May 22nd, 2019
Victoria College, University of Toronto
Interview with Vlad Naumescu
Joseph Youssef: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! I’ll begin with a question about your thoughts about the “Great Council” and the debates there around the idea of canonicity and territory, which I hope will eventually bring us to the Ukrainian-Russian debate and controversy that is happening.
Vlad Naumescu: You’re talking about the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete. We had, I think, a kind of an attempt of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, to reaffirm his authority and bring all the churches together to make some decisions. There’s been a lot of transformations during the past 20-30 years in the Orthodox world but few attempts to sort them out, especially regarding the self-proclaimed sovereignty of some churches, changes to territory and jurisdiction, and deterritorialization of Orthodoxy. So the council was supposed to sort out these kind-of political issues, or let’s say, theologico-political issues. And then, the Russian Orthodox Church decided not to participate, and a few other churches that are usually aligned [with Russia] like the Bulgarian Orthodox Church followed suit. This undermined the whole enterprise, because the idea of the “ecumenicity” of the council is based on the participation of all Orthodox churches. So they couldn’t really make decisions, because the Moscow Patriarchate is also one of the most powerful actors in Orthodox Christianity.
This meant that all these issues were to be resolved on a case-by-case basis. So, the idea, for example, that all diaspora Orthodox communities outside the canonical territory of their national churches come automatically under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate… This was a point of contention and remains [so] today; it’s something that came out now with the Moscow-Constantinople ‘schism’ and the recognition of the Ukrainian [Church’s] autocephaly on January 5th, 2019. There is on the one hand, the question of “who belongs to which patriarchate?” and “which patriarchate has authority over which local church?”, and there’s Moscow’s challenge to the symbolic authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Joseph Youssef: Yeah, that’s great. And that I think that’s a perfect way to think about the Orthodox Church in general. There’s a kind of a paradox of sovereignty, between Orthodoxy and territorialization and de-territorialization. Can you speak a little bit more to that?
Vlad Naumescu: The authority of both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow is inherited [in fact] from a different political organization than the more recent arrangement of Orthodox churches tied to the nation-state and its territory. Their sovereignty has imperial roots, in the Byzantine Empire, and in in the Russian Empire respectively. They maintained this position in the modern world that, at least for Eastern Orthodoxy, was configured in the 19th century in terms of nation states and national churches. So there’s an imperial logic with a vocation for domination, and a territorially-inscribed national logic that contradict each other within this configuration. Their fight for power within the Orthodox world reflects the different kinds of sovereignty, which is the draw. This also gives the two patriarchates the historical right to claim authority over certain territories and declare other churches that have claimed sovereignty for themselves, like the national churches in Ukraine, “uncanonical,” once they tried to step outside their authority and jurisdiction.
Joseph Youssef: So, the idea that the paradox of sovereignty; where, say, in the Ukrainian example, the church is recognized as autocephalous. But at the same time, when you look at state sovereignty, there’s a meshing and there’s a crossing of those boundaries, especially with the Russian state in particular.
Vlad Naumescu: So, it’s useful to consider (because we connect sovereignty to political formations) that modern political institutions still draw their ‘sacred’ power from the enmeshment of the political and the religious. This is the case of nation states, of these Orthodox nations in Europe …like Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, where there’s kind of an assumption that the nation-state needs, and should have, an autonomous church; a national church. The processes of gaining autocephaly lasted for years in these cases, until actually being granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But their recognition was first guaranteed by the state. And obviously, I mean, you have a lot of historical changes in the past 150 years, but the state-church connection remains very strong until this day.
The states have changed, right, and the churches with them, especially while going through the whole communist experience…. So, in some cases even these theologico-political configurations are not clear anymore. This is the case with Ukraine, which became independent recently, but has for a long period of time been split and separated and has seen different ideas about independence, nationhood, and very different allegiances to secular and religious authorities.
So, you have on the one hand [for the national churches], the modern idea of national sovereignty (autocephaly), and [on the other] you have an inherited theopolitical order that challenges this more recent territorialization of Orthodoxy and it also goes beyond secular authorities and nation-states. Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchates draw on this order, so they can easily ignore the other arrangements when convenient. That’s why the Russian Orthodox Patriarch can so confidently affirm that he’s the Patriarch of ‘all Russia,’ which in their view includes most of the territories of the former Russian Empire and the former Soviet Union, which are now part of various independent nation-states that have their own Orthodox churches or other faiths.
