A Somewhat Slanted Look at the History of the Christian Church

By: Dr. T. Y. Hiter

19 October, 2018

Within the past few months, something HUGE has happened in terms of Church History.  “Church”, in this case, is used to mean “the whole body of Christ”, and “History” is used in its popular, non-academic meaning.  It is most likely that few, if any of the readers of this column even noticed, but that may be in large part because very little in the way of popular media coverage was brought to bear on the story.  It is a bit esoteric.

What happened occurred in the Eastern Orthodox Church, when the Russian Orthodox declared itself not in Communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch, in Constantinople.  What?  You didn’t know Constantinople still existed?  Well, it does not, by that name, but if you look up a city called that in the Turkish language, you’ll find it—it’s called “Istanbul”, now.  And “Ecumenical Patriarch” is what the Orthodox, or “eastern” Churches call their Patriarch—their “Pope”.  But we have to go even further back than the Turks changing the pronunciation of the name of “New Rome”. And the issue that currently divides the Russians and the Greeks goes all the way back to 988 AD-over a thousand years!

The issue is the proper “chain of command” of the Ukrainian Church.  So, how did the Ukraine get involved?  Therein lies a fascinating story.

The Rus were a tribe of Vikings who sailed up several rivers to found a settlement called Kiev, in what’s now the Ukraine.  The Rus were often hired as mercenaries by the Emperors of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, empire, and they enjoyed a special trading relationship with the Byzantines, as well.  Kiev was a convenient halfway point between Scandinavia and Constantinople.  In 988, the Patriarch of Constantinople sent a mission to Kiev, and founded a Church there.  In time that Church grew to be deserving of self-supporting status, and was granted such by the Ecumenical Patriarch.  He did this in the same year that Rome and Constantinople split in the Great Schism: 1054.  The Rus, or the people that the Rus became, and who later called themselves Russians, moved away from Kiev and eventually established themselves in Muscovy, which we now call Moscow.  They took their Church with them.  The Russians and the Ukrainians quarreled over who was in fact in charge until 1685, when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a subdivision of the Russian Orthodox Church was formed.  Some elements of the Ukrainian Church continued to insist they were the real Russian Church, and continued to petition the Patriarch for separate status.  So, last month, the Ecumenical Patriarch finally did what he apparently thought was a compromise.  He granted the Ukrainian Church “autocephaly”—that is, self-governing authority.  The Russians, who were themselves granted such status in 1054, got terribly mad, and severed their relationship with Istanbul..

Can it possibly be that simple?  Yes, it evidently can.  There are other autocephalous Churches, and there are even some that have been waiting for a very long time to be granted that status, but the Russians very much want Ukraine to be part of their body, and so they separated from Constantinople over it.  Just last month!