On December 15, a unification council was held at St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine. Three Orthodox Churches existed in Ukraine until then: the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), the Kyivan Patriarchate (KP), and the Moscow Patriarchate (MP). The council united the UAOC, KP, and two bishops of the MP to form a new Church: the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). The vast majority of the bishops of the MP remain under Moscow’s jurisdiction.
The council and OCU are significant because the establishment of this Church occurred under the patronage of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, or Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP). Most of the Orthodox Churches in the world regard the EP as either the “first among equals,” or the “first without equals” in terms of the way the Churches relate to one another. Orthodoxy rejects the primacy of one apostolic see over all in a universal jurisdiction, which is the primary point of separation between the Orthodox Churches and Rome. But Orthodox themselves disagree on how primacy is to be exercised within Orthodoxy. For example, some Churches believe that the EP alone has the authority to grant autocephaly (ecclesial independence) to local Churches, whereas the MP holds that the “mother Church” alone has the power to grant autocephaly. Similar disagreements are proving problematic when it comes to hearing appeals on canonical sanctions imposed on bishops and other clergy.
These, then, are the issues proving problematic in terms of the Church in Ukraine. The EP used its prerogative of primacy to annul canonical sanctions that had been imposed on the leaders of the former UAOC and KP by the MP, and the MP dismisses the EP’s authority to exercise primacy in this way. This is not a minor issue: the MP is angry, and they severed Eucharistic Communion with the EP, a decision that is having a ripple effect throughout the Orthodox Churches in the world. Undeterred, the EP followed through on the creation of the OCU, and will complete this process on January 6 when they issue a Tomos of autocephaly that enters the OCU as a full-fledged and canonical Orthodox Church. (A Tomos is literally a scroll or a book; think of a tomos as an official canonical certificate of autocephaly).
In the rest of this post, I will address some frequently asked questions about this situation, including its implications for Catholic and Protestant Christians.
Why does the OCU want and need autocephaly?
The movement for autocephaly in Ukraine began in 1917 when the Tsarist regime collapsed. For Orthodox Ukrainians, autocephaly would permit them to restore native traditions and pray in the vernacular, liturgical and ecclesial customs that had been muted on account of a program of Russification imposed on Ukraine that began to take concrete shape in the mid-18th century. After Ukraine became independent in 1991, proponents of autocephaly wanted to follow the example of nation-states that emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The EP had granted the Churches of some of those nation-states autocephaly in the 19th and 20th centuries. For the OCU, autocephaly would allow the Ukrainian Church to be its best self; there was no real need for dependence on the MP. After the events of the Maidan, Crimea, and Donbas in 2013-14, the fervor of autocephaly increased significantly. In short, Ukrainian proponents of autocephaly asserted that Russians are exploiting them; they viewed subordination to the Russian Church as a form of post-Soviet imperial colonization that contributed to the exploitation of Ukrainians through the Church. Autocephaly would accomplish two things: first, it would be the organic completion of the canonical process of ecclesial self-governance valued by Orthodoxy. Second, it would constitute a necessary act of social justice.
Given conditions in Ukraine, why is this decision on autocephaly so controversial?
From the very beginning, a critical mass of Orthodox Ukrainians did not want autocephaly and were content to remain a part of the Moscow Patriarchate. From 1990 to 2018, the name of the MP in Ukraine was “Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” Most of the bishops, clergy, and faithful of this Church of this Church are citizens of Ukraine. The MP holds a majority of parishes, clergy, and monasteries in Ukraine; recent sociological studies suggest that the OCU has a majority of the faithful. The MP has a significant presence in Ukraine; their refusal to request autocephaly puts them at odds with the OCU.
Before the Maidan, the MP supported canonical autocephaly from 1992 to 1996 when it withdrew its commitment to obtaining canonical autocephaly. The leaders of the MP claim that they are autonomous and do not need autocephaly, and dismiss autocephaly as a nationalistic political project. The MP had deposed and anathematized the public leader of the autocephalist movement in Ukraine, Patriarch Filaret, and their rejection of his canonical legitimacy became a major stumbling block to reconciliation. After the Maidan, however, many faithful of the MP became angry when their leaders refused to publicly support Ukraine in the war against Russia.
Is Ukrainian autocephaly a political project, and is this a conspiracy to persecute the MP in Ukraine?
The autocephalous movement began as a Church movement in 1917. Ukrainian presidents (except Yanukovych) have supported autocephaly since 1991. Victor Yushchenko attempted to push autocephaly through in 2008, but the process stalled. President Petro Poroshenko was able to push the process through, but he was not the initiator of autocephaly – such assertions are historically false.
