Irenej of Bačka: A Note about the Imprecise and Journalistic Ecclesiastical Discourse with regard to Ukraine

The following is an informal translation that has not been reviewed by the author.

It is perceptible every day that, on the one hand, the clergy and even more so the hierarchs and educated theologians and, on the other hand and as a general rule the journalists, both those on the “outside” and those on the “inside”, are speaking and writing with regard to the ecclesiastical problem in Ukraine, that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is planning or, according to others, is not planning to grant autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine. However, this way of expression is imprecise  on the levels of ecclesiology and the holy canons and so is inevitably fallacious, independently of the good intentions of the great majority of those who express themselves in this way. Of course I am not at all claiming that such a formulation is due to a theological deficiency on the part of certain hierarchs and theologians of the Church, or to the will of non-theologians to distort things. I have the impression, with regard to this, that the imperfect terminology is rather due to inattention and negligence.

I will explain. In Ukraine, there is the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church which reports to the Patriarchate of Moscow as an autonomous local church and is recognized without any exception by all the Orthodox churches, with which it is in Eucharistic communion. This church neither desires nor has demanded autocephaly from anyone– neither from the Patriarchate of Moscow, the church to which it belongs, the patriarchate which, in such a case, would have launched the whole process through a proposal of its own, nor from the Patriarchate of Constantinople who, as the first see of the Church, would have, with the purpose of coordination, referred the question to a panorthodox judgment and a final decision, either positive or rejecting the request for a time or indefinitely. Apart from the canonical Ukrainian church, there are also three schismatic entities coexisting in the country, to which may be added the agressive Uniate community. It is precisely with these schismatic “churches” that the negotations about autocephaly have been conducted and, in parallel, with the Ukrainian authorities, to the exclusion of the canonical church and, despite their desire, of the Uniates who, arrogantly intervene alongside the schismatics, it goes without saying. Thus, it is not a plan to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church, as one constantly hears and reads, but rather a program aiming to confer autocephaly upon the schismatic entities of Ukraine.

Constantinople’s actions are explained and justified by the fact that they have the objective of extinguishing schisms and restoring the ecclesial unity of the Ukrainian people according to the recently-formulated theory according to which the Church of Constantinople, as the ecumenical throne and the historical mother of the Slavic churches, has the right to decide, de jure and per se, ignoring the existing jurisdictional boundaries of the local autocephalous churches and without being bound by their position or their opposition. Nevertheless, this theory is baseless since, in accordance with the governance of the Church, there is no authority superior to the hierarchy and the pleroma of the autocephalous church apart from the conciliar institution, namely the authority of the synod of all or of the majority of autocephalous churches (an ecumenical council) or of the synod of the majority of the churches in a wider region (a great council). The first bishop of the Eastern Church is not first absolutely, as is the case within the jurisdiction of Old Rome, but rather he is the primate within the synod. According to the well-known Apostolic Canon 34, the synod without the primate is inoperative, but also the primate without the synod is non-existent. It follows then that the Ecumenical Patriarch does not have the right to discuss, let alone decide, the status of the church in Ukraine– and implicitly, of every other church– per se, over the head of the synod, and of his own initiative.

There is another problem! In what manner would it be possible to reinstate the defrocked bishops and priests, their leader the pseudo-patriarch of Kiev Denisenko, who was not only defrocked but excommunicated and anathametized? Can a church, whichever it may be, including the first in rank and honor, reject or consider null and void the acts and decisions of another sister church? Furthermore, does a church, whichever it may be, have the right to recognize or not recognize the canonical actions of another church, case by case, on the basis, moreover, of unsubstantiated criteria? It’s just the opposite: the ordinations, promotions, transfers, canonizations, etc. that take place in one church, one the one hand, but also the laicizations, suspensions, exclusions and other penalties on the other hand, are automatically admissible and valid in all the churches without exception. If this principle of reciprocity and perichoresis became obsolete, then the entire structure and the entire mode of operation of the ecclesiastical organism would be abolished immediately. The correct application of the above principle excludes first, on the one hand, dialogue “on equal footing” with schismatics and then, on the other hand, leads to their return, once they have repented, to the unity and canonical order of the church. It is then that they are able and have the right to present their requests, especially autocephaly, within their church first, and then through it to the whole Church.

This method has been followed invariably by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, as much with regard to the schismatic entities in Ukraine as with the schism in Skopje. In the time of His Holiness the current patriarch of Constantinople, there was a time when the schismatics of Skopje were not received at the Phanar to discuss their issue without the prior consent of the Serbian patriarch. It was inconceivable then that they should speak directly to the Ecumenical Patriarch, bypassing the church from which they were separated and that their writings should be inscribed in the agenda of the Holy Synod of Constantinople: for its part, the Church of Serbia has only been updated on these events by the mass media, like what happened three days ago. The analogy to the question of Ukraine is obvious. And one may wonder: what is the content of the term “autocephalous church”?

