Interview with Archbishop Ihor (Isichenko)
"I suspect that the movement of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church will find its support"
Interview with Archbishop Ihor (Isichenko) of Kharkiv and Poltava, Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC)
On 8 November 2000 an agreement was signed between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the UAOC. From that point on, the development of relations between the Orthodox churches in Ukraine led to the assumption that these two churches would unite shortly and that the Orthodox community in the world would recognize the creation of one national Ukrainian Orthodox church. However, the events in the late summer and fall of 2001 thwarted these expectations. What happened and why?
The experience of recent years should have taught us to be realists in church policy and avoid conscious or unconscious disinformation, when what is desired is presented as the reality. The years 2000 and 2001 gave a wonderful start to a process which is, however, too responsible and promising to be turned into some primitive organizational act. The negotiations held from November 2000 to July 2001 between bishops of the UAOC and UOC-KP were talks between individuals, not between churches. They were supposed to prepare the conceptual framework for the movement of the church. Whether they fully prepared this framework or not is another matter. I think that the absence of certain documents publicized in the press still does not mean that the work of a number of bishops was futile. At any rate, I think that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has enough information to understand the situation in Ukraine and to develop some model to solve the crisis, which has occurred in the Orthodox community in Ukraine.
The role of our churches in the diaspora has also become clearer, as they refused to take a passive position while awaiting the results, either positive or negative, of the Ukrainian bishops' negotiations in Istanbul. The fact that His Beatitude Constantine was present at the negotiations in June 2001 and that His Grace Vsevolod participated in the negotiations on 30 October 2001 in Zurich testifies to the role of spiritual leadership that our church in the USA continues to play for the Ukrainian churches on their way to establishing a national Ukrainian Orthodox church. Our church in the USA demonstrated its understanding of this role in 1995, when it went under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate [of Constantinople].
In the fall of 2001 it became obvious that the strategy which is being implemented under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the participation of our churches in the diaspora has nothing in common with the one proposed by some politicians associated with the church and supported by certain circles of the UOC-KP. The latter viewed the establishment of one national Ukrainian Orthodox church as a simple union between two already existing churches, the UOC-KP and the UAOC, in which the UAOC would play a secondary role, since it is smaller in size and has no connections with powerful economic and political clans. Instead, a canonical approach to creating one national Ukrainian Orthodox church has been chosen, in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate displays great prudence and responsibility. Along with emphasizing its right to be a mediator in resolving church problems, which is based on Orthodox canons, the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not exclude the participation of the Moscow Patriarchate in this process. Whether we like it or not, the Moscow Patriarchate, or, earlier, the Synodal Church, has been present in Ukraine for centuries. We also need to admit that today the Moscow Patriarchate has no less than three-fourths of all Orthodox parishes throughout the country. I mean here actual parishes.
Therefore, it became clear in the fall that the negotiations on the future of the Ukrainian church can come about through a single possible course, not by means of church canons, but by means of church diplomacy. The negotiations are being conducted between two historic patriarchates, the Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchates. Therefore, His Grace Vsevolod, who belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the USA, attended and represented the Ukrainian church as a participant with full rights in the discussions. Thus the Ukrainian church in Ukraine is left with only two options: either simply to attend the negotiations, which happened in July, or not to be present at all, which happened in the fall. It might be insulting and humiliating for us, but, again, this is the reality of contemporary conditions. For, if the churches are not canonically recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, full participation in the diplomatic negotiations is impossible.
In addition, these negotiations have demonstrated the great role and the great responsibility of our churches in the diaspora. Today, only through them, only through the mediation of the Ukrainian Orthodox episcopate outside of Ukraine, can we, the Ukrainian national church in the world, participate as a partner in interreligious relations. This, evidently, did not satisfy representatives of certain political circles who were governed by an essentially secular understanding of the integration process, as well as by a desire to add a political slant to it. I think that this dissatisfaction led to the breach of the agreement that was reached in the fall. Perhaps it's not worth mentioning November, since even earlier, in late September last year the hierarchical ordination in the UOC-KP was renewed, and so the agreement signed in Constantinople about a year earlier was broken.
Are there grounds for claiming that the Patriarchate of Constantinople's position on the Ukrainian issue has changed during this year? That is, at first, the patriarchate's attitude seemed more favorable. Did any events in Ukraine have a negative impact or was it, perhaps, already the result of the negotiations with Moscow, along with an unwillingness to get involved in still another conflict?
