As recent events surrounding the Orthodox Church in Ukraine are unfolding, it would appear to some that the sky is falling. The Moscow Patriarchate has made it clear that they will excommunicate the Patriarchate of Constantinople if they go through with the decision to lay hands on schismatic Ukrainian Bishops and call them an autocephalys Church. The result will be that intercommunion between the Russian and Greek churches will end, effectively splitting the Orthodox Church.

For some Orthodox Christians, the issue of “who is right” when it  comes to this question is paramount. While I have not run into any Orthodox Christians in the real world who have been following these events, one Facebook friend expressed concern that he might have to leave his Greek parish for one in communion with Russia. The idea is, if you are tethered to the body that caused the schism, you are literally torn away from the Church (putting one’s salvation in jeopardy.)

To the preceding, allow me to offer a few comments that may be helpful:

  • First and foremost, it is scandalous that Christians jockey over territory instead of serving one another and allow themselves to be wronged, like Christ did.
  • The fathers never taught that the moment Bishops excommunicate each other, that whatever side is in the wrong literally takes with them all their faithful into schism. In fact, Saint Augustine taught that those within the Donatist communion that desired unity had in fact remained part of the Catholic (Orthodox) Church.
  • Schisms usually take decades or centuries. Some schisms are quick, but this is when they create a parallel Church structure that refuses to commune with those still within the established Church (i.e. Novationists, Donatists, Gnostics, Protestants).
  • Excommunications generally do not constitute outright schisms. They are the beginning of one, just like a tear in one’s pocket, but they do not constitute a complete break. For example, the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem have formally excommunicated each other. But I, an American (OCA) Orthodox, can walk into either of those churches and commune. Yet, I cannot commune in a Roman Catholic or Missouri Synod Lutheran church. This is because there is an actual schism between the western and eastern churches.
  • Hence, when the Russian and Greek churches excommunicate each other, it is not entirely clear that Eucharistic ties will be entirely severed from one another, let alone a schism occurring. In recent memory, ROCOR was not in communion with the OCA in the United States. Con-celebration between Bishops did not occur, but as one priest recounts, his Antiochene Bishop did not stop him from joining ROCOR and his parishioners would commune at other Orthodox churches as he would allow other Orthodox to commune at his.
  • The preceding does not mean that strained relations, which the actions of the Greek Church will create, cannot ultimately mushroom into a full blown schism. A stitch in time saves nine. A stitch never sewed will result in a complete tear, a schism.

As I reflect on the preceding, I think of how unlike the Roman Church (which has a concrete bar for what constitutes a schism, you are in communion with the Pope or you are not), the Orthodox Church does not have an infallible definition for what is a schism other than completely cutting oneself off from Orthodox communion entirely and categorically.

As the article “The establishment of the Latin Church in the empire of Constantinople (1204–1227)” by Jean Richard (a medievalist) notes, the split between East and West was not entirely clear. What is clear is that the Patriarchate of Rome had a doctrine of supremacy and they pursued policies of ultimately replacing Greek and Arab Bishops with Latin Bishops. Where local opposition proved too strong or Norman/Frankish/Venetian hold on power too tenuous (such as southern Italy or Cyprus), a line of Greek Bishops would be permitted to exist. In a sort of fog-of-war, some of these Bishops were accountable to a Latin Exarch (hence they were in communion with Rome), while others were apparently still in communion with the Orthodox.

Among eastern Christians whose Bishops were exiled and replaced, it was not entirely clear there was a schism. Apparently, we do not have recorded examples of Greek clergy seeking ordinations from outside the Latin communion until the 13th century. Concelebrations in Cyprus and Italy persisted for several more centuries. Even to the present day, communion is still not completely severed between east and west, as the Antiochene Patriarchate allows for intercommunion with Roman Catholics in cases of sudden death (this was told to me by one Arab priest and this is a bit of an open secret.)

It is also worth noting that there are indications that Roman Catholics would not commune with the Orthodox. Not only would they set up their own churches to go to, as discussed before, it appears they would simply not commune period. Balsamon wrote (approx. 1190AD):

For many years the Western Church has been divided in spiritual communion with the other four Patriarchates and has become alien to the Orthodox…

A lot of this makes me wonder why did it take two centuries of the Bishop of Rome replacing Orthodox Bishops for them to seek ordinations from outside the Latin communion? It seems like a girl that thinks she still has a boyfriend even as he carouses with other women and no longer returns her calls.

