In the Orthodox world, two pieces of news are currently featured from the recent meeting of the assembly of bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate: the implementation of autocephaly for the Church in Ukraine, and a mechanism for widowed priests and those abandoned by their wives to marry a second time without leaving the priesthood. Here, I will explain why the autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church is newsworthy.
Let us begin with a practical definition: autocephaly is a technical term identifying a local Orthodox Church that is completely independent in conducting its affairs, and establishing and implementing the pastoral agenda for its life. Autocephaly is designed to honor the local nature of the Church. Church independence is not synonymous with isolation or sectarianism, but it simply means that one church is neither dependent on nor subservient to another. In this sense, independence invites interdependence, primarily through Eucharistic concelebration, but also when bishops cooperate with another in addressing pastoral issues. The borders of ecclesial autocephaly have evolved over the centuries, in alignment with churches dependent on strong metropolises, the borders of empires, and from the late nineteenth century up until now, with the nation-state. For example, the Bulgarian, Greek, and Serbian churches are autocephalous, in alignment with the emergence of the nation-state after the collapse of empires.
The church in Ukraine is a difficult case, and even harder to understand because of the informational war that results in confusion. Originally, the local Church of Kyiv (Kiev in Russian) was dependent on the Church of Constantinople. When the city-state of Kyiv fell under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Moscow grew into prominence and eventually became the center of the Russian Empire. The See of Moscow naturally became influential and the ecclesial epicenter of the Empire, whereas the See of Kyiv constituted a large Orthodox minority amidst a Catholic majority. When the Cossacks of Zaporizhia revolted against Polish oppression in 1648, they eventually entered into a treaty with Moscow in 1654 that was supposed to ensure sustaining the Orthodox faith for adherents of the Church in Kyiv. This treaty ultimately subjugated Ukrainians of Kyiv to Moscow: to be sure, many Ukrainians benefited from this new arrangement, especially when Ukrainians who had been educated in the West ascended to influential positions in both the state and the Church. Ultimately, tensions rose between Ukrainians and Russians, especially when their traditions collided or when Ukrainians expressed a desire for independence. In the Church, these tensions sometimes resulted in changes, such as when Catherine the Great ordered that all liturgical services in Ukraine must be pronounced with the Russian pronunciation of Church Slavonic in 1786, and that instruction in the Russian language was compulsory in the collegia in Ukraine.
The opportunity for the Church of Kyiv to become autocephalous emerged with the fall of the Tsarist regime in 1917, in step with Ukraine’s attempt to establish a sovereign republic. Initially, most Orthodox Ukrainians sought ecclesial autonomy: they wanted ecclesial modernization symbolized by praying the liturgy in vernacular Ukrainian instead of Slavonic, a proposal that the Moscow Council of 1917-18 rejected. The rejection of liturgical Ukrainization inflamed tensions, and Ukrainian clergy in Kyiv began to celebrate services in Ukrainian without permission. When the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate responded by suspending Ukrainian clergy and then deposing them from holy orders in 1920, a small, but influential Ukrainian cohort took action into its own hands by creating its own church in October 1921. This Church constructed an episcopate from scratch, without the participation of bishops, and thereby forsook apostolic succession. While the 1921 church grew rapidly in Ukraine and was popular among intellectuals, Soviet persecution of the Church put a stop to negotiations between the patriarchal Church and the 1921 cohort and Orthodox religious life as a whole was almost completely shut down.
Despite this shutdown, Orthodox Ukrainians attempted to establish their own Church on two new occasions: in 1942, when the Germans temporarily occupied Ukraine, and again in 1989, when churches besides the Moscow Patriarchate became legalized in the late Soviet period. These two churches pursued their goals through canonical means, with bishops who had been consecrated according to the norms of apostolic succession. Ukraine’s independence in 1991 allowed the pro-autocephaly Churches to grow: the most recent sociological data shows that the Church loyal to Moscow has a majority of bishops, clergy, and monastics, whereas the autocephalous branches hold a majority of adherents. This is a major shift from the demographic ecclesial landscape in Ukraine at the time of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ in 988, when all Orthodox in Ukriane belonged nominally to the Moscow Patriarchate There is much more to this story, and I’d like to direct inquirers to my forthcoming book that explains all of this with greater detail, along with my interview on my book.
For many decades now, the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchates have been arguing about primacy within the Orthodox Church, especially on the mechanisms to officially grant autocephaly to a church. When autocephaly is granted, the other Churches in the global Orthodox communion recognize that Church as the authentic, local Church in a defined region. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has long maintained that it retains the sole canonical prerogative to grant autocephaly, which is particularly true of the Kyivan Church, since Constantinople established the Kyivan Church in the first place. But the Moscow Patriarchate has been granting autocephaly to local Churches since the Cold War era began, and is arguing that Constantinople cannot grant autocephaly without the agreement of all of the other churches.
