THE “PATRIARCH” HAS NO CLOTHES by Giacomo Sanfilippo

“Honorary Patriarch” Filaret (Denysenko)

Orthodox observers outside of Ukraine who generally support its Church’s autocephaly shook their head in disbelief when the Unification Council of December 15 named former KGB agent Filaret Denysenko as “honorary patriarch.” We hoped at the very least that he would follow in the footsteps of the current Pope Emeritus to a mostly hidden life of prayer and quiet, seldom to be seen or heard from again. Since all Orthodox bishops must first be monks—nominally, if a long monastic formation is not always possible in every case—it would have made perfect sense for former “Patriarch” Filaret to retire to a monastery.  

What a naïve hope that quickly turned out to be.

In a tradition where visual symbols carry the power that they do in Orthodoxy, Filaret’s undiminished itinerary of public appearances and utterances—all while bedecked in the garish headpiece of a Russian (!) patriarch—reduces the real Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine visually to just another metropolitan among many. This glaring symbological disparity in so trivial a matter as a hat probably ensures that Filaret and Metropolitan Epiphanius never be seen together.* Filaret thus maintains his iron grip on his role as leading man on the stage of Ukrainian religious and national life.

(Even the Ecumenical Patriarch wears the simple black hat and veil of an ordinary monk when the occasion does not call for full liturgical vestments.)

This is what a mere hat can accomplish before we even get to Filaret’s astonishing statement that he and the Primate “rule” the Ukrainian Church “together”—together, he repeated for emphasis—or that autocephaly was granted to the Kyiv Patriarchate; his equally astonishing request that he be commemorated liturgically before the Primate; his designation as “Hero of Ukraine” by a president in full electioneering mode; or the Hollywoodesque extravaganza to celebrate his 90th birthday.

None of this serves the Church. None of this reassures the other autocephalous Orthodox Churches that the Church of Ukraine should be taken seriously and recognized as their legitimate sister Church.

Of course, every national Church has its share of irregularities in plain view and in the closet. Yet Filaret seems not to realize—or to care—that the widespread unpopularity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s grant of autocephaly places the Ukrainian Church under especially intense scrutiny throughout the Orthodox world. Autocephaly is often mischaracterized as “independence” in a modern Western sense of the word; however, in principle if unfortunately not always in practice, every autocephalous Church remains accountable to the whole Orthodox Church for the correctness of its doctrine, worship, and governance.

Filaret’s words and actions sow confusion where clarity is needed:

First, in restoring the bishops, clergy, and laity of the competing Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church to communion, the Ecumenical Patriarchate intended only to pave the way for their Unification Council—and for the inclusion of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Church in Ukraine, if it chose to participate—preparatory to the Tomos of Autocephaly.

More to the point, Filaret was restored to his episcopal rank, not to his patriarchal rank. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has never recognized the canonicity of the Kyiv Patriarchate or its patriarch.

Second, the Ecumenical Patriarchate did not grant autocephaly to the Kyiv Patriarchate on January 6. The Kyiv Patriarchate ceased to exist at the Unification Council; or arguably, even on October 11 at the moment when its bishops, clergy, and laity were restored to communion. At no time have documents issued by the Phanar referred to Filaret as “Patriarch” of anything. Perhaps in this unique context it makes a little more sense that autocephaly was negotiated with Ukraine’s secular authorities.

Third, the Tomos of Autocephaly explicitly does not grant the status of patriarchate to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Fourth, retired primates are never commemorated liturgically in the diptychs, let alone ahead of the current Primate.

The Holy Synod of Ukraine would do well to stop pandering to Filaret’s insufferable ego. In a concrete gesture of proper canonical order, he should be designated and duly honoured by the Synod as “retired Metropolitan of Kyiv”—Metropolitan of Kyiv being the highest canonical rank to which he attained—and stripped of his Russian-style patriarchal headpiece, assigned to a monastery to live in humility, prayer, and fasting for the remainder of his time on earth, and retained in an ad hoc consultative role, and invited to concelebrate from time to time, only at the pleasure of the current Primate. 

For the good of the Church of Ukraine, for the good of Metropolitan Epiphanius’ primatial ministry, indeed for the good of the Ukrainian nation, Metropolitan Filaret must humbly accept that the page has turned to a new chapter in the history of the Church planted on the banks of the Dnipro over a millennium ago by the Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles, Volodymyr and Olha.  

*See our Partial Correction of January 27.
This article appeared earlier today in a slightly edited version at the Kyiv Post.
Photo credit: Unian.
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Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian of Ukrainian and Lemko descent on his mother’s side, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and contributor of religious commentary at the Kyiv Post.  Earlier in life he completed the course work for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

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