Letter to Dr. Thomas Bremer, Professor em., University of Münster

23.10.2023, 15:10
Letter to Dr. Thomas Bremer, Professor em., University of Münster - фото 1
With some delay, but in a substantive way, I have read your analysis of the "Conclusion of the religious examination of the Statute on the governance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on the existence of ecclesiastical and canonical ties".

Dear Professor Doctor Thomas Bremer,

With some delay, but in a substantive way, I have read your analysis of the "Conclusion of the religious examination of the Statute on the governance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on the existence of ecclesiastical and canonical ties".

As I have a honor to know you personally, consider you to be a friend of Ukraine, a scholar whose books and surveys are well known, and given the fact that I signed the order approving the ‘Conclusion of the religious examination of the Statute on the Governance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for the presence of ecclesiastical and canonical ties with Moscow Patriarchate’ (hereinafter — the Conclusion), I would like to express some of my thoughts on this matter.

First of all, it seems to me that your comments on the methodological problems of the Conclusion are based on misconception of the examination`s purpose and nature. The examination is not intended to determine the possibility/impossibility of the functioning of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (hereinafter — the UOC). Similarly, the experts did not and could not set themselves the task of formulating a particular form of existence for the UOC. And certainly the status of the UOC in the Fullness of Orthodoxy, namely, "unregulated", "semi-independent", in the "grey zone", etc., is not a problem for the state body that, according to the Law, ensures the religious examination. What the experts were supposed to investigate as part of this examination was the presence/absence of a connection between the UOC and the Russian Orthodox Church. And it is not about the mystical bond, the unity in dogma and Eucharistic communion that binds all Local Churches in the bowels of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church, but only the canonical connection. That is, the connection that is based on the norms and rules of thumb the internal Churchs’ arrangement.

You are mistaken if you think that the expert group is a State entity. The group composed of scholars of religion who have relevant competences, academic titles and scientific degrees, and appropriate scientific contribution on the subject of examination. Such scholars normally are invited by the State body on religious affairs to analyze a particular issue, institution or phenomenon. The state body of religious affairs regularly provides for a significant number of examinations, each time involving experts in a particular domain of religious studies. Usually, they are not governmental officials and civil servants. Naturally, the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience takes into account the conclusions reached by the experts and relies on their knowledge and competences.

You do not question the need for an expert examination and rightly note that "there are obviously doubts about the status of the UOC which can be understood in the context of the war Russia launched against Ukraine". Since the beginning of the war, which Russia unleashed back in February 2014, the UOC has given ample grounds for such doubts. Both regarding its status and its civil position. Moreover, a very specific pacifism, in which appeals to end the war were addressed exclusively to Kyiv, not Moscow, calls to disrupt the process of military mobilization, refusal to honour Ukrainian soldiers while almost simultaneously legitimising guerrilla gang`s parades, the consecration of Russian weapons of mass destruction, and so on — all this and much more was not the handywork of a handful of collaborators, but of the Church hierarchy, the top officials of the UOC.

The Council of the UOC on May 27, 2022 which removed all references to the Russian Church and the Moscow Patriarchate from the Church's Statute, was welcomed by society and observers. Including, among others, some of the experts who prepared the examination we are currently discussing. But the enthusiasm faded rather quickly. The behaviour of the hierarchy remained unchanged; some of its representatives directly stated that the changes adopted by the Council "do not change anything", the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) continued to be proclaimed the main enemy of the UOC, and the very Ukrainian authorities were to blame for the Russian invasion (although, as the members of the Synod of the UOC sensibly stressed, the previous Ukrainian government). In other words, doubts concerning of the status of the UOC seemed quite clear. And such doubts were raised not only by broad sections of the public and the state officials but also within the Church. You certainly know that growing number of the UOC’s priests have been asked the leadership about the status of their Church and urged hierarchies to break ties with Moscow.

