Dr. Alexander Pavuk: A Review of The Ecclesial Crisis in Ukraine and its Solution According to the Sacred Canons

Review of: Nikiphoros, Metropolitan of Kykkos and Tyllyria. The Ecclesial Crisis in Ukraine and its Solution According to the Sacred Canons. trans. Holy Trinity Monastery. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Seminary Press, 2021. xxv + 125pp. $10.00 paper.

The Emperor Has No Clothes. In reading this volume, one could well envision its author, Metropolitan Nikephoros of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus, employing this old aphorism to characterize recent claims by Patriarch Bartholomew (Archontonis) and some other bishops in the Church of Constantinople about autocephaly and primacy. Acting in 2018 and 2019 on what the author shows as historically untenable interpretations of such concepts, said figures fashioned an ecclesial entity in Ukraine out of a patchwork of deposed figures and mutually antagonistic groups in entrenched schism from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

What makes this book especially interesting, and well worth reading, is that unlike other works appearing on the topic, its story is not one of a battle royale between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople over Ukraine. Rather, the book is a deft examination of original sources revealing current bishops in Constantinople essentially battling against the patrimony of the ecumenical patriarchate itself– its historical positions and archival testimony.  A fair amount of the author’s evidence countering their recent positions comes from figures and texts associated directly with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The book also features powerful and definitive evidence from the broader history and witness of the global Church.

On the current imbroglio, the metropolitan says that “No one can deny that the universal Orthodox Church finds herself in a state of divisive crisis … created by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople’s unilateral and anti-canonical grant of autocephaly to schismatic elements of the Ukrainian Church” (xi). No one, likewise, can deny that the erudite metropolitan (graduate of both the law faculty at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the theological faculty at the University of Athens), squarely blames a collection of novel ideas formulated in that patriarchate–  and the resultant actions of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople employing “the principle of the unilateral and authoritarian power of one” (75)—as diseased fruit sprouting a “disasterous schism which now threatens worldwide Orthodoxy” (73). The recent ideas and actions, he says, have “no historical, dogmatic, or ecclesiastical justification” (74).

Ascribing motivation for these actions while professing “deepest respect for the ecumenical patriarchate” itself, Metropolitan Nikephoros’ “hierarchical conscience” (xi) forces him to speak against actions in Ukraine “driven by egotism and lust for glory and power” (xxii). “One is,” he says, “truly aghast in the face of all these recent ecclesiologically unacceptable and anticanonical events….” (28). Like Nikephoros, a longstanding hierarch of the highest intellectual and spiritual repute, Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radovic) of Montenegro (+2020), had assigned the same motivations for the ill-fated intervention: “Love of power… can be seen today in the behavior of the Patriarch of Constantinople in relation to Ukraine. His love of power led to great trouble in Ukraine.”[1] 

The remainder of this review will address the book’s handling of these weighty and ominous claims in light of the assembled evidence to determine if the various contentions hold up. Before proceeding, I should note that there has no attempt to corroborate the Greek original of this work with the English translation by Holy Trinity Monastery as I have been asked only to review the English translation.

The first, second, and third chapters (one would have appreciated the chapters being numbered in this translation)contain the heart of the substantive historical- ecclesiological arguments. The fourth chapter inquires into the canonical conditions under which a local church can, and must, interrupt Eucharistic communion with another local church. The fifth chapter zeroes in on “the novel and insipid theory” (53) that there can be one primate above the rest within the Church, and scrutinizes portions of the text, or tomos, employed in Ukraine in relation to sentences within it about such primacy. The sixth, at a mere two pages long, can hardly be called a book chapter. More of a musing on the concept of Great Endemic Synods, it almost certainly ought to have been separated out as a short appendix. The seventh, and final, chapter, which precedes the conclusions and suggestions for the future, covers the conciliar and hierarchical nature of the Orthodox Church.  As I am a historian, I will primarily focus on the chapters featuring historically-centered arguments.

The first chapter addresses what ought to be a rather straightforward question, that is, to whose ecclesiastical territory does Ukraine belong? In the end, it does turn out to be straightforward, but due to recent events, it requires careful analysis of evidence to demonstrate it as such. Evidence amassedincludes authenticated original documents; documents corroborated by the witness of mutually consistent primary sources, both from the time frame in question and over subsequent centuries; and sources demonstrating longstanding and consistent interpretation fromgeographically dispersed vantage points.

