Inter-Orthodox Relations

Bishops’ Conference – The Major Outcome: Resentment against the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Published on: July 28, 2023
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Image Credit: Rev. Igor Palkin, Patriarchia.ru

What problems are of concern to Patriarch Kirill and the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church? This question, in particular, is answered by the documents of the Bishops’ Councils of the Russian Orthodox Church, one of the highest authorities of Church governance. However, the difficulty is that Patriarch Kirill has been unable to convene another Bishops’ Council for the last three years. And this is a direct violation of the Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, in July, Patriarch Kirill gathered some of the bishops for a Bishops’ conference and found a way to simulate a conciliar discussion.

First, it is necessary to speak about the context that influenced the shift in the mechanisms of Church governance in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the format of the Bishops’ conference, the content of the documents, and the style of their presentation to the bishops. This will be discussed below. In the second part of the essay, I will examine the content of the documents that form the antagonistic approach of the ROC to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Recently, the date of the Bishops’ Council has been postponed several times. It is noteworthy that the last date was May 26-29, 2022; that is, Kirill was counting on a prompt conclusion of the war and, accordingly, the hosting of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church after a complete victory over Ukraine. After the aggression began, Patriarch Kirill waited for a few months, and only on April 17, 2022, he postponed the council indefinitely. However, in May 2022, a council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was held in Kiev, which declared a break in relations with the ROC.

As a result, the council was put on hold, and instead, in December 2022, it was decided to hold on July 19, 2023 a Bishops’ Conference, i.e., a meeting of the episcopate that does not require a quorum and has no canonical status. It should be said that the Bishops’ Meeting is mentioned only once in the Statute of the ROC, in the chapter on the Local Council (Ch. 2, p. 13) as an integral part of it. Such a meeting has no independent function outside the Local Council. However, Patriarch Kirill had already practiced this format in 2015; it did not raise any objections, and now he decided to conduct it again. 

The bishops in Russia were offered an extremely strict format for participation: all of them, without exception, were ordered to come, and no excuses were accepted. And at the same time, a rather soft format was offered for bishops from outside Russia: “depending on their ability to come to Moscow.” At the same time, Bishop Savva (Tutunov) personally called foreign bishops to ensure at least some representation. There is no data on the exact number of participants, but none of the bishops of the Church Abroad came to the meeting, bishops from Western Europe and the Baltic states were absent, most of the bishops from Moldova were absent, and only Belarus, apparently, came in its totality. 

The meeting lasted one day, and there were only four points on the agenda: 

  • The report of Patriarch Kirill
  • The report of Metropolitan Hilarion of Hungary and Budapest, Chairman of the Synodal Biblical Theological Commission, on the preparation of the document “On the Distortion of the Orthodox Teaching About the Church in the Acts of the Hierarchy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Speeches of its Representatives”
  • The report of the Head of the Legal Department of the Moscow Patriarchate Hegumen Xenia (Chernega) on changes in civil law
  • Discussion and adoption of the final document.

However, not only the actual content of the documents presented at the meeting was the main task for the patriarch. During the pandemic and the first year and a half of the war, the patriarch spent too much time in isolation. As an authoritarian administrator, he needed to make sure that the ROC, represented by the episcopate, was fully under his control and still fully manageable. I don’t think the quantitative results pleased him much. Out of 402 bishops, about 250 came to the meeting, that is less than the quorum of 2/3 of the episcopate (268), which is necessary for the Bishops’ Council. And this means that with all efforts to convene the Bishops’ Council will not be possible.

At the same time, the patriarch was clearly pleased that there were no protest statements at the meeting. None of the bishops dared to declare an anti-war position or criticize the documents discussed. This means that fear and “corporate solidarity” make the ROC episcopate completely obedient to Patriarch Kirill.

The patriarch’s report looks jagged, stylistically and substantively heterogeneous. The central part is not just resentment, but poorly concealed rage against the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Patriarch Bartholomew personally:

Some of those who call themselves the servants of God have not been free from the influence of the spirits of evil under heaven (cf. Eph. 6:12), which pushed them to ruin the unity of the Church. I am referring, first of all, to the anti-canonical actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Ukraine, which have opened the way to ecclesiastical disturbances and to the long-standing, and today especially severe, persecution of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine.

