“Schism”. We are faced with a “schism.” In clear words, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the department for External Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, defined the present rift in the Orthodox world between Moscow and Constantinople following Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine and the ensuing decision of Moscow’s Patriarchate to break the “Eucharistic communion” with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Hilarion is in Rome (until tomorrow) to participate in the Bishops’ Synod on Young People – today he will be received in audience by Pope Francis –. Despite these commitments he found time to grant an interview to SIR and to inBlu Radio, explaining the reasons as well as the ins and outs that led the Russian Orthodox Church to sever ties with Bartholomew, illustrating future prospects. “In compliance with the canonical laws regulating the life of the Church – he immediately clarified – the bishops who recognize schismatic structures become themselves schismatic.”
“Thus it is our opinion that the Patriarchate of Constantinople itself is now in schism.” What does this schism mean exactly for the future of intra-Orthodox relations?
In practical terms it means that we will no longer take part in a Eucharistic celebration with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and that our faithful will henceforth not receive Communion in churches linked to Constantinople. Moreover, we will no longer participate in any meeting organized or chaired by the Patriarch of Constantinople or by its representatives. For us this Patriarchate is in a schism, for this reason we have erased the name of Patriarch Bartholomew from the liturgical list of Patriarchs that we call diptych. There ensues that it will not be commemorated by the Russian Orthodox Church and we will start the diptych with the Patriarch of Alexandria. This is a consequence of the decision taken by Patriarch Bartholomew.
He could have chosen to be the coordinating centre of all Orthodox Churches or to be in a schism. He opted for a schism.
Does this mean that if representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople take part in dialogue platforms with the Catholic Church – as, for example, the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church – you will no longer participate?
We will not participate in a Commission chaired or co-chaired by the Patriarch of Constantinople. This means that we will not take part in any theological dialogue chaired or co-chaired by representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
This is a very strong stand. Is this process irreversible? Are there conditions that could reverse this situation? If so, what are these conditions?
I think it’s a reversible process but the condition for the return to normality is that the Patriarch of Constantinople repeals its previous decisions and that it returns to join the family of Orthodox Churches.
Patriarch John X has proposed a pan-Orthodox Synod to discuss the question of “autocephaly.” Do you consider it a feasible proposal that could resolve this problem?
We made the same proposal, but the Patriarch of Constantinople has rejected a pan-Orthodox debate on this issue because he believes that granting autocephaly falls within his responsibilities. But this is not what we believe. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church was recognized as a Patriarchate by the four existing Patriarchates, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. And in fact it was a pan-Orthodox decision, not a unilateral decision of Constantinople. In the nineteen-nineties an agreement among Orthodox Churches established that all future concession of autocephaly would be decided via pan-Orthodox consultation and consensus. But now the Patriarchate of Constantinople has clearly said that that agreement does not exist and that it’s not valid.
A pan-Orthodox Council took place in Crete in 2016 that you, as Russian Church, did not attend. Couldn’t that have been a good occasion to address this issue?
First of all I want to say that it was not a Pan-Orthodox Council. It was initially proposed as Pan-Orthodox, but a few weeks before that Council some Churches declined the invitation. The first one to turn down the invitation was the Church of Bulgaria, followed by the Church of Antioch and then by the Church of Georgia. The Church of Serbia proposed to postpone the Council. Thus three Churches declared they would not participate and a Church decided to postpone the initiative and so did we as Russian Orthodox Church. But the Patriarch of Constantinople said it would not listen to the voices coming from Orthodox Churches and that it would hold the Council nonetheless. So it wasn’t a pan-Orthodox Council, it was a Council of 10 Churches. Also the question of autocephaly, discussed before and included in the programme of the Council, did not figure in the agenda of the meeting.
Thus the present situation, the schism in the Orthodox Church, is not the result of missed opportunities of problem-resolution. Ukraine is a Country afflicted by an armed conflict. To what extent does the Church’s division weigh on such a fragile peace context?
I’m not a political analyst. I am a representative of the Church. I can only say that from the viewpoint of the Churches, the divide that broke out at Church level at the beginning of the 1990s expanded at societal level. Society is divided. It’s a burdensome division. That very same division has caused a rift in society that triggered the ongoing armed conflict. Let’s take the linguistic issue as an example. There are people who want Ukrainian to be the only spoken language, and millions of others who want to speak Russian, but the national authorities deny them and their offspring this possibility. Obviously the controversy is not limited to the language issue, it’s a matter of identity. This triggers a schismatic situation within the Church and across the whole of society.
Patriarch Kirill is a man of God and a man of dialogue. How is he experiencing this situation? It must be hard on him. He is extremely worried. He has gone to great lengths to prevent this situation. He worked for years as head of the Department for External Relations of the Patriarchate. He has been a member of many theological Commissions. He participated in many meetings with Patriarch Bartholomew and with ecumenical dignitaries. He is aware of the importance of Orthodox unity more than anyone else. Until the end, until the end of August he was personally trying to solve this problem, to engage the Patriarch of Constantinople in a dialogue process, but even during the meeting at the end of August – which, as has been said, was a fraternal meeting – it became clear that Patriarch Bartholomew no longer intended to continue the dialogue. He had his reasons, he had his ideas and he refused to listen.
I think he had an option and that others should have accepted. But as we have seen that was not the case.