Healing the Ukrainian Schism

by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

Among the sister Churches that are now called upon to either recognize or refuse recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), a common refrain is intoned: a conciliar and synodal process needs to take place to resolve this issue. Some would like a synaxis of primates, and others have called for a council. The central idea is for all of the Churches to contribute to a resolution of the Ukrainian schism.

The spirit of this proposal is sound, and it should be applied to the Ukrainian case (and perhaps to other related contentions on autocephaly). But a synod convoked to resolve the Ukrainian case would be doomed to failure. A synod convoked to recognize both Orthodox Churches in Ukraine as canonical and encourage them to restore communion without forcing administrative union would be welcome and potentially effective.

Here is why.

In the months preceding the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s (EP) proclamation of autocephaly, the EP and Moscow Patriarchate (MP) visited the sister Churches to inform, negotiate, and persuade them of their positions. I use these verbs—inform, negotiate, and persuade—carefully. These were political meetings designed to obtain support for one side. Such meetings continue to take place now, in an attempt to influence the decisions of the sister Churches on recognition.

A synod convoked to resolve the Ukrainian issue would simply intensify the campaigning for one or another side.

A synodal decision to affirm the autocephaly of the OCU and call for the absorption of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) into the OCU would be rejected by the MP and and UOC-MP, immediately.

A decision to return to the status quo prior to the bestowal of the tomos of autocephaly and refuse recognition of the OCU would be swiftly rejected by the EP and the OCU.

On the ground, in Ukraine, the core groups within the OCU and UOC-MP are locked in their positions. No amount of invoking “schismatic” or “uncanonical” will persuade the core group of the OCU to return to the MP after 100 years of a relentless struggle for autocephaly. And those 100 years witness to core groups of the UOC-MP wishing to have some kind of autonomous status within the MP.

I’m sorry to say it, but the appeal for a synod to resolve the Ukrainian schism is a lose-lose proposal, because some major group is going to protest the result.

The fundamental issue for the sister Churches is not Ukraine, but the methods and mechanisms used to grant autocephaly, as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware mentioned in his January keynote speech at the International Orthodox Theological Association meeting in Iasi, Romania. Future synods and councils should return to this issue immediately, but their decisions should not be retroactive, unless autocephaly as a category of local Church canonical status and governance is revoked altogether for everyone—a completely unrealistic scenario. A synodal consensus on autocephaly should be applied to all cases after Ukraine.

What, then, can be done about the 100-year conflict inherited by today’s OCU and UOC-MP?

The synod could capture the urgency inspired by the painful wound of broken communion in Orthodoxy and call upon all parties to restore Eucharistic communion immediately – with this synodal decision binding for all, beginning with the MP’s severing of communion with the EP.

As for Ukraine, the synod could appeal to the OCU and UOC-MP to restore complete Eucharistic Communion – immediately – without forcing union into one body. Yes, canonical plurality is a deficiency, but canonical plurality with communion is preferable to resuming the delegations of persuasion, the perpetuation of the blame game, and 100 years of intra-Orthodox polemics.

The North American context of jurisdictional plurality with Eucharistic intercommunion offers a model for Ukraine. One significant similarity is the existence of an autocephalous Church, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), that does not enjoy universal recognition of its autocephaly, but is not deprived of canonical, Eucharistic intercommunion. While the Orthodox Churches in North America have yet to realize complete administrative unity in the fifty years since the OCA received autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate, the Churches have maintained Eucharistic communion and have addressed issues through the Assembly of Bishops and its predecessor, SCOBA. Despite the problems of division, the maintenance of Eucharistic communion in North America makes the formation of a united Church plausible since the Churches are still able to come together for common Eucharistic liturgies.

A related thorny issue is the problem of changing jurisdictional affiliation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has recently adopted a new law that grants the community authority in registering a change in their jurisdictional affiliation. The UOC-MP is protesting this law, claiming that OCU supporters are recruiting people who have never been a part of the parish community to attend the meeting and sway the vote toward a pro-OCU majority. The OCU is countering with the same accusation, claiming that the UOC-MP has likewise recruited people outside of the parish to attend assemblies that declare their allegiance to Metropolitan Onufry and the UOC-MP. It is difficult for outside observers to disentangle fiction from fact in the heated exchange of accusations of fraud playing out in the virtual reality of social media.

A pan-Orthodox synod could contribute to mediating disputes concerning parish affiliation and property in Ukraine, with the understanding that many parishes will vote unanimously or with an obvious majority.  The synod could initiate the process of creating a commission overseeing cases where the parish vote is in dispute to make sure that the process is fair. The commission would consist of representatives from the OCU and UOC-MP, with at least one member of the commission coming from a non-EP and non-MP sister Church that hears cases and resolves disputes.

This proposal might be as unrealistic as the appeals for a convocation of a synod, so this brief essay should be received as an invitation for further discussion. The primary point of the proposal is that the Eucharist should be the source of healing, not its outcome, especially in a Church that values the Eucharist above all.

Nicholas Denysenko is the Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Chair and Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University. He is an ordained deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox