World View: Russia's Annexation of Crimea Splits the Russian Orthodox Church

This morning's key headlines from GenerationalDynamics.com

  • Ukraine capitulates to Russia in Crimea
  • Russia's annexation of Crimea splits the Russian Orthodox Church

Ukraine capitulates to Russia in Crimea

Ukraine's interim government has announced that it will withdraw its troops from Crimea. It is not known whether Russia plans to invade eastern Ukraine. BBC

Russia's annexation of Crimea splits the Russian Orthodox Church

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which is united worldwide under a single Pope in Rome, the Eastern Orthodox Church is actually a community of a dozen or so self-governing ("autocephalous") churches sharing common values. A Catholic is a Catholic anywhere in the world (in theory, anyway), but there's no such thing as a generic "Orthodox Christian." You have to be Orthodox PLUS something else -- Russian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox, for example. A Greek Orthodox would reject becoming a Catholic, but just as important, he would never become a Russian Orthodox either.

There is an amusing anecdote describing how the Russian Orthodox Church was founded in Kiev. The anecdote involves a pagan prince named Vladimir, who in 980 became ruling prince of the Slavs, headquartered in Kiev. And Prince Vladimir went religion shopping.

According to legend, he rejected Islam, because it forbade alcoholic drink. He sent commissions to visit the Christian Churches. The Bulgarians, they reported, smelt. The Germans had nothing to offer. But Constantinople (or Byzantium) had won their hearts. There, they said in words often to be quoted, "We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we know only that there God dwells among men." Around 986-8, Prince Vladimir was baptized as an Orthodox Christian by a Byzantine emperor in the Greek colony of Chersonesos -- near Sevastopol in Crimea. Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christianity for himself and his people. Vladimir might have chosen Catholicism, and thus would one man have changed the history and the map of the world. In the centuries to come, the Slav culture moved east and formed the Russian Empire.

Well, Kiev was conquered by the Mongols in 1240, while Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Muslims in 1453, and became Istanbul.

With the destruction of Rome by the Visigoths, and the destruction of Constantinople by the Ottomans, by 1472 Ivan the Great decided that Moscow was going to become "the third Rome," the home of the true (or "orthodox") Christian faith, and the defender of Jerusalem. He gave himself the title "Czar" or "Tsar," derived from the name of the Roman Emperor Caesar (as is the German word "Kaiser").

Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church became married to the Russian state. This led Russia to enter the Crimean war as a generational crisis war in the 1850s in its role as the defender of Jerusalem. The Crimean war was a disaster for Russia and led in the following generational Awakening era to Russia's "Nihilist Movement," which rejected both the Church and the State, and can be thought of as an extremely violent analog to the violent protests in America in the 1960s. The Nihilist Movement grew and became the lynchpin of the next generational crisis war, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Tsarist state was destroyed, and the Russian Orthodox Church was destroyed, though it was revived in the Soviet era during World War II when it was needed to help fight the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Since the Soviet Empire collapsed in the 1990s, the Russian Orthodox Church has once again become close to the Russian state.

Like a dog wagging its tail, changes in the Russian Orthodox Church have pushed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church through multiple chaotic events throughout this millennium of history. Sometimes it was subordinate to the Moscow Church, sometimes it was completely self-governing. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, the Ukrainian church itself was split, with the result that there were three Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine:

  • The biggest one is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, still subordinate to the Moscow Church, with 10,865 parishes and 9,072 clergy.
  • Next is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate, which has 3,721 parishes served by 2,816 clergy.
  • The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church is the smallest, with 1,166 parishes and 686 clergy, mostly concentrated in western Ukraine.
At one time, it was hoped that these three churches would eventually merge, possibly even become entirely subordinate to the Moscow church. But Russia's annexation of Crimea has thrown any such hope into chaos, and it poses a serious threat to the Moscow church.

The Bishops of Crimea are requesting that their Orthodox churches become subordinate to the Moscow church, rather than be a part of any of the Ukrainian churches. The Moscow church faces two bad choices:

  • If the Moscow Patriarchate takes control of the Orthodox churches in Crimea, then many of the 10,865 parishes in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (currently subordinate to Moscow) would demand to pull away from Moscow and become part of the Kiev Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate would then not only lose a lot of prestige and power, it would also lose a great deal of income.
  • But if Moscow Patriarchate does not demand complete control over the Crimean churches, then many Russians and especially Russian nationalists are likely to view that as an act of betrayal by the Church, giving the appearance of hypocrisy and loss of faith at home.
It's worth pointing out that the Kiev Patriarchate is strongly opposing the actions of the Russian state in annexing Crimea, while the Moscow Patriarchate is supporting those actions. One possible outcome is an ironic one: that the Crimean churches join Moscow, and the three Ukrainian churches finally unite into a single autocephalous church as the Kiev Patriarchate. So the Russian action in Crimea may finally unite the Kiev Patriarchate, but not in the way that the Moscow Patriarchate had hoped.

Russia's annexation of Crimea has changed the map of Europe by force, for the first time since WW II, and may have changed the map of the Orthodox world as well. Religion News and Washington Post and Catholic Culture and Jamestown


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