Schism among the Orthodox

Schism among the Orthodox November 9, 2018

The Orthodox tradition seems to many Christians to be a haven from the woes of contemporary Christianity and a way to experience the unity of the historic church, as it used to be in the early church, before both popes and protestants.  An Orthodox friend told me that their church avoids problems by just never changing.  That might be debatable, and sometimes churches need to change; that is, to have a Reformation.  At any rate, a schism has broken out in world Orthodoxy.  And the unlikely Luther or anti-Luther is Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine in 2014 has only increased Ukrainian nationalism and has intensified the aversion to all things Russian.  Now the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has unified its various factions to create a self-governing body separate from the Russian Orthodox Church.

The titular head of world Orthodoxy is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is currently Bartholomew I.  As an archbishop considered among the other bishops “the first among equals”–how the Bishop of Rome used to be, before the development of the pope’s status as “Vicar of Christ”–the Patriarch can call councils and is in charge of the relationship between the various Orthodox church bodies.

Bartholomew I has extended recognition to the autonomous the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  This has made the Russian Orthodox Church go ballistic.

The Russian church is by far the largest Orthodox church body, with some 150 million members, half of world Orthodoxy.  It insists on its authority over Ukraine.  And it is growing in power, thanks to the mutual patronage of Russian President Putin.

Tension between the Russian church and the rest of Orthodoxy has been growing.  The Russians refused to attend the world-wide council called by Bartholomew I and have been trying to assert their own leadership, with the ambition of establishing Moscow as the “New Rome.”

On October 15, the Russian Orthodox Church severed eucharistic fellowship with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.  The head of the Russian church, Moscow Patriarch Kirill, also formally declared Bartholomew I–the titular head of world Orthodoxy–as a schismatic.

Said the Russian bishop Metropolitan Hilarion, “The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has joined the schism himself by recognizing schismatic individuals. That is how the church canons work. Therefore, the Patriarch of Constantinople is a schismatic for us.”

Where does that leave the American Orthodox?  There are several Orthodox church bodies in the United States.  The Orthodox Church in America has ties to the Russians.  The Antiochian Orthodox Church in America is a “Greek Orthodox” church, with a connection to Antioch, which, like Constantinople, is in Turkey.

I’d like to hear from any of you Orthodox folks who can speak to the situation, especially as it impacts churches in America.


Photo: Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew I  (left) and Moscow Patriarch Kirill (right), via [CC BY 3.0 (, CC BY 4.0 ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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