Therefore, returning to the methodology, the experts do not deny the right of the UOC to exist "… according to previously unknown rules and procedures, whatever they might mean in theological terms". They, as well as the faithful and clergy of the UOC, are interested in whether these frameworks and procedures keep this Church within the Russian Orthodox Church or whether the former has ceased to be part of the latter.

And here is another methodological problem on which I have to express disagreement with you. You wrote that "... the Commission is not a body entitled to apply canon law …", "… it is not the task of the REC to judge whether that is in accordance with canon law, and to draw any consequences from that". But religious studies, as a scientific discipline that study, among other issues, religious institutions, simply cannot help but refer in its analysis of the status of a particular ecclesial unit to the norms according to which this unit functions in the Church's plentitude, that is, to the canon law. The secular state is not guided by these norms, but it would be problematic to describe the nature of the relationship that exists between two religious institutions without recourse to the internal guidelines of these institutions.

As for the assessment of the facts by the expert group, you consider it biased on the basis that the experts cite a letter in which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew assesses the status of Metropolitan Onufriy not as the canonical Metropolitan of Kyiv, but as a hierarch of the Russian Church based in Ukrainian capital. However, the experts do not draw any other conclusion from this than that the Ecumenical Patriarch recognises the UOC as part of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose jurisdiction over Ukraine Constantinople does not recognise. The expert group could have been accused of bias, incompetence etc. for not presenting an alternative point of view. At the same time the experts honestly noted that they could not find documents, statements, or judgements of the Primates of other Local Orthodox Churches that would disagree with the position of Patriarch Bartholomew on this particular issue and recognise the UOC as an independent Church. Such documents and statements are unknown to me and, judging by your analysis of the Conclusion, to you as well.

As for the "... there is no consensus in world Orthodoxy about how to gain autocephaly", which you wrote about, it is hard to disagree with this. But this is very distantly related to the issue we are discussing. After all, the UOC did not proclaim autocephaly unilaterally (as has happened many times in Church history), nor did it receive such status from the Ecumenical Patriarchate (as most Local Churches did), nor did it receive it from a Kyriarchal church (such as the Orthodox Church of America).

Now let's move on to the actions that, in your opinion, the experts underestimated. You admit that they did not ignore the decision of the Council of May 27, 2022 on the issue of holy chrism producing and the decision to open parishes abroad, but they do not consider this as a sign of an independent church. I have to agree with them. The privilege of producing chrism was recognised for the Metropolitan of Kyiv in pre-Moscow times and was confirmed by the Local Council of the Russian Church in 1917-1918. This privilege does not point to independence buti rather to the honorary status of the Metropolitan of Kyiv which was historically recognised within the Russian Church in one way or another. I also have to agree with the experts about the opening of parishes abroad. This in no way underscores the independence of the UOC. In some places such an opening takes place with the support of the Russian Church and does not raise any objections from the Moscow Patriarchate which understands that Ukrainians refugees fleeing from Russian invasion in Europe may simply throw the Russian ‘spiritual professionals’ out of the church’s building.

If we continue to talk about actions, then in 2023, that is, after the signing of the Conclusion, the UOC did not do much to refute the results of examinations. Take, for example, the re-subordination of the dioceses of Crimea and Donbas directly to Moscow. This is what the leadership of a structure usually has the right to do in relation to its components. And if the hierarchy of the UOC believes otherwise, it had every opportunity to proclaim different stance. But it did not do so, to the deep disappointment of its clergy and faithful.

Now for the documents that could shed light on the issue of dependence/independence of the UOC from the ROC. And here it is difficult for me to agree with your comments about the irrelevance in this case of documents "... written when the UOC did not claim to be independent from the ROC". Firstly, the UOC claimed its independence long before the local council of May 27, 2022. On this basis, in particular, the church leadership refused and continues to refuse to comply with Law No. 2662-VIII (2018) on changing the name of religious organisations whose governing centre is located in the aggressor country. Secondly, the experts simply could not ignore the "Letter of Alexy II, by the grace of God, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia to Metropolitan Filaret of Kyiv and All Ukraine" of October 27, 1990. After all, the current Statute on the Governance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church directly refers to it.

