The Russian Christian Orthodox church just chose told the head of the Eastern Orthodox faith to buzz off, in a move that will delight Vladimir Putin.
In a feat of spectacular petulance on Monday, the Russian Orthodox Church announced its split from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
It's a protest to the Constantinople patriarchate's authorization last week of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is independent of Russian Orthodox authority. While the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is clearly justified for reasons of theological and political value, the Russian Orthodox Church is furious at its loss of control. That's because under its current leader, Patriarch Kirill, the Russian church had used its authority over Ukraine for influencing purposes in favor of Vladimir Putin's imperialism. In that way, the Russian church has become that which it formerly resisted with great courage under the Soviet Union: authoritarianism motivated by ideological absolutism.
Still, the theological import of the Russian church's split — in essentially telling the "Orthodox pope" to take a hike — is a gross overstep. By deriding the presumptive leader of the Eastern Orthodox faith in response to its basic grant of free worship to Ukrainians, the Russian church suggests that it values politics before the faith. Announcing the decision, a Russian Orthodox cleric claimed that "No other decision could have been taken by our holy synod because the logic of all the actions taken recently by the Constantinople patriarchate led to this."
Yet that choice of language is inadvertently discrediting. After all, by criticizing the very logic of the patriarchate in Constantinople, the Russian church has shown its underlying arrogance. Again, the patriarchate only gave Ukraine independence because of the overwhelming evidence that the Russian Orthodox Church was acting against Ukrainian interests. It would be one thing if the patriarchate had imposed sanctions or special conditions on the Russian church per se, but it hasn't. It has simply recognized that the interests of the Orthodox faith were best served by putting that faith in the hands of religious leaders rather than Vladimir Putin.
Still, this again indicates Putin's determination toward rebuilding a Russian grand empire that dominates its neighbors.