What is worse and even sadder, however, is that the stated goal of the Ukrainian enterprise– the abolition of the schisms and the reunification of the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine– is in advance doomed to failure. Schisms are not overcome with half-measures and on the basis of the formal and artificial return of the schismatics, who enjoy the active support of the secular authorities and certain foreign political centers, which generally operate in the shadows. At most, it will be a relative reduction in the number of schismatic entities that will be achieved: instead of the three entities today, we will possibly or probably have a new “federation” that is fundamentally barely united, recognized by some churches and not recognized by others, while the majority canonical church will remain where it is currently– under the patronage and aegis of the Patriarchate of Moscow. And this same Mr Denisenko– formerly Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, at the time one of the two best-placed candidates to occupy the patriarchal throne of Moscow and today the self-proclaimed “patriarch of Kiev” (but will he keep this title?)– confirms the certainty of what I’m saying by affirming that in the future the Russian-speakers will belong to Moscow, as is the case until now, while those who speak Ukrainian will belong to him (who else?). A detail, however, has escaped this man who is venerable in age but otherwise pitiful and lamentable: he has forgotten to mention that all the inhabitants of Ukraine speak Russian while some, no small few, also speak Ukrainian. In any case, I presume that advanced age in the case of Mr Denisenko and the approach of elections in the case of Mr Poroshenko are important motivations for the eagerness and impatience of both. But I do not at all know the reason why Constantinople should be hurrying. What is the gain in all of this for Orthodoxy? Is it worth the trouble to put its unity into question for such an objective? I strongly doubt it. The schism will remain one way or another, for three or for one. It is thus in vain that the great church of Christ wearies herself. I am hopeful that she has in view the trembling sword of a great schism, not only in Ukraine but in the entire Orthodox eumene. May God protect us!

I know that in the past numerous schisms and even more heretical movements have been reabsorbed and their members, having done penitence and renounced their errors, were reunited to the Church. But as far as I know, this is the first time in the centuries-old history of the church that there is the undertaking of restoring schismatics to the ecclesial body with their simultaneous automatic ascension to the historically superior mode of ecclesiastical existence as well as their entrance into the constellation of the most illustrious and eminent churches, all without the least intermediary period of maturation, ascesis and recovery of the spirit of the ecclesial conscience, but simply and solely by the “grace and intercessions” of the first see of the Church.

Let us also mention that certain historical churches, which are glorious in their spiritual level, their witness and their contribution, which have never fallen into the chasm of heresy or schism, have not yet obtained autocephaly and will never obtain it, but despite this do not protest, let alone complain or lament. Therefore the oxymoronic conclusion becomes obvious: a schismatic community will sooner or later be cleared and reinstated and moreover promoted to be an autocephalous church.  In this way, schism ceases to be a sin and a mortal crime not even washed away by the blood of martyrdom, but is transformed into a simple and minor fault that is easily healed and finally– it is a shame!– will be rewarded. Whether we want it or not, barriers to new schisms are ignored and the Orthodox Church runs the risk of becoming a vinyard without a fence: irreparable damage, scandal for consciences, and the loss of all credibility of the head of our Church before the heterodox, other believers, and unbelievers.

I write this with much pain and even more sorrow, respectfully and with love from the bottom of my soul for the martyric Great Church of Christ. “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart” (Romans 9:1-2, cf. 2 Corinthians 11:31, Galatians 1:20, 1 Timothy 2:7) on account of the situations, tensions and dissentions regarding the healing of the wounds caused by schisms. Schisms, such as the one in question here, instead of being abolished, paradoxically provoke additional spiritual and psychological schisms among the very ones who struggle for the unity, stability and harmony of the holy churches of God. It is precisely on account of these values that “deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28) also waters my own heart as an Orthodox bishop such that for “I who am the least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9)– that is, the Christians– it is not permitted for me to stay silent in order to avoid the many despicable causes of faithlessness, treachery, abandonment, etc. To the contrary, my love for the Church of the Holy Apostle Andrew and for the entire Orthodox Church spurs me to express myself and not stay silent and to speak in conscience and sincerity.

I hope passionately and with all my heart that the Founder and Husband of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the grace of the All-Holy Spirit and the kindness of God the Father, by the intercessions of our holy, God-bearing fathers John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian, Photius the Great and all those who have adorned the see of New Rome, as well as of the holy metropolitans of Kiev and patriarchs of Moscow, and of all the saints, may have mercy on us enlighten us and save us all!

+Irenej of Bačka

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