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By Grand Protopresbyter Georges Tsetsis

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the long-running issue of Ukrainian Autocephaly, the Church of Russia has fallen into a pit which has long been dug to bury the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Let me explain.

It is well known that, good or bad, a new process of granting autocephaly to a local Orthodox Church had already begun in 1976 and was approved in 2009, by unanimous Orthodox decision, after many hardships and labors. But, not to be forgotten, with the cordial and sacrificial gesture of the Church of Constantinople, which, in order to safeguard the Pan-Orthodox unity, gave up its centuries old canonical privilege according to which she had acted at times to emancipate the Orthodox peoples living north and west of Constantinople, granting them the status of autocephaly.

There is no doubt that, if during the tumultuous preparatory phase of the Holy and Great Council around the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, there would be no endless and pedantic discussion on the mode of “signature” of the tomos of autocephaly, the topic of “How to declare autocephaly” would be on the Agenda of the Council, and the granting of autocephaly of the Church Ukraine would have a completely new dimension and we would have not experienced the morbid situation we are living lately.

The persistence of the Russian delegates, and of some of their companions, of the use of the verb “decide” instead of “co-decide” was not innocent at all. It was more clearly intended to challenge and downplay the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Inter-Orthodox contexts, with the background of the emerging, leveling and almost heretical ecclesiological conception of Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk (that he frequently repeats), according to which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church, we confess the Creed, is simply a “Federation” (sic) of local Orthodox Churches, with no a preeminent authority.

Much has been said recently about whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as First Throne of world Orthodoxy and Mother Church of all the local Orthodox churches, other than the ancient Patriarchates, had or not had the canonical right to receive the appeal of the former Metropolitan of Kyiv Philaret Denisenko and his followers and to grant autocephaly to a large part of the Orthodox Ukrainian people, who have long sought to wean themselves from the Church of Russia. Therefore, after the publication of a series of thorough studies conducted by distinguished historians and canonists, there is no need for any reference to this aspect of the matter.

However, I would like to refer to the terms “invasion” and “canonical territory” that are frequently used by the Russian side in this confrontation, and also to touch on the political dimension of the Ukrainian issue we are currently confronted with.

The allegation that Constantinople «intruded»  into the canonical territories of the Church of Russia was originally affirmed by Metropolitan Barsanuphius of St. Petersburg in September 2018 in Jerusalem, where he went as a pilgrim. “After the Revolution (of 1917),” he said, “Constantinople has seized Finland, Poland, Estonia, and is now struggling to seize Ukraine”, adding that the Moscow Patriarchate will not allow such anticanonical actions of Constantinople, and of  the “Pope of the East” (the Ecumenical Patriarch), given that “all Orthodox Churches are equal, as all Patriarchs are equal in their authority and therefore unable to intervene in other local Churches”. (See “Bήμα Ορθοδοξίας” 20.9.2018)

At the same wavelengths, and with almost the same terminology, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow spoke in December of the same year, stating that “the creation of an Autocephalous Church in Ukraine is an anticanonical and aggressive intervention of Constantinople in the internal life of Russia”, adding that “while Russia was facing atheistic persecutions, Constantinople did its best to “seize” (sic) parts belonging to it: Estonia, Finland, Poland and Latvia” (see “Romphaia”, 21.12. 2018)

For his part, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, one of the most important players in the Russian hierarchy, hastened to call the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine an “illegal act”. In his view, “the decision of the Phanar grossly violates the sacred canons, disregards the unity of world Orthodoxy and substantiates the “invasion” of the Ecumenical Patriarchate into the canonical territory of the Russian Church.” (See “Romphaia”, 11.10.2018)

Following the above objections, a reasonable question arises. Since when and by what Canonical Ecclesiastical Act did Poland, Finland, Latvia and Estonia become “canonical territory” of the Church of Russia? The boundaries of the Russian Orthodox Church had been defined in 1593 by the Great Synod of Constantinople and were identical to those of the Russian state. Consequently, her Primate was only recognized as “Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and of the extreme north lands”. And, as is well known, neither Poland, nor Finland, nor the Baltic countries were included in these northern lands. Remember that at the time when the Church of Russia acquired its autocephaly, half of the Estonian territory belonged to Sweden and the other half to Poland.

It is absurd to accuse the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be “invader” of foreign territories, when the Church of Russia, a relatively young Autocephalous Church, (compared to the ancient Patriarchates of the East), used every occasion to penetrate into the territories of other Orthodox Churches, outside her boundaries established by her Tomos of autocephaly, following the Tsarist troops or the Soviet army.

What else, if not an invasion, was the abolition in 1811 of the seventeen centuries old Church of Georgia and her incorporation into the Moscow Patriarchate, after the occupation of this Caucasian country by the Tsarist Army? But even today, what else than invasion is the the governance by a Russian Archbishop of Georgian Orthodox of the Abkhazian province, which has for long been a canonical territory of the ancient Church of Georgia?

