The recent break of communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the “Estonian issue” may seem to many, both inside and outside the Orthodox Church, like a momentary tiff between two brothers over a seemingly insignificant issue. There is more to this unseemly altercation than meets the eye. . . .
This spat between Moscow and Constantinople illustrates a basic ecclesiological problem which has not been adequately dealt with in the Orthodox world for over nine hundred years – the question of communion and an effective universal primacy. The Byzantine imperial government, the Turkish empire, and Communist political power successively and largely successfully kept the lid on the problem. They ensured, ironically, that on the surface peace within the Orthodox world was somehow maintained, while local Churches simultaneously became more and more national and/or ethnic in character. The emergence of political nationalism and the various wars of independence in the nineteenth century only exacerbated the underlying problem.
The situation created by the schism with the See of Rome in the eleventh century left the Orthodox East without an adequate ecclesiological and theological basis for dealing with the immense problem of how to ensure the unity and communion of the local Churches without the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome.
Now the Byzantine emperors, Turkish sultans, and Communist politburos are gone. Our Orthodox Churches are free. We are faced squarely with a problem hidden for centuries-how can we, the various local Churches, live, act, and think like the Church, which we claim that we are, rather than like, as Vladimir Soloviev said, a mere conglomerate of national Churches, formally constituting a single communion, but characterized by discord, hostility, jealousy, and hatred?
On the day when the Russian and Greek Churches formally break communion with each other, Soloviev argued, it will be seen that the “Oecumenical Eastern Church is a mere fiction and that there exists in the East nothing but isolated national Churches”!
The present tiff between Constantinople and Moscow might well compel one to take more seriously the logic of Soloviev’s argument. Perhaps even more compelling, however, is the realization of both the need, and the freedom we now have, to face directly the problem created by the Schism of 1054 . . . .
Perhaps now is the time, the kairos, to do something which is simultaneously terribly radical and terribly conservative -to call on the Bishop of Rome to act as arbiter in this squabble between Moscow and Constantinople. Perhaps now is the time to recognize the folly and foolishness of our ecclesiastical structure which has produced national Churches which seem interminably locked into their own self-interest and which often lack any discernible catholic spirit and mind. Perhaps now is the time to look deeply at our need for the Petrine ministry, which was so profoundly recognized by Eastern saints such as Theodore the Studite and Maximus the Confessor and which we still sing about in our liturgical celebrations (e.g., texts for the commemoration of St. Gregory the Great).
Perhaps this tiff between Moscow and Constantinople is the God-given occasion to reconsider all the polemical argumentation that we have used to justify and to maintain the Schism of 1054. Perhaps now is the time to realize that where all of us – on all sides of the disputes – have stood and continue to stand is not entirely on the fullness of catholic truth.
Perhaps now is the time to fall down on our knees and mutually ask forgiveness of each other – Romans, Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, Muscovites, Constantinopolitans, “converts,” all of us! And maybe when we rise up again we will find ourselves at a most peculiar place – at the same Eucharistic Chalice.
– Father Chrysostom Frank (This Rock, January 1996)*