In my limited learning, it seems to me that after about 1,000 years of politicization in the Church, it was not immediately clear to eastern Christians that the setting up of a parallel-Latin Church was really schismatic. It probably seemed more like “spoils of war” to contemporaries (i.e. in western Europeans take over your city, they choose the Bishop just like the Byzantines did when they took over Italy centuries previously.)

Never in Church history was simply the replacement of Bishops considered an act of destroying the Church. It was not nice and corrupt, sure, but it did not fundamentally split Christians who were used to the Church being a sacralist institution even in the third century (Roman Emperors and other temporal rulers mediated Church disputes before Constantine.)

The chief difference between the Byzantine re-conquest of Italy and the Crusades was that the Crusaders, like the Novationists, created a parallel church structure. Just like when Novatian, seated in Rome, sent legates worldwide looking for allies for his schism (and when they could not be found, installing new Bishops in place of his opposition,) the Popes during the Crusades did the same thing. Now, if the Pope has the prerogative to do this (as Novatian 1,000 years previously clearly thought so and his ecclesiology did not exist in a theological vacuum), then this in itself is not schismatic. However, for this to be true, one must presuppose that this is an actual Apostolic prerogative for Roman Bishops.

Being that the shoe was not on the other foot during the Crusades, we have no idea how the West would have reacted to the Byzantines imposing the same sort of policy. Would they have relented as they did in the sixth century? Or, would they have resisted, forcing the East to create a parallel Church? Being that the majority of the Orthodox Church for the majority of the last thousand years was under some sort of occupation (Crusaders, then Turks, then Communists,) it would seem impossible to even contemplate.

In fact, it makes it hard for Orthodox to conceive of an ecclesiology divorced from their experience the last 1,000 years. The Ecumenical Patriarch for a significant period of this time was the head of all Christians under the Turkish Yoke. So, what we see the Ecumenical Patriarch doing in Ukraine today is in some sense him reasserting prerogatives exercised until nations in the Balkans declared independence from Turkey. While the EP relented in the 19th century, this was not the case between the 15th and 18th centuries.

We must ask ourselves, is setting up a parallel Church schismatic by definition? Let’s consider the following. The Church in the Council of Chalcedon imposed the installation of a new Bishop in Alexandria, in effect creating two Bishoprics in the city, one being recognized and not the other. So, a parallel Church that is created with the Church’s consent in a council is not schismatic. Ironically, even the Coptic Orthodox must concede this, as they endorsed the replacement of Nestorius (the Bishop of Constantinople) in the Council of Ephesus. So, there is no doubt that historically, consensus defines who is in and who is out.

When it comes to the Crusades, the acceptance (or rejection) of the parallel Church was not entirely clear. At first, the East did not recognize the parallel Church the West was setting up as illegitimate. The West adopted the Eastern Bishops, thereby recognizing their ordinations. It would be too simplistic to say that they did not clearly see the Orthodox as in schism, as Western sacramental theology lacked the Cyprianic quality that Eastern sacramental theology had. Yet, as mentioned peviously, the Orthodox likewise recognized western ordinations for their own clergy until the 13th century.

It seems that East and West mutually recognized during the 13th century (probably due to the sack of Constantinople) that their tenuous communion was more a matter of precedent (as they always recognized each others sacraments) than a matter of Christian brotherhood. The West could not contemplate communion with those who did not recognize their historical ecclesiology, the Bishop of Rome’s supremacy. The Fourth Lateran Council, when it officially recognized the Latin parallel church in place of the Orthodox Church, in effect dogmatized their ecclesiology. The Orthodox recognized that a Church that did not recognize their existence unless they submitted to an alien ecclesiology and allowed its Bishops to be replaced, was not part of them anymore.

Due to the preceding, this is why I have maintained that determining “who is in schism” requires identifying one’s own ecclesiological presuppositions.

So, if we are honest with ourselves, the whole Ukraine question boils down to the same thing. Being the Canon 9 of Chalcedon makes the Bishop of Constantinople (not even the Pope if you read it literally) as the ultimate arbiter for disputes, would not the EP in this matter obviously side with himself?

According to Saint Augustine, the only eccelisiological recourse beyond the Pope is an ecumenical council. Likewise, as we have seen with Nestorius (a Bishop of Constantinople), it was not sufficient for the Pope to excommunicate him. The issue was decided (against Nestorius) in a council.

Ultimately, the Orthodox world is going to have to get serious and call another council if this whole issue does not blow over (which might very well happen in a decade or two). Simply complaining about Patriarch Bartholomew is insufficient to solve the issue.