Making Sense of Autocephaly in the Ukrainian Church

St. Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv

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.

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18 comments

  1. View from the Pew:
    Regarding: “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.”
    – One hopes that the Holy See attends to the process and experience of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
    – Elevating regional or ethnic churches, like the Syro Malabar or Syro Malankara churches to the office of Patriarchate will benefit the union and communion with Rome for all churches.
    – The primary advisers with the Archbishop of Rome, currently Francis, for the universal church should be the Patriarchs in union and communion with Archbishop Francis ( One could write ‘Patriarch Francis’ but for the fact that Archbishop Benedict xvi of Rome suppress the the title of Patriarch of the West for the Archbishop of Rome.)
    – Logically, this means that in these days the Archbishops and Bishops who are named Cardinals would have input for only the the governance and advise as such pertains to the church of rome. Perhaps, the honorific of Cardinal should be suppress. After all how is it that an Archbishop Metropolitan,or Primate is not qualified to advise the Archbishop of Rome about those things that apply to the Church at Rome.
    – By identifying regional or ethnic churches that need to be patriarchate one suppresses the Holy See’s thrust to romanize the catholic church as evidence by the effects of the work of Vox Clara and the work of those in favour of a ‘pure catholic church’, that is roman, approach to all thinks canonical, liturgical, pietistic.

    1. View from the Pew Part Two
      Regarding: “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.”
      – Additionally, move away from romanization of the catholic church would allow space for input as communion from the patriarchs of the Orthodox and Oriental churches not in union with the Archbishop of Rome.

    2. “how is it that an Archbishop Metropolitan,or Primate is not qualified to advise the Archbishop of Rome about those things that apply to the Church at Rome.”

      I’m not quite sure where you’re getting this idea. The vast majority of Cardinals are already archbishops of metropolitan sees (79% currently). Incidentally, eastern cardinal-electors (those younger than 80) are actually over-represented compared to the relative population of their churches.

      The ecclesiastical “patriarch” has long fallen out of use as an indicator of real status in the church, since the title is attached to a particular see (patriarchate), and what were once well populated and influential sees have given way to others after over a millennium of demographic changes. Of the four extant Latin Rite patriarchs, only one is a cardinal.

      1. “Incidentally, eastern cardinal-electors (those younger than 80) are actually over-represented compared to the relative population of their churches.”

        Out of currently eligible 124 papal electors, 5 are heads (either Patriarchs or Major-Archbishops (sic)) of autocephalous sui-juris “eastern” Churches in communion with the Roman Church. That’s over representation? And the head of the largest one (the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) is not even eligible since he will not let himself be made a cardinal.

      2. I believe Patrick is trying to indicate the raw numbers of Catholics “represented” by the Eastern cardinals. As by far the largest of the churches sui iuris, the entire UGCC is roughly equivalent in size to a Latin mega-archdiocese such as Los Angeles or Milan.. Eastern Catholics make up about 1.5% of the Church universal whereas Eastern cardinals comprise about 4% of the voting college, more than double their proportion of the Church at large (should one consider the lack of a Ukrainian egregious enough to skew those numbers further, that would mean the Easterners punch at 3 to 4 times the weight of the remaining churches). One could argue for greater (or lesser) Eastern participation in the College in various ways, but I find nothing wrong with Patrick’s characterization of the current math involved.

      3. View from the Pew Part Three
        Regarding: “I’m not quite sure where you’re getting this idea.”
        – ‘Cardinal’ is an honor from the Archbishop of the Church at Rome, not an office. While in these days the honor is bestowed on men from various parts of the globe it seems that the over all effect is that the man awarded the honor experiences the general effect of becoming Roman. That is, his primary role is to advise the head of the church at Rome from the vantage of being part of its apparatus of governing. Rather it would seem to be better to advise the head of the church at Rome solely from the vantage of the diocese or patriarchate to which the bishop is ‘married’. Bishops (some of whom are cardinals) that are without dioceses would have a minimal role in this.
        – One hopes the bishops using the missal from rome to be the primary advisers of the head of the church at Rome about their local churches and or the regions (somewhat equivalent to episcopal conferences) wherein the local churches live.
        – Likewise, the patriarchs in union and communion are the primary advisers to Rome for the local churches of their patriarchates. Oriental and Orthodox Patriarchs could provide input in their own way.
        – As local or regional churches adapt to the people that make up these churches, these churches might petition from the other patriarchs permission to become a patriarchy with a patriarch, an office above that of bishop / archbishop. Paul vi created the office of ‘major archbishop’ to meet the patriarchal needs of a ‘self governing church’, such as the UGCC, so ground work for the establishment of new patriarchates, even those that would use the missal from Rome, is already laid. The consequence of ‘major archbishop’ is that the head of the church in Rome had one less equal.
        – The future benefit would be that the advise to the church at Rome from other churches in union and communion with the church at Rome would be that of equals who are not part of the apparatus of the church at Rome.

  2. How do you see this affecting the Catholics in Ukraine? Will a new patriarch in Kiev from Constantinople lead to a new patriarch from Rome? (in place of the Major Archbishop, patriarch in all but name)
    How will autocephaly impact ecumenical relations among the patriarchs (Constantinople, Moscow, Kiev) with Catholics (Kiev, Lviv)?
    A huge and complex mess so I am just looking for an impression of how these all will mesh, or not.

