The Promise of Autocephaly in Ukraine: What’s at Stake?

by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with Ukrainian President
His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

Last week, news circulated that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is expected to issue a Tomos of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This news appeared on the heels of a meeting that took place between Patriarch Bartholomew, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his delegation after Pascha on April 9, 2018. The discussions between the presidential delegation and President Poroshenko were reportedly lengthy, and Poroshenko formally requested the issuing of a Tomos that would be presented publicly on the occasion of the 1030th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ in late July. The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, voted to voice its support for the appeal for the Tomos, and the synods of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) issued letters voicing their support for the Tomos. The press office of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) claims that the actions of the President and parliament violate Ukrainian law, since offices of the state are interfering in Church affairs, and the UOC-MP is also arguing that all of the Orthodox Churches must agree to autocephaly, and that autocephaly is no longer only a prerogative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The mechanism for granting autocephaly is a canonical issue that was on the agenda of the Holy and Great Council in Crete of 2016, but which was not taken up by the Churches that participated in the Council. Furthermore, there is no clarity on the recipients of the Tomos: to whom will the Ecumenical Patriarch grant the Tomos, where would the inaugural Liturgy celebrating the Tomos be celebrated, which bishops would concelebrate with the Ecumenical Patriarch, and whose names and sees would be entered into the diptychs of global Orthodoxy?

In the remainder of this essay, I will reflect on what is at stake for the major players in Ukraine and for the rest of global Orthodoxy.

The State: The fervor of enmity among Orthodox in Ukraine continued to increase in its intensity. The volume of intrachurch anger and rejection of the other is manifest in numerous public incidents, the most recent being the refusal of the Zaporizhian eparchy (UOC-MP) to grant a funeral to a child baptized in the UOC-KP who died tragically. These disputes are particularly problematic when parishes decide to change their jurisdictional affiliation, changes in leadership that evoke public accusations, legal actions, and even violence. The ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine and the backdrop of Russian aggression against Ukraine is also deeply troublesome. The state’s position is that Russia uses UOC-MP institutions and people as satellites for promoting its agenda. Legitimizing an Orthodox Church in Ukraine that was liberated from Russian control and influence (emphasis mine) would weaken the capacity of such satellites to divide and conquer the Ukrainian people. Recently, Poroshenko said that one canonical Church in Ukraine would cease the ongoing process of Russian colonization of Ukraine. Removing Muscovite influence from Ukrainian Church affairs has been a staple feature of the movement for autocephaly in Ukraine since 1917. State officials have always understood that religion is the proverbial “glue of the people,” and have acted accordingly throughout Church history. In this vein, the appeals of Poroshenko and parliament fit the historical paradigm.

UOC-KP and UAOC:  There have been large, autocephalous Orthodox Churches either in or outside of Ukraine since October 1921, when the first UAOC was born. None of these Churches received official recognition within global Orthodoxy and have carried stigmata of illegitimacy for several reasons, although the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s reception of the Ukrainian Churches in Canada (1990) and the USA (1995) demonstrated that these stigmata were not obstacles to canonical normalization. The UOC-KP and UAOC are the Churches that bear the legacies of the autocephalist movement from its origins. They are both autocephalous, so a Tomos would be count as recognition of their “churchliness” and independence. For these Churches, a Tomos would normalize their relations within the Orthodox world and would also legitimize some of their traditions and priorities: the most important of these is Ukrainization, which includes using Ukrainian as the primary language of liturgy and restoring native Ukrainian liturgical customs that were muted during the synodal era of Church life. The UOC-KP has already offered to relinquish its patriarchal status in exchange for autocephaly: a Tomos could mark the inauguration of a new era of Church ministry in Ukraine. In the new situation, the UOC-KP and UAOC might attempt to claim property currently under the control of the UOC-MP – including the beloved Pecherska Lavra in Kyiv and Pochaiv monasteries. The state would have to monitor that situation with great care. One could anticipate this becoming a full-fledged crisis in Ukraine if plans are not made in advance to mitigate against forceful attempts to seize control of property.  Furthermore, the new autocephalous body will have to navigate the reality that many parishes desiring autocephaly will reject Ukrainization. Imposing Ukrainization on parishes that prefer Church Slavonic will alienate people and result in accusations of the Church pursuing a nationalist agenda.