Joseph Youssef: You sort of hinted at this in the beginning about your paper that’s coming out on the schism between Moscow and Constantinople.[i] In the introduction to that paper, you talk about the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris (France), whose community stresses that “we are in full communion with the whole Orthodox Church….” thus going against Moscow’s move to break communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So, this begs the question of the role of diaspora. When I say “diaspora” here, I mean, outside of Russia, outside of the jurisdiction of Constantinople. What is the role of diaspora in theopolitics? And this raises two [other] questions: What is the role of their aspirations to politics? And can the diaspora play a role in fixing these messages? Or is it just a continuation of messiness that keeps happening?
Vlad Naumescu: Yeah, it’s a very nice question, actually. So, the article you reference is co-written with Jeanne Kormina, who is a Russian anthropologist, and we tried to balance the Ukrainian and the Russian perspectives, how differently they see things in this conflict (see Kormina and Naumescu 2020 HYPERLINK: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8322.12551). That phrase is from a poster at the entrance to this cathedral that Jeanne visited while being in Paris for a fellowship. The schism happened in October 2018, when the Russian Orthodox Patriarch broke communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate because it decided to recognize Ukrainian autocephaly. We started with this example from the diaspora because we wanted to take distance from the war in Ukraine, the war between Ukraine and Russia, and place the whole story – of the schism and its ensuing conflicts for territory, for jurisdiction, and issues of sovereignty – into a broader context. So, [we wanted] to step back and look from somewhere outside [the conflict]. And this was a very meaningful entry point, because the Russian Orthodox communities in France are new communities, diasporic communities – relatively new, because these people left Russia after the Russian Revolution. And these communities specifically rejected the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia because of its collaboration with the Soviet state during the Soviet times. So, they took advantage of the fact that they were outside the Russian jurisdiction and asked the Ecumenical Patriarch to give his blessing and take them under his jurisdiction. It’s a unique case because it has a unique history, but at the same time, it tells a lot about the current de-territorialization of Orthodoxy and how old concepts like canonical territory are challenged since ‘mother churches’ do not [know how] to manage these [diasporic] communities and have to adapt to that.
So, only for this particular case, for example, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church have disputed the question of jurisdiction, of who has authority over the diasporic Russian Orthodox communities since the 1920s, and the problem is not yet solved. The same with the Russian Orthodox Church in in the US, which has a similar story of developing as an independent ecclesiastical community and navigating afterwards between different church jurisdictions to maintain its autonomy. This is the dilemma of diasporic communities in an Orthodox world bounded by territorial jurisdictions: can they live separately from their ‘mother churches’ and preserve their own sovereignty? Or should they be forced into one of the existing [canonical] structures and ecclesiastical institutions?
And that’s why the story of the Paris church and the Russian Orthodox exarchate in Western Europe was interesting for us because the Ecumenical Patriarchate stepped back in 2019 in response to the schism by the Russian Orthodox Church, and said, ‘Well, maybe we don’t want to have an autonomous Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe, that might be taken over by the Moscow Patriarchate.’ In this conflict, it’s better to try to eliminate all forms of potential rebellion or mobilization [they thought]. Meanwhile the Russian Orthodox Church laid claims to Russian diasporic communities by changing the meaning of canonical territory from a geographical, geopolitical space like the nation state, or even the Empire, to more of a cultural, national belonging, so to say. This is the kind of argument Russia put forth, for example, when referring to the occupation of Crimea: ‘Oh, these are our people, they are Russian so we have a responsibility [towards them].’ So, the church said the same thing about these Russian Orthodox communities [in the diaspora], ‘Oh, we are responsible for them. So, we should take them under our jurisdiction, we should protect them.’
And so, there was a very quick set of responses, right? There’s a schism, the unilateral breaking [of] communion of Moscow patriarchate, so the Ecumenical Patriarch decides to close the Exarchate and put all these communities of Russian Orthodox believers in Western Europe under the authority of national churches to break this diasporic community completely apart. Nobody asked them however, and there is a question whether, you know, they deserve to have their own community or not. At the same time, the Moscow Patriarchate established a new Exarchate for Western Europe and told them, ‘you’re welcome to join us.’ So there’s really a political game played here that doesn’t take into account the aspirations of these diasporic communities. And they couldn’t decide because they didn’t want to [get caught up in these] political questions. Yet, as Orthodox Christians, you kind of have to, and feel compelled to belong to and be within a spiritual tradition that assures the legitimacy and continuity of your faith, right? So, you would want to belong somewhere.
