In its Saturday September 15, 2018 edition, Le Figaro was the first French mainstream newspaper to fully inform its readers of the current crisis in the Orthodox Church. The credit goes to the eminent religious journalist Jean-Marie Guénois. He supplemented his feature article with an interview with Jean-François Colosimo, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Saint Sergius Institute in Paris.
Please find here the translation of the interview.
After their meeting at the end of August, the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow are now on the verge of a schism, Is the Ukrainian issue the only one involved?
The Ukraine is the trigger of a power struggle that dates back to the 18th century. Orthodoxy was then the hostage of two enemy empires, the Ottoman and the Russian empires. The Tsarist state used the Church to foster its expansionism. Then the Soviet Union kept this policy for its own benefit. And then the Kremlin in its turn, under Putin. Moscow, the “third Rome,” has thus been continually weakening Constantinople, the “second Rome,” to which primacy belongs, opposing force and number to order and right. When refusing to go to the Council of Crete in June 2016, which had been in preparation for a century, Patriarch Kirill sent to Bartholomew Stalin’s formula to the Pope, “How many divisions?”. It was a tragic error because, in the spiritual sphere, symbols outweigh deeds. He is paying the price today: if the Moscow Patriarchate believes to weigh half of the Orthodox world, half of its resources are concentrated in the Ukraine. Without the Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate returns to a medium rank.
Who’s been exaggerating in this crisis, Moscow or Constantinople? Or maybe both are interfering with what’s not their business in the Ukraine?
The jurisdictional conflict is real but asymmetrical. Moscow is using history to perpetuate a dependency that a vast majority of Ukrainians are now refusing, including a significant part among the Orthodox. The issue is causing a deep hiatus between Kirill and Putin, hitherto allies. But their obligations and strategies are now divergent, and the Russian Church cannot consider losing the cradle of its faith. Constantinople is relying on Canon Law: as the Mother Church and evangelizer of medieval Kyiv, it never formally conceded this territory to the Moscow Patriarchate, which owes its existence to it. And responding to the aspirations of the Ukrainian people, Constantinople claims to perform its arbitration function. Politics has also its share in this buffer zone between East and West. The ecumenical patriarchate has been traditionally close to Washington, via the influential Greek lobby present in America. But that’s the top of the iceberg. A more essential part is at play behind the often artificial and obsolete speeches.
What is ultimately at stake? Primacy over world Orthodoxy? Orthodoxy independent from national policies?
More than that! What’s ultimately at stake is the correspondence between Orthodoxy and the Gospel. Politico-religious nationalism has been devastating the Orthodox world since the 19th century revolutions and has seriously damaged the unity of the Church. Prophetically in 1872, the Patriarchate of Constantinople condemned this confusion as a modern form of heresy. Once again, in a prophetic way, Patriarch Bartholomew is giving to the Orthodox a mirror to do away with their usual blindness or hypocrisy about their shortcomings and weaknesses. The Ecumenical Throne is certainly not without criticism and it too has to go through reforms. Admittedly, its intervention on the Ukraine issue paradoxically risks reinforcing an unacceptable chauvinism, or even creating an undesirable schism. But the fact is there: the Orthodox primate preferred crisis, which is a moment of truth, to inertia. He clearly said no to the hegemony of a Russian hierarchy which, by the way, by its ideological wanderings, betrayed the intellectual renewal and holocaust of the Russian Church in the 20th century. And, more generally, it breaks the abscess of our fiddling with the truth.
Can we still avoid a schism?
The similar crisis in Estonia led to a break in communion in 1996. It was resolved in the worst possible way, namely the coexistence of two episcopates, one from Moscow, the other from Constantinople, in a kind of absolute negation of ecclesiology. Orthodoxy must regain an exercise of primacy that would be in keeping with its principle of communion, that is to say, in the service of all, but which would also be actual and capable of meeting the challenges of today’s world. In that sense, this crisis can be overcome only through a theological awakening. Paris, with the Saint Sergius Institute, must be one of the places where it will happen.