On what grounds can we assess the Patriarchate of Constantinople's position at the moment? Is there even one document we can refer to? Is there any seal, as they used to say in the USSR, of the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the agreements signed in Constantinople? The Ecumenical Patriarchate has real power and it is concerned about the normalization of life in Ukraine. However, it is also far too experienced in church diplomacy to make hasty declarations and jump to uncertain conclusions. Everything built hastily breaks very quickly. Therefore I think that the absence of any documents publicized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not allow us to arrive at any conclusions concerning changes, deviations or breakthroughs in its policy. On the contrary, it seems to me that the Ecumenical Patriarchate today is very prudent, purposeful and stable in its policy. At any rate, as a consequence of subjective readings of information and impressions from a two-day stay in the Phanar, I have the impression that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is very well aware of the role the Ukrainian church might play in world Orthodoxy in the future. It also understands what possibilities the movement of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church might open, a movement which actively began after the testament of His Holiness, Patriarch Dymytrii was publicized. And I suspect that this movement will find its support, even though it is only my subjective opinion that inspires me to work. There are no official documents I can refer to, which again confirms that the Ecumenical Patriarchate's position is well thought-out and far-reaching.
What is the UAOC facing today? What are your plans and priorities?
I think you noticed that during my stay in Halychyna I was combining the direct goal of the trip, which is to take part in services on the occasion of the second anniversary of the passing of His Holiness Patriarch Dymytrii, with [a second goal of] visiting educational institutions of our church and the UGCC [Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church]. I delivered lectures at the Lviv Theological Seminary of the UAOC and at the Drohobych Catechetical Institute of the UGCC. I also had a meeting with the Father-Rector and members of the rectorate of the LTA [Lviv Theological Academy]. Today the priority of the problem of theological education was emphasized. And the search has begun for possibilities to regulate the curricula of higher educational spiritual institutions that have opened in Ukraine since the fall of the Bolshevik regime. It is necessary to consider together the conception of religious education and to form a common strategy for normalizing the status of theology in modern Ukraine. Unfortunately, our hopes that the amended law on education will allow a course in Christian ethics or fundamentals of religion to be introduced into school curricula, as well as that theology will be recognized as an academic discipline on which dissertations can be written, appeared to be futile. The first comments on the law are quite critical.
To think about the future of the church means to be concerned for the education of the future generation of church activists, the creation of an educational system from pre-school and grammar school to the defense of master's and doctoral degrees in theology. And we should talk not only about ordained ministers, but also about church workers at different levels. Thus I would say that the primary problem of theological education is to identify common criteria and to standardize it. Theological schools should also get rid of all the defects they inherited from the sad experience of Soviet-era schooling.
There is also a problem regarding the position of the church during the elections. It is a problem of preserving the good spiritual lives of the faithful during the election campaign and not letting the church get involved in political games, which has often been attempted over the last few years. The position of the UAOC, declared a number of times in the documents of the Bishops' Synod, remains unchanged: the church does not support any political coalition, the church does not approve of priests running for parliament and will only allow this exclusively by decision of the Bishops' Synod. The church categorically forbids its ordained ministers from using church pulpits for political campaigning in order to support any blocs, programs or individuals. This is, of course, in the next month a difficult problem for the church. I think different eparchies have different approaches, but, on the whole, they attempt to solve the problem on the same canonical basis. From all the problems which one could say are particularly current, I would draw attention to these.
However, we still have some other problems as well, for instance: the status of lay organizations attached to the church that are so weak in all the churches in Ukraine, and particularly in Orthodox churches. Orthodox churches have found themselves in a very difficult situation, since they are the most dependent on the experience of the legal church of Soviet times. The restrictions and limitations that weighed down the church in communist times remain very painful for the Orthodox church even to the present. They left their mark on the consciousness of some priests and older faithful who had to adjust themselves to the demands of the laws active at the time and today it is difficult to get rid of this conformism.
Recently a congress for Orthodox youth of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church -Moscow Patriarchate was held. What youth activities does the UAOC conduct and are there any programs or documents worked out on youth ministry?
There is a general problem that affects not only the youth, because there are differing notions of youth: there exist different approaches regarding different social strata. One of my episcopal brothers consoled me by saying that I am still very young, since being 50 for an archbishop is quite a young age, whereas I am only 46. Youth ministry is a common weak point for the Orthodox churches. It is very positive that the Moscow Patriarchate began to follow the tradition suggested by "Sindesmos" some years ago to observe the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple as a day for Orthodox youth. I know that in February this year the UOC-KP also tried to involve the youth of Kyiv in this activity. The UAOC has a few times successfully attempted to conduct an eparchial youth day in Kharkiv. Now the problem of the content of church youth activities has arisen. How to manage it that public actions of youth of the Orthodox churches do not occur in the form of confessional manifestations, one warring against another. Rather, how to manage it that they will unite young people around the eternally young Christ, so that this will not become an opportunity for political manipulation? There is still much to consider...
Interview conducted in Lviv, 25 February, 2002
by Taras ANTOSHEVSKY