In other words, Patriarch Kirill publicly declares that an indefinite circle of hierarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are possessed by demons. And this is not a caveat. Patriarch Kirill continues:

Unfortunately, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has become one of the instruments of the struggle against Orthodoxy. Its leading hierarchs for a long time, with the support of political forces outside the Church and at their instigation, have been preparing to tear apart the unity of Orthodoxy, conducting secret negotiations and intrigues.

It seems that Patriarch Kirill is adopting the ideological narrative of total confrontation with the “collective West” that is echoed by Russian propaganda:

It must be clearly comprehended: influential world political forces, hostile not only to Russia and Orthodoxy, but also, as we can now assess, to the Christian worldview as a whole, have set and are setting for themselves a task broader than just the spiritual isolation of the Ukrainian people, its opposition to the brotherly and extremely close in spiritual regard to the people of Russia, with whom they together constitute a single Orthodox civilization, tracing back to the era of Holy Rus.

The patriarch makes only a slight reference to the war in Ukraine when he speaks of the need for military priests in the occupation units. He calls for prayers for “a victorious triumph over those who oppose Holy Russia and want to divide and destroy its unified people.” At the same time he says nothing—not a word!—about the need for peace and peacemaking. It follows from his speech that the reason for the “open persecution” against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not Russian aggression at all, but “the turmoil sown by the Phanar.”

The icon of these “persecutions” for Patriarch Kirill is the figure of Metropolitan Pavlo (Lebid), the odious superior of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. A few days ago, the court replaced his house arrest with detention in a pre-trial detention center for “repeated insults to the religious feelings of Ukrainians, humiliation of the views of believers of other confessions” and statements “justifying or denying the actions of the aggressor country.” The patriarch called this “lawless persecution,” declared Metropolitan Pavel a “confessor,” and added:

It is clear that the Ukrainian authorities have begun to liquidate the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, paying no attention to the so-called European values, which include, among other things, freedom of religion and respect for human rights.

The fact that Patriarch Kirill has a poor and even perverted understanding of the situation in Ukraine is evidenced by the sudden and literally out of nowhere emergence of the topic of the Greek Catholic Church:

The so-called Greek Catholics—Uniates—are actively involved in inciting and maintaining persecution of the Orthodox people of Ukraine. They appear to be one of the ultimate beneficiaries of numerous lawless seizures of Orthodox churches on the territory of Ukraine… Today, the Uniates have fully identified themselves with the blatantly nationalist agenda being fostered in Ukraine and have become collaborators of the Ukrainian authorities in implementing their discriminatory policy towards the canonical Orthodox Church.

Having chosen a close alliance with the Kremlin, Patriarch Kirill has completely lost the possibility of any political influence in Ukraine, and he can only throw thunder and lightning like Zeus and write letters to the heads of Christian churches and human rights organizations urging them to “pay attention to the ongoing persecution.” Having become persona non grata in Ukraine and being under sanctions of a number of countries, he cannot influence the situation. And this is a complete failure of his leadership.

Based on the subsequent report of Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), who fell into disgrace last year and lost his position as Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations, but retained his position as Chairman of the Synodal Biblical and Theological Commission, the Russian Orthodox Church seriously desires an extreme aggravation of relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Here are the very first words of Metropolitan Hilarion:

In 2018, the invasion of Ukraine by the Patriarchate of Constantinople took place. It was followed by the legalization of the Ukrainian schism. This not only caused grievous wounds to Ukrainian Orthodoxy, but also split the entire Orthodox world.

Apparently, Patriarch Kirill’s main political goal at the last Bishops’ meeting was to convince the audience that the schism had already taken place and that the Ecumenical Patriarchate was solely to blame. Now new strategies are to be formed, without taking into account and even intentionally disregarding the accepted norms and rules. No objections were voiced by the bishops.

And this means that Kirill has achieved his goal: he has been given full carte blanche for further actions. The question now is whether the heads of the other autocephalous churches will be duped by his rhetoric or find the courage to speak against his distortions.

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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.

About author

  • Sergei Chapnin

    Director of Communications at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University and chief editor of The Gifts (Дары), an almanac on contemporary Christian culture

    Sergei Chapnin is a former Moscow Patriarchate employee with over 15 years of experience. He has deep knowledge of Russian Orthodox traditions, Church administration, and Church-state relations in modern Russia. Born in 1968, he graduated from Moscow State University, Journalism faculty in 1992. In...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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