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Orthodoxy and Peace: “To Be, or Not to Be”. Part 1

Why isn’t there peace in the Orthodox world? Can we get through this current crisis, and how?



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– In this crisis, which has manifested in a rift between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople, it would nice to be able to distinguish between the church, church-political, and purely political aspects of the crisis. Can you comment?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: All of those aspects are present here, of course. The church aspects are deeper. They don’t lie close to the surface, and are related to a more general crisis over forms of church structure. It has already been a century since the Constantine Era1 of Orthodoxy’s history came to a close, demonstrating that a political link with the state increasingly deprives the church of its freedom, and turns it into just another state structure. The desire to be fostered by the state had become so tightly knit within the church’s being, that it didn’t disappear during the years of Soviet repression, afterwards, or when the USSR fell apart. And this is the most important thing, because despite the extremely difficult history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th century, we have to admit that we haven’t come to any mature conclusions. Our most recent history shows only that within the church there is not sufficient understanding of what the legacies of the pre-Constantine, Constantine and post-Constantine eras in church history mean for us, today. 

The Church aspect is, of course, the most important aspect of the crisis. It is specifically because of the ecclesiological crisis that the entire hierarchical and canonical structure is bursting at the seams. People have begun to understand that both the system of hierarchy and the “autocephalous church – diocese – parish” model of local church structure was developed in and for the Constantine Era, and works very poorly in our own. At times, it is downright destructive to the church. We can see this in the behaviour of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and sometimes in the behaviour of the leaders of other Orthodox churches, and even of bishops. Often this sort of thing affects priests, too, which means the entire parish system. We need to admit this and to discuss it whenever we speak about anything related to church structure, management and/or order.

Against the backdrop of the break in communion between patriarchates, the deepened resulting conflicts and rifts between the faithful inside a single jurisdiction reveal the action of ideological and political forces at work. All this, of course, discredits the church. And here we come to the church-political aspect. Everyone knows that historically, too, the church was enormously dependent upon the state, as well as the state’s internal and external political interests, which were often not at all close to those of the church. But today, when the majority of Christian countries have lost contact with their roots and live without even taking a backwards glance at the church, the church itself continues to hold onto its ties with state authority, preserving its former structure and order, and thereby comes into even greater dependence upon politics. The Christian world has lived to see this shameful day, as it were. 

The political reasons for the current crisis are all too obvious. The forces which cause the political crisis are not worried about rifts in the Orthodox church or bothered by the internal problems of the Ukraine, itself. Everyone can see what sort of influence, let’s say, America and, in part, Europe has on Constantinople’s decision. It’s like organizing a “Maidan” on church territory.

– What do you mean by a “Maidan” on church territory?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: It’s an attempt to turn the Ukraine against our country as our country is today. On the one hand, the Russian Federation continues to carry within itself the political and ideological realities of Soviet times; on the other hand, there is quite a bit that we’ve acquired in the post-Soviet period, which, of course, has its pluses…as well as its prominently expressed minuses.

The political forces within this church split are the strongest, and the ecclesiastical, canonical and historical interpretation of events in each of the countries and Orthodox Churches are in submission to the political forces at work. But we need to remember that aside from politics there is history, people’s lives, national traditions, spiritual, cultural and business interrelationships between  our nations…and simple familial relations. None of this should be sacrificed to political goals and means.

It is symptomatic of the whole thing that there is no church content to the anticipated autocephaly. No one has said why it is that the Ukraine requires autocephaly other than “we want to be on our own.” If we have an independent state, then we have to have an autocephalous church. But the church knows no such principle! On the contrary, this is basing things on a nationalist principle, and is no more than Phyletism2, which was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 1972. In addition, ecclesiastical questions are subordinated to the interests of state authorities, which is the same sort of heresy as Phyletism, although it hasn’t yet been given a name.

– I’m hearing for the first time about Maidan not as a symbol of the battle for liberal values, as it is understood on the political airwaves, but about Maidan as Ukraine’s anti-Russian political coup.

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: In my opinion it’s obvious that the effort to tear the Ukrainian church from the Russian church is primarily related to the effort to separate the Ukraine, its people, traditions and potential, from the Russian Federation – not only politically and economically, but also spiritually and ecclesially. Because the strongest and most serious ties between Ukrainians and Russians – who are, in essence, almost a single nation – are spiritual ties. And Patriarch Kirill is right when he says that our unity begins with the Kiev church towers and with our baptism – and all the rest is simply an add-on – even the current striving for autocephaly.

