Religion and Politics 101:The Orthodox Christianity on a Chessboard

It seems that a day doesn’t go by without someone asking: “What the heck is going on in/with Orthodox Christianity?”. Orthodoxy has recently come into the center of attention of the international community after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. What role is Orthodoxy playing in this scene? To understand its influence in the current political geoclimate we must discuss a force(s) that’s occurring within the Church today. So, what is going on with Orthodoxy? In short: Orthodoxy is moving towards a split between two politically opposed poles: Moscow and Istanbul.

One of the things that distinguish Orthodoxy from other religious traditions is its unique organizational structure. Orthodoxy functions as a system of different autocephalous (independent) Churches gathered into one sacred communion. That is why it can be useful to think about Orthodoxy as a system of communication vessels – you are either a part of the system, or you are not. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is the primus inter pares (first among equals), and he has no power over other autocephalous Churches. What autocephaly actually means is that one Church is independent in organizing religious life in its canonical territory. And when we say canonical territory, we are usually referring to territory within state borders. Such structure holds its basis in the historical notion that the autocephaly of one Church went hand-in-hand with the political independence of the State. Consequently, the Orthodox Christian Churches have always had close relations with the State and have been intertwined in a nation’s identity.

And yet, the State borders often change, particularly in regions where Orthodoxy has thrived, but the Church has failed to keep up with these changes. Thus, most of Orthodox Christian Churches nowadays act as transnational religious actors. And more importantly – they are considered as an instrument of power and political influence in foreign states. This power dynamic is illustrated by what is going on in Ukraine – as there was a request for the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church to succeed from Russia’s Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s requested autonomy should be considered, first and foremost, a political strategy to halt Russia’s influence propagated via the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – a Moscow Patriarchate. And this is where things get tricky (or if you prefer – political): how does one Church receive its own autocephaly? 

There are two major school of thoughts within Orthodoxy: the first one claims that it is only the Ecumenical Patriarchate that can grant autocephaly, whilst at the same time the other school claims that it is only the “mother church” that can grant autocephaly. Either approach only satisfies one the first step towards receiving autocephaly. After either the Ecumenical Patriarchate or the “mother church” grants autocephaly – all other Churches are invited to accept the request. As is likely predictable, sometimes other Churches don’t want to accept the new Church autocephaly into the sacred communion. Even though the rationale for autocephaly is usually legitimized in the canons, historically the main reasons for not accepting other Churches into the sacred communion have been (ir)rational, selfish, interest-driven, or to be summarized in one word – political.

In order to make sense of the recent developments in the Orthodox Christian world, it’s best to visualize it against a massive political chessboard. Where the white and black pieces represent political groups, each with separate political values. These two opposing groups represent the Moscow Patriarchate on one side, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the other. It goes without saying that the political support of these two poles also comes from different addresses on the global arena. So, in the years (or even months) to come, it is likely that all other autocephalous Churches will need to align with one of the opposing groups. Orthodoxy, as we know it, is at a crossroad of choosing between becoming more democratic, liberal and transparent, or holding onto the canopy of a conservative, authoritarian and State-based religious tradition.

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