Early in October, the Constantinople Patriarchate, the head of the Orthodox Christian Church, began the process of granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. On 15th October, the Russian Orthodox Church’s head, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow responded by taking steps to cut all ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate, triggering what could become a massive schism.
To understand this conflict and what it could lead to, the structure and history of the Orthodox Christian Church as well as the history and geopolitical conflict between Ukraine and Russia needs to be analyzed. The Orthodox Christian Church has a looser structure than the Roman Catholic Church. 14 autocephalous (independent or autonomous) national churches make up the Church, led by the “first among equals,” the Constantinople Patriarchate led by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomew I. A church’s autocephaly means that its head does not answer to anyone above it apart from the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s decision to cut ties with Constantinople means that members of the Russian Orthodox Church are now barred from participating in any ceremonies or rites in non-Russian Orthodox churches
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, also known as the Kiev Patriarchate, has been subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, also known as the Moscow Patriarchate, since 1686. While Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has yet to issue a full authorization for autocephaly for the Ukrainian church, he has repealed this 17th-century authorization from the Constantinople Patriarchate. The move towards autocephaly, then, marks a change in over 300 years of Church policy.
The step towards independence is intertwined with the Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia that began with the annexation of Crimea. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko went so far as to say that autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church is “… an issue of Ukrainian national security.”
At the same time, autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church would mark a political and symbolic blow for the Russian Orthodox Church and government. Russian president Vladimir Putin has allied himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and has positioned himself as a defender of conservative Christian values. He has publicly emphasized this position with pilgrimages to sacred Orthodox sites and through his alliance with Patriarch Kirill. The Russian Orthodox Church’s 150 million adherents form half of the global Orthodox Church, making it easy for Putin to claim a leadership role in the religion as the head of the country with the largest number of Orthodox Christians.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s break from the Moscow Patriarchate threatens Putin and Kirill’s position. Despite the huge number of Orthodox Christians who are part of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian church makes up about a third of the parishes in the Church. In addition, Ukrainian worshippers attend church more regularly than Russian worshippers, a potential marker of the devoutness of a population. The loss of these churches would damage the Moscow Patriarchate’s, as well as Putin’s, leadership in the Orthodox community. Besides the material loss of worshippers, the Ukraine’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church has symbolic significance, as Kiev is considered to be the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church. The move of Kiev away from Moscow, mirroring the political shift that the Ukraine has undergone as it moves away from Russian influence, could be a major blow to the power of the Russian church and its allies in the government.
There are historical complications outside of this as well. When the Kiev Patriarchate was put under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 17th century, Ukraine owned land in Belarus and Lithuania. The Russian Orthodox Church could lose its followers and influence in these historical territories as well as modern-day Ukraine.