The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch has defended his right to settle church disputes in Ukraine, after meeting Patriarch Kirill of Russia to discuss demands for an autocephalous, or self-governing Ukrainian church.
“Our Kiev brothers have continued efforts to gain independence from church control by Moscow - indeed, the stubbornness of the Moscow Patriarchate has caused the division which the people of Ukraine still suffer,” said Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. “The Kiev church remains canonically dependent on the Constantinople mother-church, whose mission isn’t to impose new ecclesiological principles, but to preserve the truths of faith.”
Bartholomew was addressing his church's Synaxis, or bishops' assembly, on Sunday, two days after the Russian Orthodox delegation's visit. He said the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate had “taken over the initiative to resolve the Ukrainian question” after failures by the Russian Church, and was now the only body with canonical authority to settle current disputes.
A spokesman for Ukraine's breakaway Kiev Patriarchate said he was confident independence would go ahead. “As soon as Constantinople approves the decision to grant autocephaly, Ukraine will begin the appropriate procedures,” Fr Evstratii Zorya, the Patriarchate’s synod secretary, told Ukrainian TV on Monday.
Orthodox Christians, mostly concentrated in the east, nominally make up 70 per cent of Ukraine’s 44 million inhabitants, and have been divided since the 1991 collapse of Soviet rule between the self-proclaimed Kiev Patriarchate and a small Ukrainian Autocephalous church, neither recognised by Orthodox leaders abroad, and a larger Church still subject to Russia’s Moscow Patriarchate. Ukraine’s parliament and president, Petro Poroshenko, whose forces are battling Russian-backed separatists, have vigorously endorsed calls for a single church independent of Moscow, and have petitioned Patriarch Bartholomew, who holds honorary primacy among the world's 14 main Orthodox churches, to grant the necessary “tomos of autocephaly”.
Newspaper reports said the three-hour meeting on 31 August, the sixth in a decade between Bartholomew and Kirill, had failed to reach agreement and resulted in the Russian Orthodox delegation's early departure. The Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, insisted the talks had been “heart to heart” and rejected “unreasonable speculation” about the topics covered, adding that both patriarchs would need to refer any decisions to their respective bishops’ councils and synods for final approval.
However, an Ecumenical Patriarchate spokesman, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, confirmed a decision to grant autocephaly had been taken last April and was “already being implemented”.
An Italian member of the International Mixed Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Theological Dialogue, Fr Piero Coda, told Poland's Catholic information agency (KAI) that the Vatican was watching the Rome-Constantinople talks “with attention, hope and respect”, believing they could ultimately assist ecumenical unity.