The gift of overcoming barriers eludes the world’s Orthodox Christians
Scores of millions of Orthodox Christians will on June 16th mark the feast of Pentecost. This celebration centres on the moment when, according to church tradition, the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the disciples of Jesus Christ the mysterious power to communicate across language barriers. Each member of the multicultural crowd that gathered in Jerusalem is said to have heard the Apostles speaking in his or her own tongue.
Unfortunately the ability to communicate successfully across other barriers, whether geopolitical or simply personal, is currently eluding the Christians of the East, or at least their hierarchs.
The global split which opened within Orthodox Christianity six months ago over church jurisdiction in Ukraine shows no sign of healing. The dire state of diplomatic relations among regional powers is certainly not helping. The Patriarchate of Moscow abruptly severed relations with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, after he recognised the existence of an independent Ukrainian church. The split has left the 12 other self-ruling Orthodox churches in an awkward position of having to choose between the two Patriarchates, and the tension has ricocheted across the Orthodox world.
So far, no church has followed the Ecumenical Patriarchate in fully recognising the Ukrainian body, nor has any followed Moscow in completely severing ties with Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Moscow Patriarchate, which hews close to the presidency of Vladimir Putin and at times defends it from popular protest, regularly pours scorn on its counterpart in Istanbul for acting as a stooge of American diplomacy. That America’s State Department supported the right of Ukrainians to organise their own independent church only added to Moscow’s fury.
In fact, the Muscovite attacks oversimplify the position of the ancient Istanbul-based see, which must keep a delicate balance between many different earthly powers in order to survive as a tiny Christian enclave in a Muslim country.
But in the coming weeks, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s profile in the Western and Anglophone world will certainly rise. The average age of his most visible representatives will plunge by nearly 40 years as younger clerics take over Greek-Orthodox sees in New York, London and Sydney. Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, has invited Patriarch Bartholomew to America in July to give a speech on the environment. The choice of topic will come more naturally to the guest, a staunch greenie, than to the host.
As part of an apparent effort to counter-balance Muscovite influence in the Orthodox world, Patriarch Bartholomew has in recent weeks visibly mended his relations with the Archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos, by patching up their arcane quarrels over church jurisdiction in parts of Greece. That paved the way for Archbishop Ieronymos to join the primate of the new Ukrainian church, Epifaniy, and many other Bartholomew-minded hierarchs at celebrations in Istanbul of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s personal feast-day on June 11th. To judge by the reaction on social media, this innocent-seeming event caused much fury in the Muscovite camp and much pleasure in the opposing one.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, ecclesiastical disputes roll on in an often bizarre way. Controversy swirls around 90-year-old Filaret Denysenko, a veteran and still-vigorous player in the high politics of Orthodoxy since the Soviet era. Having narrowly failed to become Patriarch of Moscow, he led a breakaway Ukrainian church in 1992 and was duly defrocked and disgraced by his erstwhile colleagues in Moscow, some of whom he had helped to consecrate as bishops.
Since then the nonagenarian has styled himself the Patriarch of Kyiv, a title that few people outside Ukraine recognise. In recent months, he has voiced bitter disappointment over the fact he was not put in charge of the newly-established Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and he has openly challenged the authority of 40-year-old Epifaniy, who was once his close aide.
In their handling of these inter-Ukrainian squabbles, the hierarchs in Istanbul feel they have trodden a careful line. They recognised Filaret as a valid cleric with the rank of retired bishop, which was enough to incur Muscovite rage, but they flatly rejected his claim to the title of Patriarch.
To all this, organs of the Muscovite media that are close to church thinking have reacted in a surreal way. While still snubbing the claims of “Mr Denysenko” to have any kind of clerical status, they report with gleeful satisfaction on the lively old man’s campaign to undermine his young successor. To anyone used to the relatively vertical structure of the global Catholic church, this will seem like an unseemly mess. But the story may not quite end there.
The feast of Pentecost, like every other landmark in the Orthodox calendar, will be marked by ceremonies of immense complexity, antiquity and beauty. Mastering and participating in such intricate rites can create mysterious, but also fissile, bonds between celebrants. They can quarrel suddenly, but also have sudden reconciliations.