But the question where to belong to becomes such a political question that it’s very hard to actually make a choice like that. And maybe they shouldn’t make a choice. Historically, for example, there were Orthodox communities like the Russian Old Believers, who broke away from the Church after 17th century reforms and refused completely the imperial and ecclesiastical authority. They said, ‘we do not actually need any authority over our head except for God. We have everything we need to be true Christians. There’s no need for all these earthly structures above us.’ That’s a very radical move, maybe too radical for the ordinary Orthodox Christian. But it’s been a response that persisted, a response that has also been justified, let’s say, theologically, by the theopolitical concept of ‘communion’ which traverses mystical-individual, communal and ecclesiastical levels from the Eucharistic communion with God to the community of faithful that makes the local church and up to the fellowship of Orthodox churches. It justifies claims for sovereignty and belonging – what churches call ‘the breaking or making communion’ – but can also give scope for divinely sanctioned action that goes beyond church institutions and jurisdictional boundaries as we discuss in the article. It’s part of the institutional dynamics of Orthodoxy.
Joseph Youssef: Do you think that the schism could be healed through the diaspora? Or is it further complicated?
Vlad Naumescu: I don’t know [about the healing]. [Let’s] go back to the Ukrainian case for a moment. What happened in Ukraine is that during the Soviet times, there was one Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was under the Moscow Patriarchate, like all the other Orthodox Churches in the Soviet Union. And that Church was, in a sense, autonomous, but it was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. So, in the wake of Ukrainian independence, the Ukrainian Orthodox diaspora (which has been anti-communist, anti-Russian and nationalist) in North America sponsored and weighed in on the authority of its own diasporic Patriarch to create an independent Orthodox church in Ukraine. So, the first autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox church appeared in 1990 under the authority of a diaspora Patriarch, breaking away from the official Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchate.
Is this a healing, a way to restore an independent national church, as Ukrainians claim? Or is it a schism or breaking away with the legitimate authority, as the Russian Orthodox Church argues?
We have a similar situation today when two of the three Ukrainian Orthodox churches decided to unite in light of the promise of autocephaly. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) came together to create the Orthodox Church of Ukraine sponsored by the [Ukrainian] state while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) remained loyal to the Russian patriarch. So, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine became the national church while the other church was chastised for siding with the enemy, which, given the war in eastern Ukraine, basically made them enemies of the state. Yet this Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has a large base in Ukraine and it’s also a canonical church precisely because of its relationship with Moscow. All these churches are accusing each other of being uncanonical, un-Orthodox and deny their members access to the others, affecting local communities, parish life and people’s access to the sacred.
So, it’s a super unstable situation and I can’t see how they will come out of it. I cannot say if the Ukrainian diaspora in this case can help or not, because they are also invested in the national project and the making of a national church. For some Orthodox Christians, Ukrainian autocephaly is a ‘healing’, a return to the communion of churches; for others, it is a wound on the body of the [universal] church.
But let me go back to the issue of Orthodox diasporas. One interesting thing about the diaspora communities, and I don’t know about them quite well, but one thing is that some have already moved beyond the ‘national canonicity’ logic, because they are not bounded anymore by the state-church territoriality; but they’ve also entered into a kind of different religious landscape, especially in North America. This is a community-based, denominal rather than institutional model, and also very much independent of political structures. Their allegiances are more to their faithful than some distant hierarchy (with doesn’t stop the latter to claim authority over them).
But I guess you know more about this than me, maybe you can say more about that. So, I feel that the diasporic Orthodoxies can challenge the historical arrangements and the claims of authority of the institutionalized hierarchies, and this whole theopolitical ordering that shapes the Orthodox world. And they can ask for the reform of this order, of the idea of canonical territory for example, and claim more power for local communities, not least by grounding it in an ecclesiastic model based on communion. We gave a few examples of this [attitude] in our article, of Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine who criticize the politics their states and churches pursue based on a more mystical understanding of communion and community. ‘Look, you have to remember that breaking communion and creating a schism is something that goes against the Christian message, it also defies the fact that for us, Christ is the ultimate Sovereign, [that] we are all under One God’ they say. So, I think the diasporas could sustain this kind of position, could argue for a community-based Christian life, and challenge the exercise of power and authority that threatens it.
Joseph Youssef: My last question is about the role of charismatic figures and holy men in all these debates. What’s your take on that? What role do they have? Have they had a role in this? Whether monks on Athos, or in Russia or Ukraine, wherever it might be? Where’s the holy man in this debate?
Vlad Naumescu: It’s nice that we’ve been talking about the Orthodox Patriarchs for a long time now, and you’re still asking ‘Where is the holy man?’ [laughs]
Joseph Youssef: Oh, well, you know what I am saying… [laughs]… in the sense of, you know, the different forms of authority monastics draw on, in comparison to priesthood?
