On October 17, 2019, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted a statement on the situation in the Greek Orthodox Church after the extraordinary Bishops’ Council on October 12, 2019 on the Ukrainian Church issue.
Members of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church got acquainted with the documents of the extraordinary Bishops Council of the Greek Orthodox Church on October 12, 2019 that were published in the media, in particular, the communiqué from the Council and the report of His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and all Greece, “On the Autocephaly of the Church in Ukraine,” which proposes to “... recognize the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of the independent Ukrainian republic.”
Since the self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church, headed by Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and all Ukraine, which unites 95 bishops, more than 12,000 parishes, more than 250 monasteries, and tens of millions of believers, is in canonical unity with the Russian Orthodox Church and has not appealed to anyone for autocephaly, it is obvious that we are talking about the recognition of schismatic communities in this country. Earlier, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople repeatedly declared the recognition of Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine as the only canonical primate of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (the last such statement was made by him publicly at the Synaxis of Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches in January 2016). However, at the end of 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew changed his previous statements and, without canonical authority, “restored to dignity,” without repentance and renunciation of the schism, those who had been expelled from it, anathematized, or who had never had a canonical ordination, or even formal Apostolic Succession. The head of the newly-created structure is a man who received his “ordination” from the ex-Metropolitan of Kiev Philaret, who was defrocked and excommunicated from the Church. The latter was also “restored” to “the episcopal dignity” by the Patriarch of Constantinople, but soon after left the newly-established “Church” and declared the restoration of his former schismatic community, which he calls the “Kievan Patriarchate.”
The Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly informed the authorities of the Greek Orthodox Church about the difficult situation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church after the anti-canonical legalization of the Ukrainian schism by Constantinople and about the violence and persecution against its faithful children deployed by the former authorities of Ukraine. On October 9, 2019—a few days before the above-mentioned extraordinary Bishops’ Council of the Greek Church—Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia addressed his Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and all Greece with a fraternal message, calling on him to refrain from unilateral actions and not to make any “hasty decisions until the Holy Spirit gathers the primates of all the holy Churches of God and guides them together on behalf of the entire Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church to find a solution that will suit everyone and serve to overcome the current crisis.”
It is sad that His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos bases the necessity for hasty and unilateral recognition of the non-canonical schismatic community on a number of erroneous and false arguments repeatedly refuted not only by the hierarchs, scholars and theologians of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also by many prominent archpastors, pastors and theologians of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The statement of his Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos that “the Orthodox Church of Ukraine... has always remained in the canonical ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Mother Church—the Ecumenical Patriarchate” does not correspond to reality. In 1686, by the gramotas of His Holiness Patriarch Dionysius of Constantinople and the Holy Synod of the Church of Constantinople, the Kiev Metropolis was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. For more than 300 years, the canonical jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate over the Kiev Metropolis was recognized by the entire Orthodox world, including the Greek Orthodox Church. At the same time, according to the sacred canons of the Church, disputes over territorial jurisdiction have a statute of limitations of no more than thirty years (Canon 25 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council).
All these facts were ignored by the two commissions of the Greek Orthodox Church that were entrusted with the study of the Ukrainian Church question. In their conclusions, these commissions, according to Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira and Antikythera, “overlook more than 300 years of living tradition of the dependence of the Metropolis of Kiev and all Ukraine on the Moscow Patriarchate. And these realities were reflected in all the calendars of the Greek Church up to this year. Perhaps they also overlook the fact that the current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his Patriarchal letters of 1992 and 1997, recognized the canonical jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate over the Kiev Metropolis and respected the canonical penalties imposed on the defrocked and schismatic clerics who are now purified and restored.”
The statement of his Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos that “due to the absence of the Moscow Patriarchate” from the Cretan Council in 2016 “there was no opportunity to discuss the issue of granting autocephaly” does not correspond to reality. In fact, the topic of autocephaly was removed from the agenda of the Council much earlier, at the insistence of Patriarch Bartholomew. Now the reason for this becomes obvious. After all, at the meetings of the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission in 1993 and 2009, representatives of all Local Orthodox Churches agreed on the procedure for granting autocephaly, which involves a) the consent of the Local Council of the Mother Church for a part of it to receive autocephaly; b) the identification by the Ecumenical Patriarch of the consensus of all Local Orthodox Churches, expressed by the unanimity of their Councils; c) on the basis of the consent of the Mother Church and the pan-Orthodox consensus, the official proclamation of autocephaly through the publication of a tomos, which is “signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch and witnessed to by the signatures of the most blessed primates of the most holy autocephalous Churches invited for it by the Ecumenical Patriarch.” Regarding the last point, only the procedure for signing the tomos was not fully agreed upon, but this fact does not cancel the agreements reached on the remaining points. At the Synaxis of Primates in 2014 and 2016, the delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate, along with representatives of some other fraternal Churches, insisted on including the issue of autocephaly in the agenda of the Council. The Russian Church finally agreed to the exclusion of this topic from the agenda of the Council only after Patriarch Bartholomew assured, in January 2016 in the presence of other primates, that the holy Church of Constantinople had no intentions of carrying out any actions related to Church life in Ukraine, either at the Holy and Great Council or after the Council.
