11 September 2018

Grand Duchess Maria of Russia: Constantinople’s position will lead to the splintering of the very foundations of Orthodoxy

The Head of the Imperial House of Russia comments on the recent declaration by Patriarch Bartholomew.
Moscow. September 11, 2018. INTERFAX.RU.

At the beginning of September, during a session of the Synod of Bishops of the Church of Constantinople in Istanbul, Patriarch Bartholomew declared that he is taking on himself the initiative to end the schism in the Church in Ukraine, “inasmuch as Russia, being responsible for the present unhealthy situation in Ukraine, is unable itself to resolve the problem.”  The patriarch cited requests from the Ukrainian government and from the leaders of the self-proclaimed “Kyivan Patriarchate” as his justification for taking this action.  The patriarch of Constantinople then appointed two exarchs to Kyiv “to prepare for the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”  In response, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church declared the patriarch’s action a “gross violation of the Holy Canons.”  According to the Russian Synod, Patriarch Bartholomew’s actions have created an impasse in relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church of Constantinople, and “constitute a very real threat to the unity of Orthodoxy around the world.”

Against the backdrop of these events, our correspondent asked the Head of the Imperial House of Russia, H.I.H. the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, to comment on the statement by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, whom she knows personally very well.

Your Imperial Highness, how do you view the recent news about the situation in the life of the Church in Ukraine and the statement from Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople?

I was saddened and alarmed by the news of the radical steps that are being taken by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to intervene in Church affairs in Ukraine.  I can see how these steps have sharply elevated tensions, both in Ukraine itself and throughout the entire Orthodox world.  I had very much hoped that, after Patriarch Kirill’s recent trip to Constantinople and his meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, the peace and accord between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople would only be restored and strengthened.  But instead, Constantinople has chosen this demarche, ignoring entirely the position of the Russian Orthodox Church and the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  Such an act cannot help but cause me enormous sadness and utter bewilderment.

Do you have any detailed information about the situation of the Orthodox in Ukraine?

Yes, I follow very closely the official statements, opinion pieces, and news articles in the press, and my Chancellery regularly provides me with historical and legal background and news. 

Judging from what you’ve said, I take it you side in this dispute with the Russian Orthodox Church.  But don’t you think that you may be getting only one side of the story?  Are you familiar with the arguments of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the supporters of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church?

I have never concealed the fact that I am a faithful daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church, that I trust its hierarchy, and, to the best of my ability, I work to preserve the canonical unity of the flock of the Moscow Patriarchate and the traditions that have developed in the Russian Orthodox community around the world.

At the same time, our House has always enjoyed close and warm spiritual ties with the hierarchs of other local Churches.  During the years of the persecution of the Faith in the USSR, when we were forced into exile far away from our homeland, many of these hierarchs provided us with essential support and assistance.  It is sufficient to remember that, thanks precisely to the Church of Constantinople, my grandfather, grandmother, and parents in the 1950s were able to help found and canonically establish the Orthodox community in Madrid.  For many years, when there were no Russian churches in Spain, we regularly attended the Church of Ss. Andreas and Demetrius, built by this community and under the omophorion of the patriarch of Constantinople.

Thus I cherish my good and warm relationships with hierarchs and clergy of all Churches, which together represent the fullness of Orthodoxy.  And if I hear that there are conflicts between Sister Churches, I refrain from judging the situation or, even more, making any formal public statements, until I am familiar with all the facts of the case.

My feelings about the situation in the life of the Church in Ukraine are therefore based not only on my membership in the Russian Orthodox Church, but also on my understanding of history, and on my own experiences participating in various peacemaking activities.

Patriarch Bartholomew claims that the Church of Constantinople has the right, since the time of the Ecumenical Councils, to resolve disputes among the Orthodox all over the world.

I am no scholar of the Holy Canons, nor can I offer a detailed analysis of the patriarch’s position.  This should be done by specialists and academics.  I can only say what seems to me to be the generally known facts, and what one can understand of them on the basis of Christian love and common sense, not having myself the in-depth knowledge that a specialist might have. 

