Icon of the martyred Romanovs

Russian Orthodoxy on trial

Symphonia or caesaropapism?

Artillery Row

“Show proper respect to the people, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.” 1 Peter 2:17

Commentary on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict tends to fall into two categories when it touches upon religion. According to the less charitable view, Orthodoxy is a regressive faith which plays a negative role (similar to Islam) in stymying societies from following a western trajectory (Renaissance, Reformation and Secularism). So says Florence Gaub, Deputy Director of the EU Institute for Security Studies. The slightly more positive though still essentialist perspective is that Orthodoxy amounts to mystical bumpf, which produces a pliable, pietist elite. Its leaders may have enabled survival under the Arabs, Turks, Mongols and so on, yet ultimately amounted to sell-outs.

It’s depressing to answer the first charge, especially given the response to Ms Gaub inevitably focused more on social outrage (“saying the quiet bit out loud”) than any sound intellectual rebuttal. In short, reducing the world not just to a western telos (beribboned technocracy and transhumanism) but even its pattern of history is Luciferian and colonial. The second accusation, however, is more pointed. It hurts because it’s a half-truth. Like half-rhymes it both jingles and jars.

Historically, the West lost its Roman polity in the fifth century but retained the imperial faith. This meant the divide it placed between the regnum and sacerdotium was a fairly natural development. Orthodoxy, however, took a different path. This was defined, geopolitically, by Roman stability in the East and, theologically, by John Chrysostom’s reaction to the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Thessalonians, which stated the Antichrist would not come until someone is “taken out of the way” as they are the “restraining” force. Chrysostom equated this figure with the emperor.

Fundamentalists on both sides of the Mediterranean doubted the need for a Christian monarchy given Christ possessed “All authority on heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:18). But the majority took the Eusebian view more seriously. This advertised the ways in which revelation (from Pontius Pilate to the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy about the destruction of the Temple) was woven into the fabric of imperial history, making Rome (or New Rome) God’s chosen vehicle just as the Virgin became the Theotokos at the Annunciation (Lk. 1:2656).

In time, however, the curtains parted. The papacy interpreted its honorary primacy of the pentarchy as presidential, even seeing fit to unilaterally add the filioque and develop a hierarchy of bishoprics. Meanwhile, St Augustine was employed to demonstrate that just as kings were robbers, so empires were gangs “writ large”.

For the Orthodox, this was a topsy-turvy vision. Christ led a Church that was, notionally at least, coterminous with the empire. The emperor was the lord Christ (“Christos kyriou”), his living icon (“zosa eikon Christou”) and “bishop to all those without the church”. Furthermore, bishops shared an equal dignity, the imperial court mimicked the divine order of heaven, and within the Church only honour (τιμή in Greek) — gained ideally through the demonstration of superlative love — created a meaningful hierarchy. Rulers were those whom God had chosen in the womb. The ceremonies of coronation and anointment were not priestly castes “choosing” whom God liked. They confirmed divine election.

Accordingly, Orthodoxy developed the principle of symphonia (accord) by which the priesthood and sovereignty represented interdependent powers, neither subordinated to the other. Emperor and patriarch operated in harmony just as the divine and human natures had in Christ. Leo VI (d. 912) riffed on the concept in the Epanagoge, which states:

“As the polity consists, like man, of parts, so the greatest are the emperor and patriarch. Wherefore the peace and felicity of subjects in body and soul depends on the concord of both.”

This tidy theory met an elephant-sized roadblock in the “Union” of Florence (1431-49), which negotiated the reunion of eastern and western Christendom. The Russian reaction was not favourable. Russia had long felt the Eastern Roman empire had become a pale shadow of its former self. In power terms (the pawning of the crown jewels to Venice in 1343 was particularly humiliating) this was irrelevant as the imperial office restrained the Antichrist, not power per se. However, when the emperor looked to sell Orthodoxy down the line in order to shore up Constantinople’s survival against the Turk, Russia baulked. It even threw its own conciliar representative, Isidore, in prison (Orthodox historiography has been more unkind, granting him the same title as Julian “the Apostate”).

Peter the Great didn’t develop Russian despotism but imported French absolutism

Constantinople subsequently reneged on Florence. In fact, one of the most striking examples of the Church exerting itself against the emperor occurred in 1450 when Constantine XI was overruled by the Holy Synod. In defiance of imperial will it not only deposed the incumbent pro-unionist patriarch but also blocked the emperor’s appointment of a similar replacement. But this eleventh hour volte face did not prevent them from losing face in the eyes of the Rus. The rot had started: Russian elites began to mistrust the pentarchy, which Byzantium had historically guided with an undefiled authority. They also started to subvert symphonia into something a little closer to Caesaropapism (it is notable that despite triumphs during the lifetimes of individual Byzantine emperors, none of their heresies was able to prevail). The reasoning behind this move is nebulous. A hostile account might accuse Moscow of seeing the Church’s claim to judge people sub specie aeternitatis as a threat to its own authority. A more generous view might suppose that the Russian state saw the Church fail at Florence and saw fit to bind it to itself.