What more than a brutal invasion was the incorporation of the Orthodox Romanians of Moldavia-Bessarabia into the Moscow Patriarchate, in fact twice in history, in 1812 (under the Tsarist occupation) and in 1944 (under the Soviet regime), with the bishopric of Chisinau and all Moldavia currently serving as a autonomous Metropolis of the Church of Russia? (Note that the Metropolis of Moldova was founded in 1386, with reference to Constantinople, three centuries before Autocephaly was granted to the Church of Russia!)

Was it not a kind of invasion the appropriation by the Moscow Patriarchate, after the Treaty of Yalta and Hungary’s entry into the Soviet “Eastern Bloc”,  of the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Budapest, erected in the 18th by the Greek National Benefactors? 

Constantinople did not invade any foreign canonical territory. Neither did she establish her own eparchies, nor did she grab churches. Simply by exercising her privileges established by the Ecumenical Councils as the first throne of the Orthodox Church, she responded to the requests received from local Orthodox Churches that were plagued by quarrels and canonical disorder, asking her to rest in peace and heal their evil.

It is interesting to note that, after the Russian Church’s historical-canonical arguments about the spiritual ties and canonical relations of Constantinople with Ukraine and Russia were exhausted, a Moscow-based brainwashing operation was launched, urging (sometimes with implicit threats) the Orthodox Churches not to recognize the Ukrainian Autocephaly, and trying even to involve the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos) in the Ukrainian imbroglio. 

Hierarchs, clergy and laity were recruited in this operation, not only in Russia and its Ukrainian Exarchate, but also in other Orthodox Churches (Antioch, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, Czech/Slovakia, and Greece), to criticize the Phanar’s initiative, to highlight the political dimension of the Ukrainian issue, and to advocate the convening of a Pan-Orthodox Council to resolve the Ukrainian problem. Without, of course, specifying who ought to convene the Council!

Characteristic in this regard was the statement of the Patriarch John of Antioch that “when politics intervene within the ecclesiastical life, as in the case  happening in Ukraine things are worsening. Political interference is not acceptable. We must seek an ecclesial solution to all problems” (see “Sputnik”, 5.2.2019). It was a paradoxical statement indeed! As if the Patriarchate of Antioch had not been politically aligned with the Assad “dynasty” for 45 years, or recently with Russia, after the start of the multi-dimensional and bloody war in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not hesitate to join to the chorus of those who emphasized the political dimension of the Ukrainian Autocephaly, in order to show solidarity with the Moscow Patriarchate, but mainly to point out urbi et orbi how for Russia Ukraine has a geopolitical importance and therefore its future texture and course on the international chessboard is not a negotiable issue. So, during the 14th annual Press Conference in December 2018, before 1700 journalists, President Putin raised the issue of Ukrainian autocephaly, observing that it was related to the presidential elections in Ukraine. “The reasons are purely political,” he said. “The fact that the US Secretary of State has commented positively on the granting of autocephaly, is something unthinkable and totally unacceptable” (see “Sputnik”, December 26, 2018).

This position of the Russian President was not a lightning bolt. It reflected what had taken place right after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation, in December 1991, of the Russian Federation. One should not to forget that on March 15, 1996, the Russian Parliament had ratified the legality of a referendum in March 1991, which had advocated the preservation, at least in theory, of the borders of the former Soviet Union. This means that, despite the establishment of the Russian Federation, the Russian Parliament considered that in the consciousness of the Russian people, the Soviet Union was not abolished, but it still exists!

I would like to conclude this brief retrospective with a curious attitude of Archbishop Clement of Nizhin, which is indicative of the Russian brothers’ attitude and mentality. In an interview with Andreas Loudaros, head of the website “Orthodoxia.info”, Archbishop Clement, after first accusing the Ecumenical Patriarch of hypocrisy and personal ambitions, called him “to remember that Byzantium don’t exist for more than 500 years and that his privileges are those of a non-existent empire” (see “orthodoxia.info” 5.11.2018).Of course, the “the Imperial City was seized” and with its fall was suppressed from the face of the earth the Byzantine Empire. But isn’t His Eminence ignorant of the Sacred Canons, as well as the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, which govern today, and will govern World Orthodoxy, having diachronic value and validity? Does he forget that the Church of Russia became autocephalous 140 years after the fall of Constantinople, thanks to the centuries-long established and synodically conferred privileges of the Ecumenical Patriarch? Obviously, yes! But what to expect from a Church that has not lived the synodical experience of the first millennium, and that probably believes that the history of Orthodoxy started when she acquired her autocephaly and since her Primate was granted the Patriarchal dignity?

— Dr Georges Tsetsis, Grand Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was born in Istanbul (Constantinople) in 1934. He graduated from the Halki Theological School, pursued studies at the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey-Geneva, and obtained his doctoral degree from the Theological Faculty of the Thessaloniki University. He occupied several executive posts at the Geneva Headquarters of the World Council of Churches, (1965-1984), and from 1985 to 1999 he was Permanent Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the WCC, while acting as member of the Central and Executive Committees of this organization. After his retirement in 1999 he resides in Geneva.

(Translation from the Greek original and published first in “Phos Phanariou” on 14.2.2019)