The Patriarchate of Constantinople occupies the first place of honour in the Orthodox Church.  It is the “first among equals.”  No one disputes that.  Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, where the doctrine of the absolute primacy of the Pope prevails, there is no supreme pontiff in the Orthodox world.  All issues are decided on the basis of conciliarity.

The Canons that assign to the Church of Constantinople certain powers to arbitrate disputes and coordinate various functions in the Church derive entirely from conditions that have not existed for more than 500 years.

These conditions are that the See of the First Hierarch of the Constantinopolitan Church was located in the “Imperial City,” in the “New Rome”—the spiritual and political center of the Eastern Roman Empire.  It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that the canons assigning certain additional powers to the Church of Constantinople were accepted by the Ecumenical Councils. 

It was only the proximity of the hierarchs of Constantinople to the Roman emperors, who were revered as the sacral and legitimate rulers of the oecumene—the entire Christian world—that gave these hierarchs not only the titular, but also the actual status of “Ecumenical”—or universal—hierarchs.  There was no other basis for this status and role.

But in 1453, the Eastern Roman Empire ceased to exist.  And with it ceased the conditions that gave the patriarchs of Constantinople the role of supreme and final arbiter over Orthodox Christians, even those who were not directly under the jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople.

The traditional primacy in honour and even the title “Ecumenical” remained the custom and practice among the patriarchs of Constantinople. All other Orthodox hierarchs and Orthodox Christians agreed to this custom and practice.  However, the symphonia between the patriarchs and emperors, which achieved its perfect form in Constantinople and served as the foundation of legal processes regulating relations between the Church and State, ceased to exist after the 15th century.

Even so, Rus’ in 988 received its Christian baptism from Constantinople.  The Ecumenical Patriarch appointed all the Russian metropolitans for centuries.  The autocephaly of the Russian Church would later be recognized by Constantinople, and the first Russian patriarch would be installed by the patriarch of Constantinople.  Doesn’t this suggest that the Russian Orthodox Church should regard Constantinople as its Mother Church and therefore obey it?

But of course you know that the See of Constantinople was itself at one time under the Church of Antioch.  That is, the Antiochian Church is the Mother Church of the Constantinopolitan Church.  But this does not mean that the Antiochian patriarchs have all this time been intervening in the internal affairs of the Church of Constantinople. 

Yes, there is the pious tradition that the Church of Constantinople was founded by St. Andrew the First-Called.  But St. Andrew is also, by tradition, said to have founded the Church of Russia.  Neither tradition can be proven by scholarly means.  This is a matter of faith and belief.  But surviving legal documents plainly reveal the way in which the See of Constantinople grew in importance over the centuries. 

When the first Rome began to lose some of its influence in the Roman world, and a new capital for the empire, founded by Constantine the Great, arose as the new “Imperial City,” the significance of the Constantinopolitan See also rose.  In some ways, this process is analogous to what happened in our country, when the main center of the Church moved from Kyiv to Vladimir and then to Moscow.

The autocephaly of the Russian Church came at a time when Moscow was the center of Russian religious and political life.  And the patriarchate was established there, in Moscow.  Moreover, the patriarchs of Moscow were recognized as occupying the 5th place in honour, after the other patriarchates, whose ranking was established by the Ecumenical Councils.  Moscow’s ranking derived from the fact that the Russian tsars considered themselves the successors of the Roman and Byzantine emperors, a status that was recognized not only by their subjects but by many in the rest of the Orthodox world.  One can debate all one wants as to the degree and extent of that recognition, but it is recorded in many official documents of that time.

Of course, we can never forget that the Church of Constantinople is the Mother Church of the Russian Church.  But in any case, whenever a Church is granted autocephaly, the relationship changes from a Daughter Church to a Sister Church.  And with this change comes the right to control independently its own internal affairs.

Constantinople and the Ukrainian supporters of separation from the Moscow Patriarchate have stated that the Kyivan Metropolitanate had remained under the omophorion of Constantinople, and that it was only in the 17th century that the Ukrainian Church was transferred, under political pressure, to Moscow, and even then, only temporarily.  Thus now, when Ukraine has become an independent state, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in its view, should reclaim its rights and take upon itself the responsibility of “ending the schism.” 

