What the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece disclosed with regards to Ukrainian autocephaly
On August 28, 2019, the three-day session of the Standing Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece drew to a close, at which, among other things, the issue of the Greek Church’s position in relation to the autocephaly granted to the so-called “OCU” by Patriarch Bartholomew was discussed.
This session of the Holy Synod was accompanied by an unprecedented information campaign launched by the Patriarchate of Constantinople with the active support of the so-called “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (“OCU”) that was recognised by him. During this campaign, in an interview with Ukrainian TV channel TSN, Patriarch Bartholomew declared that “in the very near future, the Church of Greece will be the first Local Orthodox Church to recognise the “OCU” . And the “OCU Primate” , Epifaniy, through his press service alleged that “the Church of Greece has already declared its de facto recognition of the autocephaly of our Church,” and that the Holy Synod needs to only confirm its position in this matter.
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece did not succumb to overt pressure from Patriarch Bartholomew and “Metropolitan” Epifaniy and, after hearing reports from two Synodal Commissions on the Ukrainian issue, made two interim decisions. First, the Holy Synod announced the recognition of the canonical right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly to other Churches. And, secondly, granted the Primate of the Church of Greece the prerogative to continue to deal with the Ukrainian issue. In turn, His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos II declared that he could not assume such responsibility and therefore should consult with the Council of Hierarchs, as the highest governing body of the Church of Greece, and in full accordance with its Charter.
The interim decision of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece caused an extremely controversial reaction in the mass media and the expert community. The Ukrainian media, having prematurely announced the recognition of the “OCU” by the Church of Greece via the submission by “Metropolitan” Epifaniy who had hastily announced that the Holy Synod, in its decision, had allegedly confirmed the canonicity of the granting of autocephaly to Ukraine but had not yet officially recognised the canonicity of the “OCU” itself , due to pressure exerted on it by the conservative orthodox wing in the Orthodox world. Mass media and experts from other countries, doubting the canonical nature of the granting of autocephaly to unapproved schismatics, accused the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece of making a half-hearted and vague decision, which was influenced by political motives and considerations, and not by Orthodox canons.
However, as often happens, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and the interim decision made by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece turned out to be much more balanced, as well as canonically and politically more correct than the positions of its opponents from both sides. To prove this, we analyse their decision in more detail:
What does the recognition of the canonical right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly to other Local Orthodox Churches really mean?
The recognition of the “canonical right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly” is nothing more than a simple statement of the fact that nine out of the fourteen universally recognised autocephalous churches previously received a Tomos from Constantinople ; including the Church of Greece itself in 1850. This decision in no way confirmed the canonicity of Ukrainian autocephaly (since there was not a single word which referred to Ukraine and the so-called “OCU” in the text), but only generally recognised the right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly, when enacted in accordance with the Orthodox canons and prevailing Pan-Orthodox practice.
According to the Orthodox canons, autocephaly in no case can be declared by the Church in questipn itself, those who take this path are declared schismatics and excommunicated from world Orthodoxy. Which is what actually happened recently with regards to the so-called Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Church (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) when they merged and formed the so-called “OCU” structure. According to the same canons, autocephaly can be only granted to universally recognised canonical Churches at their own request, but in the case of schismatics, as in the case of the former UOC-KP and UAOC, these must first join a canonical Church and undergo the mandatory procedures of repentance and re-ordination. Such blatant disregard of Church canons with regards to the granting of autocephaly to the so-called “OCU” has been well documented in the Church of Greece and, according to the Greek information agency Romfea, which cited one of the Church of Greece hierarchs who actually took part in the August session of the Holy Synod, wrote : “Here we have a special case with unordained schismatics who were also excommunicated.”
