The Romanian Church, the Phanar and the autocephaly question

17 February 2023 16:50
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Did the Romanian Church suggest the Phanar give up some of its privileges? Photo: UOJ Did the Romanian Church suggest the Phanar give up some of its privileges? Photo: UOJ

The Romanian Synod said the new autocephaly must be approved by all Churches, which contradicts the "privileges" of the Phanar. How will the obvious conflict be solved?

In 2022, the Serbian Church granted autocephaly to the Macedonian Church. And today, the Romanian Church has put the issue of the procedure for granting autocephaly on the agenda of the entire Orthodoxy. Formally, for the Macedonian situation, but in fact, the Romanians stated that any autocephaly must be confirmed by all Local Churches.

On 13 February 2023, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church issued a statement calling on the Patriarchate of Constantinople to begin consultations regarding the bestowal of a "final" Tomos of autocephaly to the Macedonian Church.

In the view of the Macedonian Church itself, the "Macedonian question" traces its history back to the famous Archbishopric of Ohrid, which existed from the 11th to 18th centuries. From 1913, the episcopate in Ohrid belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church, and from 1915 to 1915 – to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. From 1915, it was part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, from 1919 – again the Serbian Orthodox Church, from 1941 – again the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and from 1945 until obtaining autocephaly it was part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In 1967, the Orthodox Church of the Republic of Macedonia unilaterally proclaimed autocephaly, which was not recognised by any Local Church. The Macedonian Schism began. Its fundamental difference from the Ukrainian schism is that Macedonian bishops had canonical ordinations. Several attempts were made to heal the Macedonian schism but to no avail.

Almost simultaneously with former Ukrainian President Poroshenko, representatives of Northern Macedonia were also negotiating in the Phanar for the recognition of the Macedonian schism. The Phanariotes made generally favourable statements for the Macedonians, but it went no further. On 16 May 2022, the Holy Synod of the Serbian Patriarchate declared the Macedonian Schism resolved and unity with the Macedonian Church was restored. At the same time, the Serbian Church declared the granting of autocephaly to the Macedonians in the very near future. You can read more about this in the articles: “Did Phanar Take the Path of Recognizing Macedonian Schismatics?" and "The Healing of the Macedonian Schism and the Ukrainian Situation".

On 5 June 2022, the Holy Synod of the Serbian Church approved the Tomos of autocephaly of the Macedonian Church, and on the feast day of Sts. Cyril and Methodius the Primate of the Serbian Church, Patriarch Porfirije, solemnly proclaimed the autocephaly at the Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid in Skopje.

This was followed by a succession of recognition of the Macedonian Church by the Local Churches:

  • On 25 August 2022 "The Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archdiocese of Ohrid" was recognized by the Russian Church;
  • 18 October 2022 – the Antiochian Church;
  • 25 October 2022 – the Polish Church;
  • 23 November 2022 – the Ukrainian Church;
  • 13 December 2022 – the Bulgarian Church;
  • 7 February 2023 – the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia;
  • 9 February 2023 – the Romanian Church;
  • 14 February 2023 – the Georgian Church.

It must be said that not all Local Churches recognised exactly autocephaly, some recognised the Macedonian Church as part of Orthodoxy, but skirted the status of autocephaly with silence.

What about the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the rest of the so-called Greek Churches? There is an interesting nuance here. In May 2022, when the representatives of the Serbian and Macedonian Churches had already reached the finish line in the matter of healing the Macedonian schism, the Phanar decided to be proactive and on May 9 announced that it "received the hierarchy, clergy and laity under Archbishop Stephen of this Church into the Eucharistic communion, thus healing the wound of the schism and pouring "oil and wine" upon the trials of our Orthodox brothers in the country".

At the same time, the Phanar forbade the Macedonian Church to call itself Macedonian (only Ohridian) and have parishes outside Northern Macedonia and "ceded" to the Serbian Church the right to settle "administrative matters" with the Macedonian Church. The Phanar seemed to have seized the initiative, actually recognizing autocephaly, and now Macedonians no longer needed to beg for autocephaly from the Serbs. But no. The next day, on 10 May 2022, the Synod of the Macedonian Church declared the resumed dialogue with the Serbian Church, which resulted in autocephaly according to the following scheme: first Macedonians returned to the Serbian Church and then received their autocephaly from the Serbian Patriarch.

It is true that on the very day, 5 June 2022, when the Synod of the Serbian Church decided on autocephaly, the Primate of the Macedonian Church, Metropolitan Stefan (Veljanovski), gave an interview in which he said: "The tradition fixed by the canons, by which only the Ecumenical Patriarchate issues the Tomos of autocephaly and the other Churches respectfully accept it, remains in force." What is this: an official position of acknowledging the supremacy of the Phanar in entire Orthodoxy, or a diplomatic curtsey designed to appease the Phanariotes?

As for the Greek Church, on 8 June 2022, it announced the restoration of liturgical communion but expressed "serious objections and reservations" about autocephaly. The reasons given were: disagreement with the name "Macedonian Orthodox Church", the existence of dioceses outside Northern Macedonia and the right of the Serbian Orthodox Church to grant autocephaly.