The Kyivan See has for more than 300 years been under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.  There are no indications whatsoever in the historical documents that this situation was to be temporary.  Were it the case, we would have seen these advocates of separation citing chapter and verse from the Holy Canons.  But no one has done so because the documents do not say this.  And even if at the close of the 17th century someone in Constantinople or in Ukraine had any concerns or doubts about this matter, then surely the jurisdiction of the Russian church in this space for so long a period would have legitimized this status.

In the 1990s, the Orthodox Church in the newly independent Ukraine received the broadest possible autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate, yet maintained its unity with Moscow.  The canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had been recognized up to now both by Constantinople and by all other Local Orthodox Churches, has vastly more parishes and parishioners than all the other uncanonical “alternative” Ukrainian jurisdictions, none of which are recognized by the rest of the Orthodox world.  True, some of the clergy and faithful of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church support autocephaly.  But they are not in the majority.  Be that as it may, the official position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is to maintain its links to the Russian Orthodox Church in the form in which they currently exist.  To address church issues in Ukraine without taking into account the position of the canonical hierarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and even working against that hierarchy, is uncanonical, unfair, and bound to lead to tragedy.

Patriarch Bartholomew has not yet formally pronounced the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but has only, in his words, begun the preparations for it.  To this end he had appointed two exarchs.  To many, this intermediate step seems appropriate, given the many years that the Orthodox in Ukraine have not been able themselves to heal the schism, and the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate has also failed to revolve the problem. 

One must not forget that the Church is not only a collection of certain rules, traditions, and holy buildings and sacred liturgical vessels and utensils, but first and foremost a community of believers, clerics and laity, who confess faith in Christ and who follow his commandments of Love. Even the most proper and informed decisions cannot be enacted through coercion, or in conditions of extreme tension and conflict, which would only give rise to new confrontations.  Moreover, one cannot pressure, putting it mildly, people to accept decisions that are still unresolved and whose justification is not readily apparent. 

For there to be any hope of success in the efforts of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to mediate the conflict, there would have to be a number of conditions in place.  Most importantly, these efforts must first be approved by all sides, and not imposed in an unwelcome manner from the outside. Secondly, the mediators must be highly respected in the Orthodox world, with a reputation for objectivity.  They must be experienced, pious and wise hierarchs, and have no prior involvement whatsoever in the conflict.

Neither of these conditions is present in the current situation.  The “preparations for autocephaly” have begun despite the stated objections of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, and have been placed in the hands of two bishops, whose independence and objectivity are uncertain. 

Moreover, even in the statement by Patriarch Bartholomew, it was political motives, not church-related motives, that were voiced.  He expressed the view that Russia is responsible for the current political instability in Ukraine.  But I would remind everyone that the beginning of that instability was the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, when the duly elected president was removed from power. 

This action was clearly not taken by pro-Russian political figures in the country.  And regardless of how events later evolved, one cannot hold one country or one side in the conflict wholly responsible for everything that happens, and the other country or side completely innocent, and, secondly, the Church should not add fuel to the fire but do all it can for peace and reconciliation. 

I know that in the churches of the Russian Orthodox Church, at each Divine Liturgy, a prayer is inserted in the litany for the suffering Ukrainian land and its people.  Even if some may make pretensions to some or other secular political agenda, I know that Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Onufrii, and other hierarchs of the Russian and Ukrainian Churches have given no reason whatsoever to doubt the sincerity of their peacemaking desires and efforts.  They are praying and doing all they can that the Ukrainian people have peace in their Church, their communities, and in their civic life. 

So you believe that the position of Patriarch Bartholomew has been dictated not by religious, but by political motivations?

Unfortunately, I can find no other explanation for it.  The steps now being taken will lead to a rift between the Constantinopolitan Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, and constitute a genuine tragedy. 