The MP in Ukraine is claiming that the Ukrainian government is persecuting them. On December 20, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law requiring the MP in Ukraine to change its name to the Russian Orthodox Church. Parliament is also considering another proposal that would allow individual parishes to determine their own religious affiliation without obtaining permission from their eparchy or bishop. The MP claims that they are the target of a discrimination campaign wherein the government will coerce their parishes into joining the OCU. The Ukrainian government claims that Russia is using the Church to distribute anti-Ukrainian propaganda throughout Ukraine. The situation requires careful third-party monitoring, and this has proven very difficult given the polemics infused in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The primary difficulty for people outside of Ukraine is verifying accusations that the state is coercing parishes that want to remain in the MP to join the OCU. Ukraine has experience in changing parish affiliation, beginning with the legalization of the Ukrainian Greco Catholic Church at the end of the Soviet period, and continuing with the migration of parishes form the MP to the KP from 1992-2018. There have also been accusations of violations of religious freedom committed by Russia and Russian sympathizers in Crimea and Donbas. Needless to say, the situation warrants observation.
Why did the EP decide to grant autocephaly to Ukraine now? Why didn’t they consult the MP in Ukraine?
The EP has responded publicly to these questions. They claim that a joint commission of the MP and EP worked together for a few years in an attempt to resolve the Ukrainian schism, but that the MP withdrew from the consultation. From the EP’s perspective, it was impossible to work directly with the leaders of the MP in Ukraine because on many occasions, Moscow would simply speak on their behalf. The tendency for MP leaders in Moscow to represent the MP in Ukraine in intra-Orthodox dialogue created some confusion, since the MP claims that the MP in Ukraine is completely independent. For example, the MP’s leaders in Ukraine sent a delegation to Istanbul to discuss the issue with the EP, but Metropolitan Onufry, the leader of the MP in Ukraine, was absent from the meeting. Furthermore, Patriarch Kirill himself intervened on August 31 when he traveled to Istanbul with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.
The EP concluded that Moscow had no interest in resolving the schism, since 26 years had elapsed since the most recent schism in Ukraine. The EP claims that their response is pastoral: since state officials represent the people, the EP attempted to heal the schism in response to requests for autocephaly from the Ukrainian state. The EP moved to heal the schism by restoring the schismatics to communion with the Church and then organizing a unification council to which all were invited. The EP presented themselves as fulfilling the Gospel initiative to leave the 99 in search of the one who is lost. Moscow claims that the EP had no jurisdiction to act in this manner since Ukraine remained under Moscow’s jurisdiction. The MP leaders in Ukraine claimed that the specific agenda of autocephaly was imposed upon them: most of their bishops returned the letters inviting them to the unification council unopened to Istanbul.
This is one of the most difficult intra-Orthodox issues to understand because of the opposing stories presented by each party. Two things are clear: the inconsistent exercise of independence in conducting their own affairs complicated the activity of the MP in Ukraine in carrying out negotiations with the EP since Moscow frequently intervened for them. The standoff between the EP and MP on who has jurisdiction in Ukraine intensified when the EP asserted themselves. And finally, the duration of the schism was one factor (but not the only one) inspiring the EP to act swiftly and decisively.
What are the implications for non-Orthodox Christians? Why should they care?
Ukraine is a multi-religious country, with large populations of Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. Non-Orthodox Christians and people of other faiths need to be aware of crises afflicting the majority Orthodox population in Ukraine. The addition of a new autocephalous Church to the Orthodox world is also likely to affect alliances within Orthodoxy: the OCU is sure to support the EP in its endeavors within Orthodoxy and in the public sphere. Furthermore, the MP has historically adversarial relationships with the large Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, whereas the autocephalists have been open to dialogue. The establishment of the OCU is an opportunity for ecumenical progress in Ukraine. Here is a suggestion: perhaps a committee of non-Orthodox volunteers could be created to monitor the process by which parishes vote to either change affiliation (move from the MP to OCU) or remain in their current affiliation (the MP).
Most importantly, the establishment of the OCU and the Orthodox conflict in Ukraine is a wound in the body of Christ. This is an opportunity for Christians to learn about Orthodox struggles in the post-Soviet period, and the impact of geopolitical conflict on the Church. Most of all, many faithful people who simply want to worship God are being caught up in this affair. They are worthy of the prayers of all Christians who hear the urgency in Christ’s prayer to the Father, “that they would be one.”