    1. It is hard to say. Some experts believe that Pope Francis does not want an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine. It is hard to gain a sense of the Vatican’s position – the Vatican tends to seek closer relations with the Russian Church, and Ukrainian Greek-Catholics have chafed at this, given Moscow’s disdain for the UGCC. The Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine tends to be anti-ecumenical, depending on the figure or region (the Church is large, so there is diversity within). The Kyivan Patriarchate has adopted a more ecumenical policy. I would hope that there would be opportunities to improve relations, but it depends on how Orthodox will view the UGCC – will they expect Greek Catholics to become Orthodox now that Moscow no longer has hegemony? It seems to me that Orthodox and Catholics have found zones of peaceful co-existence in Western Ukraine following the intense period of the late 80’s and early 90’s when the UGCC was legalized. Both Churches will need to devote energy to creating strong relations – just don’t expect the Orthodox to initiate meetings for better relations.

  3. @Aaron Sanders:
    Each elector gets one vote, right? Why does it matter what percentage of those voting are members of an Eastern Catholic Church as oppose to the Roman Church? Perhaps the Roman Church counts more? They’re not “representing” their Church, they’re voting for the next pope. Italians are also over represented. Perhaps there should be less Italian participation.

    1. I think it’s a fairly recent phenomenon that cardinals get their red hats more for their agreeableness with the current pontiff than the “constituency” that they represent (if you even want to call it that). That said, I think anyone would agree that building the College to be a rough cross section of the Church at large is a worthy cause, and is still the overarching strategy. The only reason most cardinals continue to be Roman is because the overall Church is 98% so. As such, the share of Italian cardinals has consistently declined since the pontificate of John Paul II, and has further accelerated under Francis (to the disappointment of some unnamed cardinals… https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/path-papacy-not-him-not-him-therefore-him).

      1. Heads of sui-juris Churches should not be cardinals in another Church to start with. It’s a latinization and dilution of their dignity as head of their Church. In any event, as new patriarchs and major archbishops (sic) are elected, hopefully they will grow a pair and refuse the red hat. Then they wouldn’t be able to vote for said pontiff and all will be well.

      2. I think that represents a rather narrow view of the papacy. The Pope isn’t just Pope for the Romans, he’s Pope for everyone, which is exactly what being in communion with the Holy Father means. Perhaps Nicholas can elaborate further, but to my understanding latinization has actually reversed itself in many eastern churches since the Second Vatican Council issued ‘Orientalium Ecclesiarum,’ which explicitly encouraged de-latinization. Some churches like the Melkites have taken this in stride while progress with say the Maronites appears to be much slower. That said, any process of “decolonization” should be led by affected parties, lest our guilty western consciences unwittingly continue to patronize them on our terms. As someone once said, “we can’t just go back to living in teepees.”

  4. How would this new canonical autocephalous Kyivian church relate to the present non-canonical Kyivian patriarchate? Is it the plan to recognize the present Patriarch of Kyiv or would it be a new autocephalous Church of Kyiv, with or without a Patriarch? If the latter, is it planed that the present patriarchate would be subsumed into the new autocephalous church, or would there be two competing autocephalous churches, one canonical and one non-canonical?

    1. Here is the truth: no one knows, not yet. There is a great deal of conjecture on the Internet, but no one knows for certain. The most likely model is a council that unites the Kyivan Patriarchate with the autocephalous church and the bishops, clergy and faithful from the Moscow Patriarchate who want to be a part of the church. As it stands, the question of canonicity is loaded, infused with political agendas, and rumors have circulated for some time now that Constantinople will annul all of the sanctions against Patriarch Filaret imposed by the Moscow Patriarchate from 1992-1997.

      At the synaxis in Constantinople, one of the lecturers declared that there is not one canonical church in Ukraine, because the current canonical status of the Moscow Patriarchate is an innovation, and Moscow violated the terms of the agreement in 1686 that effectively put the Kyivan Church under Moscow’s jurisdiction (which apparently was not the intent). With no canonical church in Ukraine, Constantinople could – emphasis on could – temporarily restore the Kyivan Metropolia so it will be canonical again, and then grant it autocephaly – and the rumor circulating about this model is that Constantinople would immediately elevate the Church to the status of a patriarchate.

      All of this is conjecture, and what bothers me most is the absence of honest peeling back of layers to reveal the situation for what it is – churches that have been ‘church’ begging for a document from another ‘church’ that legitimizes their status as ‘church’. Quite frankly, this does not sit well with me.

  5. Sorry Pat–but you can’t say that the Eastern Churches are over represented in the college of Cardinals and then say that I have presented a narrow view of the papacy. Of course he’s pope for all the 23 Churches that make up the communion of the Catholic Church, but they are other ritual Churches and their heads should not be Roman cardinals. Either let all the heads of the Eastern Churches have a vote in the election of the pope along with the cardinals or continue the doctrine of the preminence of the Roman Church over all others (Pastor Aeternus-Vatican I). As for the made-up role of “major archbishop,” that was a slap in the face to Slipyj (after all he suffered) in order not to offend the Russian Church.
    But we’ve gone off topic–the creation of a new autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine will not end the divisions there, but increase them. I’m sure that’s pretty low on the current pope’s radar, or at least it should be low. But he should help, encourage, and pray for his flock in Ukraine and show himself the source of unity that he is supposed to be.

    1. See how these Christians love one another. At least Constantinople will not get seduced by the desire to one again become the state church.

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