocephalous Churches as there are Orthodox peoples,” not just beyond the borders of the former Soviet space but within them as well.