Toward a New Ecclesiological Paradigm? Consequences of the Ukrainian Autocephaly

by Thomas Bremer

St. Michael's Golden Domed Monastery, Kyiv

When the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the newly established “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU), it intended to create a single local Church which would basically comprise all the Orthodox believers in that country. The name of the new Church as it appears in the tomos, namely “Most Holy Church of Ukraine,” implies that idea, as do several statements of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the course of 2018 in which he underlined the need of unity for Orthodoxy in Ukraine. The OCU affirmed this as well, calling itself on its website for a long time the “only” or “single” local Church (yedina in Ukrainian, a term which is difficult to translate), and stating on its home page, “Our Church is open for all!” The main idea was to unite Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

It is well known that the till-then only canonical Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), rejected the initiative. Several hundred parishes changed their jurisdiction, but there was no landslide movement toward the OCU; the UOC still remains the largest Church in the country. In fact, self-proclaimed “Patriarch” Filaret split off from the new Church (though he has only marginal support) so that the attempt to re-establish unity obviously failed. Realistically, for a long time to come there will be two large Churches in Ukraine, one acknowledged by Constantinople, the other by Moscow.

This is not the first time that the simmering conflict between these two patriarchates led to such a situation. Estonia in particular shows a similar situation. There, too, the larger Church is the one in communion with Moscow. However, there is no case in a predominantly Orthodox country where two canonical Churches exist side by side (to be sure, Orthodoxy is in Estonia today the largest confession, but it is traditionally regarded as a Protestant country). In a country with an autocephalous Orthodox Church, there should be only one Church. Other Churches can have representations, metochia, vicariates, or different other kinds of permitted presence, but no Church organization of their own.

Orthodoxy in Ukraine, therefore, is in something of an of irregular situation. The UOC and Russian Orthodoxy do not recognize the OCU. Moscow has severed its relations with the Churches which have recognized the OCU (interestingly enough, in the case of the Church of Greece, it stresses that it remains in communion with the dioceses the bishops of which have not supported the recognition). It is not clear, however, how the OCU and the Ecumenical Patriarchate relate to the UOC. When Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew informed Metropolitan Onuphry, the head of the UOC, about the new Church and invited him to join it, he also declared that Onuphry had no right any more to call himself “Metropolitan of Kyiv.” The Ecumenical patriarchate regards the OCU as the legitimate church body in Ukraine. However, before the Church of Greece acknowledged the OCU in November, it had its Synodal Committee for Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Christian Relations discuss the matter. The chair of the committee, Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, made a statement to the Holy Synod of his Church which was published on Public Orthodoxy. In this text, there was a remarkable phrase. He said that the Ecumenical Patriarchate “does not negate the ecclesial entity headed by Metropolitan Onufriy,” i.e. the UOC, and that “he continues for his part to be in communion with Onufriy,” via his commemoration of the Russian Patriarch Kirill.

It is true that the schism between Moscow and Constantinople (and now also Greece and Alexandria) is one-sided: the Russian Patriarch stopped commemorating the heads of these Churches in the diptychs, but they did not respond in kind. However, Metropolitan Ignatius’ statement is the more interesting as it seems to acknowledge and to accept two canonical Churches in Ukraine. It presupposes that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in communion with both the OCU and the UOC. Thus, the Orthodox Church would not only accept the on-the-ground reality in Ukraine, but even turn it into a new ecclesiological paradigm.

Until now, almost all Churches have been organized according to a territorial principle. Every member belongs to a parish, and more important, to a bishop, according to their residence. For a given territory, one bishop is responsible, and no other. However, almost all Churches depart from this principle. The existence of vicar or auxiliary bishops shows that clearly, where their region of responsibility usually does not correspond to their title. In the Orthodox Church, above all in the diaspora, several bishops are responsible for the same region. The Orthodox Church is aware of this irregularity and indicates by the establishment of bishops’ conferences and similar bodies that these bishops are not competing but that it is one Church. In the Catholic Church, we find the phenomenon of different rites, which leads to more than one bishop (who are in communion together) in one place. So-called personal prelatures are another example; in many countries, Catholics who serve in the army do not fall under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, but of the one who is in charge for the armed forces.

If Orthodoxy accepts the reality of an enduring existence of two Churches in Ukraine, it means that it will no longer be clear who the bishop of a given place is. The faithful will be able to chose to which of the Churches they will belong. That is of course the case already today—but now the Churches are not in communion. In the envisaged case, they will be. The Churches will not be competing but will exist in parallel. As an Orthodox in North America can go to a church of the Greek Archdiocese, or of the OCA, or e.g. to a Serbian Church, so Ukrainians will have a choice which they will be able to make according to their preferences—preferences of liturgical traditions, of a concrete priest or bishop, or of any other factor. Of course, that is hardly feasible in villages and smaller places where there is only one church, and much easier in towns and cities.

Such an approach would correspond more to the realities, as in the diaspora. But one has to be aware that it would mean a completely new definition of one of the basic principles in ecclesiology. Perhaps the Ukrainian case indicates us that it is time to think in this direction.

Thomas Bremer teaches Ecumenical Theology and Eastern Churches Studies at Münster University, Germany. These deliberations came about in part as a result of discussions at a workshop on Orthodoxy in Ukraine, organized by the “Foundation for Religious Studies” in Bologna, Italy, in December 2019.

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.