The key starting document is a heretofore uncontroversial decree of 1686 issued by Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysios IV (Mouselimes) [+ 1696]. That document formally transferred the metropolitanate of Kiev (as it geographically existed at that time, a configuration not coterminous with the contemporary nation-state of Ukraine)  to the Church of Russia, with the attendant practical consequences attesting to the shift. What were those consequences?  Metropolitan Nikephoros notes that they involved the “two fundamental rights of ecclesiastical subordination” (1), which have always consisted of the right to ordain and, likewise, depose one’s bishops independently. Such criteria have been fulfilled by the Orthodox Church of Russia with respect to that territory for over three-hundred years. A volume of sources over that time-frame show that not only the Russian Church but also the Patriarchate of Constantinople itself insisted this was the case.

To wit, the Church of Constantinople, along with each other local Church, publishes yearlyprimary sources known as Syntagmatia. These documents list the officially recognized territories of all the local churches. In all such documents since 1686, Kiev, and later Ukraine, are shown as part of the Russian Orthodox Church. It seems to seriously insult the memory and intelligence of Patriarch Dionysios and his successors of the Church of Constantinople to claim that they did not make the ecclesiastical decision they thought they made, a decision which resulted in evidence found in three centuries’ worth of Constantinople syntagmatia.  It does the same to the Synods of the other local churches which listed such territory in their syntagma records the same way.

We also have a corroborating source from the author of the decree itself, Patriarch Dionysios, interpreting his own original text. The patriarch’s formal 1686 letter to the Russian Tsar states: “It is hereby granted that the holy Eparchy of Kiev be subject to the Most Holy Patriarchal Throne of the God-saved city of Muscovy” and they must, it adds “recognize the Patriarch of Moscow as their elder and head, as they are consecrated by him.” (4).

Given all this, it is difficult even to entertain recent claims about this being some kind of temporary transfer, especially since no source text says such a thing. The claim itself reminds one of postmodern linguistic escapades whereby texts not stating a particular thing are nevertheless fancifully asserted to have definitely meant that thing. Metropolitan Nikephoros is himself reminded by “the prevarications I observe” in this vein (18) of relativistic word games of lawyers. He sensibly dismisses such claims.

However, he rightly takes very seriously those materials from the historical archives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate published by the Patriarchal press in Constantinople. One of the most renowned sets is the three-volume Ecclesiastical Documents Preserved in the Codices of the Patriarchal Archive, issued between 1902 and 1905 and reprinted in 1999. This definitive archival publication renders the ecumenical patriarchate’s clear internal tradition of interpretation of the 1686 document, which it describes as “a Synodal Tome” and comments “The Metropolis of Kiev continued to be governed by representatives until its cession to the patriarchal throne of Moscow in 1686” (quoted on 9).

Indeed, even pre-2018 Patriarch Bartholomew himself, writing officially on behalf of the Church of Constantinople, provided recent confirmation of the ecumenical patriarchate’s own tradition of understanding on Ukraine. In answering Patriarch Alexei II (Ridiger) of Moscow’s (+2008) notification of the Russian patriarchate’s formal deposition of Filaret Denysenko in 1992 for gross canonical violations, he wrote: “Our Holy Great Church of Christ recognizes the integral and exclusive jurisdiction of the Most Holy Church of Russia under your leadership on this issue and accepts what has been synodically decided about the person in question” (quoted on 7).

All of this constitutes a mountain of evidence—bookended by letters from two patriarchs of Constantinople themselves– showing that the Church of Russia has been universally recognized with the exclusive right to both ordain and depose Ukraine’s bishops. That being the unmistakable mark of ecclesiastical subordination, Ukraine is, and has been since the seventeenth century, an organic part of the Russian Orthodox Church. Strictly speaking, no further evidence is needed to make the book’s case since all subsequent events hinge on whose territory to adjudicate is the Church of Ukraine.

Although that case is settled early on, Metropolitan Nikephoros points out that there is more at issue ecclesiastically in the Ukraine affair. Another key matter is the nature of autocephaly itself and how it can be granted. This is the substance of another historical chapter in the book, and, as before, some of the best evidence against post-2017 Patriarch Bartholomew and those associated with the current ecumenical patriarchate comes from the ecumenical patriarchate itself. Effective and convincing testimony by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras (Spyrou) [+1972] , Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), and the Patriarch Bartholomew of 2001, show even the recent ecumenical patriarchate’s understanding of autocephaly and the conditions necessary for it. I refer you to the volume for their particular statements, but suffice it to say they all refute the assertions and actions of post-2017 Patriarch Bartholomew and those with him.

