JUST OVER a year has passed since the Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow, the Russian spiritual leader and ally of President Vladimir Putin, went to Istanbul to make one final attempt to dissuade another Orthodox prelate, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, from recognising an independent church in Ukraine. The country’s leaders had appealed to Bartholomew many times for the re-establishment of an autonomous church to buttress Ukraine’s fragile sense of sovereignty after the Russian-backed rebellion in the east and invasion of Crimea in 2014. According to a leaked transcript, the visitor argued that Russians and Ukrainians were a single people, and that Ukraine’s government was illegitimate. Seeing that that their host, who enjoys “primacy of honour” in the Orthodox world, disagreed, the Russians left angrily.
Since then, and especially since Patriarch Bartholomew granted a “tomos”, or document of self-government, to Ukraine in January, relations between the two Patriarchates have crashed: bishops in Moscow call it the biggest split in eastern Christendom for centuries. It has turned into a global contest for influence over the world’s 200m or so Orthodox Christians, and on September 7th it surfaced in Paris, a city which in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution became a hub of Russian theology.
What happened in Paris is paradoxical. Of the two main poles of authority in the Orthodox world, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is regarded as the more Western-oriented. Its survival as a Christian enclave in Muslim Turkey relies, to some extent, on Western governments’ advocacy of religious freedom. Its Muscovite counterpart has in recent years drawn closer to the Russian state.
Yet in Paris, a historically prestigious and democratically minded group of Orthodox Christians took a big step towards realigning themselves from the Istanbul-based Patriarchate to Moscow. Their representatives voted by 104 votes to 75 for a plan that would put them under Moscow’s aegis, albeit with wide autonomy: not quite the two-thirds majority needed, but their leader Archbishop Jean Renneteau said he would continue to support the proposal and might in due course conduct another vote.
That takes some explaining. First, the French capital is home to a group of worshippers (mainly in France but also scattered across half a dozen other countries) which styles itself the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Christians of Western Europe. It regards itself as the main heir to a group of quarrelsome refugees from the Bolsheviks who brought their sharp theological minds to France. The twilight of the tsarist era had seen a flowering of creative religious thought in Russia and this movement shifted westwards.
The Paris Archdiocese has also seen itself as the main legatee of a reforming Russian church council of 1917-18 that proclaimed democratic principles for ecclesiastical governance, which were never applied as the country was engulfed in revolutionary chaos. But in recent months, the French-based group has become engulfed in chaos of another kind: not so violent or dramatic but enough to call its future into question.
Last November, in an unexpected move, bishops meeting in Istanbul under the authority of Patriarch Bartholomew voted to suppress the Paris-based archdiocese as an independent structure. Its constituent parts were told to place themselves under the authority of the main Orthodox prelates in their respective countries. Supporters of the move said that at a time of polarising tension in the Orthodox world, the Ecumenical Patriarchate needed to rally and streamline its forces. It was untenable to have more than one church structure in any given country answering to Patriarch Bartholomew, the argument went.
The Orthodox hierarchy in Moscow sensed, accurately, that this situation could be turned to their advantage. The Paris archdiocese refused the order from Istanbul to dissolve itself, saying it was established in French law and would consider suggestions to ensure its continuation. The Muscovites then made an offer that would apparently preserve the self-governance of the archdiocese, albeit under Patriarch Kyrill’s ultimate authority.
Archbishop Renneteau liked the proposal and started to advocate it. He calls it his flock’s only chance of survival as a coherent body. A minority of his followers are sceptical, insisting that Moscow will not keep its promise to respect their self-governance. Among the sceptics are parishes in Britain which in 2009 lost a legal battle with the Moscow Patriarchate in the London High Court over church property.
Having accepted the Muscovite position, the archbishop has fallen into disfavour with his masters at the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who have formally disciplined him and placed him “on leave” with no further responsibility for administering parishes in France. These measures may have little immediate practical effect but they could portend some legal contests. One possible bone of contention is the onion-domed cathedral near the Arc de Triomphe, built by Russians in 1861, where the archdiocese is based. That building’s eventual return to the aegis of Moscow would be a great fillip for Mr Putin who takes a strong interest in the built heritage of the tsarist era.
To many observers, one thing seems clear. A period when a substantial body of Orthodox Christians in the West, loyal to Russia’s spiritual traditions but resistant to Muscovite authority, lived more-or-less comfortably, and managed their own affairs, has come to an end. Sergei Chapnin, an influential commentator on the Russian Orthodox scene, lamented on social media that “the [Paris] archdiocese has practically ceased to exist, and the logic of imperial Patriarchates has prevailed.”
Some Russian liberals had seen the existence of the Parisian group as proof that it was possible to be Russian Orthodox without endorsing the authoritarian spirit and cosy relations with the state that they observe in today’s Moscow Patriarchate.
This will not be the last skirmish between the patriarchates. In recent weeks, the Archdiocese of Athens has made moves to recognise the Ukrainian church. That is a gain for Patriarch Bartholomew. Meanwhile, Moscow has convinced some Orthodox bigwigs (virtually all the Slavic ones and even some Greek ones) to see Ukraine from its point of view—that only the Moscow-aligned church there has legitimacy.
In Ukraine itself, where church disputes could at one point have provoked fresh war with Russia, things are now oddly stable: the independent and Moscow-aligned churches command about 10,000 parishes each and only in a handful is there is an active dispute over church authority.
And in ordinary parishes elsewhere, matters are not quite as dire as the hierarchical battles would suggest, as a recent incident in a small European town shows. Three Orthodox clerics wanted to worship together: one was under Moscow’s authority, another under Istanbul’s and the other under the Romanian Patriarchate, which is friendly with both rivals.
The trio had a problem. Moscow forbids its clerics to officiate with those under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So they agreed that the Romanian would lead the service, with the other two assisting him in minor roles. No rules were broken and the liturgy unfolded in all its dignity.