Divergence was at first expressed in actions that winked at a change in legitimacy. Until the Florentine “Union” the metropolitan of Moscow was nominated by the patriarch of Constantinople. After Isidore’s fall, however, Russian bishops elected his successor. Constantinople was informed but no confirmation was requested. Byzantium accepted the fait accompli.

The Russian Church has a strong, beautiful and brilliant strain of Orthodoxy running through it like light through a diamond. This tradition twinkles in saints like Sergius of Radonezh, Nilus of Sorsk, Seraphim of Sarov and others. But whereas Roman patriotism could be at least sold as notionally or potentially universal thanks to its unique historical identity, Russian messianism — as outlined in Philotheus’ famous formulation of “The Third Rome” — can be a rather parochial, nationalistic affair. Admittedly, this argument can be exaggerated. The irony is that the New Rome was defeated by Turks from Central Asia, while Moscow colonised the same region almost exclusively, arguably crafting a similarly “imperial” identity. Yet Russia appears more comfortable converting different ethnicities to its nationalism than a baggier Orthodox vision.

At the heart of Russian messianism is the assumption that because the Byzantine Church barely survived its Turkish troubles — while Moscow trumped the Tatars — the Tsars had inherited Constantine the Great’s stardust. Yet while the Russian state was sacralised, the Russian bishops were rendered dispensable to the greater vision that only Tsars could envisage. Even basic religious truths became politically fraught in such a blinkered atmosphere. When Maximus the Hagiorite (d. 1556) sought to correct the scribal errors of Russian monks, for instance, he was accused of being a Latin and imprisoned. Similarly, when the metropolitan Philip told Tsar Ivan IV that “Only the good are blessed”, he was murdered in his cell.

Observing this behaviour, the eastern patriarchs were more willing to acknowledge Moscow’s right to empire than a patriarchate. In fact, they even ignored its first request in 1584. When Patriarch Ieremei of Constantinople visited Moscow in 1588 looking for financial help, however, Muscovite ecclesiastics offered funds in return for his support.

There were two camps in the Russian capital. The ecumenicists argued that Ieremei could transfer the seat of his ecumenical see and govern the Oikoumene from Moscow. The nationalists argued that the Hellenes were no longer to be trusted on religious matters and a separate patriarchate should be set up in Rus. Some of them even schemed to raise Moscow to the patriarchate and transfer Constantinople’s see to city of Vladimir, making it subject to Muscovite sovereignty.

Ieremei reacted favourably to the ecumenical line but found himself blocked by nationalists. Nevertheless, he issued a charter recognising the rights of Moscow to a patriarchal see and this was used to approve its creation at the next Constantinopolitan synod. Its bishops, however, insisted that Moscow — in the absence of Rome — should be the fifth, or lowest ranking, patriarchate. This didn’t stop Tsar Feodor I from having a field day. In fact, he issued the only official surviving document to explicitly reference the idea of Moscow constituting a Third Rome.

A pious Tsar’s libido dominandi could produce positive results. For example, when Nikon championed the reforms of Maximus in correcting the liturgical books (which had made the sign of the cross with two fingers not three, involved singing two rather than three halleluiahs and required processions to move clockwise rather than anticlockwise), it’s clear that only the kremlin could have enforced scholarly rectitude against the bigoted Raskolniky or Starovery — “Old Believers”. This changed, however, when the Tsar suddenly saw Orthodoxy as an encumbrance rather than the light of the natural order.

Contrary to popular conviction, Peter the Great didn’t develop Russian despotism but imported French absolutism, a legacy of the conflict of Church and the Germanic emperor in the West. Thanks to this new ideology, the Tsar no longer considered himself constrained by the Church. Fearing hostility to his reforms, the 6ft 8 giant reduced it to little more than its administrative functions and replaced the patriarch with a synod.

Paralysed for two centuries, the patriarchate would not be restored until 1917. Yet the Church was still deployed as a fig leaf for national interests. In Palestine, for example, a ginormous complex (Mission) was built outside the old city of Jerusalem. Its purpose to this day is to dominate pilgrimage routes and sights in order to annex their prestige. Rather tragically they also destabilised the patriarchate of Antioch (installing several puppets), and it’s still tied to Moscow’s chariot to this day.

Thanks to a strange historical alchemy, the Russian patriarch’s empty throne was occupied once more only when the Tsar’s became vacant. For the main part the menu after Peter the Great was secularism, the Slavophile ethnicisation of Orthodox tenets, and then death. Communists killed somewhere between 12 and 20 million Christians in persecutions. Only in 1937 did an official report emerge which confessed the anti-Christian purges had failed. But the hostility didn’t fizzle out so much as become fitful in Khrushchev’s campaigns and Brezhnev’s low-level harassment.

How does killing Ukrainians serve any goal other than Russian jingoism?