The spiritual ties between the fraternal peoples of Russia and Ukraine have an ancient history.  Kyiv is called the “mother of Russian cities” in the chronicles.  The ancestors of Ukrainians and Russians died side-by-side, defending their common Fatherland.  Attempts to destroy this cultural unity and to sow hostility among us is of course a political ploy to subordinate Ukraine to the geopolitical rivals of Russia and to weaken the international position of our country.  Part and parcel of this ploy is to smash to pieces the Orthodox foundations which were laid in Kyivan Rus’ and which were further developed in Muscovy and in the Russian Empire—foundations that endured the cruelest form of persecution in the USSR.  The people who are leading this effort are, frankly, quite far from the Church. 

But even in the history of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, not everything was always smooth and evenhanded.

True, nothing is ever ideal in this Earthly life.  And it is, alas, impossible to separate perfectly the spiritual life from politics, high aspirations from greed, care for others from self-interest, or sincerity from subterfuge. 

There are moments in the history of Russia and the Russian Church where one plainly sees sins, guile, the abuse of one’s blessings, the use of coercive force, blackmail, and bribery.  We must not profess some “Hottentot morality,” where we see ourselves always correct, and all others always wrong, just because they have interests and opinions that are different from ours.  

But we do not study history in order to search for excuses for our ongoing abuses, or a basis to exact revenge for offenses that happened three hundred years ago.  We study history to learn its lessons and perhaps avoid—with knowledge and purpose—those mistakes that brought such hardship upon us and upon other peoples of former times.   

If the Patriarchate of Constantinople believes that Russia’s rulers and the hierarchy of the Russian Church did not at some time in the past act fully appropriately or tactfully in its relations with it, this hardly gives them grounds to commit the same or worse injustice now, and hold millions of people hostage to its questionable acts of revanchism.

And if, for example, the Church of Constantinople has always rightly and consistently condemned phyletism [the tendency in Church circles in some countries to place narrowly defined national interests ahead of Church unity—INTERFAX], then it should in no way be supporting an obviously phyletistic policy in Ukraine. 

Do you know Patriarch Bartholomew personally?

Yes, I met him some time ago, at his residence in the Phanar during my visit to Turkey.  We spoke about questions of general Church unity, about the relationship between the Churches of Constantinople and Russia, and about cooperation among Orthodox believers and, indeed, among all people of faith, who are threatened by the rise of atheism, immorality, cynicism, and whose spirituality and human dignity are being sacrificed to political and economic egoism.  

I still have very warm memories about our meeting, and about Patriarch Bartholomew himself—his piousness, his great intellect, his kindness, his mild and measured personality.  Thus it is especially painful for me to see inter-Church relations breaking down, to see how fraternal ties are being rent in two, and how the entire Orthodox world is being weakened. 

Do you have any plans to approach Patriarch Bartholomew and lay out for him your views on the situation?

I would be willing to try, if I came to believe that doing so would serve the cause of peace in the Church.  But I would need to know what Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Onufrii thought of the idea first.  One of the ideas most treasured by the Imperial House is the principle of symphonia.  According to this principle, the hierarchy and the monarchy support each other, but do not interfere directly in the affairs of the other, unless it is expressly requested and agreed to.  The doctor’s maxim applies perfectly here:  “First, do no harm!”  I very much hope that the resources and will for direct dialogue have not yet been exhausted.

What might be the consequences for Ukraine of a formal schism in the Church?

I have no doubt that, if events continue to develop according the scenario that seems now to be playing out, the crisis will only deepen, and this difficult and tragic period in the history of Ukraine, Russia, and the entire Orthodox world will only continue, eventually having consequences that reach around the globe. 

Of course, the Church remains inviolable until the end of time, and the cultural unity of Russia and Ukraine will remain, as well.  This period of strife and enmity will be replaced, surely, by a period of reconciliation and forgiveness.  So it has occurred time and again over the course of countless epochs.  But the sooner we cease wounding each other and start mending each other, the less suffering there will be in the present and the foreseeable future.  I pray for all, so that in our hearts the spirit of Christian love and truth will prevail.

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