Moscow-Constantinople split highlighting Estonia's role in Orthodox church

Tartu's Uspenski Cathedral, consecrated in 1783. Image is illustrative
Tartu's Uspenski Cathedral, consecrated in 1783. Image is illustrative Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Triggered by a dispute on religious authority over Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church broke off all ties with Constantinople on Monday, 15 October. This step potentially marks one of the biggest ruptures in Christian history.

The Patriarch of Moscow heads the largest Orthodox church in the world, while the Patriarch of Constantinople has traditionally served as the universal leader of Orthodox Christians. This dramatic move, however, has also brought attention to Orthodoxy in Estonia. The two patriarchates clashed in Estonia before, shortly after it had regained independence. Constantinople's two leading representatives in Estonia have also become important voices in the public debate over this new schism.

Orthodox Christianity is the second biggest religious confession in Estonia, numbering about 180,000 believers. While united in faith, Orthodox Christians in Estonia have a divided religious leadership, roughly running along ethnic lines.

Constantinople and Moscow have run parallel Orthodox jurisdictions. Approximately 150,000 Estonians (mostly ethnic Russians) follow Moscow in the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (EOC-MP). About 27,000-30,000 believers (mostly ethnic Estonians) look to Constantinople for guidance in the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (Constantinople Patriarchate) (EAOC). Constantinople and Moscow also have rival head bishops, each claiming to be metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia: Metropolitan Stephanos for Constantinople, and recently installed Metropolitan Yevgeny for Moscow.

Estonian precedent for Ukrainian crisis

Rivalry in Estonia between Orthodoxy's two most prominent patriarchates in the 1990s created a precedent for the current schism over Ukraine. After Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Republic of Estonia registered the Estonian Orthodox Church in Exile, a rival to Moscow's bishop in Tallinn, as the legal successor to the pre-World War II Estonian Orthodox Church.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople then recognised this church as part of its own jurisdiction. In response, then-Patriarch of Moscow Alexei II (himself born in Estonia) removed all mention of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople, from church services. This was the first official break between the two patriarchates.

The 1996 schism over Estonia lasted for only three months. This has raised hope in some quarters that the new schism might also be short. According to a source at the Constantinople-affiliated Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Moscow will likely back down, just as it did over Estonia. On the other hand, Father Toomas Hirvoja of the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate fears that this new divide will last longer.

Estonia's place in the global debate

Constantinople's two leading representatives in Estonia have entered the global controversy on this new schism. Bishop Makarios of Griniezakis is Constantinople's vicar for Estonia. He also serves as dean of seminary studies for Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church clergy in Tallinn. Makarios has authored one of Constantinople's chief position papers on Ukraine. He has also made statements in the Ukrainian and Russian media.

Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn published an essay defending Constantinople's position in the Estonian conservative Christian publication Meie Kirik (Our Church) on 9 October. Its English translation has gone viral on social media, with Orthodox around the world taking different sides on it.

Domestic impact in Estonia

Even though the schism over Ukraine highlights Estonian Orthodoxy's global profile, it will have little impact on Orthodox believers in Estonia. 'Since 1990's there are very few relations anyway,' says a source in the Constantinople Patriarchate church in Estonia.

According to Father Hirvoja, some Moscow Patriarchate members will no longer be able to go to Constantinople churches for occasional visits. The schism has no effect on attending funerals. Members of the Constantinople Patriarchate church will still be able to receive sacraments at Moscow Patriarchate churches.

At the social level, relations between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians will remain the same. As Father Hirvoja says, 'Estonian society is already very divided on the very national side, so that integration is almost non-existent, and this new church does not change the big thing.'

'I think that mainly because of the schism in the Estonian Orthodox church that happened in 1993, Estonian society is very divided anyway especially at the national level. Integration is hardly happening, and this thing with the new schism won't change much.'

Jason Van Boom is an American educator and consultant who has lived in Estonia for over five years. He is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Tartu.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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