The Power Struggle in Eastern Orthodoxy

In the June 7, 2007 issue of "The Wanderer" dealing with the canonical "Reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad" (ROCA) with the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church led by Partriarch Alexis II, I was quoted as noting the possibility of further schisms occurring among those Orthodox most opposed to the "heresy" of ecumenism and the "heresies" of the Catholic Church.

It would appear that some ROCA parishes have already separated in protest from the ROCA jurisdiction with other protestors opposed to the "Reunion" removed from teaching posts such as one teacher at the ROCA monastery in Jordanville, NY. In recent years have occurred serious tensions and conflicts between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Moscow Alexis II over the jurisdiction of dioceses and parishes in Esthonia, Ukraine, the United States, and the diaspora of various ethnic Orthodox groups in Western Europe and Latin America. The Russian Orthodox bishop in London, Basil Osborne, placing himself recently under the jurisdiction of the Greek Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has further fueled the tensions between Moscow and Constantinople. Calling Bishop Basil to repentance, a Patriarchal Russian Synod remarked on the:

"striking incompatibility of the present actions of the Throne of Constantinople with Orthodox ecclesiology and the canonical tradition of the Universal Church, the sign of an extremely dangerous obscuring of canonical consciousness."

Particularly irritating to the patriarchal Russian Church, the largest of the autocephalous (i.e., independent) national Churches, has been the American and European press repeatedly describing the Patriarch Bartholomew as the "leader of world Orthodoxy".

Verbal broadsides between the two most important Eastern Orthodox sees have increased since 2004. In the July 8, 2004 issue of the Athens' newspaper "To Vima", the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, "first among equals", responded to the growing influence of an invigorated Russian Church aided by support from the Russian government. Typical of Russian officials representing the government was the view expressed by Vladimir Zorin speaking of the need to unite all the Orthodox nations:

"under the banner of the Russian Church, which is the largest, and as such, holds the leadership position among the Orthodox Churches."

Igor Ivanoff, the Russian Minister of the Exterior, had observed:

"Our diplomatic service cooperates and works with the Russian Orthodox Church, which represents the connecting link between all the Slavic Orthodox Churches."

The Vice-president of the Russian Parliamentary Committee had no hesitation to voice the thesis that the Moscow patriarchate was:

"the only one able to lead a Pan-Orthodox unity of a multinational character. For that reason, the Third Orthodox Capital prophesied by St. Seraphim of Sarov is needed. We must adhere to the historical necessity of founding a 'Third Rome'."

For his part, the Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk insisted:

"The Russian Orthodox Church holds the 'de facto' first place among all of the other Orthodox Churches because of her great spirituality, her ethics and virtues, her tradition, and her political influence; as such, she speaks for the over 350 million Russians throughout the world. Moreover, she exercises influence in all of the Orthodox Churches of the Balkans, as well as in those countries where the Orthodox faithful represent a minority. We are the rightful spiritual heirs of Byzantium."

Arguing recently along the same lines was Philaretus, Metropolitan of Minsk, who declared:

"The Church of Constantinople was the Church of the Byzantine Empire, and her role within Orthodoxy has diminished as a result of the termination of that Empire; this has resulted in the Ecumenical Patriarchate increasingly animated by papist tendencies" (this latter having reference to Constantinople's own efforts to maintain its claim as world leader of all Orthodoxy, and entering into theological dialogue with Rome).

A representative of the Metropolitan of Odessa, Milan Gerkas, has reinforced Moscow's counter-claim:

"We are the leaders of Orthodoxy, and we have to demonstrate that fact."

The Patriarch Bartholomew has vigorously repudiated the "Third Rome" pretensions of the Patriarch of Moscow and his fellow Russians which had, incidentally, been discussed at the 8th International Assembly of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the aforementioned "To Vima", the Greek patriarch termed it "foolish, hubristic, and blasphemous" because:

" resounds with the spirit of caesaropapism and vaticanism, something totally unacceptable to the Orthodox Church."

In letters to Patriarch Alexis II, Cyril of Smolensk, and Russian political officials, Bartholomew declared:

"The gathering together of Orthodox faithful into one flock under the leadership of a single powerful leader, who would be carrying out the agenda of a particular government, will unavoidably lead the Church into becoming nothing more than an organ of that government, and not the means by which mankind achieves salvation... The involvement of government into the decision-making process of the Church smacks of unacceptable caesaropapism. During the Communist era there occurred an intolerable politicization of the Russian Church... We hoped that things would be different after the fall of that monstrous system. However, to our dismay, we see that the current Russian government continues to unhesitatingly interfere, and, indeed, to even 'make policy' concerning matters that are strictly ecclesiastical... Those who speak of a Third Rome are totally unsuited to hold leadership positions in the Orthodox Church, because they will play a role in transforming her from a Christ-worshipping faith to a feudalistic organization based upon the exercise of raw power... The foolish theory pertaining to a Third Rome is hubristic [i.e., overweening arrogance] and blasphemous. New Rome [Constantinople] may be the first among equal Patriarchates, but she has never sought to dominate and exercise power over the other Orthodox Churches. We recognize her primacy in the stewardship of our unity, and she has performed this function humbly and absent any exercise of power."

Ironically, it was the see of the Patriarch Bartholomew which for centuries was the victim of the Caesaropapism of Byzantine Emperors who interfered constantly with the administration of the Church and assured the Patriarch of Constantinople's extending his influence over the once important patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Under the yoke of the Ottoman Turks the Byzantine Greek patriarch practically functioned as the "Pope of the East", an historic fact giving reason to the Russian charge of Constantinople's tendency for "papism". As the Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev stated in a recent interview regarding a regular meeting of the Joint Orthodox-Catholic Theological Comission to take place in Italy:

"We respect the Patriarch of Constantinople as the first in honour, but we are against viewing him as 'Pope of the East'."

It is amusing that both Moscow and Constantinople now accuse each other of similar "papistic tendencies", i.e., identified by the Patriarch Batholomew as:

"the spirit of vaticanism which construes unity as a single organizational structure, as opposed to the unity of the spirit and the heart, which has been the way it has always been construed in the Orthodox Church."

It may be recalled that the same Bartholomew shocked both Catholic and Orthodox ecumenists during a major address at Georgetown for saying that there is an "ontological difference" between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Catholics will not fail to note the interplay of political and ecclesiastical factors in the jurisdictional disputes taking place among Orthodox hierarchs and political officials seeking to end the divisions and even schisms that mark the Pan-Orthodox world.

Russian President Putin was heavily involved in the Reunion effort with ROCA for obvious political reasons to increase Russian hegemony in the Orthodox world. The emergence of a "Czar Putin" eager to manipulate the Church for political purposes would be in character with Russia's own sorrowful history of caesaropapism.

For all the railing by both Greek and Russian Orthodox patriarchs against "Vaticanism" and "a single organizational structure" marking the visible Unity of the Church, there remains the verdict made in 1967 by Fr. Robert A. Taft, S.J., the leading scholar on the majestic Byzantine Greek Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom used in all the Greco-Slav Orthodox Churches:

"There is 'de facto' no Magisterium in Orthodoxy today... A lamentable anarchy pervades the organization and theology of modern Orthodoxy."
(Diaconia, vol 2, no. 3)

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage