Monty Python famously satirised the early Christian / Roman era in their film The Life of Brian. In it a small disparate group of well meaning, but frankly hopeless, individuals plotted the downfall of the Roman Empire. Calling themselves The Judean Popular People’s Front, the group despised a rival group called The Popular People’s Front of Judaea, even though their ideological beliefs were broadly the same.
The last 2000 years has seen several splits in the Orthodox religious tradition. Largely focused on local customs and identity, there’s Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Albanians, Armenians, Coptics, and more. Even the Roman Catholic Church is just a “communion” of disparate Christian groups governed from Rome. What all these churches have is a common sense of belief and faith, but an equally strong sense for identity.
So it’s hardly surprising to read in recent days on the BBC and elsewhere, about another split in the Orthodox Church. The Church’s Patriarch has allowed the Ukrainians to split from the Russian Orthodox tradition to form a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This even though most Orthodox churches in Ukraine are conservative by nature, and still align themselves with their Russian counterparts. However some don’t.
This split of course has more to do with the geopolitical tensions in the region. Ukraine has long been split between those who see themselves as European, and those looking towards the east and considering themselves Russian. Throw in Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and the continuing conflict along the Russia / Ukraine border, and this split is no surprise.
The dawn of the new church hasn’t exactly started smoothly. Some congregations have barred their priests from entering their church, because of their affiliation with one side or another. At face value this is strange, when you consider that the theology of the new Orthodox Church is exactly the same as their Russian counterpart. There maybe slight changes going forward, but these are likely to be cultural rather than theological. After all any theological change must be within the overarching beliefs of the Orthodox faith.
However in the wider political context, this is a huge change that divides opinion along Russian and Ukrainian lines. If you identify as Russian, the Ukrainian church is committing a mutiny. If you identify as Ukrainian, the Russian church is suppressing the identity of its flock.
This is another example of the complexities of everyday life in Ukraine. Russia sees it as an extension of their border. It still has a largely Russian population in the east, and the nearby Crimea peninsula has a naval base where the bulk of the Russian navy is based. Russia was never going to give that up easily. There’s also the largely forgotten conflict along the Russia / Ukraine border. The stalemate there isn’t widely reported, as the media has lost interest.
Whatever happens going forward, I hope that all sides remember that a religion mixed with politics is a toxic affair. It serves no useful purpose apart from helping the power brokers involved, and makes the lives of others in a much less safe place.