With its autonomous church in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate could not accept the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s actions to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU) in 2018–2019. The Moscow Patriarchate severed its relationships with Constantinople and other primates who recognized the OCU and searched for ways to emphasize conciliarity within Orthodoxy while at the same time ignoring the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s position. The decision to establish the Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa at the turn of 2022 was a nonaccidental result of this development.
The Moscow Patriarchate had already cut ties with Constantinople in 2018 before the tomos was handed to the OCU in January 2019. By October 2018, the entire Constantinople Patriarchate was considered tainted. The Moscow Patriarchate referred to Constantinople as schismatic, stopped mentioning Patriarch Bartholomew’s name in the liturgy, and dissolved the eucharistic connection with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. For the Moscow Patriarchate, finding a new way to cooperate within global Orthodoxy was essential.
By January 2019, the Moscow Patriarchate had appealed to the four ancient patriarchates as a whole. Constantinople was one among the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Moscow Patriarchate appeared to particularly emphasize the Alexandrian Patriarchate’s statements from the spring of 2019.
This is logical. Since the Patriarchate of Constantinople was no longer considered part of world Orthodoxy and its patriarch, Bartholomew, was no longer mentioned in the liturgy, the Moscow Patriarchate needed to turn to the next prestigious patriarchate. The Alexandrian Patriarchate, which belonged to the original Pentarchy of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, was the next most prestigious church after Constantinople. According to the Moscow Patriarchate’s interpretation of canons and schisms at the time, only Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem belonged to global Orthodoxy at this point.
The Moscow Patriarchate’s relationship with the Alexandrian Patriarchate changed in autumn 2019, when Alexandria sided with Constantinople and recognized the OCU. Moscow cut off eucharistic relations with the individual clerics and hierarchs who recognized the OCU but not with the entire patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate acted on this judgement because the Patriarch of Alexandria had made the decision to side with Constantinople himself, and because the choice to follow Constantinople was not made according to the synodal process in the Holy Synod of the Alexandrian Church.
One can see the differences between Moscow’s attitude toward Constantinople and Alexandria. The former was considered schismatic as a whole, whereas the only schismatics in the latter were individual pastors and bishops. As a result, there were those in the Alexandrian Patriarchate who still stood by Moscow’s side—at least in Moscow’s eyes.
Moscow left the Alexandrian Patriarch’s name out of the liturgy. This meant that only two of the ancient patriarchs—the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem—were mentioned in the Russian liturgy. It also meant that the Moscow Patriarchate needed to find a loyal ally from the remaining ancient patriarchates to emphasize its willingness for conciliarity.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theofilos III, visited Moscow in November 2019. During the visit, Patriarch Kirill for the first time referred to the Church of Jerusalem as the mother of all churches. By highlighting the Church of Jerusalem, the Moscow Patriarchate shifted its focus from the Moscow–Constantinople axis. With this new emphasis, Moscow denied its own and Constantinople’s rights as the first among equals. Moscow created a system that enabled it to claim to follow canonical order while ignoring Constantinople’s and the Alexandrian Patriarch’s positions. By doing so, Moscow moved toward a form of Orthodoxy where Moscow was a part of global Orthodoxy, but churches recognizing the OCU were considered schismatics.
The Moscow Patriarchate was disappointed in the Amman meeting hosted by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 2020 because not all the local churches that had rejected the OCU’s position attended. Among the ancient patriarchates, only Jerusalem, who arranged the meeting with the support of Moscow, was present. The Moscow Patriarchate did not say that the Patriarch of Jerusalem would honorarily replace the patriarchs of Constantinople or Alexandria. Rather, Moscow claimed that, unlike Constantinople, the Patriarch of Jerusalem would act as a voice of the Church’s synodality in an attempt to reconstruct the synodal decision to achieve a worldwide Orthodoxy.
The news from January 2022 revealed that the Moscow Patriarchate wanted to be viewed as patient and willing to open a dialogue with the Alexandrian Patriarchate—such as with Constantinople in 2018—until Moscow had to act in the name of a canonical Orthodox Church. The interference took place within Moscow’s interpretation to help priests who had been victims of the inner schism within the Alexandrian Patriarchate.
The Moscow Patriarchate has since lifted the status of the Jerusalem Patriarchate to first among Orthodox churches and ignored Constantinople in several cases. The Alexandrian Patriarchate has also been ignored by Moscow, but in an even more destructive way than Constantinople has, since Moscow has drawn a border line of schism through it. The Moscow Patriarchate appears to have found a way, in its own eyes, to claim that its actions are conciliar and canonical. Its strategy requires the attendance of ancient patriarchates. Because Moscow does not want to be ignored, it draws new lines within and around global Orthodoxy and ignores the old ones.
Heta Hurskainen is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology (Western) at the University of Eastern Finland, where Orthodox and Western Theology are studied side by side within one School of Theology.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.