At the same time, perhaps the most serious objection you have is the Expert Group's consideration of the status given to the UOC by the documents of the Russian Church. You rightly argue that "... no ROC document can prove anything in connection with the UOC ..." and that "… to rely on any documents, statutes, and other sources from Russia and from the ROC is highly problematic, as this way a Russian organization can influence Ukrainian political and administrative decisions". This is true, but if, for example, the bishops of the UOC do not consider themselves members of the ROC’s bishops corps, and the latter insists on the opposite, why don't the bishops of the UOC declare that they are not part of the Russian Church's episcopate? Why don't they consider it normal that an organisation to which they do not belong officially lists them as its functionaries? Every comparison is limitig but let me give you a simple instance that we both do understand. For a long time, both you and I were members of the International Scientific Council of the quite reputable academic religious studies journal that has been published in Moscow. After the outbreak of the war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine, both you and I informed the editorial board that we recall our names from the above-mentioned Council. At this point, it is not about beliefs, morality or civic position but about the logic of actions. Essentially, if an organization claims that you are a part of it, but you don’t want to be associated with it, you should clearly tell the organization and possibly others whose views matter to you that you are not affiliated with it. The bishops of the UOC have never addressed the ROC with letters of exclusion from the episcopate, the Synod, the Inter-Council Presence, Synodal commissions, etc. Despite the calls of the outraged public and the pleas of their own clergy, they have done nothing to prevent their names from being associated with real war criminals who sanctify missiles that kill children and openly call for the burning down of Ukrainians with a heavy flamethrower Solntsepyok (Sunburns).

In your analysis you do not exclude that the Conclusion of the religious examination was made in violation of Ukrainian law. However, you do not cite any provisions of the Ukrainian legislation that were violated. In fact, the Examination was appointed in full compliance with the Law of Ukraine "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations" as well as the Regulation on the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience. Both the Law and the Regulation require the involvement of representatives of religious organisations in the Examination. Accordingly, the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience invited a representative of the UOC to the joint work. However, the representative of the UOC not only refused to participate but declined to provide written explanations or any documents related to the case. Moreover, after this demarche, I addressed Metropolitan Onufriy in writing to delegate his representative to work on the Opinion and/or provide the necessary documents, explanations, judgements, comments, observations, remarks that Metropolitan Onufriy would consider necessary. But His Beatitude refused to do so.

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the expert group unanimously supported the Conclusion. This document was supported by both those members of the expert group whose recusal was demanded by the UOC and those to whom no complaints were made.

Please note that the Conclusion provoked a strong reaction and lively discussion in the church and public environment, and this discussion included everything from long excursions into church history to heated debates over the particularities of canon law and personalities of experts. But no one has been able to prove that the UOC is not a part of the Russian Church. In fact, you do not assume responsibility for asserting this either. The expert group, after all, cannot impose anything on the leadership of the UOC. Hierarchs know what they need to do in order to stop being part of the Moscow Patriarchate; what messages they need to send to society to overcome the suspicion and doubts that have accumulated over the decades. And this is being said to them not only by the officials and civil society activists, but also by a growing number of their own clergy and laity. Unfortunately, the hierarchy does not heed their calls. Some of the hierarchs prefer to act on the principle ‘the worse the better’ and deliberately intensify confrontation with the authorities and civil society. The hierarchy stubbornly refuses to engage in dialogue with civil society, authorities, and even their own clergy and faithful, who are trying to reach out to them. They don't even feel the need to explain why they are pushing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church down a path dictated by the Kremlin. However, this is a problem that I would be more than willing to discuss with you, but it falls outside the scope of our current discussion about the Expertise Conclusions.

Taking into account all of the above, I do not see any facts twisted by experts; events and phenomena that would be distorted by them; actions and deeds that would go unnoticed by them.

Accordingly, I do not find any undeniable argument that would allow me to accept the conclusions of your Analysis of the Examination under discussion.

Sincerely yours,

Viktor Yelenskyi

Head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience