It is sad to note that the chroniclers of ecclesial eristology — what Ephraim Radner termed “the study of hostility in its disordering forms and forces” (A Brutal Unity, 4-5) — continue to have new data for their study. Last spring, the April 16, 2014 issue of The Christian Century (CC), titled “A Time to Split?” documented the possibility of two new fractures in Protestant and Orthodox churches. In particular, the Russian Orthodox and United Methodist Churches were then and (to my knowledge) are still now each tottering on the verge of schism, albeit of different kinds and for different reasons. While the struggles of the UMC strike closer to home for most mainline Protestant Christians, the Ukrainian crisis presents a situation of greater moment, both in its own right and as a parable, with something to teach about the situation of Anglicanism in America. In what follows, I offer a few typological reflections.

Many, including myself, looked on with profound respect earlier this year when several Russian Orthodox monks from a monastery of the Kiev caves placed themselves between disgruntled Ukrainians and the government police in what appeared to be a peace protest, holding icons, thurible, and cross in frigid winter temperatures and allegedly calling on each side in the crisis to repent. The politics of these gestures, however, were inevitably more complicated than met the eye, especially now that President Yanukovych has been ousted and Putin has annexed Crimea. Some have likened this latter move on Putin’s part to “a game of chess with the West” (so NPR) and others, more provocatively, to “Hitler’s Anschluss of the Sudetenland” (so CC).

First, a disclaimer: my interest here is not in the politics (about which I’m ill-informed) so much as in the eristology, granted, however, that the two cannot be neatly separated. Ukraine’s political turmoil has had the predictable if lamentable effect of suggesting to some the emergence of an independent Ukrainian church, perhaps under the oversight of Constantinople. According to the CC article, The Ukranian Orthodox Church (the largest of Ukraine’s three orthodox churches) is currently overseen by the Moscow patriarchate, while the Russian Orthodox Church, now the largest Orthodox communion worldwide, itself has its roots in both Kiev and Crimea in the tenth century. Not even Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill, however, with his invocation of the ecclesiological ideal of an indivisible “Russky mir” (“Russian world”), has been able to quell Ukrainian calls for independence. A September 6, 2014 article in the New York Times by Andrew Higgins, entitled “Evidence Grows of Russian Orthodox Clergy’s Aiding Ukraine Rebels,” suggests that the links between the Russian church and pro-Russian cause are real.

Whatever the political reality, Putin’s totalitarian profile in the media alongside the NATO meeting in Wales and whispers of a new cold war would make it easy for Westerners, and particularly Americans, to side with a Ukrainian bid for ecclesial independence. Upon deeper reflection, however, dare we hope that the church could find a way to retain its bonds of affection and historically shared oversight precisely because of such political struggles? Such a wish is undoubtedly naïve given the intensely national roots of both churches.


It is the national dimension of the crisis which strikes me as presenting a curious analogue to the current divisions of the Episcopal Church in the United States. In this context, it seems most appropriate simply to pose a few questions. The following thoughts, then, are meant emphatically as non-partisan and apolitical, but rather as typological and eristological in kind.

First, I wonder if there are any similarities between Patriarch Kirill’s invocation of the ecclesiological neologism “Russky mir” and Rowan Williams’s championing of the “Anglican Communion,” which British and American progressives similarly hailed as un-Anglican innovation? Does the relationship between Russia and Ukraine mirror that between England and America, along historical, colonial, and political lines, that in any way helpfully illuminates the current eristological crisis of Anglicanism? Is there anything like a pure ecclesiology of the “Russky mir,” or is the idea inextricably embedded within the current global-political framework? In short, what is the “catholic” Ukrainian to do in such an instance?

Second, and on a more local scale: is Ukraine’s (potential?) secession from the Russian Orthodox Church typologically akin to the withdrawal of South Carolina from The Episcopal Church in 2012? Particularly suggestive, in this regard, is the fact that both Kiev and Charleston stand as the birthplaces of the broader provinces or churches from which they will have seceded. Admittedly, the analogy is imperfect in many ways, not least by the fact that the question of the metropolitan authority of the Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church is amongst the presenting issues. In both cases, however, bishops and priests in Charleston and Kiev have seemingly come up short in their search for Christian charity among their more powerful neighbors.

A final question, raised by this case study and (implicitly) by the CC editors: Is there ever really “a time to split”? Granted, ecclesia est semper reformanda; but does the Pauline assertion of the necessity of haireseis (1 Cor 11:19), framed here with an echo of Qohelet, justify fracturing of the kind we are witnessing, as a “wisdom among the perfect”? However we answer that question, the world will continue to watch as the church divides. Господи, помилуй (“Lord, have mercy”).

The image is a cropped version of Kiev monk hearing confession during protest” (2014) by Jim Forest and is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Michael Cover is associate professor of theology at Marquette University. A graduate of Harvard, Yale, and the University of Notre Dame, he was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Dallas in 2010, and has served in multiple parishes in Indiana and Wisconsin.

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