– Do you believe that autocephaly doesn’t actually serve the national interests of Ukraine?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Well, it depends what you believe the national interests are. Separation will help Ukraine to more quickly integrate into the European-American system of life in all its realities, be they economic, political, spiritual or cultural. And here, there are both pluses and minuses for Ukraine. Those who think in categories which pit Ukraine against Russia and Russia against Ukraine, see possibilities here in terms of national self-identity and self-affirmation, and the possibility to free Ukraine from the Soviet inheritance, overcome political and economic crisis, etc.

But the real problem is that the crisis is deeper and its reasons can’t in any way be reduced to politics or the question of autocephaly. And the people who live in Ukraine and the Ukrainian church bear in themselves exactly the same wounds of Soviet authority that people in the modern Russian Federation bear. They are not free of Soviet times just as we are not free; they haven’t repented and haven’t been reborn either. And that rebirth cannot happen if people continue to insist that the reasons for the horror of the 20th century are external, rather than within – or if they continue to believe themselves to be only victims. At present, in Ukraine there are only the very beginnings of repentance, but at the same time there are various nationalist and chauvinist tendencies to self-affirmation – and this is far from being an ideal situation.

And some understand that what is going on now is a tragedy, which carries within itself the threat of direct military conflict. Nothing like this has ever happened in our history: Russia and Ukraine have never seriously fought against each other. Even when the majority of Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the people understood themselves to be “Russian”, or at least as “Holy Rus-ian”, in light of their common Orthodox faith and traditions, which go back to the time of Kievan Rus. And I mean all of the people – including those in western Ukraine. Of course, there might have been contradictions, misunderstandings, offences and grievances we had with each other. In various regions of Ukraine there were nationalist and even chauvinistic tendencies – especially towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Russia might have had various imperialist tendencies which didn’t go over well in various portions of Ukrainian society. But all of this was nevertheless understood as no more than difficulty within one big family, between relatives, who could choose to associate themselves in full measure or less than fully with the Russian (or Holy Rus-ian) nation.

One way or another, everyone considered themselves to be part of one big whole, and it is only now, “thanks” to Soviet national politics, which constantly played on these differences and contradictions, increasing the significance of the offences and grievances, that a situation never before known in history has arisen.

And by the way, Ukraine has never before even existed with its current borders! This isn’t the “Ukraine of tradition”, its an entirely new creation. Nor has Ukraine ever related in such a way to “Great Russia” or the Russian people. [Translator’s note: much of what is now Ukrainian territory has traditionally been know as “Little Russia”, while “Great Russia” was the territory further to the East, which included Muscovy, for instance.] Much of what is happening now is being purposefully mythologized in other to serve political goals, wealth and power. And all of this strongly influences the church.

Until most recent times, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church understood itself to be, more than anything, a part of the Russian Orthodox Church, despite all the inadequacies of its contemporary life. And now, from within and from without, the Ukrainian church is subject to serious testing and temptation, alleging that if it wishes to be fully independent, it needs to break away from the wounds existing in the everyday consciousness and practice of the Russian Orthodox Church. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. People don’t think about the fact that many of the same problems exist in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and they aren’t considering in the least who they will be in relation to the Greek tradition. They have been promised autocephaly. What that actually means, if it actually happens, doesn’t seem to concern them much. But history shows that Constantinople is too often unpredictable.

– So you think that in the current situation Constantinople is playing on old soviet divisions of nationalist consciousness in its understanding of the relationships between church and nation, and/or church and state?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Yes. In Soviet times every conceivable and inconceivable division was encouraged, so as to shore up power, while ascribing all that is good to the good Party or to Communist ideology. And these divisions were well enforced in the consciousness of each person, and even in the consciousness of our churchgoing people. For this reason, the situation is extremely complex and multifaceted.

Unfortunately, modern analysts, political scientists and sociologists are very poorly versed in church affairs, and so are churchgoers themselves, and even “church officials.” This is immediately obvious from how little competent commentary on the issue can be found on the Internet or in the press. Even if a person is more or less familiar with canon law and church history, he still may find it impossible to make sense of this very difficult situation, because contemporary ecclesial3 consciousness is at an all-time low. People discuss the intricacies of the Byzantine or Russian ecclesial model, for instance, clarifying the differences and contradictions between them, but at the same time they are unable to see that behind all this stand much more serious problems which are fundamental for the church, and that these problems persist on both sides of the contemporary divide between Moscow and Constantinople. And this is because our contemporary ecclesiastical model is clerical4, whether the clericalism of Moscow or that of Constantinople – these being slightly different from each other in form. The Orthodox churches affirmed not only a territorial, or territorial-parish5 based system, but specifically a clerical system. And in such a system, the Gospel principle of the power of love is entirely lost. And this is what people aren’t seeing, and this is the main problem.