This same chapter also includes historical analysis from the early twentieth century tied to the supposed “restoration” by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of deposed Ukrainian priest Makary Maletich to an episcopacy he never possessed. Maletich had led the resurgence of a 1921 schism created by the deposed priest, Vasyl Lypkivsky (+1938). The idiosyncratic Lypkivsky and his group ultimately repudiated the idea of the hierarchs as the source of apostolic succession. Without any bishops present, a group of former priests and laypeople went through a ceremony whereby they sought, en masse, to make Lypkivsky a bishop themselves. Metropolitan Nikephoros argues that through the Maletich and multiple crypto-“bishops” and priests of his schism, the ecumenical patriarch has introduced into the organic body of the Orthodox Church “an ontological ‘contamination’ of the Episcopal Body at a pan-Orthodox level” (46).

Indeed, it is only in comparison with Maletich and his band that Epiphany “We are proud when we are called Banderites” Dumenko can lay claim to superior episcopal credentials.[2] His putative episcopal source was the already-deposed and anathematized Filaret Denysenko. Metropolitan Nikephoros is astounded that Patriarch Bartholomew would even try to do any of this, mysteriously attempting to “cancel” [?] the actual Metropolitan Onuphry of Ukraine in the process.  

The topic of Denysenko having been broached, the subsequent well-argued chapter is the last I wish to address in detail. It offers close historical evaluation of the novel claim that ecumenical patriarchs are entitled to hear, and judge, appeals from clerics in other local Churches. This time, current claimants in the Ecumenical Patriarchate are shown to be pitting themselves against the Fathers of a Council of Carthage, the legal tome (basilika) of EmperorLeo the Wise, and the canonical interpretations of St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite and others, as well as, again, the historical witness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The chapter title asks “Does the Ecumenical Patriarchate have the Canonical right to Receive Appeals from Appellants beyond its jurisdictional borders?” (31). The evidence shows the short answer is “No.” An augmented answer comes from extensive primary source evidence. As part of the assertion that it does have such a right, current figures in the ecumenical patriarchate have cited three canons of the fourth-century Council of Sardica which then-Popes of Rome also laid claim to in order to justify super-jurisdictional right to hear appeals. The author points out that if the pope did have that right, then the Council of Chalcedon’s decree—which gave the archbishop of New Rome the same rights as the Pope of old Rome—would mean ecumenical patriarchs do have such right to appeal.  But if the pope did not have such right, then patriarchs, too, have no such right.

The historical keys to interpreting the Sardican canons in question, the metropolitan notes, are Canons 36 and 134 of the fifth-century Council of Carthage. These decreed the pope had no such right and that an episode where the papacy wrongly heard such an appeal— re-judging, and restoring, a presbyter who went to Rome after being formally deposed in Carthage—was worthy of synodical censure. In the words of the Fathers at Carthage, “This we by no means allowed.”[3]  If one reads the original letter from the African synod chastising the pope, the scenario was not dissimilar to the recent Constantinople episode with Denysenko. This is in terms of both the appeal’s hearing and the misrepresentation of precedent in claiming the right to do it (in the case of the original episode, it was the pope misrepresenting the Council of Nicea). Crucially, the Conciliar letter from Carthage specifies that the actual Nicene decrees “ordained… that all matters should be terminated in the places where they arise.”[4]

Metropolitan Nikephoros likewise points out that recent innovative interpretations of Chalcedonian canons for the same purpose are refuted by St. Nikedemos the Hagiorite as well as the other most authoritative canonists. Finally, the Basilika of Emperor Leo the Wise is another key source refuting current Constantinopolitan claims. Leo wrote flatly that “a Patriarch’s tribunal is not subject to appeal, nor can it be retried by another, as he is the source of all ecclesiastical matters, for all tribunals are from him and resolve to him” (38). Even Emperor Justinian’s Novel states: “The decisions of the Patriarchs are not appealed” (39). Here, again, we have authoritative source interpretations overwhelming recent contrary assertions.

Included in the remainder of the book is a look at the text of supposed autocephaly from 2019 whereby the schismatic recipients are put in a position that bears the marks of ecclesiastical subordination, given that “The Autocephalous Church in Ukraine knows as its head the most holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical Throne” (quoted on 53).  Indeed, that subordination is theoretically extended to every other church in the text.  As motivation for all of these obvious irregularities, the metropolitan avers a mindset of what one might call ecclesiastical imperialism, or colonialism: “the ambitions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are now extended to the Entire Church.” (52). In demonstrating the obvious novelty of claims to universal primacy for ecumenical patriarchs, the metropolitan points out St. Nikodemos’ clear statement “primacy at the universal level does not exist in the Church.” (55). The metropolitan also offers a number of Scriptural examples, centering especially on Christ’s rebuke when James and John asked Him for primacy in the Gospel of Mark, 10: 42-44 (58).