The arguments listed in the report of His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos and repeatedly refuted earlier exactly follow the position of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. However, there are doubts whether the fullness of the Greek Orthodox Church shares them. Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira testifies to the lack of unanimity between the hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church on this issue and that the voices of those who disagree with the recognition of the Ukrainian division were ignored: “First, the gray-haired and highly-respected Metropolitans Seraphim of Karystia and Germanos of Eleia, who with great wisdom and prudence talked about this burning issue, acknowledging that yes, the Ecumenical Patriarch has the canonical right to grant autocephaly under certain conditions, but the current situation is very critical, and therefore extraordinary circumspection and deep study and investigation of the whole complex problem are required without any haste. The speeches of the Right Reverend Metropolitans Daniel of Kaisariani, Nicholas of Mesogaia, Seraphim of Piraeus and others were in the same vein. The Right Reverend Metropolitans Andrew of Dryinoupolis and Cosmas of Aetolia did not take the floor, but joined the Right Reverend bishops who had previously spoken. The Right Reverend Metropolitans Simeon of New Smyrna and Nektarios of Corfu, who were absent but expressed their position in writing, approached this serious Ukrainian issue with the same sensitivity and from the same point of view.”
In his letter addressed to the Bishops’ Council and His Beatitude, Metropolitan Simeon of New Smyrna notes that the granting of autocephaly to Ukraine under the conditions in which it was granted, “has nothing in common with other autocephalies that were previously granted” by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. He stresses that “the hasty recognition ... of schismatics and so-called ‘self-consecrators,’ in circumvention of the canonical Local Church, but also the Moscow Patriarchate, which condemned the schismatics, and the granting of autocephaly to the new church structure creates justified questions and causes opposition.” He also points to the canonically unacceptable fact of the existence of “two parallel Local Churches” in Ukraine and the repeated schism that has already occurred within the “new church structure that received autocephaly.” He explicitly mentions the interest of major geopolitical forces in hastily granting “autocephaly” to schismatics. Comparing the current situation of Orthodoxy with the events of the Great Schism of 1054, he urges the hierarchy “not to rush to take a position.” “A forced and hasty approach to the issue,” says Metropolitan Simeon, “will make us vulnerable and put our Church at risk. It would be a mistake to assume that this kind of approach to the issue will serve as support for the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”
Metropolitan Nektarios of Corfu, who was unable to attend the extraordinary Bishops’ Council of his Church, addressed the Council with a letter in which he called for “postponing a decision.” He notes that the present “time is not the right time to make a decision on this acute issue, including because geopolitical conditions in the wider region are not ideal, with the result that any decision is likely to cause difficulties in our country.” He also calls on the Greek Church to “assume the role of mediator” in order to start a dialogue between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow.
Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus, known as a specialist in the Church’s canon law, not only presented an exhaustive study to the Council, in which he convincingly refuted the arguments set forth in the report of the primate of the Greek Church, but also sharply criticized the so-called “unification council” of the schismatics in his oral speeches. He stressed that “the so-called ‘unification council’ is not valid because it was composed of laity, and that the granting of autocephalous status to this non-existent ‘church’ structure is also invalid.” He further noted that all attempts to justify this “canonical lawlessness” by anomalous canonical practice, “with reference to the Ottoman captivity of the Church” and the difficult period when a number of Local Churches were directly dependent on the Patriarch of Constantinople, “suppress the canonical ecclesiastical order of the holy Ecumenical Councils.” “I demanded,” Metropolitan Seraphim testifies, “that the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece convene a pan-Orthodox council to resolve this complex issue, which, unfortunately, is mixed with geopolitics, or even geostrategy, which affects all the primates of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. At the same time, I confronted the Synodal Commission on Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Christian Relations about the fact that it had not submitted to the Permanent Holy Synod and His Beatitude the Chairman of the Hierarchy of the Greek Church, any report on the views on this issue of other autocephalous Orthodox Churches, nor an assessment of the possible consequences for the unity of the Church in the event of a rupture of communion by the Russian Church and its recognition of the Old Calendarists in Greece. At the same time, I replied to the Chairman of the Commission on Church canonical issues that Metropolitan Onuphry could not have taken part in the so-called ‘unification Council,’ just as His Beatitude the Archbishop of Athens could not participate together with the self-proclaimed ‘Archbishop of Athens’ Parthenios Vesireas—a defrocked deacon of the Greek Church.”
