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Seismic change in Moscow Patriarchate

9th June 2022

Frederick Lauritzen

The Russian Orthodox church depends on stability in the Kremlin and therefore is an accurate thermometer about the situation in Ukraine as seen from Moscow.

Not only had Moscow changed the church’s jurisdiction in Crimea, Hilarion Alfeyev, metropolitan of Volokolamsk, and head of the Foreign Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate has been removed from this position on June 7 and sent to Hungary as new metropolitan of Budapest. Thus, Viktor Orban, the president of Hungary, has effectively placed himself at the centre of future negotiations between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.


Leaving Hungary aside, this decision is seismic. Alfeyev had held the top diplomatic office at the Moscow Patriarchate since 2009. In addition to his dismissal, on June 7 the synod of the patriarchate voted a number of significant decisions:

  • The establishment of the position of ‘archpriest / protopresbyter’ of the military and naval clergy which existed before 1918. The head of it will be Oleg Ovcharov (former Rector of Yaroslav Theological Seminary).  

  • Anthony of Korsun, a close collaborator of Patriarch Kirill, and well acquainted with Italy since he looked after Russian church buildings in Italy, is now head of Foreign Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

  • The diocese of Crimea become directly dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate.

Another major decision is the canonical change of Crimea to being dependent on Moscow. In 2011 Patriarch Kirill (when Hilarion was head of Foreign Affairs) refused to include the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the jurisdiction of Moscow and therefore retained the traditional canonical jurisdiction.

The change of Crimea is therefore significant. Combined with the creation of an archpriest for the naval forces, it seems that the Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea is requesting more attention. It is also significant that no other changes are made in Russian occupied Ukraine.

The resolution, however, indicates that the Orthodox in Ukraine are not commemorating Kirill during the services. This means that canon 15 of the Synod of Constantinople of 861 plays a role, since it refers to the situation in which a priest does not commemorate a schismatic patriarch or bishop. In other words, not praying for Kirill means that there is a division de facto, but not yet de iure. Chaos.

Indeed, the Moscow Patriarchate has put a trusted person as head of foreign affairs. There are two possible reasons: Kirill no longer trusts Hilarion, who has condemned the war in Ukraine (in general terms) together with all other Orthodox churches at the World Council of Churches on May 17, 2022. He was removed shortly after that. Another option is that he will use Hilarion as resident in Budapest to establish a direct channel between the Vatican and Moscow via Budapest. That would explain why Orban refused to impose sanctions on Patriarch Kirill.
Both may be true. Hilarion may be aiming to succeed Kirill as patriarch of Moscow after the new order is established at the end of the war in Ukraine. Kirill has lost support within the Russian Orthodox Church and may simply be powerless.

Such speculation is a matter of dreams. The synod document points to problems of jurisdiction, problems with the opinion within the armed forces in Crimea (especially the Black Sea Fleet), and, more fundamentally, it may indicate the permanent loss of Moscow Parishes in Ukraine.

Moscow is calling for a reset of relations and help from this quagmire. Maybe the Kremlin feels the same. But isn’t too late?

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