Vlad Naumescu: I know [what you mean]. You know very well that the monastic and ecclesial institutions have interacted and were tightly connected in the history of Orthodoxy. This history of the church and of church tradition has monasticism at the center, especially not just of liturgical life, but of Orthodox spirituality and continuity as expressed in the idea of Orthodox tradition. All religious institutions were organized around territories [and] political structures, but Orthodox monasticism has always had a different position based on another mode of authority than church hierarchies. Even though church figures, like bishops or metropolitans come from a monastic context, I feel that they don’t necessarily bring with them a strong monastic ethos. Maybe also because Orthodoxy monasticism is not organized around specific orders that have an institution at the base, like in Catholicism where you have the Jesuits with a strong tradition, a very specific spiritual formation, and clearly defined political vision of what the Church on earth means. So for that reason, I feel that the two institutions remained somewhat parallel, even though they’ve recruited and collaborated with each other. But the church structures have always been wary of the power ‘holy men’ have, because that’s a different form of charisma than they have. I mean, it is institutionalized in the sense that it based in a monastic tradition, but it draws from very different sources and is less ‘corrupted’ by this world in the eyes of Orthodox Christians. So, monastics have a huge role in the spiritual life of people. And even more so in this part of the world, I think, where for many years, parish communities didn’t have much of a spiritual life during Soviet times. So monasteries played a very important role, and continue to play an important role with Orthodox spiritual revivals and lay people cultivating more mystical forms of devotion in conversation with monastic traditions, rather than parish life. The new urban ascetics, for example, look at the staretz [spiritual monastic elder] to help them cultivate a relationship with God that is mediated by monastic exemplars rather than by church structures.
But I can also see how people can be mobilized politically this way. In the history of Orthodoxy, you have people, like holy men who managed to mobilize large masses. I have in mind for example, the Second World War in Romania with the ‘Iron Guard’; the Romanian fascist movement that recruited such figures, placing Orthodoxy at the core of its nationalist discourse. But unless there’s such a specific political project, I don’t see how monastics can mobilize people in such radical manner. It didn’t happen in Ukraine where, despite the growing nationalism fueled by the war, monasteries remained somewhat independent from church and state politics and continue to cater to people of all churches. You have very famous monasteries that remain under the Moscow Patriarchate till this day, and everybody goes to them, irrespective of their belonging or political affiliation. So, they remain spaces of communion and community despite everything.
Joseph Youssef: And deterritorialization as well.
Vlad Naumescu: Yeah, I think so. I mean, there is no serious analysis of this phenomenon, but monasteries seem to escape the territorial logic that states and churches pursue; spaces of inclusion more than exclusion. They do have a fantastic power, because they have an authoritative voice in spiritual matters and [in this way] touch on people’s lives directly. This matters more to people in Ukraine, who are not really [followers of] institutional churches. And so, they don’t like Churches and church hierarchies, [but] they still have a sense that they are Orthodox Christians, and that they should have a say, when it comes to their faith. So here monasteries with their authoritative voice and moral ascendency over state and church could make a difference.
Now, what do you think?
Joseph Youssef: Yeah, I totally agree. I think in terms of monasteries, in particular, as deterritorialized spaces, is a very interesting one, because, at least in the wider Orthodox Church, like you said, they are institutional, but they also represent a kind of higher authority. Dare I say, parallel to the church hierarchy?
Vlad Naumescu: Precisely.
Joseph Youssef: But their authority is in the authority of the mobilization of the people, I think, more than the institution. For sure.
Vlad Naumescu: That’s what the church institutions are afraid of in fact. In Ukraine, one of the problems of these Orthodox churches is that they do not have a hold over the people on the ground. Their patriarchs or bishops cannot make the decision to go with Moscow or Constantinople so easily, since they do not know how many people and communities will follow them. So while the monks could potentially mobilize people indifferent of their belonging, churches don’t have a strong influence on the ground. It’s somewhat ironic, but it’s the outcome of the ‘church-state model’ Orthodox churches embraced, which imagines the nation and the religious community as one. Pastoral care, reaching out and working at the parish level – ‘counting your sheep,’ as one could say – never mattered that much to them, precisely because they lived with this idea of one nation, one faith reinforced by their relationship to the state. And that becomes a problem today, as the old arrangements are challenged by religious pluralization, deterritorialization and secularity.
Joseph Youssef: Thank you very much. For your time and your insights. We look forward to reading the article in its entirety. Thanks for doing this.
Vlad Naumescu: You’re welcome, Thank you so much.
[i] Kormina, Jeanne & Vlad Naumescu (2020). “A new ‘Great Schism’? Theopolitics of communion and canonical territory in the Orthodox Church.” Anthropology Today 36 (1). Pp. 7-11. HYPERLINK: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8322.12551