The patriarchs go pummelling

WHEN it comes to having a good old-fashioned argument, nobody goes for it in quite the style of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Concealed behind a frieze of ornate language redolent of their incense- filled churches, the two grand patriarchs of the Orthodox world are pummelling each other in one of their biggest spats for more than 1,000 years.

Moscow, and by implication the biggest body of faithful among the 250- 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, has unilaterally split with the ecumenical patriarchate in old Constantinople, now known by its Turkish name of Istanbul.

Superficially, the row is over the way the 100,000-strong ethnic Estonian church broke for freedom from the Russians, with support from Istanbul. But at heart this is also struggle for power between patriarchs Bartholomew I and Alexy II, the heirs of Byzantium and of Muscovy respectively, and between the second Rome that is old Constantinople and an aspirant third Rome in Moscow.

"We hope to solve this by dialogue. We feel there has been a break in the ice," said a spokesman for the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, still based in a sanctuary on the Golden Horn.

The Constantinople Patriarchate said it was particularly worried that an attempt was being made to present the church as either Greek or Slavonic, a split which, it said, "would prove most disastrous for Orthodoxy".

Bartholomew I added that if he did not take the Estonian Church into his arms, the Estonians might go over to "other Christian Churches". The hint referred to the ever-eager recruiter in Rome, Pope John Paul II, with whose Catholic Church the more traditional Greek Orthodox split in 1054.

The latest round of arguments started on 20 February when Constantinople issued a sacred codex giving ethnic Estonians back the right to have their own church. This was to be under the "spiritual protection of ... the Most Holy Church of Constantinople".

The church supported its case with colourfully-worded arguments, referring to precedents dating back to the 5th century Council of Chalcedon. But the cold kernel of the case was clear. Stalin had annexed Estonia and its church in the 1940s. The clergy had fled and kept the flame of the independent Estonian church alive in Sweden. Estonia was now free and it rightly wanted its old church back.

All the talk of a "tender Mother" and precedents set by "ever-memorable" former patriarchs did little, however, to smooth the ruffled feathers of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia - himself a Russian-speaking Estonian.

On 23 February, Alexy dropped Bartholomew's name from the Divine Liturgy for the first time in the 1008-year-long history of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Moscow patriarch issued a statement regretting the "invasion into the territory of another Local Orthodox Church " as shattering of the ages-long Orthodox unity ... the consequences of which are difficult to imagine."

Alexy II then sent a telegram breaking with the Finnish Orthodox church, since Bartholomew of Constantinople had appointed Archbishop John of Karelia and all Finland as "Locum Tenens" of the restored Estonian church.

Bartholomew retaliated with an "exuberant greeting" from "our Modesty" to his "most beloved and dear brother in Christ God and concelebrant". But the message suggested that Alexy was allowing his Estonian background to overrule his common sense. "We justify Your personal opposition, Beatitude and brother, on this issue, as being due to Your emotional bond with Your own homeland of Estonia," Bartholomew said, while subtly critisising Alexy's demotion of Constantinople from "Mother" to the status of "Elder Sister" church.

"The Ecumenical Church can never forget that from it the great race of the Russians received the light of Christ and saving baptism," said Bartholomew, whose ambition is to re-unite the oriental Orthodox in one communion. "The Mother never stops loving her children, even when the children deny the Mother."