In order to understand this, it is necessary not only to strive to free oneself from love of self, one’s own kind and own’s own church, as well as of all sorts of chauvinism or deep nationalism, but also of all unnecessary relationship to the political nation state, which can only lead to undue dependence upon it – whether political, economic or ideological.

– And does this relate more to Constantinople, or to Moscow?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: It relates to everybody. And in addition to nationalistic and intrapolitical influence, there is also international and external political pressure on the church. Ukraine has become the stumbling block and primary international political subject for America and Europe in their battle against the existing order in the Russian Federation. Although, of course, if a thorough and consistent de-communization of the Russian Federation were actually undertaken from within, many of the problems, from a political, as well as moral-emotional point of view, would simple sort themselves out. This would enable Russia to come into closer alignment with the global powers and might resolve many problems, given that at present clashes often occur specifically along these lines. Some people wish to preserve the legacy of the communist, Soviet system, and others don’t really want this. Maybe these “others” aren’t really that seriously against it at core, either, but at least superficially they are very much against it. And as for the people, whether in Russia or Ukraine, bearing in mind the horrors of the 20th century, they don’t really remember with much fondness the Soviet, communist times that they lived through. Unfortunatly, the authorities here don’t really see or understand this. Political authorities in the Russian Federation aren’t fighting all that hard for de-communization, to put it mildly. And the church doesn’t support this secular position, but neither does it really have the strength to battle against it.

– What changes after the break in Eucharistic communion between the faithful of the Moscow and Ecumenical Patriarchates? For instance, if an acquaintance of mine, or a friend or relative remains in the Patriarchate of Constantinople or has moved there. How are we to live? Can we pray together before supper, for instance, or for the healing of the schism, or in church at an evening service, or at the Eucharistic liturgy? Why can’t we take communion together?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Insofar as it is possible to judge from the texts which have been published regarding this latest decision of the ROC, there is no Eucharistic communion between the two churches – that is the ROC and Constantinople. This means that clerics of the ROC can’t celebrate the mysteries with clerics from Constantinople, and that lay people can’t commune in churches which are under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. But the silence as regards everything else means that it is allowed. Please do pray, whether at an evening service, morning prayer, a prayer for the living, the dead, or at a funeral. Probably you could also be present at a baptism. If you want to do something good, please don’t limit yourselves in anything, other than in participation in the mysteries of the church.

– And if I meet a bishop, or a priest, how do I greet him? In what manner? Is there some restriction on my freedom here? Do I welcome him as I see fit?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: I think that there were will be some variation in behaviour here. One person may turn away, while another may not, and may be welcoming. At the end of the day, we even welcome Roman Catholics with respect. They don’t have the custom, as we do, of giving a blessing upon meeting. They have a different form of greeting. None of this is of principle significance. If people wish to receive a blessing, let them. It is important to note that this rift is caused by problems in our understanding of hierarchy, and problems of management and church structure, and not by some sort of core problem. No anathema has been pronounced, after all.

– We have one, common faith.

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Yes, we have one faith. Now we should speak about a particular difference in our understanding of the church, and of the church's structure. But again, this question is not so much a question of dogma as it is a canonical question. We shouldn’t confuse these two things. In terms of dogma, we have a single, common faith. And for this reason, we can have fellowship together as regards everything other than the mysteries themselves. Within a single hierarchy there are different views: some bishops are more radical, and others are more laid back. And others are completely indifferent to what has happened: just as people acted previously, so now will the act, because internally we are one. And this is right. It is important to strive internally to be well-intentioned and unified. No spite, enmity or violence should be permitted to enter into play here. But even if we are internally one, it is, for the moment, impossible to receive the sacraments together. But at the same time we aren’t naïve, and we understand that grace doesn’t simple depart from the local church as a result of the fact that Constantinople, and then Moscow, took the decisions they decided to take. And never, of course, does grace depart from the Church in general. Its just that as a result of disagreement resulting from an evident contradiction and due to the violation of the norm for Christian ethics between churches and hierarchs, people now walk a more difficult road in terms of perceiving that grace. But the grace is still there! Therefore, even if a person from the ROC ends up in some western European or American city, for instance, and goes to church in a church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, he may prepare himself normally for taking part in the mysteries, participate in the Eucharistic liturgy, and then spiritual participate in communion, without coming forward to receive.

The church has this sort of mystical experience. Of course you can’t serialize this sort of mystical experience and say that anyone who comes to the liturgy will be a mystical partaker thereof. This would be too radical a simplification. But the possibility of mystical communion exists even, for instance, between a Roman Catholic and an Orthodox person, as well as between an Orthodox person and representatives of various Protestant denominations. And this experience is substantiated by our confessors of the 20th century. We don’t talk about this very often, but this experience exists, and that’s all there is to it. When we come to Christ and, in Him, to each other, at the end of the day this is the most important thing.

