UKRAINIAN AUTOCEPHALY: ECCLESIOLOGY, ECUMENISM, POLITICS by Andrew Sorokowski

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In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in the spring of 1990, one could sometimes hear the phrase katafal’na tserkva—катафальна церква, “catafalque church”—a folk rendering of avtokefal’na tserkva or “autocephalous church”—автокефальна церква. Indeed, the concept of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church was thought to have died at the end of World War II, except in the Ukrainian diaspora.

But in August 1989, the Russian Orthodox parish of SS. Peter and Paul had opted for Ukrainian autocephaly, and in November 1991 the Russian Orthodox Exarchate of Ukraine, now rebranded as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP), declared itself autocephalous. The Moscow Patriarchate reacted swiftly, forcing Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko) to resign the following year, and eventually laicizing and anathematizing him. The UOC returned to the Russian fold. But within a few years two new autocephalous churches—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC)—had sprung up.

Today, neither the UOC-KP nor the UAOC is recognized as canonical in the Orthodox world, and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as well as the UOC-MP regards them as schismatic. But according to a Kyiv International Institute of Sociology survey taken last May and June, 43% of Ukrainians identify with one or the other of these autocephalous churches, while only 17% adhere to the canonical UOC-MP. Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and its war in the Donbas have alienated many Orthodox believers in Ukraine, and entire parishes have defected to the autocephalous Churches.

Now Filaret, elected Patriarch of the UOC-KP in 1995, has come back to haunt Moscow with his repeated appeals to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for autocephaly. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has had his scrapes with the Russian Church before, favors Filaret’s claim. He publicly confirmed this last July 27. On August 31 Russian Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) visited the Phanar, but after a two-and-a-half-hour talk with Bartholomew returned to Moscow. On this occasion, things took a truly Byzantine turn when, after Kirill’s security man motioned him away from one of the filled glasses on a tray of refreshments, the Ecumenical Patriarch and his colleagues prudently declined to partake.

The next day, over a hundred Orthodox hierarchs assembled in Istanbul for a synaxis. According to reports, the Ecumenical Patriarch declared that the Moscow Patriarchate’s “obstinacy” had created problems in Ukraine that it had failed to solve. Relying on its uninterrupted historical jurisdiction over Ukraine, as well as its exclusive right to create new autocephalous Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate would grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox.

On September 7, Patriarch Bartholomew went ahead with his plans. He appointed Archbishop Daniel and Bishop Ilarion (of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and of Canada, respectively) as his exarchs to Ukraine, where they are to convoke a constituent council. Composed of representatives of the two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches that have requested autocephaly, and possibly of some from the UOC-MP, the assembly will presumably form a new church organization, elect its head, and petition Constantinople for autocephaly. This could be granted at the upcoming synod in October. Unsurprisingly, reactions from the ROC were immediate and hysterical, piling blame on Bartholomew and predicting a cataclysmic Orthodox split. Accordingly, it now threatens to break communion.

What are the ecclesiological, ecumenical, and political implications of Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly? The creation of a new autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church would no doubt reduce the vast structure of the UOC-MP, with its 52 eparchies and over 12,000 parishes. Perhaps more important, the new Church, with as many as 30 million members, would surpass Romania’s 18 million as the second largest in the Orthodox world. While this would still leave Russia with a claimed 100 million faithful, it could restore some balance to Orthodoxy, especially if the Ukrainian Church were to form a bloc with other churches—and Constantinople—in contraposition to the ROC. It would thus take the wind out of the ROC’s quest to supersede the Ecumenical Patriarchate as de facto leader of world Orthodoxy.

Moreover, this Church would likely follow the Ukrainian Orthodox tradition, developed most fully in the 17th century, of openness to the West—not only in matters of culture, but (as its critics like to point out) in theology as well. Contrasting with Russia’s relapse into isolationism and conservatism, such openness could stimulate a revival of Orthodox thought similar to the flowering of Russian theology when the post-revolutionary emigration brought it into direct contact with Europe. At the same time, a pro-Western Orthodox Church in Europe’s second largest land could contribute significantly to re-evangelizing the continent.

It would also affect East-West ecumenism. While the Russian Church has always taken a dim view of union with Rome, Ukraine is well-known (or notorious, depending on one’s point of view) for its Unions of Brest (1596) and Uzhhorod (1646). Indeed, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), who heads the ROC’s Department of External Church Relations, sees the movement for autocephaly as a Uniate-schismatic conspiracy.

At the same time, autocephaly would mean that the Vatican’s Ostpolitik, long centered on Russia, would have to recalibrate, focusing its attention on her more amenable southwestern neighbor. Yet although one could expect a rich and productive ecumenical discussion, both Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholics (who see themselves as “Orthodox in communion with Rome”) are wary of Roman domination.  

The political implications of autocephaly are considerable too. For contrary to Western notions of separation of Church and State, autocephaly is a decidedly political idea, connected with statehood. Russia’s current regime perpetuates the century-old notion that Ukrainian independence, whether political or ecclesiastical, represents a conspiracy to divide and destroy Russia. The current villains are the United States and the European Union. In fact, Ukrainian autocephaly would remove Russia’s last institutional lever over its erstwhile colony, facilitating Ukraine’s integration with Europe.

Patriarch Kirill’s failure to keep Ukrainian Orthodoxy in the Russian fold may spell his demise at the helm of a Church that has always been expected to reinforce the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Along with Russia’s inconclusive war in the Donbas, which has only alienated the Ukrainians, the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church would be yet another setback for Vladimir Putin. 

Thus, Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly would rebalance the Orthodox world, reconfigure ecumenism, and adjust the political order. And it could revitalize the family of Orthodox churches.

Andrew Sorokowski holds an MA in Regional Studies (Soviet Union) from Harvard University and a PhD in History from the University of London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He has edited books and published articles on Ukrainian religious history. He is retired from the US Department of Justice and lives near Washington DC.

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