Probably not many people who follow international affairs think the intricacies of Orthodox Church governance are particularly important.
Well, the US Department of State does.
Barely a week ago, the State Department, via the statement of a senior official, Ambassador Michael Kozak, publicly pledged that Washington would stay out of the contentious question of the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine: “any decision on autocephaly is an internal church matter.” (Without repeating all of the details of my previous commentaries on what some may regard as an arcane and peripheral issue, there is reason to expect that Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople may soon issue a “tomos” [decree] of autocephaly [self-rule] for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, thereby purporting to rip it out from the Russian Orthodox Church, of which the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has not asked for autocephaly, is an autonomous part.)
Especially for a government like that of the United States, which claims to have no particular religious agenda, respecting the internal canonical integrity of the Orthodox Church as a spiritual community was the only correct position.
But it didn’t last long.
Kozak’s declaration must now be considered inoperative. On September 25, the noted theologian Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokesperson, issued the following statement:
September 25, 2018
The United States strongly supports religious freedom, including the freedom of members of groups to govern their religion according to their beliefs and practice their faiths freely without government interference. The United States respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs. We respect the Ecumenical Patriarch as a voice of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
The United States maintains unwavering support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Crimea. We also support Ukraine as it charts its own path and makes its own decisions and associations, free of external interference. [emphasis added]
No doubt drafted not by Nauert herself but by someone in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR) the press statement avoids directly calling for autocephaly while unmistakably giving the impression of such endorsement, which is exactly how it was reported in the media, for example, “US backs Ukrainian Church bid for autocephaly.” The State Department’s praise for the Ecumenical Patriarchate reinforces that clearly intended impression.
Thus, the State Department must now be considered a party to triggering violent religious strife that will soon grip Ukraine and cause a split in the Orthodox world rivaling even the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism that took place in 1054. (Unlike the US, the Vatican commendably has maintained a principled position of non-interference. The Papal Nuncio in Kiev even issued a statement answering Ukrainian government spin that falsely claimed the support for autocephaly: “In order to partially correct the news given by official Government sources with regard to the meeting that took place yesterday… the Apostolic Nunciature in Ukraine wishes to once again state the position of the Holy See in the question of the creation of one Local Ukrainian Orthodox Church, namely that this is an internal question of the Orthodox Church, on which the Holy See never did and has no intention whatsoever of expressing any evaluation, in any venue.”)
No doubt the official US imprimatur will be taken both by Kiev and the Phanar (the district in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate is located) as a green light to press forward with the impending schism. That in turn will inevitability lead to violence – which of course will be blamed exclusively on Ukrainians loyal to the canonical Church and on Russia.
The game plan for such seizures was laid out by false “Patriarch Filaret” Denysenko last week in Washington, in his remarks to the Atlantic Council. He specified that following expected recognition of autocephaly by Constantinople (which uncanonically claims such authority) members of Ukrainian parishes can choose which jurisdiction to adhere to by a two-thirds vote. This opens the door to packing the putative membership in a parish by people who have no connection to it and who might not even be Orthodox believers, who will then “democratically” outvote the genuine parishioners. As for monastic establishments, that’s simple according to Denysenko: the Ukrainian government will grab them. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has already begun compiling an inventory of properties belonging to the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church in preparation for their forcible seizure by state authorities, to be turned over the Denysenkoite schismatics.
One should not suppose that the Nauert statement means the US government or the State Department has taken a sudden interest in theology and ecclesiology. Rather, it is a new twist in what always must be kept in mind (and certainly officials in Kiev never forget): that nobody in Washington really cares much about Ukraine or Ukrainians per se. They matter only to the extent to which US officials believe that keeping Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit means preventing Moscow from regaining superpower status.
To that end, pulling Ukraine firmly in to the western camp of NATO (the 2008 Bucharest declaration that Ukraine, along with Georgia, will become a member has never been rescinded) and the European Union presents Russia with an insoluble security vulnerability. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko repeated insists Ukraine will become a “full member of NATO and of the European Union.”
Hence, Poroshenko’s drive for autocephaly has exactly zero to do with spiritual values and everything to do with slamming Russia: “We will have an independent Ukrainian church as part of an independent Ukraine. This will create a spiritual independence from Russia.” His rival for the presidency, front-runner and former prime minister, Yulia Tymochenko supports it for the same reason. If that results in bloodshed, well, too bad...
The State Department’s decision to become involved in a religious matter that does not concern the US is likewise narrowly political and reflects the schizophrenia in the Trump administration concerning Russia. Trump’s 2016 declarations that he wanted to improve ties with Moscow terrified the post-Maidan leadership in Kiev, who were overtly in Hillary’s camp. When Trump unexpectedly won, they were afraid he would make a deal with Moscow over their heads.
However, with the moving into political positions of influence strongly anti-Russian figures, many of them Bush retreads and even some with “Never Trump” credentials, Ukrainian officials have good reason to feel that that danger has largely been averted. With hostility toward Russia seemingly permanent and deepening, they believe they have Washington back where they want them.
Viewed through that lens, egging on religious dissension is just another item in the toolkit.