This spring, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) sealed significant and important deals, which has solidified and strengthened the SOC’s position. The first “deal” in May turned the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC), formally the Ohrid Archbishopric, into a canonical church, which ended around 50 years of estrangement between the SOC and MOC. The second one in July was between the SOC and the Montenegrin government, which granted the SOC privileges in Montenegro and closed almost twenty years of uncertainty between the two parties. These deals are not just a sign of the new diplomatic strength of the recently elected (2021) patriarch Porfirije (Perić, 1961-) and a different composition of the SOC synod but of the impact the Ukrainian war has on other global Orthodox conflicts. In the following, I will discuss how and why the SOC has taken these steps and what they mean in the long run.
The end of stalemate in Montenegro
As I passed through the central Montenegrin town of Kolasin this summer, a massive mural of the recently deceased metropolitan of Montenegro, Amfilohije (1938-2020), appeared on a multi-storage apartment building. The massive painting depicted him with a traditional Orthodox halo, underlining that he is already on the way to sainthood so shortly after his death. This was not a singular picture, but I noticed similar ones in the Montenegrin towns and cities. The reason for this rapid promotion of the Metropolitan Amfilohije is his role in the protest movement back in 2020, which led to the recent change of regimes in Montenegro. These changes in government in 2020 paved the way for the new advantageous agreement that the SOC reached with the current government this summer. The new deal between the government and the SOC is a complete reversal of the conditions of a prior law on religion in Montenegro passed through parliament in late 2019. The former law could have been used to confiscate SOC property and heritage in Montenegro and put severe roadblocks to the links for SOC between Montenegro and Belgrade. The law was put in place by the prior Montenegrin nationalist government, who argued that the SOC in Montenegro was an alien and threatening power to the Montenegrin nation.
“Meeting him I sensed immediately a quality of authenticity, of integrity, of completeness; here I felt was a true man. He was marked by a serenity, by a transparent and luminous joy” (Kallistos Ware, “Mount Athos Today” )
A Moment of Pan-Orthodox Unity
In a time when the Orthodox Christian world is broken by schism—the schism over Ukraine being merely the most ulcerous—the recent death of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia (1934-2022) is perhaps one of only a few events that has managed to briefly unite the Orthodox world in a “bright sadness.” Memorial services were held by both Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar and at his death bed by prominent figures in the Russian Church (Moscow Patriarchate [MP]) who were his former students (Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev] of Budapest and Hungary [MP] and Bishop Irenei [Steenberg] of London [ROCOR-MP]). Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain, the Exarch or Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the United Kingdom, followed Metropolitan Kallistos’ sickness closely and visited him repeatedly in his last years. With great pastoral discernment, Archbishop Nikitas quietly cooperated over a long period with local representatives of the Oxford Russian Parish and his own Oxford Greek Orthodox parish in planning the logistics of the memorials, liturgy, funeral, and interment in Oxford with the intention of emphasizing the Pan-Orthodoxy of the Metropolitan.
