1,000 years of history shape Moscow-Istanbul clash

The great prince Vladimir had a problem in the year 986, while striving to build unity in the Kievan Rus, his network of Eastern Slavic and Finnic tribes.

The old pagan gods and goddesses were not enough. So the prince dispatched ambassadors to investigate Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and the Orthodox faith of the Christian East.

When they returned to Kiev, their reports included this passage about Byzantium: “We went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, in heaven or on Earth. … All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. … We cannot remain any more in paganism.”

So Vladimir surrendered his concubines and was baptized in 988, while commanding his people to convert. Orthodoxy came to the lands of the Rus.

This early chronicle was, according to church tradition, written by St. Nestor of the great Kiev-Pechersk Monastery, founded in 1051. Pilgrims continue to flock to the Monastery of the Kiev Caves to see its beautiful churches, soaring bell tower, labyrinthine underground tunnels and the incorrupt bodies of many saints.

Note the importance of the word “Kiev” in that spiritual and national narrative.

“Just as the original Church in Jerusalem is the mother of all Orthodox Churches around the world, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople some 300 years later, so the venerable see of Kiev in Kievan Rus in the tenth century is the mother of the Churches in all the East Slavic Orthodox lands — including the current nation-states of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Byelorussia,” explained the Very Rev. Alexander Webster, dean of Holy Trinity Seminary in upstate New York. This seminary is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

“Kiev is the Russian Orthodox Church,” Webster said, “and the Russian Orthodox Church is Kiev.”

Nevertheless, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has taken the first step to establish an independent, or “autocephalous,” Orthodox church in Ukraine. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church responded by breaking “Eucharistic communion” with Istanbul.

Speaking as an Orthodox convert (I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church and now attend a Bible Belt parish with Russian roots), I think it’s important for anyone following this byzantine drama to know that:

• The historic ties between Kiev and Russian Orthodoxy are more than talking points in arguments involving the United States, the European Union, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to sever communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople is just the latest example of centuries of tension between Moscow and Istanbul.

• Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is called the “first among equals,” the symbolic leader of Orthodox patriarchs. But he is not an Orthodox pope, even if the New York Times prints a headline proclaiming, “Russian Orthodox Church Breaks Ties With Orthodoxy’s Leader.”

Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t have a central leader who can snap his fingers and change doctrine, or settle global conflicts. To be blunt, it often takes Orthodox leaders a long time to solve these kinds of ecclesiastical puzzles.

• Ukraine currently has three Orthodox bodies: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) created in 1991, and the small Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century. The news right now is that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has lifted an old condemnation of schismatic Orthodox leaders in Ukraine, taking a big step toward validating the claims of Patriarch Filaret of the Kiev Patriarchate.

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and senior fellow for media and religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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