Here too, as per the established pattern, current hierarchs and others of the ecumenical patriarchate are shown to be dismissing the ecumenical patriarchate’s own historical patrimony. The author quotes from a clear reproof by Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos VII (Tsatsos) [+1913] in 1895 to a pope of Rome who had made a similar claim to being the head of the Church a few decades after Vatican I’s establishment of a quasi-cult of the papacy: “As ecclesiastical history shows, the only eternal leader and immortal head of the Church is our Lord Jesus Christ….” (59).

A concluding section and some suggestions for a possible exit out of the impasse are worth reading. I will note here only one. Metropolitan Nikephoros quotes Metroplitan Nicholas (Hatzinikolaou) of Mesogaia of the Orthodox Church of Greece, who has pointed out the absurd irony of today’s Patriarch Bartholomew as being among those primates wholoudly support inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue and yet reject communication between themselves” (79)

Metropolitan Nikephoros allows himself to think beyond the deadlock of a global Church chained by supposedly needing an unashamed instigator of a problem to summon other primates to correct that problem. He instead suggests that if the ecumenical patriarch cannot be firmly pressed into convoking such a meeting to resolve the mess, then the other primates should essentially go over his head, this time being sure to exclude all interfering political actors and interests from their considerations. The author worries that the alternative is stultification and even a danger of what he, as a Cypriot Greek, warns can become ethno-racialist supremacism as a criteria for “supporting the Greek patriarch,” a scenario he worries can further spread the cancer of schism (76). Such ethno-racialism has already been formally condemned synodically by… the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself in 1872.

Structurally, there are some idiosyncratic spellings and typographical errors in the translation (“eumenical” instead of “ecumenical” on ix; Hamilcar Alivizatos rendered as “Amilkas” on 19; use of “principal” instead of “principle” on 61, etc) which can be slightly distracting and should be corrected in any reprint. It is also often customary to transliterate foreign script sources in bibliographies of English translations. But these are minor issues.

Ultimately, the evidence and arguments in this brief, scholarly-minded book offer an unambiguous answer to our early question, which was whether the ominous claims made by Metropolitan Nikephoros about the nature of the Ukrainian debacle were sound and supportable. They are, and no amount of red herrings, bluster, or linguistic legerdemain can obscure that fact.

Alexander Pavuk is associate professor at Morgan State University in Maryland, where he focuses on American intellectual and cultural history, American religious history, and science and religion. Professor Pavuk received his PhD and an MA in History from the University of Delaware, an MA in History from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a BA in History from Colgate University. He is the author of Respectably Catholic and Scientific: Evolution and Birth Control Between the World Wars, forthcoming from Catholic University Press of America in September 2021.


[1] https://mitropolija.com/2018/12/22/mitropolit-amfilohije-vlastoljublje-carigradskog-patrijarha-je-katastrofalno-za-buducnost-pravoslavlja/ (accessed July 9, 2021)

[2] https://www.pomisna.info/uk/vsi-novyny/pyshayemosya-koly-nas-nazyvayut-banderivtsyamy-mytropolyt-epifanij/ (accessed July 19 2021). “Banderites,” as noted by a leading scholar of the field, Paul Magocsi, refers to followers of the late Stefan Bandera, a “Galician-Ukrainian underground revolutionary nationalist, from 1929 a leading activist and from 1939 leader of one faction (Banderites) of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.” (Magocsi, Ukraine: An Illustrated History. [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014], caption, 274). After Hitler’s Nazi German forces invaded the U.S.S.R as part of the so-called Lebenstraum plan, in 1941, most Ukrainian territory was directly run by the Nazi government. With permission of the Generalgouvernement, the Ukrainian National Council was allowed to form (277-78). After the expulsion of German troops in 1942, the Banderites joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and, by 1944, led it (283, 285). Later that same year, members of the group fighting in the German army fell to the Soviet army. Bandera, whose historical memory is debated in modern Ukraine, was, thus, a direct Nazi military collaborator. As the press, Israel’s current ambassador to Ukraine, and academics have pointed out, Bandera and his supporters in “fought alongside Nazi Germany during the Second World War, killed thousands of Jews and Poles, including women in childrenin a form of attempted ethnic cleansing. See, for example, Cnaan Liphshiz, “Hundreds march in Ukraine in annual tribute to Nazi collaborator,” The Times of Israel (January 4, 2021) at  https://www.timesofisrael.com/hundreds-march-in-ukraine-in-annual-tribute-to-nazi-collaborator/ (accessed July 19, 2021).

[3] See the epistle of the African Synod to Pope Celestine in vol. 14 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 510. (Pea­body, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004).

[4] Ibid.

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