The reconfiguration of post-Communist Russia is well-known but misunderstood. Far from constituting a basic, modernist state stuck in Soviet hardware and a mercantilist mind-set, Russia toys with a more terrible stage of postmodernism. The FSB does not feed the world “alternative facts”, like vegan substitutes on an omnivorous menu, but an extreme form of scepticism. It undermines both the authority and detail of scenarios until observers feel unable to judge, until the enfeebled ego considers itself perpetually fooled and non-engagement can be the only answer. At a higher register this segues into Aleksandr Dugin’s dark idea that there is a specifically “Russian truth” lingering above Eurasia that defies explanation a notion best explained as a heady mix of nineteenth century Slavophilic and twentieth century Evolian thought.

On a religious plane, it’s deeply regrettable that the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the primus inter pares, but mostly on the basis of the historical political supremacy of Constantinople) and the Russian Patriarchate (first only in the secular metrics of power and population) are constantly in conflict.

In the last analysis, the EP possesses not only a primacy of honour but ministry (diaconia), too. These are chicken and egg: wise ministry generates honour; honour invites more ministry. One of the major tasks of the EP is to regulate the Church, guiding those who have unresolved or unprecedented issues. Against this time-hallowed role, Moscow believes size matters. It constantly lobbies for a change in the diptychs so that its primates are bumped up the ladder of seniority.

This bolshiness has created two major casualties. The issue of “canonical territory” between Orthodox churches and the recognition mechanism of acquiring autocephalous status both remain bitterly disputed. Moscow even avoided attending the Great Synod of 2016 (Crete) to escape being brought to heel — its main gripe concerned choosing who would preside — and convinced her friends Antioch and Serbia to do the same.

In their absence the EP decided to resolve a nasty ecclesiastical anomaly in Ukraine. Some of the bishops — including the current metropolitan of Ukraine — signed a petition to the Fanar requesting ecclesiastical independence from Moscow. Putin intervened; a schism was created. To simplify, patriarch Bartholomew stepped in and cured the schism, giving autocephaly by granting a Tomos, an ecclesiastical letters patent. The Slavic churches in hock to Russia and Antioch — all of which enjoy Russian money and political assistance — refuse to recognise the new Church and doubt the right of Constantinople to grant autocephaly.

Even the notion of symphonia is dragged into the mire. Patriarch Bartholomew steers clear of its nakedly political nature, preferring to remould it as a form of soft power in relation to the EU, focusing mainly on Constantinople’s godfatherly role in nursing mediaeval states to maturity. Patriarch Kirill, however, prefers the historical model. Such is its importance that symphonia formed the theme of his accession speech — in the presence of President Medvedev — on 1 February, 2009. Over time, it’s become a major plank in setting pan-Orthodox civilisation against a decadent, post-Christian West.

This narrative lost much of its power, however, when Russia declared war on Ukraine earlier this year. 58 per cent of Ukrainians are Orthodox and a further 6 per cent use the Byzantine rite. On 16 March, Pope Francis held a video meeting with Patriarch Kirill to warn him not to justify military aggression and conquest. The Russian, however, stuck to a drumbeat he has played since 2000 when, as metropolitan of Smolensk, he stressed that:

“Today there exists no wall that is able to secure religious autonomy against the expansion of a [liberal] post-industrial reality. At the foundation of the West’s liberal norms is pagan anthropocentrism, which entered European consciousness during the Renaissance. The Reformation then rejected Christian tradition, elevating only Holy Scripture and personal religious experience. The liberal idea does not call for a liberation from sin because the very concept of sin is absent. People can violate anything if they do not violate liberal norms. From these norms flow everything that the West understands as ‘civilisation’.”

The problem with this is that a stopped watch is right twice a day. While it’s a decent critique of western arrogance, Orthodoxy must provide a positive, lived alternative weltanschauung that doesn’t look, smell and walk like an excuse to carve out a kleptocratic postwar space filled with Breguet-donning bishops; less the Tory party at Church than the KGB in koukoulia.

How killing Ukrainians serves any goal other than Russian jingoism is a mystery. Sadly, Russophiles, poisoned by their understandable loathing of liberalism, must learn that Ukraine — in its display of faith, martyrs, masculine virtues and so on — looks the solid, traditional Orthodox power far more than Putin’s state, which mostly boasts people struggling to survive financially, iced by a hypocritical top brass littered with mistresses, multiple families, secret mansions and hoarded wealth.

If symphonia worked it was because the emperors shared the same [Christian] goals as the patriarchs, while patriarchs worked for the greater good of the pentarchy. Now Putin, whose real aim seems to be accruing wealth and furthering nationalism, makes the patriarch dance to his own tune by ordering the faith to adhere to “Russian characteristics”, a clanger that echoes Beijing’s demand for capitalism with “Chinese characteristics”. The remainder of the pentarchy is astoundingly viewed as either puppets or enemies. Put simply, the cart is before the horse and the Oikoumene must bring Moscow back into line. Symphonia is meant to be loving cooperation, not a deathly embrace or menacing bear hug. If Russia can’t love, then it can leave the pentarchy.

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