The tussle between Moscow and Constantinople explains, in part, why Ukrainians have taken matters into their own hands by establishing their own autocephalous churches without asking for permission in modern history. In the current case, pro-autocephaly Ukrainians are hoping for Constantinople’s intervention, and it seems imminent, given the latter’s consistent public declarations stating the process of granting autocephaly is in motion. Constantinople is a convenient ally for Ukraine, an ancient authority within Orthodoxy that can accomplish the Ukrainian goal of liberation from Russian colonization of Ukraine. The arrangement is also convenient for Constantinople: as the original mother Church of Kyiv, they will gain a new and formidable ally in restoring their ministry of primacy within the Orthodox communion, especially in the wake of Moscow’s last-minute withdrawal from Constantinople’s long-planned Holy and Great Council of Crete in 2016.
The primary problem is one of demonization: opponents of Ukrainian autocephaly have consistently depicted its advocates as unchurched nationalists who want to establish a state church. One-hundred years of official literature witness to a public delegitimization campaign directed against advocates for Ukrainian autocephaly, and this campaign thrives in our era of information illiteracy: it is common for people to read a headline and promote a stereotype one cannot substantiate. For their part, the pro-autocephaly Ukrainian cohort appeals to autocephaly as liberation from Muscovite oppression as a major foundation of the rationale for church independence. Attempts at unification have, to date, failed.
It seems that one approach to the crisis is to start fresh by establishing a new Church directly via Constantinople’s patronage. This Church would exist alongside parishes belonging to an eparchy (diocese) of the Moscow Patriarchate, in conformity with Ukraine’s policy of religious equality and to avoid coercing people and clergy who wish to remain in the Russian Church from changing allegiances. But problems are sure to erupt with the establishment of the new Church: there could be disputes over parish property, along with explicit and implicit pressure on communities that wish to remain under Moscow to switch sides. Nevertheless, the situation has only worsened in the twenty-seven years of post-Soviet Ukrainian independence, and it was time for more concrete action – the Ecumenical Patriarchate seems to have answered the call.
Non-Orthodox Christians might wonder how any of this relates to them. It is relevant for several reasons. First, an independent Ukrainian Church will contribute to the prestige of the Ecumenical Patriarchate within the Orthodox Church. Second, the legitimizing of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church places Ukrainians on an equal playing field with their Russian sibling. For those who believe in the redemptive power of decolonization and liberation, the establishment of such a church is akin to a long-delayed and long-awaited act of Christian justice. Third, Christians can keep adherents of the new Ukrainian Church honest by reminding them of the need for respect for and tolerance of the Russians living in their midst. Ukraine is large and diverse, and will have Orthodox faithful who self-identify with the Moscow Patriarchate for the foreseeable future. There is no justification for hostility and acts of aggression against people who wish to remain under Moscow’s jurisdiction in a society that values religious pluralism. Such acts contribute to the cyclical process of the demonizing blame game.
Fourth, the imminent establishment of a canonical autocephalous Church in Ukraine portends a major shift in the prevailing historical narrative of the Church of Russia, which identifies Kyiv as its mother. A shift on the role and identity of Kyiv has taken place among historians over the last several decades, from the prevailing narrative of Kyiv as the mother of Russian cities, to the distinctions between the medieval city-states of Rus’ and Kyiv’s evolving identity in modern and postmodern history. Kyiv will be the main cell of the autocephalous Church in Ukraine, an identity that clashes with Kyiv as the primary cell uniting the Russian World of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Adjustment to the new narrative is bound to be rocky and inconsistent.
I would like to close with a personal appeal to all people of good will. The history of the autocephalous movement in the Ukrainian Church is marked by polemics and a recurring cycle of the blame game. The most unfortunate outcome of this cycle is that people have been taught to hate one another. Non-Orthodox Christians can certainly be a source of strength by praying for peace and the calming of the passions. They can urge Orthodox Christians in Ukraine to learn how to respect one another and to seek reconciliation. But most important is the character and face of the new autocephalous Church: its face must be Christ, and not merely an amalgamation of agendas drawing from the identities of contemporary Orthodox Church politics. So, let us pray that the autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine will be a Christian Church, that her leaders would preach and practice repentance and the kingdom of God, and that she would lead the people of Ukraine to the Communion of the Holy Spirit through faith and love.