“Divided autocephalous Churches or united brothers?”
by Archbishop Nicholas,
Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki (Greece)
“These past months, we have been witnessing a very dangerous, and apparently unjustified, crisis that has erupted in our Church. Its reason is the imminent granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church or rather, the creation of an autocephalous Church in Ukraine.
It seems inter-Orthodox relations are in trouble: while they seek unity with the heterodox, the Orthodox certainly confess the love that unites them all, but they disregard it in their daily relationships. They proclaim the bond of communion that unites them, but they show the opposite.
As for the faithful, they see their leaders arguing with legalistic arguments. Instead of uniting the faithful, they create camps of fans and groups of followers. What a pity ! In all this dispute, there is a pretext and a cause.
The pretext is the need for the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church. And the cause is the right to confer it. But who has the right to do it?
The Churches involved refer to historical privileges, to rights and canons. Unfortunately, they make no reference to the Gospel. The first question that comes to mind is this: is autocephaly so necessary? And if so, couldn’t it wait a little longer?
There is a second question: are our rights so important that we defend them while ignoring or fighting against our brothers or, even worse, by breaking our thousand-year-old communion with them?
And thirdly: is it more important to refer to historical rights and canons than to rely on the words of the Gospel?
From now on, Constantinople is calling “friends” those who until now were the brothers of Russia, and the latter refuse to recognize the ecumenical character of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The essential foundations of the unity of the Church are thus destroyed: fraternity, of which pan-Orthodox communion is the expression, and ecumenism, of which Constantinople is the guarantor according to the canons and the historical tradition.
A. In reality, autocephaly of Ukraine is less of a necessity as urgent as a right and a stubborn political demand. On the other hand, the unity of the Churches is an indisputable necessity and an evangelical commandment. What is most important, the autocephaly of a local church or the inalienable unity of all “in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”?
Who are those who ask for autocephaly? Is it possible that a president with questionable spirituality and a self-proclaimed “patriarch” of problematic ecclesiological sensitivity, who up to now is to be excluded as a schismatic, would be the appropriate people to express this necessity in Ukraine, in the Holy Spirit, the will of God and the aspiration of the Church?
And if we do not want to hear the voices of those who oppose autocephaly, how can we support our hopes of unity, in the face of those who already caused a schism so many years ago, and who for a long time have been accepting the supporters of the old calendar in Greece and elsewhere?
If Filaret had been elected as the Patriarch of Moscow in 1990, a thing he desired so much but that slipped through his fingers, would he ask today to become the Metropolitan of the autocephalous Church of Ukraine? And if so, whom would he ask? The Synod of Moscow, which he would preside himself, or Constantinople, which he pretends to respect today and to which he supposedly bows?
B. According to Christian logic, whoever takes only his own rights into account is not right. Is right whoever protects them while preserving the balance of love, peace, patience, forgiveness, and reconciliation, for it is only thus that the “rights” of God are preserved. Besides, isn’t our salvation based on the greatest injustice? “The curse of the just condemnation is abolished by the unjust condemnation of the Just”. Fortunately, the Lord did not refer to the Law and His rights!
In the current phase, the issue of autocephaly of Ukraine is approached with reference to the rights of those who grant it, namely the Phanar and Moscow, to a historical or politico-economic power, and not to the Gospel, or at the very least to ecclesiastical needs in Ukraine. On top of that, powerful political plans, injunctions and pressures are looming on the horizon. As for the holy Gospel, there remains only the veneer.
C. Really, how could all this be connected with the logic of the crucified God, with the ethics of the Beatitudes and of the Sermon on the Mount, with the cloth of the Mystical Supper, with behaviors of service commanded by Christ, with the eminence of the eschaton, with the priestly prayer of the Lord “that all may be one”, with the divine Apostle Paul’s teaching and mind, with the homilies we hear every Sunday, and with the pastoral letters sent for the main liturgical feasts? Could the implementation of the canons abrogate the Gospel?