The communiqué of the extraordinary Bishops’ Council reported on the decision taken following the discussion of the given report. But who exactly made this decision and in what form remains unclear. A number of authoritative hierarchs drew the attention of the Council to the critical situation of world Orthodoxy, the need for extreme caution and deep study of the problem—without any haste and pressure from outside. Several metropolitans, including those who were absent from the Council, appealed to the Council in writing to postpone the decision of the issue.
The decisions of the Bishops’ Council of the Greek Church are made by vote of all participants. However, the hierarchy voted neither on the issue of recognition of the Ukrainian non-canonical communities, nor on the issue of the approval of the decisions of the Permanent Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church regarding Ukraine. This was stated by Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira: “As you know, decisions in our Church are made by voting: either by the raising of hands, or openly, or secretly, or by surveying all participants in the meeting. Perhaps a sufficient number of votes would have been cast in favor of autocephaly, but there would have been many who held the opposite view, as well as those who, by their silence, would have joined the latter.”
There is no official document signed by the Greek archpastors openly available, which could be considered evidence of a single conciliar decision of the Local Church. Moreover, the news that the Greek Orthodox Church recognized Ukrainian autocephaly was spread very quickly, which does not correspond to the text of the communiqué or the position of many participants in the Council. There are serious concerns that the conciliar way of making decisions, sanctified by the words of the Holy apostles: It is pleasing to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15: 28), and the two-thousand-year history of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, was violated in this case.
If the Ukrainian schism is truly recognized by the Greek Orthodox Church or its primate—in the form of a joint service, liturgical commemoration of the leader of the schism, or sending him official letters—it will be a sad testimony to the deepening division in the family of Local Orthodox Churches. Full responsibility for this division will fall, first of all, on Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and on those external political forces in whose interests the Ukrainian schism was “legalized.” Instead of admitting his mistake and trying to correct it through pan-Orthodox discussion, Patriarch Bartholomew has blocked any negotiation initiatives in this direction and for a year, according to many testimonies, has exerted unprecedented pressure on the hierarchs of the Greek Church, demanding that they recognize the schismatics. He repeatedly declared the recognition of the non-canonical false hierarchs of Ukraine by the Greek Church as a settled matter, as if it were not an independent decision of an autocephalous Orthodox Church. The situation of the Greek Church, which is essentially limited in its autocephalous structure, is complicated by the dual jurisdiction of a large part of its episcopate, canonically dependent upon Constantinople: These hierarchs, for example, were sent circulars from the Patriarchate of Constantinople demanding immediate recognition of the newly-created pseudo-Church structure. Those who found the courage to openly denounce the errors of the Patriarch of Constantinople and enter into a discussion with him were threatened, disciplinary measures were enforced against them, and they were accused of betrayal and a lack of patriotism.
It is sad that in this way the historical merits of the Greek people in spreading Orthodoxy are exchanged for short-term political benefits and support for geopolitical interests alien to the Church. But these gambles on national feelings will not succeed. They will not be able to undermine the unity of our faith, bought by the blood of the New Martyrs and Confessors of our Churches. They will not interrupt the unity of our ascetic tradition, which was created by the exploits of many venerable fathers and ascetics. They will not destroy the centuries-old friendship of the Greek and Slavic peoples, paid for with the blood of Russian soldiers and hardened in the common struggle for the freedom of the fraternal Greek people.
We cherish prayerful communion with our brethren in the Greek Orthodox Church and will maintain a living prayerful, canonical and Eucharistic connection with it—through all those archpastors and pastors who have already spoken out or will further oppose the recognition of the Ukrainian schism, who will not stain themselves by concelebrating with the schismatic false hierarchs, but will show an example of Christian courage and a firm stand for the truth of Christ. May the Lord strengthen them in their podvig of confession, through the prayers of Sts. Mark of Ephesus and Gregory Palamas, Maximus the Confessor and all those Greek saints who were and are venerated in our Holy Rus’.
At the same time, we remember that the sacred canons of the Church condemn those who enter into prayerful communion and concelebration with those who are defrocked and excommunicated (Apostolic Canons 10-12; Canon 5 of the First Ecumenical Council; Canon 2 of the Council of Antioch, etc.). In this regard, we cease prayerful and Eucharistic communication with those bishops of the Greek Church who have entered or will enter into such communication with representatives of the Ukrainian non-canonical schismatic communities. We also do not bless pilgrimages in dioceses managed by the aforesaid bishops. The relevant information will be widely distributed among the pilgrimage and tourist organizations of the countries that make up the canonical territory of our Church.
The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church authorizes His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia to stop commemorating the name of His Beatitude the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece in the diptychs if the primate of the Greek Church begins to commemorate the head of one of the Ukrainian schismatic groups during Divine services or takes other actions testifying to his recognition of the Ukrainian Church schism.