“That’s uncanonical!” One often hears this objection, directed to everything from icons to patriarchates, in the Orthodox world. What does it really mean?
This was the topic of a talk given in Toronto last January 27 by Wasyl Sydorenko, entitled “Canonicity and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada,” and available on YouTube.
First of all, one must commend Mr. Sydorenko, a University of Toronto librarian and a member of the Brotherhood for the Revitalization of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in Canada, for the calm and logical manner of his presentation. If all those who discuss controversial religious issues would emulate his tone and demeanor, considerable progress in religious understanding would surely result.
The speaker first points out that the canons of the Orthodox Church are no mystery: one can find them in published form, with many available on the internet. Canons, he explains, are simply laws. As with most laws, sooner or later they become obsolete. Many of the old Orthodox canons that formed part of imperial Byzantine law, such as those forbidding treatment by Jewish physicians, make no sense in the modern world.
More important, Mr. Sydorenko stresses that the canons of a body like the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (UOCC) are registered with the government, which issues a charter to that organization. They thus become Canadian by-laws, applicable to a Canadian Church. The laws of the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Russia, or Ukraine, or of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, are simply irrelevant. And the heads of foreign Churches, even of a Ukrainian Church, do not have jurisdiction over a Canadian Church. Thus, while such a Church may be in communion with various other Orthodox Churches, it is not administratively subordinated to them, or to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Mr. Sydorenko warns, however, that there is a move by Constantinople to create a united world Orthodox Church, based on territorial rather than ethnic or national divisions. This would violate the rights and independence of the UOCC, which is a conciliar (sobornopravna) Church which creates its own canons.
The question of whether Orthodox Churches should continue to be ethnically based leads to Mr. Sydorenko’s second talk, given on the same day, on “Ethnicity, Symbolism and Orthodox Christianity.”
Here he confronts the issue of phyletism, that is, of exaggerated ethnic or national identity in Orthodox church life. He notes the virulent attacks on Ukrainian Orthodoxy by Greek, Russian, and other Orthodox, accusing Ukrainians of mixing nationalism with religion. Sydorenko points out that these Churches themselves have historically done the same, and continue to do so. This is apparent, for example, in the symbolism of the double-headed eagle, a political image used in the Byzantine Greek as well as in the Russian Church.
Wasyl Sydorenko’s comments reveal some of the strengths and weaknesses of Orthodoxy throughout the world. Traditionally, Orthodox Churches are national, with strong ethnic cultural identities. There is thus a danger of mixing religion and nationalism. To argue that other Orthodox Churches have been equally guilty of phyletism does not, of course, dispose of the objection.
Historically, most of the Orthodox Churches, while independent of each other and of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, are dependent on secular governments. Thus, in Byzantium, the Emperor guaranteed the enforcement of the church canons. This created a certain stability as long as Church and State supported each other. But it proved disastrous for the Russian Church after the Revolution. The Ecumenical Patriarchate itself is dependent on the government of Turkey, a formally secular but overwhelmingly Muslim country. A Church’s close association with the State gives the latter immense power to control and even destroy it. At the same time, that association can discredit the Church in the eyes of believers. This happened in Russian-ruled Ukraine. Moreover, it could prove dangerous for Orthodox Churches in countries like Canada, where the norms of public life are diverging more and more from those of Christianity. If the billion-strong Catholic Church must struggle with the U.S. government over fundamental ethical issues, would a small, isolated Church dependent on a government charter fare any better?
Mr. Sydorenko’s vision of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in Canada also offers an interesting contrast with Patriarch Sviatoslav’s vision of his Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. While the UOCC stresses its canonical and cultural independence of any foreign Orthodox Church authority, a worldwide Ukrainian UGCC presupposes a Patriarch of Kyiv with universal authority. In the long run, a self-governing UOCC may become a preserve of a peculiarly Ukrainian-Canadian Orthodox tradition. How that squares with the Christian mandate to preach to all nations is, at the least, a matter for discussion.
Be that as it may, Mr. Sydorenko provides a persuasive defense of an independent, self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.