Who can understand how sister-Churches in Christ for so many centuries now rejoice in discovering the lapses and mistakes of the other? Does the tension we are experiencing today mean we have not loved each other enough in the past? How can we justify that our Church leaders vehemently support interreligious dialogue and yet refuse to communicate with each other? Why are they unable to accept the fact that the grace of God illuminates the other party somewhat differently? Is it possible that the whole enlightenment be with us and that no ray would illuminate those who until now had been our brothers? What is ultimately the meaning of the term “communion”, if it does not include mutual understanding?
Or is it possible they do not realize the catastrophic consequences of a threatening schism? What would then be the fault of the simple faithful excluded from the grace of the places of pilgrimage of the other Orthodox? Why would the Russian faithful be deprived of the Holy Mountain and the Greek speaking faithful be deprived of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, of the Caves of Kyiv, of Valaam, and of the grace of the Russian neomartyrs? Isn’t the grace of God universal and to be shared by all? When we are united by common faith and dogma, how can we justify a division based on an administrative disagreement?
And finally, for whom and for what reason was the Gospel of love, forgiveness, and unity written? Doesn’t it apply to us and to the challenges of our time?
D. In addition, what is our Orthodox confession in the diaspora or in mission countries? What Christ are we going to preach and confess? Christ who “called all to unity”, but whose words we are denying by our behavior? Or Christ who didn’t even manage to unite those who have been believing in Him for two thousand years? The satisfaction of having achieved autocephaly is short and affects only a few. But the scandal caused for believers and the world is immeasurable and widespread. The sin of schism is incurable and unforgivable.
E. But is it also possible that Moscow would punish its clergy and faithful who receive communion on the Holy Mountain or on the island of Patmos, or probably later in Jerusalem and Greece? Could divine communion become a lever of political pressure and blackmail? After having experienced the mystery for a thousand years, is this what we have understood? We could accept the momentary interruption of the commemoration at the level of the patriarchs as a sign of vehement protest, but in no way can we accept the breaking of the communion of the faithful. The Church herself, instead of leading the people of God to places of sanctification, cannot deprive them of grace. Instead of weakening the faith of the people, wouldn’t it be better to strengthen it in the hope that it will bring its leaders to reason?
We hope that our patriarch will open further his ecumenical embrace, so that the Russians can find a place for themselves. As for the Ukrainians, they will not unite on the ecclesial level if they do not learn to forgive the Russians in the Church and to unite with them. The Church is the Church when it defeats its enemies. The words of Saint Amphilochios the Younger of Patmos, newly canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, are more than ever relevant: “Do you want to take revenge on those who put you to the test? The best revenge is love: it even changes ferocious beasts.”
And we also expect our holy fathers of Russia, whom people pray at the end of each service, to unite the Church by working with humility and not in a spirit of conquest. They will thus win the hearts of all the Orthodox by the grace of God. There is no reason for them to become the “third Rome” according to the spirit of this world, but the “first and holy Moscow” on the spiritual level, and to be preeminnent in our hearts.
With the aroma of their experience of recent and cruel persecution, and with the grace of their new martyrs, we also expect them to offer our Church the fragrant testimony of unity. However bad the pride of the small and the weak is, however good the humble wisdom of the powerful and the great is. This is what we all need, because what ultimately counts is not who has the strength or the right on their side, but who acts in the Holy Spirit and transmits His grace.
Perhaps Apostle’s Paul divinely inspired injunction, “If you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another” (Gal 5, 15) shows us all the path to follow. In ecclesiastical conflicts between brothers, there is no winner. But when we reconcile, no one is lost. All are blessed.
North Korea came to an agreement with South Korea, but we who pray every day with the “Our Father” in our heart and on our lips cannot agree with each other?
We pray fervently that the Lord grant us “with the temptation the outcome” and “lead” us quickly to repentance (metanoia) and “relief”. Amen.”
Source in Greek
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