UKRAINIAN AUTOCEPHALY: AN AWKWARD SPOT FOR THE OCA by Giacomo Sanfilippo

The Orthodox Church in America (hereinafter the OCA) is one of multiple overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions in North America. Because its dioceses cover the US, Canada, and Mexico, its bishops sit as members in one of three interjurisdictional Assemblies of  Canonical Orthodox Bishops: that of the United States, Canada, or Latin America.
As can be read here, on March 31, 1970 the Soviet-controlled Moscow Patriarchate and the schismatic Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (popularly known as “the Metropolia”) entered into an Agreement which resulted in the immediate restoration of communion between them and—ten days later—a Tomos of Autocephaly granted by the former to the latter, followed soon thereafter by the name change of the latter to the Orthodox Church in America.
Almost a half-century later, in 2018, the OCA’s autocephaly remains unrecognized by most of the Orthodox Church—although no Patriarchate or autocephalous metropolitanate has ever broken communion with the OCA or Moscow over the issue. 
Yet even the Moscow Patriarchate continues to apply a selectively limited meaning to the term “autocephaly” in the OCA’s case insofar as the Russian Church retains control of two separate jurisdictions on American soil: The Patriarchal Parishes in the USA: Moscow Patriarchate and the better known—and until 2007 schismatic—Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).   
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Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate, and the Holy Synod of the OCA

This article is not “anti-OCA.” Despite the OCA’s long history of unanswered questions vis-à-vis the nature of its relationship with Moscow, of missed opportunities, and of outright failures—including the scandals surrounding the  “retirement” of the three consecutive primates immediately prior to the current one (see here for a partial record of this period)—and despite the injustices that I have endured personally at the hands of the Holy Synod for the past twenty-three years, I remain fundamentally pro-OCA. (I do not, however, attend an OCA parish.) The OCA still represents the only concrete, albeit mishandled attempt to establish an ecclesiastical structure in North America that is both ecclesiologically and canonically correct. For now we can overlook the anomaly of its own three non-territorial ethnic dioceses—Albanian, Bulgarian, and Romanian—given that their bishops too hold full membership in the OCA’s Holy Synod. 

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When I was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Theodosius of the OCA at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on May 21, 1988, a large contingent of Russian bishops and priests descended on the seminary to concelebrate the Divine Liturgy that morning—not because I was to be ordained (ha!), but because it was that year’s Commencement Day. 

A day or so later I remarked jokingly to Father Paul Lazor, “I wonder how many of those bishops and priests were KGB agents.”

“All of them, undoubtedly,” he replied. He didn’t smile. A shiver ran down my spine. Thirty years later this remains one of my more prominent memories of my ordination.

(Addendum: My father from Tucson AZ and my two brothers from San Diego CA and Las Cruces NM traveled together to my ordination. At some point along the way, their flight was boarded by these very same Russian bishops and priests. Needless to say, a friendly visit to St. Vladimir’s was not the sole or even main purpose for which the KGB sent them to the US.)

I mention this personal reminiscence because the Russian Orthodox Church of the Soviet era—no different from that of the Putin era, with its overtly professed restoration of “Byzantine symphonia” in the 21st century (see my Worse than 1054? A Schism of Moscow’s Own Making at the Kyiv Post)—functioned as a de facto arm of the Kremlin and full partner in its geopolitical agenda around the globe. The Kremlin’s and Russian Church’s bedfellowship beginning with Metropolitan, later Patriarch Sergius is the reason that both the OCA’s precursor (the aforementioned Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America) and ROCOR broke definitively from the Moscow Patriarchate in the late 1920s and remained in schism for much of the 20th century, and well into the 21st century in the case of ROCOR. (ROCOR held out long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union while awaiting the Moscow Patriarchate’s formal repudiation of “the heresy of Sergianism.” In the end ROCOR and the Patriarchate agreed upon a more nuanced version of events.)

To wit, from the time of Metropolitan Sergius’ declaration of loyalty to the Soviet government and the move to impose it on Russian Orthodox bishops and priests in every country around the world, to the present time of Patriarch Kirill’s Byzantine symphonia with the Putin government some eighty-five years later, we can reasonably assume that the Russian Church has done and continues to do nothing internally or on the world stage without instructions, or at the very least permission, from the Kremlin. 

This sobering realization raises two sets of very important, preliminary, not unrelated observations:

  1. The “schism” of Patriarch Filaret and the Kyiv Patriarchate from the Moscow Patriarchate was not only motivated, but necessitated by political considerations very similar in substance to those which provoked the “schisms” of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America and ROCOR: all of these breaks were deemed a matter of ecclesiastical and national integrity, and indeed survival, in places where the Kremlin pursued nefarious geopolitical aims with the Moscow Patriarchate’s complicity. Yet neither the OCA nor ROCOR has shown the slightest sympathy for Ukraine in Russia’s war against it, or the factors which led to the creation of the Kyiv Patriarchate in 1991-92, or the Tomos of Autocephaly to be handed on January 6, 2019 by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to Metropolitan Epifaniy of Kyiv and All Ukraine, newly elected primate of the newly reconstituted Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
  2. The creation of the OCA as an autocephalous church beholden to the KGB-infested Moscow Patriarchate for its existence, and to the Putin-controlled Moscow Patriarchate for its ongoing recognition (complete with the OCA’s “representation church” in Moscow, of which the actual purpose seems clear to no one), must have suited and continue to suit the Kremlin’s geopolitical objectives very well. The moral price that the OCA paid and continues to pay for its autocephaly, the true extent of its independence or non-independence from the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate, and the ways in which the OCA might knowingly or unknowingly aid and abet Russian aggression on the world stage, are questions worth asking. The answers might lie buried for a very long time in the OCA archives, or forever in the graves of the principal actors as they pass one by one to their eternal repose. At any rate, it seems tragically laughable to give any credence to the KGB Church’s “maternal love and concern” for the Orthodox Church in North America, its “striving for the good of the Church” and “for the peace of Christ,” and its desire “to build a peaceful and creative church life,” so movingly expressed in the Tomos delivered to the OCA on April 10, 1970.   