UOC-MP: The state has promised that all people, clergy, and parishes that wish to remain in the MP will have every legal right to do so. In all likelihood, some percentage of clergy and people will join the autocephalous body in Ukraine, so the UOC-MP will become smaller. Some critics have suggested that the UOC-MP change its name to “Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine,” and while such an action might represent the true identity of this body, one can expect that the tactic of inscribing stigmata of illegitimacy on an entire Church would be imposed upon the UOC-MP, an unhappy outcome that would only perpetuate the current crisis in Ukraine. Finally, it would be naïve to believe that autocephaly will remove Russian influence in Ukraine through the Church. It would certainly decrease Russian power, but the shared history of the two countries means that there will always be Russian influence in Ukraine (and Ukrainian influence in Russia), for better or for worse. During the years of the war, the UOC-MP has claimed a martyr identity, referring to public incidents of parish changes in jurisdictional affiliation as evidence of a conspiracy to destroy the Church. Again, without proper care and management of parish registration and property management, the martyr identity will become a slogan of protest announced on the public sphere. The stakes for the MP itself seem obvious, but the greatest adjustment would be to its historical narrative. The Russian Orthodox Church reveres Kyiv as the mother of its ecclesial heritage, and the 1917-18 Moscow Council acted to honor Kyiv’s prestige by granting the Kyivan Metropolia special privileges in self-government (autonomy) and the administration of the Church in Russia. Kyiv’s permanent detachment from the Russian Church would decrease the MP’s size and prestige, but would also challenge its narrative that Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities.

Ecumenical Patriarchate: Supporters of Ukrainian autocephaly have appealed to the Ecumenical Throne repeatedly for support, beginning in 1918. The EP’s reception of the Canadian and American branches of the Church not only normalized their canonical standing in world Orthodoxy, but positioned the EP as the primary mediator of Ukrainian divisions. The reception of the Ukrainian Church in the USA in particular was vehemently opposed by the MP, but flaring tempers cooled somewhat, and there have been no prohibitions for the Ukrainian bodies of the EP in sharing the fullness of Church life with their sister Orthodox Churches. Granting a Tomos of autocephaly to Ukraine would land the EP a valuable and large ally in intrachurch politics: they would have good reason to feel confident that the Ukrainians would reward them for the Tomos. But a Tomos also risks a break in Communion with the MP: if the MP was willing to risk Orthodox solidarity to retain power in Estonia, one can only imagine how they will respond to EP patronage of Ukraine. That said, the abstinence of four Churches from the Council in Crete illumined the existing fissures within Orthodoxy – there may not be enough real solidarity left to keep the EP from risking icy relationships with Moscow for the sake of Ukraine. Supporters of Ukrainian autocephaly will hail the EP as the proverbial Cyrus they have long awaited.

Authors of the Narratives: Ranking no. 3 in the hierarchy of those who have the most at stake are the authors of the Ukrainian narrative. What texts are used to present the history of the Church in Ukraine in seminary and graduate school courses, and who wrote them? There is a vibrant literary corpus of scholarship on the Church in Ukraine that is virtually unknown by Orthodox people, who are woefully ignorant as they tend to read sources authored by non-Ukrainians written with polemical intent. Recognizing an autocephalous Church in Ukraine would legitimize not only the Church, but also free those who study the Church to learn its history from those who are actually living it, and permit Orthodox Ukrainians to assume control over their own public narrative.

Autocephaly and Church Ministry: the desire for autocephaly among some Ukrainians is so strong that it has attained an eschatological quality. Autocephaly does not guarantee excellence in evangelism and Church ministry: it should be issued in recognition of those marks already present in the Church, but it cannot be the source for an Orthodox Church confronting the twenty-first century. Some commentators have publicly asked, with some doubt, if a true turn in evangelism and theology would result from autocephaly. Or, will autocephaly simply perpetuate pre-modern Orthodoxy in Ukraine, keeping it frozen in the synodal period? An autocephaly that capacitates the formation and production of Church intelligentsia could be a force for much good in global Christianity. Others might wonder if now is a good time to rethink autocephaly as a mechanism for Church governance, since its modern variant seems to honor the notion of one Church for each nation-state. Would multinational regional structures that avoid imperialistic centers prove to be a better model for postmodern autocephaly? The Ukrainian question gives Orthodox theologians something serious to contemplate.

The Ukrainian People: My own research on autocephaly in Ukraine is that most of its people support it because they want to be themselves. The people themselves do not agree on the details: there are many who desire autocephaly, but have no interest in Ukrainization, because Church Slavonic has always been the language of worship in Ukraine. At the fundamental level of identity, autocephaly would honor the fullness of churchliness in those who confess their fidelity to Christ in an autocephalous Church. A Tomos has the capacity to accomplish two objectives: to recognize (not “grant”) the fullness of Christian life of a Church, and to permit Orthodox Ukrainians to be themselves without requiring the approval or living under the supervision of external authorities.

Issuing a Tomos of autocephaly carries some risk, and the Ecumenical Patriarch will have to trust that Ukrainian Church leaders and state officials will act with the utmost prudence and charity. To date, no Tomos has been issued, and maintaining the status quo has sadly flamed the fire of enmity among Orthodox in Ukraine, while perpetuating the stigmata of illegitimacy on supporters of Ukrainian autocephaly. Perhaps, then, it is time for the Ecumenical Patriarch to act by issuing a Tomos, and for the leaders of the Orthodox Churches to offer sure hands of support to all Orthodox faithful in Ukraine, regardless of the temporal city in which their presiding bishop resides.

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 Christian Studies Center.