Two immensely moving memorials were served in the presence of Metropolitan Kallistos’ body at St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Russian Orthodox Church by its rector, Fr. Stephen Platt, and others followed by an all-night vigil where clergy of all churches and faithful read the Gospels with the Metropolitan lying in state. The next day, a memorial liturgy with Metropolitan Kallistos lying in state was celebrated by Metropolitan Athenagoras of Belgium (EP) at the joint Greek and Russian tradition parish, the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation (EP), pastored by Frs. Ian Graham and Seraphim Vänttinen-Newton, with Ecumenical Patriarchate clergy concelebrating, the nuns of the Community of St. John the Baptist of Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (founded by St. Sophrony [Sakharov] of Essex [1896-1993]) singing and attended by a large crowd of faithful and clergy from all jurisdictions (including the Moscow Patriarchate) as well as ecumenical representatives (e.g. Archbishop Rowan Williams). Finally, the funeral, with hundreds coming from all Christian traditions, was held at the large Oxford Catholic Oratory Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga led by Archbishop Nikitas serving with multiple Orthodox bishops and clergy from all jurisdictions, including a single bold priest of the Moscow Patriarchate. The final “last kiss” of the faithful to the beloved Metropolitan took almost half an hour with the whole church coming to say goodbye and receive his last blessing. Just before Metropolitan Kallistos’ coffin was closed, Archbishop Nikitas, in a traditional ceremony, but with enormous pastoral intuition, gifted the various symbols of Metropolitan Kallistos’ office as a bishop to clergy and monastics of all jurisdictions in attendance, with the mitre going to Metropolitan Athenagoras (EP), the episcopal staff to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist (EP), the encolpium or pectoral cross of the Metropolitan to Fr. Stephen Platt (MP), and the Panaghia to be sent to Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) (MP). The day closed with the Metropolitan’s interment in the “Orthodox section” of the local Oxford Wolvercote Cemetery (where J. R. R. Tolkien is buried) by Metropolitan Athenagoras, who led the faithful of many traditions in music from Pascha. Archbishop Nikitas was quite explicit in inviting all canonical Orthodox clergy to serve at the funeral service in witnessing to the unity of Orthodoxy, though sadly the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate ordered their clergy not to concelebrate at any service led by an Ecumenical Patriarchate hierarch. The wake was organized by leading members of the local Russian Parish who were the loving carers of the Metropolitan and now the executors of his estate.
These services, which were a brief but imperfect moment of Pan-Orthodox unity, were the capstone of the last years of Metropolitan Kallistos’ life which involved his daily care by a rota of devoted spiritual children led by members of the local Russian parish working synergistically with members from the Greek parish he founded, transcending the divisions of their respective jurisdictions. Such was the mark of “Kallistos of Oxford” that he has managed both in life and death to serve both as a point of unity (as is ideally the calling of the episcopate), as well as what he saw as his purpose: an Orthodox teacher dedicated to expounding the truth of Christ freely to unify all Christians that they might grow up into the fullness of the stature of Christ.
Most people who have written about the tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) after the Russian invasion tend to focus on one thing: who is commemorated. This is not surprising. Accepting the authority of this bishop, but not that one, is an easy shorthand for where one stands on all sorts of other issues. The recent UOC decision not to commemorate Patriarch Kirill anymore was emblematic of its clerics’ denying Russian claims, attacks, and brutality. The UOC’s subsequent declaration of independence opens the door to dialogue with the OCU.
The focus on commemoration and canonicity, however, may obscure other, less obvious challenges. Even before February 24, the differences between the UOC and OCU went well beyond which bishop one was willing to follow. The liturgical choices of both churches—what language they use, which saints they invoke, which hymns they sing, which icons they venerate, what wording they use for such traditionally State-glorifying services as those to the Elevation of the Cross, which national holidays or traumas they commemorate and how—indicate divergent approaches. Any future rapprochement will need to consider those divergences as well.
On May 27, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) declared its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), of which it had until then been a branch. The reason is very clear: it disagrees with its (former) supreme hierarch, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who has supported the Russian war against Ukraine. The UOC did not use the word “autocephaly.” But if it succeeds in staying independent from the ROC, it will in fact have an autocephalous status—albeit one for the time being not recognized by any other Orthodox Church.
On Sunday, May 29, Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv commemorated all first hierarchs of local Orthodox Churches except the ones who have recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, including Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America. Ukrainian Orthodoxy thus now continues to be in an awkward situation. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was granted autocephaly in January 2019, regards itself as the only canonical Church in the country. The UOC thinks the same about itself. World Orthodoxy is split over this question. Though numbers are not decisive in such questions, the UOC is much larger in terms of parishes (which are registered with a state office). The OCU claims to have more believers, but the sociological surveys it cites are not reliable (they ask, e.g., about affiliation with the “UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate,” which was never the name of the Church and which implies a Russian structure). In the last months, hundreds of parishes have changed jurisdiction from the UOC to the OCU. The UOC says that many of these transfers were carried out with violence, or by a decision made by the political authorities, not by the parishes themselves. But even if all of them were voluntary switches, it would hardly change the overall picture.