And how else do we expect to heal the existing contradiction if we don’t have love, and if we don’t bear in ourselves this grace and participation in Christ? Without this, nothing will work. We have to be bold in prayer and open to reconciliation in Christ, while at the same time knowing our canonical, hierarchical, and Eucharistic boundaries in terms of their contemporary significance and within the tradition of the church. At this point, it is obvious that they are temporary. We have to change the out-dated canonical structure, change our relationship to hierarchy, change the self-consciousness of hierarchs themselves: they aren’t little lords within the church. They aren’t “despoty” (autocrats)6. We have to do our best to put out of our minds various concepts: “vladyka” (master), “great lords”, etc. It’s time to put all of this into the proverbial archives.

As long as we don’t put all this behind us, contradictions leading to schism – and that means war, too – are inevitable. Warfare can be spiritual, but it can lead to embodied, all-out, hot war, too. There are more than a few such instances we know of in history. If one side shows violence and force in relation to church buildings, property, or even just opinions, it generally leads to violence and force from the other side. This can affect governmental interests, and then governments can, in all fairness, by the way, come to the defense of the interests of one or another portion, of, for instance, the population of the Ukraine, which falls under the jurisdiction of the ROC. In such a fashion the Ukraine could become the main detonator of WWIII – God forbid! Then the whole world will be thrown into hellfire.

– Do you think there is sufficient political cause for such a thing?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Well, there is political tension and economic depression. There is longtime misunderstanding and lack of desire to understand each other. And there is a sort of persisting brutality, inside which no one wants to listen to each other. It’s enough just to glance at what is being written on the Internet: rude verbiage from both sides, though especially, unfortunately, from the Ukrainian side. And this is extremely sad. Personally, I relate to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, in particular, as family – as from our own clan. I don’t accept all this talk about how Ukrainians are a discrete and absolutely separate nation, and almost from an entirely different civilization. This is complete hogwash, and that is all there is too it! No such thing has ever been the case, nor is it the case now. And Ukraine is full of fairly good, kind, wonderful and faithful people – just as the case is here. These people are close to us and their culture is extremely close to ours; their Orthodox faith is the same, in cases where it isn’t just nominal (from either side!) – if and when this faith is allowed to reign in our lives.

– At present the Internet is full of calls to reject putting the Synod’s decision on Eucharistic schism into practice, given that this is all political. People are saying we just need to be good Christians and learn to love our enemies.

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: This sort of position is an idiocyncratic attempt to be nowhere and to remain above-the-fray. But, in the current case, this isn’t peacemaking, but rather speaks of an insufficient desire to share the fate and difficulties of our own church, in all her weakness and with all her wounds. Attempts of this type, which involve distancing oneself from the situation which is rending apart our patriarchates, will only further the schism. We shouldn’t be enemies with Constantinople or with anyone, for that matter; but neither is it proper to seed discord within our own church. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be looking for answers – but we need to start with ourselves in striving to overcome the divisions within our church by searching for a deeper basis for unity, rather than by criticizing the decisions of our hierarchs. Disdain or disregard for the decisions of the our own church leadership shows that while inside a single jurisdiction people may be able to commune from the same cup, this doesn’t automatically lead to unity and peace. And for this same reason, to take communion in a church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople could turn out to be no more than a political declaration, which is to say it could be a trap. 

Source: “Stol” Media Project

Concluding material on necessary steps for overcoming the schism can be found here.


1 Constantine Era – a period in church history which lasted from the mid 4th c. until the early 20th c., and is named for the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great (approx.. 272-337), after whose time Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. As the church grew in numbers and became more centralized and unified in terms of structure, the Constantinopolitan Era came to be characterized by a blurriness in understanding relating to church membership and by a shift in emphasis in the direction of ritual and cult, which is uncharacteristic for Christianity. 

2 Phyletism – the tendency of the local church to sacrifice the interests of the church to national-political interests. Judged to be a heresy by the local Council of Constantinople in 1872. 

3 Ecclesiology (from the Greek: ekklêsia) – study of and teaching about the church, her nature, properties and structure.  

4 Clerical (clericalist) model – a model of church structure in which the central authority and power are in the hands of the church hierarchs, rather than all the people of the church, each of which, according to scripture (1 Peter 2:9) bears the dignity of king, priest and prophet. 

5 Territorial-parish model – a model of church structure, in which the church gathering is tied to a particular geographical location (place). The Local church is made up of regional diocese, which are further broken down into regions or deaneries, in each of which there are parishes within the limits of the regional city and in rural villages.

6 Despot (from the Greek Δεσπότης – vladyka (master), lord) – the highest court title in the late Byzantine Empire, used in relation to the emperor and later (to this day) in relation to church hierarchs.