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On November 5, 2018 Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA sent a birthday greeting to Metropolitan Onufry of the Russian Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

My readers will perhaps forgive me for calling Metropolitan Onufry’s church by that name instead of its preferred “Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” For one thing, while primate of this supposedly autonomous church, Metropolitan Onufry ranks as the most senior permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate. In exchange for his considerable authority and influence over the Church in Russia, what does Moscow extract from him in his primatial oversight of the Church in Ukraine

For another thing, Moscow has increased the extent of its Ukrainian Church’s “autonomy”—on paper, at least—solely in reaction to the inexorable growth of the rival Kyiv Patriarchate.

In +Tikhon’s letter to +Onufry he writes:

I would like to use this occasion to extend to Your Beatitude, and through you, to all the bishops, clergy, monastics and faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under your archpastoral care, the love, support and solidarity of the members of the Holy Synod, Clergy, Monastics and faithful of the Orthodox Church in America as you travel through the troubled waters which our Lord has given to you to navigate.

This must be read in conjunction with Metropolitan Tikhon’s Archpastoral Letter of September 26, 2018, “concerning recent developments in Ukraine.” Three points stand out most conspicuously in this earlier letter:

  1. “In particular, we have received with sorrow, yet with understanding [emphasis mine], the decision of the Moscow Patriarchate to cease liturgical commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarch and suspend concelebration and participation by bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate in inter-Orthodox contexts.” This contrasts sharply with the letter of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, in which he deplores Moscow’s use of eucharistic communion as a weapon.
  2. “We are mindful of the Russian Orthodox Synod’s call to the local autocephalous Churches to ‘understand the common responsibility for the fate of world Orthodoxy and to initiate a fraternal all-Orthodox discussion of the church situation in Ukraine.'” This seems rich, considering that the OCA continues to insist on the propriety and legitimacy of its unilaterally granted autocephaly, which was undertaken by Moscow in consultation with no one.
  3. “In the meantime, we call on our clergy, monastics, and faithful to offer their support and fervent prayers for His Beatitude, Metropolitan Onufry, and all the bishops, clergy, monastics, and faithful of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” No prayers are offered for the statistical majority of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, separated from Moscow for reasons very similar to those of the OCA earlier in its own history, and now on the threshold of receiving its own Tomos of Autocephaly under its newly elected primate.

We would be hard pressed not to see the OCA as the handmaiden of the Moscow Patriarchate.

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The real awkwardness in all of this for the OCA resides in the fact that—until now, before it became necessary to choose between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople—the relationship between the OCA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate was carefully cultivated over the course of many decades. These fraternal, bilateral efforts culminated in March 2016 in the first ever invitation to an OCA primate to concelebrate the Eucharist with the Ecumenical Patriarch. One could not help but be deeply moved by this development, and by the photos of the event. (See the OCA’s reports here and here.)

To be sure, Metropolitan Tikhon took his place among the concelebrating bishops according to seniority by date of episcopal ordination, and not as the primate of an autocephalous church. Yet even now, two years later, the occasion seems to many of us to have been a miracle of God. 

What now? How will the OCA navigate the tightrope walk between the Moscow Patriarchate—with whom it understandably wants to safeguard its good relations—and the Ecumenical Patriarchate—with whom it likewise wants to safeguard, and continue to develop, its good relations?

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Concretely it comes down to a question of the famous “diptychs.” For me personally, the most moving moment that distinguishes a primatial Divine Liturgy from one presided by any other bishop is the chanting of the diptychs, i.e., the names and full ecclesiastical titles of each primate with whom the celebrant is in communion. In the Russian practice followed by the OCA, this takes place antiphonally between the senior deacon and the choir immediately preceding the Trisagion Hymn.

While the OCA’s autocephaly remains unrecognized by most other autocephalous churches, the diptychs are chanted scrupulously and beautifully—in their entirety—each time the Metropolitan serves the Divine Liturgy.

On the Feast of Theophany 2019, in a time zone eight hours ahead of Washington DC, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will hand a Tomos of Autocephaly to Metropolitan Epifaniy of Kyiv and All Ukraine. 

Wherever Metropolitan Tikhon celebrates the Theophany Liturgy, will he add his newest brother primate to the diptychs? In communion with Moscow, he must not. In communion with Constantinople, he must.

If he does, Moscow will take notice; if he does not, Constantinople will take notice.

See the sequel to this article, Ukrainian Autocephaly: What Says the OCA?
See the extensive Ukraine section in our Archives by Author.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and a new writer at the Kyiv Post. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He was a priest from 1988 to 2002.

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2 thoughts on “UKRAINIAN AUTOCEPHALY: AN AWKWARD SPOT FOR THE OCA by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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