Shadow of the ‘Third Rome’
by Mirko Ðordevic
The relationship between church and state in the Orthodox East has been given new topicality, of course, by the recent independence referendum in Montenegro. The passions aroused by religious issues in Serbia were highlighted on 16/17 May 2006 when the house of the author of this text, the most eminent analyst of developments within Serbian Orthodoxy, was stoned following his appearance on a television programme discussing the figure of Nikola Velimirović (see Bosnia Report new series, no.32-34), canonized in 2003.
There exist pathetic historical phrases which in the nature of things lose their real content as time goes by, yet continue to be used. One such is the statement made by the Monk Filotej, the court ideologue of Ivan the Terrible, back in the 16th century: ‘Two Romes have fallen; the third, Moscow, stands and there will be no fourth.’ After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, this seemed a normal reaction from the perspective of a Russian empire that saw itself as the new centre of Orthodoxy. But for some time now, and especially since the fall of both the Russian and the Communist empires, it has not been realistic. The slogan nevertheless continues to be heard in discourse about the unity of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox churches.
In an interview that Metropolitan Inokentije gave to the French journal La Pensée russe (which comes out in both French and Russian) on 24 February 2006, he said: ‘The relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchy of Istanbul is getting progressively worse.’ It should be noted that the Russians have several Orthodox churches: in addition to the Moscow Patriarchy, there is also the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, as well as the Exarchate grouping Russian parishes in the West that is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Istanbul. The Russians are not unduly worried about this diversity of organizational forms of the Orthodox churches: Orthodoxy fragmented a long time ago, and as a result has the experience of a kind of pluralism in regard to church organization in any given state.
The immediate issue is the case of the Orthodox parish in Biarritz, which has ‘distanced’ itself from the Moscow church, leading to problems with Istanbul. Similar problems with Istanbul exist also in the Serbian Orthodox Church. Belgrade has accused the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of allegedly wanting to be an ‘Orthodox Pope’. The situation in Biarritz has been resolved by a French court: the Exarchate remains outside the Russian Orthodox Church, because it operates in France. As for the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which was established in Sremski Karlovci [Serbia] in the 1920s, its bishops used to send messages to Hitler encouraging him to continue with his struggle to save Europe from ‘the Judaeo-Masonic evil’. One of its bishops headed the Croatian Orthodox Church established by Ante Pavelić in the NDH. In these conflicts all the Orthodox churches appeal to canons, forgetting that churches do not exist for the sake of canons, but the other way round: the canons exist and change in order to serve the church. Thus the Salonica archbishop, in his formal protest to St Sava in 1220, numbered all the canons that this famous Serb had broken in order to create an independent Serbian church. The situation is not very different today, when all countries contain several Orthodox churches.
How to solve this problem is something that no one has approached with due seriousness. It was expected that the ‘Orthodox assembly’ held recently in Cetinje would deal with it, but nothing new came out of that. Ukraine has two Orthodox churches, Montenegro also two, and so on - they all, following the unwritten rule valid in the Orthodox East, declare themselves as national-state churches. They all fight to be autocephalous, and they are all in conflict with one another. The demands for autocephaly are logical up to a point, but this does not offer a solution for the future, since the form of church organization is subject to historical change. The fact that at times one church may offer to another ‘more than autonomy but less than autocephaly’ is nothing but a political shibboleth. It has nothing to do with true unity of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox churches. Relations between the Serbian and Macedonian Orthodox churches, and those between the Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox churches, show that what is lacking is a view of the future. Much of the time we remain prisoners of the past and of bygone models.
The force of such disputes prevents us from seeing what is of the essence: Christian unity. Orthodoxy possesses one good tradition, of which it is not always aware but which can be of help to others at the level of Christian unity in Europe: churches are canonically organized in relation to state territory, albeit independently of the state; but organizational pluralism is also respected. It is precisely this that the Orthodox often overlook or completely forget. Especially today. The ‘mother church’ refuses to accept separation, but the church is a church only to the extent that believers come to it to receive from it the holy mysterious. None should be, on whatever basis, either privileged or marginal within a state.
Herein lies the stumbling-block in the current dissension between the ‘Second Rome’, i.e. the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Istanbul, and the ‘Third Rome’, i.e. the Moscow Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is not simply a Russian problem, but a most serious issue for Orthodoxy, which does not have a Pope or an official teaching authority able to judge which church is canonically regular and which is not. That is a historically changeable category. Serious Orthodox bishops have been warning for some time now against ‘using holy canons for manipulation’ . Such manipulation is most often politically inspired. The problems of contemporary Orthodoxy will not be solved if some ‘Third Rome’ acts as the arbiter. They can be solved only together and in accordance with the principle of unity in diversity.
It is the case, however, that history nowhere repeats itself so often as in the church. One has been able to see this happening in the Balkans for many decades. The problem lies not in autocephaly - there must be some form for organizing the church in a state - but in the fact that the Orthodox churches in the Balkans remain ethnically defined, as is evident from the persistence of philetism, i.e. church nationalism. The political colours of this map are visible even when it formally belongs to the church: one nation, one church, one party, one leader.
The unity of Orthodoxy should not be considered solely in terms of canons, in the sense of laws and rules that of themselves are changeable, but in canonical-liturgical terms. In other words, if all Orthodox churches, however they may be organized within a state, follow the same religious teaching and observe the same liturgy, they can find a model of unity in diversity. After all, even the Catholic Church which is monistically organized has patriarchies and patriarchs. Thus, for example, the archbishop of Venice bears the title of patriarch. The fact that separation of church and state is advantageous to the church is something that is not easily accepted, especially among the Orthodox. Many believe that it is not so. Thus in contemporary Serbia we are exposed to daily political tirades that actually use the anachronistic term ‘symphonia’ - which even in Byzantium never meant anything real.
Translated from Monitor (Podgorica), 10 March 2006