Unlike stable canons, ecclesial praxis in the Orthodox world, including those related to the provision of autocephaly, are periodically discussed and amended under the influence of current political conditions and internal rivalry. The most recent, by Church standards, serious discussion of the rules for governing the bestowal of autocephaly took place not long ago , in fact, during the process of preparations for the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, which was attended by 10 of the 14 universally recognised autocephalous Churches. According to an Archbishop of Constantinople Patriarchate Job (Getcha), who participated in the discussions, participants at first agreed that Constantinople could grant autocephaly only with the consent and at the request of a Local Orthodox Church, on the canonical territory of which there is a candidate petitioning for autocephaly. In addition , there is also the fact that the Tomos of Autocephaly must , initially, before granting, be signed by all the Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches in accordance with the order of the Orthodox Diptychs. Each of these agreements was signed by the Local Orthodox Churches and included in the set of conciliation documents. Subsequently, however, the participants of the discussions did not agree on the text regarding the placement of signatures of the Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches (Constantinople insisted that the Ecumenical Patriarch proclaim autocephaly, and that the primates collegially proclaim it) . The issue of granting autocephaly was subsequently removed from the agenda of the Pan-Orthodox Council, which with regards to the future, from the point of view of Constantinople, gave it the right to unilaterally commit obvious violations of the agreements reached in the conciliation documents and completely ignore the rights and privileges of other Local Orthodox Churches.
What does it mean to confer the Primate of the Church of Greece with the prerogative to deal with the Ukrainian issue and the subsequent transfer of this prerogative to the Council of Hierarchs?
Strictly speaking, conferring His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos II with the prerogative to deal with the recognition of the so-called “OCU” could lead to a serious problem caused by a violation of the charter of the Church of Greece. According to this Charter, the privilege of resolving the issue of recognition of autocephaly can be given exclusively by the Council of the Hierarchs with the participation of all Greek Metropolitans. Such an apparent violation of the Charter could further lead to internal conflict in the Church of Greece and call into question any decision made by the Primate.
However, Archbishop Ieronymos II eliminated this threat and did not commit a violation of the Charter. He did this by immediately renouncing the privilege conferred upon him and transferring the consideration of the recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly to the Council of Hierarchs as the highest Church authority. This swift reaction by the Primate in response to the “initiative” of the Standing Synod allows us to assume that some homework was done on the issue – where an elegant two-step approach was prepared, resulting in the neutralisation of pressure exerted by external forces with regards to the Ukrainian issue on the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, which consequently made no decisions and passed on the consideration of the issue to a higher level.
What decision with regards to the Ukrainian issue can the Council of Hierarchs make?
Thus, having adopted an extremely balanced interim decision, the Standing Synod actually retained the status quo. It reaffirmed the right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly in general and postponed the consideration of the specific issue of Ukrainian autocephaly to the Council of Hierarchs. At the same time, the Synod refused to make any concrete comments and left the reports of the Synodal Commissions regarding the Ukrainian issue completely closed.
The Council of Hierarchs of the Church of Greece unites all Greek Metropolitans, including the heads of the eparchies of the so-called “New Lands”, who are simultaneously subordinate to the Ecumenical Patriarch. Given the lack of canonical purity with regards to the issue of the bestowal of Ukrainian autocephaly (since it presupposes that excommunicated, unrepentant and unapproved schismatics be recognised) , on the one hand, and the dependence of some of the Metropolitans on Constantinople, on the other hand, it will be extremely difficult for the Council of Hierarchs to make any final decision. Recognition of Ukrainian schismatics in violation of the current canons may cause serious conflict within the Church of Greece and damage relations with other Local Orthodox Churches. A categorical refusal of such recognition may lead to conflict with Constantinople and precipitate subsequent problems in the “New Lands”.
Therefore , the Council of Hierarchs in order to prevent internal and external conflicts, most likely, will have to make a choice between two intermediate options. The first of these options provides for every possible delay in the decision to recognise Ukrainian autocephaly – firstly, via lengthy deliberation of the Ukrainian issue on the Church’s agenda, followed by passing the issue on to the Synodal Commissions for revision or, indeed, creating new Special Commissions. The advantage of this option is to gain time in the expectation that someone else will recognise the so-called “OCU” first or that Constantinople will regain its composure with regards to this contentious issue. The main minus – is the preservation of uninterrupted pressure on the Church of Greece and its hierarchs for this entire period of time.
The second option is the most advantageous, and at the same time the most canonical option , and simply involves repeating the Council of Hierarchs elegant combination that was done at the end of August by the Standing Synod of the Church of Greece. Whereby, the Council of Hierarchs, for its part, will simply once again recognise the canonical right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly , in general, but will not itself reach a consensus with regards to the Ukrainian issue . It will then submit the issue for Pan-Orthodox deliberation which will involve the participation of not only Constantinople but all the Local Orthodox Churches.