Position of the Romanian Church

Eventually, on February 13, 2023, the Romanian Church decided to raise the question of the "final" Tomos of autocephaly of the Macedonian Church before the Church of Constantinople. But does this mean that the Romanians consider the Tomos from the Serbian Church to be insufficient and believe that the "real" one should be granted by the Patriarchate of Constantinople? The statement of the Holy Synod of the Romanian Church gives no reason to think so. The text reads the following:

“The point of view of the Romanian Orthodox Church regarding autocephaly, which was also presented at the Meeting of the Preparatory Committee of the Holy and Great Council in Chambesy (2011), is as follows:

‘The Holy Synod of the mother Church is the canonical authority that can grant autocephaly to a daughter Church through a synodal tomos signed by the Primate of the mother Church together with all the bishops of that Holy Synod. The recognition of the new autocephaly belongs to the entire Orthodox Church, achieved through a tomos of recognition of autocephaly signed, without any distinction, by all the Primates of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, in the order of the Diptychs, within the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches.’

Given this information, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church respected the decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to receive into Eucharistic communion the hierarchs, clerics, monastics and believers pastored by Archbishop Stefan and to leave it to the Patriarchate of Serbia to regulate the administrative aspects between the two Churches.

After recognising the initial synodal tomos issued on June 5, 2022, by the Patriarchate of Serbia granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in the Republic of North Macedonia, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church expects the Ecumenical Patriarchate to initiate (consultations) and issue a final tomos of autocephaly to express a pan-Orthodox consensus on this topic of autocephaly recognition.”

That is, according to Romanians, the mechanism for granting autocephaly in general and the Macedonian Church in particular should be as follows:

  1. The Church, which includes the entity desiring autocephaly, (the mother Church) decides to grant it autocephaly (Tomos).
  2. The Patriarch of Constantinople initiates and organizes the process of autocephaly recognition by the Local Churches.
  3. The Primates of the Local Churches sign the "final" Tomos "without any distinction" between them to express a pan-Orthodox consensus on this topic of autocephaly recognition.

This algorithm shows that the constitutive document is the decision on autocephaly taken by the mother Church and not by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is merely the organiser of the process of autocephaly recognition.

This scheme was supposed to be adopted as binding at the 2016 Council of Crete, which was intended to be pan-Orthodox but did not become so in fact. However, the issue was not brought up for discussion because of the position of the Phanar, which insisted on its exclusive right to grant autocephaly to whomever, and that its Tomos is the constitutional document for the new Local Church.

Thus, the Romanian Church invites the Phanar to agree on the scheme prepared for the Council of Crete and create a precedent, which could become a binding rule for subsequent autocephaly in the future.

Questions and possible answers

Would the Phanar agree to this? Probably not, because this would deal a blow to its ambition to become the recognized head of the Orthodox world and to the claim that the Patriarch of Constantinople is the "first without equals" and has exclusive authority in Orthodoxy.

And here we should pay attention to one point: from the scheme of three steps to grant autocephaly, which is proposed by the Romanian Church, the second step, i.e. the Phanar’s initiation and organization of the process of autocephaly recognition, can be removed without affecting the entire scheme.

The process of recognising the autocephaly of the Macedonian Church, which has been granted to it by the Serbian Church, is already underway without any assistance from the Phanar.

The Local Churches decide on recognition. In fact, this will be the "final" Tomos, albeit not in the form of a formal document with the Primates’ signatures. Therefore, the Phanar, by rejecting the Romanian proposal, risks simply not being able to jump on the departing train. Autocephaly will be proclaimed, granted and recognized without its involvement, and there is nothing the Phanariotes can do about it.

What about the OCU?

Can the scheme proposed by the Romanians be applied to the Ukrainian Church question? Definitely not, because in the case of the Macedonian schism, the hierarchy of the Macedonian Church had canonical ordinations. In the case of the OCU almost all of their "hierarchs" were "ordained" by the excommunicated Filaret Denisenko, which was recognized by all Local Churches without exception. Therefore, in order to at least approach a solution to the Ukrainian church issue, it is necessary to "re-ordain" the "hierarchs" of the OCU, which both the OCU and the Phanar refuse to do.

Should we now look for options to resolve the crisis in which Orthodoxy finds itself?

The proposal of the Romanian Church looks like just such an attempt. The recognition of the autocephaly of the Macedonian Church may well become the issue on which the Local Churches will be able to come to an agreement, and this means that other controversial issues will be easier to solve.

The autocephaly question is not the key one right now?

At present, the most important challenge to Orthodoxy is not the disagreement over who should play the first fiddle in the autocephaly procedure, nor the breakdown of eucharistic communion between the individual Local Churches due to the recognition of the OCU by the Phanar, nor even the concelebration of Phanariotes and their supporters from other Churches with non-ordained persons, that is, with the "hierarchs" of the OCU.

The main challenge, in our opinion, is the prospect of unification with the Catholics, already clearly and unambiguously announced by the representatives of the Vatican and the Phanar and scheduled for 2025, the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council. In our opinion, it is necessary now to focus not on the search for compromises in the name of the unity of the Church, but on maintaining faithfulness to Orthodoxy itself, our doctrine, our dogmas, and the commandments of the Holy Fathers. We need to wait until 2025 and see what form the Orthodox Church will be in then: who will follow the Phanar and agree to the union with Rome, and who will consider this impossible for themselves and remain faithful to Orthodoxy, what relations will develop between these two parts of the present Orthodox Church. Without this, no decisions on the procedure of autocephaly, the healing of schisms and so on are possible. The compromise found today will be irrelevant the next day (in the light of the new union).

Again, in schematic terms, the steps to overcome the crisis for the Local Churches seem to be as follows:

  1. To be clear about the dangers of unification with Catholics.
  2. Decide for oneself whether or not to accept unification.
  3. To come out of the crisis with those who will remain faithful to Orthodoxy.

We can safely say that the Churches which remain faithful to Orthodoxy in the face of the new union will resolve all disputes among themselves very quickly.

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